Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill

– in the House of Commons at 6:19 pm on 25th October 2022.

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Debate resumed.

Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Future of Work), Shadow Minister (Business and Industrial Strategy) 6:27 pm, 25th October 2022

There have been more than 20 speakers today, and there have been some really important speeches, particularly by Labour Members. My hon. Friends the Members for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins), for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), and for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) have spoken extremely well. My hon. Friend Alex Cunningham spoke, as he always does, as a powerful advocate for the chemical industry, and it was alarming to hear about the increased costs that it faces. I hope that the Government are listening and act accordingly.

My right hon. Friend John McDonnell made an important point. He was right to link the Government’s actions and anti-trade union legislation that we have seen, and will see again, with what might happen with the Bill. There is a very good reason why working people have a lack of trust that the Government will protect employment rights. My right hon. Friend Hilary Benn gave a superb speech about why the Bill was bad for democracy. He was right to quote the Hansard Society, which said that the Bill sidelined Parliament. He also said—and I agree entirely—that one person’s burdensome law is another person’s right to safe working conditions.

My hon. Friend Stella Creasy made the important point that the Government had admitted that the list of laws covered by the Bill is not comprehensive. She said that, even in the past week, a Government Department has claimed that a rule on free-to-air coverage of sporting events was not covered by the Bill, when in fact, she says, it is. If we cannot even agree what is covered by the Bill, what confidence can we have that things will not slip through the net? That is the position in which we now find ourselves with the Bill.

We do not know what the Government will do, when they will choose to do it, and, now, even who will be doing it. I appreciate that, over the past few weeks, this has become a familiar feeling for us all, but this will be the first time that the institutional dysfunction that is currently engulfing the Conservative party will be put onto the statute book. We agree that there needs to be a legislative solution to the issue of EU influence on UK law, but that should be in a Bill that has some coherent and underlying vision about what type of country we want to be moving forward, beyond the simplistic deregulation mantra. A proper Bill that looks to recast our country should include a considered view on what rights and protections we want to retain, what we want to enhance and what rules we want to see the end of, but this Bill runs away from that debate. It is sweeping in its effect, but timid in its narrative. We left the EU so that this Parliament and the people whom we represent could be put back in charge of our own destiny, but the Bill does the opposite. It reduces scrutiny, it reduces transparency and it reduces accountability. If we are not careful, it will also reduce working people’s rights, environmental protections and our rights as consumers, and there will be not a thing that this Parliament can do to stop that.

The powers that the Bill gives to Ministers mean that they can make sweeping changes to just about every facet of people’s lives with minimal or no recourse to parliamentary scrutiny. This type of grasp of power is simply unprecedented, and the potential consequences of it have concerned many groups, such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the TUC and, that stalwart of the anti-growth coalition, the Bar Council.

Environmental groups have called this legislation an attack on nature and have warned against the dire effects that not retaining the legislation could have on the UK’s environment—potentially less wildlife and wild spaces, less protection for bats, otters, dolphins, kingfishers and salmon, and more polluted rivers. What about employment rights? What is to become of them? With the abolition of the TUPE regulations, will we be going back to the dark ages of employment rights where getting a new business owner means a P45 for all the staff? Will it once again be permissible to discriminate against people just because they work part-time, or are an agency worker?

There is no doubt that the removal of many of these rights would disproportionately impact women in the workplace. What about rights to paid annual leave? Introducing the right to paid holidays was one of the proudest achievements of the last Labour Government. Let us be clear: there is no appetite among the public, and certainly no mandate, to scrap it. Let us be clear as well: holiday pay is not red tape. Daily rest breaks are not red tape. Parental leave is not red tape. These rights are basic tenets of a civilised society.

I have already referred to the lack of clarity from the Government about which elements of retained EU law will be assimilated, but it is worse than that. As we have heard, the Government themselves do not even know whether they have found all the laws that will be covered by the Bill. I hope that, at the very least, it will be acknowledged that the Bill does not contain an exhaustive list of retained law that is on the chopping block. It would have been helpful for everyone to have such a list so that Members would know exactly what they are voting potentially to abolish. Instead, we are directed to a dashboard, which even the Government admit, may not be complete, and from there we have to enter search terms that may come up with affected regulations, but even that does not tell us what the Government intend to do with those regulations. It is almost as if a list of all the laws that will be chopped is something that the Government do not want us to know. It is almost as if they are worried that people might see such a list and say, “Well, I didn’t vote for this.”

