My Lords, in moving Amendment 1, I welcome that today we are not starting on Part 5 of the Bill, as there are two other major issues which need to be reformed. Indeed, the Bill’s genesis never involved including Part 5, but concerned how to use repatriated competitive and other regulatory powers post transition. Today we will deal with two of these: first, how to give the new competition regime a consumer focus; and secondly, how to organise returning powers into the devolved structure the UK will operate in 2021, as opposed to the 1973 position when we entered the EU.
Amendment 1 deals with the whole point of market intervention and competition policy: to promote the interest of consumers where, for whatever reason, they are operating in an imperfect market. But it also acknowledges that helping businesses to grow or consumers to benefit must not be at the expense of our precious environment. The amendment would write into Part 1 that its purpose is to benefit consumers and to safeguard the environment.
Anyone who has worked in regulation or in the courts knows that these overarching objectives, or duties, are essential in interpreting or enforcing the specific clauses, resulting legislation or indeed future legal cases arising from the Act. The overarching purpose is usually taken into account. Before he left the CMA, the noble Lord, Lord Tyrie, as its chair, called on government to strengthen the CMA’s consumer duty, writing that the internal market will work for consumers only if it is
“fair, competitive and adequately, proportionally and properly regulated.”
Amendment 1 would ensure that legislation on how the internal market is governed has this objective hardwired, or mainstreamed, into its overarching purpose.
A clear example of why this is so necessary is the Agriculture Bill. The Government refused to accept a UK-wide commitment to retaining food standards. I gather that Prue Leith has resigned from the Conservative Party in reaction to that rejection. More importantly for this Bill, just because the UK Government do not want to guarantee high food standards for consumers does not mean that the other countries of the UK do not.
As we roll out a new internal market for the UK, it is essential that an overarching objective of the legislation—the interest and well-being of consumers—be written into the Bill. Given the role of the CMA with regard to this Bill, it is similarly important that it has the duty to the consumer at the forefront of its work. As the noble Lord, Lord Tyrie, said, for the internal market to work for consumers, the CMA must be fit for this task:
“Until Brexit, much of the competition work lay with the Commission. If we are to ensure our companies play fair, do not profit at the expense of ripped off customers, are overseen ... by a competent authority, we need ... changes to the ... composition and duties of the CMA”,
“needs new duties to act quickly and with the consumer interest paramount and powers to make this possible”.
The amendments in this group are part of the effort to achieve these aims. Amendment 1 adds the duty to the purpose of the Bill, and Amendment 112, also in my name, adds it to the CMA’s objectives.
The group addresses two other issues: what is known in EU-speak as proportionality, and procurement. Amendment 2 in the names of my noble friend Lord Stevenson, the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Bowles and Lady McIntosh, would write the principle of proportionality into law to make sure that the Government, in exercising their powers under the Bill, do not go further than is necessary to effect mutual recognition and non-discrimination; and, vitally, that they respect the principle of subsidiarity whereby matters are agreed at the most local level possible. This would make sure the Government act only when their objectives cannot be achieved by the devolved authorities and would be better done at UK level.
The Government recognise and use this principle of proportionality. Indeed, just last week they tabled an amendment to the Medicines and Medical Devices Bill—which I believe is in Grand Committee even as we speak—stating that disclosure of information relating to medicines covered by international agreements may take place only where it
“is proportionate to what is sought to be achieved by it.”
That same principle needs to be hardwired into this Bill to make sure the powers are not used—for convenience or whatever—by the UK Government when they could be used better by the devolved authorities.
As the Minister will know, having been around the EU for some time, subsidiarity was not always in the EU mandate but, once introduced, influenced all decision-makers’ thinking, making them think twice before taking powers to themselves at too global a level. For those reading this in Hansard, the Minister at this point has a very disbelieving look on his face.
Finally, Amendment 59 in the name of my noble friend Lord Stevenson aims to retain public procurement as a devolved matter, thus exempt from market access principles. This is not to say that public procurement should not adhere to recognised principles, but to ensure that these are covered in the existing work on common frameworks in a public procurement framework. Since 1998, public procurement has been devolved, and our leaving the EU is no reason to alter this or for it suddenly to become a reserved matter, especially when a framework is already being developed. The Government have given no rationale for trying to make it reserved. In the White Paper, they said, without any reasoning:
“For goods, non-discrimination will apply within certain excluded areas such as procurement.”
They said they were considering—only considering—whether and to what extent non-discrimination should apply to public procurement. Perhaps the Minister could provide an update on their thinking. Perhaps he could also explain why Whitehall thinks it can deal with procurement any better than the devolved authorities, particularly given the recent example of UK-wide public procurement under Covid.
There are real concerns about simply handing public procurement to the Government, given that the WTO’s general procurement agreement, which would replace the UK’s 2015 regulations, would not include socially responsible public procurement provisions unless they were nailed down in advance. Amendment 59, therefore, aims to prevent the loss of these safeguards and keep public procurement devolved so that price-quality ratio, rather than simply price, is included in tender evaluation criteria and can be maintained by the devolved authorities along with the normal requirements of value for money et cetera. We want a UK-wide internal market to work for consumers and business, to safeguard standards, maintain the environment and ensure that competition does not fuel a race to the bottom. That would be good for neither workers nor consumers, nor indeed for businesses. These modest amendments would help to achieve that objective. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am pleased to support Amendment 2; I was about to do my own version when I discovered that the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, had already tabled a similar one, and it is pleasing that it has cross-party signatories. There is a lot in this Bill about the internal market that is either premature or inadequately or inappropriately worded. It may be that amendments elsewhere referencing the common frameworks will help, but just as the common frameworks have a set of principles that are being followed in negotiations, a bit more about the flavour of the internal market is needed here, beyond mutual recognition and non-discrimination.
