Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill Debate

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Department: Attorney General
Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Justin Madders Portrait Justin Madders (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)
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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.

Toby Perkins Portrait Mr Perkins
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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?

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Justin Madders Portrait Justin Madders
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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.

Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Portrait Mr Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi (Slough) (Lab)
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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?

Justin Madders Portrait Justin Madders
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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.

Stella Creasy Portrait Stella Creasy
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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—

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Justin Madders Portrait Justin Madders
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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.

William Cash Portrait Sir William Cash
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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.”

Justin Madders Portrait Justin Madders
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indicated dissent.

William Cash Portrait Sir William Cash
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It is no good the shadow Minister shaking his head, because he will not ask that question and nor will the hon. Member for Chesterfield, because their constituents would very quickly turn around and tell them to get lost.

Justin Madders Portrait Justin Madders
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I just point out to the hon. Gentleman that my constituents would wonder why we are rehashing the arguments from 2016 when we have this Bill before us today.

William Cash Portrait Sir William Cash
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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.