Consideration of Lords message
After Clause 16
It is an honour once again to open a debate on this landmark legislation, which we are now very close to passing. We are fully taking back control of our laws, and we are ending the supremacy and special status afforded to retained EU law.
As you explained so clearly a few moments ago, Mr Speaker, there are three motions before the House this afternoon. Let me first speak briefly about the reporting requirements in Lords amendment 16C—and let me also be the first to congratulate from the Dispatch Box my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) on being made a Companion of Honour. I thank him for the work that he did on this amendment, alongside Baroness Noakes. It is, of course, important that we continue to update Parliament on our progress in reforming retained EU law, and that is exactly what we as a Government are committed to doing with clause 16. I can reassure my hon. Friend that Lords amendment 16C is only a drafting tweak and the substance is exactly the same as what was tabled by him and supported by so many other Conservative Members, and I ask the House to agree to this final tweak.
Let me now turn to the parts of the Bill on which we have not managed to reach agreement with those in the other place. I will begin with Lords Amendment 42B. I am sure that many Members present will have followed their lordships’ debate closely. However, the Government have not just followed the debate; leading from the front, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business and Trade has worked to find solutions on the sunset provision to resolve concerns about references to higher courts. As I have already mentioned, we are committed to updating Parliament regularly on the progress of reforms.
It is clear that we have accommodated many of their lordships’ wishes, but I respectfully suggest that now is not the time for their lordships to insist on a novel and untested method of parliamentary scrutiny on the reform powers in the Bill. It has been asserted that the Lords amendment has a precedent in the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, but in fact those powers have never been used. Let me be clear: it is not the Government’s intention for the powers in the Bill to languish on the statute book. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already made the first announcement on regulatory reform and how we intend to reduce burdens for businesses and spur economic growth, and that is only the beginning of our ambition.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.
May I put it to the Minister that it is a bit odd to object to something simply because it will be a novel procedure? Everything is novel once. If we are to improve the effectiveness of Parliament, surely some novel procedures are precisely what we need.
May I express exactly the same sentiments as you, Mr Speaker? I know that the hon. Lady’s campaigns will continue outside the Chamber, and I know that she will have plenty to offer between now and the election in any event, not least during this debate. However, I disagree with what she has said, not just because the procedures are novel, although they are. I followed the debate in the Lords very closely, and it is fair to say that it is accepted that these are new measures, but they are also unnecessary, and this is why.
The amendment would unreasonably and unnecessarily delay our important reforms. It would introduce what my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Sir Jeremy Wright) termed “extra friction” during our previous consideration of Lords amendments. He was right to say that, and right to say that the amendment would delay the meaningful reforms that can now be achieved as a result of Brexit. I do not believe that the public would accept those delays, and nor, in my view, should we.
I hope that the Solicitor General will speak to his colleagues in the Department for Business and Trade, who made it clear in Committee on, I believe, 22 November that they were intending to abolish the Bauer and Hampshire judgments. Perhaps he will ask his colleagues to amend that, rather than suggest that I was misleading the House.
I also note—and it is welcome—that the Solicitor General now accepts that there is a parliamentary precedent for amendable statutory instruments. He talks about “friction”. Another way of describing that would be Members of Parliament holding the Government to account if they come up with proposals that their constituents do not like. When Ministers were in front of the European Scrutiny Committee, they seemed to think that it was an impertinence for MPs to have concerns and questions about what might be on the list of measures to be deleted. Is this another name for what we are calling parliamentary sovereignty?
No, not at all; the hon. Lady is wrong, I am afraid. I will come in a moment to the detail of the parliamentary scrutiny that is already inbuilt in the Bill and the schedule to the Bill. The hon. Lady’s comments over the weekend about pension reform were also wrong, and that is important because people will have been scared by what she said. The Hampshire case clarified that all scheme members should receive at least 50% of their expected benefits in the event of the employer’s insolvency. The Secretary of State has been crystal clear on this and we have announced our intention to retain the Hampshire judgment beyond the sunset clause. The hon. Lady was wrong on that and she is wrong on the provisions in the Bill. I will explain why in a few moments.
As has been pointed out countless times by hon. Members on the Government Benches, when we were members of the EU, as a democratically elected House we could neither amend this legislation nor reject it. Demanding additional scrutiny now does not appear to be a consistent or comfortable position to hold. Where was Members’ concern about the lack of scrutiny during our EU membership?
I am one of the relatively few Labour Members of Parliament whose constituents voted by a majority to leave, and the issue of parliamentary scrutiny was often raised during the referendum. I have had a number of them get in touch to tell me how disappointed they are that we are now not going to be getting the parliamentary scrutiny that we were promised as one of the benefits of Brexit.
I am sorry to say that the hon. Gentleman is wrong, and I will explain why in a few moments, but I am grateful for his intervention because it means that I can re-emphasise the point that demanding this additional scrutiny is not a comfortable position for Labour Members to hold because they had no concerns about the lack of scrutiny during our EU membership.
This amendment is not only novel and untested; it is unnecessary because there are already measures within the Bill. We have already made provision for a sifting Committee and Members will recall the speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), the Chairman of the European Union Statutory Instruments Committee, who clearly set out the important work that he and his Committee do. He described it as dry, but it is important work that he and his Committee do upstairs to scrutinise this legislation. That provision continues in the body of this Bill.
