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European Union (Withdrawal) Bill - Report (2nd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:45 pm on 23rd April 2018.

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Photo of Lord Callanan Lord Callanan Minister of State (Department for Exiting the European Union) 7:45 pm, 23rd April 2018

My Lords, the way in which retained EU law will be treated in our domestic statute book—what has been termed the “status” of EU law—is undeniably an important issue. It has been one of the key themes of our debates on the Bill, and the Government’s attempts to deal with it are woven throughout the Bill. The Government have always recognised the importance of getting this right—above all, in the context of the question of amendability.

These amendments, which deal with the amendability of retained EU law by secondary legislation, are to a large extent about ensuring its enhanced protection. As noble Lords will know, the House debated one way of giving enhanced protection to some parts of retained EU law last Wednesday, when it agreed to add a new clause to the Bill. Before setting out the government amendments, I will take a moment to explain to the House why the Government consider that the approach adopted last Wednesday is not the answer.

Amendment 11 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, carried last Wednesday, prevents crucial corrections being made in time for exit day. By failing to define key terms, and by introducing into the Bill arguably undefinable concepts such as “technical changes”, it introduces a high level of risk to attempting to take forward even the most uncontentious of corrections by secondary legislation. We have always been clear that most corrections, however innocuous and benign, require some limited policy choices.

Those corrections are how we ensure that current protections continue to operate. Our analysis is not complete but we believe that a very significant proportion of the planned secondary legislation programme, if made, would be at real risk of legal challenge, so the result of that amendment could be an enormous increase in the volume of needless primary legislation, which this House would then have to consider before exit day. In the end, we might be unable to achieve our core objective of ensuring a functioning statute book on exit day.

The volume of legislation required to keep pace with developments is already too great for it all to be done through primary legislation and this is likely to increase when we take on the legislative responsibilities of the EU. It is incumbent upon all of us to ensure that we put in place a balanced system. That system must enable the House to fully scrutinise the most significant changes to legislation and maintain the existing protections that we all value, while allowing for flexibility to keep pace with a fast-evolving world. It would be a dereliction of our duty to put in place a system which leaves Parliament unable to make important changes or updates which would enhance existing protections, such as the regulating of new hazardous chemicals or extending standards to new marine contaminants.

Parliament has debated at great length the speed at which our legislation should diverge from that of the EU but, whatever that pace, we must not leave Parliament hamstrung. The Government’s approach is to respect the balance between maintaining protections and the flexibility to reflect developments.

I know some noble Lords were in favour of deeming elements of retained EU law converted under Clauses 3 and 4 that are not already part of our domestic legislation to be one or another type of domestic legislation. Unfortunately, it is not that simple. For example, to deem an EU regulation primary legislation has all sorts of impacts, ranging from the problematic to the bizarre, such as requiring it to be printed on vellum and stored in the Queen Elizabeth Tower. Some noble Lords also wish to treat all retained EU law that is not already domestic legislation as if it were primary legislation. I recognise that noble Lords who have advocated this have the best of motivations, but it would leave the law so rigid and inflexible as to be virtually inoperable. The EU adopted just under 500 amending pieces of tertiary legislation in 2017. If this Parliament takes on the role of doing the same when those powers are returned to this Parliament by primary legislation only, we face a serious risk of these regimes ceasing to function.

I know the House loves examples, so let me provide one. Say that the Commission adopts delegated Acts under the Biocidal Products Regulation to restrict active substance entry to the market. This is clearly an important public health matter which should continue to be adjusted rapidly and without primary legislation. Incidentally, that is also something that Amendment 11 would prevent. There are many similar examples in EU legislation and they vary as much as our domestic delegated powers. Therefore, instead of treating all direct EU legislation as domestic primary legislation for all purposes, the Bill sets out how retained EU law is to be treated in a number of specific situations, such as for the purpose of the Human Rights Act. Our amendments to the Bill for several of those purposes draw a similar distinction to that which the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, has drawn in her Amendment 39. That is that EU measures adopted under co-decision or ordinary legislative procedure are to be treated as primary legislation.

