European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill - Second Reading (2nd Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:13 pm on 21st February 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Young of Old Scone Baroness Young of Old Scone Labour 9:13 pm, 21st February 2017

My Lords, the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, may be a rational optimist but I am afraid that I am a realistic sceptic. I should declare interests as outlined in the register as chairman, president or vice-president of a range of national and international environmental NGOs.

I want to focus on two linked issues. Leaving the European Union is probably the most significant change experienced by this country in living memory, so I believe firmly that Parliament must be able to provide proper scrutiny on a regular basis, and effectively to monitor and actively contribute to the negotiation. I began to get a bit unhinged round about September last year and that lasted through almost to today. If felt as if there was a period over the autumn and winter when democracy had gone into a kind of limbo. The Government were saying absolutely nothing about any emerging thinking on the detail of Brexit. Indeed, they were making a virtue of their silence by saying that to do otherwise would risk revealing their negotiating hand.

The result was that the normal and hugely valuable checks and balances in our democratic process, with commentary on and the influencing of government proposals by NGOs, the media and expert bodies—and indeed by Parliament—simply stopped, as there was absolutely no substance to comment on. That, I believe, was hugely dangerous. The Government cannot hatch up solutions in isolation and in the dark to the myriad complex challenges that face us in the post-Brexit settlement. If we are to get halfway sensible solutions on the fine grain of the new arrangements, it needs everybody—civil society, academia, industry, the media, expert bodies, the public and indeed Parliament—to have transparency of the proposed arrangements and to be able to comment on them and influence them. That is part of how we will develop a consensus and a buy-in to the arrangements that are to follow. It is imperative that Parliament, among others, is able to scrutinise proposals regularly, to effectively monitor and to actively contribute to the negotiations. That provision is so important that I believe it needs to be in this Bill.

The second point I want to make is about what happens after this Bill. Again, it is an issue of transparency and an understanding of what the Government’s intentions are. Environmental standards have been a huge benefit coming from Europe. About a quarter of all EU legislation that applies to the UK is about the environment, and that legislation has done a really good job in raising environmental standards. But the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has said that up to a third of that EU environmental law may not be able to be transposed through the great repeal Bill. We need urgently to understand how the Government will fill the gaps left by the transposition process with the new regulations, to ensure that at least as good standards as the EU legislation laid down are continued. The Government need to guarantee that they will not water down the rights, the duties and the remedies without full parliamentary debate and scrutiny. I very much share the concerns outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, in his contribution to this debate from his experience and expertise. The statutory instrument process will work only if it is a transparent maintenance of the standards, not a reduction of them. A first step would be to publish the list of environmental legislation and regulations that cannot be directly transposed. Will the Minister undertake to do that? If we cannot even have the transparency of a list of things that will need a statutory instrument or even primary legislation to bring them over successfully, we are not getting the degree of transparency that we should.

In the White Paper, the Prime Minister said that the EU acquis will be transferred into UK law. As well as directives and regulations, the acquis includes principles of European law that are set out in treaties, including, in the case of the environment, the precautionary principle, the principle of sustainable development, dealing with damage at source, the principle that the polluter pays, and various access-to-justice measures. These principles need to be transposed, too.

All this environmental standards stuff is not just nice to have. It is not just about birds and otters, or even about clean air and water for human health. British business—and, indeed, British agriculture—needs to know what environmental standards it should be committing to meet in planning and developing its goods and services for the next five to 10 years., and British business tells us—I was a regulator for the environment for many years—very firmly that it likes to have clear environmental regulation that does not flip-flop around and that allows them to plan for the medium and longer term with some degree of certainty. We need the Government to say, in much more detail than the general platitudes outlined in the Brexit White Paper, how they are going to give business that security for the 30% of environmental legislation that cannot be transposed.

I suppose where I am at the moment—with a very heavy heart and less joie de vivre than the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley—is that I voted to remain in the EU. I believe that the Government are playing a very unpredictable and hazardous game of poker, with their cards too close to their chest for the sake of democracy in this country. I will support this Bill only if it can be significantly amended to ensure proper parliamentary scrutiny and an assurance from the Government about greater openness in the future, so that we can fulfil our proper purpose of holding the Government to account in the interests of the people.