I wish to make a short statement about the sub judice resolution. The question whether provisions in the draft Independence Referendum Bill relate to reserved matters under the Scotland Act 1998 has been referred to the Supreme Court and a judgment is anticipated in the coming months. I am exercising the discretion given to the Chair to allow reference to the issues concerned, given their national importance.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the impact of retained EU law on the Scottish devolution settlement.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair for this morning’s debate, Mrs Murray, and I welcome the Minister to his new post.
Should this shambles of a Government manage to stumble on past the weekend, we are being told that their Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill will come before the House on 25 October. The Brexit freedoms Bill, as the Government like to call it, will give UK Ministers unprecedented powers to rewrite and replace almost 2,500 pieces of domestic law covering matters such as environment and nature, consumer protection, workers’ rights, product safety and agriculture, and that will be done with the bare minimum of parliamentary scrutiny. It is, in short, an ideologically driven deregulatory race to the bottom that will do enormous damage to our society and our economy.
The Bill, taken in conjunction with the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, will fundamentally undermine and alter the devolution settlement by giving primacy to UK law in areas that are wholly devolved, such as environmental health, food standards and animal welfare. Today, I thought it would be useful to consider the Bill to examine what it could mean for Scotland and for the devolution settlement. I believe that any objective analysis would see not only that it puts at risk many of the high standards and protections that the people of Scotland have enjoyed and come to expect from more than four decades of EU membership, but that it is part of the Government’s long-term plan to undermine the devolution settlement and weaken our Scottish Parliament.
Under the Bill, and with the 2020 Act already in place, any legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament could be undermined by a Government here in Westminster whom we did not elect, even in matters that are wholly devolved. I will give a few examples. In the area of food standards, if the Scottish Parliament decided that we would remain aligned with the European Union and would ban the sale of chlorinated chicken, but this place decided that cheap, imported, chlorine-washed chicken was acceptable, there would be almost nothing the Scottish Parliament could do to stop lorryloads of chlorine-washed poultry crossing the border, with that chicken then appearing on our supermarket shelves.
Similarly, if the UK agreed a trade deal that saw the UK flooded with cheap, factory-farmed, hormone-injected meat, but the Scottish Parliament decided to protect Scottish consumers and Scottish farmers by adhering to the standards and protections that we have up to now enjoyed, under the terms of the Bill—again, backed by the 2020 Act—Westminster could override that and Scotland’s supermarkets could be inundated with inferior-quality cheap cuts of meat that under existing EU law would get nowhere near our supermarket shelves.
Is it not the case that this is not just about standards? On farming and farmers, we have only to look at the trade deal signed by the UK with Australia and New Zealand, which allows them a higher quota for importing lambs to the UK than is allowed for the entire EU. The EU is protecting our farmers whereas the UK Government are throwing them to the wind.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is correct, and I will expand on his point in a moment.
This Government and the Bill are an existential threat to Scottish agriculture. Scotland could decide to stick to long-established best practice in the welfare and treatment of animals, and retain the stringent checks on animals entering the food chain. However, if this place decides to deregulate, animals whose provenance is unknown, and whose welfare history is unaccounted for, can and almost certainly will enter the food chain. Most worryingly, if the Government decide to change food labelling standards, Scottish consumers not only could be subjected to chlorine-washed chicken, hormone-injected beef, genetically modified crops and animals of questionable provenance, but will probably not be able to tell what they are eating. The labelling regulations could be so diminished that the protections consumers now enjoy could be completely removed.
On Friday, I met with the Argyll and Bute regional board of the National Farmers Union Scotland. Its message was stark: farmers feel forgotten and undervalued. They have been battered by Brexit. They are barely surviving the energy crisis. At a time of falling incomes, they are at a loss as to how they will cope with the skyrocketing costs of feed and fertiliser.
Farmers know, too, that the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill is a potential death sentence for an agricultural sector that requires a hefty subsidy. It needs that subsidy because it manages the land, keeps the lights on in our hills and glens, provides employment in rural communities, and helps stem the tide of rural depopulation while producing high-quality, high-value beef, lamb and dairy products. They know—we all know—that the lowering of food standards, the relaxation of rules on labelling and animal welfare, and the mass importation of inferior products will be an unmitigated disaster for Scottish agriculture. They are also painfully aware, as we are, that there is precious little that their democratically elected Scottish Parliament can do about it.
The hon. Member will know that his opinion and mine greatly differ on this precious Union. I understand that, but it does not make us friends any the less; we are dear friends, and work on many things together. One of the reasons for that difference of opinion is seeing the impact that being slightly removed has had on constituents, which he has referred to. Undoubtedly there are some businesses that will thrive in dealing with the EU, but for the vast majority, basics are more expensive to come by. It is simply wrong to have no representative to speak on our behalf on EU legislation. We are painfully aware of that in Northern Ireland. It goes against everything we in a democracy hold so dearly and believe. Does he agree that no nation can knowingly subject itself to law with no voice?
I thank my dear hon. Friend, and reciprocate the feelings that he has expressed. Every community needs a voice, and his community and farmers need a voice. His farmers need protection. I would caution that his farmers will look at the situation and also be extremely worried that, if the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill and the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 are spread across into Northern Ireland, as they may well be, they will face the same threats as Scottish farmers.
Angus Robertson MSP, Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture, has already raised the Scottish Government’s serious concerns with the Secretary of State. The Minister will be aware that if the UK Government act in wholly devolved policy areas, they will do so without the consent of Scottish Ministers or the Scottish Parliament, and that will significantly undermine the devolution settlement.
As I said earlier, we will be in a deregulatory race to the bottom, a race in which individual citizens will surely lose out to the spivs and the speculators—and no doubt to the politically connected, who will be fast-tracked into making a quick buck at citizens’ expense. The Government say that the Bill will give the UK the opportunity to be bolder and go further than the EU in securing consumer rights and environmental protections, but there are clauses in the Bill that actively prevent Ministers from imposing any new regulatory burden, including any “administrative inconvenience”, on anyone.