This will allow a specified Committee in each House to recommend the affirmative procedure for the more substantive powers in the Bill. In this way, either House will be able to ensure that there are active votes on the reforms that this Government bring forward under the Bill. This is significantly more scrutiny than the EU law had when it was first introduced. It is tried and tested. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough chairs that Committee ably and I would like to thank him and all hon. Members who serve on the Committee for their work.
With the greatest respect, under the previous arrangement we had Members of the European Parliament doing that scrutiny. It is not really comparable to say that nothing has changed and this is somehow more. Because we have got rid of our representatives in the European Parliament, it is all the more important that these matters are considered, but for the Minister to say, “There is a Committee that deals with this. None of you will hear about it, but none the less its work is important” sounds exactly like the sort of thing that my constituents thought we were getting away from.
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman was not in the Chamber for the exchange when my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough gently pointed out that Labour Members had not taken up their places on the EUSI Committee. As Chairman of the Committee, he rightly encouraged Labour Members to take up their places on that Committee and I would add to that encouragement.
With the greatest respect, I just want to say through the Minister to the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins) that, although the European Parliament does its job, the laws are actually made by the Council of Ministers behind closed doors, by qualified majority vote and without even a transcript in Hansard. That is not a basis on which one could make any assumption that we would ever agree to them. It was always done by consensus.
Mr Speaker, you were absolutely right to encourage me to take that intervention, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash). I pay tribute to him for all his work in this House. His announcement over the weekend came as a great sadness, shock and surprise. I know that he has a lot of work to do between now and the next election, and I look forward to these debates in the future. Thank you for encouraging me to take his intervention, Mr Speaker.
Lords amendment 42B is both unnecessary and potentially detrimental to this country’s environmental standards. We have made a commitment at every stage of this Bill that we will not lower environmental protections, and that we will ensure the continued implementation of our international obligations. Indeed, I am reminded of the rare moment of agreement between my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) and the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) during our last outing. They found common accord, and they are both right that there is simply no reason or incentive for the Government not to uphold our high environmental standards, of which we are rightly proud. It is simply not necessary for this commitment to be on the face of the Bill, especially not in a way that would make it more difficult to achieve any meaningful reforms that benefit the UK.
I will not try your patience, Mr Speaker, by listing all the Government’s post-Brexit achievements, but some of the steps we are taking go above and beyond EU law. [Hon. Members: “What are they?”] The Opposition are encouraging me to do so, and who am I to say no?
I am keeping a very careful eye on timings and on your indication, Mr Speaker. I will not abuse your patience, but let me list some of the important measures passed by this Government. Our environmental standards are now world leading, thanks to the Agriculture Act 2020, the Fisheries Act 2020 and the landmark Environment Act 2021, which will deliver the most ambitious environmental programme anywhere.
Furthermore, Lords amendment 42B is not just unnecessary but may even endanger our environmental standards. The amendment would make it harder to retain the effect of existing regulations, as it applies to restatements of retained EU law. [Interruption.] It is very timely that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs arrives in the Chamber just as I am championing all the steps that she and her predecessors have taken to protect and lead the world through our environmental standards.
Lords amendment 42B would add friction. It is unnecessary and potentially self-defeating. The Government want to ensure that we capitalise on the UK’s competitive advantages now that we are no longer restrained by our membership of the EU. I invite the House to support the motions in the name of the Secretary of State for Business and Trade.
Here we are again. It has been nearly nine months since the Bill was introduced, during which time five different members of the Government have spoken in support of the Bill from the Front Bench, most of them making one appearance before never being seen again. I congratulate the Solicitor General on making it back for a second appearance.
Although, of course, the question of retained EU law needs to be addressed, our main contention is that the way in which the Bill attempted to do that was reckless, unnecessary and undemocratic. To some extent, we have seen an end to that kamikaze approach, which is of course welcome, although it does not mean that all our concerns have been dealt with.
The point that my hon. Friend makes light-heartedly is actually very relevant. The truth is that we have seen chaos on the Government Benches. We have seen Ministers speak extremely boldly about the Bill’s powers, only to water them down when they come face to face with reality. Does not the farcical way in which this Government have conducted their affairs give people real concern, including about what is in this Bill?
I am grateful for that intervention. I note that, again, the Secretary of State for Business and Trade is not here to defend the Bill in its current form. We have consistently been told by businesses throughout the Bill’s passage that it is so chaotic that nobody can possibly plan ahead. How can any business prepare for the future if it cannot understand what the rules will be six months hence, never mind 12 or 18 months into the future.
Many of my Slough constituents are concerned, because they feel that non-regression, upholding international treaties and consulting experts should be wholly uncontroversial. Does my hon. Friend feel that, with the Government’s approach, we will merely have more watering down of our high environmental standards, and that such watering down must be blocked at every opportunity?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, as he sets out what this amendment is attempting to secure, which is a bit of security.
I shall make some progress, as I am aware that a number of people wish to speak. As we have heard, Lords amendment 15B seeks to introduce conditions on some of the powers in sections 12, 13,15 and 16 relating to the environment. As my hon. Friend says, it stipulates that any regulations made may not
“reduce the level of environmental protections”
“conflict with any…international environmental agreements to which the United Kingdom is party”.