We have proposed, broadly, that EU regulations and Clause 4 rights should be treated as primary legislation for the purpose of amendability and that tertiary legislation should be treated as subordinate legislation. Regulations and Clause 4 rights will therefore be amendable only by primary legislation and the very limited stock of powers to amend primary legislation on the statute book. Even then, those powers will operate only where the context will permit. This will ensure that the frameworks of retained EU legislation are maintained and can be adjusted only in the same way Acts of Parliament can, but that the technical matters underneath them can be adjusted by subordinate legislation to react quickly to the changing circumstances of the day, as now.

Our amendments provide that, in the future, Parliament will need to agree any new delegated powers to amend a specific regulation, or regulations. This House will be the gatekeeper that ensures there is no bonfire of EU regulations. This will include all the powers that we are transferring under the Bill from the Commission to UK Ministers and authorities. These are generally very tightly drafted and it will have to be clear to the House where and how they can amend regulations. If Ministers cannot justify this to noble Lords, they will not be granted these powers. However, I hope your Lordships will agree, for example, that the Secretary of State should be able to adopt measures such as the wine oenology implementing regulation to ensure that our wine producers are not left behind the rest of the world as technology advances. I know that would be a subject close to many noble Lords’ hearts.

Beyond amendability, there are a limited number of other places where matters turn on whether a law is found in primary or secondary legislation. This is the case in relation to the Human Rights Act, where the remedies available in response to challenges are different in different cases. We have therefore also reflected the distinction that EU regulations are to be treated as primary and EU tertiary legislation as subordinate for the purposes of the Human Rights Act. This will mean that, as with primary legislation, claimants will be able to receive a declaration of incompatibility in the event of a successful challenge to an EU regulation. I should point out that this is a very rare measure, which I am not aware that Parliament has ever ignored. For challenges against amendments to EU tertiary legislation, our courts may, if appropriate, strike down the legislation.

We have addressed in the Bill the areas of importance where matters turn on the distinction between primary and subordinate legislation. Our discussions outside this Chamber, including with academics and others, have not identified any other such matters. I am happy to return to the issue at Third Reading if other areas are raised in debate.

I have not yet addressed directives, which I know the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, is very interested in. Directives, of course, do not form part of our domestic legislation. They have already, over the years of our EU membership, been implemented in primary legislation and under a range of delegated powers but principally in regulations made under Section 2(2) of the European Communities Act. The status of these regulations is clear. They are and should remain statutory instruments. I know that these regulations contain important protections which some noble Lords wish to ensure cannot be easily eroded, but it would be constitutionally deeply questionable and practically unnecessary to attempt simply to declare these instruments to be anything different.

All regulations made under Section 2(2) of the ECA will be preserved following the repeal of that Act by the Bill. There will then be almost no powers on the statute book; I cannot be absolutely definitive, but my officials have found only a handful which, within the scope of the policy area, might be able to amend regulations made under Section 2(2). Therefore, almost all of these regulations will need to be modified by primary legislation or new powers, which this House would of course have to approve. Nevertheless, the Government have heard the concerns raised in the House about the level of scrutiny of modification of these regulations. We are committed to ensuring that the protections provided in regulations made under the ECA are maintained throughout the process of exit, and that any future modifications as the Government continue to build on these protections are properly scrutinised.

The Bill already provides for statements in relation to the SIs under it, so government Amendment 112A therefore requires Ministers and other authorities making statutory instruments under powers outside this Bill after exit day to make statements explaining the “good reasons” for any changes to regulations made under Section 2(2) of the ECA and the effect of the amendment or revocation on retained EU law. There will be no escaping the scrutiny of this House.

I am sorry for the detailed explanation, but I hope I have provided an appropriate explanation of why these amendments both give clarity to the status of retained EU law and are the right way to protect it as we transfer it on to our statute book. I recognise that the status this legislation should hold is a particularly complex issue, on which legal and academic minds have differed. I pay tribute to all noble Lords who have applied themselves to the task. We have listened and I appreciate all the contributions that have been made. Our amendments reflect a sensible approach, one that recognises and reflects the existing hierarchy within EU laws, balances the need for effective parliamentary scrutiny while giving Parliament the flexibility it needs to amend an extremely large body of legislation, and allows this place to truly take back control of our laws. I beg to move.