– in the House of Commons at 1:56 pm on 24th May 2023.
I beg to move, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 6.
With this it will be convenient to discuss:
Lords amendment 1, and Government amendment (a) to Lords amendment 1.
Lords amendment 16, and Government amendments (a) and (b) to Lords amendment 16.
Lords amendment 15, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 42, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendments 2 to 5, 7 to 14, 17 to 41 and 43.
It is a great pleasure to open this debate on their lordships’ amendments to the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill, which is a vital part of the Government’s agenda to regulate in a smarter, innovation-friendly way that will grow the UK economy. We have already taken advantage of many of the opportunities that leaving the European Union has created, and Brexit offers us the opportunity to rethink, from first principles, how and when we regulate. Of course, this includes ridding the statute book of unnecessary and burdensome retained EU laws through a process of revoke and reform, while always applying the same rigorous scrutiny to wider regulations that have accumulated over time, to ensure they are fit for purpose and of benefit to the UK.
Does the Solicitor General believe the Government’s approach is not only sound but robust in ensuring that we examine each piece of EU legislation before discarding it? Secondly, does he agree that, through forthcoming legislation, we will have gotten rid of more than half of retained EU law by the end of the year?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for intervening so early in this debate to make two very important points. He is absolutely right, and I will turn to the detail of his points but, on the substance, he is 100% correct. As I develop my points, I hope he will agree even more with our approach.
The Government are trying to get rid of Lords amendment 15, which reinstates the principle of non-regression. Can the Solicitor General explain what is so burdensome about agreeing to a non-regression clause, given that the Government keep saying they have no intention of weakening our environmental and food standards? If that really is the case, why on earth would he be against the principle of non-regression? Is it because, actually, the Government probably have ideas about weakening some of our standards?
The hon. Lady intervenes at a very early stage in the debate. I have not even concluded my preamble, let alone turned to the individual amendments, which I will, of course, address. She will not be surprised to hear that I disagree with her, and I hope she will bear with me and listen as a I develop my points in respect to Lords amendment 15.
This Bill is not specifically about cutting burdens to benefit business. We are doing this because ensuring that markets function properly will benefit each and every one of our constituents as consumers and citizens of this country. We must ask which regulations have worked, which require scrapping and which can be reformed. Smarter regulation leads to improved growth and a stronger economy.
I expressed my reservations about the sunset clause from the outset, as the practicalities of meeting such a tight deadline were always going to be difficult. I understand why the Government are where they are on this, but I hope my hon. and learned Friend will assure the House that, even with the removal of the deadline provided by the previous sunset clause, we will see the Government working hard to deliver the kind of regulatory review, reform and improvement of retained EU law that he talks about, because he is right that it is crucial to economic success.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for her work in this area over a long number of years. I hope her work continues and that we can encourage her to suggest regulations that need scrapping or reforming and, frankly, those that have worked and that we need to hold on to. When I come to the Government amendments, I hope she will be reassured that our approach adopts exactly what she has envisaged.
I turn to the amendments. It is clear that we are fully taking back control of our laws and ending the supremacy and special status afforded to retained EU law by the end of 2023. We are ending the inappropriate entrenchment of EU law concepts in domestic statute. For centuries, our legal systems have developed through common law and case law principles. Indeed, the UK is home to perhaps the most respected legal jurisdictions in the world, not least thanks to our strong judiciary and, crucially, our world-renowned common-law legal system, which is clear, fair, predictable and based on precedent.
It is great to see that so many Ministers have taken an interest in this Bill during its passage. The Government and this place were already supposed to have the power to do everything the Solicitor General outlines, by taking back control from Brussels. Everything he says could be done through primary legislation, without needing the sweeping powers the Bill grants, much as my Glasgow North constituents welcome the removal of the cliff edge, about which the Solicitor General’s predecessors were repeatedly warned at previous stages.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, but the fact is that this framework Bill will end the supremacy and special status of retained EU law. The reason why so many Conservative Members are sitting on the Government Benches today is because we welcome the fact that the supremacy and special status afforded to retained EU law will end with the passage of this Bill.
The list of repeals will make life better and make us more prosperous, but why are we not making a big increase to the VAT threshold, now we are free to do so, so we can liberate and expand many more of our small businesses?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his intervention. He has spent a lifetime working on these issues and I look forward to his continuing contribution to this debate. The fact is that by having a schedule, we can set out incredibly clearly what laws will be sunset and when—I will turn to that point in a moment—and we provide certainty. Importantly, it does not prevent our making further reforms in due course, and I will address that point in a few minutes.
Amendment 1 is an amended version of an initial Government amendment. The Government tabled that amendment on Report in the Lords to remove the automatic nature of the sunset clause, as we have heard. This approach will provide legal certainty on which EU laws will fall away at the end of the year and will ensure that Parliament, Ministers and officials are freed to focus on more reform of retained EU law and to do this faster. Let me respond further to my right hon. Friend by saying that that is the great advantage of this approach: we are not going to be upstairs in Delegated Legislation Committees between now and the end of the year. Instead, we will be able to focus important time looking at where we want to make real and proper reforms. The goal of this Bill—to enable revocation and reform, and to end the supremacy and special status of retained EU law—remains fully intact.
I will give way to the hon. Lady first and then of course I will give way to my hon. Friend.
I hope I may be defending the rights of Sir William Cash and John Redwood here. The Minister has just said how wonderful it will be that we will not be in these SI Committees. Is it not the case that Members of this House with strong feelings about any of this legislation will be reduced to pleading, through question sessions such as this, trying to catch a Minister in the Lobby or lobbying one of those backroom civil servants, to try to amend the SIs that are being put forward? This piece of legislation might set out what the Government plan to revoke at this point in time, but there will still not be any scrutiny in this Chamber or any opportunity for an MP to put forward proposals to challenge them. That is not taking back control—it is giving it away.
I disagree entirely with the hon. Lady. I know that she is an assiduous Member of this House; I have served on many Bill Committees with her and know how seriously she takes her work and this role. I know that she would not be unwilling, and indeed neither would I, to sit upstairs on SI Committees, but that should be only if it is necessary. If it is not necessary, and if all we are doing is, in effect, retaining the status quo, it is much better to free up parliamentary time, and the time of Ministers and officials, to look at where real reform can be made.
I simply ask the Solicitor General whether he would be good enough to give an assurance to the European Scrutiny Committee, in the light of recent events, on its interaction with the Bill and its outcome and operation.
My hon. Friend pre-empts me, because I will be turning to the important role of the European Scrutiny Committee. I know he will forgive me, because it is important to take this in the proper order and so I will come to that point in due course.
I thank my hon. and learned Friend and neighbour for giving way. A lot of our constituents want to get behind the Government’s strategy. They want to have the confidence that it is going to be done in a calm, measured and sensible way. In recent times, more radically siren voices have suggested the “Singaporisation” of life and everybody just getting on, with no regulations and bonfires of this, that and the other. This has slightly scared the horses. Will he therefore, from the Dispatch Box, give comfort to a large number of people in this country who understand the job that needs to be done but want the assurance that it will be done in the calm, timely and reflective way that he has set out? That message—that change of tone and approach—has not quite been articulated strongly enough by Ministers and therefore has not been understood clearly enough by constituents.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention and, as ever, for his assiduous attention to these matters. He is right in what he says, so let me give an example and, I hope, the assurance that he is seeking. Importantly, the default approach of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will be to retain the substance of retained EU law unless there is good reason to either repeal or reform it. Such an approach not only allows us to keep protections in place, but provides certainty to businesses and stakeholders. He will know and appreciate that our high standards were never dependent solely on our membership of the EU. I will turn back to that theme in due course.
The revocation schedule changes the way that the sunset operates, but it still ensures that we are removing and will continue to remove unnecessary and burdensome EU laws by the end of the year. I wish to reassure Members that the schedule is not a limit to our ambition for reform of EU law. We have the power to continue to amend the EU laws so that more complex regulation can still be revoked or reformed as we require. Departments will still be required to continue to review retained EU laws not already reformed or planned for revocation this year. This will identify further opportunities for reform or revocation.
My right hon. Friend Mr Rees-Mogg drove vital change by ensuring that there was a catalogue of retained EU law on the dashboard. I will come back to that point later, but it is critical, because much of what is not clearly appropriate for the UK is listed and is publicly available for all to see. The schedule will thus allow us to remove legislation inherited from the EU that is either already redundant or that the UK no longer requires. It is simply an efficient and transparent way of dealing with this.
Will the hon. and learned Gentleman give way on that point?
I will not give way at the moment. I am going to make some progress, because I am conscious that a number of people want to speak in the debate. As I was saying, all retained EU law in the schedule will be revoked on
There is a clear additional advantage to a schedule, and this was a point I made earlier to Stella Creasy: rather than using precious parliamentary time passing SIs to save laws that no one would ever let sunset, it is right to be clear in a schedule what retained EU law will revoked, while letting the rest be reformed. Instead of our focusing on passing significant numbers of SIs just to preserve the status quo, the schedule will allow the Government to get on with reforming and revoking regulations that are not fit for purpose for the UK.
My hon. and learned Friend is bringing me a lot of déjà vu, as one of his predecessors who dealt with EU withdrawal and retained EU law. There will be more on that later, but I want to ask him about the point he has just made. Was there not a danger that, in confusing haste with speed, we were going to end up with a cut-and-paste operation, where civil servants were just going to replicate existing SIs and leave them on the statute book to be reformed at some undefined date in the future? Is his approach guaranteed to avoid that unhappy set of circumstances from coming about?
I am grateful to my predecessor, who has indeed spent many hours at this Dispatch Box debating legislation such as this over the past years. He is absolutely right in what he says; this approach allows the Government to get on with reforming and revoking, rather than having the cut-and-paste to which he referred.
We want to expand both the scrutiny and the breadth of experience that we are drawing on when it comes to revocation and reform. My hon. Friend Sir William Cash anticipated this point, and I thank him for the work done by him and his Committee, a number of whose members are in the Chamber today. Indeed, I used to be a member of that Committee and the Government look forward to engaging with it. I am pleased to give him a commitment that we will present a report to the European Scrutiny Committee on a six-monthly basis on the progress and plans the Government are making on the repeal of retained EU law. Any retained EU law not included in the schedule will be stripped of EU interpretative effects after
The Solicitor General keeps talking about getting rid of laws that are burdensome or unnecessary, but caught up in the revocation schedule, among many other things, are the National Emission Ceilings Regulations 2018, which require the Government to prepare and implement, review and—critically—consult on a programme to tackle air pollution at source. The Government say that they do not need to do that via that legislation, and that they will do it instead via environmental improvement plans, yet those plans are vague and do not include public consultation. Given all the regulations caught up in the 600 that he is trying to get rid of, how can he be sure that he will not throw the baby out with the bathwater? On air pollution, he absolutely is doing that. We are not even meeting our existing air pollution targets, yet we risk watering down or junking targets that we ought to be abiding by.
I think I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I will come back to this point in due course, but she will have seen that there is an explainer for each and every one of the 587 regulations in the revocation schedule, and it is clear that in the vast majority of cases they are simply redundant and not needed. It seems that she has already had a complete answer to her point from the Government. I will come back in due course to our Environment Act 2021 and develop further the point that I am making.
Turning back to Lords amendment 1, nothing on our domestic statute book will be considered retained EU law and have the special status of retained EU law; that will come to an end by the end of the year. In my respectful submission, the further amendment to Lords amendment 1 passed in the other place is unprecedented, unnecessary and unacceptable. We must be able to use this primary legislation to revoke unneeded and unwanted legislation; it is not necessary to invent a new procedure simply to review a revocation schedule.
I welcome my hon. and learned Friend’s tone and approach, as I welcome the Government’s getting rid of the sunset clause and putting in place the revocation schedule, which is so obviously the right thing to do.
My hon. and learned Friend says that the further amendment contained in Lords amendment 1 is unprecedented, unnecessary and undesirable, but was not the objective of that further amendment, which was tabled by Lord Hope, who is a very distinguished lawyer, along with Lords Hamilton of Epsom and Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, both of whom are friends who I know to have been lifelong Brexiteers, to ensure that the measure was not used to make substantial change to our law, rather than to get rid of redundant legislation or make technical changes, which we all agree should not go to a Delegated Legislation Committee? What will be the Government’s alternative mechanism to ensure that we do not get substantial change to the law without proper debate and scrutiny?
My hon. Friend the Chair of the Justice Committee makes important points, and I hope that I can reassure him on some of them in my next two paragraphs. To answer his very last point, Members’ presence here in the Chamber right now, raising the sorts of points that he has raised, is part of the scrutiny process. In my respectful submission, the further amendment to Lords amendment 1 made in the other place actually undermines legal certainty. I draw his attention to the fact that there is already a proportionate safeguard—namely, a limited preservation power—in the preferred clause.
My hon. Friend mentioned the noble Lord Hope. I agreed with at least this part of Lord Hope’s speech:
“A quick reading of the schedule suggests that many of the items listed in it are things we can well do without.”—[Official Report, House of Lords,
Vol. 830, c. 19.]
In fact, a longer look confirms the position. I must therefore ask the House to return Lords amendment 1 to the other place, as amended by Government amendment (a).
I turn to Lords amendment 16 on the reporting duty, which was tabled by my noble Friend Baroness Noakes, supported by my noble Friends Lord Jackson of Peterborough, Lord Frost and Baroness Lawlor. We have of course listened to the concerns raised, and I assure the House that the Government have not moved one inch from their bold ambitions. We remain committed to securing swift and significant reform that brings tangible benefits to the UK economy.
That is why I ask the House not only to agree with the reporting amendment sent to us by the other place, but to improve it. Our amendment (b) would increase the frequency of reporting to every six months. We know that accountability to this House and the other place is the best way of ensuring that the Government keep progressing their priorities and that my right hon. Friend John Redwood and others are reassured.
I am delighted to support the amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Stone, amendment (a) to Lords amendment 16, which will ensure that the Government report to both Houses not just on reform progress, but on what retained EU law will be reformed and what will be revoked. In the spirit of the amendment, I am pleased to say that the Government have already reformed and revoked more than 1,000 pieces of retained EU law—this comes back to the point that my hon. Friend Mr Baron made at the outset—including more than 450 pieces that we have repealed, replaced or let expire, and 650 more that we have amended. Again, we can follow all this thanks to my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset and his dashboard.
Upon our exit from the EU, a number of Departments proactively revoked or amended regulations that contained deficiencies as a result of the UK’s exit from the EU. DEFRA has already reformed key areas of retained EU law through flagship legislation such as the Environment Act, the Agriculture Act 2020 and the Fisheries Act 2020.
