Baroness Chapman of Darlington Portrait Baroness Chapman of Darlington (Lab)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Fox, and to welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Bray, and my noble friend Lady O’Grady; I look forward to their maiden speeches. I take this opportunity particularly to welcome my noble friend, who has been an inspiration to women throughout the labour movement for many years—especially since she spent time in the 1980s with my husband organising members to join the T&G, some of it spent hanging around outside the back of hotels and other such salubrious places. I know that she will never forget her roots; her being here today just goes to show what a great engine of social mobility the trade union movement can be. I very much look forward to her speech.

Six years ago, when the Government introduced the then European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, which ensured that EU-derived law was incorporated into UK law, I sat in the other place and listened carefully to the Secretary of State as he laid out the Government’s case. That day, he told us:

“The key point of this Bill is to avoid significant and serious gaps in our statute book. It ensures that consumers can be clear about their protection, employees can be clear about their rights, and businesses can be clear about the rules that regulate their trade.”—[Official Report, Commons, 7/9/17; col. 334.]

Somehow, incredibly, the Government have come full circle. This new Bill does the exact opposite. Faced with no external pressure or deadline, the Government are willingly creating their own cliff edge: generating uncertainty rather than reducing it; creating gaps in our legal framework rather than filling them; bringing chaos to the structure of rights, protections and standards on which so much business, trade, employment and environmental protection depends. That is why the opposition to the Bill is so broad and has come from such diverse quarters. It is no mean feat to unify the CBI and the TUC, industry and environmentalists, farmers and factory owners, twitchers and anglers, doctors and lawyers, national parks and the National Trust, Scottish Parliament and Welsh Senedd, and many, many more. All are united in opposition to this Government’s plans. The CBI says that the Government is subjecting

“the public—and industry—to another round of mass confusion and disruption, just when we’re trying to exit recession.”

The TUC has called the Bill a “recipe for chaos”. The Institute of Directors says that it

“will impose a major new burden on business”.

The Federation of Small Businesses wants the sunset provisions removed. The National Farmers’ Union fears that it could unintentionally remove important regulatory safeguards. The Marine Conservation Society says that it

“poses a huge threat to marine life and environmental protections”.

The RSPB says that it will put at risk thousands of crucial laws that protect the natural environment and public health. The Government’s own Regulatory Policy Committee has called the Bill “not fit for purpose”.

It would be hard to find a less popular proposal but, despite the warnings of this unprecedented coalition, the Government plough ahead regardless, closing their ears to warning and criticism, with a Bill that is reckless, unpopular and—worst of all—unnecessary. The Bill is not about Brexit. We have left the European Union; we have been out of the EU for three years and the referendum was the best part of a decade ago. These questions are nothing to do with leave or remain; they are not even principally about our future relationship with the EU, although that too, like so much else, could be affected by this legislation. Principally at issue are how we govern our own country, how we regulate our economy, how we ensure rights for workers, how we protect the environment, and the proper role of this Parliament in making those decisions.

No one could reasonably object to revisiting specific laws derived from the EU in a sensible, orderly fashion. It is right and reasonable to ask whether there are areas in which we can do things differently or better—that is the essence of competent government—but what is needed is a smart approach to regulatory change. Ensuring that workers’ rights, consumer protections and environmental standards are maintained or indeed enhanced; carefully considering where we might do things differently and what should stay the same, on a case-by-case basis; listening to stakeholders from business and civil society; respecting the proper role of the devolved Administrations; and promoting a race to the top, not to the bottom—that would be the approach taken by a Labour Government. Instead, we have this uniquely reckless and wrong-headed approach to legislative change.

The Bill is unlike any other that I have seen in my time in either House. There are multiple reasons why in its current form it does not deserve to be on the statute book, but I shall focus on four. The first is the dangerous presumption in the Bill to remove all law which is not specifically retained; the second is the legislative cliff edge created by the so-called sunset clause; the third is the risk that it poses to rights and protections in countless fields; and the fourth is the extraordinary and unjustifiable powers given to Ministers of the Crown, and the disrespect shown to Parliament. I will take each in turn.

First, the upshot of the intention to remove all EU-derived law by default is one simple and absurd fact: no one knows exactly what laws will be revoked at the end of the year. The Government certainly do not know. They are still merrily adding new legislation to their online dashboard, checking behind government sofas for some other scroll of vellum that they may have overlooked. Nothing illustrates this farcical process more than the fact that, between the Bill passing Third Reading in the Commons and arriving before noble Lords today, another 1,000 pieces of legislation were added to the pile. Some may still be removed without being identified first, with indeterminate consequences. This is legislative Jenga. Never before in my time in either House have a Government brought forth a piece of legislation whose legal scope they are unable to define. The Government’s proposal is that this House should give Ministers the power to remove laws without them being able to say which laws will be removed. That is a nonsensical way to govern.

