Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill Debate

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Department: Department for Energy Security & Net Zero
Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Portrait Baroness McIntosh of Pickering (Con)
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My Lords, I will speak to Amendments 104, 115, 116, 122, 124 and 125 in my name, and in support of Amendment 141 in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope. Amendment 104 again substitutes the end of 31 December 2028 in place of 2023, as the statutory deadline, to enable more means for the Government or any of the devolved Administrations to consult, to analyse the results of such a consultation and to prepare legislation. This would also enable Parliament or the devolved legislatures to consider and pass the legislation. By the time the Bill receives Royal Assent, there simply would not be enough time, given the parliamentary recesses in place, to conclude such an exercise. So, in my humble submission, the deadline needs to be extended to allow time for proper legislative practice to be completed.

Amendment 115—

Lord Hamilton of Epsom Portrait Lord Hamilton of Epsom (Con)
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Before my noble friend proceeds to the next amendment, she has gone on about the uncertainty created by revising this legislation, but surely the longer the period you create to consider all of that, the more uncertainty you cause.

Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Portrait Baroness McIntosh of Pickering (Con)
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I would agree with my noble friend if we knew which bits of REUL were being repealed, which were being revoked and which were being reformed—but, as we speak, we do not. As we know, many devolved measures are simply not on the dashboard at the moment, which makes that time even more unacceptable.

Amendment 115 requires a “relevant national authority” or “Minister of the Crown” to consult those who may be affected by regulations under Clause 15(2) before making them. All relevant national authorities will be required to publish the results of this consultation. The idea is to oblige the Minister of the Crown to consult the devolved Administrations before making regulations that concern them.

Amendment 116 makes similar provisions under Clause 15(3), so the same comments apply there. Amendment 122 also extends the statutory deadline from 23 June 2026 to a similar deadline of 31 December 2028, allowing more time than permitted under the present deadline to ensure that all legislation which will be encapsulated will be covered through a consultation, and to allow time for consulting and analysing the results of such a provision. Amendments 124 and 125 are simply consequential to that.

I do not know if the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, will speak to Amendment 141 in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, but I conclude by saying that I support his amendment, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Humphreys, has added her name. I welcome the fact that the

“amendment modifies the powers conferred on Ministers of the Crown when making regulations in devolved areas under this Schedule so that the power may only be exercised with the consent of the Scottish or Welsh Ministers.”

I hope that my noble friend the Minister, when summing up, will look favourably on those amendments in this group.

Baroness Brinton Portrait Baroness Brinton (LD)
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My Lords, it is an honour to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher; I agree with everything she said. I also very much agree with the previous speakers, including my noble friend Lady Ludford.

I will make a point in response to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, when he questioned the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, on whether her amendments would delay the process and whether that would be a problem. The fundamental problem we have is set out very clearly by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee in paragraph 35 of its 25th report, which quotes from the RDEUL memorandum:

“Overall, the change in status will make it possible to amend or repeal a greater amount of RDEUL using secondary legislation, which will enhance the ability for amending RDEUL more quickly without the need for primary legislation. This is a more proportionate status for RDEUL, as when made it was not subject to the same degree of UK Parliamentary scrutiny as an Act of Parliament or even domestic secondary legislation.”

However, the committee goes on to say that

“RDEUL has a special status because much of it is of considerable significance in policy terms.”

Once again, we have spent most of the last three Committee days discussing issues relating to policy and asking for clarification on when that will be nailed down and understood and when Parliament can look at it before final decisions about the Bill are made.

I return to the question I asked on the first day of Committee: at what point will the dashboard be frozen? After it is frozen, how long will it be before it comes into law? Will it be 31 July, October or 30 December? How do Ministers respond to the issue that Parliament will have to give up a significant role in key policy terms, which is normally part of primary legislation, and which would be moved into secondary legislation under this clause? At the moment, we still do not have an answer as to when Parliament will be able to look at the detail of the dashboard to make decisions on it.

Lord Hamilton of Epsom Portrait Lord Hamilton of Epsom (Con)
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Before the noble Baroness finishes her remarks, I would be grateful if she could answer my question: if you delay the implementation of considering this legislation, do you not create greater uncertainty?

Baroness Brinton Portrait Baroness Brinton (LD)
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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.

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Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
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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.

Lord Hamilton of Epsom Portrait Lord Hamilton of Epsom (Con)
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Will the noble Lord explain why the Government would want to compromise the health of the consuming public of this country and undermine our food exports abroad?

Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
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That is an extremely good question and I thank the noble Lord for asking it. That is precisely what I would say too. Therefore, if the Government do not want to risk undermining public safety or public confidence in our food businesses, and therefore our food exports, they should accept these amendments. After all, the chairman of the FSA could not have said it more clearly, and I shall just repeat it once more:

“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.”

It is not me who is saying this; it is the head of the government department with this responsibility.

