Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill - Second Reading – in the House of Lords at 4:34 pm on 6th February 2023.
Moved by Lord Fox
At end insert “but regrets that the Bill (1) weakens the scrutiny role of Parliament and proposes unparalleled delegated powers be given to Ministers of the Crown, (2) does not respect the constitutional role of the devolved administrations, (3) sets an arbitrary deadline for the revocation of many hundreds of laws protecting the United Kingdom’s high environmental standards, as well as employment and consumer rights and safety standards, with no indication of the rules that will replace them, and (4) imposes a cliff-edge at the end of 2023 that will create uncertainty for people and businesses”.
My Lords, I draw attention to my non-pecuniary interests as a vice-president of the German-British Chamber of Commerce and a director of the German British Forum. I associate my thoughts with the Minister in anticipation of the two maiden speeches by the noble Baronesses.
As we have heard, the Bill seeks to make major changes to the body of retained EU law in UK domestic law. It aims to automatically revoke, or sunset, most retained EU law at the end of 2023. Any retained EU law that still applies after the end of 2023 would be renamed as assimilated law. At this point, I stop agreeing with the Minister, because this Bill hands huge powers to Ministers at the expense of elected MPs.
Your Lordships might have become immune to the Henry VIII clauses that have been propagated by Bill after Bill coming before this House, but this Bill represents a new, unprecedented level of transfer of power from Parliament to the Executive. It gives Ministers powers to legislate in areas that affect every aspect of our daily lives without any meaningful democratic input. Far from creating new high standards, as has been promised by Minister after Minister, the replacement legislation cannot increase standards: it can only keep them the same or make them lower. Moreover, the impractical timetable imposed by the sunset clause indicates clearly that this Government know that their race is run.
The reaction across key communities and committees across Parliament is very clear—I have never received so much comment from civil society as I have on this Bill. It is not only anti-democratic; it is ill thought through and badly drafted. For example, the impact assessment was roundly criticised by the Regulatory Policy Committee. Then, just last week, the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee issued its verdict, which is damning. I am sure your Lordships will refer to it in more detail, but crucially, to my mind, the DPRRC highlights the false dichotomy epitomised by the Bill.
As the committee explains, the Government create such a dichotomy by saying that replacing all retained EU law purely through sector-specific primary legislation would take decades. That might be so, but the committee also notes that this is a false choice between replacing all such legislation with primary legislation and replacing all of it with regulations made by Ministers. There is another way. The choice is not all primary legislation or all ministerial edict. The advice of the Bar Council is a useful suggestion for the way we should go forward. It says of the legislation under review
“the question should be whether it remains fit for purpose: would alternative UK regulation achieve different and preferable goals, be better or more cost-effective in achieving its goals, or more certain in its application?”
In other words, this approach is to improve legislation where appropriate, which reflects the thinking on these Benches.
The Bar Council also outlines two overarching concerns regarding the Bill. First, it says, as do many others, that it is anti-democratic, noting:
“Important changes to our law should be made by Parliament after proper consultation, public debate, and scrutiny.”
This echoes many of the comments that we have heard. Secondly, the Bar Council says:
“The Bill and the attendant legal uncertainty that will follow its adoption as currently drafted will damage the UK’s reputation for regulatory stability, predictability, and competence, on which growth-promoting investment in critical sectors of our economy depends.”
I will be interested to hear what the lawyers in your Lordships’ House have to say about the need to establish brand-new case law right across the piece. For my part, I note that the Bill also grabs back power from the devolved authorities. I am sure my noble friend Lady Randerson will expand on that theme later today.
However you look at it, this is an unprecedented upheaval of the nation’s laws, yet when I listen to the Minister and his colleagues across Parliament, somehow it is depicted as a sort of tidying-up process. Indeed, Jacob Rees-Mogg described it as a “technical tidying up operation”. I do not know what tidying up looks like in the Rees-Mogg household, but this is not light dusting. To stretch a metaphor, it is the equivalent of tidying up the family nursery by completely dismantling Casa Mogg brick by brick and then putting it back together again. That is quite a task, and there is no guarantee of what comes out at the end.
In this case, what is rebuilt is up to Secretaries of State and them alone, and we all know how such grand designs end: in cost overruns, changes, delays and unexpected problems, but, unlike with the TV programme, there is no guarantee that this real and present story has any pleasing outcome—none whatever.
The tidy-up story would perhaps have a shred of credibility if Ministers were not at the same time pandering to the likes of Sir Bill Cash, who expressed the views of the ultras very well when he said that retained EU law is
“a massive ball and chain”,—[
Of course, this process also effectively does away with much of the legislation delivered by thousands of statutory instruments passing through your Lordships’ House. As your Lordships no doubt recall, these incorporated retained EU law into British law to avoid what was then described as a chaotic bonfire of regulation as we left the EU, but it seems we delayed that bonfire a few years because a bonfire is what is now proposed in this Bill. This fire will impact a vast range of areas, including consumer rights, safety regulations of all kinds, protecting the environment and, of course, employment rights. No doubt many noble Lords will have detailed examples of these issues as we debate the Bill today.
As well as a power grab and a deregulator’s paradise, this Bill is also likely to deliver something that this Government have excelled at, which is chaos. The Bill, say Ministers, is designed to support business interests—indeed, we heard the Minister say that just now—but we hear from business that it will create chaos and poor governance, rather than stability. This will undermine confidence and will be likely to have a negative impact on business investment in the economy, something I am sure the Minister would prefer to be going in the opposite direction.
Speaking last month, Tony Danker, the director-general of the CBI, argued that scrapping these 4,000 or so EU-derived laws by the end of 2023, as facilitated by the Bill, was
“creating huge uncertainty for UK firms”.
As he put it:
“Do we really want to subject the public—and industry—to another round of mass confusion and disruption, just when we’re trying to exit recession?”
In his view, and ours, EU laws should be reviewed and, where needed, repealed as part of a wider strategy to deliver smart and better regulation. He noted that the Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, is currently reviewing how the UK can better regulate emerging technologies—for example, some of those that the Minister reeled off. The sensible thing, said Danker, would be to wait for that review and act on it systematically. We see the same attitude and response across business. The Federation of Small Businesses, the car makers and most of UK manufacturing do not want the confusion that this Bill will deliver.
Your Lordships’ Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee has worked fast, and should be credited for that, to ensure that its extensive report is available to inform this debate. The committee focuses on the sunset provisions and the lack of effective scrutiny of secondary legislation, but in a broader sense, its view is important and something I would like your Lordships to take on board. It said:
“Amending the Bill so that the shift in power between Parliament and the executive is reversed will require a great deal of thought and creativity, and commitment to the overarching aim of redressing the current imbalance of power.”
In other words, there is a lot to do to this Bill to make it acceptable. We agree that this going to be a difficult job, but we commit to doing it, because we feel it is vital to ensure that MPs maintain a grip on the legislative process rather than, as the Bill commands, hand decisions solely to Ministers.
This amendment highlights why this Bill is wrong. It is wrong because it weakens the scrutiny role of Parliament and gives unparalleled delegated powers to Ministers. It is wrong because it does not respect the constitutional role of the devolved Administrations. It is wrong because it sets an arbitrary deadline for the repeal of numerous laws that protect the UK’s environmental standards, safety standards, employment rights and consumer rights, and it is wrong because it creates uncertainty for businesses and individuals. I beg to move.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Fox, and to welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Bray, and my noble friend Lady O’Grady; I look forward to their maiden speeches. I take this opportunity particularly to welcome my noble friend, who has been an inspiration to women throughout the labour movement for many years—especially since she spent time in the 1980s with my husband organising members to join the T&G, some of it spent hanging around outside the back of hotels and other such salubrious places. I know that she will never forget her roots; her being here today just goes to show what a great engine of social mobility the trade union movement can be. I very much look forward to her speech.
Six years ago, when the Government introduced the then European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, which ensured that EU-derived law was incorporated into UK law, I sat in the other place and listened carefully to the Secretary of State as he laid out the Government’s case. That day, he told us:
“The key point of this Bill is to avoid significant and serious gaps in our statute book. It ensures that consumers can be clear about their protection, employees can be clear about their rights, and businesses can be clear about the rules that regulate their trade.”—[Official Report, Commons, 7/9/17; col. 334.]
Somehow, incredibly, the Government have come full circle. This new Bill does the exact opposite. Faced with no external pressure or deadline, the Government are willingly creating their own cliff edge: generating uncertainty rather than reducing it; creating gaps in our legal framework rather than filling them; bringing chaos to the structure of rights, protections and standards on which so much business, trade, employment and environmental protection depends. That is why the opposition to the Bill is so broad and has come from such diverse quarters. It is no mean feat to unify the CBI and the TUC, industry and environmentalists, farmers and factory owners, twitchers and anglers, doctors and lawyers, national parks and the National Trust, Scottish Parliament and Welsh Senedd, and many, many more. All are united in opposition to this Government’s plans. The CBI says that the Government is subjecting
“the public—and industry—to another round of mass confusion and disruption, just when we’re trying to exit recession.”
The TUC has called the Bill a “recipe for chaos”. The Institute of Directors says that it
“will impose a major new burden on business”.
The Federation of Small Businesses wants the sunset provisions removed. The National Farmers’ Union fears that it could unintentionally remove important regulatory safeguards. The Marine Conservation Society says that it
“poses a huge threat to marine life and environmental protections”.
The RSPB says that it will put at risk thousands of crucial laws that protect the natural environment and public health. The Government’s own Regulatory Policy Committee has called the Bill “not fit for purpose”.
It would be hard to find a less popular proposal but, despite the warnings of this unprecedented coalition, the Government plough ahead regardless, closing their ears to warning and criticism, with a Bill that is reckless, unpopular and—worst of all—unnecessary. The Bill is not about Brexit. We have left the European Union; we have been out of the EU for three years and the referendum was the best part of a decade ago. These questions are nothing to do with leave or remain; they are not even principally about our future relationship with the EU, although that too, like so much else, could be affected by this legislation. Principally at issue are how we govern our own country, how we regulate our economy, how we ensure rights for workers, how we protect the environment, and the proper role of this Parliament in making those decisions.
No one could reasonably object to revisiting specific laws derived from the EU in a sensible, orderly fashion. It is right and reasonable to ask whether there are areas in which we can do things differently or better—that is the essence of competent government—but what is needed is a smart approach to regulatory change. Ensuring that workers’ rights, consumer protections and environmental standards are maintained or indeed enhanced; carefully considering where we might do things differently and what should stay the same, on a case-by-case basis; listening to stakeholders from business and civil society; respecting the proper role of the devolved Administrations; and promoting a race to the top, not to the bottom—that would be the approach taken by a Labour Government. Instead, we have this uniquely reckless and wrong-headed approach to legislative change.
The Bill is unlike any other that I have seen in my time in either House. There are multiple reasons why in its current form it does not deserve to be on the statute book, but I shall focus on four. The first is the dangerous presumption in the Bill to remove all law which is not specifically retained; the second is the legislative cliff edge created by the so-called sunset clause; the third is the risk that it poses to rights and protections in countless fields; and the fourth is the extraordinary and unjustifiable powers given to Ministers of the Crown, and the disrespect shown to Parliament. I will take each in turn.
First, the upshot of the intention to remove all EU-derived law by default is one simple and absurd fact: no one knows exactly what laws will be revoked at the end of the year. The Government certainly do not know. They are still merrily adding new legislation to their online dashboard, checking behind government sofas for some other scroll of vellum that they may have overlooked. Nothing illustrates this farcical process more than the fact that, between the Bill passing Third Reading in the Commons and arriving before noble Lords today, another 1,000 pieces of legislation were added to the pile. Some may still be removed without being identified first, with indeterminate consequences. This is legislative Jenga. Never before in my time in either House have a Government brought forth a piece of legislation whose legal scope they are unable to define. The Government’s proposal is that this House should give Ministers the power to remove laws without them being able to say which laws will be removed. That is a nonsensical way to govern.
The second objection is to the sunset clause. All EU law that is not specifically retained will be revoked by the end of the year. That creates a completely arbitrary and unnecessary regulatory cliff edge at a time when business is crying out for stability. In fact, the Bill in effect contains three sunset clauses—2023, 2026 and for ever—since, under Clause 1(2), Ministers can choose to retain EU law until they choose to change it. If you were trying to design a Bill to undermine business confidence and inward investment, it would be hard to do a better job than this one. The Bill says to business, “The current rules that you operate under—the rules that you understand, rely on and are compliant with—may cease to exist at the end of the year. We can’t say which rules for certain yet, we can’t say what they will be replaced with, and the decision will be made by the Business Secretary on a whim.” If the Minister disagrees, could he tell the CBI, the FSB, the British Chamber of Commerce and the Institute of Directors why it is them who are wrong?