Those clauses suggest very strongly that this is headed in one direction only, towards deregulation, and that that deregulation will make it easier to circumvent our legal obligations on food labelling for allergens, or not to pay holiday pay, or to roll back on the safe limits on working hours, or to change hard-won rights to parental leave. The Government will be aware of the fury that will follow should they move to weaken existing controls on polluting substances, or attempt to lower existing water or air quality standards, or dare to dilute the essential protections that defend our natural habitat and our wildlife.
Let me stress again: this is not a road that Scotland has chosen to go down. Rather, it is a road that Scotland is being dragged down. Our nation rejected this Tory Brexit fantasy, but our democratic wishes have been ignored at every turn. This is not of Scotland’s doing, but because of the constitutional straitjacket we find ourselves in, we are having this done to us by a Government that we did not elect.
The Minister cannot dismiss this as SNP scaremongering, because organisations as diverse as the Scottish Trades Union Congress, Food Standards Scotland and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds have all warned about the adverse impact that the Bill will have. Frances O’Grady, Trades Union Congress general secretary, has described the Bill as “reckless” and said that
“vital protections could disappear overnight”.
The RSPB has warned that if the Government push ahead, they will be undermining the long-established and vital laws that are in place to protect nature. Food Standards Scotland said that the Bill poses
“a significant risk to Scotland’s ability to uphold high safety and food standards.”
Yet it seems that, in their desperate, deluded pursuit of the mirage of a Brexit Shangri-La, this Government are prepared to put at risk our natural environment, our food and animal welfare standards, consumer protections and workers’ rights. That is why the SNP will oppose the Bill every step of the way.
Not only are this Government coming for those rights and protections that we have enjoyed for decades, they are also coming for our Parliament. I repeat the call from the Scottish Government for the UK Government, even at this late stage, to perform one of their trademark—almost legendary—U-turns, and abandon this disastrous Bill. The Bill not only undermines the devolution settlement, it also diminishes the role of MPs here, with the plan to deal with everything via secondary legislation, conveniently avoiding the intense parliamentary scrutiny that the measures require. The Secretary of State claimed in his letter that this was about “taking back control”, but I have to ask: who is taking back control? It is not this Parliament.
As the Government have already gleefully announced to the press, the amount of parliamentary time required has been dramatically reduced. It seems that, for this Government, taking back control means putting a group of hand-picked party loyalists on to a delegated legislation Committee—a Committee with a built-in Government majority, which will be able to bulldoze through change after change after change, as instructed by the Government. The history of delegated legislation Committees is not particularly encouraging. In the past 65 years, only 17 statutory instruments have been voted down in DL committees. The last time that happened was in 1979. While there is certainly a role for DL Committees, I do not believe it extends to making wholesale and fundamental changes to vast swathes of the law on everything from environment and nature to consumer protection, workers’ rights, product safety and agriculture, just to help this Government avoid proper parliamentary scrutiny.
Of course, the reason the Government are avoiding scrutiny is because, in their fervour to rid themselves of any lingering European influence, the zealots at the heart of this collapsing Government have arbitrarily put a sunset clause of 31 December 2023 in the Bill. Unless 2,500 pieces of legislation are removed and replaced—unless the Government give themselves an extension, of course—they will simply disappear off the statute book, leaving huge holes in UK law. It is a tactic fraught with danger as it once again introduces another totally unnecessary Brexit cliff edge that will be welcomed by nobody outside the inner sanctum of the European Research Group—sorry, I mean the Cabinet. It is further evidence of the panic at the heart of the Brexit project. They know the wheels have come off and that the Government are disintegrating before their eyes. Thankfully, Scotland has a way out and we will, as soon as possible, rejoin the European Union as an independent nation. I sincerely hope that the rest of the United Kingdom will find its way back to the European Union as well.
I will conclude with a number of questions for the Minister. Will he confirm that, should the Scottish Government decide to preserve all retained EU law, that would be respected and upheld by the Government here in Westminster? Does he accept that, as it is currently written, the Bill threatens sweeping controls here in Westminster over areas that are wholly devolved? Can he explain why, despite issues raised over the summer by the Scottish Government, the Bill was published with powers to undermine devolution? What impact assessment has been carried out on how the Bill will affect the sectors of the economy that will be most affected by it, particularly farmers in remote, rural, economically fragile areas? Will the Government accept and honour the legislative consent motion from the Scottish Parliament? If they do not, why will they not?
Finally, does the Minister agree that by allowing the UK Government to act in policy areas that are wholly devolved, and to do so without the consent of Scottish Ministers or the Scottish Parliament, that is in direct contradiction to the 1998 devolution settlement and particularly the Sewel convention, which was given a statutory footing in 2016?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray, and to welcome the Minister to his post. He will be missed from the Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art, which he has chaired so ably for the past few months or more. It is a pity he is not enjoying the solidarity of his colleagues from the Scottish Conservatives, who might have wanted to show an interest in this issue, stand up to defend the Government and extol the virtues of Brexit, which so few people in Scotland supported—but, apparently, there is no sign of them.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) on securing the debate. It is particularly important, given the chaos engulfing the Conservative Government and Westminster more generally right now, that we take this opportunity to shine a spotlight on an issue that might risk going under the radar. Perhaps that is what the Government—and particularly the Secretary of State—are hoping for: to dress it up as a relatively technocratic, legalistic reform of the statute book and hope that nobody pays too much attention.
