Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill - Committee (5th Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 8:30 pm on 8th March 2023.
Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts:
Moved by Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts
139: Schedule 4, page 39, line 17, leave out “10” and insert “15”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment, together with amendment 140, would extend the period available to committees of the two Houses to discharge the sifting function provided for under the Bill, as recommended by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee in paragraph 59 of its 28th Report “Losing Control?: The Implications for Parliament of the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill”.
My Lords, the horse is running to the stables, so I will not speak for a moment longer than is necessary. I shall speak also to Amendment 140. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, for putting her name to these two amendments, and the noble Lord, Lord Hutton, who is not here, for also supporting them. They are concerned with ensuring that a proper amount of time is allowed so that both Houses of Parliament can scrutinise the proposed use of the serious powers given to Ministers under Part 3 of Schedule 4. They again follow recommendations made in the SLSC’s report on the Bill.
The powers are listed in paragraph 7(2) of Schedule 4, and it is worth while noting what they are. They are powers in Clauses 8, 12 and 13 to amend, repeal or revoke primary legislation; powers in Clause 15(2) to make subordinate legislation; powers in Clause 16 to update legislation; and last but not least, powers to create a criminal offence in Clause 15(2). We are talking not about parking tickets but about things that are serious.
The exercise of these powers is under the negative procedure, so unless somebody objects it goes through on a nod; it is not debated at all. However, the Minister has to lay a draft of the proposed regulation explaining why he or she thinks the negative procedure should apply, and either House has an opportunity to recommend that the matters concerned are of sufficient importance to warrant an upgrade to the affirmative procedure, which, in turn, would at least allow the regulations to be debated.
Each House will have a committee charged with assessing whether there should be such an upgrade. The procedure follows that established for the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2108, where the SLSC came to act as sifting committee of your Lordships’ House. Experience under the 2018 Act shows that the two Houses of Parliament generally ran on parallel tracks. Of the 329 proposed negatives under the Act, 50—15%—were recommended for upgrade by your Lordships’ House, and 57—17%—were recommended for upgrade by the House of Commons, and the Government invariably accepted the recommendations from either or both Houses.
Under the procedure of the Act, the period within which a decision or a recommendation to upgrade had to be made was 10 days. Experience under the 2018 Act was that the 10-day deadline could be pretty challenging, depending on a number of things: the business as usual that the committee has going through it, which has to be dealt with anyway in the weekly meeting; the 600 or 700 instruments that go through the committee every year; and the days on which the regulations were tabled or laid because, of course, Friday can be a sitting day or not. It can depend, and the period can be shortened quite a lot if two Fridays are counted as sitting days.
We pointed out in one of the committee’s reports that the purpose of the proposed negatives laid under the 2018 Act was comparatively limited, in that they largely concerned instruments intended to deal with correcting deficiencies in a retained EU law. The Hansard Society has suggested that scrutiny of the proposed negatives under this Bill may well amount to a more substantial function. Dr Fox of the Hansard Society said:
“What we are talking about here would be sifting of retained EU law regulations that delve into the realm of policy. They would be more politically salient than we have seen through the period since the EU withdrawal Act was passed.”
This is not just an internal parliamentary matter, because outside voices want to make themselves heard. We had a long and passionate debate led by the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, about the environment, and we can see that if there is a proposed negative about the environment—just to take one area—there may be a number of outside bodies that wish to write to the SLSC and the sister committee in the Commons explaining their views. It is likely to attract quite a lot of attention in various of the areas that we will be looking at. The committee will then need time to assess the quality of those submissions and to meet before reaching a conclusion as to whether an upgrade was appropriate.
Given the likely volume of the draft regulations to be scrutinised, together with their likely importance, it seems right that there should be an additional five sitting days in which the committee and outside bodies can make their views known to the House of Commons sifting committee and your Lordships’ House. That is the reason for these two simple amendments to change “10” to “15” in the two places where “10” appears in the Bill. If the Government do not intend to try to marginalise further Parliament’s involvement in the Bill, I can see no reason why they cannot accept this very small and important amendment. I beg to move.