The cliff edge will generate an extraordinary volume of work for civil servants, especially in those departments with a large body of retained EU law, such as Defra. According to the Government’s own dashboard, Defra will have to assess, revise or amend more than 1,700 pieces of law—more than four pieces of law every day between now and the end of the year. That is not achievable. As the consumer watchdog Which? has said, this time pressure creates the risk of mistakes or errors that could have serious consequences. It is also a massive opportunity cost. That is why the RSPB says that the Bill will
“derail urgent action to tackle the nature and climate crisis” by consuming the resources of departments. Amid a recession and a cost of living crisis, can frantically combing through a back catalogue of law against a self-imposed deadline really be the right use of Civil Service time? I know that many members of the Minister’s own party share these reservations about the sunset clause. It is not a partisan point; it is about competent government—and that brings me to my third principal objection.
This Bill puts at risk many crucial rights and standards and expects trust in the Secretary of State to be a substitute for legal protection. Let us just consider some of the areas covered by retained EU law, such as environmental protection, food safety, civil aviation codes, noise pollution, biosecurity, vehicle standards and employment law. Many of these protections were hard fought and hard won. They cannot be crudely dismissed as abstract red tape. Protections for pregnant women from workforce discrimination, paid annual leave, parental leave, protections for part-time employees, limits on weekly working hours—many of these rights and protections disproportionately affect women and the impact assessment recognises in three separate paragraphs that the Bill contains a threat to equality.
We cannot accept a situation in which these vital protections could be changed at the whim of the Business Secretary. This is made worse by Clause 15, which confirms that rights and protections can go in only one direction: down. The requirement to not increase burdens ensures there can be no race to the top on standards and rights. We must be clear that diminishing our standards could have serious implications for trade. It will complicate the issues created by the Northern Ireland protocol, make it harder to remove barriers in the Irish Sea and could create new difficulties in our trade with the EU.
Finally, I want to address the lack of scrutiny and accountability. This is another Bill brought forward in the name of Brexit that, rather than restoring parliamentary sovereignty, continues a trend of growing executive power. The Bill sidelines Parliament, minimises scrutiny, weakens accountability and hands Ministers unreasonable and unjustifiable powers. To do so in the name of democracy is double-speak.
The Bill contains no requirement for public consultation or impact assessments of proposed changes. Any parliamentarian who wishes to scrutinise or object to future legislation replacing retained law will be taking a gamble because, unless that legislation is passed in time, the current law in its entirety will simply fall away. The sunset clause puts a gun to Parliament’s head. This cannot be the right way to make law in our country.
While we acknowledge that the Bill has passed in the other place and will not frustrate it, we continue to have grave concerns about this legislation. It threatens workers’ rights, environmental standards and consumer protections. It puts our country on course to a self-imposed cliff edge. It undermines scrutiny and accountability and will weaken Parliament. We will seek to amend the legislation to address these issues.
This Bill rests on a fundamentally simplistic and inaccurate view of what regulation is and who it is for. The Government are trying to please some fantasy version of business, still fighting Brexit ghosts in their heads. But business does not want an uncontrolled bonfire of regulation. The truth is that good regulation enables business and trade. It creates stability and predictability. It raises standards. It protects companies as well as consumers, employers as well as workers. The truth is this Bill is a political hangover—the last promise of a Government who collapsed as they made contact with reality. While people are still paying the price in higher mortgage bills, the Government can still spare the public and business the disruption this Bill will generate. I urge them to change course now.
My Lords, I am delighted to have the chance at last to speak again on one of my favourite subjects: getting rid of retained EU law from our statute book and supporting the Bill. It is also a pleasure to speak straight after the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman; I very much enjoyed our discussions across the Dispatch Box in 2021, but I am also glad that her undoubted eloquence, of which we have just heard another sample, and her untiring efforts have not yet succeeded in slowing the progress towards getting rid of the effect of EU law in this country.
I make that point because the immediate origins of the Bill lie in decisions I took as a Minister in 2021. But the real origins obviously go much further back: they are part of the logic of delivering a meaningful Brexit in which we have extricated ourselves properly and fully from the EU legal framework, and of the vision on which this party won an election in 2019.
We know the situation: we have on our statute book virtually all the laws we took on in the period of EU membership, thanks to the 2018 withdrawal Act. This came with all the related interpretative concepts: the supremacy of EU law, ECJ jurisprudence and so on. We even upgraded those laws to the status of primary legislation and prevented British courts from reinterpreting EU law doctrines. The effect has been to create a defined body of law, with its own concepts and rules, within the UK statute book. Obviously, such an arrangement can only be provisional; it can only ever be a “short-term bridging measure”, as I described it in a Statement in December 2021.
When it passes, the Bill will bring that situation to an end. It is the product of the work that began in 2021, when I announced that the Government would conduct a review that would start the process of removing the special status of retained EU and reviewing its content comprehensively. That review is complete, and the corpus of law is known. The Bill gives Ministers the necessary powers not only to deal with law on the statute book but to remove interpretive principles, such as those in Clause 4 of the 2018 Act. It is worth dwelling on that point: it is not even clear what law was retained by that clause, as has been noted. It simply enables lawyers to say, “Whatever the law was before, it now is afterwards”—and we cannot live with that sort of uncertainty on our statute book.
Getting this right is necessary to make Brexit work properly. It may be that some noble Lords in this Chamber opposed Brexit and do not want it to work—
I know it is hard to believe. I would understand their opposition to the Bill. But noble Lords who profess to accept Brexit surely must accept the logic of the Bill. It makes no sense for this whole body of rules with special status to remain in place on our statute book for a prolonged period. Practically, our lawyers, judges and civil servants cannot deal with two separate statute books, with completely different interpretive principles and case law. We must find a way of changing this and assimilating these laws into our legal system, adjusting and redrafting as necessary.
I recognise that some critics of the Bill will say, “We accept that, but the pace and the process are the problem”. Responding to that, I point to the nature of the powers that will be granted, the criticism of which has been absurdly exaggerated. They are targeted at a specific set of laws, and they exclude any powers to deal with the fundamentals of primary legislation; they are about secondary legislation changing secondary legislation. I cannot see the difficulty with this. It is relevant that this legislation was passed by a body outside this country, often against the opposition of this Government.
To finish, these inherited EU laws have little real legitimacy now that we have left the system that created them. We cannot leave them there for decades while we get around to passing endless primary legislation to replace laws that never came in in that way in the first place.
The noble Lord really must draw his comments to a close.
I will do. We lived for 47 years under a system in which we did not control our own laws. The Bill is not only necessary and essential; it is unavoidable and part of the logic of Brexit. I look forward to supporting it now and in Committee.
Your Lordships’ House has been sent the Bill by the elected House of Commons to, in effect, snuff out the elected House of Commons from its role in primary legislation and to subordinate Parliament to Ministers in respect of nearly 4,000 items of legislation, in which the elected House will have no role. I was not sent to this House in 2001 to oversee the dismantling of the accountability of the Government to Parliament in order to make Parliament accountable to Government.
The Government’s delegated powers memorandum indicates in paragraph B that a key role of the Bill is
“restoring the primacy of Acts of Parliament in UK statute.”
That is not achieved by the Bill. The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 made repeated references to Parliament making the changes to law after the exit from the EU. However, according to the Bill, Ministers alone will decide what happens to retained EU law, with no role for Parliament.
Members will have seen the delegated powers report on the Bill. Our approach is meticulous and concerned not with policy but with the use of delegated powers. These are constructed in a way to remove power from Parliament. In fact, the Bill is the concluding evidence that the Government have not intended, are not intending and do not intend to pay the slightest attention to the reports debated as recently as
“I think things have changed a lot.”
Yes, they have; and the Bill is proof that government counsel are not fit for purpose as far as the primacy of Parliament and the House of Commons is concerned. I do not buy the “only following orders” defence given by Dame Elizabeth when she said that
“we have a key role in what the Bill looks like, but we do not decide on its contents”; it is
“a political and policy decision.”
If they had any professional self-respect, there would have been a resignation of counsel on a par with that of Sir Jonathan Jones, the former head of the Government Legal Service, in 2020. Anyone associated with drafting the Bill should not be welcome in a regime that believes that the Government are accountable to Parliament.
My Lords, the sheer number of speakers is an indication of just how concerned Members of this House are about this legislation. At the time of the Brexit vote, the Government promised that reforming the laws previously vested in Europe would rest solely with Parliament, giving both Houses the opportunity to review legislation suitable for the country. However, what we have before us is the exact opposite: the power to restate, revoke, replace or update retained EU legislation will rest entirely in the hands of Ministers. That is neither what the public voted for in 2016, nor what was contained in the Brexit Bill of 2018. The DPRRC is damming in its 25th report; other speakers will doubtless refer to it.
There is widespread concern that the Bill, in its current form, does not have the support of environmentalists across the country. Given the earlier short debate on the environmental improvement plan, which promises much, it is disappointing that the Bill makes little attempt to support the EIP.
The Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 protect more than 50 native UK species, many residing in special protection areas and special areas of conservation. These habitats will need protection if the UK is to meet its obligations under the GBF’s 30 by 30. Revoking this piece of legislation will have a catastrophic effect on endangered species.
In four minutes, it is impossible to deal with how concerned those involved in animal welfare, biodiversity, farming and food production are about the loss of legislation which has helped to protect our health and countryside. Some 44 existing laws concerning animal welfare could all be deleted by this Bill in a single stroke.
The NFU, while welcoming a review of retained EU laws, is very concerned at the speed with which it is proposed this will be carried out and that any EU-originated law that exists beyond 2023 will be referred to as “assimilated law”. It has disquiet that legislation will be discarded without a proper assessment, including vital stakeholder consultation.
Will the Government give firm assurances that this process can be undertaken with due care and attention, while properly involving stakeholders, in the short timeframe proposed? Will the Government also ensure that sufficient parliamentary oversight will be provided, given the significant impact on farming businesses, so essential to food production?
The Government’s dashboard gives a rough indication of the number of pieces of legislation to be dealt with. This started at 2,500 and has risen to over 3,500. Of these, Defra has the largest group of all. Some of the briefs I have received set this figure at 1,700. If we assume that the process of sifting through begins the moment the Bill finishes its passage in approximately mid-March, taking every sitting day from Monday to Thursday until
My Lords, I think I am the only Member of the House who received this letter by special messenger. Having received it, I think I had better read it to your Lordships. It is from the Executive and it is called “Restoring Parliamentary control”. This is how it reads, ignoring the introductions:
“To achieve the object of restoring control back to Parliament, please would you surrender to the Executive powers to repeal or otherwise nullify or dispose of as we think fit some 4,000 or so statutory instruments of great public importance, such as employment laws, environment laws, food safety laws, et cetera (which covers existing laws of which we are still unaware)? These laws were imposed on us by the European Union, but we do have to admit that was with your consent in 1972 in primary legislation. In any event, that is a long time ago and we can reduce the troublesome processes of consent to a virtual formality which would save you all much time and work.
We shall exercise these new revocation powers by the end of the year, but we do not yet know what we shall replace them with. But if we do not manage to replace them or any of them, notwithstanding the urgency, we shall do so by June 2026 or whenever.
Now we must clarify the replacement process. Please would you also surrender to the Executive powers to decide which of three distinct processes may be used for the replacement process for each individual statutory instrument? These are: first, power to decide not to replace any of the relevant laws that we have revoked; secondly, on whatever basis that we think appropriate to replace such laws to achieve their or similar objectives; and, thirdly, to make fresh new laws to cover the topics addressed in the 4,000 or so statutory instruments which have been revoked and make alternative provisions, whether or not the provision achieves the same or similar objectives, as we think appropriate.
Finally, we ask you to surrender power to us to enable the use of secondary legislation to change any existing statute which may have any bearing on the exercise of any of the powers you have surrendered to us in relation to the 4,000 statutory instruments. PS Existing statute includes this very Act itself.
By agreeing to all these separate surrenders, Parliament will have taken back control. We trust you agree.”
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the very witty speech from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge. Whenever I negotiated laws in Brussels, my ministerial brief usually began, “We don’t want this measure, Minister, but we cannot stop it. The best we can hope is to negotiate one or two amendments from the long list we have proposed to you”. I therefore fully support the need to revise, retain or repeal EU law and I urge Ministers to rake out these old negotiating briefs, which will reduce the burden of work on departments when deciding what revisions to propose.
That said, I largely share the concerns expressed by noble Lords about the constraints on parliamentary scrutiny and the limited time to complete this process. I understand their fears that this could result in poor revision, and even wholesale repeal of necessary legislation. However, I also understand the fears that led the Government to adopt this tight timetable, and I think the latter fears negate and should dispel the former. Let me explain why. As parliamentarians, especially in this Chamber, whose only power is to make the other House consider our amendments and arguments, we are bound to want the maximum time and strongest procedures to fulfil that function. It is true that almost all these 4,000 laws went through Parliament under the biggest Henry VIII clause of all time—the European Communities Act 1972—with little debate and without a vote, and they would have become law even if every Member of this and the other House had voted against them.
Many noble Lords now calling for more scrutiny never complained about that lack of scrutiny in the past. I rejoice in their damascene conversion to the supremacy of Parliament—there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repenteth than 99 just men who need no repentance—but when they suggest that taking back control is meaningless without maximal parliamentary scrutiny, they are exaggerating the purpose of Brexit with the zeal of converts. Brexit was, above all, about the British people getting back control. As my referendum leaflet put it:
“In a democracy, if the Government does not deliver ... the people can throw them out.”