It also sets requirements on consultation. Given that the Government are supposedly committed to maintaining the highest environmental standards, one might think that those conditions are uncontroversial; they are the actions I would expect any Government committed to maintaining high standards would want to undertake. That view is shared by a range of experts, including, but certainly not limited to, the Government’s own watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection. Its written evidence submission endorsed all three of those suggested conditions, with its chair, Glenys Stacey, remarking:
“Worryingly, the Bill does not offer any safety net, there is no requirement to maintain existing levels of environmental protection.”
The Government are not listening to their own watchdog and have instead chosen to refer to those conditions as “burdensome” and “unnecessary”. I have yet to hear any rational explanation as to how the conditions in the Lords amendment can be both of those things at the same time; if these steps are, as the Government tell us, things that they would be doing in any event, how can they possibly be an additional burden as well? When we are met with illogical and unconvincing arguments such as that, we are right to be concerned. I note the assurances given at the Dispatch Box on this and previous occasions, but, as we have seen with this Bill in particular, Ministers come and go, and if we were to rely on everything said at the Dispatch Box as having the same weight as actual legislation, Acts of Parliament might be half the length that they are. There is a reason we do not do that.
Of course, we can all imagine what might be said by the public if the worst was to happen and environmental standards were to slip as a result of this Bill. We would say to our constituents, “But we were promised this wouldn’t happen” and our constituents could point to the 40 hospitals not having been built, Northern Powerhouse Rail not having been started, the ditching of the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill or any number of other broken promises, and they would call us naive at best. So we are right to insist that these protections stay in the Bill.
Lords amendment 42B tackles one of the most controversial clauses, the one that the Hansard Society referred to in its written evidence as the “do anything we want” powers for Ministers. The Hansard Society is not prone to exaggeration and its comments have merit. As we know, clause 15 empowers Ministers to revoke regulations and not replace them; replace them with another measure which they consider appropriate
“to achieve the same or similar objectives”;
“make such alternative provision as the…national authority considers appropriate”.
In the face of such untrammelled concentrations of power in the Executive, Lords amendment 42B seeks to put a democratic check on the use of those powers. Actually requiring a Minister who wishes to use these powers to set out their proposals before each House is entry-level transparency that should have been part of the procedure to start with. Allowing a Committee of this House to consider them seems a fairly uncontroversial suggestion, even if some people now think that Committees cannot act in a bipartisan way. Of course, giving a Committee the power to request a debate on the Floor of the House will be reliant on its making the judgment that such a debate is necessary, but this does secure a degree of scrutiny over ministerial decisions. It also hands at least some power back to Parliament, which was, of course, for some, what Brexit was all about.
Does the debate about the Bauer and Hampshire judgments not make the case that my hon. Friend is making? I hope Mr Speaker will forgive me here, but the Minister said that I was wrong and that is perhaps unparliamentary. Let me read into the record what the shadow Minister and I heard in Committee. The Minister of State, Department for Business and Trade, the hon. Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani) said:
“the Department for Work and Pensions does not intend to implement the Bauer judgment through the benefits system…The Hampshire judgment is a clear example of where an EU judgment conflicts with the United Kingdom Government’s policies. Removing the effects of the judgment will help to restore the system to the way it was intended to be.”––[Official Report, Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Public Bill Committee, 22 November 2022; c. 168-69.]
If Ministers are changing their minds now about using the powers in this Bill to revoke these protections for the pensions of our constituents, it is only because they have been caught out doing it and using the powers in this Bill. Does this not make the case—
Order. I am not going to have this private debate carrying on. You have put it on the record and the Minister has put it on the record, but people can be accidentally wrong. I do not need a lecture on what is wrong and what is not. In the end, you have put the case, and we have a lot of people who want to speak in the debate, including yourself.
I remember that exchange very well, not least because it was on my 50th birthday. It certainly shows the importance of having proper scrutiny and transparency about ministerial decisions, which has been one of our main critiques of this bill throughout. I remind hon. Members that it was said in 2016 that we needed to reassert parliamentary sovereignty and that that was what taking back control was all about. However, I said in Committee, “we” does not mean
“Ministers sitting in rooms on their own, answerable to nobody, and under no requirement to explain their actions”.––[Official Report, Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Public Bill Committee, 22 November 2022; c. 126.]
“We” means this place.
I know that the oft-repeated and erroneous argument, which we have heard again today, that those laws were passed without proper democratic involvement in the first place has been offered as a reason why we should not follow such a process now. To make a pithy comment on that, two wrongs do not make a right. I would have expected those who were shouting the loudest about our sovereignty back in 2016 to be with us today.
The lack of transparency and desire to bypass scrutiny that are the hallmark of this Bill demonstrate a lack of confidence from the Government in their own programme. It is clear that either they do not know, or they do not want to tell us what they intend to do with the powers conferred by the Bill. Even the addition of a schedule listing regulations to be revoked does not really offer any clues about how the Government plan to approach the bulk of retained EU law.
