Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill Debate

Full Debate: Read Full Debate
Department: Department for Energy Security & Net Zero
Baroness Brinton Portrait Baroness Brinton (LD)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is fairly straightforward. Those of us with extreme concerns about the Bill do not want a Bill passed where time after time people, especially the wider public, realise that regulations have been sunsetted without their understanding of the consequences—and without our own Parliament’s understanding of the consequences. Frankly, that is the one delay that really should be put in place, because we do not know what is going to happen.

Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

My Lords, I have tried to follow and to listen to as much of the discussions on the Bill as possible, and I confess that some of the legal arguments happening earlier were beyond me. I will raise a couple of points, the first of which is in relation to the delay. I said at Second Reading, and I maintain the point now, that the Bill has been a long time coming. The public perceive the debate about how we deal with taking control of our own laws, as the UK having left the EU, not in the sense that it has been rushed through, but rather that it has been sluggish and blocked, and that any attempts to try to force through that break from the European Union have been obstructed by people who did not approve of the decision taken in 2016.

I am very sensitive to the perfectly reasonable criticisms made throughout the arguments I have heard. The Minister must give some reassurance that there are no unintended consequences of the Bill and that important laws are not lost that the Government do not intend to lose—those they will lose by accident, as it has been described. That is of some concern. Reassurances that they are in control are not that reassuring when we look at the parlous state of the way everything else is falling apart at the moment. So I have reservations myself; I wanted to clarify that. But saying that we should delay things until 2028 will be seen, understandably, as quite simply putting off the task, and that does not work at all.

--- Later in debate ---
Baroness Ludford Portrait Baroness Ludford (LD)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

I just wanted to say to the noble Baroness—and I probably will not go into lawmaking in the EU, as the noble Baroness was an MEP herself—that to say that lawmaking in Brussels is not democratic is, to my mind, ridiculous.

I particularly want to address her assertion that objections to this Bill are mired in politics. Had she been here, as I have, through the entire four days—now nearly four and a half—on this Bill, she would know that across the House the objections have been because it is an Executive power grab. Almost no reference has been made to the Brexit referendum or the policy of Brexit. It is about the way that the Bill is constructed and the power that the Government are concentrating in themselves. It is a question of the rights of Parliament and the type of governance we are objecting to. It is not political in that sense. The objections to this Bill are constitutional.

Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
- Hansard - -

I appreciate that I have not been in the Chamber for all of that time, although I have been here a fair few hours, one way and another, and I have read everything that was said in previous discussions. I do not feel as though I am just wandering in to make this point.

I have also talked to people outside this House about their understanding of this discussion and I am trying to draw attention to that—

--- Later in debate ---
Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
- Hansard - -

I have got more questions flying at me today.

Baroness Brinton Portrait Baroness Brinton (LD)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, for giving way for my question to the noble Baroness, Lady Fox. If the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, is not concerned about Clause 10, does that mean that she disagrees with the very clear comments from the Delegated Powers Committee? It sees it as a power grab and thinks it is a completely inappropriate use of secondary legislation.

Baroness Fox of Buckley Portrait Baroness Fox of Buckley (Non-Afl)
- Hansard - -

I am concerned about aspects of this Bill from a delegated powers point of view, as I have been on a range of Bills that we have had in this House. Maybe it is because, as in the previous intervention, it was made clear to me that there is a disagreement about what democracy is. I do not think that while we were in the European Union that was a democratic, accountable form of lawmaking. I did not make that point. That point has just been made back to me. I am saying that although I understand that the arguments put forward say that they are not replaying a lot of discussions from the past, I think that argument has been implicit in a lot of the discussions. That was certainly what I heard at Second Reading and I have picked it up.

I am also making the point that if there was a genuine enthusiasm from this House about how we can take the opportunity of having left the European Union to now study and look at all of those laws, there might be less cynicism outside this House. That was my point.

I also was making a different point about timing. I have not heard from this House, either while I have been in it or before I got in it and was watching it from the outside, an enthusiasm to rush things through, as soon as we voted in 2016, to say, “Let’s take all the laws. Let’s look at the EU retained laws. Let’s now make a decision about what we do with these laws.” People did not want to do that because they did not accept the decision. Now, people are saying that it is too rushed and that there is a danger that this will come over—as it is doing—as an attempt at blocking taking back control.

As to the delegated powers and the power grab, I am afraid that that is something I have broadly been worried about from this Government, not just with this Bill. I have spoken on it many a time.

Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I will speak to Amendments 129 and 131 in this group in my name and those of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and my noble friend Lady Boycott, who, I am sorry to say, are not in their places. These two amendments are about transparency, accountability, and scrutiny, so, in a way, they follow neatly from some of the points the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, was making a few moments ago.

Transparency, accountability and scrutiny are surely not contentious concepts so I hope that the Government would agree and therefore sign up to these amendments. Amendment 129, very simply, would require the Government to seek advice from the Food Standards Agency and Food Standards Scotland as to whether any proposed changes to the regulations will reduce food safety or other consumer protections in relation to food.

Noble Lords will recall that the Food Standards Agency is the non-ministerial department in England, Wales and Northern Ireland with responsibility for food safety and consumer protection in relation to food. It would surely be bizarre beyond belief not to consult the relevant department and its Scottish counterpart before making any changes to retained EU law. The importance of this underlined by referring back to a previous debate in Committee. I quote from Hansard. I said on 23 February that

“I will quote what Professor Susan Jebb, the chair of the Food Standards Agency, said on 2 November last year:

‘In the FSA, we are clear that we cannot simply sunset the laws on food safety and authenticity without a decline in UK food standards and a significant risk to public health’.”

I then said:

“According to the government department in charge of food safety and standards, the sunset clause is putting public health at risk. There is no point in the Minister trying to deny it, because that is what a government department is saying.”—[Official Report, 23/2/23; col. 1832.]

I will now quote the Minister’s reply because she did indeed deny it by saying:

“Let me assure noble Lords that any decision on REUL reform will not come at the expense of our high standards.”

She added that

“our commitment to not reducing consumer protection remains in place.”—[Official Report, 23/2/23; cols. 1856-57.]

Here you have it in black and white. The head of the relevant government department, Professor Susan Jebb, says that we cannot sunset EU-derived laws without sacrificing consumer safety and other protections. The Minister told this House on 23 February that, in effect, that is a load of rubbish. Who would you believe? I know where my trust lies. It is with the department that has the responsibility and accountability for and expertise in protecting consumers’ interests in relation to food. There could not be a clearer demonstration of why Amendment 129 is essential

Lest this be thought to be some sort of political point, I want to say that when I was chairman of the Food Standards Agency, with a Government of a different political complexion, Ministers were keen to rush to reassure the public on issues to do with food safety, whether it was BSE or foot and mouth disease, and I really had to stand up against pressure from Ministers and say, “No, we can’t provide reassurance on safety”. If this amendment is accepted, it will ensure that the proper expertise, lines of accountability and scrutiny are in place to review any proposed changes in food law.

I turn now to Amendment 131, which is about transparency. As the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, reminded noble Lords earlier in Committee, the Food Standards Agency and Food Standards Scotland published their first annual report on food safety and standards across the UK, entitled Our Food 2021, in June. Here is a quotation from the introduction:

“At a time when the UK is taking on new responsibilities for food following our departure from the European Union … consumers need strong watchdogs looking out for whether standards are being protected. This report—the first in a series to be published annually—will help us do so by providing an objective, data-driven assessment of the safety and standards of food over time.

Why us? Because the Food Standards Agency … and Food Standards Scotland … are together responsible for food standards across the whole of the UK—this is an important, long-term collaboration between our two organisations that should provide greater transparency and accountability for food quality across the four nations. This, in turn, will help us work with food businesses, local authorities and other partners to address any emerging threats or vulnerabilities.”

Amendment 131 simply seeks to put this annual report, or a slightly modified version of it, on a statutory basis. It will tell the public, businesses, the Government and others whether, as result of changes to our laws, food standards and safety are being compromised. How on earth could one object to this transparency?

As the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, reminded us the other day in Committee, transparency is one of the keys to trust. It has taken years of work by the Food Standards Agency to rebuild public trust in the UK food system after the disasters of the 1990s, including BSE and salmonella in eggs. Indeed, that is why all parties supported the creation of the Food Standards Agency, so it could be a department that puts consumers’ interests first and rebuilds trust in our food system. Why would the Government wish to squander those gains now? I therefore look forward to the Minister warmly welcoming both my amendments, and to assuring us that the FSA and FSS will have the necessary resources to fulfil the duties that are implied by them. These are very modest changes to the Bill, aimed at improving it, and I hope that, if the Minister does not welcome them, he will at least agree to meet me and others to discuss the implications of not accepting them.