The Government will be accountable to the British people at the next election, not least for how they handle these 4,000 laws, and that is the accountability that lies behind the timetable the Government have set for getting this done. I was surprised by the timetable and when I asked Ministers to take it at a more leisurely pace, they explained that it is essential to complete this process before the next election, not because we promised to get Brexit done but, above all, because this is the only way we can prove to the electorate that the scare stories about the process that we heard today are false. Completing the process will show that the Bill was not about removing workers’ rights or demolishing environmental protection or safety standards; nor will it result in huge gaps in our law book. The fact that the Government intend to complete this process in time to face up to their accountability to the electorate makes most of the scare stories ring hollow.
If we had world enough and time, we would undertake this process in a more leisurely fashion, but we do not, so I entirely support my noble friend’s wish to get it done as speedily as possible by processes that are as rigorous as those by which the legislation was introduced, and thereby demonstrate that all the scare stories are untrue.
My Lords, with the agreement of the usual channels, I have swapped places in the batting order with my noble friend Lady Andrews. I look forward with great pleasure to the maiden speeches of the noble Baroness, Lady Bray, and, in particular, my noble friend Lady O’Grady. She has done a lot for this country; the calm, decent way in which she has expressed common-sense views has raised the stature of the trade union movement in British society. That is one reason why, in the present wave of industrial unrest, the Government cannot pin the blame on the trade unions as they have so often successfully done in the past.
This must rank as one of the silliest pieces of legislation ever to come before Parliament. I was surprised to see the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, in his place to defend the Bill, because the strategy it sets out is completely different from what he advocated when he presented the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill to us some time ago. I do not know quite how he justifies this change of position. This legislation is not necessary to get Brexit done. That legislation was. He put forward the withdrawal Bill and we retained in British law the legislative output of nearly 50 years of EU membership, the vast majority of which—with respect to the noble Lord, Lord Lilley—the British Government certainly agreed to. In some cases, such as that relating to the single market, they pioneered and promoted it.
The approach now being adopted is quite different. The noble Lord, Lord Callanan, said that we would incorporate EU law and take a rational, sectoral approach to trying to change it in the light of what we thought the main challenges of Brexit would be. That rational approach has been abandoned. I would have hoped that this sectoral approach would continue; I am glad that the Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, is conducting these studies—that is fine—but to put an atomic bomb, totally irrationally, under what is in our statute is ridiculous.
When we debated Brexit, the Government told us that we would have higher standards in a lot of areas than we had enjoyed in the EU. Michael Gove was adamant on this in terms of environment and farming, and the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, was always telling us how we would have higher standards in employment. However, the fact is that this legislation does not permit higher standards; it allows only a lowering of standards. That is why it is so objectionable.
I am out of time but could go on about this for ever. It is a disgraceful piece of legislation and I hope that this House will tear it apart.
My Lords, “Take back control” was a tempting offer. EU processes are often slow and frustrating; Brexiteers call them undemocratic but, if anything, they suffer from democracy overload—layers of decision-making subject to repeated democratic checks and balances. On the plus side, so many cooks stirring the broth rarely get the recipe wrong. However, with this Bill, all pretence has been dropped. The DPRRC calls it a “hyper-skeletal” Bill giving “extraordinary powers” to Ministers and, importantly, says:
“Ministers, not Parliament, will be responsible for determining what stays, what goes and what, if anything, is to replace what goes.”
I wish to touch on two issues, the first of which is devolution. The Bill does not just take powers from Parliament; it also takes powers from the devolved Administrations. It un-devolves powers. Clause 2 allows UK Ministers to defer the guillotine until 2026, but Ministers in the DAs, which have previously held powers over many of these areas, are not able to defer the guillotine. I realise it will not worry the Government, but it is almost certain that the Senedd and the Scottish Parliament will not grant legislative consent.
On transport, this massive clearance sale of EU laws creates uncertainty. We do not know which will go and which will stay. The dashboard currently has 424 transport laws. When will the full list be published? Businesses must know where they stand: lack of democracy is compounded by a lack of transparency. How can we be debating a Bill which gives Ministers powers to change or repeal thousands of pieces of legislation, but we do not know how many and we do not know which ones. Clearly, the Department for Transport does not have the capacity to deal with this avalanche. This is the department that got 20 years behind in updating maritime legislation in line with our international treaty commitments. Rail cancellations and delays are at an all-time high, but the department does not have the time to introduce the Williams-Shapps reforms. It cannot find the time for long overdue legislation to regulate e-scooters. Our vehicle manufacturing industry risks terminal decline, but the Government cannot find time to update our vehicle standards legislation to bring it into line with the suite of EU vehicle safety regulations introduced last year. Those regulations save lives, and they help our manufacturers who need our standards to mirror those in the EU, which is their main export market. Over 4,000 pages of this legislation relate to aircraft safety, and I have yet to find anyone in the aviation sector who wants a comma of it changed. But the Government did find time last year to consult on their proposal to reduce our right to claim compensation for cancelled internal flights—an example, I think, of one of our Brexit freedoms.
Three years ago, the Government embarked on creating 32 common frameworks to regulate the way this legislation is dealt with alongside devolved Administrations. It was supposed to take a year; it has taken more three years. Finally, transposing EU law into UK law over a period of years is a reasonable aim; dealing with 4,000 pieces of legislation in 10 months by ministerial diktat is not. Either this Bill is a result of massive incompetence, or this is what totalitarianism looks like.
My Lords, like previous speakers, I welcome the maiden speeches we are going to hear and say that this is a very friendly gathering, and they will find they enjoy taking part in it.
I regret to say they have chosen to speak on what, in my view, is a bad Bill. There is no way you can get away from it. It is a bad Bill because it will create uncertainty in business and in our communities, and your Lordships have heard about the number of organisations which have made that clear. It is a bad Bill because it could do real harm in all sorts of areas by meddling very fast with things that matter to the community. Above all, it is a shocking Bill because it will undermine Parliament to a degree which, I think, is unprecedented by giving sweeping powers to the Executive. It will make important changes as a precedent to the way we do legislation. It is very important that Parliament asserts itself. If we are going to restore power and sovereignty to Parliament, this Bill is not restoring sovereignty to Parliament but taking it away.
What is the strategic objective that this Bill is meant to serve? I cannot see one. The only one is the wish to purge our statute book of EU-derived law and get rid of a ball and chain. That is an emotion. It is a strong emotion, but there is a policy void, and most good legislation comes in a context that makes sense. The body of EU-derived law that we have in this country, which is going to be abolished, has been built up and assimilated with the British legal system over 40 years or longer, in close consultation with businesses and communities affected, environmentally and otherwise. To throw it all out overnight will create a huge void in our legal system. There is not enough time for government to devise new measures to fill that void, let alone consult with business and others about them. This is a task for 10 years, not 10 months. It will take a huge amount of Civil Service time, which I would have thought, if I was head of the service still, was needed for other things that are also high priorities in our community.
Does all the law need to be replaced? Does it all need to be abolished in this time, aside from the law that is exempted? Let us be honest: some of the things the EU made us do over the years has been good. I am not going to embarrass my former Ministers, but I have had Ministers who have been delighted that the EU has pressed the British Government to do things they could not get their colleagues to do. That happened more than once. There are many examples where we have benefited from EU law, not least in facilitating trade. I find it very hard to understand. The EU is why we want to diverge from our largest trading partner. Why are we so intent on creating trade barriers? Why do we want our legal standards to diverge and make trade more difficult? Why are the Government so determined to make life difficult for British business, which is what this Bill is actually about?
If the EU-derived law is doing harm, let us identify that, have legislation and talk about it. Here, as so often, the hard work has not been done. Brexit is past; what we need to do now is find ways of exploiting the opportunities. Positive, hard work needs to be done: we need to go through the legal system to work out strategies for those industries that could benefit and bring legislation forward to Parliament, restore parliamentary sovereignty and work out ways to take advantage of Brexit—not just express emotion about Europe. I have learned through my career that there is such a thing as good government and there is such a thing as bad government. This Bill, I am sorry to say, is bad government.
My Lords, I must begin by welcoming the maiden speakers to this debate this afternoon. Thinking about the subject of our discussion, I cannot recall from my experience a more spurious case for legislation than the one advanced in support of this Bill. The reason I say that is that the legislation subject to the provisions of the Bill was put on the statute book by the British Parliament in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act. That is how we do these things in this country. It is a British law, like any other, subject to all the usual, time-honoured mechanisms, procedures, safeguards and conventions. The Bill adds nothing to what can be done already. It merely threatens further weakening of the checks and balances of our constitutional arrangements, as has been pointed out from all around the House, including by the Minister.
I probably ought to sit down having said that. But there is a lot of contextual noise that has a bearing on our debate. As the noble Lord who spoke before me said, Brexit is done. Brexit is now the one of the “vanished pomps of yesterday”—
“one with Nineveh and Tyre!”
What matters is the future. A Government’s convenience matters—particularly to the Government—but it is not a reason in itself to change our nation’s constitutional equilibrium and balance. What I might describe as “shorthand” legislation on contentious issues undermines the workings of our democratic process, which provides political legitimacy to our Governments and, in particular, to the acceptance of legislation with which one disagrees.
As has been said already in this debate, the relationship between the Executive and Parliament has already moved too far away from Parliament and should not be allowed to go further. Speakers have commented that many businesses of all kinds are, in the face of very considerable adversity, trading into the single market, albeit considerably less than hitherto. Gratuitous divergence from single market standards threatens industry and commerce, particularly those involved in supply chains.
The country is in a mess of all kinds. Resolving that should be our national priority, not promoting this particular piece of self-indulgent and frivolous distraction, trying to build a New Jerusalem in a few months. In short, it is simple: as has been said, reasoned change, good; what is proposed, bad. In a form of words I never thought I would use in this House, the case for this legislation is collapsing under its own internal contradictions; it should not be resuscitated and should be allowed to die where it falls.
My Lords, I rise to speak with mixed emotions on this piece of legislation. On the one hand, I voted to leave, and I have had no reason in my mind to change that view. I think the world order based on the individual nation state, which emerged after the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, has still some time to run. It may come to an end, but the nation state remains the basic building block, and that is why I voted to leave. As a result of that, my noble friend will be pleased to hear that I enthusiastically support the purposes behind this Bill—the “untangling” I think was the phrase he used in his opening remarks. But I am also a democrat, and I believe very strongly in maintaining an appropriate balance of power between the Government and Parliament.
Members of your Lordships’ House will be aware that, until Tuesday a week ago, I was for three and a half years chair of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, and some of our work has been very kindly referred to already this afternoon. During that three-and-a-half-year period, I am afraid I saw the Government begin to accrete powers at the expense of Parliament in various ways, but specifically by the use of what I call framework or skeleton Bills, in which only the broadest sense of the direction of policy travel is given, and all the detail is given in secondary legislation. Of course, we know that secondary legislation has a much lower level of scrutiny and, in particular, that it cannot be amended. Over the past year, the SLSC has produced a number of reports detailing this. Government by Diktat has been referred to already. My last task as chairman was to sign off the report we made on this Bill, which we titled Losing Control?: The Implications for Parliament of the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill. From that, it will be seen that I am not entirely happy with the position we now find ourselves in.
There are three things my noble friend could usefully think about to try to bridge the gap with those who would wish to support the principle and yet have some difficulty with the practice. The first would be the establishment of a proper triaging process to distinguish what is serious from what is trivial. Of the 600 or 700 regulations the SLSC looks at every year, probably more than two-thirds are quite uncontroversial, and I dare say the same will be true when we come to consider the 4,000 or so EU regulations that will come before us. There is no need, in my view, to get the vapours about that. But we definitely need a better procedure to examine that small number of regulations that carry significant policy implications. The procedure should, in my view, at the very least carry the opportunity for Parliament to ask the Government to think again.
I have two further quick suggestions in my last 45 seconds. First, I hope the Government will undertake to produce impact assessments for all the regulations they intend to change. It is important, because good impact assessments are not just about the money; they are how we learn about the thinking that went on, how the Government reached the decision they did and why certain policy options were adopted and others were not. Finally, we need a statutory undertaking to undertake post-implementation reviews—PIRs—on all regulations. PIRs show what happens when hope meets reality, and it is an important part of good governance that Governments should learn from past mistakes. It will be exceptionally important that we do that as we enter this new phase in our way of governing ourselves. I hope my noble friend can consider those as a way of meeting some of the concerns around the House without losing his particular objective.
My Lords, I thank your Lordships for the warmth of your welcome. In particular, my thanks are due to my noble friends Lady Prosser and Lord Monks, who guided me through my introduction, which was no easy task. I am all too aware that I have a lot to learn. I also thank the House of Lords staff for their support. As a former TUC leader, it is good to know that so many brilliant staff here are proud trade unionists too.