However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute has said, many stakeholders—not just those who might be dismissed as part of the anti-growth coalition, which now appears to include the President of the United States and the Chancellor—and a whole range of financial services are particularly concerned about the impact of so much regulation simply dropping off the statute book without any clear mechanism for its being replaced. As we have heard, it is not a technocratic, legalistic reform of the statute book. The Government’s proposals to reform retained EU law represent an Executive power grab on a colossal scale: a power grab from Parliament, from the devolved legislatures—particularly Scotland—and a complete mockery of the claims that Brexit was ever about the House of Commons taking back control of anything.
The concept of EU retained law was created by the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. Members might recall that the vast majority of MPs from Scotland took quite a bit of exception to that Bill when it was progressing through the House. I looked back at Hansard and, although the Minister will not remember because he was not here at the time, the House was detained on multiple points of order on 12 June 2018, when the Government railroaded through amendments to the Bill that undermined the powers of the Scottish Parliament. The next day, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) led the majority of Scotland’s MPs out of the Chamber during Prime Minister’s Questions in protest at the power grab that had been enacted.
The precariousness of the Government’s position during the 2017-19 Parliament meant that they were forced to make certain concessions in passing the Act, including the establishment of the European Statutory Instruments Committee, which made a nod in the direction of enhanced parliamentary scrutiny. In reality, the EUWA itself represented a significant power grab, with the UK Government taking on powers over legislation that would otherwise have been subject to scrutiny across the EU institutions by our representatives in the European Parliament, and by this Parliament and the devolved legislatures. That is why the Act also enacted a significant undermining of the devolution settlement by reserving powers for Westminster that should otherwise have been devolved to Scotland and the other devolved institutions as the UK left the European Union.
Of course, as my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute said, Scotland never voted to leave the European Union in the first place. The blatant disregard shown by the UK Government of the differential in results across these islands, their unwillingness to compromise on issues such as membership of the single market, instead rushing headlong into the hardest of Brexits that nobody could have had evidence to vote for and did not represent what had been proposed by several of the Leave campaigns; all of that demonstrated a contempt for devolution and any notion of a respect agenda.
Now, having invented the concept of retained EU law, the UK Government want to abolish it. They want to introduce a concept of assimilated law, which to the “Star Trek” fans among us will probably have a particularly sinister overtone—the legislative distinctiveness will be added to our own, as the Borg queen may or may not say. They think that by introducing this concept they can erase the legacy of the UK’s time in the EU. Of course, it is not by some strange doublethink that they want to erase the legacy of EU membership: they literally want to sunset every provision accumulated over the past 50 years if it is not reviewed or retained by the end of next year. Never mind that we do not know who the Prime Minister will be at the end of next week, or that the House has sat for little more than four weeks since July; the Government seem to expect us to believe that they can effectively and efficiently revise and update this entire corpus of law in less than 12 months.
They do not pretend that there will be much of a role for this House. As my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute said, they want to create massive powers to railroad through statutory instruments and other secondary legislation, or let retained EU regulations drop off of the statute book completely. Never mind if they provide fundamental protection for workers’ rights, food standards or the natural environment across all of these islands; the arbitrary deadline from the Secretary of State cannot be met, so off they will go, without any consideration of the consequences for businesses or organisations that are trying to operate or trade in a legislative vacuum. The Secretary of State was previously the Minister for Government efficiency, but this is not efficiency: this is ideology.
That brings us to the specific impact on Scotland and the other devolved administrations. The Northern Ireland Assembly is barely functioning, so it has practically no path of resistance or opposition to this. Sensible voices are already calling for the expansion of the capacity and powers of Senedd Cymru, but the Tories seem determined to stand in the way. That leaves Scotland; because Scotland already has the greatest degree of devolution on these islands, it faces the biggest power grab of all from the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill. As my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute said, the UK Government asserted primacy over a whole suite of policy areas that were previously understood to be devolved. All of the concerns about the capacity and time available for scrutiny in this place apply equally to Scotland’s Parliament. The Scottish Government already have their work cut out trying to mitigate the most devastating impacts of Tory economic and social policies in Scotland, and now they need to find time and space to deal with everything coming down or coming up the road in this Bill.
The Scottish Government have committed to remaining aligned with European Union regulation wherever possible. Alignment makes trade in goods and services easier and more beneficial for all. It will also make the process of Scotland rejoining the European Union as an independent country much more straightforward. Perhaps it is not surprising that the UK Government want to ensure that as much of the UK as possible diverges as much as possible from the EU acquis as quickly as possible.
Surely the whole point of Brexit freedom, if that is what the Government think this is, should be to identify naturally and organically where reform of retained law was needed, through the usual processes of engagement with our constituents, consultation with stakeholders and the small matter of political debate and deliberation in Parliament. Instead, what we see exposed is the ideological determination of this Government to erase the UK’s membership of the EU from history, irrespective of the outcomes.
We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute that the Second Reading of the Bill might take place as early as next week. Will the Minister tell us whether it is the Government’s intention to commit that Bill to a Public Bill Committee for scrutiny, or whether, like the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, it will be committed to the whole House for scrutiny? That Act received eight days of scrutiny in a Committee of the whole House and two days on Report, because the Government recognised its constitutional significance.
If this Bill is as significant as the Government try to claim, it should be subject to the scrutiny of the whole House through all its stages. In reality, I do not think that is what the Government are interested in. The explanatory notes are always a riveting read, and I pay tribute to the civil servants who pull them together for the benefit of those of us trying to get our head round the legislation. The explanatory notes say it all. Paragraph 28 says:
“There is no definitive list of general principles recognised in the Court of Justice of the European Union case law, but examples include the protection of fundamental rights, and the equality principle.”
Paragraph 30 says:
“This Bill abolishes these general principles in UK law by the end of 2023, so that they no longer influence the interpretation of legislation on the UK statute book.”
That is the abolition of fundamental rights and the abolition of the equality principle. Brexit really does mean Brexit after all.