In her recent appearance before the European Scrutiny Committee, the Secretary of State for Business and Trade referred to that list as merely containing regulations
“that are redundant, rather than things that are holding us back”,
meaning that we still do not know what the substantive changes will be. Maybe one day we will find out what exactly it is that has been holding us back.
If the Government cannot tell us what they intend to do with the powers they hand themselves under this Bill, and they clearly do not want the light of scrutiny shone on their intentions, it is even more important that this amendment is passed. It also suggests that this Government are not confident about what the public or indeed Parliament will have to say when their intentions become clear. That is why as many safeguards and as much transparency as possible should be injected into this Bill.
In closing, I refer again to the evidence given by the Secretary of State to the European Scrutiny Committee, because if anything sums up the shambolic approach to this Bill by the Government it is her comment:
“The retained EU law Bill became a process of retaining EU law. That is not what we wanted.”
I do not know whether to laugh or cry at such comments. What I can say for sure is that, if anything sums up just what a tired, out-of-touch and broken Government we have, that is it.
I have a strange sense of déjà vu about the speech I have just heard from the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders). I am afraid that he does not quite get it. I have made the same point with regard to the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins); the fact that I happen to rather like him, and always have done—I come from Sheffield—does not alter the fact that I fundamentally disagree with him.
The way the House of Lords has dealt with these amendments demonstrates that the Lords are determined to try, by hook or by crook, to obstruct the House of Commons, which is the democratic Chamber in these matters as far as the electorate is concerned, in pursuance not only of the referendum on leaving the European Union, but also of the Bill as a whole—which I do support, as it has moved forward. I had some reservations in the past, but we have made a lot of progress.
I congratulate the Minister very much on his calm common sense and the way he has approached the subject. I also agree with the tweet he referred to. Parliamentary counsel are rather like holy priests, if I may say so, and they have their own particular way of wanting to deal with something. I would not want in any way to criticise the way they have gone about this, because it comes to exactly the same thing that I proposed when the Government adopted my own amendment.
Coming to the question of parliamentary scrutiny, the new clause introduced by Lords amendment 42B places a prohibition on the making of regulations under section 15, unless
“a document containing a proposal for those regulations has been laid before each House of Parliament”.
It goes on to say that the document is to be
“referred to, and considered by, a Committee of the House of Commons”.
That sounds suspiciously as if it might fall within the remit of the European Scrutiny Committee. If it does not, that creates a problem with our Standing Orders for a start. It is not defined, so what on earth that Committee will do, and how it relates to the functions of the European Scrutiny Committee and/or to any other Committee of the House of Commons, is so completely vague and impossible to understand. That, in itself, condemns that new clause.
The amendment goes on to say:
“a period of at least 30 days has elapsed after that referral”.
When it turns to the next question, it says:
“If the Committee—
the Committee of the House of Commons—
determines that special attention should be drawn to the regulations in question, a Minister of the Crown must arrange for the instrument to be debated on the floor of each House”.
They “must”; there is no option on that.
Suddenly, we move into a completely new dimension for each House. If the Committee—my own Committee, were it to be the Committee in question—makes a decision about special attention, that is then thrown to the mercy of each House of Parliament. We know from everything that we have heard over the last few weeks on the Bill that there is an intransigence—a stubbornness, if I may say so politely—from our noble Friends in the House of Lords in the face of any attempt to get rid of retained EU law in the way in which we are proposing, through revoking or reforming it.
By taking that particular course in the clause, all the Lords are doing is saying, “We want to take back control. We want to put this whole procedure into a cul-de-sac that will be effectively controlled.” I would go so far as to say that, by the sounds of it, the House of Lords will try, to use that hallowed expression, to “take back control.” They will try to take back control of this to the House of Lords. That is what this is all about, and we are not so stupid that we will fall for this one, let me assure the House.
Let me come to the question of regulations and statutory instruments, and the way in which they areb made. I have spent a lot of time on that, as I have said before. I am most grateful to you and others, Mr Speaker, for referring to the fact that I will retire from the House of Commons at the next election, but I have a lot of work to do between now and then. This debate is part of that, by seeing the Bill brought to a conclusion through its elimination of the supremacy of EU law and the opportunity to diverge and create economic growth and competitiveness. All these matters are part of that.
I find it really astonishing that the Lords do not seem to understand—it is as if they are trying to take us for fools, which I can assure the House we are not. I have sat on the European Scrutiny Committee since way back in 1985. Day in, day out, every single week, regulations and statutory instruments were brought in to implement decisions made behind closed doors in the Council of Ministers, as I said to the hon. Member for Chesterfield. Those decisions were made by majority vote of the other countries—there used to be fewer but then the number went up to 27—and without even a transcript. I challenge any Labour or SNP Member to get up and say that they think that is a very good idea, and that they would love to tell their constituents that they should be governed in that way, with all their laws for made for 50 years by that method of completely closet operation and without a transcript. It is unbelievable.
What are we doing here other than having a debate in this Chamber? I challenge Opposition Members to go out and say to their constituents: “We want to have you governed in that manner, behind closed doors and without a transcript.”