Many of the rights and liberties we cherish as a country began with working people standing together. In 1968, Rose Boland and the Ford sewing machinists went on strike for equal pay, which was a catalyst for the introduction of the Equal Pay Act. Many years later, their story was made into a popular British film, “Made in Dagenham”, which opened to rave reviews right across the media. But back in 1968, some of those same newspapers were far from sympathetic to the women’s action—a reminder that those who demonise workers on strike for fair pay today may well find themselves on the wrong side of history. Of course, the UK’s Equal Pay Act proved limited. It took EU directives to introduce the much more ambitious principle of equal pay for work of equal value, so I am grateful for the chance to contribute to this important debate about a Bill which the RPC has deemed, in terms of its impact assessment, “not fit for purpose”.
So many of the rights we rely on as workers were derived from the EU—for example, maternity rights. It is true, as we have heard, that the UK now provides more weeks of paid maternity leave than the minimum the EU set back then, although, shamefully, UK maternity provision is still a lot less generous than in many other European countries. In any case, this is not the whole story. EU law introduced other vital protections, including paid time off for antenatal appointments; new health and safety rights; and, where reasonable for new mums, the right to return to the same job. For pregnant women and new mothers, these rights really matter too and should not be casually overlooked. There are many other examples where EU-derived law lifted standards here, such as protection for workers whose jobs are outsourced or whose company becomes insolvent; equal pay and pensions for part-time workers; and, of course, limits on dangerously long working hours.
Good law is rarely made within arbitrary deadlines, without proper parliamentary scrutiny, and without listening to organisations that have real-world experience, expertise and—if I dare say it—a bit of shop-floor wisdom. Instead, as parliamentary committees have warned, the Bill gives Ministers unprecedented powers to disappear vital laws from the statute book, or to replace them with something worse. Ministers promise that there is no intention to rip up or water down rights, but the Bill prohibits the inclusion of so-called burdens ordained to be an obstacle to “profitability”. If that is the test, it is no wonder that workers are worried.
There could be implications for Britain’s trade, and therefore jobs, too. No doubt this House will keep a close eye on the “level playing field” labour clauses enshrined in the agreement with the EU that the UK Government signed up to. Back in 2019, Ministers also promised a new employment Bill which many hoped would tackle the British disease of zero-hours contracts, bogus self-employment and fire and rehire, but we are still waiting. It seems that there is a difference between a promise and a guarantee.
From Carillion and Amazon to Sports Direct and P&O Ferries, many working people feel that the scales of workplace justice are rigged against them. Profits, boardroom pay and shareholder payouts are up, but real wages are down. Surely the priority should be stronger collective rights for workers—ensuring that the decent employer is not undercut by the bad—and growing a greener economy built on fair trade, fair taxes and fair shares of the wealth that workers create.
I am a girl from Oxford—town, but not gown. Early in my working life, I was employed serving tables in Oxford colleges, but thankfully not in the Bullingdon Club. Ever since, I have always believed that whatever our race, religion or background, everyone should be treated with dignity and respect at work. I know that these are values which many across this House share, and I hope they will guide us when considering this bad Bill’s threat to rights which workers across generations and borders campaigned so hard to win.
My Lords, it is a great privilege to congratulate my noble friend on her marvellous maiden speech. It could not have been better. It was much anticipated, and she lived up to every expectation. It was inspirational, because that is the business she has been in all her life. Her speech told us as much about her character as her career and convictions and the way she lives her values. She spoke with huge authority about the long fight for fairness in the workplace and for equal rights, but she did not, because she is so modest, tell us about her own role over the years in achieving so much. She brings all that together with moderation and real-world knowledge, which is a winning combination in this House. Above all, as the first woman leader of the TUC, she knows what it takes to change things for the better, which is probably why her choice of discs on “Desert Island Discs” included Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”. I think we had a taste of that in her maiden speech, and I am sure that is what we can look forward to in her role in this House. We are proud not just on these Benches; she will be an asset to the whole House.
I turn after that moment of optimism to the grim realities of the Bill in front of us. In the words of one Minister in this House, the scale of the task it represents against a disingenuous and unachievable timeline is “herculean”. The deliberate risks that the Government are prepared to take in the face of huge public anxiety, with the rush to the cliff edge over which many vital laws will be thrown because they will be misjudged and misplaced—just lost in chaotic processes—are unconscionable.
The Bill tells us nothing. The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee has had to invent a special term for it: “hyper-skeletal”. It seems to be just a bundle of twitching nerve ends. As for being surprised that there are so few impacts, how can they be assessed? Nobody knows or can predict at this moment which laws will survive or not, or why, whether and how they will be replaced or amended. We are looking at a dystopian future when we will know how bad the damage is only when it is done and it is too late to put it right. The president of the Law Society describes this dislodging of the law as “devastating”.
Some things are certain: first, that the task of choosing the fate of SIs has been delegated to civil servants across Whitehall, who will in effect have the power to decide on behalf of Wales and Scotland as well. Secondly, of course, as many noble Lords have referred to, the Bill gives Ministers undreamed-of powers to abolish and make laws without accounting for how they will work, powers that are justified, frivolously, as being driven by urgency—the only urgency being ministerial ambition and, clearly, the electoral timetable. In its report, the DPRRC simply calls for the removal from the Bill of those clauses which give excessive powers to Ministers. I hope the House will support that; does the Minister intend to follow the recommendations of the DPRRC?
Further, the Bill attacks the devolution settlement in principle and practice. Ministers in Wales and Scotland have not been consulted and they cannot extend the sunset clause. The Bill fundamentally invites and accelerates divergence and, with it, the further fragmentation of the UK. It includes the possibility of a UK Minister making regulations that impact on policy areas that have been devolved, with no requirement to consult or consent. It is hardly surprising that Wales and Scotland may well withhold consent.
Common frameworks have already been touched on—I speak personally this afternoon and not as chair of that committee. They are the positive and practical expression of how the union is building co-operation as the four countries work together across the internal market, enabling each country to make different choices without disruption. They affect everyday life, for everything from environmental safety to public health. They are underpinned by a cat’s cradle of hundreds if not thousands of complicated, interrelated SIs. Ministers tell us that if anything should go wrong with the judgment afforded these SIs, the disputes process in the frameworks will resolve any future problems. That is nonsense. If common frameworks are destabilised, there will be greater threats to the internal market and the devolution settlement. Will the Minister answer my other question tonight? Does he intend to press ahead with the Bill without the consent of Wales and Scotland, and will he, for safety’s sake, exempt common frameworks from the Bill entirely?
The explanatory memorandum says that the Bill is intended to return lawmaking powers to Parliament—a travesty of language and logic. The Bill empowers Ministers to make laws while leaving Parliament powerless. It is indefensible and must be changed in this House.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, on her maiden speech. Her experience and knowledge of the world of industrial relations will be of genuine and timely value to this House in current circumstances.
When we left the EU, it was pretty obvious what we should do about European law. We should take a snapshot of it, which we now call retained European law, and amend it, as need and as changing circumstances dictated, much as we would other forms of existing law. We should bear in mind that this law had not been handed down like tablets of stone; it had been the subject of extensive processes of amendment and examination in the European Parliament in which British MEPs played a significant part—including, I trust, the Minister when he was in that role. Instead, however, we have a triumph of dogma over common sense, in which all this European law is supposed to be junked by Christmas, except perhaps for those laws that will appear on a list, which either exists and is not disclosed by Ministers or is a blank sheet of paper—which, in a way, is a little more worrying. However, their unwillingness to tell us what will be on the 2026 list illustrates the contempt with which Parliament is viewed in this whole process. This is not taking back control but is a massive surrender of parliamentary sovereignty and is augmented by numerous other provisions in the Bill allowing for statutory instruments to change the content of retained EU law.
What are the processes by which Parliament will make changes to retained European law? It will be via negative instruments, which are not even guaranteed a debate in the Commons, and affirmative instruments, which are subject to a vote in both Houses but cannot be amended in any way. In this House, there are those of our own Members who question whether we should reject a clearly and plainly defective statutory instrument because of the primacy that is supposed to attach to the elected House. If we accept that view, the process is null and void. If there are no circumstances in which the instrument can be rejected for lack of appropriate amendment, the power is not a real one. EU law covers areas where detailed discussion and assessment will be required—environmental standards, consumer protection and water quality—and the only real negotiations may be between the Government and the very interests we are trying to regulate, some of which have close links to this Government anyway.
I have described the process as a triumph of dogma over common sense. That is also illustrated by the name change, “assimilated”—of course, we have to describe it as that because there are those who cannot bear to admit that these laws were made in Europe. They were—it is a fact; it is history; get over it and accept that they are currently part of our system. The other weakness of the Government’s position is that they have set themselves an examination that they are bound to fail. The department simply does not have the qualified personnel to rewrite between 3,000 and 4,000 pieces of legislation, primary and secondary—it is not there. Week by week in the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, I have observed what effort is required to make secondary legislation compliant with the parent legislation and to make it good law capable of being used by those among whom it will be enforced. We saw during the Covid period that if the time pressure becomes severe, serious mistakes are made. We saw serious mistakes being made, with people being arrested who should not have been. That kind of consequence will follow if we rush this process through.
It is difficult to find anything favourable to say about the abandonment of a fairly sensible process of gradual modification of law where required for one which junks laws and has no adequate process for replacing them. I am afraid that the Executive have put their tanks on Parliament’s lawn, and they should be taken away.
My Lords, I too offer a warm welcome to our two maiden speakers in this debate this afternoon.
As the debate is undoubtedly demonstrating, there are many features in this deeply controversial Bill which will merit a lot of discussion in this House, not least the pressures of the sunset clauses and the interests of devolved Administrations. In the limited time available I want as a member of the Delegated Powers Committee to concentrate on the issues raised by its report on the Bill.
One of the more compelling political arguments deployed in favour of Brexit was that the European Union lacked democratic accountability. It is ironic therefore that the Bill gives, in the words of the Delegated Powers Committee report, “a blank cheque” to Ministers to revoke, replace or update retained EU law by statutory instrument—a form of legislation which is subject only to limited scrutiny by Parliament. The Delegated Powers Committee report sets out at some length why this blank cheque is unacceptable and why some of the key clauses in the Bill confer inappropriate powers on Ministers.
The House will no doubt explore these issues at length in Committee, but I want to make a wider point. Many of the concerns expressed in the Delegated Powers Committee report would not arise if secondary legislation was subject to a process of more effective scrutiny by Parliament, both by the Lords and the Commons. If ever there was a reason for updated procedures to empower Parliament—in particular including the Commons—to sift, scrutinise, debate and, where appropriate, amend secondary legislation, it is surely this Bill.
Effective scrutiny makes better law. This issue affects every citizen—all of us. We need a new approach and we need a new Statutory Instruments Act. We can perhaps discern something of a drumbeat in favour of reform in the recent reports from the two scrutiny committees and the debate we had on them last month in this Chamber. The Hansard Society will set out its ideas later this week.
Whatever else it does, the Bill highlights dramatically the need for effective scrutiny of secondary legislation. This issue goes to the very heart of the balance of power between Parliament and the Executive. It is ultimately about public trust in our democratic system, and we ignore it at our peril.
My Lords, for a number of years I was a member in the other House of the European Scrutiny Committee, under the formidable chairmanship of Sir William Cash—I expect that he will be a noble Lord eventually. I say “formidable” because he had a fervent eye for transparency and detail and a determination for scrutiny to be carried out with an attitude almost of zealotry. Sadly, the scrutiny that we had there did not mean that we could amend or stop the huge weekly package of new EU directives and regulations that came through. Occasionally, we would get a debate, if we or another Select Committee could manage it, but the result was always, as we know, that once the EU had agreed to something, it was difficult to change it. Therefore, I welcome a Bill that abolishes the supremacy of EU law.
I find it a little depressing that many in your Lordships’ House seem to have more faith in the European Union to deliver than in our own country’s ability to decide its own laws. There seems to be this misty-eyed view that the only institution that could really be trusted could never be our Government—of whatever political party—but could only be the European Union. Yet we know that so many of the rights that we got came originally from the campaigning of trade unions, which got Labour and Conservative Governments to bring into law some of our rights. It was not just about the EU. rule of a foreign institution. Already we have seen dozens of changes to regulations brought in which have had no discussion or democratic consent in Northern Ireland. Even if the Assembly was sitting, it would make no difference. The EU makes changes which GB does not have to follow, but in Northern Ireland they do.
Noble Lords will be fed up with me saying this, but I reiterate that we in Northern Ireland had the same ballot paper on the referendum. Yes, there was a majority to remain, just as there was in Scotland, but at least Scotland is covered by this Bill under the arrangements for devolved Administrations, while Northern Ireland cannot benefit from any of it. The protocol carefully plotted by the EU, encouraged by the Irish Government and, sadly, agreed to by our Government, was not about trade; it is about trying to ensure that the divergence between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is reduced. By retaining Northern Ireland in the same single market as the Republic, under the same customs code and VAT regime, and being governed by the same laws, Northern Ireland is slowly being pushed away from Great Britain, our biggest market, and forced into an economic Ireland, which is, of course, a foreign country. This may have been a grave mistake by our negotiators, but it was certainly not a mistake by the Irish Government. It was an assault on Northern Ireland’s constitutional position and, sadly, our Government naively went along with it.
