Secretary of State’s powers to give financial assistance

Part of Agriculture Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 30th October 2018.

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Photo of Jenny Chapman Jenny Chapman Shadow Minister (Exiting the European Union) 2:30 pm, 30th October 2018

The right hon. Gentleman is right—we are world leaders, and we are very proud of that. What I am trying to achieve with these amendments is that we maintain that position. I will go on to explain why later, but it is not difficult to imagine a future Government, under pressure perhaps to secure trade deals, feeling pressure to diminish our world-leading standards. None of us here today would want that to happen, but an assurance from a Minister in Committee or even at the Dispatch Box has nothing like the same weight as something written into our law. That is the issue; it is about maintaining the position that the right hon. Gentleman quite rightly highlights.

To explain this simply, rather than banging on about retained EU law, once the UK leaves the EU we will no longer be subject to EU law. As many of our laws and, importantly, the principles that underpin them are or have been previously held within EU law, the UK now can decide which EU laws it wants to adopt fully into UK legislation. EU laws on animal sentience, environmental standards and animal welfare standards are among the laws that have not been adequately taken back by the UK; I expect the Minister is thinking that, and it was indicated when we had the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 as it went through the House of Commons. I say “adequately” because they have been transferred to some extent and I understand that, but the status of the laws now means that they are too easily amendable and do not provide the same safeguards as primary legislation does, or as they would if they were amendments that had been put into this Bill.

It would be a mistake on the part of the Government and Parliament to allow that situation to continue. We could take this opportunity now. It was hinted that the Government would do this when they could, and they could be doing it now. Why are the Government choosing not to take this opportunity at this stage?

My hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich made a good speech on environmental standards when we debated the EU (Withdrawal) Bill in Committee of the whole House. Several of my hon. Friends in this Committee contributed to that debate, and Members on both sides were concerned about the issue—I do not know whether the Minister remembers this. We are trying to ensure that the environmental principles set out in article 191 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union are enshrined in our law. These are the precautionary principle in relation to the environment, the principle that preventive action should be taken to avert environmental damage, the principle that environmental damage should as a priority be rectified at source, and the “polluter pays” principle. We feel—I think most of us here would agree—that these need to continue to be recognised and applied after exit day.

It is not unique to EU law to have these principles enshrined in this way as they are enshrined in law in other policy areas, and there is no good reason why these should not be included in this Bill. The principles are not there to make us feel good so that we can look to them and say, “We put this into law and that shows what a great country we are,” although it does do that. They have three key roles: they are an aid to the interpretation of the law, they guide future decision-making, and they are a basis for legal challenge in court. The EU (Withdrawal) Act did not allow us to replicate the legal certainty that we currently have. At the moment, we have that legal certainty, but when we leave the EU at the end of March that legal certainty— depending on the deal that has been achieved—will no longer be in place. As my hon. Friend said when we debated the Act, we need this

“to be effective custodians of the environment and to be world leaders when it comes to environmental standards.”—[Official Report, 15 November 2017; Vol. 631, c. 495.]

It is very important that we embed the principles in the way our policy operates. I have to say that to his credit the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has recognised this, but the Government continue to argue that environmental principles are interpretive principles, and that as such they should not form part of the law itself.

I do not think that they are simply guidance. The environmental protection requirements should be integrated into the definition and implementation of our policies and activities, in particular with a view to promoting sustainable development. They are a vital aid to understanding the role and function of existing legislation, as well as being, as the Secretary of State said, an interpretive tool for decision-makers and, if necessary, the courts.

There is also an important aspect to all of this around devolution. The principles provide the beginnings of a framework within which the devolved nations, as well as England, can operate. There is significant anxiety, which we may get on to in later clauses, about how exactly support for farming and agriculture might work in the future when we think about the Welsh Government, the Northern Ireland Assembly or the Scottish Government’s desire to do things—as they have done previously, to be fair—slightly differently. Why would they not want to do that? There needs to be a shared and agreed framework within which that can happen.

Another point is that the UK’s duty to comply with the environmental principles does not end when we leave the EU, because they are contained in other treaties that have nothing to do with our membership of the European Union. The way we comply with those treaties needs to be somewhere in domestic law. I will listen to what the Minister says, but there is a risk that in the future that it will not. That is why we think it is right that these principles be incorporated into this Bill. There are clear examples of other laws where this kind of approach has been taken. The Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 talks about it being

“the duty of every employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all his employees.”

The Countryside Act 1968 confers functions on an agency for it to exercise for the

“conservation and enhancement of the natural beauty and amenity of the countryside.”

It is not unusual to have this approach.

The environmental principles set out in article 191 of the treaty form an essential component of environmental law. If the Government’s stated aim of equivalence on day one of Brexit is to be achieved, these principles need to be part of domestic law on day one and the public should be able to rely on them. The courts should be able to apply them and public bodies need to know that they have been following them. I appreciate that we are talking about transitional arrangements, but that only makes it all the more uncertain for people and shows all the more need for clarity. In the absence of any of the other promised legislation so far—we are anticipating several Bills that are yet to materialise—this has been our only opportunity to get the principles in a Bill so that they can be enshrined in UK law.

Amendments 74 and 75 would impose duties on the Secretary of State. We are going to come back to this again and again: we are not satisfied that powers are sufficient to provide us with the confidence we need to give this Bill support. What we want are duties. The principles that safeguard the environment ought to inform the way taxpayers’ money is spent. The way the public view all this in the future is going to change and the Government need to be ready for that. They have had a buffer in the EU until now, and much as members of the public might shake their heads or roll their eyes at some support for farmers, they are one step removed. That is not going to be the case in future. People are going to turn up at Members’ surgeries saying, “I am not happy with the way my taxpayers’ money is being spent” if they feel it is being distributed for things that they do not believe are appropriate. Having a legal framework underpinned by the principles we are proposing would provide some confidence and a safeguard for the public. That argument has not yet surfaced sufficiently, but we are going to see a very different tone to the way these sorts of issues are debated in the future.

We think it is vital to maintain our world-leading position on animal welfare standards—similarly with environmental standards. Subsequently, amendment 74 says that financial assistance must pay

“full regard to the welfare requirements of animals as sentient beings.”