I thank the noble Lord for his excellent introduction. As very much a new girl on the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee now being very ably chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, I put my name to this amendment because I am convinced by his arguments for this basically very modest and very practical pair of amendments. The arguments are based on experience, as the noble Lord has explained. Earlier today, the Minister indicated that it is the Government’s intention that a substantial number of pieces of legislation will be revoked and reformed and that we are not looking at a situation where there would be some exceptions to carry over.
Given the very tight time constraints—the Minister made it quite clear in an earlier letter to us that even he thought it was ambitious—we can confidently expect that the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee will face something of an avalanche of legislation towards the end of the year. For it to get its thorough job done properly, there needs to be this simple expansion of time available from 10 to 15 days; otherwise, the danger is that the committee will have to act in a way that is precautionary and might well make more comments necessary than if it were given a little longer to consider it. I urge the Minister to take this into account and to accept this amendment at a later stage of the Bill.
My Lords, in January I had the privilege of being appointed chair of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. In that capacity I support these amendments in the name of my noble friend and predecessor Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts—a very difficult act to follow, as he has just demonstrated once again. I greatly welcome the participation of the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, who has already brought a ray of sunshine to the committee in dealing with some difficult and challenging problems.
Supported by our team of brilliant and highly experienced advisers, the committee reports week in, week out on secondary legislation laid before Parliament, covering every conceivable aspect of policy, directing your Lordships’ attention to the most notable instruments and providing valuable information in support of subsequent debates on those instruments.
As we have heard, under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 the committee was charged with an additional function—the scrutiny of what are called proposed negative instruments laid under a new sifting mechanism. The committee had 10 days to report on these proposed instruments and, to its immense credit and that of its staff, it rose to the considerable challenge of meeting that demanding deadline under the leadership of my noble friend.
As we know from the committee’s recent report on the Bill, however, this was not an easy matter. As the report warned,
“depending on the day of the week on which a proposed negative has been laid, meeting that 10-day deadline could be challenging.”
This Bill makes similar provision for a sifting mechanism. It will apply to the exercise of powers under Clauses 12, 13 and 15. As with the 2018 Act, the Bill does not name the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee as the committee to be charged with this sifting function. That is, of course, a matter for the House.
I know your Lordships will understand that in making the following points I do not mean any discourtesy or to pre-empt any decision of the House. Under the sifting mechanism in the Bill, the reporting period is again 10 days. If that period represented a challenge under the 2018 Act, which involved regulations with the limited purpose of dealing with deficiencies in retained EU law, how much greater will be the potential challenge where regulations under Clause 15, for example, may make “alternative provision” for secondary retained EU law? Such regulations may well require the sifting committee to probe further into the new policy underlying the alternative provision—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Fox, I understand, and reiterated by my noble friend a few moments ago.
That in turn may include the committee having to solicit further information from departments and consider submissions from outside bodies before it can come to an informed and considered view. I realise that my noble friend the Minister may well be worried that, in giving any concession here, he might open the door for a read-across into other departments, but this is a very special case and I want to make it clear that there is no read-across here.
The capacity of the SLSC to meet a 10-day deadline has been amply demonstrated. The committee would not expect the full 15 days for every proposed negative instrument—far from it. What is being asked for in Amendments 139 and 140 is an extension of the deadline in recognition of the fact that the Bill has the potential for generating more complex and far-reaching policy changes, through instruments subject to the sifting mechanism, than the 2018 Act has. From time to time, there will also be occasions when the longer period is needed if the House is to receive the full benefit of the opportunity for more effective parliamentary scrutiny that the sifting mechanism provides.
I very much hope that my noble friend the Minister and his colleagues will accept the force of the argument and take these considerations seriously. At the end of the day, we all want Parliament better to do its job in the public interest, so I support my noble friend.