Obviously, in Committee there will be changes to this Bill, and it might get greater scrutiny. However, I say to those here who are concerned about the scrutiny of this Bill—and plead to noble Lords to remember—that, while we are talking about scrutiny of something that Ministers at least can get involved in, in Northern Ireland we are putting through more and more regulations from the European Union that nobody in this House, nobody in Northern Ireland and nobody in the Assembly, if it was sitting, has anything to do with. That is a disgrace for anyone who calls themselves pro-union.
My Lords, this Bill has come in for sustained criticism, not least from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, which I have the privilege and honour of chairing. I would like to say a few words about the report that we published last week but also say that I hope that the Government are very much in listening mode. I very much welcome the fact that the Attorney-General has been at the Bar of the House for a very long time during this debate.
This Bill represents a significant departure from the line that the Government have taken since 2018. Once we had left the EU, they said that it would be for Parliament, rather than just Ministers, to decide which elements of EU law would be kept, amended or repealed. The Government have now backtracked on that, which I very much regret.
Secondly, we felt that the Bill was so lacking in detail that it was not possible to describe it as skeleton or skeletonian; it is basically just a framework for allowing Ministers to decide what happens to whole swathes of EU-retained law. The devil will be in the detail and, unfortunately, the detail does not appear in the Bill. It will be in unamendable statutory instruments later this year and possibly even up to 2026. From the Government’s point of view, all the scare stories that will arise during that period as to what changes may or may not take place will cause them a great deal of trouble.
Thirdly, Parliament is very much bypassed. The main constitutional argument for Brexit, for that utopia that was going to be reached, was that Parliament would take back control of making our laws from the EU. However, many of the changes to the EU-retained law foreshadowed in this Bill will not be for Parliament in primary legislation but for Ministers—and Ministers come and go, as we have seen. Civil servants and parliamentary counsel stay there for a very long time, able to apply the slant that they wish. There must be a way in which scrutiny takes a much stronger role in these matters.
Fourthly, talking of scrutiny, the delegated powers in this Bill are only subject to the negative procedures unless they amend an Act of Parliament, in which case affirmative procedure will apply. I am glad that the Government have been applying the affirmative procedure where statutory instruments amend Acts of Parliament, and I am glad that there is a sifting procedure enabling negative legislation to be upped to the affirmative procedure. However, there are likely to be many important and controversial changes in the pipeline that will not amend Acts of Parliament. In those cases, and only subject to sifting, will the negative procedure apply, meaning that changes will not be debated in Parliament at all.
There is talk of this Bill being extended to 2026. Obviously, a general election will fall in 2025 at the latest. The Government should think very carefully about what is already in the Bill. A lot has come forward from this debate so far which shows how very unsatisfactory this is. Everybody accepts that new procedures will now be necessary, but they should be procedures which enable Parliament to have some scrutiny. At the moment, this Bill is an “all powers, no policy” Bill. That is not acceptable and should not be acceptable to Parliament.
My Lords, I am delighted to welcome my noble friend Lady O’Grady, my close colleague and friend. She will continue to liven up our debates with her passion and commitment, as she has done this afternoon, and we look forward to many future contributions. We also look forward to the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Bray, shortly.
As the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, said, the Government have produced a blank cheque for themselves to obliterate most of the 40 years of UK membership of the EU. Because of the skeletal nature of that Bill, we do not know what we are approving today except for some procedural issues which we will debate as this Bill goes through the House. A purge is going on: a purge of what the EU years did for this country. I happen to think that most of them did very well—plenty probably did not—but surely the resources that are going into this purge could be better deployed. By the way, perhaps we could be told how many civil servants have been transferred to work on this Bill, because it seems that a lot of people and resources are being thrown at a problem which is being totally exaggerated.
My focus today is on employment law, a topic that I am sure the Government have in their gun-sights—they have ever since the Maastricht treaty. In recent debates on EU employment law, the Minister has liked to downplay the EU influence on workers’ rights in the UK. He is right that many of the UK’s positive employment laws are homegrown: in fact, they were enacted by Labour Governments. But it is completely wrong to downplay the EU influence at the same time.
There are 60-odd laws on employment with an EU origin, but I will quickly pick out four areas that I want to focus and comment on. The first is TUPE, the regulations on transfer of undertakings. They protect workers’ terms and conditions on a change of employer; for example, under a privatisation. Is that really for the chop? Are the Government going to come forward on that issue?
The second is working time, which was a controversial issue in its day but is not any more. I draw particular attention to the provision on four weeks’ paid holiday. As the Minister has pointed out previously to the House, the average Brit might get more than that, but there are many who do not. By the way, before that was introduced, British workers were lucky to get three weeks’ paid holiday a year. Is that underpinning to be binned? It is not archaic or out of date.
The third is the requirement for a company to provide information and consult on changes in company strategy and key issues such as redundancy, and the related provisions for large multinational companies to have European works councils. When I left the European Trade Union Confederation in 2011, we had about 750 EWCs, with UK companies and workers playing a prominent part in 500. Are those very positive processes—European works councils, and information and consultation—to be consigned to the knacker’s yard in future?
Fourthly and finally, the EU took a particular interest in vulnerable workers: part-timers, fixed-term workers and agency workers. Are they now at risk?
The Government are very good at inventing problems, when they have enough problems of their own to deal with. Noble Lords will have a crucial part to play in combating that tendency, playing their part with vigour and commitment in getting a better outcome than this Bill will ever do.
My Lords, for those people who voted for Brexit to take back control and for sovereignty, this Bill shows what a threadbare bargain they received: it completely sidelines Parliament and gives power into the hands of the often nameless and faceless—not bureaucrats in Europe but equally unknown to the man and woman on the Clapham omnibus—Ministers. Others have made that case far better than I can. I want to concentrate on the environmental impacts of this legislation, which the noble Lord, Lord Wilson, so powerfully described as “bad government”.
As others have said, over half of all the pieces of legislation on the dashboard come down to Defra, a small department in the scheme of things. The opportunity costs are really far too high at a time when our environment here in the UK is so under threat and has been laid bare by the OEP to such a degree, particularly when you consider that environmental legislation is difficult, complex, interconnected and long-term.
Equally, we do not know what the process is. There is no guarantee that some of the very powerful protections that the EU has given us over the last 50 years will remain. We may see more people swimming in sewage on British beaches. The Minister may shake his head, but I pick up the point from the noble Baroness, Lady Hoey, who asked: why do we say that Europe has done so much for us? Before the EU, we were known as the dirty man of Europe when it came to beaches. We might be able to do better, but the Bill stops us getting better legislation. I will come on to that in a moment.
Our bees and pollinators may be subject to neonicotinoids, which kill them. We may get cattle-fed beef in British farming, let alone it being imported, if we get rid of the hormone regulations. As the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, rightly said, the regulations on habitats are critical pieces of legislation which fundamentally protect our wildlife. It is no good for the Government to set brilliant targets to reverse the effects of species decline—I applaud them for doing so—if we do not protect the habitats where those species live, breed and feed. It is absolutely critical.
As I have said, and as the noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, said so powerfully in her excellent maiden speech, the Bill says that we cannot make legislation better. That applies to workers’ rights and environmental rights, because of the fundamental point in Clause 15 about how profitability is the underlying element. Indeed, the Minister talked about profitability in his opening remarks. So we have no guarantee that we can improve our legislation in the future. I am delighted that the Minister is shaking his head. Perhaps he can give us in his summing-up some firm guarantees that we can find ways within the scope of the Bill to enhance legislation. That would be an important statement if he could make it.
Other noble Lords have made the point that businesses do not want this. I will not repeat the point, but I will add another person who has said that they do not want this legislation: Chris Skidmore, who was commissioned by this Government to look at how we will bring forward the net-zero targets. This Government desperately need to do this, and I know that the Minister is personally very committed to it. Chris Skidmore’s review said that the Government wants consistency in regulation, yet the Bill does exactly the opposite.
I look forward to the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Bray of Coln. I am sure we may not always agree, but I look forward to speaking to and debating with her as she joins our Environment and Climate Change Committee.
The Bill is putting ideology above Parliament, people and our precious planet. This House must muster all its efforts to oppose it.
My Lords, I will address matters concerning devolution and the trade and co-operation agreement. I have noted before that the number of pieces of law concerned is a rapidly moving target. There were 2,400 in the Explanatory Notes accompanying the Bill into the other place in September, 3,200 in the revised notes for us in January, and 3,745 as I speak today. But the explanation on the first web page of the dashboard notes that the dashboard
“is not intended to provide a comprehensive account of REUL … that sits with the competence of the Devolved Governments.”
So the dashboard will never be a complete catalogue of REUL and cannot be relied on by the devolved Governments.
The week before last, I visited the Welsh and Scottish Parliaments with the European Affairs Committee. In both places, we had detailed discussions about how the Bill affected them. It was clear that an unknown proportion of the unknown number of REUL pieces of legislation are wholly or partly devolved matters, and that at least a part of the unknown unknown pool of REUL yet to be discovered seems certain to include things that affect the devolved Governments.
For the partly devolved REUL, clearly and case by case, a careful discussion needs to take place among the Governments concerned. Can the Minister assure the House that this is taking place? Can the Minister tell us how that process works for wholly devolved REUL that was made before devolution? For wholly devolved REUL made after devolution by the devolved Governments, can the Minister describe how support to the devolved Governments is being given, to identify, analyse and, if need be, help to legislate?
In any event, like many here today, I am highly concerned about the capacity of Whitehall to deal with matters in the timescales. Following my visits to Cardiff and Holyrood, I am certain that the necessary capacity in the devolved nations is simply not there.
I finish on my home territory—and a point at least as important as the devolution one that I have just made. Clearly not all REULs are about reindeer movement, the example that the Minister wittily gave recently. I am very concerned that some of the REULs could be directly relevant to our treaty arrangements with our closest neighbours and biggest trading partners under the trade and co-operation agreement. Of especial concern is the potential to interact with the level playing field provisions, particularly those on employment and environmental standards. I feel that anything of that nature would naturally need to come before Parliament for scrutiny and agreement, and those REULs would need separate treatment under the Bill.
In the materials accompanying the Bill, we have no document detailing how the Government are ensuring that the Bill will not lead to any breach of the trade and co-operation agreement or describing the process that all the various UK Governments will go through to ensure that. I have asked my three questions already, but here I would urge the Minister to commission such a document forthwith.
My Lords, I salute the two excellent maiden speeches that we have heard today. I am one of the few surviving members of Margaret Thatcher’s first Government and I am amazed to find myself sitting here listening to the arguments from the Front Bench as to why her greatest achievement should be sacrificed. I remember Arthur Cockfield: he is not, perhaps, a household name today, but if you look him up in Wikipedia, you will see him described as the “father of the Common Market”, and that is right. Margaret—not a natural supporter of foreigners—saw very clearly that the mistakes of the common agricultural policy must not be made again, so she sent Arthur Cockfield to Brussels as a commissioner in order to make sure that British self-interests were dominant in the negotiation of the single market.
The single market was historically, perhaps, one of the most extraordinarily successful concepts ever developed by humankind. The implementation was difficult, against difficult economic circumstances and endless forms—small employers at night, having done all the work themselves, finding yet another form—and the flame was fanned by those two great arbiters of British self-interest, Rupert Murdoch and Conrad Black. There was a growing resentment, and John Major inherited the problem. “Go to it, Tarzan”, he said to the Tory Party conference.
I was entrusted with the first serious attempt to look at the real effect of all these wealth-destroying, uncivilised, burdensome regulations. I went to it with all the enthusiasm that I hope noble Lords would expect of me. What did I do? I was entrusted with a Minister of State in every department to worm away, dig it all out. I set up public/private-sector committees for each field of activity, led by some of the most strident critics of the regulatory process. I actually published 3,000 of these regulations, so that nothing was hidden from anybody. “Let’s know what we’re all talking about in detail: here they are, great volumes of stuff”. I did something else: I wrote to every trade association and I said, “Look, I’m your man. All you’ve got to do is send me a regulation as drafted that is holding your members back and undermining the country, and send me an alternative draft”. I did not get any replies.
The issue is, of course, central to Brexit. Once the decision was taken—I was rather against it—it was important to get on and do something about the new world, because the uncertainty was bound to be burdensome and frustrating. I thought it was absolutely right that the principal Brexiteers were put in charge of the show: Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox. They, after all, presumably knew what the opportunities were, what needed to be done and what was holding us back, so they were in charge. Well, that did not last long. We had Jacob Rees-Mogg, with his Robespierrean fanaticism, and a whole new government department called Exiting the European Union. Let us not get carried away: the nameplate on the door changed. With Robespierrean fanaticism, he threw himself into the task. There was an uncharacteristic lack of history here, because of course Robespierre followed Louis XIV to the guillotine. Well, it is a more generous and kinder world that we live in today. Four Prime Ministers later, Jacob Rees-Mogg is back on the Back Benches. Dozens of Ministers have lost their jobs. I say to my noble friends on the Front Bench, “Beware: here today, gone tomorrow”. That has an ominous ring for anyone who becomes mired in this Brexit saga.
My Lords, I am so sorry—the noble Lord’s time has run out.
My Lords, I am in favour of free and open discussion. I do not want the noble Lord silenced in any way: the Floor is his.
Well, here we are, another vacuum in the Brexit debate.
