European Union (Withdrawal) Bill
Seema Malhotra Excerpts
Wednesday 15th November 2017

(2 years, 3 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Attorney General
Caroline Lucas Portrait Caroline Lucas - Hansard
15 Nov 2017, 6:06 p.m.

I rise to welcome and support a number of proposals in this group, in particular new clause 2, new clause 25, the amendments on the EEA and new clause 22.

I shall be brief because many others wish to speak. First, new clause 22 seems to me to be eminently reasonable and, in a sense, asks no more from Ministers than they have already pledged verbally. Call me suspicious, but I would like to see that locked down legally as well, but it goes no further than what they have already said.

Indeed, the new clause reflects repeated statements by Ministers, not least the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, that the UK’s withdrawal from the EU will not lead to a weakening or a dilution of workers’ rights in particular. In October 2016, the Prime Minister herself said that

“existing workers’ legal rights will continue to be guaranteed in law”.

The same month, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union said this:

“To those who are trying to frighten British workers, saying ‘When we leave, employment rights will be eroded’, I say firmly and unequivocally ‘no they won’t’… this… government will not roll back those rights in the workplace.”

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has said that he wants not just to maintain environmental laws, but to enhance them. It is puzzling why there is still resistance to translating all that rhetoric into legal certainty. That is all we seek this afternoon.

Those and other more recent statements are welcome, because in June 2016 electors were not voting to jettison hard-won rights and legal protections. On the contrary, they were assured by the leave campaign that taking back control would mean improvements to their rights and legal protections, denied them, apparently, by the evil bureaucrats of the EU. However, the Bill risks retained EU law being vulnerable to chipping away through secondary legislation. That is a real concern and those are important protections. Furthermore, if we are to have that deep and special relationship with the EU27, in particular in trade, we will have to abide by those regulations in any case, so why not lock them down with certainty here and now in this debate?

New clause 25, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), again asks little of Ministers. I hope it will be accepted. It would simply ensure that the quite extraordinary delegated powers that the Bill grants be used only in pursuit of the Bill’s stated purpose—namely, to allow retained EU law to operate effectively after withdrawal.

As the Bill stands, it will allow Ministers to use those delegated powers to modify what are currently EU regulations. That simply does not provide a good enough guarantee that those delegated powers will not be used to water down EU-derived standards on key environmental safeguards—for example, on chemical and timber regulation—without proper parliamentary and public scrutiny. New clause 25 would address that weakness by establishing a new process for modifying retained EU law after Brexit—one that I believe strikes a better balance of powers—and it acknowledges that it is sometimes necessary to amend technical provisions using secondary legislation. It allows for that, but it would also ensure that more substantive modifications to retained EU law can only be made by an Act of Parliament.

I want to say a few words about the amendments on the EEA. I simply want to reinforce what other hon. Members have said—that while the EEA might not be the most ideal port for a ship seeking shelter from the worst of the Brexit storm, because by almost any standard EEA membership is clearly inferior to full membership of the EU, when the storm is bad sailors can nevertheless be glad to find shelter in any available port, and with the sand now running fast out of the article 50 hourglass, one would have thought that any strong and stable Government worthy of the name would want to keep their options open.

Membership of the EEA would at least allow the UK to retain access to the EU single market. That means that British citizens would still be able to live and work in EU member states. British businesses would have the certainty of being able to trade freely with countries in the EU single market and access that market’s more than 500 million consumers. It would mean as well that the NHS would not be facing the crisis that it is currently facing, with so many nurses and health workers now being put off from coming to work in our NHS because they are no longer welcome. It means that we would not have the crisis in agriculture, where we literally have crops rotting in the fields because we do not have workers here to actually do the work in those fields. Crucially, it would also mean that those EU citizens who have made their lives here in good faith, and who have paid their taxes and worked here alongside us as our family, our friends and so on, would not feel unwelcome in a country that has been their home, in some cases for decades and decades.

Caroline Lucas Portrait Caroline Lucas - Hansard
15 Nov 2017, 6:13 p.m.

I feel ashamed of this country and of this Government when I see so many good people feeling so unwelcome and feeling that their only recourse is to leave this country. That is not right.

I believe that membership of the EEA is a compromise that we might look at, going forward. I commend very strongly the speech and the amendment from the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander). She made the incredibly powerful point that we have had so much rhetoric about pulling together, about not dividing society, and yet EEA membership would offer a compromise that perhaps people could gather around. There was no mandate on the ballot paper on 23 June for the kind of extreme Brexit that this Government are pursuing, pushing us potentially to the very edge of that cliff and beyond. That was not on anyone’s ballot paper. There is no mandate for that. So if there is to be any seriousness about bringing people together, to try to heal the deep rifts that there now are in this country, proposals of the type set out in new clause 22 will be vital.