I am delighted that the Attorney General says that so loudly from a sedentary position, because she took at least some of those measures through this House. I am grateful to her for that. The revocation schedule will build on that and facilitate reform in key sectors.
This is far from the limit of the Government’s ambitions. Across Whitehall, Departments will continue to review the retained EU law not already revoked or reformed, and we are committed to reducing burdens on business and unlocking economic growth.
I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests: I chair the Regulatory Reform Group. The Solicitor General is making a very good case not just for the approach in this narrow area of EU law, but for the need to integrate that with a broader programme of improvement to the regulatory system. Will he give his view of the proposals by the Regulatory Reform Group on the importance of improving our regulatory system to improve accountability and responsiveness from regulators, as they have a lot of duties under primary legislation?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for all his work in this area. He will have heard the Secretary of State’s call for greater scrutiny and for a breadth of experience, which she is determined to draw upon. I am sure that she will draw upon my hon. Friend’s experience too. He is right. We are committed to reducing burdens on business and unlocking economic growth. I ask all right hon. and hon. Members to support amendments (a) and (b) to Lords amendment 16.
Lords amendment 6 undermines a fundamental plank of the Bill—namely, ending the special status of retained EU law on our statute book by repealing section 4 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. The matters saved by section 4 consist largely of retained rights, obligations and remedies developed in the case law of the Court of Justice of the European Union. The vast majority of those rights overlap with rights that we already have. Those overlaps can cause confusion and legal uncertainty. By not repealing section 4, and instead replacing it with unclear parliamentary procedures, the Lords amendment would create the very legal uncertainty that was previously criticised.
This is the point: the Bill should end the situation where, to understand and enforce their rights, citizens must decipher the implications of a high-level legal principle giving effect to an ill-defined right or set of rights. Lords amendment 6 does the exact opposite.
The hon. Gentleman, I know, will forgive me because I have been a very long time and I must make some progress. It perpetuates a situation that is unacceptable to the Government and, I would hope, unacceptable to the House.
May I press the Solicitor General to give way on that point?
The Solicitor General says it is unacceptable to the Government, and I understand the points he makes, but can he help on one point that was raised in the upper House? Contrary to the Government’s belief, there is a risk of legal uncertainty because, while the Government rightly have a revocation list of legislation, there is not a revocation list of rights that may be in another form. Therefore, the concern was raised about the risk of deleting almost unidentified law unintentionally. I am sure the Solicitor General has an answer to that and I would like to hear it, but at the moment I do not see why the Government are so exercised about this new clause—again, proposed by people who are both distinguished in the law and firm Brexiters.
As my hon. Friend knows, I pay enormous deference to those experienced in the law—not least to him, as long-standing Chairman of the Justice Committee—but he heard my response: the Government’s concern is that Lords amendment 6 would replace clause 3 with unclear parliamentary procedures and, in my submission, create the very legal uncertainties that have been previously criticised. That is why I suggest that it is should be unacceptable not just to the Government, but to the House as well, and that the amendment proposed would actually muddy the waters.
Having given way to my hon. Friend the Chair of the Select Committee, of course I give way to the hon. Gentleman.
I think I can help the Minister out here, because from everything he has just described, it appears that what the Government are trying to achieve is that, instead of its being called “retained EU law”, it will now just be called “the law”.
On the question of legal certainty, does my hon. and learned Friend not agree that it would be almost impossible to imagine how uncertain it would be if we had two sets of statute books, one of which was post Brexit and the other of which was the retained law as passed by the European Union over all those years? The method of interpretation—the difference between the purposive method and our own method—is absolutely crucial to this, does he not agree?
I do agree with my hon. Friend, who is absolutely right. That is the whole purpose of this Bill and the reason we are ending the supremacy of retained EU law.
I turn now to Lords amendment 15, which sets out a number of conditions relating to environmental protections and food standards that the Minister must meet when intending to use the powers of this Bill. That is unnecessary. Ministers have made it clear repeatedly at every stage of this Bill’s passage in both Houses that we will not lower environmental protections or standards.
Equally, the delegated powers in the Bill are not intended to undermine the UK’s already high standards on food, nor will they do so; indeed, this Government are committed to promoting robust food standards nationally and internationally. Rather, we can use these powers to simplify and improve regulation, making it simpler and administratively easier to comply with, without lowering standards. Those reforms, among others, are vital to allowing the UK to drive genuine reform and to seize the opportunities of Brexit.
No, I will not. I have given way twice to the hon. Lady and I am going to make progress.
However, we recognise the need to protect environmental and food standards. Therefore, I would like to be clear once again in confirming, as many Ministers have done before me, that this Government are fully committed to upholding environmental standards and food protections. It is worth noting that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has already reformed retained EU law in key areas, through flagship legislation: I have already mentioned two pieces of that—the Fisheries Act 2020 and the Agriculture Act 2020. Our environmental standards are world leading. We have passed legislation designed for our own domestic environment and it is right that we have done so.
I have given way to my hon. Friend once, but not twice, so I will give way to him again.
One can never give way too many times to a neighbour. My hon. and learned Friend is making an important point. My constituency is hugely agricultural, and so is much of his, so food standards and animal welfare are important to many of our constituents. We have put on the statute book the Agriculture Act, the Environment Act 2021 and other things. Does he agree that, while there has been suspicion on this issue, we should take great confidence from the announcement made by our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and others that, when it comes to trade deals, the lessons raised by our right hon. Friend George Eustice have been learned, and therefore issues of animal welfare and standards will be at the heart of future free trade agreements, rather than an optional extra?
I am grateful again to my hon. Friend; I am glad I gave way to him twice and did not leave him there, asking without receiving an answer. I can simply repeat the assurances that Ministers have given—ad nauseam, dare I say—that our environmental standards are world leading and will continue to be so. In reviewing its retained EU law, DEFRA’s aim is to ensure that environmental law is fit for purpose and is able to drive improved environmental outcomes. In light of that, I ask the House to reject amendment 15.
I turn now to Lords amendment 42—I think this is the last one, if I have counted correctly. This amendment inserted a new paragraph into schedule 4 and would require a novel procedure to apply to the use of the powers contained in the Bill. I repeat that the procedures are novel and untested. This Government do not accept the principle that Parliament should be able to amend statutory instruments.
In addition, the procedure would have significant implications for both parliamentary time and the ability of Government to deliver their business. It would bring significant delay to the clarification of our statute books through restatement, and delay much-needed regulatory reform. There is already provision for scrutiny measures within the Bill. All those powers will already be subject either to the affirmative procedure, meaning they must be debated in and approved by both Houses, or to the findings of a sifting Committee in each House. That is a sufficient safeguard.
I will not. The sifting procedure will provide additional scrutiny of the powers, while retaining the flexibility of using the negative procedure when there are good reasons for doing so. I therefore ask the House to reject this amendment. I have set out the Government’s position today—
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker, the Solicitor General just suggested that amendable SIs was a novel procedure—
Order. Stop. That is not a point of order. The hon. Lady has tried to intervene on the Minister. The Minister has already taken her intervention and he is not taking another. It is not a point of order for the Chair. The hon. Lady should not abuse the procedures of the House in this way. I call the Minister.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I fear I have tried your patience for too long, so I will seek to conclude. I know a number of other right hon. and hon. Members want to catch your eye and I will allow them to do so.
I have set out the Government’s position. It is one that prioritises a clear statute book, that ensures that we have regulation that is fit for purpose and that works for the United Kingdom. I invite all hon. Members to support the Government’s motions today.
Well, now. From the outset the Opposition have made it clear that we believe this Bill to be unnecessary, unrealistic and undesirable, and everything that has happened in the other place since we last saw it here has only reaffirmed what was painfully obvious. This is an inherently flawed piece of legislation, from a fatally wounded Government unable to deal in reality.
I reiterate what I said on Second Reading: this Bill has nothing whatsoever to do with Brexit. We have left the European Union. That is a fact. This is about the good governance of the UK, and whether it is Parliament or Government that should have the power to control significant changes to the law. On the Opposition Benches, we recognise that there are undoubtedly areas where we as a country will choose to take a different regulatory approach now that we are no longer pooling some of those decisions across the other member states of the European Union. However, where we choose to do that, the correct approach is to bring to this place a set of positive proposals and have them accepted or rejected in the usual fashion. Not only is that the better approach, but it is the Government’s approach to, for instance, financial regulation in the form of the Financial Services and Markets Bill, which the Labour party broadly supported. The Solicitor General gave additional examples of that approach in his opening remarks. Indeed, if any Member has a positive agenda to promote, let them bring that positive set of proposals to this place.
What the Government suggested initially was nothing short of legislative vandalism, taking a machete to the law in a way that risked our hard-won rights, when what was needed was a scalpel. For the Government to try to remove via a sunset clause vast swathes of law, which they themselves could not even adequately list or quantify, was always ridiculous. To create so much uncertainty—especially after the fiasco of the mini-Budget, when the Conservatives crashed the British economy—was bad enough, but also risking so many core rights and protections, in the form of employment law, the environment and consumer rights, was fundamentally unworkable. Britain’s businesses, trade unions, civic society and campaigners united to oppose such a reckless and unnecessary approach, and I, for one, commend them for their work.
As all colleagues are now aware, the Government have finally reckoned with reality. Today, we are presented with the inevitable decision by the Secretary of State to completely abandon the Government’s initial approach and accept how wrong they were. It appears to be a decision so humiliating that the Secretary of State is not prepared to face the Chamber. The Government’s amendment, through which they seek to perform a U-turn so swift that it is more of more of a handbrake turn, will change the Bill fundamentally. I thought that the Solicitor General put a very brave face on it, but people will rightly ask why, if his statements are correct, this was not the Government’s approach to begin with.
The change to the sunset clause is not the limit of the good work done in the House of Lords. In the other place, they have sought to protect the role of Parliament and of our constituents in deciding our future trajectory. They have correctly made it clear that no one voted to take back control only for decisions to be made in the back rooms of Whitehall. Lords amendment 1, which was tabled by Lord Hope of Craighead and the Conservative peers Lord Hamilton and Lord Hodgson, would ensure that a joint committee goes through the laws that the Government are proposing to drop, with any objections triggering a vote in Parliament. I urge all colleagues who wish for their constituents’ voice to be strengthened in this process to support the amendment.
Lords amendment 6 would ensure that many of the rights secured by EU case law decisions cannot be reversed without Parliament’s say so. Crucially, the amendment also respects the role that the devolved Administrations should be playing in that process, allowing them to have the final decision on revoking any rights, powers or liabilities, where relevant.
British consumers and farmers rightly want our world-class standards to be strengthened, not weakened, as a result of leaving the EU. We will therefore support Lords amendment 15 to stop a regression on food and environmental regulations. I heard the Minister’s defence of the Government’s position in pushing back on the amendment, but, in light of the widespread concern of many constituents about, for instance, the huge increase in sewage in UK waterways under the Conservative Government, it is particularly important to support it.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. Many of my constituents are also concerned about the rise in food prices. Does he agree that we need to be careful that our legislation does not push food prices up unnecessarily, and that, although we need to ensure that food standards are maintained, we should not add extra bureaucracy, because that comes out of our constituents’ pockets when they pay at the supermarket?
I absolutely agree. If the right hon. Lady has positive proposals that she wishes to bring forward to amend the law, and if she is making the case that UK food standards are currently onerous to the point of adding expense to her constituents and mine, I will listen to that case—I might not agree with her, but I will listen to it. If that is the case that she is making, surely it is incumbent on her to bring forward such proposals, and reveal which regulations would be necessary to change that and where she thinks the law is going wrong. I accept, and I think the Government accept, that the major driver of food-price inflation has been the war in Ukraine. That is a reasonable point. [Interruption.] I can hear some chuntering on the Government Benches. Many of us recognise that point. When the Government see inflation rise, they claim—reasonably—that international factors are the drivers of that, but when some of that peaks, supply chains change and inflation comes down, the Government often seek to claim the credit for that, which, I think she will agree, is unreasonable. But I accept her point. I hope that that clarifies for her how I believe the law in that area should be approached.
Finally, rather than allowing future pieces of retained EU law that the Government wish to restate, revoke, replace or update to be slipped in by the back door via statutory instrument, Lords amendment 42 would give Parliament the proper role that it deserves in such matters.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Minister may wish to use different wording or perhaps even correct the record? He suggested that such powers would be novel, but amendable SIs were in fact part of the Census Act 1920, which is over 100 years old, and were most notably present in section 27 of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. The idea that we might actually involve those who were brought to this place to make legislation in amending it is not a new one. This law removes that idea. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Minister may do well to read his constitutional history before he dismisses it so easily?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s intervention. I will take her word for it on the Civil Contingencies Act, about which I fear she may have a level of expertise that exceeds mine. To be frank, I thought that the Minister’s whole defence of that area was somewhat questionable. Much of what we are talking about is a relatively novel set of procedures that relate to the unique situation that we find ourselves in. Indeed, the Government’s whole approach is based on the uniqueness of the need to have a position on retained EU law following the mechanisms that we chose to adopt as a country when we left the European Union. I thought that that was a somewhat weak defence. If my hon. Friend has information contrary to what the Minister said on the record, I am sure that he will seek to amend that and put forward the correct form of affairs—perhaps if he receives wisdom on the Front Bench at some point in the next four hours.
Our colleagues in the House of Lords have, through all their amendments, sought fundamentally and in good faith to make sense of what was an embarrassing set of proposals whose only aim appeared to be to pacify the hardliners on the Government Back Benches. I appreciate that those Members do not look happy today.
I imagine that that is because they feel that they are being led by the grand old Duke of York. He was happy to march them up to the top of the hill, promising in his leadership video a bonfire of all retained EU law, but of course, he has had to march them all back down again. Now, they are neither up nor down. On that point, I will give way to Sir William Cash.
It is a disappointment according to the hon. Gentleman, but I have to say that I am extremely glad that the supremacy of EU law is going, I am extremely glad that the deregulation is remaining, and I am also very glad that my amendment has been selected for discussion so that we can have a proper list and do the job properly.
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman is happy. Maybe that means one fewer letter towards the 54 that the Prime Minister needs to think about for the duration of the day.
This Bill was always a farce designed to appease the constant, constant, constant Conservative melodrama. It has neither set forward a positive vision of a post-Brexit Britain, nor appeased most of the Government’s Back Benchers, with the exception of the hon. Member for Stone. This country is desperately in need of a Government who can provide clarity, consistency and stability for businesses to invest and pull us out of the low-growth, high-tax quagmire of the last 13 years. Equally, the UK’s workers deserve to see fulfilled the promise that the UK’s post-Brexit employment framework would mean no reduction in rights and protections.