The essence, of course, is that, for all the empty generalisations, all the promises and all that new world, there was nothing there. This Bill demonstrates beyond peradventure that they did not know what they were doing. Six years on, they did not know what they were doing. They have now actually created a giant question mark over a whole realm of regulations that are the custodian that separates us from the law of the jungle. They are what defines a civilised society. At a time of economic stress, when we need desperately to increase the levels of investment in our economy, what have they provided? A giant question mark for anyone seeking to know whether to spend a penny piece in the United Kingdom economy. I beg noble Lords not to let this legislation leave this place unscathed.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Heseltine. Like him, I am a fellow survivor of Margaret Thatcher’s first Administration—although I was but a humble spear carrier at the time. I look forward to the maiden speech of my noble friend Lady Bray who, like me, before she came here represented Ealing and Acton in another place—a constituency of beauty and contrast. As I remember it, all the beauty was in Ealing and all the contrast was in Acton.
About two hours ago, the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, in introducing this debate, said that it was not about Brexit versus Remain: it was about the Executive versus Parliament. Control may well have been brought back, but it has been delivered to the wrong address: to Whitehall instead of Westminster.
Following what my noble friend has just said, I have left the Government five times—more than anyone else in this Chamber—but only once voluntarily. That was when Boris Johnson illegally prorogued Parliament. My concern then, and my concern now, is that, in the legitimate delivery of the referendum decision, the Government have done, and continue to do, injury to Parliament. They are repeat offenders, and we got used to this under the last two Prime Ministers, but the present one has inherited this poisoned pill and we should help him by amending it.
Last Thursday, I tuned in to a Zoom call organised by the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, and listened to Ruth Fox of the Hansard Society. Her verdict in a nutshell was that the powers in the Bill transfer future democratic oversight of any changes to REUL away from Parliament. The Bill itself does not specify the Government’s intended policy changes in respect of any area or piece of REUL. We are being invited to give Ministers a cliff-edge power without knowing what, if any, pieces of REUL may be thrown off the cliff on sunset day.
So far, no one in this debate has explained the indecent haste proposed in the Bill. Everything else to do with Brexit has taken some time. It has taken about seven years to get this far, but we now have this mad rush to disengage from inherited legislation, contradicting, as we heard from the DPRRC, pledges by the Government that Parliament would be the agent of substantive policy change in these areas. Noble Lords do not have to read its report; they just have to look at the headings: “Bypassing Parliament” “Uncertainty” and “Lack of justification for the powers”. The Regulatory Policy Committee said that the Bill’s impact assessment is “Not fit for purpose.” It said that the Government needed to
“provide a stronger argument for why the sunsetting of REUL is necessary, as opposed to merely setting a deadline to complete the review.”
Grant Shapps told the Regulatory Policy Committee:
“Efforts are also underway to understand the potential impacts of sunsetting.”
That is an astonishing confession. Those efforts should have preceded the introduction of the Bill, not followed it.
We are all entitled to have reservations about this Bill, but I read in the Telegraph on
“To overcome the bureaucratic inertia, ministers came up with the sensible idea of a sunset clause, whereby all EU rules would lapse at the end of this year unless expressly readopted. The demented response to that proposal, not just from Opposition parties but from civil servants, is revealing.”
I say to my noble friend that it is not just opposition parties and civil servants who suffer from this sad lack of short-term memory loss and an inability to articulate themselves clearly, but two Select Committees of this House, about half the Conservative Peers speaking in this debate, the CBI, the City, constitutional experts and the law. I suspect that the last person who called the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, demented was sent down for a few hours to cool off. If ever there was a Bill the second Chamber should revise, it is this one.
My Lords, it is a delight to have heard from my noble friend Lady O’Grady, and I look forward to the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Bray.
The Bill has already achieved a great deal: it has brought together the UK business sector, trade unions, environmental organisations, Justice, the consumer protection world and Chester Zoo in one almighty cry of, “No, no, no.” As we have heard from many noble Lords, the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee and the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee have also not pulled their punches in their withering verdict on the Bill.
Let us get this right. At a time of unprecedented economic woe in our country, with food banks doing a roaring trade and exporters on their knees, the Government think it is a good idea automatically to revoke or sunset most retained EU law at the end of the year, law which underpins so much of the daily life of the country. It is law which underpins the common framework, the process by which the new UK internal market is being built post Brexit; consumer laws which protect consumers from scams and rogue traders—as a vice-president of the Chartered Trading Standards Institute, I see that the Bill as it stands could make convictions for consumer rights offences unsafe—as well as laws on food safety, product safety, animal health, intellectual property and weights and measures regulations. If I remember rightly, it was a row over weights and measures in a market square in Tunisia that led to the Arab spring. Goodness only knows what this reckless legislation will lead to.
We have no idea, as the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, said, what the final law count will be. It is 3,745 and counting. Goodness knows what it will be by the end of this debate. The retained EU law dashboard on GOV.UK talks about an “authoritative” catalogue of law up for review. It fails to say that it is a “comprehensive” catalogue, however, because new laws are being found almost all the time. The hapless Minister in charge of this sunsetting exercise in each department may well be pushed to leaving their clothes in a neat pile on a beach in Florida, John Stonehouse-style, through the sheer pressure of it all.
My opposition to the Bill is based on the harm it will do to our country and this Parliament. The TUC is, of course, worried about the potential loss of worker’s rights, including the loss of protection for pregnant women and rights to maternity and parental leave. Thirty years ago this year, the EU maternity leave directive became law against the ludicrous obstruction of the then Conservative British Government first opposing it, then watering it down, and then delaying it as much as possible. As chair of the European Parliament’s women’s rights committee at the time, I played a small part in getting it through, and millions of British women have subsequently benefited. So when Ministers say, “Your rights at work are safe with us in this Bill”, I know from experience that they have form and that we have every right to be concerned about the Bill.
Deregulation in order to compete—the famous Singapore-on-Thames—is at the heart of the Bill. Call me old-fashioned, but I will oppose the Bill on the basis that to be a leading force in the world in 2023 we need to be the best: the best in standards and rights for the British people, and the best for our accountability to our Parliament.
My Lords, the Bill we are debating today surely represents the triumph of ideology over common sense and pragmatism. A huge number of existing laws are to be scrapped at the end of this year not because they are bad laws or inadequate laws, but simply because they are laws based on decisions taken collectively by EU institutions of which we were a full and active part when they were adopted. They are to be scrapped irrespective of whether by that date they have been replaced by a new statute or not.
To look first at the quantum of laws to be scrapped in this way, even the Government do not know the exact number. It is somewhere in the region of 3,000 to 4,000, and the figure is augmented by new discoveries in the National Archives which means it keeps going up. To initiate a vast scrappage scheme without knowing what you are scrapping is surely unprecedented. Whatever the final figure turns out to be, the replacement of this massive body of law will absorb the Civil Service and Parliament to the exclusion of other, perhaps higher, legislative priorities. Is that a sensible choice of priorities? If an oversight is discovered later this year or after the guillotine comes down at the end of it, there will be a void in our statute book on a matter that could be of great significance and importance for people’s everyday lives.
Secondly, look at the replacement process proposed in the Bill. This represents a massive extension of executive power, with Parliament having little or no say given the inadequacies of parliamentary oversight in the statutory instrument process. You might think it is an odd interpretation of taking back control. There will be little or no time to conduct the wide consultancy processes which ought to precede legislating on complex or sensitive matters.
Add to those drawbacks a third category: the implications for devolution and the relationships with the devolved Assemblies. Many of the laws to be scrapped cover matters that have been devolved to Scotland and Wales. What say will they have in the decision to scrap one of their laws? They will have none, so those devolution complications will necessarily take a good deal of sorting out.
Fourthly, what will be the implications for our relationship with the EU if the replacement legislation diverges too sharply from that of the EU on matters that fall within the ambit of the trade and co-operation agreement? That agreement has provisions for what is known as a level playing field, and it has provisions for the other side to compensate itself for any failure to maintain that, possibly leading to worsening of the already suboptimal conditions for trade between us in goods and services for what remains our biggest overseas market.
Of the four major categories of defects in the Bill I have identified, on not one are the Government in a position to provide clarity or reassurance at this point in time. They really are offering an irrevocable leap in the dark with this overhasty legislation. What will be the consequences for investment, so necessary if we are to achieve the growth the Government are promising? Sharply negative if the view of the director-general of the CBI is anything to go by.
The conclusion surely is that this Bill in its present form, with its detailed provisions and cut-off deadlines, requires meticulous scrutiny and, very probably, considerable amendment. No one, so far as I can see—and no one who has spoken—is arguing that no retained EU law should be replaced. This is simply not the best way to do it. Would not a sectoral approach be better than this sledgehammer method? Would not a longer timetable make sense? If we legislate in this way in haste, repentance will be painful and durable for an economy not currently in particularly robust condition.
My Lords, I start by thanking noble Lords for the wonderfully warm welcome they have given me since I arrived here just a few weeks ago. It has meant a great deal to me. My special thanks must go to my mentor, my noble friend Lord Ashton of Hyde, and to my two supporters, my noble friends Lady Finn and Lord Maude of Horsham, for whom I worked as his Parliamentary Private Secretary when he was Minister for the Cabinet Office and responsible for the coalition Government’s world-leading efficiency reforms.
I also offer huge thanks to all the staff here, who have been so helpful in every way. I single out the doorkeepers, who have always been ready to redirect me as I try to find my way around the building—I still have not been entirely successful—and the digital services team, who continue to show the patience of Job as I come seeking help with my iPhone and iPad, yet again.
My journey to this place really started when I was around 12 years old. My father loved politics and was always keen to discuss the latest issues, especially over Sunday lunch. My mother and older sister were not at all interested, so he settled on me to show an interest. He loved picking a subject to debate and then putting me on one side and himself on the other. I did my best. The next Sunday, he would announce that we were going to do the same subject again but we were going to swap sides. Well, I certainly learned that there are at least two sides to every issue, and I began to rather enjoy it all.
After leaving St Andrews University, I went on to train as a radio journalist, working first for British Forces Broadcasting in Gibraltar and then LBC Radio in London. From there I was asked to join Conservative Central Office to head up the broadcasting unit in the press office. I met so many talented and interesting politicians while doing that, quite a few of whom I have met all over again here.
I later became leader of the Conservative group, having been elected in 2000 to one of the first tranches of the London Assembly at the GLA for the seat in which I live, London West Central. This was my first experience of proper, elected political life. I was learning it at the feet of possibly London’s most prominent and canny politician at the time—Ken Livingstone, London’s first elected mayor. As I said, I later became leader of the Conservative group. It was a great honour and also quite a challenge, but I like to think that the nine of us were quite an effective force at City Hall.
I stood down from the GLA before the 2008 London election because, by then, I had been adopted as the parliamentary candidate for the newly created constituency of Ealing Central and Acton. It was, I was told, the most critical marginal seat in the country, but Labour-leaning; so no pressure then. I won the seat in 2010, then Labour won it back off me in 2015—but what a five-year term it was. I loved every minute of it. The constituency is a fascinating mix: some communities are wealthy, some are a lot poorer, many different languages are spoken and it is wonderfully diverse. It was a great education for me as I sought to help my constituents on a huge variety of issues.
And now, I am honoured to be standing here in this place. As to the debate in which we are participating, I am in danger of being in a bit of a minority, but I fully support what the Government are aiming to achieve with this Bill—which is, essentially, to cut back on unnecessary rules and regulations so that we can more easily and successfully grow and flourish as a nation. I applaud the ambition of cutting red tape where it is not needed, to ensure that businesses can spend more time transforming and growing their business rather than filling out forms.
I know some may worry that this Bill may weaken the laws that protect our environment but, at Second Reading in the House of Commons, the Minister made clear that the Government will
“use the powers in the Bill to ensure that our environmental law is functioning and able to drive improved environmental outcomes, with the UK continuing to be a world leader in environmental protection.”—[
Let us also focus on some of the additional benefits that our renewed freedom outside the EU has already brought us. For instance, it allowed us to develop and roll out our highly effective Covid vaccination programme at critical speed, long before the EU had got its act together. I appreciate that the process of disentangling our laws will not always be easy, but it would be extraordinary, surely, if, after all we went through with the referendum, ultimately choosing to leave the EU, we then decided that we were quite happy continuing to live under EU law after all. I am confident that we can successfully take control of our legal affairs once again as an independent nation state.
First, I want to say how delighted I am to follow the excellent maiden speech of my noble friend Lady Bray. I very much congratulate her and, given her illustrious career, I am sure she has much to contribute to this House. I look forward to being her colleague for many years to come—although I am not sure whether that is a threat or a promise.
Moreover, I wholly concur with my noble friend’s comments on the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill. We left the EU over three years ago and the transition period ended over two years ago. It is surely right that British authorities should be able to decide which rules they wish to retain, scrap or change for the benefit of the country. I do note the concerns over parliamentary scrutiny that have been expressed here this afternoon.
The Government’s policy paper The Benefits of Brexit, issued in January 2022, discussed the potential new freedoms. It said:
“We now have the opportunity to set ourselves apart and deliver bespoke UK-orientated regulation that is primarily focused on delivering growth, innovation and competition while minimising burdens on business.”
