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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:20 am on 31st January 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Featherstone Baroness Featherstone Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change) 10:20 am, 31st January 2018

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the powerful contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, every word of which I agree with. I fear that my contribution will be more like “Just a Minute”—there is no hesitation but definitely quite a lot of repetition and a certain amount of deviation.

I would like to believe the Government when they say that everything will be all right, everything will be transferred into UK law, the Government will maintain our environmental standards, I need not worry about the precautionary principle and it is not a problem if retained law is not quite the same. Of course, with the best of intentions all the EU directives that have kept us on the straight and narrow will still be underpinned. Of course, Ministers will not under any circumstances misuse statutory instruments. I would love to believe the Government. I almost believe that they have good intentions, but you know what they say: “The path to hell is paved with good intentions”. Good intentions are not adequate. The Government could give no assurances of good intentions that would satisfy me. The law, the face of the Bill, is the only place where doubts, concerns and worries can be laid to rest.

There is a governance gap in environmental standards. While the Government can say that standards will be maintained, where is the equivalent legal last resort to replace the force of the ECJ? Judicial review is not an answer. Fear of infraction concentrated ministerial minds on meeting legal obligations, but there is no enforcement in the Bill or even reporting obligations. We cannot and must not have a diminution of environmental rights. Without the protection of primary legislation, we cannot accept words alone. It is no wonder that so many Members of the other House expressed so much concern over the Bill giving Ministers the power to change primary legislation with a test that is as flimsy as whether Ministers think it appropriate. There has to be a legal test as to whether it is necessary, at the very least.

One of the key principles under EU law has been the precautionary principle, which forces those whose actions might harm the environment to prove in law to the contrary. The Bill rules this out. It also rules out the polluter pays principle. These are protections that have stood us in good stead. The precautionary principle and the polluter pays principle have kept us on the straight and narrow. They have forced us in the right direction, but they are explicitly ruled out in Schedule 1, so where are those protections to come from in future? The Government continually reiterate that there will be legal continuity, but that is not in fact the case. The Government must enshrine EU environmental principles in domestic law.

Alongside the principles, there is also a need to carry across provisions from EU directives that are not transposed into UK law. Some parts of EU law did not need transposition while we were a member state, but they need it now. We have to have the ability—nay, we have the obligation—to put right any deficiency in terms of failure to transpose EU law: it must be a duty and not simply a power. If Brexit comes to pass—and I still hang on to my “if”—we must be sure that laws that are currently EU regulations and laws that implement EU directives are transposed into UK law with the same force and intent as when we were a member state. On Report in the other place, there was cross-party support for new Clause 13 on the certainty of retained EU law.

The Government are trying to assuage the many concerns that we have in this regard by proposing that each measure will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. That gives no comfort to those of us who suspect that the Government wish to find a way of moving away from these strictures. As energy and climate change spokesperson, I have huge concerns about a whole range of threats in that regard related to our departure from the EU.

I want to touch on our membership of the internal energy market. If we continue to participate—and of course we must—we will be obliged to comply with the relevant EU legislation. We need to continue to be as influential over EU energy post Brexit if we are to ensure that energy trading works to the benefit of UK consumers. The Government claim that they want to hold consumer energy bills down, so this is vital. Unless we adopt the energy acquis, we will not be able to maintain membership of the relevant bodies. Without proper management, this could lead to higher energy prices and energy supply shortages.

There is still no certainty about our continued membership of the internal energy market. If we leave it, what will happen if we have a gas security incident? Currently, there is an obligation on all members to meet the essential energy needs of any member state before the non-essential needs of their own. That is there to prevent a country from having a total power failure. If we leave the energy market and we have an issue with our gas supply, member states will no longer have an obligation to help us. We will be at the back of the queue and I do not think that Europe will be very kind to us.

Equally, with interconnectors, we could, if things get bad, be unable to export gas to the continent. Northern Ireland and Ireland have a single energy market and have interconnectors between them and the UK mainland. As Ireland will remain a member of the energy market and will obviously want to go on trading energy with mainland Europe, it will have to pass through the UK, a non-member.

There is no economic upside to Brexit in the case of energy—or actually anything—only possible downsides, and the positive pan-European climate efforts about which we have all been so enthusiastic and which are so necessary to our commitments to the Paris Agreement and our own Climate Change Act may be undermined.