Among the Westminster chaos, the people of Scotland can see what is happening and want no part of it. Their chance for a different kind of repeal Bill—repeal of the Act of Union 1707—is coming very soon indeed.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) on introducing the debate. It is incredible, in an hour-and-half debate on such an important subject, that I am standing to sum up less than half an hour after it began. That shows a lack of care from many Conservatives, particularly the Scottish Tories.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) said, where are the Scottish Tories? They continually challenge the SNP when we talk about power grabs by the Westminster Government. They always ask us to name one power that has been taken away from the Scottish Parliament. As we have heard, this abolition of EU retained law is not a single power grab, it is a carte blanche undoing of devolution. It allows the UK Government to force standards in Scotland. When trade deals are signed and Westminster wants to diverge from the EU, the Internal Market Bill, for example, can be used to railroad and force those standards on Scotland. It is disgraceful that the Scottish Tories are not here to make a case for the Government and why they want to do this.
It could be argued that Scotland did not technically have full powers in all these remits because it was EU law, but the point of EU law in regulations is that it was agreed by member states. Scotland will no longer have the facility to keep EU retained law and that alignment, if the Westminster Government have their say. We have to remember that the EU single market is the biggest single market in the world. Why do the UK Government want to diverge from standards that allow access to the biggest market in the world? It makes no sense, but again it is a throwback to the British empire and bringing back British sovereignty. It is a falsehood—a fallacy.
We previously heard from Brexiteers that the good thing about being able to diverge from the EU is that we can improve environmental standards. I spoke last week in a debate about sewage discharges into watercourses and on beaches. Before coming to this place, I was a sewerage civil engineer, and I saw at first hand how the Tory Government back then resisted EU legislation to clean up beaches. The UK was known as the dirty man of Europe, and it is no surprise that, now that we have left the EU, the rest of the UK is having a problem with sewage discharges. It cannot be a coincidence. Given that you represent a coastal community, Mrs Murray, you must have concerns about water quality and the sewage discharges that this Government seem to be allowing.
Another Brexit falsehood is the so-called sea of opportunity. Fishing communities were told that they were going to benefit from Brexit, but unfortunately they were sold a pup, to mix my metaphors. That again is proof that whatever the Brexiteers promise never comes to fruition—they are just false promises.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute pointed out, it is ridiculous that we are looking at overturning almost 2,500 pieces of legislation by some false 2023 deadline when we do not even have a functioning Government. That process is retained under the control of the Secretary of State. Previously, he was all about parliamentary sovereignty and scrutiny, but that seems to have gone out the window now that he is a member of the Cabinet. We only have to look at the Henry VIII powers inserted into the Energy Prices Bill on Monday to see that the Government are taking back control on one level—they are taking back control from MPs in the House of Commons. I have grave concerns about that.
As my hon. Friend said, this is about food standards and animal welfare. It is about maintaining standards and having checks in place. Another Brexit dividend is that we do not have enough vets because we have ended freedom of movement—it is ridiculous, and it just shows Brexiteers’ blinkeredness. As my hon. Friend said, this is an existential threat to Scottish agriculture. It is actually an existential threat to the devolution settlement.
On deregulation, I mentioned workers’ rights, and Frances O’Grady of the TUC has highlighted concerns about that. In his speech on the ten-minute rule Bill yesterday, the hon. Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) attacked workers’ rights and said that the EU working time directive has allowed idleness. That is the attitude. I am sure you have read “Britannia Unchained”, Mrs Murray, which was co-authored by the Prime Minister, who attacked British workers for being lazy, idle and unproductive. That is the attitude at the top of the Government, so what hope do we have when EU retained law is completely abolished?
That brings me to the official Opposition. Of course, Labour has promised to make Brexit work. It is also in favour of a hard Brexit. It does not want freedom of movement or to be in the single market, so what does it stand for when it comes to EU retained law? What is Labour’s vision for the future? It seems to me that it mirrors the Tory vision.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North rightly pointed out that the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 was forced on Scotland, but at the time we were reassured that the idea of retained EU law was somehow going to give us some continuity. It was going to give us protections, and it was shown that we were not going to diverge from the EU. Now the Government’s motives are absolutely clear: that was just another Brexit falsehood, and it is all about divergence and free market opportunities. Who cares about standards as long as it is a free market and prices come down? That is all they care about, not protecting workers’ rights, agriculture and food standards and hygiene.
Another silly example of this Government’s obsession with divergence from the EU is the weights and measures consultation. Why would we want to go back to imperial weights and measures? Scotland exports more manufactured goods to the rest of the world than to England, and weights and measures are important in that. Alignment with metric measurements is the way we do things. Why would we want to change? Last week, an article in New Civil Engineer magazine noted that using thumb measurements or inches might have been fine for a 16th-century carpenter, but today we have alignment with the biggest single market. Even the United States, despite being one of the few countries that still uses imperial measurements, aligns measurements for its exported goods with the metric system. Why would we want to go back on that? How much money would it cost to rip up what we do now? Again, it just shows the Brexit fantasy and falsehoods.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for raising this, because it is a fallacy that people would want to go back to those kinds of measurements. What the Business Secretary is trying to claim about going back to those measurements is just farcical. Could we perhaps talk about this matter in the bar tonight over 568 ml of beer?
The hon. Gentleman is being slightly flippant, but he makes a good point. That is the thing: the EU did not force the UK to go metric. It was done willingly. The EU allowed pints and other things to be retained as measurements because it was not about the EU imposing its will, but about a sensible way forward over alignment. Of course, it is a rare thing for me to enjoy a 568 ml drink—or a pint—but I might come back and do that at some point.
I look forward to the hon. Gentleman, who is the shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, telling us about Labour’s vision for making Brexit work, and why it will not align with the EU, why it does not want to rejoin the single market and why it does not want freedom of movement. I shall conclude there, because I really do want to hear from him and from the new Minister, whom I welcome to his place. Who knows how long he will be in his post, given the current chaos? I hope he will address these serious points and explain this Government’s rationale.