I am so delighted that the hon. Gentleman asks that question. It is very simple: we had a general election that gave us a massive majority on the basis of getting Brexit done—and this gets Brexit done. We are doing exactly what so many of his constituents voted for, even though, I am sure, he got a reasonable majority. There are people who are now not in this House and were driven out because they did not respect the views of the people in that referendum. That is a very simple and straightforward answer to his point.
With respect to the question of how the laws are made in the first place, that is what I am saying. The reason the Bill is so important is the need to overtake and, effectively, deal with the mistakes made in the past, over that 40 or 50-year period, whereby the laws were made in the way that I have described—and they were. They were done by consensus, because everybody knew before they walked into the room that the majority vote would work against them. I have spent a lot of time scrutinising such things—I was going to say a lifetime, and I almost have—and all that I can say is that nobody would seriously doubt that that is how the system operated at that time.
We are talking about these laws because we want to revoke or modify them. We are not going to get rid of all of them—we will modify some and revoke others, and that will be by a simple test. That test will not be whether or not it was decided by 27 other countries to which we were subjugated by law—[Interruption.] We did that in the European Communities Act 1972, which was a great mistake. We have moved to a situation as the result of a general election in this country, the result of which is that we are allowed to make our own laws here in this House on behalf of our constituents. I think that is a very reasonable position. It is not only reasonable but absolutely essential, because it is about democracy and sovereignty and self-government. That is what the people decided in the referendum.
And I thank the hon. Gentleman for it. I note his comments, although I also note that the legislation already provides for a Committee to look at the statutory instruments generated by the Bill. That is not a novel procedure. He says that it will be this House that determines matters, but it will only be this House reflecting what Ministers bring to us in a Delegated Legislation Committee, will it not? Unless Lords amendment 42B is passed, MPs will not be able to influence the content of an SI. The hon. Gentleman says that he did not like that in the European Parliament, so why does he want to take back control to Downing Street rather than to this Chamber with a process whereby, when changes are substantial, MPs have influence over them?
First, I did not say the European Parliament; I actually said the European Council of Ministers. There is a big difference and I am sure that she understands that, because that is where the law making is done. Secondly, with great respect, it is a bit disingenuous to suggest that this will all be decided by the Committee. I think it would be my Committee that would do this, but if we leave that aside the real point is that the amendment goes on to say that even if that Committee
“determines that special attention should be drawn to the regulations in question, a Minister of the Crown must arrange for the instrument to be debated on the floor of each House and voted on”.
That is the point. In other words, the lock is created by the House of Lords—
Of course it is. If I may say so to the hon. Lady, with the greatest of respect, that is the intention that lies behind it. I know that she is quite obsessive about this point, but, with the greatest respect, she does not seem to quite understand how it is— [Interruption.] I am trying to be factual about this. The fact is that when the original regulations were made, they were made as statutory instruments implementing the laws made in the way I have just described, behind closed doors and so on.
Those regulations came in that way and it is perfectly legitimate, in the light of the fact that those laws were not made in the manner in which we would traditionally expect them to be made and, constitutionally, should be required to have them made, which is by this House, these Members of Parliament—including current Opposition Members of Parliament if they are in government—and for those decisions to be taken democratically on behalf of our electorate, who happened to say that they wanted to leave the European Union and endorsed it with a general election in 2019. The position is perfectly clear: what we are doing in this Bill is not only completely legitimate, but constitutionally correct. That is a big difference. Robin Cook once said to me, “Legitimacy is one thing, Bill; constitutionally, it is quite another matter.” That is not a constitutional way of doing things. What came into this Parliament and affected the voters of this country for 40 or 50 years was done in a manner that was completely, totally and utterly objectionable in democratic terms, because those laws were not made by our voters and our Members of Parliament representing those electors in this House.
I will simply say that I am not going to buy into this at all. I think I have probably made myself pretty clear but, having said that, I recognise the way in which the Minister has handled the Bill. I am extremely impressed and grateful to him for not only his comments, but the fact that he has handled the Bill so well.
Congratulations on your latest recognition, Sir Bill.
The debate finishes at 4.39 pm, and Members can see how much interest there is. Alyn Smith is next, and I have to put the question at 4.39 pm, irrespective. All I would ask now is for some time discipline, in order to get as many views in as we possibly can. I call Alyn Smith.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I would be perfectly happy to summarise the Bill in one word, if you would allow me some unparliamentary language, but I will be brief.
The SNP’s position on the Bill is well rehearsed. We regret this piece of legislation. We do not think it is necessary. We do not like what it is trying to achieve, because we think targeting laws on the basis of where they came from, rather than what they do or how effective they are, is a poor way of doing it. We also are not interested in fighting old battles, but the Bill is all about fighting old battles—that is where it has come from.
I will focus only on amendments 15B, 16C and 42B. During the Bill’s passage, we of course saw the gutting of its major provision—the sunset clause—so it is not as bad as it might have been, but we think it remains a significant blank cheque for Ministers, with insufficient scrutiny. Ministers want as much power as possible, with as little scrutiny as possible. Ministers in any Parliament want that, but I think it is perfectly legitimate for the House here to demand greater scrutiny than we have seen.