I pretty well agree with that. The Chancellor’s Edinburgh reforms relating to financial services, part enabled by Brexit, and the Financial Services and Markets Bill, are also encouraging developments.
To put the Bill in a wider context, quite simply, we now have freedoms that we did not have in the EU, and not just regulatory freedoms. Trade is clearly, potentially, a significant winner. The free trade agreements with Australia and New Zealand are our first “from scratch” FTAs in over 50 years; I remember 50 years ago. And membership of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership—try saying that when you cannot speak—currently being negotiated, should deliver notable benefits.
If I may be allowed to digress into broader economic issues, there are, of course, many who voice concerns over the economic impact of Brexit. It is reasonable to suggest that the introduction of various trade restrictions following Brexit has dampened trade; but the trade data are not easy to interpret—and my goodness me, have I spent my life doing that. The extended lockdowns, supply chain disruptions and the global recession have had a major impact on trade, and data collection changes by HMRC have muddied the waters even further. But the latest data from the ONS—the Office for National Statistics—show that goods trade picked up very strongly in 2022, despite Brexit, after weakness in 2020 and 2021.
Concerning the economy more generally, I remember well the Treasury and the Bank of England uttering dire warnings about Brexit’s impact back in 2016; and the IMF and OECD chimed in. Suffice to say, “Project Fear” did not materialise, but identifying Brexit’s economic impact now is fraught with difficulties, not least because of the disruptive lockdowns and the sharp increases in energy prices, exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Any assessments, therefore, must be treated with the greatest caution. Let us note that the OBR’s much-quoted 4% negative impact on productivity is basically an assumption based on external forecasts. I suggest that the analysis of data outturns is potentially a more constructive way forward. OECD data show that the UK and Germany have grown at very similar rates since 2016: faster than Italy, a bit slower than France. That does not suggest a major Brexit hit.
In the meantime, I look forward to Brexit’s potential benefits, including those flowing from the retained EU law Bill—that is why I support it—and, indeed, the major savings on our contributions to the EU.
My Lords, I declare my environmental interests that are in the register.
In my 25 years in your Lordships’ House, I do not think I have ever heard a Bill so roundly condemned from all quarters. I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, who, although he supported Brexit, is clear, as was his committee, that the Bill itself is unsupportable.
Lots of other noble Lords have said that the Bill takes powers from Parliament and hands them to the Executive, that it is a super-framework Bill or that it is super-skeletal, but I have a simple term for it: it is a pig in a poke. We are buying something that we do not know what it is going to be when we vote it through.
It is basically a deregulatory measure. The Clause 15 measures have been paraphrased as, “Ministers can do anything provided it doesn’t increase regulatory burden”, which is defined as
“a financial cost; … an administrative inconvenience; … an obstacle to trade or innovation; … an obstacle to efficiency, productivity or profitability”.
That is pretty clear and no-bones. It is about deregulation, despite the fact that regulation is often most simple and efficient way of achieving environmental outcomes.
I shall focus on the environmental issues in the Bill. Of the 3,700 pieces of EU retained law—as is currently the case; we have seen the dashboard wobble about quite a bit regarding the number of pieces of legislation that is estimated, so I do not think 3,700 is the last word—1,781 are in Defra’s court, four times more than any other department. This is the department that has already been ticked off twice in the last four months by its new environmental regulator, the Office for Environmental Protection, for not meeting the targets and deadlines that Defra itself set. So I do not really have a lot of confidence that Defra is going to be able to cope with reaching decisions about four times more pieces of EU retained legislation than any other department.
I am a very sad human being and I have read the list of 1,781 pieces of Defra legislation. I would agree with the Minister, were he to say this, that some are indeed minor, some have lost their relevance as a result of us leaving the EU, and some of them are a bit tech-y. I am sure the Minister will agree with me on that. For example, I enjoyed reading the one on
“additional guarantees regarding salmonella for consignments to Finland and Sweden of laying hens”.
That looked like a showstopper to me. However, some pieces of retained EU legislation in that list are substantial, long-standing and deeply woven into the fabric of environmental protection in this country at national and local level, and are accepted by many people as vital, operational and well constructed.
I know that the habitats regulations are a bogeyman for deregulators, but the one thing that we have to remember is that they are effective because we invented them. The noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, talked about safeguarding British self-interest—although I disassociate myself from Mrs Thatcher in that. We showed British self-interest in negotiating and leading the EU into adopting a highly effective protection system for biodiversity of species and the habitats on which they depend. We were a mover and a shaker in the EU; this was not stuff that was done to us.
I thank the Minister for meeting us last week over the Bill. When pressed, he will tell us that alternatives to the habitats regulations have already been devised in the Environment Bill and, now, in the levelling-up Bill, but that has not been made clear while we have debated these Bills. Not once during the passage of the Environment Bill was it stated that its priorities were—
Will the noble Baroness conclude her remarks?
I will finish in two seconds. Not once during the passage of the Environment Bill was it stated that its provisions were intended to replace the habitats regulations. This is no sort of process, where alternatives are inserted piecemeal rather than laid out to show how they match up to what is being done away with.
The Bill is cosmetically and disastrously aimed at getting rid of EU legislation before the next election at any cost.
The noble Baroness has exceeded the speaking limit by some margin. It is time for the noble Baroness, Lady Jones.
I recommend that your Lordships’ House not amend the Bill but not pass it.
My Lords, I congratulate our two new noble Baronesses on their excellent speeches. I think they will both be an incredible asset to their parties. I will welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Bray, into the Opposition over here when the Tory Government fall.
Some 2,000 years ago, the Roman philosopher Cicero said, “The closer the collapse of an empire, the crazier its laws”. That is what we have here. There are families who are starving, people who are freezing in their homes and workers rightfully striking on the streets, but we are in here debating this dross. I do not know how the Government can face us when they send us legislation like this. Just as the Public Order Bill is an attack on democracy in the streets, this Bill is an attack on democracy here within Parliament. Rather than taking back control, the Government are seeking to take away Parliament’s sovereign power of voting for or against laws and to hand that power over to a chaotic Executive of right-wing Ministers and their civil servants. We have reached the slash-and-burn stage of Brexit cultism, which will certainly throw this country into a state of legal uncertainty.
The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 provided a comparatively sensible way for the Government to transition out of the EU with a functioning body of law, with the ability to identify opportunities outside the EU and pass new laws accordingly. This is not the same by any means. We do not have a list of laws that are going to be deleted by the Bill; it gives carte blanche to delete all, and it is going to be an absolute mess. It will be at the discretion of Ministers, who will choose to delete—or not—some parts of EU law without further scrutiny, either parliamentary scrutiny or scrutiny by the electorate.
The electorate have not voted for this Bill. It is not in the Tory party manifesto. Voters have never been asked about the approach that the Government want to take to retained EU law. It is not part of the oven-ready Brexit that we were promised, which was cooked up last year with a poison pill. It will mean that important decisions on which laws are retained will have been made by the end of this year before the general election, and then some other political party will have to pick up the mess and try to cope with the disaster.
The Bill gives the legal mechanisms but no political mechanisms. Only Ministers will choose the fate of 4,000 pieces of legislation. It seems crazy that we are handing that power to Ministers. We did not trust them before this came and we certainly will not trust them afterwards.
Our future relationship with the EU is important. There is a growing recognition that leaving the European Union has not delivered the benefits that we were promised. The Bill is proof that even this Government cannot find any benefits to boast about. There will soon be a public debate about our relationship with the European Union, and the Green Party has decided that the relationship should be as close as possible until the political circumstances are right for us to rejoin. I say that as someone who voted for Brexit. What I have seen is destruction by this Government, and they are not delivering on all their promises.
My feeling is that the only sensible thing now is to cut our losses and rejoin the EU, and I think many others, some inside this building but many outside, will agree with me.
My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, and my noble friend Lady Bray. They made excellent maiden speeches, and I am sure they will bring great expertise and enhance our proceedings in the future.
In 2018, we passed the European Union (Withdrawal) Act, which made it absolutely clear that we were going to review all the EU legislation. You would have thought that that would have been a signal to the civil servants of the noble Lord, Lord Wilson, to start sorting out what this actually meant and how much EU legislation they had in their departments. In fact, as far as I can make out, almost nothing happened at all. They thought, “Well, we needn’t bother about this. It will never happen and, anyway, most of us voted remain and we would quite like to rejoin the EU anyway.”
It is an absolute disaster that we are now having to impose sunset clauses in this Bill which has galvanised the departments to produce the EU retained law that they have. They are even sorting out in archives and so forth to bring this stuff out. The briefing that we got said that there were 2,000 bits of EU retained law. That then went up to 3,300; now we have heard today that it is 3,700. Most people think it is going to top out at 4,000. I only hope they are right, as it seems to me that there is no limit to the amount that this number might grow.
When we come to review it, it seems to me that there are a number of options in front of the Government. We could retain the laws from the EU and, presumably, it would be pretty uncontroversial with most of your Lordships in this House if we retained the law intact and unamended.
We could repeal some of the law. As my noble friend Lord Callanan said last week, some of the bits of EU law involve—and the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, made light of this—movement of reindeer between Denmark and Sweden. That is of no concern to this country whatever. What we need to know is how many more bits of legislation there are which are as irrelevant as reindeer in Denmark. I would ask my noble friend to give us the percentage. But I am afraid that, as he does not even seem to know the number of bits of EU law there are, the chances of him knowing the percentage that are completely irrelevant to this country probably are not very great.
Other bits that we would want to repeal are ones where EU provision is actually less than what we provide already in this country in our legislation. Presumably, that would be relatively non-controversial if it could be proved that we make greater provision for workers’ rights or whatever than under the EU law. If we follow the suggestion from my noble friend Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts to somehow filter this stuff, then it would be quite possible to say that it could go through under a statutory instrument because it would be basically non-controversial.
We then come on to the more difficult areas where we are revising legislation to bring it up to date. They are technical changes. As we well know, technical changes can be a number of different things. They can be very dramatic changes or just genuinely technical, and that is why once again I support my noble friend’s suggestion. We have to filter out genuinely technical changes from those that are not.
What is very bad news about this legislation that we have in front of us is that it enables Ministers to completely change legislation altogether, and that is something that we did not vote for in the referendum. When we wanted to get our powers back, we certainly did not say, “We will bring undemocratic edicts from Europe and enhance the power of Ministers and increase the powers of the Executive.” That is not what we are here for and not what we should be voting for.
My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Bray, and my noble friend Lady O’Grady on their excellent maiden speeches.
As a member of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, I of course agree with its report on the Bill and that of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. Both reports reflect the statement of principles in their 2021 reports, Democracy Denied? and Government by Diktat.
I want to focus on one aspect of the Bill: the sunset clause which facilitates the removal of our employment rights without parliamentary scrutiny, as there will be no draft legislation to scrutinise. Twice in recent weeks, my noble friend Lord Woodley has asked whether the Minister will retain the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations. The Minister declined to say. If he sits tight and does nothing, that important suite of rights will evaporate on New Year’s Day and the noble Lord, Lord Woodley, will not be able to oppose, amend or even debate it.
The Minster claimed on
“UK employment rights do not depend on EU law.”—[Official Report, 23/1/23; col. 3.]
He repeated the claim on
The Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations were made under our domestic Health and Safety at Work etc. Act. Their provenance was one of the recommendations of the Piper Alpha disaster inquiry. However, the Health and Safety (Consultation with Employees) Regulations, which make similar provisions about safety representatives and safety committees where no union is recognised were made under the European Communities Act to implement EU law. In fact, most employment rights and health and safety are EU law.
I will give some examples to illustrate the scale of this. We are talking about regulations on: management of health and safety, workplace health and safety, work equipment, PPE, manual handling, display screen equipment, carcinogens, biological agents, construction, safety signs, pregnant women, drilling, mining, chemical agents, dangerous substances, explosive atmospheres, fishing vessels, ionising radiation, lifts, machinery, biocidal products, major hazards, transport, working time, work at height, temporary and mobile worksites, explosive atmospheres, young persons, physical agents, noise, vibration, and offshore installation safety cases.
Clause 1(4)(a) of this Bill will sweep away regulations made under the European Communities Act. But the regulations I have mentioned will survive because they are made under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act. The fate of regulations made under both Acts such as the Control of Asbestos Regulations is not clear. The answer, however, is academic. All these statutory instruments will be caught by Clause 1(4)(b) since they were made to implement EU law, whatever their statutory foundation.
Consequently, all the Minister has to do is to sit on his hands and all these vital protections hitherto enjoyed by our 30 million workers will disappear in a puff of smoke without parliamentary scrutiny. That is unacceptable and also appears to be a flouting of the obligations we undertook to maintain and implement health and safety laws under Articles 386 to 388 and 399 of the trade and co-operation agreement.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, of which I am a very new member, for its report on this Bill and to Senedd Research for its informative legislative consent memoranda and other documents.