It is a great pleasure to serve with you in the Chair for the first time, Mrs Murray. I congratulate the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) on bringing this debate. We never know during these debates which Minister will actually turn up, because we are never quite sure who the Minister is. We are always online trying to search the departmental webpages, if they are ever updated properly, to find out who the Ministers are. I welcome the Minister present to his place.
It is very strange that no Scottish Conservative MPs are here to take part in this important debate, but maybe this is a vision of the future after the next general election, where there will be no Scottish Conservative MPs available to be here. I am very disappointed that it was not put on record earlier that the entire contribution of the Scottish Labour party is here participating in this debate, unlike the SNP—only a small fraction of that entire party is present. I think Labour wins that particular battle.
I want to say a few words about this particular debate, which is similar to a debate we had in this Chamber a few weeks ago on the devolution to Scotland of employment law. The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute can correct me if I am wrong, but I think that this matter boils down to two things: one is an ideological attack on the rights and protections we have all enjoyed, whether in or out of the EU; the other is the Conservative Government who are putting these changes through. My contention in the previous debate was that this matter is not about two Parliaments up against each other, but about a UK Conservative Government making decisions that we find to be deplorable and not in line with what we would like to see. Perhaps a change of Government would make these things an awful lot easier to achieve.
Does the hon. Member agree with my substantive point that this is actually a power grab from this place against the Scottish Parliament? It is a power grab that gives primacy in law to what happens in Westminster, as opposed to areas that have hitherto been wholly devolved.
The powers argument is a consequence of what the UK Government are trying to do. They want to get rid of all this EU law and this is the way they want to do it, so it is an ideologically driven piece of legislation and policy. The consequences of that are all the consequences he laid out in his speech.
There is one thing I want to say about power grabs. We have an argument—whether it be in the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, which is now on the statute book, or in this debate—where the Minister stands up and says, “This is a powers bonanza” and the SNP says, “It is a power grab”. It is probably neither, and it will depend on the decisions made by both Governments about what will happen, which is driven by the desire of the Scottish people. In the past few polls, nearly 70% of Scottish people want both Governments to work together. It surprises me that when the Scottish Government were talking about a power grab in the Internal Market Act, they were hiring all these new civil servants to deal with the new powers that were about to arrive. Of the 157 powers that have been repatriated from the European Union, 130 or 135 of them currently sit with the Scottish Government. These bland statements about power grabs and power bonanzas are rather unfortunate and are probably not of any use to the debate.
I agree with the hon. Member about the consequences that could happen if decisions in Westminster are made in line with how we think they will be made. We only have to look at our inboxes over the past few weeks to see the emails from all the nature organisations, such as the RSPB, as the hon. Member mentioned, Greenpeace and others, which were apoplectic at the possible consequences for protections from this attack on nature across the whole of the UK. The Minister has to tell us the driving force behind this. I think the Minister or the Secretary of State said that the reason for this piece of legislation is that if it was not in place removing or amended outdated EU laws could take several years. I ask the Minister to give us an example—if we did not have this Bill—of a piece of EU law that would take several years to repeal. I bet he cannot give us one because it is just another line from the Secretary of State’s speech that makes no reference to the reality of the situation.
The key point is that we were all told at the Brexit referendum that EU law would be repatriated to the EU, but it would be the minimum standard and it would be built on. We seem to have a bonfire of regulation and a clumsy drive from this Govt and the previous two Conservative Governments since the EU referendum to rip up regulations and turn the UK into the Singapore of Europe. Rather than working in the national interest, it is always about what is in the party’s interests.
Hon. Members have asked some questions. The hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) rightly talked about the impact on devolution. All these things have an impact on devolution. Asymmetric devolution across the United Kingdom gives us these kinds of issues, and it is driven by a Government that wishes to create them. We have a situation where the UK Government and the Scottish Government want to rip up the devolution settlement. That is just a fact. Whether the Government realise it, every time they bring a piece of retained EU legislation to this House, they just give succour to the nationalists who wish to rip up the devolution settlement to deliver independence.
While we have just had a huge discussion about this Conservative Government wrenching the UK out of the European Union with a hard Brexit, we have the hard Scexiteers here, who want to do exactly the same. [Interruption.] They like that, don’t they? They are hard Scexiteers who wish to do exactly the same, and it is not my words: it is the words of the economic paper that the First Minister launched on Monday. There would be a hard border between Scotland and England for goods, services and probably people. They want to seamlessly rejoin the EU with a 12% deficit, using someone else’s currency with no central bank as a lender of last resort with no money. The paper itself has been trashed by the Institute for Fiscal Studies. It was trashed by Robert McAlpine, who is a massive supporter of independence, who asks, “How do we get out of this crazy mess?” While we have a discussion about hard Brexiteers, we have three hard Scexiteers here—I will give way to one of them.
I am trying not to bite here, but I will go back to the question I posed. The hon. Member mentioned a hard Brexit and said it is what the Tories are doing. Is it not the case that Labour favours a hard Brexit? The hon. Member has not mentioned why Labour is against re-joining the single market, nor defended why Labour is against freedom of movement. Does the hon. Member agree with the shadow Chancellor who thinks that the UK needs to process and deport people back to their countries more quickly? That seems to be the Labour view, and it is no different from the Government.
That is more fantasy from the SNP. I find it strange that, when we have a Government on their knees bringing forward a piece of legislation that ultimately could undermine devolution, the main part of the hon. Member’s speech was an attack on the Labour party. That maybe tells us that our ascendancy in Scotland is worrying the SNP.