The second objection is to the sunset clause. All EU law that is not specifically retained will be revoked by the end of the year. That creates a completely arbitrary and unnecessary regulatory cliff edge at a time when business is crying out for stability. In fact, the Bill in effect contains three sunset clauses—2023, 2026 and for ever—since, under Clause 1(2), Ministers can choose to retain EU law until they choose to change it. If you were trying to design a Bill to undermine business confidence and inward investment, it would be hard to do a better job than this one. The Bill says to business, “The current rules that you operate under—the rules that you understand, rely on and are compliant with—may cease to exist at the end of the year. We can’t say which rules for certain yet, we can’t say what they will be replaced with, and the decision will be made by the Business Secretary on a whim.” If the Minister disagrees, could he tell the CBI, the FSB, the British Chamber of Commerce and the Institute of Directors why it is them who are wrong?

The cliff edge will generate an extraordinary volume of work for civil servants, especially in those departments with a large body of retained EU law, such as Defra. According to the Government’s own dashboard, Defra will have to assess, revise or amend more than 1,700 pieces of law—more than four pieces of law every day between now and the end of the year. That is not achievable. As the consumer watchdog Which? has said, this time pressure creates the risk of mistakes or errors that could have serious consequences. It is also a massive opportunity cost. That is why the RSPB says that the Bill will

“derail urgent action to tackle the nature and climate crisis”

by consuming the resources of departments. Amid a recession and a cost of living crisis, can frantically combing through a back catalogue of law against a self-imposed deadline really be the right use of Civil Service time? I know that many members of the Minister’s own party share these reservations about the sunset clause. It is not a partisan point; it is about competent government—and that brings me to my third principal objection.

This Bill puts at risk many crucial rights and standards and expects trust in the Secretary of State to be a substitute for legal protection. Let us just consider some of the areas covered by retained EU law, such as environmental protection, food safety, civil aviation codes, noise pollution, biosecurity, vehicle standards and employment law. Many of these protections were hard fought and hard won. They cannot be crudely dismissed as abstract red tape. Protections for pregnant women from workforce discrimination, paid annual leave, parental leave, protections for part-time employees, limits on weekly working hours—many of these rights and protections disproportionately affect women and the impact assessment recognises in three separate paragraphs that the Bill contains a threat to equality.

We cannot accept a situation in which these vital protections could be changed at the whim of the Business Secretary. This is made worse by Clause 15, which confirms that rights and protections can go in only one direction: down. The requirement to not increase burdens ensures there can be no race to the top on standards and rights. We must be clear that diminishing our standards could have serious implications for trade. It will complicate the issues created by the Northern Ireland protocol, make it harder to remove barriers in the Irish Sea and could create new difficulties in our trade with the EU.

Finally, I want to address the lack of scrutiny and accountability. This is another Bill brought forward in the name of Brexit that, rather than restoring parliamentary sovereignty, continues a trend of growing executive power. The Bill sidelines Parliament, minimises scrutiny, weakens accountability and hands Ministers unreasonable and unjustifiable powers. To do so in the name of democracy is double-speak.

The Bill contains no requirement for public consultation or impact assessments of proposed changes. Any parliamentarian who wishes to scrutinise or object to future legislation replacing retained law will be taking a gamble because, unless that legislation is passed in time, the current law in its entirety will simply fall away. The sunset clause puts a gun to Parliament’s head. This cannot be the right way to make law in our country.

While we acknowledge that the Bill has passed in the other place and will not frustrate it, we continue to have grave concerns about this legislation. It threatens workers’ rights, environmental standards and consumer protections. It puts our country on course to a self-imposed cliff edge. It undermines scrutiny and accountability and will weaken Parliament. We will seek to amend the legislation to address these issues.

This Bill rests on a fundamentally simplistic and inaccurate view of what regulation is and who it is for. The Government are trying to please some fantasy version of business, still fighting Brexit ghosts in their heads. But business does not want an uncontrolled bonfire of regulation. The truth is that good regulation enables business and trade. It creates stability and predictability. It raises standards. It protects companies as well as consumers, employers as well as workers. The truth is this Bill is a political hangover—the last promise of a Government who collapsed as they made contact with reality. While people are still paying the price in higher mortgage bills, the Government can still spare the public and business the disruption this Bill will generate. I urge them to change course now.