One of the principles for the common frameworks is to maintain, as a minimum, equivalent flexibility for tailoring policies to the specific needs of each territory, as is afforded by current EU rules. Therefore, it seems wholly appropriate to utilise the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality that have been a defining part of the EU internal market and which have helped form the current flexibility. It would also chime with the recommendations of the Constitution Committee in its report The Union and Devolution, which set out six principles of solidarity, diversity, consent, responsiveness, subsidiarity and clarity. We could use all those principles here too, and certainly they should guide how we approach amending this Bill throughout.
I will not pretend that the internal market concept is easy once flexibility and diversity are acknowledged. There were times when I found the EU internal market challenging to get my head around, and other times when I fought against overbearing efforts of the EU Commission on behalf of the UK. Therefore, I expect it will be the same for the UK, but on a much more intimate basis that, perversely, and along with the relative size of England, makes it more sensitive. That means taking the greatest care and sensitivity throughout this Bill, and Amendment 2 is a very good way to start.
Amendments in this group about the environment and the consumer touch on important matters that come up in other places in this Bill. Rather strangely, I find myself in a bit of a dilemma, which I will try to explain. To some extent, it is set against the background of the CMA as we know it now. I have a little concern about always including consumers at every opportunity, although citizens are, of course, at the heart of everything in the end. My concern is based on the internal market being for everyone—for all sectors and for citizens generally—and that is part of getting the balance right. I understand the concern that big business may have had too much of a say so far, and I said so at Second Reading, but I also have concerns about the term “consumer” being given preference, for example, over jobs and everything else; it may well have the opposite effect from what is hoped, because “consumer” is so multifaceted. That is particularly so in respect of the CMA, where price to the consumer already weighs heavily in the competition agenda, above diversity and choice. The comments of the noble Lord, Lord Tyrie, focused on rip-offs, which are very important to avoid, but that shows the concentration on price.
When we come to look at what we want to do and the concept of the devolved Administration, other matters such as diversity, choice and quality are not necessarily reflected if the price ticket always gets attached to being what the “consumer” is all about. Therefore, my heart is telling me that the broad sentiment is right, but my head is asking whether the amendment is, perhaps, not yet quite right or not in the right place. I will, of course, be listening, as the debate progresses.
My Lords, I support Amendments 1 and 2, to which I have lent my name; they are probing amendments to ask the Government a number of questions. The concept of the internal market in European Union terms is relatively recent: we have only had the single market since 1992. Of course, devolution followed some five years later, so both are still relatively new in terms of the British constitution.
British competition rules are loosely based on—and generally have always reflected—the original competition rules of the EU treaty on state aid in Articles 85, 86 and 92. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, has been right to highlight that, in what we have been used to in terms of both EU competition rules and British competition law as applied by the CMA, what is missing in the Bill is a reference to consumers. The flip side of competition policy to make sure that companies behave well is to ensure fair competition as well as protection of the consumer. I wonder whether leaving out any reference to consumers, both here and in later parts of the Bill, was deliberate. Why is there is no specific reference to consumers in the Bill, as Amendments 1 and 112 would provide?
Equally, Amendment 1 relates to safeguarding and the environment. That begs another question. We are told that our current regulations setting out food safety can always be changed by secondary legislation and that we do not need an Act of Parliament to do so. But that could lead to the situation—particularly if it remains devolved, and the Government have repeatedly stated that this is their intention—where we have to ask: to what extent will divergence be tolerated? For example, if the Food Standards Agency of England made substantial changes to our food safety requirements, would Food Standards Scotland simply diverge and not necessarily follow those changes? In future, could a product produced in Scotland, meeting Scottish environmental and animal welfare standards—I will be supporting the forthcoming amendments regarding those—still be allowed to be imported into England if it no longer met those same standards? This seems to be an obvious potential crisis for Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh farmers some way down the road. The Government might want to rethink their idea of not having UK-wide standards. I would be most grateful if, when summing up, my noble friend could turn his attention to that potential conflict and the potential for divergence.
Turning to proportionality and subsidiarity, I absolutely agree with Amendment 2, to which I have lent my name, and later amendments. The Bill must clearly set out only what is necessary to achieve its stated objectives. My noble friend will probably answer that this is self-evident, but it bears repetition. Personally, I see some merit in having it on the face of the Bill. The principle of subsidiarity might seem clear now, but I ask my noble friend to consider the horrific situation, some five or 10 years down the road, when we may face a federal Britain. What impact would that have on subsidiarity?
On procurement, does my noble friend share my concern that despite all the potential benefits around procurement provisions that I envisage us enjoying by leaving the European Union—for example, we would no longer be bound by the threshold of €136,000, beyond which any public contract must be put out for tender, meaning that we could source many more of our English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish foods into public institutions such as schools, hospitals, prisons and others—we have completely lost that advantage because through the Trade Bill we are joining the Agreement on Government Procurement, which, surprisingly, has exactly the same threshold of $135,000? We seem to be jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire, without getting all the opportunities that were promised to our farmers by leaving the European Union, such as sourcing more local food to schools, hospitals and other public institutions. That will in fact not come about, because we will be bound by international rules on public procurement. Have the Government done a cost-benefit analysis on how much competition we will face from other providers to source their foods into our public institutions, as opposed to the potential benefits our farmers might have from tendering in other international jurisdictions to source our home-produced food there?