Let us be clear: huge risks flow from a sunset clause that will come into effect probably just seven or eight months after the Bill becomes law. I would call it a precipice rather than a sunset. Of course, the legislative framework should be updated to recognise the new world we are in, but, given the chaotic nature of Government, it is not unreasonable to assume that things will be missed. Indeed, things have already been missed. More importantly, the chance for this place to have a real say on what is retained and what will be sacrificed for the easy headline of an arbitrary date by which all laws will be gone. We are talking about more than 2,400 pieces of legislation. It will simply not be possible for Ministers, let alone Parliament or even the people who might be affected by these rules, to have a proper say in these timescales. I do not accept the analogy made earlier about transposing EU laws; the Bill goes far beyond that and will potentially change those rules, as well as revoking and amending them.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the bespoke consultation on which red tape the public would like dropped, which the Department, under the former Secretary of State, conducted via the Daily Express. Apparently there were over 2,000 responses, which prompted the Department to publish the top nine ideas—yes, just nine. Maybe they could not find 10 that were printable. I am sure we are all eager to hear what was first on that list, so I can reveal that the No. 1 benefit identified by the Department was: “Encourage fracking”, by shortcutting “rules on planning”. I am not sure whether Government Members will be keen to have another debate on fracking, given the chaos we saw last week. However, we know perfectly well that planning rules are nothing to do with the EU, so the Department has hardly demonstrated a firm understanding of what EU law actually does.

More worryingly, that list also included a proposal to give agency workers lesser rights than permanent employees. I suspect that one was sent in by the chief executive of P&O—not that he waited for a change in the law. That is important, because the Bill makes no reference to protecting workers’ rights. It instead bakes in a race to the bottom by putting rocket boosters under the deregulation agenda, in direct contradiction to the Tory party’s pledge on page 5 of its manifesto:

“we will legislate to ensure high standards of workers’ rights, environmental protection and consumer rights.”

This Bill does the opposite. Worse still, there will be no warning before these laws fall off the statute book. No consultation, no engagement, no reference to Parliament—Ministers simply have to sit on their hands and these rights disappear.

It has been made clear by many who have spoken that the Bill does not take back control. Indeed, it was never designed meaningfully to take back control; it is designed to give it away. But the Bill does not just relinquish control; it heralds a new age of uncertainty. We were in one anyway but, like the chaos of the last few weeks, that uncertainty is entirely ideologically driven. At a time when this country needs as much political and economic certainty as it can muster, we are instead served up a diet of ambiguity. We all know that businesses need certainty to make investment decisions and commit to the long term, but we are instead entering a period of at least a year when everyone will have to guess what the regulatory environment will be in 12 months’ time. Why do Ministers not avoid that quagmire and just tell us what laws they want us to keep?

This Bill presents the House with a choice. If Members vote for it, it will be their choice to strip powers away from our democratically elected Parliament, undermine parliamentary sovereignty and throw away much-valued rights and protections. What has been proposed today does not take back control; it gives away control. It adds even greater uncertainty and risks jettisoning rights that many people thought were secure. Government Members should think carefully about whether they wish to troop into the Lobby to support the Bill and hand over such sweeping powers to a select few. If they do, and if their constituents come back to them in 18 months’ time and ask why they voted to end holiday pay, daily rest breaks or protections for wildlife, it will not be good enough to say that that was not what they wanted to happen, because that is what their votes today could lead to.

Today we are being asked to sign a blank cheque. We are being asked to agree a Bill that puts some of our most important environmental, employment and social protections on a cliff edge and place our trust in a Government that change their Ministers and Prime Ministers as often as most people change their socks. No self-respecting defender of democracy can sign up to that. To conclude, with all the talk of sunset clauses in the Bill, perhaps the one thing that it shows is that we do need a sunset, and we need it as soon as possible. We need a sunset on this Government once and for all.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Minister of State (Minister for Climate) 6:38 pm, 25th October 2022

It is a great pleasure to wind up this debate, and to see how much this legislation has wound up Opposition Members. The way they tell it, there seems to be almost no area of our life that this enabling piece of framework legislation will not negatively affect. Exaggeration, hyperbole—collectively, they have managed not to use any form of understatement whatever. The only thing stinkier than the arguments coming from the Opposition would be the hon. Gentleman’s socks, if he really does wait that long to change them.