The legislation revealed a Government with fundamentally the wrong approach—they could not even correctly diagnose the problem, let alone provide solutions. It would have been better for them simply to abandon the Bill altogether. However, by inserting the Government’s amendment, and then supporting the excellent work of their lordships in the other place, we can get it to a substantially better place than the chaos that was proposed before. On behalf of Britain’s businesses and workers, I urge all colleagues to do so.
I will speak to my very short amendment to the very short new clause in Lords amendment 16, on the retained EU law dashboard and report. The new clause requires the Government to report on their plan to revoke and reform, while my amendment seeks for that report to include a list of EU provisions to be revoked or reformed. In other words, it adds to the benefits of the new clause and to the Government’s proposals. The new clause was adopted as a Government amendment in the House of Lords a couple of days ago.
I am very grateful to colleagues who signed my amendment, and I know that many more want to do so. I am also glad that the Secretary of State has agreed—no doubt having received some good advice from my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor General and others, unnamed—to put her name to the amendment. That means, I am glad to say, that it is now Government amendment (a). Procedurally, that is a very great prize, because if the amendment had not received Government support it would almost certainly not have been selected for debate and we would not have been able to vote on it. I mention that as a matter of significance. I am deeply grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for attending meetings with me and for the dedicated way in which he goes about his job.
We need to make sure that this new structure actually works so that we can put the painful recent past behind us and get on with the job in hand of getting rid of EU supremacy and insisting on the freedom to deregulate. We also need to get to the bottom of which laws should be reformed or revoked. That process is in hand, but it is moving far too slowly and not being done with the degree of experience and skill that needs to be applied to it.
I am also very glad to report that, after a few refusals—but I do not want to dwell on that—the Secretary of State will appear before the European Scrutiny Committee in the week beginning
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for all the work he does, and I am glad that the Secretary of State will at last appear before Parliament on this crucial change of policy. Has he had any assurances that the many ideas that I and others have put to the Government on repeal and improvement of EU law will be not only read but implemented? What is the delay?
I agree very much with and share the sentiment expressed by my right hon. Friend. We need to move forward and have a proper list and the opportunity to examine the manner in which that list is prepared. The important matters to which he specifically refers include economic freedoms and the ability to reduce taxation where necessary. If they are not on that new list, there will be a lot of people asking for them to be included. That is the next step. It has unfortunately taken a long time to get to this point, but I think that we are now beginning to get there.
The new clause prescribes arrangements for Parliament to be properly informed as to the need for a full and hopefully, at last, accurate and relevant list of retained EU law along the lines of economic freedom and competitiveness and many other things. I and many colleagues, including those on the European Scrutiny Committee, have been severely pressing, for a long time, for a full and accurate list. We have invited the Secretary of State to come before our Committee many times without success, but she is now coming, and we are glad of it. We asked for progress in relation to all EU retained law. We did not get it, but we are now going to.
I also proposed to the Secretary of State that there needs to be an experienced tsar, or commander in chief, of the operations, because by the sound of it there has been something of a problem inside the civil service and it has led to difficulty in getting the job done. This person would need to know and understand the process of European scrutiny, what to do and how to go about it. I have written to other Ministers as well, and explained to them that there are archives in Kew that will be part of the list, not to mention individual Government departmental archives, parliamentary counsel office archives and, of course, our own very special European Scrutiny Committee archives, which date back to 1973 and are extremely comprehensive, including the explanatory notes that were produced to my Committee as individual regulations and laws were being negotiated. They also explained the Government’s position on particular points, but I will come on to that in a moment.
When I hear people suggest that they have not had the time to do all this and get the job done properly, I despair at their lack of drive, energy, commitment and, perhaps, unawareness of the Conservative manifesto. The new clause will provide an obligatory framework for the completion of the task.
It was profoundly disturbing to look at the schedule attached to the new Bill. It restructures the Bill in radical ways, but this debate is not the time to go into the history of all that. We have had a lot of discussion about it, so I am not going to do so. This Bill, as it has come from the House of Lords, is a mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly. The good is the ending of the supremacy of EU law and methods of interpretation, and also the provisions relating to deregulation. The ugly lies in the reformed structure and the manner in which we only heard about that at very short notice on
The new clause that the Government have adopted requires the Secretary of State to update, within specified periods, the EU law dashboard and publish a report on the revocation and reform of retained EU law. This report must provide a summary of the dashboard, set out progress already made in revoking and reforming, and set out the Government’s plans to revoke and reform those laws. In effect, it sets obligations and a timetable.
It is always interesting to know what people’s “plans” are, but having a plan does not mean that we know what is in it before we see it, and nor does it mean that it will ever happen. What does matter is that it is listed, and that is the point of my amendment. The list can be examined to see what modifications or revocations are required under clause 14. Only then can we decide their relevance in the national interest. It also makes the Secretary of State properly accountable to do the job properly within the framework of our parliamentary and scrutiny procedures, including my Committee; I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor General for the assurance he has given on the Floor of the House to work with my Committee. It also creates a deadline and pressure to get on with the job.
I have written separately to the Government not only about the tsar but about the efficient delivery by external sources, in a comprehensive manner, by May next year. That is doable, but it requires political will, and diligence on the part of the civil service. That is why my amendment states that the plan must specifically include in a list those provisions of retained EU law that the Government intend to revoke or reform. On the face of it, this is a simple amendment, but it carries with it the need to do the job properly. I assure the House that the European Scrutiny Committee will examine the content of that list and its implications with an eagle eye. It is an enormous shame—in fact, I would almost call it a disgrace—that the current schedule to the Bill consists of what could politely be described as junk, with very few exceptions. I have been through the list; actually, I did so during the Eurovision song contest. I turned to my wife and said, “I really cannot tell which is worse: this schedule or the Eurovision song contest.”
Having been through the schedule, my research and that of others, including other experienced advisers—I do hope the House will take on board what I am about to say; this work has been done not just by me, but by really experienced people in the House of Commons whose job it is to examine the extent of the retained EU law—indicates that there are only five pieces of retained EU law in the schedule that are of any use or relevance to our national interest, and which were enacted at the time for substantive policy reasons. Only five pieces out of 687: that is the conclusion by the experts, and by myself, if I may say so. Our Committee goes through all European documents and has done for decades, and each Wednesday, we categorise the documents according to whether they are legally or politically important and publish that categorisation. Only those of importance would have gone to the European Scrutiny Committee for debate while we were in the European Union.
Of the remaining 99.15% of provisions in the schedule, one of the worst examples—just to inform the House of how bad they are—is the working hours regulations during the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak, which I believe is over now. Another is quota rules for the import of wheat bran in the French colony of Réunion. I could give many more examples, but my last one is roughly 200 rules on the allocation of fishing between the EU and countries such as São Tomé and Príncipe and the Cook Islands in the south Pacific, not to mention other such distant lands as Madagascar, Mauritania, Senegal and Gambia. Those rules are nothing to do with the UK: they are between the EU and those countries.
As such, the object of the amendment is to make as certain as possible a legal obligation that enables us to see that what is to be revoked and reformed is of real relevance and in our national interest; will improve our competitiveness and economic reform; and will make the statute book consistent with UK law—as my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor General said so well—and its interpretation by the courts in line with our own unparalleled national common-law system.
I defer to my hon. Friend’s knowledge and judgment on what he is speaking about, but may I press him on this particular aspect of the Bill? Of course, a lot of regulations may seem redundant or trivial, and he has named a couple, but part of an improved regulatory system is cleaning up regulations that may be redundant or trivial, in addition to doing the work properly of making sure that when we do get rid of things and reform them, we do so for the right reasons for the entire regulatory system. The Secretary of State has proposed that by the end of this year, we are likely to have removed roughly 2,000 of the total 5,000 regulations; the remaining 3,000 will be done in a proper way, looking strategically at our whole regulatory system. Does my hon. Friend not accept that that is a reasonable approach for the Government to take, bearing in mind the position that we are in at this time?
I think it is perfectly reasonable to do it now, because it has not been done before: that is where the problem lies. I would also slightly correct my hon. Friend regarding the relevance of, for example, fishery arrangements between the EU and the Government of the Cook Islands—they are administered by New Zealand, I believe. Such arrangements have nothing at all to do with us, and could not conceivably be included in a list that was intended to demonstrate relevant revocation and reform of these laws.
Expunging EU laws from our statute book frees our voters, our businesses, our Parliament, our sovereignty and our democracy from their subjugation to the EU for 50 years. Those laws were made and engineered by the European Union, the European Commission and the Council of Ministers behind closed doors by qualified majority voting—without even a transcript, as I have said so many times—but usually came about by way of consensus. The veto was promised and guaranteed in the 1971 White Paper, which hon. Members can look up for themselves, but it was whittled away. When EU laws came to be discussed behind those doors, we generally ended up with consensus; they certainly were not our own laws passed by our own Parliament. That operation has been described by a famous economist as “regulatory collusion”.
The making of all those laws, as I said earlier, was accompanied by an explanatory memorandum, which is a useful reference point for determining what mattered at the time. Not one single piece of EU legislation was ever rejected or amended during the entire course of our membership. Interestingly, one of the five provisions that I have mentioned that are relevant to this debate is the port services directive, which was opposed by every single one of the port employers, by every single one of the trade unions, and by the Government. What could they do about it? Nothing. That is the point, and that almost summarises the reasons for the exercise that has been conducted under the Bill.
Does my hon. Friend recall that—certainly when I was single market Minister some years ago—quite often we did not want the regulation or law at all, but the Government then decided that it did not look good because we did not have a veto to enforce our wish, and we ended up trying to negotiate the version that was least damaging? Why is it that collective memory has forgotten all this, and why do people only recall the laws they want to keep? Why can they not recall the laws we never wanted?
Fortunately, the collective memory includes me, because I was first put on the European Scrutiny Committee in 1985. I have been on it ever since, and I have been Chair for 10 years. However, I totally agree with my right hon. Friend. The question of whether these laws mattered and whether they were going to go by consensus was driven by the fact that the people sitting around the table knew beforehand whether there was going to be a majority vote, and whether they would lose. As it was a dead certainty that the UK was going to lose, they entered into that consensus.
The real objective of the European Union in all this was to harmonise laws across Europe, creating a fundamental shift to European integration. That is one of the reasons why I tabled a sovereignty clause to the Single European Act 1986, which eventually found its way on to the statute book in 2020. Essentially, all these laws lack the kind of democratic legitimacy that we would expect in our traditional, constitutional, common-law system. We must therefore judge the laws that are now in the list, as set out in my amendment. Where they are capable of being modified, let them be modified, but as I have said, many of them were passed by majority vote and were certainly not in the UK’s national interest. Indeed, the chief negotiator for our entry to the EU under Edward Heath, Sir Con O’Neill, stated of his own failure to understand the system that
“I am sorry to say we probably also thought that it was not fundamentally important.”
Tragically, it was important, and the thousands of laws that now need to be reformed and revoked were the product of his and the then Government’s failure, and those who persisted in it until we left the European Union.
Sadly, for decades after our entry to the EU, the passing of laws in the European Council of Ministers continued to churn out thousands that did not have democratic legitimacy, and which we now have to modify or revoke. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, said on Monday that
“it is crucial that Parliament and the public are able to hold the Government’s feet to the fire and ensure that our momentum continues”.—[Official Report, House of Lords,
Vol. 830, c. 609.]
It is also important that the Brexit Opportunities Unit has discussions with the European Scrutiny Committee about methods and co-ordination, including the tsar I have mentioned alongside a team of external experts. Resources will be needed, yes, but the need is absolutely vital. I am therefore glad that the Government and the Secretary of State have agreed to adopt the amendment that stands in my name and those of many colleagues. I believe that the clause, when amended by this and other amendments, will be one of the main levers for making a success of this entire operation.
It is a mixed pleasure to speak in this debate for the Scottish National party, it is safe to say, but it is a pleasure to follow Sir William Cash. Much as we disagree on some things, I did not realise we were both Eurovision fans; perhaps we can organise a viewing party next year, as I have an outfit he would look fabulous in. [Interruption.] It will not be a kilt, I assure the hon. Gentleman.
I will speak to amendments 6, 1, 15 and 42. I referred light-heartedly to the hon. Gentleman, and it is possible to have differences of opinion; indeed, I hope I have demonstrated that I respect differences of opinion, but this Bill goes to a matter of deep, fundamental difference of philosophy and worldview. I am very proud to be part of the most pro-European party in this Parliament. I am a committed European as much as I am a committed independence supporter for Scotland. I think Scotland’s best future is back into the European Union. We did not view the EU as a prison to leave; we did not view EU legislation as an imposition to be fought against. I was a member of the European Parliament for 16 years; I passed many of these laws and the description we heard about unelected bureaucrats and things done behind closed doors is not my honest and true experience of how it works. However, I respect different views, much as I think they may be coming from entirely different philosophical points.
We do not like this Bill; I have been open about that. We think it is unnecessary and does not deliver what was promised. We have heard much about the need for a dynamic regulatory regime for the UK, and I agree, but there is plenty of redundant domestic law on the statute book as well. I will come on to the matter of retained EU law, but the deletion of redundant law is something Parliament should be doing on a daily basis and it is not that much of an achievement—and it does damn all to make the competitive position of the UK any better in any significant way at all.
The following point was made eloquently by my hon. Friend Patrick Grady, who has had to go to a Committee, I believe: by virtue of leaving the EU, retained EU law does not have a meaningfully special place in our statute book. It is open to this Parliament to amend, repeal, revoke or change, or whatever else it wants to do, any piece of domestic legislation wherever derived from. So this Bill seems to be answering a question that has not been asked.
I think I heard the hon. Gentleman say that that was possible. While we were in the European Union, it was impossible because of section 2 of the European Communities Act 1972, which the hon. Gentleman, as a very good lawyer, might look at. It makes it absolutely clear that we would accept all European law, however made, in the Council of Ministers, and also, for that matter, all European case law; it is there in section 3.
I will choose my words: the hon. Member is right in what he says, but he misses the point that we have left the EU and that did not apply from that point onwards. What he says was correct about two years ago, but what I am saying is correct now. It is open to this Parliament to revoke any piece of legislation wherever it came from. This Bill is borne of malice rather than being a constructive blueprint for the UK’s future.
The hon. Gentleman has just correctly said it is open to this Parliament to repeal any European law; that is exactly what this Bill does. It is not malice; it is just using the power we took back.
Can anybody explain to me what additional power, focus or agenda this Bill gives to the power that exists already by this Parliament being sovereign—that is not my worldview, but it is the worldview of many Members? I do not see this as necessary.
