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Amendment 31

European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill - Committee (2nd Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 7:45 pm on 15th January 2020.

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Baroness Jones of Whitchurch:

Moved by Baroness Jones of Whitchurch

31: After Clause 37, insert the following new Clause—“Non-regression in relation to environmental and animal welfare mattersAfter section 16 (maintenance of environmental principles etc.) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 insert—“16A Non-regression in relation to protected matters(1) Any action taken by or on behalf of a Minister of the Crown under—(a) this Act, or(b) any other enactment, for the purposes of or in connection with the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU,is unlawful if it is intended to have, or in practice is reasonably likely to have, a regressive effect in relation to the protected matters.(2) A public authority exercising a function in respect of a protected matter must not exercise that function in a way that is intended to have, or is reasonably likely to have, a regressive effect.(3) Regulations may not be made under this Act if they are intended to have, or are reasonably likely to have, a regressive effect.(4) The protected matters are—(a) the environment,(b) food safety standards,(c) registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals, and(d) animal welfare.(5) For the purposes of this section an effect shall be considered regressive if it—(a) reduces a level of protection provided for in retained EU law, or(b) weakens governance processes associated with that protection.””Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment prevents Ministers from using powers relating to EU withdrawal to diminish protections in retained EU law relating to the environment and animal welfare.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords who have added their names in support of this amendment on a cross-party basis. It would ensure that, post Brexit, the actions of Ministers and public bodies must not have a regressive impact on the environment, food safety, REACH and animal welfare. The amendment is necessary as the Government have seen fit to remove the provisions previously agreed in the 2018 withdrawal agreement, which provided for a legally binding commitment to non-regression in most areas of environmental law. The Government have said they remain committed to the principle of non-regression, so it is not at all clear why these provisions have been actively removed.

It goes without saying that there has never been a more important time for strong environmental legislation. The world is facing a climate change emergency, with global warming impacting food production, rising sea levels destroying habitats and catastrophic floods and fires threatening human life and livelihoods. The Government have signed up to the UN climate change conference political declaration, but those promises need to be backed up by binding and robust action. The Government have said that they want an ambitious environmental programme—indeed, the Conservative manifesto promised to legislate for high standards of environmental protection—so it seems strange that their first act is to water down a Bill that would have helped to achieve those high standards. Our amendment would put the non-regression principle back into the Bill where it belongs, and where other environmental principles remain via the withdrawal agreement.

The great advantage of a non-regression clause is that it would give reassurance for the longer term. It would protect current and future generations against the weakening of environmental standards once the issue drops out of the headlines and out of the list of government priorities. It would also help the Government to hold public bodies to account in achieving their environmental standards.

It is still not clear why the Government have taken the clause out of the Bill. If, as the Minister claimed in the Commons, the Government are committed to non-regression, why not leave it in? If the Government plan to put it in the environment Bill instead, what is the harm in having it in both pieces of legislation? If, as the Minister claimed in the Commons, the plan is to diverge from EU environmental principles and go it alone, who will judge whether the outcome will be as good as the environmental benefits that we have enjoyed in the past or that we should have enjoyed in the future?

As I said at Second Reading, over the years our environment has hugely benefited from EU directives and regulations, with over 80% of our environmental legislation derived from the EU. It is the main reason our habitats and birds have been protected and our water, air and soil quality have improved. The Government are expecting us to take a leap in the dark with their commitments to becoming a world leader in environmental protection outside the EU regime. If they are so committed, it is still not clear why they cannot accept a non-regression clause. Surely that is the minimum promise that they ought to be able to make if they are so ambitious for the future.

I hope the Minister will feel able to support our amendment. If not, I hope he can spell out in some detail what kind of non-regression guarantees are being proposed for the environment Bill. These questions were posed by a number of noble Lords at Second Reading, so far without a response. I hope that on this occasion the Minister can rectify that and give us some guarantees. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Randall of Uxbridge Lord Randall of Uxbridge Conservative

My Lords, I was very happy to add my name to this amendment because the whole question of environmental standards and what will happen after we leave the EU is something that concerns many on all sides of the House, as well as the general public. The environment, as the noble Baroness opposite said, is very high on people’s agenda.