As the report from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee highlights, in 2018 the European Union (Withdrawal) Act promised that Parliament and the devolved legislatures would be able to decide which elements of some 3,000 or 4,000 pieces of retained EU law to keep, amend or repeal once the UK had left the EU. This retained EU law Bill cuts across that pledge and makes a mockery of the supposed argument for Brexit that the UK Parliament would be supreme and would be responsible for making our laws once we had left the EU.
The Bill, however, gives unfettered authority to Ministers through secondary legislation, bypassing both the UK Parliament and the Senedd in Wales. Such a blatant attack on the powers of the UK Parliament might be unusual but in Wales we have become rather used to this type of treatment, especially since 2019. Giving evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee in November, the Welsh First Minister, Mark Drakeford, reflecting on the relationship between the two Governments and the increasing problems around the Sewel convention, said:
“We had engaged relationships with Conservative Governments from 2010 to 2019. We did not agree on many things, of course, but we were always around the table together talking. The exception in this … rule is the period from 2019 to earlier this year.”
The retained EU law Bill is a child of the Brexit Government who came to power in 2019. Since then, emboldened by their majority in the other place and fuelled by a unionism sometimes described as “aggressive”, they have ridden roughshod over the Sewel convention, they have usurped the powers of the Senedd and, in the Bill, they will also blatantly usurp the powers of the UK Parliament.
The Delegated Powers Committee’s report concludes:
“We have recommended that, of the six most important provisions containing delegated powers in this Bill, five should be removed from the Bill altogether. The shortcomings of this hyper-skeletal Bill justify our approach.”
The Welsh Government go further: I believe they have now recommended that the Senedd withholds consent for the Bill. The Welsh Counsel General and the Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture have published a joint letter in the Financial Times, calling for the Bill to be withdrawn. The devolved Administrations are preparing lists, reviewing thousands of pieces of retained EU law and seeking the Government’s help in ascertaining whether some laws are devolved or reserved, all in what appears to be a state of uncertainty, confusion and chaos.
The Bill allows an extension, to 2026, for the UK Ministers to complete their work, but Ministers in the devolved Administrations are restricted to the 2023 deadline. Welsh Ministers have requested an amendment to address this anomaly, but we still await a response. Will the Minister explain why there has been no response, address the anomaly and assure me that an amendment will be tabled by the Government? If he cannot do the latter, I will happily do so.
My Lords, this afternoon, we have had the glorious sight of many noble angels dancing on the head of a pin, effervescing with enthusiasm for the virtues of parliamentary oversight. Of course, they are absolutely right, but I just wonder where this particular angelic host was hiding during the previous 40-odd years, when rule was piled upon regulation and then dropped from the commanding heights of Brussels on to this so-called sovereign Parliament. There was not much debate then, or much protest from the usual suspects. There were not many Tarzans swinging through the jungle, if I may put it that way. You do not get back in your car, with your windscreen smothered in almost 50 years of parking tickets, and then decide that you can drive away while peeling them off one by one—although some noble Lords have come up with an answer: they want to drive away in reverse gear. That is what a good deal of the criticism is really about: going back to the future and reliving the glorious past, with all its myths, fantasies and metric martyrs.
It is suggested that the Bill is a cut-and-paste exercise. Thank goodness for that, because, while we use paste, the EU uses superglue. We can move things around, but it cannot: once you are in, you are stuck. We have a dashboard. We have this debate, we will have a stringent Committee—I hope it will be prosperous—and future Governments will be able to have their way, too. So, yes, let us defend the rights of Parliament against the Executive, but let us not forget that the Bill has already passed through our elected House of Commons. Yet we have heard threats from Opposition Benches today that they intend to tear the Bill apart—that is unacceptable, irresponsible and utterly undemocratic.
Sadly, politics is not the pursuit of perfection; it is usually a choice between the unappetising and the totally inedible. What is inedible, and impossible to stomach, is that knot of prejudice that simply refuses to accept Brexit. I will not point a finger at anyone in this House, although I suspect that some volunteers may like to step forward, but I will point a finger at Guy Verhofstadt—Mr Europe—who, the other day, offered the conclusion that Putin invaded Ukraine because of Brexit. Perhaps his foie gras had gone off or something. There was me thinking that independent post-Brexit Britain had pulled Europe towards its senses on Ukraine and into action, just as we did with Covid vaccines. Thank goodness we were able to make those decisions with some speed then. Mr Verhofstadt’s words are truly appalling.
Other words I find more compelling are those of Jonathan Reynolds, the Labour spokesman on the Bill in the other place. I was glad to hear them echoed today by the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman. During the Commons Second Reading, Mr Reynolds said that this Bill
“is not about Brexit—Brexit has happened; it is a fact.”—[
So we must stop pretending that the European parliamentary system was so much more democratic and its laws so much better considered. Brexit is a fact—a democratic fact—and it is our duty to get on with it.
My Lords, I am afraid I agree with a lot of the criticisms and concerns that have been expressed by many noble Lords, although not the noble Lord who just preceded me. I regret to be in this position because I support the idea that there should be a review of retained EU law, and I also support the principle that retained EU law should be fully assimilated as UK law. Clauses 4 to 6 are not perfect, but they are not the main problem that the Bill presents.
As explained by a number of noble Lords, the two main concerns are the Bill’s impact on legal certainty and its impact on the integrity of the legislative process. We have all read about the uproar of concern from businesses and professional and social organisations about legal certainty in particular. I do not think that behind this reaction there is a concerted attempt to create a permanent shrine for EU law within our legal system. The need for legal clarity is prompting these concerns, and I hope that, in Committee, we will be able to consider ways in which the operation of the sunset clauses in particular can be improved to satisfy this basic requirement.
It is in the Government’s interest to proceed in a clearer and more systematic way. According to the calculations of the Law Society, which I believe are based on the latest available figures, it would be necessary to review 13 pieces of legislation per working day from today until
There are other aspects of the Bill that affect legal certainty that I look forward to considering more fully in Committee. For example, I am a bit perplexed by the system of references by law courts, tribunals and law officers envisaged in Clause 7. In the Bill, of all places, I did not expect to find any EU law import; I would have thought it preferable to leave the process of assimilation of EU law into UK law to the forces of the common law under clear legislative guidance—but without a procedural mechanism that is convoluted and risks generating delay and uncertainty.
Briefly, on the integrity of the legislative process, I too share many of the concerns that have been expressed about the power clauses, and in particular Clause 15. The Government and a number of speakers have a point when they say that the legislation with which we are dealing came into our legal system via the old European Communities Act 1972 and was subject to very little or no scrutiny—although I hear different views on that. It seems to me that the key point is that the European Communities Act did not exist in a vacuum; it was predicated on the delegation of legislative competence to international institutions which had their own legislative processes, governed by treaties to which we had acceded. I was never a fan of that legislative process—I was certainly not misty-eyed about it—but, even so, I cannot agree with the proposition that the delegation of legislative power under the European Communities Act can be compared with the delegation proposed under Clause 15 in particular. For this reason, and on this point, I too would very much welcome constructive and sensible proposals for improving the Bill.
My Lords, Monsieur Barnier recently warned Britain not to tear up EU laws—well, he would, wouldn’t he? This should come as no surprise. For all its trumpeted advantages, the EU is performing worse than Britain. Whatever way you look at it, Britain is doing better. As Britain escapes the cloying and destructive stranglehold of EU regulations and red tape, we will leave the EU trailing even further behind. It is no wonder that Monsieur Barnier is nervous.
Many claim that Britain has suffered economically from leaving the European Union. That is nonsense, driven by those who wish for us to rejoin the European Union. Last year, Britain’s GDP grew faster than those of Germany, France and Italy. Our economy has grown by 5.7% since 2016—the same as that of Germany, the financial powerhouse of the EU. Yet, in 2022, real wages fell further in Germany than they did in the UK. While food prices are up by 19.9% in Britain, they have risen by 21.1% in the eurozone and 24.1% across the whole of Europe.
However badly the British economy might be faring in these challenging times, the European Union is doing worse. That is in relation not only to economics; our Covid vaccine development, procurement and rollout is a good example of what can be achieved free from EU restrictions. It was such a success that the EU tried to keep it for itself and to block shipments to Britain. By March 2021, Britain had vaccinated 40% of its population, while the EU had vaccinated only 12% to 14%. Just think how much more the rest of our life sciences sector and other industries can achieve when they are fully freed from the EU’s shackles.
We must support the Bill; it will help to remove the remaining EU bureaucracy from our statute book that continues to impede our economy and society. Some noble Lords may complain, as indeed they have today, that too much discretion is being given to Ministers, but we should remember that the retained EU laws only exist because edict after edict was imposed on the UK without this country being able to alter so much as a comma. Noble Lords have far more scrutiny now, and under the Bill, than they ever did when the legislation was created.
It is not nonsense; it is true.
Above all, we should celebrate that our country is a sovereign nation and be grateful that we are not subject to the 25,163 new EU laws created since we left. I urge noble Lords to support the Bill, which recognises that our country is now governed from Westminster and not by faceless bureaucrats in Brussels.
My Lords, the Bill sets out considerable detail on the legalistic process of dealing with retained EU law, which noble, and noble and learned, Lords are rightly examining, and will continue to examine, in great detail. But the Bill says absolutely nothing about specific items of law.
I will focus on the areas within the remit of Defra and get down to some specifics. As we have heard, the department has by far the biggest burden of legislation to consider from the current dashboard of over 1,700 pieces of legislation, encompassing animal health and welfare and the environment, matters of great concern to the UK public and critical for trade. While the Bill aims to retain, amend or revoke retained EU law, according to that which is “right for the UK”—which is perfectly fair and reasonable—there is as yet little indication of which laws are going to be judged “right for the UK”.
In the light of the absence of specifics in the Bill, my points will be a series of questions; while the Minister may not be able to answer them today, I hope he will respond to them by letter. It is difficult, from the current dashboard, to determine how many pieces of legislation have been reviewed by Defra and may be accepted, for example, as unchanged. On Defra’s legislative burden, can the Minister tell us where it currently stands on assessing the 1,781 REULs? What additional resources has Defra been given to cover this vast workload? I also note that an extension of the sunset beyond 2023 is possible for England, but not for the devolved Administrations. Yet so many of the relevant laws are devolved competencies, so how will His Majesty’s Government assist the devolved nations in dealing with this in the very limited time available?
The UK has played an important role in developing the 44 retained animal welfare laws, and, given our pride in the high standards we have in the UK, can we assume that most, if not all, of these will be accepted into UK law unchanged? Who will decide whether to accept, amend or revoke the many hundreds of laws and regulations before they are presented to Parliament as SIs, at which point of course we will have very limited opportunities for parliamentary scrutiny? Transparency here is essential for the credibility of the process, so can the Minster tell us who will decide, how they will decide, and when they will decide?
A particular concern relates to the REACH regulations, which require animal testing for the safety of chemicals and so have animal welfare implications. Will there be mutual recognition of testing, either in the UK or the EU, so as to avoid the replication of animal testing?
On food safety, has the Food Standards Agency been given the resources to cope with the huge number of legislative adjustments that will be required concerning food safety and quality?
Finally, on trade, the requirement for export health certificates to our biggest single export market for animals and animal products has ballooned from about 20,000 a year to over 200,000 a year. Will legislative changes consequential to the Bill add to this regulatory burden or reduce it? If they will reduce it—how?
I have asked a few questions, but they are only a fraction of the thousands of questions that the Bill raises.
My Lords, although some would still care to deny it, it is a fact that no single electoral option has received more votes in UK history than that to leave the European Union. Indeed, the majority of the 17.4 million voters who turned out on that historic day to cast their votes to leave the EU did so on the simple premise that we in this place would take back control of our laws and untangle the UK from nearly 50 years of top-down EU bureaucracy. Today, through Second Reading of this Bill, the Government have shown that they will live up to the mandate and, in so doing, they have my full support.
Throughout my participation in other Brexit-related debates and listening to some of the contributions made by noble Lords, I have been rather confounded, as regretfully there appears to be an assumption by some that the only origin of standards and protections is the European Union and the European Union alone. I put it to your Lordships’ House that this view is complete baloney. It neglects the fact that for centuries this island nation has been the global benchmark and upholder of high standards, robust regulations and the origins of many legal and financial mechanisms which ensure fairness, competitiveness and probity in our global systems to this day.
Perhaps, in his summary, the Minister might reassure the House of this and of the fact that this country has a proud track record of creating sound regulation where required and, in some cases, more robust standards than even those of the EU. It would also be helpful if the Minister could confirm that the Civil Service in the UK is well up to the job and more than capable of writing regulations, because there has been a suggestion today that it is not capable of delivering that in the time available, which seems rather strange from so many people here.
I support this Bill, as it presents government with an unparalleled opportunity to cut red tape where it is not needed and allow our businesses the freedom to get on with innovation and transformation. With SMEs accounting for around 60% of UK employment, the more freedom we give them, the better and the stronger our economy will be in the long term. I hope that Ministers will seize this opportunity and remove as many of these regulations as possible.
The constitutional significance of this Bill cannot be downplayed, for through the ending of the special status of retained EU law, we are returning sovereignty to this Parliament and restoring the primacy to Acts of Parliament. Most importantly, we are putting the British back in control of the laws of the land and for that reason the Bill has my support.