I thank the hon. Member for letting me take up his challenge about additional powers: the Bill gives the Government the ability to ignore the rather inconvenient matter of Members of Parliament and any views or concerns they might have by removing powers. Indeed, the Prime Minister himself talked about an elected Government taking decisions on law rather than this Chamber. Instead of removing powers, it adds them to Government to bypass this Chamber and our democracy. I hope that helps the hon. Gentleman.
It helps me get to the second page of my speech, as I was going to say that not only is the Bill unnecessary, but it is bad law. It is open in the normal way for Government to amend legislation, but that would be subject to the normal scrutiny. Another reason why we dislike the Bill is that it bypasses that scrutiny.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point that this House can repeal any legislation it wishes, but we are discussing amendments that have come to us from the other place, not the principles of the Bill. Those amendments, including some that he is speaking to, add friction to the process of this House doing its normal work of passing subsequent legislation that may change the reality of previous legislation. If the hon. Gentleman is in favour of the House going about its normal business, would it not be right to reject the amendments he is referring to?
Finally, we have a substantive point about the Bill. I want this House to give the normal legislative scrutiny to subsequent changes to the law, wherever they come from. This Bill hands considerable extra power to the Government to do that over retained EU law, without that scrutiny. We support the measures on the devolved Administrations and the future sifting committee not because they bring more friction to the process, but because they insert back into the system some safeguards that the Bill would otherwise bypass. I think that is a legitimate position.
I have said we do not like the Bill or what it does. We are concerned that vast swathes of rights that people have come to rely on—on environmental standards, labour standards and much else besides—are open to deletion without that scrutiny. We do not like the way it proposes to do it. Even with the amendments, the Bill hands far too much power to the Government to delete provisions we all rely on, particularly in relation to the devolved settlement.
If colleagues are not aware that the Scottish Parliament has in the last couple of hours withheld legislative consent to this Bill, they should be. It is not consenting to this legislation. The Parliament of Scotland has done that; it is not an SNP thing. That is not to say that it will not be ridden over, but I suggest that those who were concerned about the democratic deficit in Brussels need to turn their minds to the democratic deficit that exists in the UK, because it is utterly unsustainable and will cause us all problems.
The fact that Holyrood has in the last hour refused legislative consent to this Bill gives us our lead, so we will oppose the Bill. Having said that, we are dug in as a serious party of Government to try and make it better. I accept the arithmetical reality of this House, so we will try to make it better by supporting a number of amendments, including the Government’s. We will support their amendment, Lords amendment 1, on the removal of the sunset clause; we think that is the acceptance of reality. We are not doing it with much praise for the Government, but we will support them in that aim.
Lords amendment 6 to clause 3 respects the devolution settlement. It makes it explicit that any legislative instrument scheduled for deletion in an area of devolved competence, whether in Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales, should be deleted only with the consent of the relevant domestic Minister in Edinburgh, Cardiff or Belfast.
I am genuinely just seeking to understand the hon. Gentleman’s position on Lords amendment 6. The amendment does not define whether we are talking about devolved or retained competences. Is it his view that amendment 6 ought to apply to both?
That is a fair point. My interpretation of the amendment is that it should be in the devolved areas; otherwise, I do not think it makes any logical sense. I do not think members of the devolved Administrations should be able to withhold consent to other areas being passed. That is a reasonable position that I think we can agree on, and I invite colleagues to do so.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s reading that the amendment leads to withholding consent only in devolved areas, but somebody else could argue perfectly legitimately that it would cover everything. Because it is opaque and open to interpretation, there is a risk of one opinion saying X and another saying Y. The point raised by the former Attorney General, my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Jeremy Wright, is key: because it is not clear—whether by accident or design, I am unsure—it does not merit support.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. I have to say that I do not agree with him. The intention of the amendment is clearly about protecting the devolved settlement. It does do that, and that is certainly the SNP’s interpretation of it. We do not have Members in the Lords, but if there was scope for redrafting that provision, we would be open to it. Our position, however, is that it defends the devolved settlement. I do not think there is any serious risk to any other provision.
I am delighted to engage with the hon. Gentleman, and he is engaging closely on an important detail. The governing provision is section 4 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which in effect deals with the generic issues under section 2(1) of the European Communities Act 1972. There is no specific reference in there to devolved matters. Does that not reinforce the point being made by my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Jeremy Wright about the danger of this Lords amendment 6 not being as precise or as clear as it ought to be?
In a spirit of intellectual honesty, I will take that point on board. I hope their lordships will, too, because I suspect that this is not the end of the discussion. For today, we will support the amendment to make it clear that we want to defend the devolved settlement from a power grab. I suspect we will come back to this matter, and I am genuinely grateful for those constructive points.
Lords amendment 15, on non-regression from existing environmental standards, takes the statements of UK Government Ministers and various members of the leave campaign at face value that we will not revoke or pull back from our very high environmental standards, some of which derive from EU law and some of which do not. If we are not going to dilute them and there is no intention from those on the Treasury Bench to do so, let us bang that into the Bill and make it explicit.
Lords amendment 42 is an attempt to improve scrutiny, and I come back to the thoughtful points that were made about the possibility that it might introduce friction into the Bill. I would counter that by saying that the Bill goes around the normal legislative scrutiny by which we would deal with these things. I accept that the amendment is an innovative idea, but it is merited, and those on the Treasury Bench should take it as showing the scale of disquiet about the potential for a power grab with the Bill. We will support that amendment.
I will close; I was hoping to be briefer than I have been. We do not like this Bill. We do not like what it is trying to do or how it is trying to do it. From our perspective, it is not in Scotland’s interests, and it is not in Scotland’s name either, with Holyrood having refused consent. I urge colleagues to match their talk of democratic deficits through their actions. If by their actions they prove my party right today, Scotland has a different path to choose if we are serious about democracy in these islands. My party has a clear vision of Scotland’s best future; I do not see a clear vision of any future in this legislation. Scotland has a better choice to make.
I will focus on Lords amendment 1, Government amendment (a) to Lords amendment 1 and Lords amendment 42.
Before I do, I want to close the loop on Lords amendment 6. It is a pleasure to follow Alyn Smith, who made an interesting set of observations. As he would expect, I do not agree with all of them, but if I may say so, he is engaging in this debate in exactly the way we ought to when considering matters this complex and important.
Just to finish the thought, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that their lordships may want to consider the matter further, as of course may we. I suspect that the noble Lord Hope, who I think drafted the clause in Lords amendment 6—that gives me considerable hesitation in criticising it in any way, because it is unlikely he has got much wrong—is intending a deal of weight to be put on the phrase
“as the case may be”.
Subsections (2) and (3) refer to a
“responsible Minister of a relevant national authority” and to
“both Houses of Parliament, the Scottish Parliament, Senedd Cymru or the Northern Ireland Assembly, as the case may be”.
I suspect Lord Hope would say that that indicates that in the case of retained law, the body would be the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and in the case of devolved competencies, it would be the relevant devolved body. Before we sign up fully to the wording of the amendment as it stands, we should have clarity about that, because it is an important point in the hon. Gentleman’s argument about the reinforcement of the devolution settlement.
We do not want to subtly change the devolution settlement by accident. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman would be quite happy to change the devolution settlement either by accident or by design, and perhaps not so subtly, but in the context of the Bill, we had better be clear what we are talking about. For that reason, I certainly will not support Lords amendment 6 at this stage, though I will listen carefully to what their lordships have to say when they clarify the point.
There seem to be similar points to make in relation to Lords amendment 1, Government amendment (a) to Lords amendment 1 and Lords amendment 42. Were we to support amendment (a), it would restate, because the Government have already made their position clear, their new approach that rather than repeal a whole swathe of EU-origin retained law in effect by default, it would be better to list specifically those things that it is intended should be repealed by a certain point, such as the end of this year, unless further action is taken before that point. That is a much more sensible approach, although I will say it was somewhat inevitable, as others have said.
It was always inconceivable that the Government would be able to manage the process of considering properly all the retained EU law in scope of the Bill before the deadline of the end of this year. Therefore, the Government have done the eminently sensible thing and should be congratulated on doing so. I will certainly support Government amendment (a) to Lords amendment 1, because it regularises the position in a much more reasonable way.
The irony is that I rather suspect proceeding in the way originally intended would have led to the retention of far more retained EU law than will be the case under the Government’s revised approach. In fear of losing something vital, it is highly likely that the Government would have had to roll over—by default and before the deadline—a good portion of legislation, just to be sure they had not missed something. This approach is much more sensible and will rather better support the intentions of those who supported our departure from the European Union than the approach originally intended.
If the rest of Lords amendment 1 were passed by this House—not just the part that amendment (a) retains—we would introduce exactly the friction that I mentioned earlier when intervening on the hon. Member for Stirling. It would introduce a Joint Committee process and then debates and votes on the Floor of both Houses. I appreciate that, depending on which side of the argument someone is, they may regard those as additional safeguards or additional procedural friction, but it appears to me that it is more the latter than the former. That process is far more than is likely to have been done in the consideration of any of these laws when they were originally brought into British law. When that happened—my hon. Friend Sir William Cash is the world expert on this—we would have seen that, despite their EU origin, the level of scrutiny and attention those laws got from Parliament was far lower than the level proposed in the amendment.
To respond briefly to my right hon. and learned Friend on this issue, I am afraid that the idea of a Joint Committee is just not a workable proposition. This is not the kind of forum to deal with the issues at stake and, if I may say so, for that reason alone it is impossible to accept Lords amendment 1. It just would not work.
Well, I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I think this is probably not the appropriate mechanism, as he says, but it would also duplicate to a large extent what his Committee already does. So I do not think it is an attractive mechanism, as he says.
Of course, those who propose this amendment and those who speak for it today may say to me, “Look, it would only be in the case of substantial changes that some, at least, of these additional procedures would apply”, but it seems to me there are two points to make about that. First, it would be the Joint Committee’s assessment of what is a substantial change to the law, not anybody else’s. Secondly, we would, would we not, have to get into what the word “substantial” means in that context. If we were to say that a Joint Committee should be established to determine initially whether there is a substantial change of the law in prospect, it would have to determine that and it would have to decide what substantial means. Does it mean, for example, that a large number of laws are consequentially affected when a change is made, or does it mean that a few laws would be affected but in a very significant way? I think it is important, if we want to do this, that we are very clear about the definitions that we apply, because just as other Members of this place are worried about the level of authority to be devolved to Ministers, there would be a significant level of authority to be devolved to a Joint Committee, and if we were not clear about the basis on which it was to exercise our authority, we may run into difficulty.
Obviously, we already have Joint Committees and models of how a Joint Committee could work. We have the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, so we have a model for that way of working. However, is the right hon. and learned Member not making the argument that we in this Chamber need to signal our agreement about what is missing from this process? I notice he is making an argument about the lack of scrutiny from Europe, and we may disagree on that, but surely two wrongs do not make a right. The argument we are making today is that we need to improve this process, and that when there are changes—and we must set out more clearly what “substantial” means—this Chamber wishes to work with the other Chamber in bringing back parliamentary sovereignty to this process.
I understand the points the hon. Lady is making, and I will take them in reverse order. On the point I made about the difference in the scrutiny that these laws may have on the way out, as it were, compared with the scrutiny they would have on the way in, I accept that two wrongs do not make a right. However, it would be odd, if nothing else, to take the view that we should give the vast bulk of laws—some of which, as I think we have agreed across this Chamber, do not require a huge amount of scrutiny, because they are technical and somewhat inevitable changes as a result of leaving the European Union—a process involving greater scrutiny and greater friction, as I would choose to describe it, than the process that was used to bring them in in the first place.
On the hon. Lady’s point about a Joint Committee, I accept that there are Joint Committees, but the role of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, for example, is very different from the role that Lords amendment 1 sets out for a Joint Committee in this context. If we set up Joint Committees as scrutiny bodies, that is one thing, but if we are devolving authority to a Joint Committee to make judgments about what is and is not a substantial change to UK law, it seems to me that we ought at the very least to understand what substantial means in that context. Again, I am afraid that we can only decide on the basis of the wording we have in front of us, but the wording we have in front of us seems to me to require some greater clarification before anyone ought to support it.
My right hon. and learned Friend is making a characteristically powerful and persuasive case. Taking on board his point about the—to use my inelegant criminal lawyer’s phrase—rather clunky nature of the mechanism, or the friction that he rightly refers to, would he concede that something potentially needs to be done to fill the gap identified by the noble Lord Hope of Craighead in the other place, which is that simply setting out in the Bill a list of laws to be revoked does not of itself guarantee adequate scrutiny of those laws? Does he think there is some scope that the Government may wish to offer by way of assurance at some time as to the level of scrutiny that could be given, without resorting to the system currently set out in Lords amendment 1, which may cause that needless friction or, to use my term, be needlessly clunky, but may equally give this House a proper safeguard about its proper scrutiny role?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and for his reassurance, I do not think that either he or criminal lawyers are in any way inelegant. However, I think there is certainly something to be said for greater and better scrutiny, and we should always in this place be looking for ways to improve the scrutiny we offer. As he knows, my concern about Lords amendment 6 is that I do not think we yet have sufficient clarity about whether it achieves the objectives it sets out to achieve without also causing some fallout in other respects. I do not close my mind to the way in which it seeks to do its work, but I am concerned that we need extra clarity before we could conceivably support it.
I want to say something about the benefits as I see them of the Government’s new approach and why they will help with some of the legitimate concerns expressed in the debate. The benefit of the Government setting out, as they have in the schedule, the measures they propose will lapse at the end of the year unless further intervention is taken is that that allows all Members of the House to pay attention to that list and reach their own conclusions—early—about whether they think there is anything troubling in it, exactly as my hon. Friend the Member for Stone described that he and his colleagues have done. That is a better and more conducive way to good scrutiny than the one previously seen. It helps to offer the necessary reassurance that we will not simply stumble into a position where we lose from our statute book good and valuable things that happen to have their origins in the European Union. Parliament will not be caught by surprise by anything that the Government seek to do in that way.
It is important to remember that if the Government seek to make a change to our law, they will have to do so through the normal routines of passing legislation. True, that may be through secondary legislation, but that is still a way in which Parliament scrutinises legislation and has done so for a long time under Governments of multiple colours. There is nothing particularly radical in the Government proposing to take a measure through Delegated Legislation Committees that it seeks to use to make a change in the law.
I return to friction. It seems to me that the friction that is sought to be added to the processes we use is undesirable. That is partly because it is unnecessary—the reassurance that the Government can offer by the new course they seek to take is adequate—and partly because we must see this specific discussion in the context of the broader discussion that has happened about our membership of the European Union. In the interests of full disclosure, I should make it clear to the House that in the 2016 referendum I did not vote to leave the European Union, and I urged my constituents not to do so, either—in some cases, they paid little attention—but I accept, and have accepted consistently since, that the decision was none the less taken that we should leave the European Union, and certain things flow inexorably from that. It must be right that if we leave the European Union, we also leave European Union law behind us. That should not be in a rush or in a flurry of activity that might cause us to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but inevitably that is what should happen.
