Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill Debate

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Department: Department for Energy Security & Net Zero
Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
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My Lords, I added my name to Amendment 37 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock. I wish to say a few words about it and about the other amendments in this group, which I also support. First, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, that none of us in this Chamber doubts the commitment of the noble Lord, Lord Benyon, to environmental protection and supporting the cause that we all passionately believe in, and I congratulate him on his commitment to the environment.

However, we are nevertheless worried, for at least three reasons. First, not everybody in the Minister’s party necessarily shares his commitment to the environment. We all think back to a previous Tory Prime Minister, who referred to certain environmental protections as “green crap”. I am sorry if that offends noble Lords’ ears but those were the words that he was reported to have used. We are not sure that everybody will share that commitment.

We are also worried about the number of pieces of legislation that fall under Defra’s umbrella; the figure that I have been given is 1,781. That seems a bit of spurious precision given the earlier debate about the uncertainty in the number; although it was described as a catalogue, it is not actually a catalogue on the dashboard because it is incomplete. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, has said, there is a lot of legislation that Defra has to deal with. Amendment 37 is just about a small sub-sample.

The third point that keeps our worry levels up is the continuing gap between rhetoric and reality. While a lot of warm words are said about environmental protection, the “greenest Government ever” and how we want to leave the environment in a better state than we found it, the reality is in many cases very different. Whether it is the quality of our rivers, sewage in other coastal zones, loss of biodiversity or air equality, in all those areas we are not doing as well on the ground as the rhetoric would lead us to believe. That was clearly brought home in the recent report of the Office for Environmental Protection, the watchdog that is meant to snap at the heels of government.

That is why we need some reassurance that environmental protections will not be lost down the back of the sofa. I will give a couple of examples. One— I thank Greener UK for it—concerns a current application for the Ashdown Business Park in Maresfield, at postcode TN22 2HN. It is on the edge of the Ashdown Forest special protection area and special area of conservation, so is an ecologically important area. The ecological impact assessment says that you would need an appropriate assessment under the habitats directive and the habitats regulations. That is the kind of warning light for the development. However, under the heading of “Current Uncertainty Regarding Planning Applications”, the report goes on to refer to the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, saying that, at the same time, the UK government is pressing ahead to remove and replace European Union law on the British statute under its planned retained EU law Bill, currently at the amendment stage within Parliament.

What we are seeing there is concrete evidence that the uncertainty created by the Bill is already having an effect on, potentially, the protection of key habitats in this country that are currently protected under the habitats directive and regulations. That is why it is really important that the Government say, “No, we are not going to change those; no, we are not going to get rid of them. You still have to follow them.”

My second example refers to the fact that environmental protections are not just about tree hugging, red kites and dormice; they are about human health, because our health is intimately connected with that of the environment. The air that we breathe, the water in our rivers and the pesticides that are used on our farms can all impact on our health. We are talking here not about just about the environment but about human health. I am sure that most if not all members of the public would be horrified to think that there was any risk of diluting protections to their health as a result of the Bill.

I want to mention one concrete example that I heard about this morning. I put it in the form of a question to the Minister. He may not be able to answer it today because it is a bit of a curveball, but he may be able to write to us. It concerns environmental noise. The World Health Organization estimates that in Europe 100 million people suffer ill health as a result of environmental noise, and 1 million healthy life years are lost as a result of exposure to environmental noise. I was told this morning that there are EU regulations that require member states to map environmental noise in their country, which we are doing. However, since we left the EU, there is now an additional requirement to map the health impacts of environmental noise, but because we have left we are apparently not doing that. I would like the Minister to confirm or deny that assertion which I heard this morning. That would be a small example of how, as we slide away from EU standards, there is a danger that we will lower our protections for the environment and, importantly, for human health at the same time.

Lord Hope of Craighead Portrait Lord Hope of Craighead (CB)
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My Lords, I am very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Benyon, has found time to join us for the debate on this group of amendments. If he will permit me, I would like to take advantage of his presence here to ask him two questions.

The first relates to the dashboard, and I think he was present for at least some of the debate about that. One of the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, in concluding was that there is no mention in the Defra section of the dashboard of any legislation relating to Scotland or Wales. She was not entirely right about that; I was looking at the dashboard today and I detected 30 entries that refer to Scotland and 15 to Wales, but they are all in the section of the Defra list that deals with agricultural policy. There are many other areas that Defra covers, but, so far as I can detect, none of the legislation from the devolved Administrations has yet been listed on the dashboard. Is Defra still making efforts to discover from the devolved Administrations whether they have legislation relating to the other areas for which it is responsible? It is very important that we have a complete list, at some point, of the legislation in the different policy areas.

