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My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Crawley, and indeed a panoply of excellent speakers over the past two days. It is a well-worn opening sentence of after-dinner speakers to say: “As Henry VIII said to his wives, I shall not be keeping you long”. I hope indeed that I will not be keeping your Lordships for long but, more to the point, as the 129th speaker in this debate, I will only focus on the Henry VIII powers in the Bill.
Like many others, I have serious concerns about the powers being taken by Ministers. I have seen forecasts that more than 1,100 SIs could be used in this process. In my field, which is the environment and our countryside, some 80% of our laws are shaped by, and in some instances controlled by, Brussels, so our countryside and environment, more than any other aspect of our lives, could be gravely affected by Clauses 7 and 9. It is to be hoped that some of the necessary changes to that body of EU controls, judgments and laws concerning the environment can be dealt with in the four Defra Bills that should come before us before Brexit on animal welfare, fisheries, agriculture and, most importantly, environmental protection.
In this way, we can deal properly with many of the issues involved on the Floor of the House, but we must get it right. Post-Brexit, we must create a new “brand UK” that exudes quality in every aspect of our lives—our beaches, habitats, rivers, air, soil and, indeed, the rights of our workers and of our children. There must be no opportunity for the Executive to water down this quality agenda. We must think long term and not rely only on the promises of the current Executive. As sure as eggs is eggs, they will change, and who knows what we will get in their place—of whatever party.
I believe that a democracy is only as safe as its institutions are strong. Having Ministers able to bypass our institutions and processes is not a good sign. The unprecedented powers granted to Ministers could be dangerous.
I am extremely dubious about the current sifting arrangements proposed by the Leader of the House yesterday. One committee for the Commons; another for the Lords—what a waste of everyone’s time. What happens if they disagree? How can any such committee, of whichever House, contain all the necessary expertise in the various fields involved—fields as diverse as the licensing of drugs; changes to scientific research, employment law or the Equality Act; alterations to the birds and habitats directives vis-à-vis raptors, squirrels or seabirds, or changes to our nuclear industry? Etcetera, etcetera. How will one group of Peers know whether every SI involved is a mere technical adjustment or is instead—surreptitiously or inadvertently—a complete game-changer?
Then there is the likely number of SIs—supposedly more than 1,100. How can one group of Peers or MPs deal with them all? SIs will be flying at them like snowflakes on to a car at night. You focus on one which immediately melts on the windscreen. Meanwhile, another 50 have flown in unnoticed. You are driving your institutional car into the black of night and probably into a snowdrift. This is not good enough. In my humble view, what is needed in the Bill, as well as changing the word “appropriate” to “necessary”, is a scrutiny committee with the power to appoint expert sub-committees—like our EU Sub-Committees, but made up of Members of both Houses. The committee should have the power to propose that some negative instruments become positive and even recommend, in a few rare cases, that primary legislation is required. Because time is likely to be of the essence in this process—hence the need to use secondary legislation—I suggest that they should be able to recommend that such and such an SI should have a sunset clause. I have checked with the clerks, who tell me that this is entirely possible. This way, before the sun sets, as it were, there can be time—in certain crucial areas—for primary legislation to be properly debated in both Houses.
We need to aim for the very best of Britain in our new independence. We all know that Governments cut corners and we must ensure that, for our environment at least, in the Bill this is made too difficult to contemplate.