I apologise to the House for being late to the debate; I was in a Select Committee meeting. I want to put on the record how, as somebody who did vote to leave the European Union and urged my constituents to do so, I entirely agree with my right hon. and learned Friend that we need clarity. What does he therefore think about Government amendment (b), to which I have put my name, which calls on the Government frequently—on a quarterly basis—to put forward further ideas for retained law that is unhelpful or unnecessary and could be revoked or reformed?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and support the amendment. It is sensible, because the public have an expectation here, and we should not forget that. They believe that, having had a vote some time ago—in 2016—to leave the European Union, we would do exactly that. For them, that includes European Union law no longer holding sway in this country. My hon. Friend the Member for Stone talked about the disadvantage of having two sets of law—pre-Brexit and post-Brexit—that the courts must look at separately forevermore, and that disadvantage is considerable. Despite the fact that I did not vote for Brexit, the consequence of it is that we absolutely must have a Bill of this nature, and we must have the measures that flow from it.
I fear that the public will spot that if that extra friction is unnecessary—I believe it is—it is a consequence only of seeking to delay the point at which Brexit has meaningful impact. I do not think it is good for our democracy or for the contract we made with the electorate, which is that if we offered them the chance to decide this question, the political classes would honour their judgment—and that is what we must do. From that, it follows—it seems to me, at least—that the Bill is necessary and that amendments that seek subtly to undo its effect are profoundly undesirable and should not be supported.
I wish I could say I was happy to be called in this debate, but the truth is that I do not believe we should be having it at all. I am not sure that if I tried, I could design a worse way of withdrawing from a legal framework. Not content with crashing the economy, the world being literally on fire, and our food prices and energy bills being so high that people are no longer able to afford to eat or heat in many parts of the country, Ministers now want to waste our time and energy driving us off this regulatory cliff. I wonder how many civil servants have been drafted in and redeployed to deal with the legal consequences of the sunset clause—I am pleased the Government have now dropped it—which was ridiculous and absolutely unworkable. Despite the recent climbdown on what the Bill will cover, the truth is that it still hands power to Ministers to rewrite, revoke and replace hundreds of our vital laws on substantive issues.
Without the Lords amendments, the Bill places our rights at work, our environmental protections and hard-won equal rights on a cliff edge. From working with my constituents on the Hallam citizens’ climate manifesto, our vision for climate action locally and nationally, I know the importance and appetite for democracy, especially around protecting our natural environment. Our response to the climate and nature emergency must be led by communities across the country who already feel the impacts of the climate crisis. That is why I have been working with campaigners to bring forward the Climate and Ecology Bill as a 10-minute rule Bill. It would enable us to reach the goals we need to protect us from a 1.5°C increase in global temperature. We need to bring about a democratic transition. We urgently need to protect our precious natural environment and expand our democracy when talking about these issues, not curtail it.
The Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill will do the exact opposite, concentrating power even further into the hands of a few Ministers. That should concern everyone in the House who claims to represent their constituents. The truth is that the Government do not value our natural environment. Just look at the key pieces of environmental law that were missing from the dashboard, or the way it treats the people who work every day to protect it at the Environment Agency.
Order. I do not mind you touching on the fact that you do not like the Bill at all, but you really should be speaking to some of the amendments. That would be really useful.
Lords amendment 15 stops regression on environmental standards and it is really important that it stands tonight. At the exact moment when we should be strengthening regulation to protect nature and biodiversity, the Bill does the complete opposite. I remember the debates on the Environment Bill and how we were repeatedly assured that there would be no regression on environmental standards. Without Lords amendment 15, the Bill will put all that at risk. The Government have refused to legislate to provide any guarantee that they will be protected.
The hon. Lady is right to mention the Environment Act 2021, but is it not the case that the Act, which came after leaving the European Union, actually gives us all the powers we need to improve our environment and sets a whole new framework of targets that makes the legacy EU ones redundant?
I am not sure I totally agree. When I asked officials about the number of laws affected without the sunset clause, they could not give me an answer on even the number that would be affected. There is a lot more that underpins all the regulatory frameworks we work under when we are protecting our environment. I accept that the Act passed after we left the EU, but I do not believe that we are protected at the moment and that is why Lords amendment 15 is so important. If we do not act tonight to ensure we have those safeguards in place for our environmental protections, we will be undoing a lot of the good work that may have been done by the Environment Act.
However, the nature emergency is not the only one that the Bill will potentially make worse. For over a decade we have seen a decline in workers’ pay and conditions, and we have seen a cost of living crisis. People have rightly had enough, which is why we have seen rather a lot of strike action recently. Rather than address the root cause and improve pay and conditions in the workplace, the Bill puts basic workers’ rights, equality rights and paternal leave rights in the firing line.
The Bill spells potential disaster for the environment and for working people. It sets out exactly what is wrong with the way we write and pass laws. For that reason, I will vote against it. I support the Lords amendments to stop the power grab, and Lords amendments 15, 6 and 42 to protect our vital environmental regulations. The Bill should not condense power into the hands of Ministers. We should have a say in this place about what laws we want to throw on the scrapheap.
May I begin by congratulating my hon. and learned Friend Michael Tomlinson on the exceptional elegance with which he put forward the case this afternoon? I understand now why members of his profession take silk, because it was certainly a silken performance. I reiterate my thanks to and admiration for the Bill team, which I mentioned on Second Reading. I think my hon. and learned Friend would agree that he has worked with one of the finest Bill teams with which Parliament has had the pleasure of bringing forward legislation in recent years. The team was completely on top of a difficult subject from a very early stage.
Those are not all the nice things I will say at this stage, but I will say how much I regret the Government’s amendment in the House of Lords to reverse the whole basis of what the Bill is trying to achieve. The Bill aimed to achieve a balance whereby EU law would go rather than stay. Now, the balance is that EU law will stay rather than go. There are 587 laws in the new schedule that are going. There is no way that my hon. and learned Friend can think that they are serious—they are trivialities of remaining EU law that have been dusted off and found to make a reasonable number.
When the Secretary of State told people she was thinking of taking this approach, she indicated that there might be some important repeals in that list. There is virtually nothing of any importance in that list. Fishing, as far as countries with which we do not have particular relations is concerned, is utterly trivial, with details on anchovies—all sorts of things that do not matter have been put in the schedule. That is a failure by His Majesty’s Government. They ought to have been looking at which things we could put in it that people already know need to be repealed.
I would elucidate that point by saying that over the last couple of days, we have heard that the Government have come to the conclusion that things can be done to help the wine industry. Dare I say, those were known a year ago? They are not novel. DEFRA has been sitting on them for that year. It could have brought them forward and included them in the revocations in the Bill to give us something solid and practical that would have been beneficial in the next few weeks, rather than something that merely deals with old hat, the passé, the gone and the mainly forgotten.
May I begin by wishing my right hon. Friend a very happy birthday?
I have a huge amount of sympathy, as I think most Members do, with the argument that a lot of that stuff could have been done. But last year, post covid, we had Ukraine and a huge amount of political instability in this place, with changes of Ministers more often than most people change their socks—sometimes within a couple of weeks. The idea of trying to get the job done in that atmosphere and environment of huge change, instability and uncertainty, undermines his point that it was a wasted year.
I am rather worried about the air fresheners that my hon. Friend must need in his household if he changes his socks only once a fortnight. I am afraid that the Government’s argument that “We cannot do it because we have not put the effort into it” is particularly weak. With ministerial drive—and it has to be said, with some very good civil servants in some of these areas—it is possible to get things done. A £4 million contract has been given to a law firm to help take the Bill further and faster. I think that “We can’t do it, it’s all far too difficult” is a worse argument than saying “We do not want to do it” in the first place, which may be closer to the truth.
Either I was not clear or my right hon. Friend is deliberately misinterpreting my point, because that was not the point I was making. It is not that it could not be done, but that there was a reason why it was not done, and that was the chaos and confusion of last year. Those are two entirely different things.
The point my hon. Friend misses is that there is still some time between now and the end of the year. This work could be pushed through if there were the desire to do it.
This Bill is a tremendous missed opportunity. It is a missed opportunity not because of Brexit per se. It is not a missed opportunity because those of us who voted for Brexit expected the will of the British people—expressed in 2016 and 2019—to be pushed forward, although that is important. It is not a missed opportunity because the unelected House has decided to try and block a Brexit-related reform, as it has consistently done. Interestingly, the amendments passed in the unelected House are all designed to frustrate the progress of the Bill and its operation, and are, by and large, although not exclusively, supported—lo and behold—by people who never wanted Brexit in the first place. It is noticeable that the overwhelming majority of people in this House who do not want the full revocation of EU laws always opposed Brexit. However, it is not about that. The missed opportunity is in not achieving supply-side reforms that would get growth for the UK economy.
We had the Prime Minister at the Dispatch Box this morning—the Leader of the Opposition missed a trick here—saying how marvellous it was that the IMF had said the UK economy would grow by 0.4%. Now, I happen to think that the IMF is absolutely useless and that its forecasts are valueless—it gets them wrong the whole time—but the idea that 0.4% economic growth is a success, when inflation has only just come out of double digits, is not factually accurate. This Bill was the opportunity to get growth, but instead we are changing laws on anchovies. That seems to me to be pretty fishy, because there are other things that we could have done. That is the point.
The challenge that has been put down—it was put down by the Secretary of State herself—is what people like me would do instead. Well, there are a whole swathe of laws that it would be a good idea to remove. If we look at the EU’s basis for regulating, it takes a process approach rather than an outcome approach. This Bill was an opportunity, even with a cut-and-paste scheme, to move from a process approach to an outcome approach.
What am I talking about? I am talking about product specification regulations, of which there are dozens. No country does that; only the EU specifies products in that way. We are now keeping all those regulations, whereas we should have been getting rid of them and saying that what we want are safe products, which encourages competition and innovation and encourages us to import goods at lower cost from places other than the EU.
We should have been looking at the absolutely lunatic emissions trading scheme that we have. We heard from Olivia Blake, and Sheffield is famous for its steel. However, we have made life for steel producers in this country completely impossible. Why have we done this? Because we have very high energy costs and a mad ETS that then tries to wind round some subsidy to help lower producers’ costs. If we just had lower energy costs in the first place and got rid of the ETS, which came out of the European Union, we would do better. Where could we have done that? We were going to do it in the Bill until a Lords amendment was so unwisely brought forward.
There are also the working time regulations. It might be possible to say that some people in this Chamber, when dozing off while listening to speeches that are intolerably dull, are in fact working—it seems heroic that our Doorkeepers never doze off, considering some of the things they have to listen to. However, under the working time directive, hours when people are asleep count as work. That is an enormous burden on the NHS; it has been calculated that the working time directive costs the NHS £3 billion. We could have dealt with that in the revocations under this Bill, had the Government not lost their nerve.
What about new opportunities in food and the regulations that stop us having novel foods? You may not wish to eat novel foods, Mr Deputy Speaker. I do not wish to eat novel foods. However, if there is a market for them, surely the UK should be regulating in a way that opens it up. We had a Bill in front of us that, unamended, would have allowed us to deal with novel foods swiftly by getting rid of EU regulations.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, because he has made many references to the Department in which I was once Secretary of State. I have a great deal of sympathy for the argument he is advancing, and I do understand that he wanted to ensure that the concrete did not set around these EU regulations so that they just stayed in place. However, as he will know, I was a bit more sceptical than he was about the idea of a sunset clause.
In a Department such as DEFRA where 80% of the legislation is legacy EU law, there would be three broad categories. The first would be the trivial regulations involving olive oil labelling and so on, whose removal would require considerable effort but would not help business. The second category would be regulations that were a bit contentious; we would probably not want to do anything about them. The third would be the big things such as the habitats directive, which ought to be addressed, but everyone would say, “It is too difficult to do it just now.” I think it right to prioritise the bad law that needs attention, rather than getting bogged down in some of the more trivial laws when it would probably cost businesses more to remove them than to leave them in place.
It must be said that my right hon. Friend was an excellent Secretary of State who was enormously co-operative with me, when I was in the relevant role, in trying to get DEFRA to be positive about this at a time when, as he rightly says, it was carrying a huge burden of work.
The problem is that we cannot shy away from the difficult decisions. That is what government is about, as in the old cliché “To govern is to choose.” Nature Britain, or Natural Britain, or whatever it is called, has prevented 160,000 houses from being built because of the nutrients rules resulting from a decision made by the European Court of Justice in 2018. It is all very well for Opposition Members to say that we should keep every environmental rule we have ever had, but I want my constituents to have houses, and I want other people’s constituents to have houses. We should be making those choices and putting the case to govern. That, I am afraid, is at the heart of this: a lack of decisiveness, of drive, of backbone to get things done.
I agree with my right hon. Friend that there would have been some things that were difficult. That is why the Bill contained provisions to roll things over and to say, “If you can make a good case for why this must stay, it will stay”, but the default was that it would be removed. I have mentioned the nutrients problem, and the habitats regulations are another example of rules that stop us doing things that are environmentally friendly and would benefit the environment because there may be some habitat nearby. I had to delay a decision on using waste to provide energy because of the common seal. Well, the very name of the common seal demonstrates that it is common, and that we should not be worrying about it too much when we could do something that would be enormously environmentally beneficial. The habitats directive is too dirigiste, too continental in its approach to regulating how we operate and how our economy runs.
I have already mentioned novel foods, but what about the other advantages for a modern, knowledge-based economy? What about clinical trials? I cannot tell you, Mr Deputy Speaker, how pleased I am to see my right hon. Friend Sir Iain Duncan Smith lurking by the Chair, because he produced a brilliant report explaining how some of these things could be done. Why have they not been done? Did the Bill not offer a perfect opportunity for us to do them? Instead, people are appealing against rules relating to anchovies, and that really seems to me not to be the Gentleman’s Relish that we would desire. This is a loss of opportunities—an opportunity for economic growth, and also an opportunity to move away from the civil code approach to law to the common-law approach, which is fundamental.
We see this in other emerging legislation. I hope you will forgive me, Mr Deputy Speaker, for a brief digression. The monstrous Energy Bill is all about regulating rather than allowing. What the repeal would have done, had it gone through, was to allow rather than regulate. This is based on the principle that wise bureaucrats—I praised civil servants earlier—really understand how business can best operate, if only people will follow the rules of those bureaucrats. What we want, according to our tradition, is an approach that says it is legal to do something unless it is specifically dangerous.