My noble friend Lord Krebs suggested that the figure that he gave, which I think was 1,781, was slightly doubtful. The figure can be arrived at by simple arithmetic because each item in the list is given a number, and you can work down the list. The total list at the moment contains 3,746 items. I made the number of Defra items 1,780—although perhaps my arithmetic was a bit defective—so that is a major part of the list so far, which is why the Minister’s presence here is so important. Completing the list at some point is important, so is the Minister aware of other areas where the devolved Administrations are working to complete the list to include their legislation as well?

The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, suggested the great pressures that Defra officials were under to achieve what they are being asked to achieve, but what she said applies equally to the devolved Administrations. I understand that for Scotland to try to grapple with the Defra area so far as it refers to it, its manpower—or its workforce, I should say, to avoid gender problems—is at most 10% of that which Defra enjoys, and they have pressures of their own. They have work already going on which is under extreme pressure. Now, on top of that, we find that they have to detect where the retained EU law measures are that have to be looked at, so there is an immense problem for them. My supplementary to the dashboard point is: is the noble Lord satisfied that the devolved Administrations can achieve what they need to in order to identify the legislation in the other policy areas, and in a reasonable time to achieve the sunset? My impression at the moment is that they are under such pressure that it is highly unlikely they will be unable to do that.

The second question is rather different and relates to common frameworks. The Minister may be aware that of the 32 common frameworks that the Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee has been dealing with, under the chairmanship of the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, 14 are Defra-related. At least some of them seem to deal with areas that are within the list that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman has concocted—“concocted” is the wrong word; I should say “put together”—including chemicals and pesticides; animal health and welfare; fertilisation regulation, which of course affects water quality; and the whole area of organic farming, agricultural support and so on. Can the Minister identify for us which of the items on the noble Baroness’s list fall within a common framework?

We have amendments later dealing with the need for special treatment of common frameworks because of the way in which they are organised and the system that exists for amendments to frameworks that are achieved by consensus. It is important that we know what we are dealing with. At some point we will have to know which of the various regulations on the Defra list are within common frameworks and which are not. Is it possible for the noble Lord to conduct an exercise to look at his list to identify which are common frameworks-related and which are not? I do not expect him to be able to achieve that today, but it would be extremely helpful to us on the committee chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, to know what we are dealing with, particularly with regard to the amendments that we will discuss later on.

Baroness Young of Old Scone Portrait Baroness Young of Old Scone (Lab)
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My Lords, I declare my interests as chairman, president or vice-president of a broad range of environmental NGOs. I too welcome the presence of the noble Lord, Lord Benyon, and look forward to his responses.

I support Amendment 10, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell of Hardington Mandeville, on excluding the habitats and species regulations from the sunset clause. As the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, said, the habitats and species regulations are fundamental to protecting sites and biodiversity in this country and environmental protection generally, and cannot be put at risk at any price.

Protected sites under the habitats regulations are the special areas of conservation and special protection areas. They are really the jewels in the crown of nature conservation in this country. They cover a tiny proportion of the land surface, less than 5%. I would be of the view that the jewels in the crown deserve a high level of protection. The regulations have been very effective in reducing loss and damage to protected sites over the last 20 years. It used to be that on average 17% of our protected sites were damaged every year. We are now down to 0.17%, which is admirable.

Those regulations were developed by Brits in the EU. The RSPB, BirdLife International, the WWF and Stanley Johnson, the former Prime Minister’s father, all worked with the Dutch and other member states. This is not unwelcome EU regulation that was forced on us but proper, welcome protections that were crafted by Brits, and rightly so, for those important sites.

Proper protection for that small number of ultimate sites and species is vital, because they make what we care about in the countryside, and what is special in the countryside, safe. If all noble Lords think of the natural and wild places that they cherish, many of them will be special areas for conservation or special protection areas under the habitats regulations.

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Lord Benyon Portrait Lord Benyon (Con)
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If we have to extend, that would be the subject of a secondary legislation measure, so this House would be able to review it.

Lord Hope of Craighead Portrait Lord Hope of Craighead (CB)
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I am sorry to disturb the noble Lord again. Following on from the noble Baroness’s point, Clause 2(1), to which the noble Lord refers, uses “specified” three times: you have to be able to specify the instrument or the class of instrument and then identify a specified time. It is not designed as a general extension to cope with the possibility that things may be overlooked. It does not deal with that; that is one of the problems. It is fine if you can specify everything and you know exactly what you are dealing with, but it is not a let-out clause of the kind that the noble Lord was perhaps suggesting.

Lord Benyon Portrait Lord Benyon (Con)
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I entirely agree with the noble and learned Lord: it has to be specified. That is the work we are doing, and that is how we will decide whether we need that extension.

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Before I sit down, I speak warmly in favour of Amendment 63 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, to which I have added my name. I will leave her to set out the excellent reasons why the Committee would wish to adopt it, but I would like to lend my strongest possible support.
Lord Hope of Craighead Portrait Lord Hope of Craighead (CB)
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My Lords, I added my name to Amendment 27, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, and I am grateful to her for putting it down and for what she said.