I look forward to hearing my noble friend’s reply to this little debate.
My Lords, I want to add a few words in support of Amendment 2. Proportionality and subsidiarity are part of the language of EU law which, while relatively new in historical terms, we are now very familiar with. It would be a mistake to think that as we reach the end of the transition period, we should leave these concepts behind. Proportionality, after all, is deeply embedded in our own public law, and has been for decades. It has long since been recognised that black-letter law alone is not a good guide to the way in which public law and public affairs should be administered. One simple example can be found in the civil litigation rules, where the word appears to make it clear that the courts should seek to obtain a just result with appropriate speed and expense in giving effect to the rules that are set out in the document. The point is that individual facts and circumstances vary greatly across the spectrum. Proportionality allows them to be taken into account and avoids blunt decisions where a greater need is to fit the facts together with the rule to find a suitable result that will achieve the desired object.
Subsidiarity too is now deeply ingrained in our constitutional arrangements. It is part of the thinking behind devolution, and the word is used with reference not only to Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland but to devolution throughout England. The great advantage of this is that local decisions are best taken with regard for local circumstances. For them to be taken centrally sometimes misses the point and leads to solutions that are inappropriate given the local circumstances. It is a useful tool best used in the administration of our affairs to make sure that things are properly organised across the whole of our United Kingdom, which, after all, is what our new internal market is all about.
Both these principles are sound and appropriate guides as to how the two basic principles which are set out in Clause 1 should be administered. I support the argument that, somehow, these principles should find a place in the Bill. Quite how that is done I leave to the draftsmen, but Amendment 2 is at least an important start to make sure that the significance and relevance of these principles are appropriately recognised.
My Lords, I offer a few comments on these amendments. It seems to me that Amendment 1 has the effect of confining the concept of the internal market to consumers and the environment. That completely misses the point. If we go back to the Government’s White Paper in July, we see they were clear that the policy objectives were economic opportunities across the UK, increasing competitiveness and making the UK the best place to do business, thereby supporting the general welfare, prosperity and economic security of all UK citizens. The amendment in the name of the noble Baroness puts the cart before the horse, trying to make that an overarching requirement when it should be a consequence of achieving all the other things.
I emphasise that this is about frictionless business—about making it easy to do business across the UK. In all our debates, we should not lose sight of the importance of this to the devolved nations. About 60% of the exports of Scotland and Wales go to the rest of the United Kingdom; for Northern Ireland, it is a fraction below 50%. They are important to those economies. We are trying to create an environment in which trade can prosper and grow within the UK, without barriers, which will in turn allow the other objectives to be achieved—for example, the protection of consumers and supporting the general welfare of the country.
I turn briefly to the other amendments in this group. I thought that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, made the case himself that, to the extent that Amendment 2 applies to proportionality, it is not required because proportionality is already a principle of our public law, and so it is not necessary to write it into the Bill. I am also having great difficulty in seeing why subsidiarity—although I understand the arguments for respecting the interests of the devolved nations—should become one of the market access principles, because the market access principles are the overarching ones of mutual recognition and non-discrimination. I cannot see how we can have an equivalent principle of subsidiarity alongside mutual recognition and non-discrimination, which are the foundations of achieving frictionless trade.
Lastly, on Amendment 59, I cannot believe that we would want to establish in our country the notion that public sector purchasers can, in effect, discriminate against suppliers from other parts of the United Kingdom. That is what the amendment would, in effect, do by taking it out of market access principles.
My Lords, I support Amendment 1. There is very little that needs to be said in addition to what my noble friend Lady Hayter so clearly set out. In her speech she prayed in aid the Government’s attitude to the Agriculture Bill—which I also took part in—hence the necessity of the amendment. In my innocence, I am assuming that the Government will accept it, but perhaps I am too innocent.
I also support Amendment 2. The purpose of my speech is to serve as a pre-emptive strike to preserve the position of devolved legislatures, as I did in my Second Reading speech. I will make the same point regarding other amendments. Agriculture is a devolved matter. The single market is important throughout the United Kingdom. However, I am wary when power given to devolved Administrations and legislatures is taken away from them. The onus is on Her Majesty’s Government to prove necessity—hence the importance of the words in paragraph (d) in the amendment, which I particularly support.
My Lords, I agree with the first point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, who said that this group of amendments and this debate are about whether it is necessary and desirable to agree with the Government on the definition of mutual recognition and non-discrimination. The question is therefore whether the Government have made their case sufficiently that the Bill’s definitions meet the criteria that the White Paper sets out for the functioning of the single market, which is something that we all value.
I think that the Government have made a less than convincing case on the necessity of these definitions. However, even if it were necessary to make a strategic case for defining these market access principles, such a case was not set out in the consultation, the White Paper, the Commons stages or the Minister’s speech on Second Reading. Have the Government explained why they have deviated from our current approach or from the approach we had before we joined the European Union? We had a functioning single market before we joined the EU and while we were members, as we do now, and it has served our country well. Even before devolution, our internal market before we joined the EU allowed for different laws and approaches and historic divergences in many areas, including in economic development, trading standards and other areas linked to the economy. The question is why the Government have decided to move away from the earlier British approach or the British approach as it was adapted and adopted through the European Union.