Let me say what would have happened. The hon. Member calls the Labour party hard Brexiteers; had the SNP not abstained on the amendment for the customs union it would have passed in Parliament—a matter of public record. The SNP spent less on the EU referendum than it did on the Shetland Scottish parliamentary byelection—to win 3,400 votes. The SNP asks about where we are as a country at the moment. It is perfectly practical for the Labour party, who wish to be the next Government, to try and make Brexit work. The first day that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) walks into No. 10 as the Prime Minister, he is going to face the circumstances of the day, not those that we may wish to find. The first task will be to make what we have got work, the second task will be to build and deepen that relationship with Europe, and the third task, which overarches all of that, is to do what is in the national interest. That is clear.
That shadow Chancellor was actually saying that part of the problem we have in this country with the immigration system is the Home Office not processing applications for asylum quickly enough, which leaves the massive backlog of tens of thousands that we have at the moment. If hon. Members had listened to what she actually said, that is what she was referring to—which I think is SNP policy? If the Home Office was processing applications in a timely manner, and in a humane way, we could get through applications much quicker, lessening those issues.
Where was I with the hard Scexiteers? I think we had gone through that. I will get on to some of the issues raised about what the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill will do. I hope the Minister will tell us what the Government’s plans are, because this is essentially a theoretical Bill about trashing, amending, or otherwise, EU retained law in this country. The Government always have those grand phrases, but they do not tell us what they are going to do. Can the Minister answer my first question: what would take several years if it was not in the Bill? Will the Minister give us an example about what he wishes to do with some of those regulations? I would be happy to listen to that.
The Labour party wants to use that platform to put in a new deal for working people. That is a prime policy example. That would give people workers’ rights from day one and it would build on EU regulations that we have already had. Incidentally, the UK has always gold-plated EU regulations. In fact, Conservative Governments have always gold-plated EU regulations. The Labour party would end fire and rehire and zero-hour contracts—is that part of the Government’s strategy? We would make work more family friendly and flexible. We would strengthen trade union rights, which would raise pay and conditions. We would roll out fair pay agreements, and we would use Government procurement to ensure that we could lift standards, pay, conditions and skills right across the country.
Our new deal for working people is a practical example of what we would do with regulations, rather than a Bill that says we will rip up every piece of EU regulation without saying what we would do instead, while, at the same time, undermining devolution.
I will ask one final, two-part question to the Minister. What discussions is he having with the devolved Administrations about the Bill, and about trying to achieve a consensus so that legislative consent motions can be passed? The Sewel convention—which was right—was put on a statutory footing under the Scotland Act 2016 by an amendment brought forward by the Labour party. We cannot just disregard that; the Sewel convention is clear that the UK Government will not legislate in devolved areas where they do not need to. If they do, a legislative consent motion must be positively passed by the Scottish Parliament—not the Scottish Government. What discussions is he having to make sure those legislative consent motions can come forward?
I am grateful that the debate has been brought forward, and that we have had the hard Scexiteers and hard Brexiteers arguing over the EU. However, yet again we have had a combined 37 minutes from three SNP Members, and they have not told us one iota about how they can get back into the European Union with the huge deficits they have, no currency, no central bank, no lender of last resort and no immigration policy—[Interruption.] Now they are claiming that I am slagging them off, but they spent a lot of their speeches slagging off the Labour party. I look forward to the Minister answering some questions, and maybe at some point in the future we will get some answers from the SNP as well.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Murray. I have to say, I have quite enjoyed this debate. I will respond to as many of the questions as possible. Given the fact that the Leader of the Opposition is likely to push to form a coalition with the SNP, I do not quite know how the divide that has been so clearly created today will be filled.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) on securing this important debate. I am grateful to him for the opportunity to debate this very important topic ahead of the Second Reading of the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill. I look forward to continuing discourse with him, his SNP colleagues and others during the passage of the Bill. I intend to cover as many of the points raised by the hon. Members for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) as possible.
I will start with a clear message: the Government are absolutely committed to the devolution settlements and to safeguarding the Union. It is our mission to deliver economic prosperity for every citizen in every part of the UK. As my colleagues are undoubtedly aware, the Government are committed to devolution and to working collaboratively and constructively with the devolved Governments. That is the way to deliver better outcomes for citizens across the UK. The people of Scotland rightly expect both the UK and Scottish Governments to work together and focus on the issues that really matter to them.
We have the backdrop of the war in Ukraine and global economic slowdown, which has created incredible challenges for the UK—for Scottish, English, Welsh and Northern Irish citizens. The Government are committed to working towards economic and legislative solutions that work for the whole of the UK. Accordingly, the Government remain fully committed to the Sewel convention and the associated practices for seeking consent for the devolved legislatures.
Retained EU law, the subject of today’s debate, was brought on to the statute book as a bridging measure to ensure continuity as we left the European Union. It was never intended to sit on the statue book indefinitely. Its existence has created legislative anomalies that we must now address. On 31 January, the Government announced plans to bring forward the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill. It is a culmination of the Government’s journey to untangle ourselves from nearly 50 years of EU membership, and it will provide the tools for the Government to fully realise the benefits of Brexit. We realise that those benefits for citizens are paramount, especially for businesses across all four great nations of the UK.
I thank the hon. Member for asking that very clear question. There are many benefits. In fact, on the EU dashboard there are over 2,500 pieces of legislation that we can start to look at. The key point of this Bill is to create a framework to enable us to look forward at how we can get the best out of Brexit. It will affect every citizen across the UK, and the Bill will make sure that we are covering that. I will come to points raised earlier, if I may.
I thank the hon. Member for that question. The key point about the Bill today is to talk about the framework, and what we are trying to ensure is that as the framework goes through, we will then be able to look at the individual pieces of regulation and legislation—all of those pieces that will then be looked at.
There are many, many, many, but I will not be drawn on the specifics today, because it is, of course, important that the conversation happens for the UK Government, the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Government, to make sure that we are getting the right output from this, and it would be wrong of me to pre-empt that. However, I am sure that within the coming weeks and months we will have lots of conversations, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will himself be listening to many of them in the coming years.