The taskforce on innovation, growth and regulatory reform report produced over 100 recommendations for the Government, but the big case it made was for moving regulation making from what is essentially a coded base and returning it to a common law basis, which—exactly as my right hon. Friend was about to say—is, “It’s okay unless it turns out that it is damaging.” That is how our courts work, and it is the best practice in the world. That is why we should have made that progress.
My right hon. Friend is right. That is what the Bill did until it was gutted and the key part of it was removed so that the basis is now to retain a law unless it is specifically removed, rather than removing it unless it is specifically retained.
Unfortunately that approach is getting worse. In October we will apply rules on goods coming into this country from the EU that are safe, adding costs to consumers in an inflationary era, which is what these regulations continually do. The fundamental problem—the suspicion that we can see people beginning to think about—is that of the 587 rules that are being repealed, hardly a single one changes alignment with the European Union. Is there, hidden away in the bowels of Government, some decision that we will in fact remain aligned with the European Union, possibly because of the Windsor protocol? Otherwise, why are we not repealing all those strange and unimportant things? Apparently we cannot get a dog bone from a butcher because of EU rules. Why has that not gone? Why have we not been allowed to bring back imperial measures, which have been promised for years? They are not the biggest reward of Brexit, but why are we doing these little bits and pieces in the 587 that are there? Why are we not making the changes that would have made our wine industry more successful and economic?
Unfortunately, the Bill is a great lost opportunity. The reason—the excuse—given is not that it is impossible or that we do not want supply-side reforms but the inertia of officialdom. Whether that is ministerial inertia or other inertia, it is ultimately the politicians who must take the responsibility. I am afraid that a lot of responsibility has been abdicated in these amendments.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr Rees-Mogg. We agree on nothing but he makes his points very well. It is a help as I will be able to tell my constituents that, in front of the architect of the Bill, I made the case for why the approach was entirely wrong, and I shall do so. His speech reminds us that it was the plan all along to make food standards poorer, to attack the environment—not only to build houses, as in his case, but for other reasons too. At the time, the Government said, “Oh no, we’ll never make standards poorer”. Released from his ministerial role, however, the right hon. Gentleman is clear about the things that he wanted to do. Why on earth, he asks, do we not want to change alignment? The reason is that it is bad for the economy, and I will focus on that in my response to the amendments.
I disagree with the motion to dismiss Lords amendments 15 and 42. I agree with the statements made on Lords amendments 1 and 6. There was a useful exchange earlier in which Members clarified the specifics of the amendment tabled by Lord Hope. On the principle of taking back control, the Minister said that we had taken back control, but that begs the question: who does “we” refer to? That is still one of the biggest reasons why a huge number of my constituents care about the Bill.
It is worth reminding ourselves that Second Reading fell on the first day of the current Prime Minister’s premiership, the day when he promised to govern with “integrity, professionalism and accountability.” It is fair to say that promise has been utterly broken, especially given the behaviour of some of his Cabinet colleagues. He also promised to review and repeal all EU law within his first 100 days and, with the completely gutted Bill before us, we see that promise has been broken, too. It is a completely different Bill and a different proposition from how it began. Some of us are happy about that, and some are not, but I am pleased that it is a different approach.
When the Bill was first introduced, I and others felt it was ideologically driven, particularly the cliff-edge provisions that would have ended up in chaos. I said at the time that the provisions were “corrosive” and “unnecessary”. What we need now, above all else—post-pandemic and amid the war in Ukraine and the cost of living crisis—is calm. Members have spoken about throwing the baby out with the bathwater, which is exactly what this Bill would have done. It would have been a chaotic slash-and-burn approach, and I am pleased the Government have come to their senses.
I thank my Liberal Democrat colleagues in the other place for their work. Their exposure of the Bill’s potential damage through the reams of amendments they tabled has effected change. In particular, the Government have rightly made an amendment to eliminate the cliff edge for thousands of laws, to many of which we did not know whether the Bill would apply, which I have always found hugely bizarre.
I would hope that every Member in the Chamber believes in securing vital standards on, for example, sewage, although I find myself questioning whether every Member, indeed, does. It beggars belief that those standards were ever under threat, not least because of the result of the local elections, which were fought on such issues.
In introducing this Bill, what exactly was the Government’s problem with the Bathing Water Regulations 2013 and the Water Environment (Water Framework Directive) (England and Wales) Regulations 2017, which never went far enough—we would have gone much further—but would have protected our hard-fought bathing water status in Oxford. The fact there had to be a fight, taking up so much parliamentary time, is one reason why we felt the Bill took entirely the wrong approach.
More than 400 constituents have written to me about the Bill, and they are rightly concerned about what it might still do—I will come to the “still” point in a moment—to workers’ rights and environmental protections. One constituent said:
“I don’t understand how the government can promise to improve our environment at the same time as setting out a law that could lead to basic protections getting weaker.”
I could not agree more.
The Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust wrote to me about the Bill just this week and, although it welcomes, as we all do, some of the concessions that have been made, it is still concerned:
“We are in a nature and climate emergency. It is essential that the current level of legal protection is upheld and not weakened.”
There is still more work to do, and these Lords amendments, which the Liberal Democrats support, go some way to achieve that. Although many crucial standards and safeguards have been saved, thanks to the Government’s U-turn, the truth is that the Bill will hand Ministers, not Parliament, the power to meddle with them at a later date via secondary legislation, which means we need to remain vigilant on workers’ rights, sewage and the natural environment.
Should the next election result in anywhere near what the polls suggest, with the shoe ending up on the other foot, would Conservative Members trust the next Government always to get it right? Casting no aspersions, I do not, because I believe in parliamentary democracy. Even ideas with which I might agree benefit from scrutiny, a bit of prodding and other people’s experience, not least the experience of our constituents. That is why we support Lords amendment 42, which would ensure that if Ministers want to make changes to law in the future, a Joint Committee would be involved. I have heard those who have said that that is not the right mechanism, but do they disagree with the principle I have just put forward? If that is not the right mechanism, what is? I ask them to find one. We need a mechanism by which this House can bring our experience and scrutiny to bear, and, unfortunately, if it is not just a Joint Committee, it simply does not exist.
The Liberal Democrats also support Lords amendment 15, which provides a double lock on regulations that protect the environment or ensure our food is safe. It was put forward by my constituent Lord Krebs of Wytham, an eminent Cross Bencher who was the first chairman of the British Food Standards Agency. He will have constructed this provision thoughtfully and knowledgeably. For those regulations that will not be scrapped by the Bill, the amendment will ensure that Ministers cannot meddle with them in any way to lower standards. At the Dispatch Box, they consistently say—
I served on the Bill Committee. The hon. Lady referred to the Bathing Water Regulations, a set of environmental regulations from which Elizabeth Truss, then a DEFRA Minister, tried to get an exemption for the UK. The talk from Conservative Members about these things being a “floor” needs to be carefully scrutinised. I agree that we need to legislate. In the Bill Committee, there was a refusal to accept our proposals, which is why we need to ensure that the amendment is in place, especially with the sunset provision moved.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and I entirely agree with the point he makes. I understand the point that some of the regulations need to fall away as they are technocratic, but the ones I am referring to are not those and yet they are getting caught up in the approach that the Bill takes. This is just not good law, so I urge Government Members to stand up for our environment and food standards, and reject the Government’s attempts to remove the amendment. Without it, the mechanism for us, as Back Benchers, to be able to influence a Government—it could be a Labour Government or something else, but it does not matter—is not there. We need to have it. Some 600 laws are still scheduled for revocation at the end of the year, without any specific deliberation or input from Parliament. The Bill still grants significant powers to Ministers to rewrite any item of retained EU law, including those now exempt from the sunset. Provisions that would create considerable legal uncertainty also remain.
Even though the total number of laws being revoked has fallen significantly, I continue to put forward the idea that this Bill remains a gross abuse of Executive power. Parliament is the seat of our democracy. Parliament should have its say, and I urge the Government, through these amendments, to consider their entire approach and put Parliament in charge. When they said they would take back control, I am sorry but I do not think they meant themselves.
We have 10 people left and if everybody does about 10 minutes, as Layla did, we should get everybody in.
On Lords amendment 1, as a strong supporter of Brexit, I am pleased that the Government have already revoked or reformed more than 1,000 EU laws since our exit from the EU. In addition to the list of 587 laws the Government propose to revoke directly through the Bill, the Financial Services and Markets Bill and the Procurement Bill will revoke about a further 500 pieces of retained EU law. That means that more than 2,000 revocations and reforms are already completed or under way.
Overall, the Government are committed to lightening the regulatory burden on businesses and helping to spur economic growth, and the Edinburgh reforms of UK financial services include more than 30 regulatory reforms to unlock investment and boost growth in towns and cities across the UK. It is important, however, that the Government make sure that the process of revocation is done in a way that maximises our competitive advantage. We need to remove any unnecessary regulations we inherited from Brussels over the last 50 years, and to do so as soon as possible. The Bill gives us the unique opportunity to look again at regulations and decide whether they are right for our economy, whether we can remove them, or whether we can reform and improve them to help spur economic growth.
The Bill will still enable us to revoke, replace or reform any retained EU law that remains on our statute book until 2026. This new approach will provide the space for longer-term and more ambitious reforms, and the Government intend to do just that. In practice, they will revoke about the same number of laws as they were on course to do under the original sunset provision.
It is important to bear in mind that we do not want to repeal everything. For instance, the Government will preserve around 650 retained EU laws that are necessary for us to comply with our international obligations, such as the Chicago convention on international civil aviation, which allows airlines to operate safely around the world. Those are regulations we would have in UK law irrespective of our EU membership.
The Bill will end the special status of retained EU law. It will ensure that by the end of this year, for the first time in a generation, the UK statute book will not recognise the supremacy of EU law or EU legal principles. However, as the Bill was drafted, almost all retained EU law would be automatically revoked at the end of 2023 unless a statutory instrument was passed to preserve it under the sunset provision.
I therefore support the measure in Lords amendment 1 that replaces the sunset provision with a list of all the EU laws that the Government intend to revoke under the Bill at the end of 2023. The remainder will continue in force without the need to pass extra legislation. By making it clear which regulations will be removed from our statute book at this stage, we will give certainty to businesses and all those affected by these laws, and we will create transparency and legal clarity. The Government will retain the vital powers in the Bill that allow them to continue to amend retained EU law, so that more complex regulations can still be revoked or reformed after further assessment and consultation.
I listened with great interest to the speech by my right hon. Friend Mr Rees-Mogg, who is no longer in his place. I have the very highest respect for him. It is incumbent on the Government, having achieved support for the measure in Lords amendment 1, to ensure that there is no slippage in abolishing retained EU law after the Bill has been passed. It is vital that a sense of inertia does not become part of the process.
I turn, as a Welsh Member of Parliament for the wonderful constituency of Clwyd South, to Lords amendment 6. The purpose of the amendment is to enable Parliament and the devolved legislatures, and not the Executive, to take the final decision about whether rights, powers and liabilities retained by section 4 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act should be revoked at the end of 2023. The Government are right not to support the amendment.
Where the UK and devolved Governments consider that there is a need to codify any specific rights that may otherwise cease to apply, that can be done under the powers in the Bill. Such codified rights will be placed on a sustainable UK footing, providing certainty and therefore safeguarding and enhancing them in domestic statute. The Bill will end the situation whereby citizens must rely in some cases on an unclear category of law and complex legal glosses to enforce their rights.
Lords amendment 16, and the Government amendments to it, concern transparency on the Government’s progress in dealing with retained EU law. The Bill now revokes only a portion of that law, but it will remain an important task for the Government to decide what to do with the rest of the laws on our statute book and ensure that they support the needs of the UK economy and the public. It represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to achieve significant regulatory reform.
Lords amendment 16 builds on the retained EU law dashboard, which pulls together all retained EU law and shows progress in reforming that law. The core information it contains, including visual representation of progress, has been a great achievement. Subsection (1) of the proposed new clause places an obligation on the Secretary of State to update the dashboard. It also requires the Secretary of State to
“publish and lay before Parliament a report on the revocation and reform of retained EU law.”
Those reports are intended to do three things. They will summarise the dashboard, they will set out progress made in revoking and reforming retained EU law and, importantly, they will set out the Government’s plans for revocation or reform. Information on the Government’s plans is not currently reported in a comprehensive way, so this will be a valuable data source both for parliamentarians and for those outside Parliament. The first report will cover the period up to
In conclusion, I will support the Government in the votes on the Lords amendments this evening. I welcome the Bill, which will end the supremacy of EU law in UK statute and ensure that the courts no longer have to interpret legislation using EU case law after December 2023. It will also lighten the regulatory burden and spur economic growth across the length and breadth of the UK.
This piece of legislation and the Government’s approach to these amendments are a masterclass in misdirection. Members across the House have been talking about the sunset clauses, but the honest truth is that if they are going to burn somebody’s house down, it does not matter whether they do it at the end of this year or give themselves the matches to be able to do it next year; they are still going to burn down the house. This legislation, as it is still currently drafted, gives Ministers those powers. It does not take back control from Brussels, but gives it to No. 10 and the Executive.
I am sorry that Sir Jeremy Wright is not in his seat, because in responding to the amendments, I want to set out a few very clear issues that I am sure Conservative Members will be thinking about having heard my initial comments. While I might be the chair of the Labour Movement for Europe, I know that Brexit has happened and I know we need this piece of legislation. However, I am a democrat as well as an internationalist, and my concern is the way this legislation drives a sledgehammer through this place and through British democracy.
Let us not look at these amendments through the prism of whether we voted in a particular way in 2016, or even how we voted in the various long-drawn-out Lobby nights we had up until 2019. Let us look at what is before us: the question of how to deal with retained EU law. I am sorry Sir William Cash is not in his place, because I like to think that in his mind it is like Japanese knotweed and must be rooted out at every opportunity. Whether we agree with that or not, if we are democrats, we believe that the final decision on those changes that affect our constituents should be made in this Chamber, by us, the people who were elected by our constituents to represent them in those decisions. This Bill removes that basic principle.
If the hon. Member for Stone wishes to argue that this piece of legislation somehow promotes Brexit, I have a timeshare to sell him, because it is not taking back control; it is doing the reverse. I listened to the argument he made about Lords amendment 16, that somehow bringing a list to his Committee as opposed to the Committee that will actually be looking at the legislation is somehow a win for him. I wanted gently to ask him what he will do if a law he believes should be deleted is not on that list. Will he complain bitterly? He tried that with the Secretary of State, and look where that got us.