Before I turn to the matter of definitions, I want to speak to Amendment 59 on procurement. Noble Lords who took part in the early Committee sittings on the Trade Bill will recall that we debated the procurement aspects. I specifically asked why procurement was mentioned in the White Paper but not in this legislation. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, has also asked that question, and I hope the Minister will give us a clear answer. As the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, indicated, if procurement continues to be a devolved matter—as it has been, in many respects, under the framework of the European standards and the GPA international agreement—and the Scottish Government, for example, wish to have a procurement policy within an overall framework which sets standards for infrastructure or public buildings used for health or education, every supplier will have to meet those standards. That would not necessarily be discriminating against Scottish, English or Welsh construction firms; it would be a standard that they would be expected to meet. I fear that the Government want to have a uniform standard for the delivery of procurement policy across the United Kingdom. That would be worrying because it would be a significant move away from the flexibility we have had within the approach taken by the European Union.
There has been an assessment of the current approach taken within the EU single market—which we have left—which was updated in April 2020 in Regulation 2019/515. The current approach has a well-defined assessment procedure to be followed by competent authorities when assessing goods, which the Government’s approach lacks. The current approach has obligatory elements to be included in an administrative decision that restricts or denies market access. However, that is left open to UK Ministers to decide in a vacuum, and thus is lacking in the Government’s approach. Our current approach offers a voluntary mutual recognition declaration which businesses can use to demonstrate that their products are lawfully marketed in one EU country in a business-friendly, problem-solving procedure through the European single digital gateway for businesses and service providers on how this operates. These important aspects are missing in the new approach. I think it is therefore justifiable to ask on behalf of businesses across the UK which need to prepare for this, why the Government are not ready.
As will become clear in the debates on following groups, the Government are not ready for the implementation of this because the framework relationships are not yet in place. But even if they were, the Government have also failed to state why the nature and scope of the application of these market access principles are different from what we have understood and worked with for many years. For example, as Professor Nicola McEwen of Edinburgh University pointed out, the definition of indirect discrimination is not the same and is now more complicated than EU law. Not only that, Professor McEwen highlighted the circumstances in which mutual recognition rather than the non-discrimination rule will apply, or vice versa, which is different from the position under EU law. It is unclear how certain types of trading rules would be classified. She gives an interesting example of restrictions on the use rather than the sale or marketing of a product, such as the current ban on the use of electric shock training collars in Wales. There is no consistency in the Government’s approach on that. In further groups of amendments we will also need to explore why the range of exclusions and exceptions from the mutual recognition and non-discrimination principles is significantly narrower than under EU law.
The Government should tell us why the UK’s new approach is far more restrictive and more bureaucratic than the position we are moving away from. With a more restrictive approach, and without the previous flexibility that had been obvious in some areas, businesses, service providers and public authorities will have a much more burdensome single market to operate. The Government have presented no justification whatever for that. My noble and learned friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness raised this issue at Second Reading. In a reply, the Minister said why the Government are taking a different approach:
“The market access principles have been designed to take account of the UK’s unique circumstances, reflecting that our market consists of four highly integrated, highly aligned parts. Conversely, EU provisions deal with 27 countries, all with diverse histories, cultures, and competing marketing priorities”.
I note that the Government do not think that our nations have a diverse history and culture, but they most definitely do. If they did not, we would not have had devolution in the first place. However, it does not follow that our current approach, even with devolution, has been more streamlined, and the Government seek to have a more complicated approach going forward.
My noble and learned friend asked about subsidiarity and proportionality, and the Minister replied as follows, which is interesting, given the very well-argued speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead. He said:
“Turning to your comment on subsidiarity and proportionality, we have now left the EU and are free to organise our internal market in a way that is better suited to the UK’s unique constitutional arrangements and common law system.”
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, stated categorically that these approaches of subsidiarity and proportionality are deeply embedded in our constitutional arrangements, so why have the Government chosen to move away from them? I fail to understand why they are even changing their position from that of the frameworks agreement that had been in place. Regarding the principles agreed among all the nations, the second paragraph of the agreement on common frameworks states:
“Frameworks will respect the devolution settlements and the democratic accountability of the devolved legislatures, and will therefore”— this is the second bullet point—
“maintain, as a minimum, equivalent flexibility for tailoring policies to the specific needs of each territory, as is afforded by current EU rules”.
So the Government agreed with the devolved nations that the current flexibilities and approach afforded by current EU rules would continue to apply, but this Bill argues that they will not. Given that this has implications for Scotland’s decision on minimum unit pricing or for a live case of the deposit return scheme that has been put in place, there are considerable concerns about why the Government have opted not to include environmental objectives in these restrictions.
I will close with another point on the environmental side. Can the Minister clarify the position on the relevant requirements for environmental aspects, which were formulated before this Bill but have yet to come into force? The Scottish deposit return scheme, which has been legislated for but is due to come into force in 2022, would, on my reading, come within the scope of this legislation. It has been made but is not yet in force. That legislation was fully compliant with the European approach because of the environmental objectives. Is it the Government’s intention that the Scottish deposit return scheme regulations will now be within the scope of this Bill? If not, this is just one example of why there are real difficulties with the Government not following the common-sense approach. The UK operated a single market before joining the EU and during its membership of the EU, and indeed our approach allowed for devolution to be accommodated within it. Why are the Government putting that at risk with their approach to these market principles, which are more restrictive, less certain, more bureaucratic and less clear? Why are they not seeking continuity?
My Lords, in that extraordinary vote on Tuesday last, your Lordships’ House indicated what it felt about the most objectionable part of the Bill, and I hope that we will have a chance to develop those arguments further next week. However, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, was right in her opening words to remind us that, although they are the overwhelming matters of concern in the Bill, they are not the only ones. Indeed, I find myself echoing what a number of your Lordships said in last week’s debate: what is the point of this Bill in its present form?