I put my name to the amendment because, like the noble Baroness, I wondered why this issue was not going to be part of the Bill. However, I have to say that I have spent some time in detailed discussions with the Secretary of State and Ministers down the other end as well as with Ministers in this Chamber. I do not think I could ever be described as naïve, although I have been led astray sometimes by government Ministers on all sides, but I do not doubt for one minute this Government’s thorough commitment not only to maintaining the environmental standards of the EU but to going beyond that. This is a very useful exercise to reinforce to my noble friends on the Front Bench that no excuse will be taken if those standards are not maintained when the environment Bill comes forward, and I will be looking for improvement.

With that in mind, I have always regarded this more as a probing amendment—I have learned today that in Committee that tends to be what happens—but I do not at all regret adding my name to it because this is a matter of great importance.

Photo of Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Baroness Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendment 31, to which I have also added my name. I fully support the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch. Many contributions today have been extremely legalistic, but for me this amendment is much simpler.

Many noble Lords will be wondering why it is necessary to have this amendment in the Bill. The Government have committed not to compromise on environmental standards. An undertaking was in the previous withdrawal agreement Bill but was removed from the Bill that passed through Parliament in December 2019. If the Government have committed not to compromise, why was it necessary to remove this undertaking from the Bill? Despite being asked, the Government have provided no clarity on how environmental standards are to be protected.

As we can see from what is happening in other parts of the world, not least Australia, the environment is very fragile. Animal and plant species are constantly under threat from the effects of what used to be known as freak weather conditions. These excessive droughts, floods and temperature rises are having a devastating effect on animals and humans alike. They are no longer occasional disaster events but have become yearly occurrences. Unless the UK engages completely with preserving, maintaining and enhancing our environmental standards, we are likely to see an increase in flooding and fire damage in our villages and on our moors.

Ensuring food safety should be paramount when the Government come to broker trade deals with countries outside the EU. The UK consumes large quantities of chickens, and I am sorry about the next bit. Currently we import chicken breast meat and export darker leg meat. This trade currently goes to Europe, where we know standards of food protection are the same as ours. We could be self-sufficient in chickens if the British housewife could be persuaded to consume more dark meat and slightly less breast meat.

On a purely personal note, I am extremely reluctant to find myself having to buy chlorinated chicken that has arrived from America, be it whole chicken, breast or leg meat. A lowering of food safety standards has had dramatic effects on our country in the past; the BSE crisis springs to mind.

As stated at Second Reading, the UK currently has high standards in habitat protection and product safety. These standards have been developed with our European neighbours so that we now benefit from cleaner beaches, safer food and the best regulation of chemicals in the world. While these will pertain at the point of exit, are we really going to leave ensuring the maintenance of these standards to the joint committee? We have heard that the joint committee has the ability to amend the withdrawal agreement itself should it choose to do so, with no parliamentary oversight.

During the lengthy process since the result of the referendum was announced, there have been many cries of the British Parliament taking back control of what happens in this country. However, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds said on Monday, parliamentary sovereignty has not been returned to the UK with this Bill. The sovereignty appears to have been handed to the joint committee.

Having spent many, many weeks and months last year, along with the Minister, debating SIs to move EU law into UK law to protect animal rights and food safety, and to ensure the safeguarding of plant health and species and the licensing and restriction of chemicals, I am mystified by why the Government do not now want to protect these standards in perpetuity to safeguard the population and to ensure that they enjoy, into the future, the environmental standards they currently live under.

It is essential that this proposed new clause on non-regression is added to the Bill to safeguard future generations. The answer may be that this will be covered by the environment Bill—I wait to see. I have to admit to being somewhat disappointed on Monday by the winding speech from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen of Elie, who is not in his place. Despite over 10 speakers mentioning environmental standards at some point in their speeches, the noble and learned Lord made no mention at all of this subject in his remarks. It may be that this area is not his forte. I hope that today we will get the reassurances that we are looking for.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 8:00 pm, 15th January 2020

My Lords, from comments I have made on other matters, your Lordships’ House will know that democracy is one of my pet concerns. When we are discussing this excellent amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch—I endorse everything she said in introducing it—it is important that we make clear what we are talking about. Non-regression has now become part of our common parlance in your Lordships’ House and perhaps in the other place as well, but what does that actually mean? If we are looking for a definition in commonplace terms, I would suggest that it means not losing the hard-fought gains that we have won over decades. The Green Party and green campaigners have fought very hard for the level of standards that we now enjoy under the European Union. We have often been critical of those standards and said they should be higher, but we know they are much higher than in many other jurisdictions, most notably the United States of America—with which, of course, we know the Government are very keen to get a trade deal.