We on the SNP Benches are particularly concerned—it staggers me that this has not been mentioned throughout the debate—that the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Senedd have not consented to the Bill. I have much respect for a number of people on the Government Benches, but I would gently say that, if one wants to talk about a precious Union, it is quite important to observe it. We have yet to hear a proper answer to that point. We have had various reassurances, but we are not going to see sufficient protection in the Bill. We are concerned that this Bill, when it becomes an Act, is going to be used to undermine the devolution settlement that was endorsed by the people of Scotland and the people of Wales. We think that is a poor way of making law.
On amendment 15B, which deals with environmental standards, I found much to agree with in how the Labour spokesperson, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), presented it. We are taking the Ministers at face value that we do not want to see a regression from international standards—the standards that we have. Let us put that in the Bill. We think that is a proportionate and workable thing to do, and I do not see how it would fetter the Government to any great extent. We are glad to see a bit of a compromise on amendment 16C, although I have to say that it is pretty weak beer when it comes to clarity on the EU law dashboard and its operation. We will not stand in its way.
On amendment 42B, which would provide for greater parliamentary scrutiny of future revocations of EU law, I think it is workable. I urge Members on the Government Benches to think hard about the fact that enough people in the House of Lords and in this place think it is necessary, as part of the Bill, which gives Ministers a lot of power, to find a new way of scrutiny. I accept the point that it is a novel way of doing things, but we think that is proportionate, and I think history will vindicate us on that view.
Mr Deputy Speaker, we regret the Bill. We are not about fighting old battles, but we do not think this is the way to go. Sadly, I think we will see that the Bill is a bad piece of legislation. There are ways of making it better, which we will support, but the Scottish Parliament have not consented to the Bill. Government Members should be in no doubt that the Bill will be passed against the interests of Scotland.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith). His remarks are always couched in a pithy and clear way, but I disagree fundamentally with his point about a legislative consent motion. It is entirely within the rights of the devolved Administrations and their Parliaments to consent or not, but the very fact that a consent has not been granted should not be regarded as either legally or politically fatal to a Bill that clearly deals with the competences that lie here at Westminster.
I am afraid that the characterisation of the hon. Gentleman and the nationalists—the SNP and nationalist parties elsewhere—that this is a power grab away from Cardiff and Edinburgh in favour of Westminster is a complete misreading of the situation. These powers lay in Brussels, at the European level, and they are coming back to the next level of Government. That is not in any way some sort of reverse grab away from the devolved Administrations. It cannot be, and it does not follow. I speak not only using my experience as a lawyer, but as a former territorial Secretary of State. That characterisation has to be resisted at every turn.
I will now deal with the three particular issues that we have before us today.
Before my right hon. and learned Friend departs from his remarks in response to the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) about Scotland, does he agree that, if laws are passed in Europe, they are a compromise representing the interests of 27 different countries? There is an opportunity for some smart deregulation, and that would be as beneficial to Scotland as to any other part of the UK.
I entirely agree with my right hon. and learned Friend. At the risk of invoking the ire of my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash), the new Companion of Honour, it is right to say that, although consensus was indeed the means by which regulations were agreed by the Council of Ministers, it usually involved the UK and its assent to that consensus. I know that is not quite the narrative that he agrees with, but we risk fighting the old battles that he and I were on either side of.
No, we are not going to do that today, but I will end on this basis: my hon. Friend knows I am right.
In my next breath, I want to violently agree with my hon. Friend about his work on the dashboard and the amendment that we now have to make a particular tweak to Lords amendment 16. I entirely support the new clause under Lords amendment 16. The dashboard has been a source of much concern in recent months, which was then reflected by the Secretary of State’s wise decision to change course. That dashboard has to be authoritative, so I am glad to see it in law, but it now needs to work. We need to make sure that it is populated, that the National Archives is very much part of it, that we are not given any more surprises and—my hon. and learned Friend the Minister will get this—that we do not end up with repeal by accident, which is bad for the rule of law, bad for certainty and bad for investment. We all agree on that.
To deal in short order with Lords amendment 15, with the best will in the world, on one level, it seems to be a sincere attempt to reflect the legitimate aspirations of the British people about food and environmental standards. Frankly, they are the aspirations of the British Government, too. It is not right to say that at any time, any Minister on the Treasury Bench under this Government has said that they want to use the Bill as an attempt to railroad the undermining of strict environmental protection and food standards. One therefore has to ask: what is the purpose of this particular amendment? Some of its purpose I am afraid is nakedly political. It seeks to make a political point that imputes to this Government a motive that they just do not have. In addition, it is beset by problems. The particular way in which it is structured, and the requirements for consultation in particular, seem to me to be a litigator’s paradise.
On the point about the environment and how important it is, the right hon. and learned Gentleman will have got the same circular as the rest of us. It states:
“Many of the laws that could be weakened using the powers contained in the Bill as currently drafted are vital to nature’s recovery. They help improve the quality of our rivers and coasts, keep dangerous chemical use at bay, and protect some of our rarest and most important habitats and species.”
Does he believe that the Minister is going to deliver on that? I think he will, but does the right hon. and learned Gentleman think that as well?
Well, answer that! I entirely agree with the hon. Member. There is no evidence at all that this Government seek to take a different course from their stated aim of protecting world-leading environmental protection and food standards. Therefore, we have to ask what the purpose of Lords amendment 15 is. It seems to me that many parts to the amendment would give rise to a significant amount of litigation. I do not think that is at all what the drafters of the amendment want, and it certainly does not help with regard to clarity of the law.