I draw your Lordships’ attention to the very trenchant comments in the devastating report of our Constitution Committee published last week. It indicated the committee’s unanimous real concern on the whole issue of devolution. Way back in the 1970s, I was not an advocate of devolution, and I sometimes think that my fears have come to pass. However, the fact is that we have devolution, and we cannot ignore what we have or we will truly endanger the future of the union, and that we must not do. Therefore, I very much hope that when my noble friend comes to wind up this debate, he will make it quite plain that he has taken on board our Constitution Committee’s comments on devolution.
We cannot ride roughshod over what has now been established for 20 years or more. If we do, we will truly endanger the future of the United Kingdom. Now that we are out of the European Union, which of course we are, no subject should cause more concern or potential heartache to any Member of your Lordships’ House than the future of the United Kingdom. It would be a constitutional and political tragedy if, a decade from now, Northern Ireland and maybe Wales but almost certainly Scotland had broken away. As a member of a mongrel family, a large proportion of whom still live north of the border, I would feel that to be the ultimate betrayal of the British Parliament and of the union, which it is our duty to safeguard.
I hope that, as we go through this Bill, we will remember how crucial it is that the United Kingdom survives. I hope that the Government will take on board the seriousness of this threat or danger to our country and head off the forces of English nationalism, which seem a little too predominant in my party at the moment.
My Lords, when the Conservative Party came up with its absolutely brilliant slogan about taking back control, many of us, for whom it resonated, felt that it meant that our Parliament would be taking back control. However, over the past year it has become obvious that that is not how the Government see it. In fact, they are using Brexit as an excuse to take more control of the country, which of course is extremely undemocratic. In this Bill, they are trying to seize control from the devolved Governments and Parliaments, and that, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, has just said, is extremely unhealthy for the UK. The Bill pretends to replicate what exists in EU law, but it has created a sort of Frankenstein’s monster, which is not at all what any of us were expecting. It is like a legal framework creating a bureaucratic bulldozer that the Government will use to grab more power.
It is obvious that this Government cannot win any seats in Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales, so they are using this Bill—this bureaucratic bulldozer—to force the elected Governments of the devolved nations to fall in line with Conservative Party policy. These amendments are important because they would stop that undemocratic move. Without them, devolution will be replaced with a sort of lowest-common-denominator system in which the devolved Governments will have to wait for the UK Parliament to take action on any policy or law that relates to the production, distribution and sale of goods and services in the UK before they can take action. That is clearly not what any of us expected. The devolved Parliaments must continue to have the right to make decisions on improving environmental standards and implementing other legitimate policies that will benefit their nations. Your Lordships’ House must amend this Bill and prevent yet another government power grab, and of course protect the rights of the devolved nations.
My Lords, now that we are leaving the scope of the single market, the characteristics of the UK internal market become very important; that is why I put my name down to speak to this group and, in particular, to Amendments 2 and 59.
Superficially, it is easy to assume that the UK internal market should, and will, share the principal attributes of the EU single market but, of course, that is far from certain, not least because of the circumstances surrounding it all. After all, the creation of the EU single market was first agreed by member states in an IGC, which is very different from what we are looking at now in this country. The new arrangements have come into being in somewhat different circumstances and across a single territory in which there has been devolution—and within that, the different components clearly have different perspectives.
There is now much less consensus and no prior agreement. In these circumstances, within a devolved as opposed to a federal system, there are potential procedural problems where the UK Government and the English Government—if I might be allowed to call them that—are coterminous. It is not desirable for the repatriation of European competencies to drive a coach and six through the devolution settlement in these islands. For this reason, I believe strongly that Amendment 2 is important to provide a legal framework around the political procedures repatriating these powers. In my view, it is particularly important—I speak as both a unionist and a supporter of the devolution settlements—that England does not emerge as a bully boy imposing its will on the other countries. To do that would be to take the high road to the break-up of the UK.
I also want to touch on Amendment 59, in the context of my chairmanship of the Cumbria local enterprise partnership. As a border region and part of borderlands, any form of potential discrimination—be it direct or indirect, intended or unintended—poses a very real threat to our economy, much of which is focused on both sides of the Solway Firth. Competition law, environmental law and a number of other more general categories of social law are essential components of market economies in our kinds of societies in the 21st century. As a number of speakers have said, there is a real conundrum at the heart of this between local autonomy, which matters, and British cohesion and homogeneity, which also matter. I very much hope that the Minister will spell out exactly how the Government see these things interacting, because, as always, the devil lies in the detail.
My Lords, my concern in this group of amendments and, indeed, with the Bill as a whole is that a fundamental collision is taking place between what is happening in London and what is happening in the regions. I was never struck by the Sewell convention. I believe that we have not properly explained the source of funds to the devolved nations, and I do not believe that any country like ours should leave itself unable to function in certain parts of its own territory. Nevertheless, I believe that we are now paying the price for the haphazard, ill-thought-through lurch to different types of devolution that have been going on over the last 20 years in a virtually unco-ordinated way.
This collision is demonstrated by the fact that we had discussions taking place on the various common frameworks, which have been sort of set to one side and replaced with some of the provisions in the Bill. Probing amendments such as Amendment 2 are important. The Minister and his colleagues have to reassess where they are with all this because there is a pattern emerging—we have devolution and people are now more focused on their local identity. We see this happening in parts of England with the Covid crisis; it is really concerning. Some Members have already expressed their concern about the future of the union as a whole; I very much share that and have done so for some time.