I am sure the Minister will remember that, when we mentioned time limits and sunsets on Thursday, I agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton of Epsom, that it was sensible to have a sunset in view of the task set before us. The question is whether the sunset is in the right place. This amendment addresses that issue. The point is that the Government are trying to move too fast without having done the homework in the first place to establish that the sunset is one that they could meet.

Last Thursday, the noble Lord, Lord Wilson of Dinton, said that the Government should “do the work first”. As he put it:

“The right thing to do is for the Government to withdraw the Bill, go away and do the work, and decide what they want to keep, what they want to amend and what they want to abolish, and then tell Parliament so that it can debate and scrutinise what the Government want to do—and it can be a proper process with consultation. That will take longer, but the Government are taking on a very big job with huge complexity and scale.”—[Official Report, 23/2/23; col. 1774.]

I do not suppose the Government will withdraw the Bill, but the fact is—it has been staring us in the face ever since we started these debates—that the job that they are taking on is immensely complex. However hard they try to pretend otherwise, they seem to be making it up as they go along—the figures keep enlarging, indicating that the necessary work was not done at the outset, before the timetable was decided upon.

The Bill had its First Reading in the House of Commons on 22 September 2022. All the signs are that even a reduced or very preliminary version of the information that is now on the dashboard was not yet available. The Government seem to have been playing catch-up ever since they became aware of the questions being asked of them. To introduce a Bill with a sunset clause without having arrived at a clear understanding at the outset of the scale of the task that all four Governments are being asked to undertake is, to say the least, bad planning. The noble Lord, Lord Wilson, said that it was “lazy government”, and one might also say that it is bad government.

Mention was made of Clause 2 and the extension of the sunset clause providing an escape clause, but it is a carefully framed and narrowly drawn provision that requires an understanding of the legislation, or the descriptions of the legislation, that is to be put into the provisions allowed by Clause 2. It has to be specified; it does not allow for a general let-out just because the work has not been done on time and unknown instruments are yet to be discovered—if you have not discovered them, you cannot specify them. So this is not a complete answer to the problem that the very strict and early sunset, set from the outset of the Bill, is trying to solve.

The solution that the noble Baroness has offered, which I agree with, is to extend the sunset to a later date. It is worth mentioning that there is reason to be concerned about the same time limit in Clause 12, which gives power to restate retained EU law, but it is subject to the provision in subsection (7) that

“No regulations may be made under this section after the end of 2023”,

which is exactly the same date that the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, directed her amendment at. These two clauses march hand in hand, and if a government amendment is made to Clause 1, as I suggest it should be, one should also be made to Clause 12.

I hope that the Minister will reflect carefully on the sunset clause. An extension of it, even by a year, would provide a much better timetable to which to work, given the enormity of the task being faced. I very much support this amendment, and I hope it will be supported across the Committee.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick Portrait Lord Hannay of Chiswick (CB)
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My Lords, I will speak in support of Amendments 26 and 27. Amendment 26 moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, is about consultation. You can have your views on the value of consultation, the amount of time taken up by it and so on, but it is a normal practice in legislating in our time. To move away from it, which is what the Government will do with the replacement provisions they may move forward, seems aberrant and contrary to all normal practice.

The trouble is that the two amendments are a bit linked, because if you accept Amendment 26 it is even clearer than it is now—it is clear beyond peradventure—that you are not going to get through all that by the end of this year. I can see why the Government are driven to refusing to commit themselves to consultation, because it simply cannot be done in the time available. In my view, that is an argument in favour of Amendment 27 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering. I hope the Government can give some ground on the consultation issue; otherwise, we will probably get some legislative proposals that not only are very hasty but have not been tested by the people to whom they will be applied. That seems entirely contrary to our practice these days in bringing forward legislation.

On Amendment 27, I find it very odd that the Government are clinging to the sunset of the end of 2023. It seems unrealisable—some would say suicidal—and it will bring nothing but discredit on the Government when the chaos that is caused actually supervenes. In any case, whether you think that or not, just reflect on something that the noble Lord, Lord Benyon, said to us in the debate on the last group of amendments. He told us that four teams of officials are working on deciding which of the instruments to be caught by the cut-off should be postponed until 2026 and which should go ahead. If you removed the 2023 sunset, you would save those four teams all their work; all they would need to do is work out what to do by 2026—or, as the noble Baroness suggests, by 2028. I am less sure of that; to my mind, it would be quite sufficient simply to remove 2023 and to leave 2026, as it is in the legislation. That offers a reasonable amount of time to carry out an exercise.

It also demonstrates that those of us tabling or supporting these amendments are not refusing to replace European Union law. Quite the contrary—we understand the basic logic behind what is being done, but we find that the timing is absurd and damaging to our economy. I hope that the Minister will respond positively, both on consultation and on removing the 2023 sunset, even if he does not find 2028 very beguiling.