That brings me to new Lords amendment 16C, which, with absolute candour, seems to me to be a step back by their lordships from the previous iteration of that amendment. It is now narrowed down just to clause 15. I understand the concerns that the noble Lords have about the use of the power in clause 15 because it is, on the face of it, a dramatic power that the Government would have. On one level, the power of revocation seems to me to be welcome. I note within it particular caveats about the creation of new functions, particularly the creation of criminal offences. There has been a long-established convention about the use of such powers, and we all have a concern about the creation of criminal offences that are more serious than ones they seek to replace or, indeed, are serious new offences. I note the taxation and public authority restrictions as well, so a lot of the normal restrictions are built into the provision, which are welcome.
What the noble Lords are asking for is more reassurance about the process. I do not criticise them at all for that, because it does not seem unreasonable to me that there should be at least some process, particularly when new regulations are being created. I would gently press the Minister to consider that discrete point. It may well be, in response to anything that I or other hon. Members say, that he has an opportunity to enlarge on that. It does seem to me not unreasonable to ask for that further check and balance. I do not think it is the sort of unwelcome additional bureaucracy that perhaps he and others are concerned about. Fundamentally, we have a duty as parliamentarians to protect the role of this place in particular in the scrutiny of the passage of important new regulations, whatever form they may take.
If we take Brexit out of this and take the temperature right down, I do not think that is an unreasonable point at all. I do not accept the characterisation that a number of noble Lords are embarking upon some mission here to frustrate the approach that the Government are taking in the Bill. It is a Bill I have supported, and a Bill I have said is absolutely necessary as a special mechanism to deal with retained EU law. We all agreed that this was a particular area of law that needed to be held in suspense and then looked at carefully in its individual parts. Lords amendment 16C does seem to me to reflect that and respect that. The other two matters I have dealt with, and I am more than satisfied with the Minister’s response to that, but I do press him on that particular aspect and that particular amendment. I will not trouble the House any further.
Getting any detail out of this Government about what they intend to use the powers in the Bill for has been like pulling hens’ teeth. Even now, with the Bill before us today, about to be passed imminently, we still do not know the full effect it will have. I will make a few brief comments.
The right hon. and learned Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland) talked about the Government’s recognition that we need to know not just the regulations but the direct effect cases that are being deleted. In the other place last week, the Government said they
“will add Section 4 rights to the dashboard as identified at least as frequently as every six months, as per the reporting requirement clause that is already in the Bill.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 6 June 2023; Vol. 830, c. 1263.]
Nothing has changed since last week, so we still do not know what legal judgments the Government intend to delete—legal judgments that cover multiple rights including employment rights and environmental standards.
We know there are developers champing at the bit to use this legislation to overturn decisions on planning applications that were denied on the basis of the habitats agreement—these are live issues in all our constituencies. That is exactly why their lordships have taken action: they recognise this is nothing to do with Brexit; this is a Bill that gives the Government power over thousands of areas of law without accountability. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) is laughing; I just wish he would bother to be honest about what is happening right now and open about—[Interruption.] Well, I have been told that I have been wrong, so let us talk about this language, because the truth is we can talk all we want about an institution we left—
Of course I withdraw that; I meant to say “open”. I want the hon. Member for Stone to be open, but he has not even bothered to have the courtesy to read Lords amendment 42B. If he had, his objection to the idea of a Statutory Instrument Committee looking at these amendments—[Interruption.] Well, I am sure he has made complaints to the Government, who have already written to the other European statutory instruments scrutiny Committee to say they will be doing exactly that. He opposes the idea of a report about what impact a statutory instrument might have. In any other language that is called an impact assessment; we get them on all sorts of pieces of legislation, but not on this.
I have listened to the hon. Gentleman. I listened to him tell us at length about the European Union, but he has failed to tell us why he is opposing an amendment that gives this Chamber primacy over what happens when legislation changes. As the right hon. and learned Member for South Swindon says, it matters.
The hon. Member for Stone opposes the Lords being able to come back with SI amendments. Actually, this House would be able to override them under Lords amendment 42B. If he had bothered to have the courtesy to look at what the Lords had said, and bothered to listen to a former parliamentary Clerk of the House who helped draft it—not a great remainer by any means, but somebody who cares passionately about parliamentary democracy—he would recognise that this is about trying to make the process better. He would recognise that our constituents deserve better than a simple email saying, “We have no idea what’s being deleted and we could not stop it anyway,” because that is the point about SI Committees.
I am done with being lectured that this is somehow about Brexit and that those of us who have concerns about parliamentary democracy in 2023 should look at the 1972 Act, because I can see what could happen in 2024 and 2025, and my constituents deserve better than this. We cannot have a legislative process that simply says we have to trust the chaps and chapesses who are Ministers and in Downing Street to do the decent thing. If the hon. Gentleman had sat in his own Committee and listened to Ministers dismiss his own concerns, he would know the folly of such a position.