There is a basic rule in life, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me again, shame on me.” I wish the hon. Gentleman would listen to that. Everyone in this country has been fooled by Brexit. The British economy has been fooled by Brexit. Oddly enough, Brexit has not brought the benefits that we were told it would. We have seen exports collapsing, food prices increasing, our children sitting in coaches at the border for hours on end and businesses saying that trade with Europe is now almost impossible because of the amount of paperwork that they have to deal with.
This Bill kills the idea that Brexit was somehow about taking back control and kills the claims that were made—claims that the Government, under the last but one Prime Minister, were still making in 2022—that somehow Brexit was
“returning democratic accountability to our own institutions”,
and that it had restored
“democratic control over our lawmaking”,
“the power to make and scrutinise the laws that apply to us back to our Parliament.”
The Bill does the opposite.
The Government have already shown in their approach to this piece of legislation why it would be so dangerous to pass it without the amendments. Ministers have refused to appear before Committees; they have failed to respond to questions; they have been evasive about how they might use the powers—but they have already decided how they will use them. We have already seen in this place what has happened to the use of statutory instruments, which is why our colleagues in the other place are so concerned—colleagues who are passionate defenders of Brexit. The Government have used statutory instruments to push through unpopular changes on student loan charges and welfare reform, and the entirety of the covid regulations that many in this place objected to. This Bill is that process on acid. It will apply to 5,000 areas of regulation.
Is the hon. Lady not missing an important point? The tertiary legislation that came down from the European Union was largely put in place using section 2(2) of the European Communities Act 1972, and that provision could even, with no scrutiny at all, amend domestic legislation—Acts of Parliament; primary legislation—made in this House. The bulk would be either implementing Acts that came from the European Union or delegated Acts, about which there was no real democratic process—not even within the European Union. Where was her voice when section 2(2) of the European Communities Act was running riot with the laws made in this House?
I was lobbying our elected representatives in the European Union—our Members of the European Parliament—to challenge that. I am sad that the right hon. Gentleman was not in his place when I had this very discussion with the right hon. and learned Member for Kenilworth and Southam. Two wrongs do not make a right. Those who claimed that they wanted to wrest back control from Brussels cannot then give it away to “the blob” in Downing Street, but that is exactly what will happen.
Anybody who has sat on a statutory instrument Committee knows full well that they are the Henry Ford of democracy. MPs are chosen by Whips to sit on those Committees, like it or lump it. A Member may have concerns about the statutory instrument before the Committee, and although the Minister nods approvingly and talks about writing to them afterwards, the legislation still goes through. The most a Member might be able to do is rail against the dying of the light. The Bill will extend that process.
George Eustice talks about what it will apply to: not just to EU delegated legislation, but to all legislation that gives effect to it. That is a massive power grab by the Government. The amendment tabled by colleagues across the Commons and the Lords represent not anger about the outcome of Brexit but concern for the future of democracy. That is why I urge colleagues, no matter what side they were on in that debate, to proceed with caution and look at what the House of Lords is trying to do in this process. In the light of how willingly the Government have used SIs to bypass this Chamber when they have had such powers—as with covid, for example—it is not unreasonable to be concerned about how much more that process could happen.
In the unfortunate event that the hon. Lady’s party wins the next election, would Ministers from her party be prepared to hand all those powers back to Parliament, or would they exercise them in the way intended in the Bill?
As a Back Bencher who expects to continue being a Back-Bencher under whatever Government, I want power to be in this place—I believe that that is good. Giving Ministers unfettered power without appropriate checks and balances is a bit like giving a 17-year-old the keys to a Porsche and asking them just to polish it: it always ends in a democratic car crash. That is what we see before us.
The right hon. Friend Mr Rees-Mogg, who is also no longer in his place, was at least honest about how he would like the Government to use those powers: to bring back chlorinated chicken, remove paid holidays and destroy the habitat directive. I do not know what he has against seals, but clearly he believes that we should be able to build houses on them. Wherever we stand on those debates, surely it is right that, if our constituents come to us about those issues, we have levers that allow us to represent their concerns, beyond trying desperately to grab a Minister during votes— there might only be one or two left if the legislation goes through—to ask them to think again.
The democratic powers that each of us was elected to exercise were our ability to table amendments, to scrutinise and to hold Governments of any colour to account. That is what the amendments would do. After all, we have already seen in how Ministers are proceeding with the powers that they believe the Bill will give them how little respect they have for their colleagues.
I am very conscious of time, so I will give way briefly, but I hope the right hon. Gentleman understands that I want to make progress.
Another point that the hon. Lady is missing is that there is already a lot of domestic legislation in these areas. Seals have been mentioned twice, but the Conservation of Seals Act 1970 is what gives seals protection in this country, not any legacy EU directive.
Stella Creasy is the last Opposition speaker, so I will give her a little latitude.
Perhaps the right hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth will tell the right hon. Member for North East Somerset that his ambitions to build on top of seal habitats may have to wait a little longer.
The point that the right hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth raises is apposite. We have a whole range of legislation. One of the challenges is that the proposal is so vague and broad, we are not clear what it covers. He mentioned DEFRA, but its officials have had a nightmare in trying to understand the direct impact of this legislation. We have already seen how Ministers have responded to the powers it gives them—they have agreed to make decisions without recourse to their colleagues. Whether we agree or not, Ministers have already decided the level of compensation our constituents will be able to claim if their trains are delayed. They have already made a decision on the compensation that people might get if their pension pot goes bust—usually, people are guaranteed 50%, but that is being removed. It is Government Ministers who have agreed, as Simon Baynes mentioned, to retain the regulations on civil aviation. Many of those decisions might be sensible, but we might be desperately concerned about others.
The right hon. Member for North East Somerset let the cat out of the bag when he said that he wants to bring back chlorinated chicken and get rid of paid holidays. The important thing about democracy is that we are able to have a say and represent our constituents. This legislation strips that from the body politic, and the amendments try to restore it. They do not frustrate the legislation or sensible parliamentary process.
I am sorry that the right hon. and learned Member for Kenilworth and Southam is not in his place. He said that he was concerned that setting up a Joint Committee would be unwieldy, but we already have Joint Committees with the Lords that look at legislation, make decisions, scrutinise and sift. The Bill already gives a non-binding role to a Committee to recommend an upgrade to the statutory instrument process. Surely that power should be given to us, because we are the ones who will have to explain to our constituents why their rights have been removed and changed and that we could not do anything about it because we were not even picked by the Whips to be on that particular Statutory Instrument Committee to nod through the legislation or to perhaps make disapproving noises so that there was something in Hansard.
When it comes to changing regulations, the processes in the Bill are deficient. As colleagues have pointed out, we are not talking about EU laws any more; we are talking about laws that are on our statute book. It does not matter where we stand on them; I believe that John Redwood should be able to make his case for changes to VAT not by pleading with civil servants in a back room, but on the Floor of the House. He needs to be accountable for his proposals, and those of us who might disagree with him can have that debate. We can table amendments to legislation, as I have done. We might win or we might lose, but that is democracy.
In Lords amendment 1, the Government are finally conceding that we ought to know at least what is in scope of a Bill. Surely it is good business practice to defend that as a parliamentary principle. I am worried that the Solicitor General has said that the vast majority of the rules might seem redundant. I am not particularly worried about a lot of them—I agree with him on that—but I am worried that Government Ministers did not seem to know what should and should not have been in there. For example, the first EC regulation listed, Regulation (EEC) No 706/73, is not on the dashboard. That applies to EU agricultural rules in Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. It might be fine to cut it, but we in Parliament have had only a week to ask people and check whether that is the right thing to do.
Lords amendment 1 helps us by giving clarity on what is in scope. The Government’s attempts to weaken it should be resisted, because at the very least we should know what is up for grabs. I say to colleagues who believe passionately that all EU law is like Japanese knotweed that they should have a right to know what the Government are not going to remove and have absolutely no intention of removing.
On Lords amendment 6, I am sorry that the hon. Member from south London, whose constituency I cannot remember but who is Chair of the Justice Committee—
That’s it—apologies. Sir Robert Neill talked about unintentional deletions. Again, that is absolutely right. The Bill is not just about direct EU regulations; it is also about direct effect cases. It is a piece of case law that protects our constituents’ right to 50% of their pension pot that is being deleted without any parliamentary scrutiny of the process. That is the challenge.
According to the dashboard, those pieces of direct effect law that Lords amendment 6 would require the Government to set out, in the same way they have set out the EU regulations that they are going to delete, make up just 0.5% of retained EU law. It should not be difficult to at least tell us what case law is going to be deleted. For example, they are going to delete the direct comparator law that protects people in discrimination cases, so when our constituents come to us because they have been victims of discrimination in the workplace, basic protections that we might encourage them to look at and talk to their lawyers about will no longer exist. Again, they will ask us, “What did you do to make sure that this piece of law, whether or not it was a good idea, was scrutinised properly?” Amendment 6 would at least allow us to point to the place where it was deleted.
Lords amendment 15 is about Ministers who keep telling us that they do not want to water down any environmental regulations, whatever their colleagues who clearly have a vendetta against seals may think. It is simply a way of holding them to account, and this goes to the broader issue: whether or not Members agree with the habitats directive—whether or not they think there is room for change—surely it should be this place that deals with it, through a clear process.
I would wager that across the House, we would probably want to retain many of these pieces of legislation—again, I go back to airline safety and seatbelt rules. I am pleased that the Government have already said that they are going to retain those rules. Lords amendment 42 and other Lords amendments would pull together a Committee of both Houses that would do the sifting. It could simply say, “Yes, fine. Press on with using an SI Committee, those 15 people who have been hand-picked by the Whips, to nod it through and crack on with it.” However, where there is change—where Ministers are doing something for which we will be held to account by our constituents—it would bring in amendable SIs. It worries me that Ministers do not know that amendable SIs already exist in our constitution. The Hansard Society has supported that proposal. No statutory instrument has been voted down in this place since 1979, so it is simply not the case that using an SI Committee, whether under the negative or the affirmative procedure, would be democracy.
Brexiteers and remainers alike have supported the Lords amendments, because they recognise that taking back control ought to be about us doing our job. If Ministers and MPs vote down the amendments tonight, we will be voting ourselves out of a role. It may not take effect yet, but our constituents will not forgive us for removing their voices from this place. I urge Government Members, wherever they were on that debate, to at least abstain and indicate to Members in the House of Lords that there is a willingness to look at these processes and get them right. All of us who value democracy will be the stronger for it.
I wish to speak about the Government amendments and amendment 15. As colleagues will know, I spent many years as a British Member of the European Parliament, representing UK constituents. During that time, I served on the industry, research and energy committee, the economic affairs committee and the environment committee, and I chaired the single market committee. As such, I have had the opportunity to see how EU legislation can play an important role, especially in areas such as food safety, workers’ rights, consumer protection and the environment.
However, when I spoke on Third Reading, I also reminded people that I am very aware that EU legislation is not always perfect in all regards. The UK did play a key part in negotiating much EU law, but not every single element of EU law fitted perfectly to the needs of the UK. Indeed, due to the need to get a consensus across the 28 member states, we sometimes needed to have a one-size-fits-all and lowest common denominator approach. Therefore, I have always agreed with the principle of the Bill: that all of Whitehall needs to look again at EU retained law and ensure that it fits our needs.
On Third Reading, I also made the point that businesses and others need certainty, and I asked for businesses to get advance notice of which laws will drop away by the end of the year. I also urged Ministers to not be fearful of taking the time that was needed to get this right, so I am very glad that the Government have tabled the amendments that they have, which will set out a schedule of exactly which laws are to drop away by the end of this year and remove the sunset clause.
I also pointed out on Third Reading that unnecessary regulation can produce additional costs, which are often passed on to consumers. Amendment 15 deals with important issues such as food safety and the environment, but I have listened carefully to what has been said by Ministers in the other place and Government Members: that the way in which the amendment is drafted would add bureaucracy and delay in the making of new laws, and create legal uncertainty. That would add costs to the process, which would be borne by either the taxpayer or the consumer. At a time when our constituents are particularly concerned about the cost of their food bills, we need to be aware of that.
By voting against amendment 15 tonight, it is not the fact that I and others on the Conservative Benches do not care about the environment or food safety. I am very proud to be a founder member of the Conservative Environment Network, a caucus that brings together over 150 Members on these Benches and in the other place, and I am very proud to have stood on a Conservative manifesto that promised to introduce the most ambitious environmental programme of any country in the world. I am thankful to Ministers for saying throughout the passage of the Bill that the Government will not weaken environmental protection. None the less, some of our constituents have concerns.
Stella Creasy just said this Bill will destroy the habitats directive. She has no evidence for that. The habitats directive has been a very important piece of legislation for many decades in trying to protect species. It was introduced in Europe by a Conservative MEP, who happens to be the father of a recent Conservative Prime Minister. However, species decline has continued across Europe despite that directive. We now have the opportunity to have a more outcome-focused, tailored approach to UK needs, and I gently say to Ministers that to reassure our constituents who care about biodiversity, it would be helpful for them as soon as possible to give more clarity about how they intend to reform the EU habitats directive—I know that a DEFRA consultation is going on at present.
The UK Government have gone much further than the EU in protecting habitats. In particular, we have been the first country in the world to commit to a legal deadline to halt species decline, and we have said we will do that by 2030. The landmark Environment Act 2021 also includes a new biodiversity net gain obligation for all new developments.
In my constituency, there is a new development of 342 dwellings. It is near the river in an area of wet grassland with hedges and copses. It is important habitat for many species including migrant birds, dragonflies, aquatic mammals and amphibians, and areas of higher ground in the undeveloped land are key refuges for small mammals and reptiles to escape to when the river floods. Because of the net biodiversity gain obligation, the planners and developers had worked with ecologists to introduce plans for new reedbeds, native trees and ponds, reinforcing hedges, increasing the woodland cover and making provision for bird and bat boxes and so forth. I did not think that was enough, because I was contacted by a constituent who is an ornithologist who has been watching this land for a long time. Because of the net gain initiative, the developers and their ecologists met my local ornithologist, and as a result the grass strip is going to be enhanced along the corridor where the barn owls hunt; the cycle path will be moved away to create a buffer from the trees where the nightingales nest; and the watercourse corridor will include scrapes for the water voles. All these are very important species: the nightingale and the water vole are red-listed species in the UK.
None of that action would have been taken if we had just relied on the habitats directive. This much more focused, devil-in-the-detail approach that we need to protect our nature and biodiversity is happening because of what this Conservative Government have introduced by putting that net gain responsibility on our developers.
I have a funny feeling that when we on this side of the House walk through the Lobby tonight to vote against amendment 15, those opposite will try to say that the Conservatives do not care about nature, species and the environment, but the actions of this Government show that that could not be further from the truth.