As my hon. Friend the Minister for Enterprise and Markets said, the Bill is a crucial part of the Government’s growth agenda. This is at the heart of the opposition to the Bill. The good thing about the separatists is that they do not hide their detestation of the fact that British people take part in referenda, and they do not like the results. They never like the results when the people have their say, do they? They just cannot accept it. The Bill will enable us to reassert the legislative sovereignty of the United Kingdom—a country that they do not approve of—and to improve the nimbleness and competitiveness of the UK economy. That is what the Bill is all about.

I thank Members for their contributions regarding the constitutional importance of the Bill. Ending the supremacy of EU law and restoring an Act of Parliament as the highest law in the land is of paramount importance. I am proud that the Bill will build upon the European Union (Withdrawal) Act and ensure that no Act of Parliament is subordinated by retained EU law, which we heard again and again that Opposition Members detest—they hate the idea that we should be a sovereign Parliament, and they detest the fact that British people voted to leave the European Union.

Let me deal with some of the arguments that have been made. I would like to reassure you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and Members that environmental protections will be enhanced, not diminished. It is worth saying that again: environmental protections will be enhanced, not diminished.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Minister of State (Minister for Climate)

We have heard quite enough from Opposition Members, with their exaggerated declarations and scaremongering, and I will answer the points that have been raised.

I am deeply proud of the Conservative tradition of supporting the environment, supporting high standards of food safety and animal welfare, which my hon. Friend Henry Smith rightly raised, and supporting clean water. As a Minister, I can no longer be a member of the Conservative Environment Network, but as a former member and supporter, I am delighted that it has looked at the Bill and that we are engaging with those members and ensuring that any questions are responded to. The whole of the UK, not just England, is a green and pleasant land, and this Government’s policies for the environment will keep it that way. We will ensure that environmental law works for the UK and improves environmental outcomes. That is why we are committed to reviewing retained EU law, to ensure that the UK regulatory framework is appropriate and tailored to the UK.

The Bill does not change the Environment Act 2021, and we remain committed to delivering our legally binding target to halt nature’s decline by 2030. It was us who put that into law. Stephen Farry suggested that we are some sort of regulatory inferior to the US and the EU. It is this country that brought forward the Climate Change Act 2008. It is this country that brought forward contracts for difference for renewables, for instance. It is this country that has cut its emissions by more than any G7 nation. It is this country, this party and this Government who have delivered that, and I will not allow the hyperbole, the exaggerations, the mistruths and the untruths from Opposition Members to remove that fact.

Similarly, it was claimed by John McDonnell that the Bill will lead to a bonfire of workers’ rights. That could not be further from the case. We are proud of the UK’s excellent record on labour standards. It was a Conservative Government that raised domestic standards over recent years to make them some of the highest in the world. We have a long-standing track record of ensuring that workers’ rights are protected, which we will continue. It is, frankly, craven of Opposition Members to suggest that this country, this Parliament and this Government cannot be trusted.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Minister of State (Minister for Climate)

I understand why Jonathan Reynolds points his finger and tries to attack my party, but we are the party that has delivered those environmental protections. It is this party that has delivered improved workers’ rights. In line with the UK’s track record, we will seek to modernise our regulations, including on workers’ rights, ensuring that unnecessary burdens are minimised and that vital protections continue to be upheld.

I will now turn to devolution. A number of Opposition Members have, predictably, declared that the Bill is some form of Westminster power grab. That is not the case. The six powers in the Bill are conferred on the devolved Governments, so they will be able to exercise powers to amend retained EU law within their existing devolved competence.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Minister of State (Minister for Climate)

I urge the devolved Governments, including that of the party of Brendan O’Hara, to seize that opportunity and look at creating better regulations that are better suited to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England —to the whole of this United Kingdom.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Minister of State (Minister for Climate)

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy was generous in giving way earlier. If the hon. Gentleman sits down and stops shouting, he may get a response to the points that he and his colleagues raised.