Looking at the best way ahead, while the term “subsidiarity” is European, the general principle that you take decisions at the closest point to the people who are affected by them is a solid and sound way of doing business. There are examples of where the United Kingdom was until relatively recently still a very centralised country compared to some of our European colleagues and other countries around the world.
One other element not mentioned so far is that my own region of Northern Ireland will be subject to different laws on a whole variety of subjects, and it is not entirely clear to me where this will leave us. For nearly all of our economic activity, we will remain to all intents and purposes within the European Union, subject to European and state aid regulations, and there will be a whole, as yet unresolved, customs conundrum as far as our trade is concerned. How all these different measures are to be brought together in a coherent way is entirely unclear to me at this stage. I feel that this probing amendment and others in this group are important because they force the Government to explain to us how this will work in practice.
I accept the concept of common frameworks, in which you get general agreement from the devolved regions. Whether you agree with it or not, this Parliament has given them the power—the fact is that they have it and they are entitled to exercise the functions that have been devolved to them. We should not find ourselves in a situation where ultimately we sow the seeds of further clashes. That would undermine the union and our economy, and I certainly do not want to see that. The Government need to revisit these amendments and this section of the Bill. Unless it is clear and people know where they stand, we will have the sources of further friction built into our legislation—and we have more than enough of those at the moment.
I ask the Minister to address my point specifically: if Northern Ireland is effectively in the EU from an economic point of view, where is the line drawn between functioning under EU laws and regulations and, in the future, such things as market access being involved? I can see circumstances where there could be a significant clash. Procurement is one of the most obvious areas. A lot of small suppliers throughout the United Kingdom have felt that they have been discriminated against because Governments and various authorities have always tended to go to the bigger players. As was pointed out at the beginning of this debate, we could end up with almost the same threshold as we currently have as part of the EU. Will the Minister and his colleagues take seriously the concerns that Members of this House have been expressing about the fundamental clash—the collision—between our devolved settlements and our internal market? To me, that will be the key to making sure that this legislation does good and does not end up doing harm.
My Lords, it is worth reminding ourselves that we are talking about the Committee stage of an internal market Bill. I frankly do not see the relevance of the part of Amendment 1 which talks about the environment. We do of course have environmental laws. They are ever being strengthened and are an important part of our society. What they are not is anything specifically to do with an internal market.
We turn to look at consumers. I am a marketing man by profession. After university, having read economics, I joined the Reckitt and Colman Group as a marketing executive and later a marketing manager, in the UK, India and what is now Sri Lanka. I understand marketing. Marketing is about more than just the consumer. It is about those elements of a market that are all working within it. A whole host of bodies is working there. I share the view of my noble friend Lady Noakes. While the UK was in the EU, which I voted to stay in, we had all sorts of restrictions, some of which were very adverse to industry and commerce in this country—not all by a long way, but some were. We want an internal market where people who manufacture, sell, distribute, research and devise new products can succeed. We want that market there, without the stranglehold of having to agree with half a dozen other nations. That is absolutely key. It is not a simple matter of just worrying about the consumer. I think it was the noble Baroness who opened who spoke about driving competition to the lowest level.
Competition is very healthy but, of course, there must be safeguards. That is why in the Bill there is this new body, the office for the internal market, working alongside the CMA. I criticised the CMA at Second Reading and I believe those criticisms were valid. I want to see this office for the internal market really have teeth and really be able to operate. Reflecting on Second Reading, frankly, it is not right in the Bill to just have a review after five years. We have enough evidence in modern society to recognise that things move much more quickly these days than they ever used to. I put it to the Minister that Her Majesty’s Government should consider a three-year review of that body.
On Amendment 2, it is already part of our public law, so why does it have to be written here—if that is right? It comes later, under Part 5, but we cannot have a situation whereby all parts of the UK can have their own minor arguments on whatever product or service it may be. Then we would end up with everybody having a different viewpoint. That does not seem to me at all sensible. My plea to the Minister is that this is a very exciting time if you are a UK manufacturer, trader, in financial services, in hospitality, in the professions, a retailers or wholesaler, or an online trader. Certainly, in my former constituency of Northampton, they look forward to this internal market.
My Lords, if the Ministers shepherding this Bill expected an easy ride, this gives a taste of things to come. It serves a purpose in setting the scene, and a lot of arguments and debates will come in other groups as we go through this process. I shall not labour those points. An overriding sense I got from my noble friend Lord Purvis is that the question everybody wants to know the answer to is: why have Her Majesty’s Government decided to turn away from a process of managing markets that has been extremely successful? It was successful before we joined the European Union and successful afterwards. This is the overriding question that hangs over this whole debate.
On Amendments 1 and 112, if ever we needed convincing that things such as the environment need to be written into the Bill, the speech by the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, convinced me that they do. This is because we cannot take things for granted. Governments come and Governments go, but the law stays, and we need to be sure that our public policy is being directed properly. I uncharacteristically find myself somewhat agreeing with the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes: we have to be careful not to constrain the nature of this Bill. We need to find a way to write in issues such as those of the consumer and the environment. I would add some of the points made by my noble friend Lady Bowles and food safety to that. We need to ensure that there is an assessment of the success of this internal market in some of those areas, including the environment, the effect on consumers, the effect on jobs, et cetera. I share the view of my noble friend Lady Bowles that perhaps more work is needed, but the issue is live and very important. I thank the proposers of the amendment.