I rise to speak about this critically important Bill and the merits of the Government amendments, supported by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, to Lords amendments 1 and 16. I will touch later on amendments 6 and 15.
I campaigned to leave the European Union. Like many other long-standing and staunch Brexiteers, I want to see our country charting its own course, having voted to do so almost seven years ago. Like the majority of the British people who voted to leave, I want our laws to reflect the interests of our nation, rather than those of an overseas bureaucracy. It is important to acknowledge that the Bill received overwhelming support from those on the Government Benches before it went to the other place, where these amendments were made, and that is no small matter. It is therefore a disappointment that the Bill will not deliver a full revocation of every piece of retained EU law.
I fully understand that the amendments passed in the other place and accepted by the Government will, if passed, result in a substantial change to the Bill and will differ considerably from the Government’s original approach. However, although I empathise with the strong feelings that many of my colleagues have expressed previously and today, if further consideration and perhaps changes are needed to prevent further delays or this Bill from failing to progress on time, it is important that we do not make perfect the enemy of the good. The Bill as originally planned would have revoked almost all EU-derived legislation by the end of 2023 via sunset provisions. If we push through the original Bill, repealing at pace for the sake of being seen to repeal by the end of 2023, implementing the aims of the Brexit process could backfire and we might inadvertently harm our own statute book.
On that point, would my hon. Friend agree with amendment (b) to Lords amendment 16, which I have supported, which will have regular reporting—more regular than those in the other place wanted? That is essential to making sure that we see the momentum and the change as it is coming and ultimately that we are holding the Government’s feet to the fire to deliver on what we promised the nation when they voted for Brexit?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend on that point. That amendment is critical, because anything else would give ammunition to those who have never truly accepted the result of the 2016 referendum and have fought against it thereafter.
We have to be honest. Given the timescales, there was a danger that certain laws we might have wished to keep might have been unintentionally revoked. I was a member of the Public Bill Committee, and that was certainly the centrepiece of the Opposition’s attack on the Bill. Claims were made by Stella Creasy that the Bill would end bank holidays and rip up maternity rights and protections for children. Justin Madders, who is not in his place, suggested that employment rights would be scrapped. Clearly that was never the Government’s intention, but some have pointed out that that sort of thinking created a perverse incentive and resulted in a race in Whitehall to focus on retaining laws before the December deadline, rather than identifying which we should remove.
The changes made by the Secretary of State are intended to avoid that situation, and we should fully support her now. The amended Bill will still abolish the principle of the supremacy of EU law, fulfilling a manifesto commitment. It removes the principles of EU law from the UK’s domestic law and gives courts the power to diverge from EU case law. As a result of the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend Sir William Cash, supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Watford, which has been accepted by the Government, the Government will publish the future provisions that they aim to revoke or reform in the subsequent reporting period. All of that is hugely important, because it means we will be able to continue our work to ensure that the laws on our statute book are best suited to our national interest, having kick-started the process immediately and avoided further delay. That is exactly what Brexit was about: making those elected to represent British people, who sit on these Benches, and not in some grey building in Brussels, accountable for their decisions.
Some of the other amendments passed by the other place, such as amendments 6 and 15, are not really aimed at increasing scrutiny or protecting environmental standards, as has been claimed. Instead they are of a piece with much of the gameplaying that took place in Parliament after the referendum and prior to the 2019 election. They are intended simply to delay and obfuscate, and the Government are right to reject them. Taking all of this into account, I think the Secretary of State is correct to say that it would have been impossible to push ahead with the promise to revoke retained EU laws as originally planned. With these changes, I believe that she has pre-empted attempts to derail the Bill and ensured that we are back on the right track.
This revised Bill not only ends the supremacy of EU law, but sets up further progress to continue the Brexit project without imperilling it. That is why I will be voting to support the Government today, and I hope that all Brexiteers, and indeed all Members, will as well.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Gareth Bacon, who made a characteristically calm and thoughtful speech. I will endeavour to follow his example, although I do not make that a pledge.
In my opening remarks, I want to respond to two points. One of them was made by my right hon. Friend Mr Rees-Mogg, who is a long-standing friend. The decision by this country to leave the European Union—I voted to remain—has been taken and is now accepted politically, and I do wish that he would not, as one or two others do, stir the pot with suspicions that, somewhere deep in the bowels of Whitehall, some malicious Minister or somebody in the civil service, in some think-tank or whatever is plotting to steal the prize of leaving the European Union from the hands of those who campaigned for it. I think that is totally specious as an argument. It alarms some people, introduces distrust into the motivations of those in this place, whether they are on the Back Benches or the Front Bench, and is entirely unhelpful.
I also want to make a point to Stella Creasy, who argued her case with the characteristic passion that she brings to all these things. The point I would make is that she believes—and I will come on to the belief in a moment—that the Government, and I paraphrase, want a sort of race to the bottom or some sort of democratic sleight of hand. I just politely say to the hon. Lady, for whom I have a huge amount of personal regard, that if that is case, the Government would not have ditched the sunset clause, but would just have carried on with the arbitrary date of the end of this year. I suggest that we should all take comfort from the fact that the foolishness of the sunset clause has been ditched, which indicates in very clear, transparent terms the way the Government wish to go about this process.
Regardless of the process of how these laws will be changed, does the hon. Member not accept that any Government who wanted to tear up all the protections of the environment and all the protections of employment rights would be out of their minds, because they have to face the electorate at some stage, and that is the ultimate democratic test of these issues?
I do not know who is going to sit down first out of shock, but I fundamentally agree with the right hon. Gentleman, and I have to say that that is possibly a first. He is absolutely right that that would be political suicide. On any casual analysis or audit of our inboxes or mailbags, or of people coming to our surgeries or stopping us in the street, he is absolutely right. People are not pressing for a race to the bottom, and they are not talking about a degradation of environmental standards. He is absolutely right, and any party that advocated that would quite rightly be consigned to the electoral dustbin. There would be no recycling of that party; it would be totally incinerated, and rightly so. He is right to make that point.
Does the hon. Member recognise that the way the Bill is currently drafted, with or without the sunset clause, still transfers a direct power to Ministers to use statutory instruments to make legislative changes to those 5,000 laws? Doing so might be electoral suicide, but it is possible, and the sunset clause is not what would stop it; it is just the date at which it would happen. That is the distinction we are making. Nobody is saying what might or might not happen; the point is the democratic deficit this will create.
There is more that unites the hon. Lady with my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset, because they are both tilting at windmills that do not exist. Any Government might do something—of course they might. I will come to the main thrust of what I want to say, but me deal with “anybody might.” Anybody who passes a driving test and owns a car might lose control of the vehicle and might run somebody down. Anybody who buys rat poison might give it to their cat and kill the cat, so do we not sell rat poison? Surely the hon. Lady is not suggesting that because, reductio ad absurdum, people might do something, we should not allow things. With the usual checks and balances of this place, in a bicameral system and with a transparent free media and an independent court system, surely to goodness we have not reached that nadir of political trust in this place between Back Benchers—whether on the governing side or on the Opposition Benches—and the intentions of His Majesty’s Government, from whichever party that might happen to be made up.
Not only is there an absence of evidence; there is actually proof that the Government are on the side of workers. In the past year, we have brought in extensions on flexible working, maternity rights and carers’ rights. Even my own Employment (Allocation of Tips) Act 2023 ensures that workers keep 100% of their tips. There is an absurdity on the extremes of the argument that somehow the Government are not on the side of workers and want to rip up rules when they are actually strengthening them. As has been alluded to, the Government are trying to cut through the red tape and not put bureaucracy in the way so that business and workers’ rights are better suited for the workplace. We are making sure that we are on their side.
My hon. Friend—[Interruption.]. Yes, I will give him a tip. He makes a similar point to Sammy Wilson. That is, in essence, which party worth its salt, seeking some form of re-election, will knock on doors and attend church and parish meetings to say, “The great thing that we’ve achieved—the great jewel in our crown—is that we’ve removed your holiday entitlement and your statutory sick pay. Please vote for us, because that’s just the start. You wait until we’ve finished—we are going to have boys up chimneys and limbs lying on the factory floor because we will repeal the Factories Act”? Where does that end? It is utter nonsense.
The direction of travel in the mindset of this country, like, I would suggest, in most advanced civilised democracies, is for a more protective system for the individual, a safer working environment and a cleaner, greener environment. The idea that any party with a sensible prospectus for government would try to fly in the face of that and buck the trend in the interests that it might be quite interesting to see a four-year-old shoved up a chimney with a brush, is for the birds. But, unfortunately, there are one or two people out in the country who will believe that, and this place does no service to our constituents by setting those entirely spurious, false, bogus and misleading ideas in the public mind. It might make a Facebook click, and it might make some sort of Twitter advert with somebody saying something or another, but it is not serious politics, and it demeans this place.
But—[Interruption.] This is a but, because I want to deal with this seriously.
It might be hyperbolic, but it is not rude. I say to the hon. Lady and others—this is a point that Government Members must face up to—that, as I said in an intervention on my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset, I have, as many do, huge sympathy with the idea that this great canon of work should have been far more progressed than it has been, but for reasons that we do not need to dwell upon, I am afraid that last year, in terms of delivering political process, was a wasted year. We all know, understand and have some frustration with that, but we are where we are. The decision that the Government bravely and sensibly took was to say that the arbitrary date that previously—but still, I suggest, theoretically and unrealistically—we thought was in grasp for this huge and important piece of work, now is not. When the facts change the circumstances must change. This is not a U-turn: this is the Government saying that the important work of reviewing to check on appropriateness —whether something is appropriate or inappropriate, or should be upgraded or changed to bring it into a UK arena—will still be done, but it will be done in a more sensible timeframe to ensure that we get it right.
Where I do have sympathy with the hon. Member for Walthamstow and others is regarding the perpetual—though now deceased—narrative of the Singaporisation of the UK. Some on the Government Benches, both here and elsewhere, have the idea that, somehow or other, we will grow into a miraculous sunlit upland of economic activity by deregulating everything. That allowed the naysayers to take an extreme view, the abolition of all regulations—a minority view, I would suggest, within Conservative thinking, because most Conservatives believe in order. We conserve things and we order things, rather than tearing up the rulebook and racing to the bottom in some mad Trumpian, Tea party, laissez-faire approach.
The approach in the Bill is right. The Government’s perfectly normal facing into the undeliverability of the timetable is the right approach. I will be voting with Ministers in all Divisions tonight, because I think the Government’s approach is right. I hope that for all the good intentions of the other place, and I understand those good intentions, it listens to this place. This is another cog in the machinery of delivering Brexit, which was itself a democratic act. We are the democratically accountable House. The intentions of the Government are clear, benign and sensible. This House should now get behind them.
The Minister will be called no later than 5.52 pm for a 10-minute wind up.
It is such a pleasure to follow a wonderful speech from my hon. Friend Simon Hoare. I was roused to get up when he mentioned Trumpian Singaporisation liberalising, and I thought, “That sounds like me and I must now rise!”
It is clear that we are not, at this moment, where we would have loved to have been a couple of years ago. My hon. Friend mentioned, and it has been alluded to by many others, that due to various political events over the last 12 months or so, we have not made as much progress on this agenda as we would have liked. I say to some Members on my own side that of course it would have been better if this process had moved faster, but we are where we are.
When faced with such a scenario, the Government have a choice. They could either say that political machismo demands we keep going down a route, even if we fear that that route, by
Although there may be arguments for removing the sunset clause, there is a real fear that without it the Government could have, for various reasons, fallen back on the promises that they made to review all the laws. That is why the amendment is so important, because there will be a continuous review and picture of where the Government are going, and people can ensure that the foot is not lifted off the pedal.
The hon. Gentleman is entirely right. It is a good example of our parliamentary democracy working well that there has been dialogue, both open and private, between Members of this House and the Government to get to a right point on amendments; to say that we will support the Government in broad terms, but that there is a need and a desire for more reporting and explicit signalling of where the Government are going. We must ensure that Whitehall as a whole continues with this agenda and does not feel that it has got the Bill done and will just leave it all for years to come. I understand exactly what he says.
Let me remark on the Lords amendments. I would say that I am impatient. I do not know if that is common to all politicians, but I am a very impatient person.
I thank my hon. Friend for confirming that to the House. I have talked a lot in the last few months about strengthening and improving our regulatory system, and getting more scrutiny for our regulators when they take decisions, and more ability for the House to scrutinise the decisions taken in our name. I am impatient that we are not doing more of that, faster. But I also recognise that we need to do that in a way that looks not just at the EU law—my hon. Friend Sir William Cash talked earlier about the danger of having one set of EU regulations and the rest of law in another set. It is so important that, as we deal with European-derived law, we incorporate it into our full body of law in a strategically sensible way that improves our regulatory system—not just a cut and paste job, as may have happened.
I fear that a lot of the Lords amendments are about finding ways to delay the process that the Government have rightly strategically and politically committed to. My hon. Friend Gareth Bacon made that point very well and I will not repeat it.
I would like to talk a little about Lords amendment 15, which relates to various environmental issues. I have many problems with it—first, the notion that it is always clear whether one is reducing or increasing what the amendment claims to be the “level of environmental protection” or level of “protection of consumers”. That is very hard to do. It deliberately adds a huge amount of delay and bureaucracy to the entire process and it elevates the Office of Environmental Protection, which, if I remember rightly—I am sure that someone will correct me if not—is meant to be an advisory body, not a body to impose regulations on this House or anywhere else. It is elevating the Office for Environmental Protection to do a job that it was not designed to do. That is a good example of the sort of regulatory creep that we continually see and that I campaign and fight against in this House. The amendment is very dangerous for that reason.
My right hon. Friend Vicky Ford and my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset spoke accurately and amusingly about the political insanity of weakening things that the public want and that are completely contrary to the broad direction of our policy. Biodiversity net gain, the Environment Act 2021, the Agriculture Act 2020 and the Fisheries Act 2020 are all the things that we have done as a Government over the last few years. It would be insane to go back on all the things that we have done in relation to particular regulations. The Bill is not a clear and present danger to our environment.
Let me finish by saying that I have a feeling, like my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford, that the amendment is not really about what it says on the tin. It is really about trying to create wedge points that can be used to generate emails by 38 Degrees, or to create Facebook ads or clips to somehow suggest that Conservative Members are not in favour of environmental protection. That is dangerous, and the House should not be used in that way. I have seen this practice grow in my time in Parliament, particularly among Labour and the Liberal Democrats. We should not allow the House to be a place where people put down motions to—incorrectly—embarrass Members by suggesting they are not in favour of something they are in favour of. I make that point before I sit down, and I will support the Government in all the Divisions today.