This Bill is the opposite of a power grab. It empowers the devolved Governments to make the most of the opportunities that Brexit provides; it is a shame that the hon. Gentleman’s party insistently tries to make out that there are none. It is my sincere hope that his party now uses the Bill to focus on improving the lives of its constituents rather than—

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Minister of State (Minister for Climate)

The hon. Gentleman may shout—well, he may not shout, under the rules, but he shouts anyway. If he and his—

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Minister of State (Minister for Climate)

I am normally generous in giving way but—am I allowed to use the word “hogwash”?—I have heard so much hogwash from Opposition Members during the debate that I feel that it is necessary to put straight the misrepresentations and, frankly, scaremongering that they have engaged in.

It is my sincere hope that Opposition Members, including those in the hon. Gentleman’s party, focus on improving the lives of their constituents—not on rehashing the debates of 2016 or indeed 2014. In both cases, as I remember, he saw a referendum result that he did not like and that, therefore, he has refused to accept.

The UK Government remain committed to respecting the devolution settlements and the Sewel convention. There are provisions in the Bill that engage the legislative consent motion process. In the light of that, we have sought legislative consent for the provisions from the Senedd, the Scottish Parliament and, if possible, the Northern Ireland Assembly. To that end, the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend Mr Rees-Mogg, and his officials met frequently with their devolved counterparts to discuss the Bill’s scope and overall policy and to address any concerns that they may have had. We will continue to do so throughout the Bill’s passage through Parliament.

Several hon. Members raised specific concerns about the impact on Northern Ireland. I reassure the House that we will stand by our international commitments. We will preserve, restate or reform retained EU law to uphold those international obligations.

On sunsetting, some hon. Members, including Hilary Benn, questioned the need for a sunset and, again, used fairly hyperbolic language about its impact. A sunset is the quickest and most effective way to reform retained EU law. It provides a straightforward way for outdated retained law to be repealed, and provides Whitehall—not always the swiftest moving bureaucracy, as he knows as well as I do—with an incentive to review the law on its books. I am pleased to say that that will not start after the passage of the Bill; it is already going on. The sunset will ensure that retained EU law does not become an immutable legal category—much as some EU aficionados among the Opposition, who lost in that referendum, may wish it to be. Instead, it incentivises the genuine reform of retained EU laws in a way that will work best for the United Kingdom.

This does not, however, mean that we are removing all retained EU law. Retained EU law that is deemed desirable by the Government or, indeed, the devolved authorities will be preserved using a power in the Bill beyond the sunset date as “assimilated law”. Moreover, as my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State said at the beginning of this debate, retained EU law that is primary legislation is not within scope of the sunset. I am therefore happy to confirm that the Civil Aviation Act 1982, which Stella Creasy was so concerned about— I do not know if she is in her seat—

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Minister of State (Minister for Climate)

Great. I am pleased to give the hon. Member the reassurance that that Act will not be in scope of the sunset.

It has also been suggested by the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde that sunsetting risks creating a legal vacuum. I do not believe this is the case. We are thoroughly reviewing all retained EU law, and establishing plans of action to ensure that the regulatory environment is substantially improved for the UK. The Bill and the use of its delegated powers will ensure there are no legal vacuums. Where it is desirable to do so, we will introduce new regulatory frameworks, and where the current laws and regulation work well, we will ensure their ongoing function. Finally, where it is necessary, we can utilise the extension power to allow more time for review.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Minister of State (Minister for Climate)

I will—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] I will give way to my hon. Friend.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the worst possible degree of uncertainty would be the case if we had two separate sets of law? The most important thing is to have one statute book, governed by the same principles and by the same methods of interpretation by our courts.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Minister of State (Minister for Climate)

And that, after all, is what UK sovereignty is all about.

I do urge Opposition Members to recognise that this is a framework Bill. It is not going to deliver any of the negative outcomes they have been predicting. Indeed, it will do the exact opposite. It will enhance our animal welfare, it will enhance our environmental protections and it will enhance workers’ rights.

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Division number 72 Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill

Aye: 223 MPs

No: 275 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

The House divided: Ayes 223, Noes 277.

Question accordingly negatived.

Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 62(2)), That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Division number 73 Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill

Aye: 275 MPs

No: 224 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

The House divided: Ayes 280, Noes 225.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill read a Second time.