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Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Portrait Lord Kerr of Kinlochard (CB)
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Before the Minister leaves the question of allowing Clause 10 to stand part, I am surprised at her disagreement with the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee—a dangerously radical body containing wild revolutionaries such as the noble Lords, Lord Janvrin and Lord Goodlad, and the noble Earl, Lord Lindsay. Their view was clearly set out in their report: that Clause 10

“effects a significant transfer of power to Ministers”,

contrary to what was set out in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. The Act said it would be for Parliament to decide changes in primary legislation, rather than for Ministers to do so in secondary legislation.

I understand the argument the Minister is making, but it is not one likely to find much support across the House. We think we have a role in deciding what should be on the statute book; it is not simply for the Executive. I can see the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton—yet another dangerous radical—that it will take time so there will be, in a sense, continuing uncertainty. This is why I support an extension of the sunset deadlines—although that is not a sufficient cure, I think it is a necessary one for the Bill. But the noble Lord has to recognise that there is huge uncertainty now for economic operators across the country: they do not know which laws are to be amended, which are to be retained and which are to be extinguished. Once we know, perhaps it would be sensible to discuss how long it will take to make the necessary changes.

Lord Hamilton of Epsom Portrait Lord Hamilton of Epsom (Con)
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Surely the thing that concerns businesses is how legislation is going to be amended, not whether it is or not.

Baroness Neville-Rolfe Portrait Baroness Neville-Rolfe (Con)
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I thank the noble Lords for their interventions. I did say that I understood the concerns of the Committee. I was trying to explain that, in this particular case, we need to go forward with the arrangements we have because of the situation the EU law of 2018 has left us in and the need to tidy up the statute book, which, otherwise, would take decades to do.

Amendments 115 and 116 in the name of my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering would insert a requirement to consult any interested persons or relevant devolved Governments before any secondary retained EU law could be revoked or replaced. Amendment 115 would require that no regulations may be made under Clause 15(2) unless Ministers comply with a set of conditions, including a requirement to consult any interested persons in relevant devolved Governments before any REUL can be revoked or replaced. Amendment 116 would insert the same consultation requirements regarding regulations made under Clause 15(3). These amendments would hinder the efficient removal of outdated and unnecessary burdens and regulations and their replacement with regulations that are more fit for purpose.

Furthermore, we have sought, as I have explained, to ensure that the Bill contains robust scrutiny mechanisms, including for the powers to revoke or replace. In particular, the sifting procedure will apply to those regulations proposed to be made under the negative procedure. The sifting procedure largely corresponds with the procedure under the EUWA and the European Union (Future Relationship) Act 2020. In both cases, sifting has been effectively used to ensure proportionate parliamentary scrutiny of legislation regarding EU exit. We are scheduled to debate the sifting procedure in more detail on Wednesday, and obviously I look forward to that debate. In addition, it is our expectation that the departments concerned will follow standard procedures regarding consultation and engagement with the devolved Governments during policy development, so I do not consider adding a requirement to consult on the face of the Bill to be appropriate or necessary.

Amendment 128, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, would create a new clause introducing additional restrictions on the use of powers under Clauses 15 and 16. Among the proposed extensive conditions is a requirement that Ministers provide a report outlining an assessment of the potential impact of proposed new regulations. This would include the difference between current and proposed new regulations for protections for consumers, workers, businesses, the environment, animal welfare, any changes to the regulatory burden, and whether the UK’s international commitments to the trade and co-operation agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol continue to be met. Such conditions are unnecessary. The Bill has been drafted to ensure that legislation made under these powers is subject to scrutiny procedures that are proportionate to the scope of the powers. It is our expectation that departments will follow the standard procedures for consultation and impact assessment where it is undertaken. Adding these conditions would significantly delay the process of REUL reform, impact departments’ delivery plans and could prevent departments maximising the use of the powers in Clauses 15 and 16.

Before coming to the sunsets, I turn to Amendment 129, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, which seeks to add a clause to the Bill introducing additional restrictions for food standards legislation. It is only right to have powers in the Bill which will help put the UK statute book on a sustainable footing. The powers will facilitate the much-needed review and reform of outdated retained EU law that not is fit for the UK, and they will ensure that we can capitalise on the benefits of Brexit. As I have said, the powers to amend are not intended to undermine the UK’s already high food standards. I say again that this Government are committed to promoting robust food standards nationally and internationally, so that we can continue to protect consumer interests, facilitate trade and ensure that consumers can have confidence in the food they buy. I also value the work of the food standards agencies, for all the reasons the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, has outlined, but that is not a reason to amend this general Bill.

To respond to the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, the Hansard that he referred to reflects the position that retained EU law that needs to be kept will be preserved. The FSA is saying publicly that retained EU law on food standards should be preserved. It is for the relevant department—the Department of Health—and the devolved nations to decide whether retained EU law in their area should be preserved. Therefore, I humbly suggest that the two statements are not in conflict.