Turning to Amendment 2, I do not think proportionality pops up anywhere in other amendments. We had a brief discussion of this extremely important subject from various speakers. I take my lead on this from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, who understands the law, and my noble friend Lady Bowles, who knows a thing or two about regulation. If they are concerned about proportionality, so are we on these Benches. The Government need to find a way of writing that issue into the Bill.
On public procurement, we need to understand what the Government mean by what they seek to do in this legislation. The issue highlighted by my noble friend Lord Purvis is live and real: how will this legislation affect those issues? It is a probing amendment, but for it to work we need answers.
We have started. There are issues we shall return to, but proportionality and public procurement are two on which I hope the Minister will respond at length.
My Lords, let me open by thanking noble Lords for their contributions at Second Reading last week. Again, the contributions have demonstrated the tremendous breadth of expertise in this House. This is indeed a crucial piece of legislation. In this respect, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Fox, and I look forward to providing the scrutiny it deserves and that I am sure it will receive from noble Lords, beginning today and in the days and weeks ahead.
Let me reassure, and to some extent disagree with, my noble friend Lord Cormack, which will not come as a surprise to him. We are not riding roughshod over the devolution settlements. The devolved Administrations will acquire dozens of new powers that they have not exercised before once we leave the EU transition period. The Bill is about ensuring that those powers are exercised in a non-discriminatory manner, but they will acquire new powers and new responsibilities. Before I address the specifics of Amendments 1, 2, 59 and 112, which we are discussing in this first group, I want to remind to noble Lords of why we need this Bill and the context of Part 1.
By opening with the purpose of the Bill, I hope to explain why these four amendments, which seek to alter the Bill’s core principles, are not necessary. The Bill aims to allow the continuing smooth functioning of our UK internal market at the end of the transition period. As we set out in the White Paper, and as I explained at Second Reading, the Bill will establish a market access commitment by enshrining mutual recognition and non-discrimination in law. Part 1 concerns itself with delivering this market access commitment for goods. The principle of mutual recognition is that goods and services from one part of the UK will continue to be recognised across the country. This will ensure the devolved Administrations will benefit from their additional powers and freedoms outside the EU. As the transition period ends, they will gain increased powers, as I said to my noble friend Lord Cormack, to set their own rules and standards across a wide range of policy areas within their competence. At the same time, it provides firm assurance to our businesses that their goods can continue to flow freely throughout the United Kingdom. Non-discrimination ensures that there is continued equal opportunity for companies to trade in the UK, regardless of where in the UK the business is based.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Empey, that the measures in the Bill will also ensure that Northern Ireland qualifying goods benefit from the market access commitment and receive mutual recognition in the rest of the UK. The Bill will also affirm the principle that those goods are not subject to checks, controls or administrative processes as they move from Northern Ireland to Great Britain. I hope that I can reassure the noble Lord on that point. This means we will fulfil our commitment to legislate for unfettered access, as we promised to the people and businesses of Northern Ireland. This will ensure that businesses and citizens in the United Kingdom can continue to trade freely across the four nations.
With this context in mind, I turn to Amendments 1 and 112 together. These seek respectively to limit the purpose of Part 1 and the Office for the Internal Market’s statutory objective to the protection of the environment and consumer interests. Now, it goes without saying that the protection of the environment and consumers is hugely important, and something that we as a Government are already committed to. The UK, as I never tire of repeating, has some of the highest standards in the world, and we will continue to improve these ahead of others. We remain committed to being at the forefront of environmental protection and a leader in setting ambitious targets to prevent damage to our natural world, building on our already strong environmental record. For example, we have set out a range of new policies in the Environment Bill that are designed to drive up environmental standards in line with the UK’s priorities.
The statutory objective of the Competition and Markets Authority—acting as the Office for the Internal Market—ensures that the office is able to effectively operate as the monitoring body for the internal market, and that there is no confusion between the pre-existing powers of the CMA and those newly conferred on it as the OIM. Distinct objectives will prevent any operationally problematic blurring of functions.
As my noble friend Lady Noakes observed, the office will operate for the benefit of all those with an interest in a smooth-functioning internal market, whether that be regulators, businesses, professionals, the four legislatures or indeed consumers. Explicitly narrowing its focus to consumers would be to the detriment of all the others that I have listed.
Moreover, the functions set out in Part 4 of the Bill clearly establish that the office will consider the economic impacts of regulatory measures on the internal market. Although some of these will of course be environmental protection measures, it will not be authorised to opine on the extent to which these measures safeguard the environment, because this would risk duplicating the role of existing public bodies with a purely environmental focus. As such, given how much the Government are already doing in the area of consumer and environmental protection, I consider that these amendments, which seek to change the purpose of the Bill, are unnecessary, and I hope that I have been able to persuade my noble friend Lady McIntosh and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, to withdraw Amendment 1 and not move Amendment 112.
Amendment 2 aims to introduce the principles of proportionality and subsidiarity into the Bill as additional market access principles. These are European law principles. We have now left the EU and are free to organise our internal market in a way that is better suited to the UK’s unique constitutional arrangements and common-law systems. I agree with my noble friend Lady Noakes that the market access principles will protect seamless trade and jobs across all four corners of the United Kingdom following the end of the transition period in December 2020. They have been designed for the UK’s specific devolution arrangements and legal approach, and they already take account of the need for reasonableness and respect for devolution. In contrast, the proposed amendment would muddy the waters with EU concepts that in our view are ill-fitting in the UK. For these reasons, the Government cannot accept this amendment and I hope that noble Lords will not move it.