Conservative Members will vote down these amendments yet again, and they will go back to their constituents and tell them not to worry, but the truth is that they should be worried because we do not know what rights will be affected. As far as I can see, given that Ministers committed to abolishing them, the only reason why the Bauer and Hampshire judgments are now being kept is because they have been caught red-handed using a Bill to override something they know our constituents would want us as MPs to speak up about. We must never let anybody on the Conservative Benches or who said they were speaking up for democracy through Brexit tell us ever again that Brexit was about taking back control. It is taking back control to Downing Street, not this place, and our constituents deserve to know that truth.
We welcome these amendments. Despite the Government’s screeching U-turn, the Liberal Democrats are still extremely concerned that this legislation could see around 600 EU-era laws slated for removal by the end of this year alone, with a further 4,000 potentially being scrapped by 2026, each removed without any consultation or vote in Parliament. This brazen attitude poses risks to hard-fought gains in workers’ rights such as holiday pay, agency worker rights, data protection rights, and protection from downgraded terms and conditions when businesses are transferred.
Further, my Liberal Democrat colleagues and I are extremely concerned about the risk that environmental protections for our rivers and natural habitats could be softened should the Government choose to block Lords amendment 15B. The amendment seeks to ensure that the Government could not reduce levels of environmental protection. As the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) said, if that is the Government’s intention, why not say so in the Bill? The amendment also seeks to ensure that UK law cannot conflict with relevant international environmental agreements to which we are party. That is extremely concerning to my constituents in Richmond Park.
Thames Water has proposed an extraction scheme to replace water from the river near Ham and Petersham with treated sewage effluent. Should environmental protections that govern water quality be weakened in any way—that may happen should Lords amendment 15B not be agreed to—such schemes would be subject to less scrutiny, which could lead to irreversible damage to the waterways that we all enjoy.
I also speak in favour of Lords amendment 42B, which, if supported by the House, would ensure a debate on the Floor of both Houses on any change proposed by the Government to any legislation under the Bill. That solution would prevent any undemocratic power grab by the Government by ensuring that no arbitrary and binding decisions over the laws that affect us all can be made without following a proper and thorough legislative process.
I urge all colleagues across the House to join the Liberal Democrats in supporting both amendments that we will vote on. In doing so, we will be voting to protect thousands of crucial protections for our environment, food standards and working conditions and to prevent an undemocratic power grab by this Conservative Government.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Lords amendment 42B is a critical amendment to rein in what is quite simply an Executive power grab, with the Bill handing Ministers enormous powers to review legislation with little to no scrutiny and replace it with provisions that they consider to be “appropriate”. I think we can all agree that that word is open to wildly different interpretations.
Government Members should remember that the Bill will give powers not just to this Government but to any future Government, which they may not agree with. Indeed, a legal opinion on the likely constitutional, legal and practical effects of the Bill found that Ministers would be given
“largely unfettered…discretion for…substantive policy changes.”
Lords amendment 42B really matters.
Lords amendment 15B is about ensuring that we have safeguards for environmental protections. If the Government really are serious about saying that they want to protect the environment, why would they not put that into statute and on the face of the Bill?
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. With the leave of the House, it is a pleasure to respond, not least to the warm welcome afforded to me by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders). He missed the previous exchange when my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland) noted that Solicitors General both took us into Europe with the 1972 Act and took us out of Europe with the 2018 Act, so there is a certain symmetry to a Solicitor General being at the Dispatch Box for the close of these proceedings.
May I reassure my right hon. and learned Friend on some of his remarks? Not least, he is right that his name was on the Bill when he was Secretary of State for Wales. I am grateful to him for his contributions. I hope to reassure him that parliamentary scrutiny is already well provided for and that the existing sifting procedure is there and set out in schedule 5.
I am sorry to say that the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) is wrong. The Secretary of State has been clear and explicit that we are retaining those 50% protections. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash), and I agree with him. He was absolutely right in his comments about the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel, and about parliamentary counsel being the high priests of parliamentary drafting. He was also right that the Bill will eliminate the supremacy of EU law.
There have been repeated comments about our commitments to the environment and the world-leading standards and environmental protections that we have. It is crucial that we bring this most important Bill to Royal Assent as quickly as possible. We must capitalise on our competitive advantages now that we are no longer restrained by membership of the EU.
I add my thanks to the members of the Bill Committee, who, as has been mentioned, were certainly the finest. We must make the view of the House as clear as possible and avoid any further delay.
One hour having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on the Lords
message, the debate was interrupted (Programme Order, 24 May).
The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (Standing Order No. 83F), That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 15B.
Lords amendment 15B disagreed to.
The Deputy Speaker then put forthwith the Questions necessary for the
disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83F). Amendment 16A not insisted upon.
Lords amendment 16C agreed to.
Motion made, and Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 42B.
Lords amendment 42B disagreed to.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83H(2)), That a Committee be appointed to draw up Reasons to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing with their amendments 15B and 42B;
That Michael Tomlinson, Mike Wood, Shaun Bailey, Jane Stevenson, Justin Madders, Taiwo Owatemi and Alyn Smith be members of the Committee;
That Michael Tomlinson be the Chair of the Committee;
That three be the quorum of the Committee.
That the Committee do withdraw immediately.—(Julie Marson.)
Question agreed to.
Committee to withdraw immediately; reasons to be reported and communicated to the Lords.