The Bill will abolish the constitutional and outdated special status that retained EU law currently has on our statute book by 31 December 2023. It will empower the UK and devolved Governments to amend, repeal and replace their retained EU law more quickly. It will also include a sunset date by which all remaining retained EU law will either be repealed or, if a decision is made to keep it, stripped of interpretive provisions associated with retained EU law, and assimilated. I noted the comment of the hon. Member for Glasgow North, being a fellow “Star Trek” fan; although I disagree with his analogy, I understood the concept of the Borg, which probably has not been mentioned in Parliament very often. The key point is that any retained EU law that we keep will be assimilated into domestic law.
The Bill will enable the Government and, where appropriate, the devolved Governments to take back control of the UK statute book. The powers in the Bill will enable swift reform of the laws—more than 2,500 in total—derived from the UK’s membership of the EU. Many of those laws are outdated; some are even inoperable or not fit for the UK’s economic circumstances. That is why reform is needed.
Without the Bill, there is a risk that retained EU law becomes an immutable category of law on the statute book. The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 preserved EU laws as if they had effect in domestic law immediately before the end of the transition period following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. It is manifestly sensible that we all have the power to repeal or reform those laws and that we do so without delay.
Surely the point is that if this Parliament has regained sovereignty, in the way that the Brexiteers claimed it has, it has that power and can do it on a case-by-case, piece-by-piece basis, as people come forward with allegedly sensible improvements to the retained EU law. Having the end of next year as a sunset clause is just completely arbitrary; it is not necessary. The whole point of the Brexit case, as I understood it, was that this Parliament could take its time and assert its sovereignty, and change these hangover regulations as and when it saw fit, and not with an arbitrary sunset clause.
I thank the hon. Member for his comments, but no—we need to make sure that there is certainty on this issue. Having that date is absolutely essential to make sure that we are working towards it and ensuring that there is commonality in the way we work across these regulations and laws. Ultimately, however, this is what the British people—people across the United Kingdom—voted for. I appreciate that saying that may open up a whole load of new interventions, so I will hesitate to go down that rabbit hole.
This Bill will provide both the UK Government and the devolved Governments with the powers to amend, repeal and replace these laws more quickly and more easily than before. It will enable the devolved Governments to establish a more nimble, innovative and UK-specific regulatory approach, in order to go further and faster to seize the opportunities of Brexit.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute mentioned devolved Governments quite a few times and I understand the reasons for that. I just want to make it absolutely clear, and I will reiterate this because it is so important, that the decisions for those in devolved Governments to make—the choice to preserve, amend or repeal retained EU law in their areas—are theirs to make. I will come on to this again a bit later in my comments.
The measures in the Bill are UK-wide. This will ensure that citizens and businesses across all four nations of the UK are able to realise the benefits of Brexit. Nothing in our proposed legislation affects the devolution settlements. The proposed legislation will not restrict the competence of either the devolved legislatures or the devolved Governments. In fact, the powers in the Bill will give the devolved Governments greater flexibility to decide how they should regulate those areas that are currently governed by retained EU law in the future.
Perhaps the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) wants to make the same point. The Minister is refusing to give us examples, so let us give him an example and he can tell us whether it would be allowable. Say food regulations were reduced and chlorinated chicken in this country was allowed. What would stop a Scottish supermarket selling chlorinated chicken even if the Scottish Government, under those rules, would not allow that to happen in terms of their food safety responsibilities under devolution?
I shall assume that the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute wanted to make the same point. To be absolutely clear, the premise of the Bill is to enable the conversations to happen among the UK Government and the devolved Governments and to enable us to look at the best way to ensure that we have very high standards in our approach around a whole load of areas. It is not about trying to reduce the quality of food or any of those things. The UK has always had very high standards. I will come to that later in my speech.
The Minister has failed to answer the question, which is very specific. He talks about conversations being had, but this is not about conversations. It is about where decision making and power lie. If the Scottish Parliament decided that chlorinated chicken was banned, but the UK Parliament decided that chlorinated chicken was okay, what would stop chlorinated chicken appearing on supermarket shelves in Scotland? That is a very specific question.
I take the intervention. The key point here is that this is about the Bill, and the conversations between the UK Government, through devolution, with the Scottish Government and others are yet to be had. We have to have those conversations, and the Bill will enable them to be had and to look at how we put those regulations in place. The idea that the UK is somehow going to start to reduce quality with respect to food or any other area is a rehash of old, proven-to-be-untrue Brexit arguments, and it is not the case here. I am going to make progress and I will come to some of those points later.
The majority of the powers in the Bill will be conferred on the devolved Governments. Conferring those powers will provide the devolved Governments with the tools to reform retained EU law in areas of devolved competence. That will enable the Scottish Government to make active decisions about the retained EU law that is within their devolved competence, for the benefit of citizens and businesses throughout Scotland. When using the powers of the Bill, the Government will use the appropriate mechanisms, such as the common frameworks, to engage with the devolved Governments. That will enable us to take account of wider context and allow for joined-up decision making across the UK.
The Government believe that a sunset provision is the quickest and most effective way to remove or amend all retained EU law on the UK statute book. That will incentivise genuine reform of retained EU law. The reform is needed, and it will help to drive economic growth. It will also enable us to capitalise on the rich vein of opportunity afforded to us via Brexit.
The sunset provision will of course not include Acts of Parliament, or indeed Acts of the devolved legislatures. It is right that an Act that has received proper parliamentary scrutiny should be the highest law of the land. Most retained EU law, however, sits on our statute book as a constitutional anomaly—somewhere between primary legislation and secondary, neither here nor there. It never received proper parliamentary scrutiny, and unless we actively want it, it ought to be removed.
The power to preserve specified pieces of retained EU law will also be conferred on the devolved Governments. That will enable the Scottish Government to decide which retained EU law they wish to preserve and assimilate, and which they wish to allow to sunset within their devolved competence.