Amendment 59, on which there was considerable discussion, seeks to disapply the market access principles from the public procurement rules. I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and the noble Lords, Lord Purvis and Lord Fox, that the principles proposed in the Bill will not typically operate in the area of public procurement, and indeed that we intend to legislate separately in this area via a wider package of procurement reform, on which we will shortly consult. The market access principles are not relevant to procurement as they are about how business is regulated. The procurement rules cover how public authorities carry out their procurement function. We believe that the risk of divergence can be effectively managed through a combination of close devolved Administration engagement and use of the common frameworks, and we are working to develop a concordat on expected public procurement practices and policies between the four UK nations.
Lastly, on the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, about the Scottish deposit return scheme, if that legislation comes into force after
My Lords, while I am grateful that the Minister has confirmed to me that a piece of legislation that has been made fully compliant with our single market—the deposit return scheme—will now come into scope under this legislation, because it is not yet in force in Scotland, that will be of very significant concern to Members of the Scottish Parliament, who legislated in good faith in a perfectly legal way. This Government have now said that that will come into scope, contrary to the market access principles, because it will not be able to be afforded protection if it is challenged in court because of the lack of environmental objections. I take the Minister’s point that he believes that it will be brought under the scope of market access principles, so I would be grateful if he could write to me to explain how indeed that will happen. If it is under a framework, we are back to exactly where we started, which is that the best approach on all these aspects is a framework.
That leads me to the question that I wish to ask him, because he did reply to the question that I asked about the status of the agreement made between the UK Government and the devolved Administrations on the framework agreement. In the document of September 2020 on the framework analysis, the Government repeated what that agreement was. I will quote from it again for the Minister: it was to
“maintain, as a minimum, equivalent flexibility for tailoring policies to the specific needs of each territory, as is afforded by current EU rules”.
The document goes on to say:
“These principles continue to guide all discussions between the UK Government and the devolved administrations on common frameworks.”
What is the basis of that document and that commitment, given what the Minister has just said in responding on this group: namely, that that is an ill-fitted set of agreements because we are now out of the EU? What is the status of the agreement that was made over the frameworks?
Well, as I have said before to the noble Lord, we remain completely committed to the framework process and we remain committed to frameworks that have already been agreed—but we see this legislation as complementary to that, as it underpins the entire framework process. As I said to him with regard to the deposit return scheme, if it comes into force when it is predicted to do so, then indeed it will be covered by the market access principles, but we are confident that the deposit return scheme can be brought into effect in full compliance with the market access principles.
I am slightly lost on that, but we will come back to it. I thank the Minister for his response and I am grateful for the very interesting debate that has happened. I will say a few words about what was said by the noble Baronesses, Lady Noakes and Lady Bowles, about the point of competition and why it should be here. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, that competition is extremely good for consumers. We want to see a successful economy, and I see no difference whatever in what he was spelling out and what we want to achieve.
The problem, of course, is where, for whatever reason, there is not a perfect market. Although here we are talking about goods rather than financial services, I was involved in the Financial Services Consumer Panel, and even though we had and still have—although Covid is throwing everything out—a thriving financial services market that has been good for the economy, for consumers and for the taxpayer, it has sometimes been, as we know from all the compensation that had to be paid, at the expense of consumers. So we cannot assume, simply because we have a good, thriving economy and lots of competition, that there are not sometimes disadvantages for consumers. That is why it is important, while we want a competitive, thriving market, to make sure that those protections are there. So as we look forward to the internal market being all the things that have been described, it cannot be at the price of consumers.
As I have said, I really support competition—we all used to wear NHS glasses until someone freed up the market, so we are all able to get nice red ones now. I doubt there is anything much between us on that. It is important, though, as we look forward to a market that is going to work for the whole UK, that it is not at the expense of consumers or the environment. I have been buying plants recently, hoping that one day we will have some good weather, but they should not be in peat pots. That is not good for the environment. Something may be good for consumers and at a good price, but you also need to consider the environmental aspect.
Consumers are not just interested in price; they are interested in safety and the longevity of products. However, that is not always something they can see at the point of purchase. Price is very easy for consumers: they can look at it and compare. Other things behind the price are also important. It is important as we look to a new market mechanism that we take that into account. I am sorry to have gone on a bit about this issue but as we will come back to it on Report, it is probably helpful for the Minister to understand. We may not have got the wording quite right: I am not trying to trump the Government but to point out why those elements need to be included.
On the devolution issue, the noble Lord, Lord Empey, is right that there is a clash between the settlements and what we are now trying to do with the internal market; I think he called it a collision between London and the regions. I hear very much what the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said: that if we get this wrong, we are threatening something much bigger than any of us thought. No Brexiteer wanted to challenge the union; that was not what divided some of us who had divisions on that issue.
We need to look at how we deal with devolution. I was really taken by the example that the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, gave of the IGC process that led to the single market and other things. I will come on to that way of working when we consider a different group of amendments. The confidence to do things in a shared and consensual way is important. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, said that it would probably be important to put in the Bill retention of the subsidiarity and proportionality principles. They have guided us well and there is no reason why we should lose them, just because we are leaving. I think we will return to that issue.
On procurement, I think the arguments were fairly common between us. I am afraid I was slightly thrown by what the Minister said and will have to read later exactly what he said about separate legislation. Maybe we can exchange correspondence on that issue, and on the timing. Clearly, we will need to come back to procurement to ensure that we have something that will work for all four nations. For the moment—and I am sorry about the length of my response—I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
Amendment 2 not moved.