A few days ago, I asked your Lordships to think about the climate strikers, the young people who have been out on our streets, who will no doubt be out on our streets again. I ask noble Lords who want to reject this amendment—and the Government, if they want to reject it—to think about how those people will feel when they are told that what has already been won, which they would say is inadequate, will not be guaranteed. I think we know what their reaction would be.

With all the Henry VIII, secondary legislation making and judicial erasure powers that the Bill currently provides, the Government are going to find themselves in an unprecedented position to rewrite enormous parts of UK law at will. We are told that, “There is no intention to reduce standards; we’re going to try to improve them.” Of course I applaud those words, but if that is the case, why not accept this amendment? It should not be contentious, just as provisions to protect workers’ rights, which are part of the same kind of package, should not be contentious.

We have all had a long day, but I think everybody in this House from all sides has at some point fought to support some protection covered under EU legislation. Please let us protect and keep them all and not lose the work of the past and of decades of campaigns.

Photo of Baroness Parminter Baroness Parminter Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I rise to support this cross-party amendment in its entirety, but particularly to cover the issues I raised on Monday at Second Reading and, if I may, to have the right of reply to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, who made reference to my speech from earlier in the debate in his closing remarks. He said:

“The noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, referred to animal welfare. At the moment, we cannot prohibit the movement of live animals because of EU law. But when we leave, let us hope that we can address that, because we have expressed an intention to do so.”—[Official Report, 13/1/20; col. 556.]

That is factually correct and I entirely applaud the Government’s intention of doing something about that important issue. However, with the deepest respect for the noble and learned Lord, that is completely irrelevant to the point I made. There is nothing in a non-regression clause which stops the Government raising standards. What it does do, as other noble Lords have rightly said, is ensure that standards are not lowered. That is the issue we are collectively concerned about as we face the worrying prospect of these free trade agreements, with all bar one of the countries proposed having lower welfare standards than ourselves.

My noble friend Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville talked about chicken legs and breasts. I want to talk a little about eggs because, as it stands at the moment, the United States of America has no standards whatever on the welfare of hens used for laying eggs. Therefore, if we allow the American market access to ours, we will face eggs coming in to be used in food products with standards far lower than those produced by British farmers. Our farmers will rightly argue that their welfare and production standards are higher and cost more and that they are therefore at a competitive disadvantage. They will press the Government to reopen the battery cage directive, which has been with us for so long as part of our membership of the European Union and guarantees higher farm welfare standards.

If the Government were to lower those standards, I would like to ask the Minister whether my understanding of the following is correct. Given that we have gone through this process of nationalising all this EU legislation through statutory instruments, sitting through hours and hours in the Moses Room, is it correct that, if the Government were to lower our animal welfare standards for battery hens, for example, the Government would need only to introduce a statutory instrument and would not require primary legislation? That is my understanding. It is a real worry to those of us right across this Chamber who have, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, just said, fought so hard and for so long for high animal welfare standards that those could be lost by a simple statutory instrument.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Worcester, who is not in his place, spoke movingly, in the debate on the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, about the Government needing to set out their vision for Britain in the post-Brexit world. He articulated it very well. What is the Government’s vision for Britain? If they want Britain to be a world leader in animal welfare, they have to demonstrably deliver that through all their legislation, trade deals and marketing. Look at the example of New Zealand, which has said that it wants to be a world leader and is a world leader—it has done just that. This is in every piece of legislation and every trade deal and it is in their marketing strategy.

This is the first piece of legislation of the new Government which mentions animal welfare and yet, by not accepting a non-regression clause, they are basically saying that standards could be lowered as a result of trade deals in the future. Therefore, it begs the question: how will the Government guarantee that animals will not suffer lives compromised by lower animal welfare standards if the Government will not accept a non-regression clause in the withdrawal Bill?

Photo of Lord Gardiner of Kimble Lord Gardiner of Kimble The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, and other noble Lords for raising issues which come within Defra’s responsibility. I entirely respect the sincerity of all the points that have been made by noble Lords.

The UK has a long and proud history of high standards for environmental protection, including chemicals, food standards and animal welfare. It is of the utmost importance that these are maintained as we leave the EU. The Government have been clear that we will not weaken protections in these areas when we leave, but rather we will maintain and enhance our already high standards.