My Lords, there is not really much to add, so I will not say very much. I notice that the noble Lord, Lord Fox, has denied himself the opportunity to speak on this last group, which is—
Uncharacteristic but very welcome—I hope he does not take that the wrong way.
We support this measure, for the reasons that have been very well laid out about giving stakeholders a chance to get involved. We do not think that accepting one of these amendments or something like them would affect the Government’s ability to fulfil their objectives.
The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, made some good points about the argument regarding practicality, based on experiences laid out very well in the committee report. I thought her concerns about the unintended consequence of sticking with 10 days—that it might actually make the process slower because more things would get referred—were strong. Her point about the need to probe policy that may come about as a result of the SIs coming from this Bill has persuaded us as well.
I would have thought this was something on which the Government could accept a change and bring something back on Report. If they do not, we will be happy to work with noble Lords on all sides to try to table something ourselves. I think this may perhaps be an occasion where the Government could show willing, and listen and respond positively.
I thank the speakers. We have finally reached the last grouping, which is a source of considerable relief.
Amendments 139 and 140, tabled and ably moved by my noble friend Lord Hodgson, both propose introducing further scrutiny procedures for legislation made under powers within Clauses 12, 13 and 15. Both amendments would essentially do the same thing: they propose extending the period of time after which legislation is made under these clauses and is subject to scrutiny from the House of Commons and the House of Lords as part of the sifting procedure. Specifically, they seek to extend the time limit within which both Houses can make recommendations on the appropriate procedure used for the instrument laid as part of the sifting procedure.
As drafted, the relevant committees of the Lords and the Commons have 10 sitting days, as both my noble friends and others said, to make recommendations on the appropriate procedure after an instrument has been laid. This is actually in line with the level of sifting under the EU withdrawal Act. I note my noble friend’s comments that it was not enough time, but I was impressed by the incredible work that the committee did during that time and I do not recall it being a particular issue.
The sifting procedure has been purposefully drafted as a safeguarding measure, which allows for additional scrutiny for the use of the powers, while retaining the flexibility of using the negative procedure where there are good reasons to do so. However, the Government do recognise the importance of ensuring that legislation undergoes the appropriate level of scrutiny. It is certainly something that I am personally committed to.
I thought both my noble friends Lord Hunt and Lord Hodgson made powerful arguments, so I will undertake go away and reflect. I will probably have to do some difficult work to convince the business managers of this; they want to manage their programme of SIs accordingly, so I cannot make any promises. But I assure my noble friends that they made powerful arguments, supported by others across the House, so we will have a look at it, because the appropriate scrutiny is important. There will be a big programme of statutory instruments. I know that there are lots of suspicions about the Government having some malevolent objectives in all this, which is not the case, but it is important that Parliament has its say.
If my noble friend will withdraw the amendment this evening, I undertake to go away and consult further with colleagues in government and the business managers and see what we can do on this.
I am grateful for all the support for this amendment. The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, raised the issue of the precautionary principle: if in doubt, upgrade it if we do not have enough time to think about it. I think that is very important. My noble friend Lord Hunt rightly pointed out that it will depend on what committee does it. It might choose not to use the SLSC, but the 15 days would apply, whichever committee it was taken to, so I do not think it is taking anything for granted. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, again for her support from the Labour Front Bench.
I say to my noble friend the Minister that, when you spend a lot of time on the Back Benches pushing hard on a door, if suddenly the door is opened you fly forward, all out of control. I am very grateful to him for agreeing to take this away and think about it. I am sure that, with his persuasive powers and his commitment, which he has given to the SLSC in the past, about the proper level of scrutiny through assessments and so on, he will be able to persuade the business managers, the Bill team and whoever else has to be persuaded that this amendment should be made. I am very grateful to him for concluding Committee on an upbeat tick, and with that I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 139 withdrawn.
Amendment 140 to 141A not moved.
Schedule 4 agreed.
Clause 21: Interpretation
Amendment 142 not moved.
Clause 21 agreed.
Clause 22: Commencement, transitional and savings
Amendment 143 not moved.