Time is pressing, so I appreciate the Minister giving way. Given what he has just said, will he confirm now that should the Scottish Government decide to preserve all retained EU law, that would be respected and upheld by the Government here at Westminster?
I will come to that later, so the hon. Gentleman will get his answer. Ultimately, we are saying that where there is devolved competence and where there is engagement on that, absolutely we will work together on it.
I want to assure the House that the Government are committed to ensuring that the Bill works for all parts of the UK. We have carefully considered how it will impact each of the four nations, in close discussion with the devolved Governments, and it is of paramount importance that our legislatures function in a way that makes certain that we can continue to work together as one.
The Government recognise the importance of ensuring that the Bill is consistent with the devolved arrangements, and we remain committed to respecting the devolution settlements and the Sewel convention. Indeed, the Business Secretary has made that commitment clear in his engagement with Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture, Angus Robertson. The Government have sought legislative consent from the devolved legislatures for the provisions in the Bill that engage the legislative consent motion process. Both I and the Business Secretary look forward to engaging with the devolved Governments on the process of seeking legislative consent as the Bill progresses through Parliament. Alongside that, the Business Secretary and I remain committed to engaging with our devolved counterparts as the Bill moves through. We will work together to address any concerns and ensure that the Bill works for all parts of the UK.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute asked about devolved settlements. We are not changing the constitutional settlement. The Scottish Government will still have control of areas within devolved competence, including food standards. On workers’ rights, the UK has one of the best records on workers’ rights—those high standards were never dependent on the EU—and we intend to continue them. Environmental protections will not be weakened. We want to ensure that environmental law is fit for purpose and able to drive improved environmental outcomes.
The Minister has been hugely generous in taking interventions—he is a friendly Minister—but he is not quite answering the questions. He is pretending to answer the questions, but is not quite doing so. Let me give him a practical example. Before 31 December 2023, the EU law on food standards is revoked. The UK Government decide that chlorinated chicken is allowed into our food system in this country—currently, under EU retained law, it is not—and the Scottish Government, under their food standards devolved powers, decide that they will not allow that to happen. What happens? Do we end up with chlorinated chicken in Scotland? Or, with the Scottish Parliament having made that decision, will there be no chlorinated chicken on the shelves of Scottish supermarkets?
To be clear, as I understand it, the preservation will be respected. If the Scottish Government want to preserve legislation within their competency, the UK will respect it. I think there is clarity on that. I am happy to write to hon. Members to confirm in more detail, but that is my understanding of the Bill. The premise at the moment is that we have to make sure that we get the Bill through to enable those activities to happen—to enable the work between the Governments and to deliver on those benefits for our citizens and businesses.
On food standards, the Government made a clear manifesto commitment that, in all trade negotiations, we will not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare and food standards. In any case, that is always going to be a high bar that we will deliver on.
The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute asked about impact assessments. There will be an impact assessment of the measures in the Bill during the passage of the Bill. The Bill is an enabling Bill. Further work will be done by Departments, while reviewing specific rules. That is why I am not getting drawn into specifics, because this is the framework for those conversations to be had and those conversations will then have impact assessments aligned to them.
The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun made some comments about sewage. I want to be clear: we will not weaken protections. The UK is a world leader in environmental protections and we are committed to delivering our legally binding targets to halt nature’s decline by 2030. The Government have a clear environmental and climate goals set out in the 25-year environment plan and the net zero strategy. Any changes to environmental regulation will need to support the goals. This whole nonsense is repeatedly put out—that somehow we have voted as a Government to put more sewage in waterways. We have put more protections in place to stop it happening and we are the first Government to do that in decades. We have to be really clear in the accuracy of the language we use in Parliament. We have not voted to do that; we have actually improved measures around the environment.
The hon. Member for Glasgow North—I consider him a friend and would address him as my honourable friend—asked about the Public Bill Committee. I cannot say at the moment whether there will be a PBC or not. I am sure that will be decided in a matter of weeks.
For me, this is about ensuring that we help growth and that businesses can focus on doing business and not filling out forms. Ultimately, we need to ensure that individuals across the country know where they stand and that when they vote for their parliamentarian—their MP—they know that they have the right to change the rules and the law and do not have to wait for unelected bureaucrats elsewhere to do so.
The Bill is an essential piece of legislation. It will enable all four nations of the UK to capitalise on the regulatory autonomy offered by our departure from the EU and fully realise the opportunities of Brexit. I hope that I have been able to demonstrate in this debate that the Government are committed to devolution and working collaboratively and constructively with the devolved Governments. We need to make sure we are moving on and that the UK has the ability to make the laws that we were elected to do. We have an opportunity collectively to seize the opportunities of Brexit and cement ourselves as a leader in the global world.
I thank everyone who has taken part this morning. What we lacked in numbers we certainly made up for in quality. I thank the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), and even the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray), who, despite his best efforts to go on a fishing expedition very early on this Tuesday morning, will have noticed that I and my colleagues are far too long in the tooth to bite, particularly this early in the morning.
I thank the Minister for what he said. I am delighted that he confirmed that, should the Scottish Government decide to preserve all retained EU law, that would be respected and upheld by the Government here in Westminster. But nothing that he has said has altered the fact that on the rights and protections—
I just want to be clear on the wording that the hon. Member used. I said that if the Scottish Government want to preserve all areas within their competency, the UK Government will respect that. I want to be clear that that is what was being repeated back.
Okay—as we dance on the head of a pin this early in the morning. What it does not change is the fact that our rights and protections that we have enjoyed for 40-odd years in the areas of food standards, animal welfare and environmental protections are under threat. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun says, why would the Government legislate to ensure that we cannot get access to the biggest market in the world sitting on our doorstep? Nothing the Minister has said changes my position that they are coming for our Parliament. The sooner we are out of this Union and rejoin the European Union, the better.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the impact of retained EU law on the Scottish devolution settlement.