This Bill is focused on putting the withdrawal agreement into domestic law. This amendment is about what happens to our environmental policy and others after our exit from the EU. We do not believe that that is appropriate for this Bill.

These matters were debated extensively in the passage of the 2018 Act, when the Government were clear that the regression of the type the noble Baroness fears would not be within scope of the key Section 8 power of the 2018 Act. Those Section 8 powers can be used only for the purposes of correcting deficiencies that arise as a consequence of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. The 2018 Act does not provide a power to change laws simply because the Government did not like them before exit. The Government cannot use the powers for the purposes of simply rolling back standards and protections.

Where substantive policy change is required, appropriate legislation will be brought forward. I underline this when I say that, if a Government were to introduce legislation to reduce protections, Parliament would be able to have its say at that point. This would allow for more effective and tailored scrutiny. In any case, I want to assure the noble Baroness and all noble Lords who have spoken—as I have done many times from this Dispatch Box—that this Government have absolutely no intention of introducing legislation that would have that regressive effect.

As I have said, the UK has this long and proud history of environmental protection. The UK was the first country in the world to introduce legally binding emission reduction targets. In 2019, the UK became the first major economy in the world to set a legally binding target to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. The UK is also the top performer in the EU on resource efficiency and is demonstrating leadership on the circular economy and smart taxes to reduce landfill.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, was absolutely right in talking about the world’s fragility, and I think we are absolutely seized of that imperative. That is why the Government will shortly introduce the environment Bill—I say this specifically to my noble friend Lord Randall but also to the noble Baronesses, Lady Jones of Whitchurch and Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville—which is about strengthening environmental protections. That Bill will enshrine environmental principles in law and will also include measures to improve air and water quality, tackle plastic pollution and restore habitats. I should say, going off script, that we may have been subject to all sorts of EU directives and regulations, but we, the EU and the world have to do a great deal more. The point about that Bill is that it will create legally binding environmental improvement targets and establish a new independent office for environmental protection to hold the Government to account.

We are planning for the OEP to be operational from 1 January 2021. That may slightly answer the question the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, posed in an earlier debate. I want to emphasise that there will be no governance gap. This will collectively ensure that environmental ambition is at the heart of government once we leave. I am in absolutely no doubt that all of your Lordships who have spoken—and many more—will take much interest in that Bill, and I think that is tremendously important.

Regarding the UK’s effective regulatory system for management and control of chemicals, as mentioned in the amendment, this is partly based on the REACH regulation, which is widely seen as a gold standard worldwide. The environment Bill will have provision to amend REACH to make sure our chemicals management remains fully up to date. Any change must remain consistent with the fundamental aims and principles of REACH, including the precautionary principle. There will also be a series of protective provisions that cannot be changed, such as the last-resort principle on animal testing—I think that is a matter the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, has expressed concern about before, so it is important to say that.

The Government have also been clear that we will continue to be a world leader in animal welfare by maintaining and strengthening the UK’s already world-class welfare standards. The withdrawal Act will bring on to the UK statute book all directly applicable EU food safety and animal welfare standards. Our current high standards, including import requirements, will apply when we leave. To ensure this will be the case for food safety standards, Defra has worked closely with the Food Standards Agency and the Department of Health and Social Care. The Food Standards Agency has increased its capacity and capability to conduct food and feed safety risk assessments, as well as to provide risk management advice. Risk management decisions will continue to be based on independent and robust scientific evidence.

I also say to the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, on the matter of hormone beef, that the UK has transposed the Council directive which prohibits the use of artificial growth hormones in both domestic and imported products. This will continue when we leave.

On the issue of chlorinated chicken, this will come across through the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. No products other than potable water are approved in the EU to decontaminate poultry carcasses. This will be the case in the UK when we leave the EU.

I also say to the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, that we will not compromise food safety in pursuit of a trade agreement. Maintaining safety and public confidence in the food we eat is of the highest priority, and any future trade deal must work for UK farmers, businesses and consumers. Any new products wishing to enter the UK market must comply with our rigorous legislation and standards.

The noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, spoke of vision—that is a good word. I think vision, ambition and objectives are all important, and we should work upon them. It is the duty of government to bring these forward. This Government have already taken action to improve our already high standards of animal welfare. This has included: a ban on wild animals in travelling circuses; banning the commercial third-party sale of puppies and kittens; and making CCTV mandatory in slaughterhouses in England.

We will go even further. This Government will also legislate on animal sentience to ensure that any adverse impacts to the welfare of animals are appropriately considered in government decision-making and implementation and introduce tougher sentences for animal cruelty. We are working on the fact that it is not satisfactory that animals endure these excessive long journeys to go to slaughter and to fattening. We will also consult on the keeping of primates as pets.

The noble Baroness asked for some detail, and I think she may be on the edge of her seat.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 8:15 pm, 15th January 2020

I am grateful for everything the Minister has said. I did ask—I do not know whether he specifically addressed this point—whether there will be a general non-regression clause in the environment Bill. He has talked about there being legally binding targets for improvements in some areas. I understand all of that—the Government will have improvements on air or water quality or whatever it might be—but the great advantage of a generalised principle of non-regression is that it applies to everything: not just the Government’s priorities today but the things that are not sexy today and that might be on the back burner. It encompasses everything, and I am not sure whether the Minister has given me that reassurance. Maybe it was buried away in his script, but it would be helpful if he could say it again.

Photo of Lord Gardiner of Kimble Lord Gardiner of Kimble The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The environment Bill has not been published yet, but it will not be long. I am not in a position to start talking about the detail of some of the clauses tonight, but that is why I spent some time on this. I say directly that I cannot start suggesting what the clauses of the Bill will be about, because I am not in a position to do so.

As I have tried to set out in this explanation, I obviously understand the points that have been made, but I am not sure I agree with all that the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, may have said about some of these matters. Yes, of course we should endorse the work of the past, but I sometimes sense a determination that either this Government or the party I represent would find it impossible to be positive and strengthening about the subjects we are discussing. I would regret that, because the whole focus of what I have tried to explain in detail—it is why I was asked to deal with this amendment—is precisely to show that this department and the Government are absolutely committed to maintaining and enhancing our already high standards, including through the legislation which will come forward very shortly.

As regards any Section 8 regulations made under the withdrawal Act, noble Lords already have the ability to scrutinise any changes which those regulations might make to retained EU law. This Bill is a vehicle to implement the withdrawal agreement, not, in our view, to legislate for environmental policy.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness and to all noble Lords for this important debate. I have gone on rather longer than I think I was requested to because I felt it important to set out some detail on the measures that the Government will bring forward, and to highlight what is a clear direction of travel. Our intention is to move forward. I therefore hope that the noble Baroness and other noble Lords will accept my firm commitment on behalf of the Government and the department, and that she will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in support of our amendment. I should say at the outset that the Minister will know, as we have said before, that he is held in high regard by this Chamber. We obviously do not doubt his intentions and commitment on many of the things he talked about. A lot of our concerns arise not from the intentions of Defra, or even perhaps the intentions in a future environment Bill, but through the pressures which will come from elsewhere. We can only anticipate or guess those pressures at this stage—from future trade Bills and future deals that might be wanted done.

Our anxiety is not about the Minister’s good intentions; we can see what is in the Conservative manifesto and the good words that have been written about all this. Many of us have worked on a number of the animal welfare issues that the Minister talked about, so, again, we do not doubt his good intentions or his record on all that. But we are going into an uncertain future, and deals will have to be made outside our immediate remit. I suppose that is where our concern comes from.

I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Randall, for sticking his neck out on this issue, even if he back-tracked slightly. I had intended this to be slightly more than a probing amendment, and we have had a good debate as a result of it. We want to believe in the Government’s commitments in the way that he described.

Our particular concern about non-regression, which I know that the Minister felt he could not really respond to in the detail that we would have liked, was that it would give us that underlying safety net when everything else is moving around quickly, as it will be in the next year. I am still sorry that we were not able to go as far as we would have liked on that issue. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, was absolutely right: these progresses in policy that we have made over the years are hard fought for and hard won, and we all hold them very dear.

I have gone as far as I can at this point in the evening in probing the Minister. We are looking forward to the environment Bill. If it is anything like the draft we have already seen, it will be a long tome and we will spend many happy hours debating it all. I hope that we will see in writing the legal commitments that the Minister implied we will get at that point, so I look forward to the publication of and debate on that Bill. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 31 withdrawn.