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Brexit: Divergence from EU Standards

Volume 799: debated on Thursday 3 October 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they intend to inform Parliament of their priorities and objectives in the areas in which they wish to diverge from European Union standards by way of United Kingdom regulations.

The UK already goes beyond EU minimum standards in a number of areas, such as working rights and environmental protections. Our high regulatory standards are not dependent on EU membership. After leaving the EU, we will be free to set our own laws and the Government will continue an ambitious and flexible approach to make smarter and more efficient regulation. Any future changes to regulations will be subject to the appropriate parliamentary scrutiny.

I thank the noble Lord for that Answer, which tells me exactly nothing. I am even more confused than when I put this Question down, because I see in the various documents that we had yesterday that we are now about to have,

“continued regulatory alignment for a potentially prolonged period across the whole island of Ireland”.

That suggests that, if we are going to keep Northern Irish and British standards the same, we will not diverge. The Written Statement in the noble Lord’s name says that,

“we will be negotiating a revised Political Declaration”.

I assume that that is about divergence of regulations, among other things. Are the Government trying to say different things to different audiences? I think that they are. Are we planning to go back to what happened before Margaret Thatcher developed the European single market, which was to move towards adopting US regulations? Or are the Government simply not going to tell us what we are doing?

I am not sure why this is such a difficult concept for the Liberal Democrats to grasp. There are EU minimum standards. In most of these areas—whether it be holiday pay, maternity entitlement, annual leave or emissions standards—the UK goes beyond those standards as a matter of our sovereign choice. Why do the Liberal Democrats not have any confidence in our ability to determine our own standards?

Does my noble friend agree that the freedom to diverge from European regulations is, as the Prime Minister said, one of the important reasons for leaving the EU, although this will probably apply more to future regulation in evolving technologies such as fintech? Does he also agree that while, like any third country, such as the United States, we have to observe EU regulation when we sell into the EU market, when we sell into our own market or trade with each other it is a matter for the UK Parliament?

As always on these matters, my noble friend speaks great sense. I agree with the points that he has made. The ability to set our own regulations and to adopt a nimble and flexible approach to regulations on future technologies would be one of the great advantages of leaving the EU.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the previous Conservative Government, before the recent change, said that they would keep up with the changes to minimum standards? Is he saying that there has been no change in policy since that time or that there has been a change in policy since that time?

I am saying that one of the great advantages of our new, upcoming independence will be the ability to set our own regulations and standards, determined in this House. I am really not sure why the Opposition want Jean-Claude Juncker to determine our environmental standards rather than the British people and the British Parliament.

My Lords, during proceedings on the international trade Bill, your Lordships’ House spent a lot of time talking about regulations and standards. The Minister at the time made a lot of undertakings about maintaining or, indeed, exceeding current standards. That Bill has now been summarily scrapped. Meanwhile, the Secretary of State, Liz Truss, talks about having a low-regulation economy. That is why we on these Benches are concerned about the issue. Who is right: those on your Benches who talk about high standards or the Secretary of State, who talks about a low-regulation economy?

We believe in having high standards and we believe that we should determine these matters for ourselves. I can give the Liberal Democrats some examples. On maternity entitlement, the UK standard is 39 weeks, whereas the EU standard is 14 weeks. On annual leave, the UK has 5.6 weeks, whereas the EU has four. We have higher environmental standards on greenhouse gas emissions: we were the first in the world to legislate on that. We already exceed the EU minimum requirements. We are a high-standards economy and proud of it. We should be able to determine these things for ourselves.

Will my noble friend answer a simple question? When we leave the European Union on 31 October, we leave the jurisdiction of the European Commission to apply any environmental standards, but the Government have not yet established the office for environmental protection. Which body will decide which environmental standards apply?

The environmental standards that will apply initially will be those that we have imported into UK law under the EU withdrawal Act, but we have the flexibility to change these things in future. We are committed to setting up that environmental standards body and I am sure that we will want to do that as soon as parliamentary time allows.

My Lords, given that, according to the Minister, we will have different standards from the EU but that, as we heard yesterday, Northern Ireland will be aligned with EU standards and regulations for at least four years, I take it that there will be a border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland on standards. Is that right?

There are already checks, of course, because Ireland is a single epidemiological unit. Therefore, there are already checks in the Irish Sea on live animal exports, et cetera. If these proposals are accepted—we will see how the negotiations go—there will need to be a small increase in the number of checks done.

Does not my noble friend think that, had we been able to make our own regulations in respect of emissions standards, we might have avoided the appalling scandal related to diesel engines and the great distress that it has caused to many of our citizens who have diesel cars?

My noble friend makes a good point. It is a matter of national self-confidence: we should be able to determine these things for ourselves. I really do not see why that is such a difficult concept for the Opposition to grasp.