European UnionSpeeches

Nusrat Ghani – 2023 Statement on EU Retained Law

The statement made by Nusrat Ghani, the Minister for Industry and Investment Security, in the House of Commons on 18 January 2023.

It is a pleasure to be here, and I thank all Members who have tabled new amendments and new clauses and who will speak in the debate. I also thank the members of the Public Bill Committee for their work.

I will address the Government new clauses and amendments first, but I will say more about them in my closing speech when other Members have had a chance to contribute. I will also address some of the concerns that have been raised, and some of the misinformation about the Bill.

The Government new clauses and amendments are minor and technical. They cover four areas. The first is updating the definition of “assimilated law” and how it should be interpreted, and, in the case law provisions, ensuring that the High Court of Justiciary is covered in all instances. I thank the Scottish Government for their engagement: there has been engagement between our officials and those in the Scottish Government, and with the Advocate General. Our new clauses also clarify the fact that the use of extension power also applies to amendments to retained EU law made between the extension regulations and the sunset, and clarify the application of clause 14 to codification as well as restatement. These are technical drafting measures, and I ask the House to support them.

Let me now explain why the Bill is crucial for the UK. My explanation will directly cover many of the new clauses and amendments. The Bill will end the special status of retained EU law on the UK statute book by the end of 2023. It constitutes a process. Considerable work has been done with officials across Whitehall and with the devolved authorities; that work has been proportionate, and has been taking place for over 18 months. I cannot stress enough the importance of achieving the 2023 deadline. Retained EU law was never intended to sit on the statute book indefinitely. It is constitutionally undesirable, as some domestic laws, including Acts of Parliament, currently remain subordinate to some retained EU law. The continued existence on our statute book of the principle of supremacy of EU law is just not right, as we are a sovereign nation with a sovereign Parliament.

Sir Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)

We all accept that the status of EU law must change and that it will have to be reassimilated into domestic law in due course. No one argues with that. Will the Minister not reflect that it is constitutionally unacceptable to create what the Law Society—which might know a little more about the law than politicians and civil servants—described as a “devastating impact” on legal certainty and business confidence? To do so by means of Henry VIII powers so wide that all scrutiny is, in effect, removed from this House is not taking backing control but doing the reverse of what the Government seek to do.

Ms Ghani

I always respect my hon. Friend’s opinion, but he is fundamentally mistaken. We have undertaken a considerable amount of consultation with our courts and have worked with them consistently. It is absolutely right that we deliver Brexit by ensuring that laws made here are sovereign over EU laws.

Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con)

My hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) is fundamentally wrong. The Bill is providing legal certainty. Rather than having a flow of EU law interpreted according to EU principle, from now on we will have a single set of laws within this country. That must be certainty rather than otherwise.

Ms Ghani

Having a single set of laws across the UK will provide far more certainty.

Several hon. Members rose—

Ms Ghani

Before I take any more interventions, I want to address the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) about the Henry VIII powers. That is a misrepresentation of what is happening. Each Department will review and then amend, assimilate or revoke EU law. Each Department’s Secretary of State will be responsible for the decisions they take. All the laws are on the dashboard, which will be updated once again, and we will be codifying the retained EU law. In the absence of the application of supremacy, restating a rule in primary legislation could lead to the same policy effect as the rule itself currently has. The Bill just sets out a process to allow each Department to take a decision. Why would we not want to review the EU law that is out there and assess what needs to be assimilated? If we can amend and update it, why would we not do that?

Sir John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con)

Notwithstanding the charmingly innocent faith in lawyers of my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), the key thing about our decision to leave the European Union is that sovereignty lies in this place and with the people to whom we are accountable. The point about this measure is that it will allow exactly that sovereignty to be exacted in practice with regard to retained EU law.

Ms Ghani

Absolutely. When decisions are taken either to amend or to revoke, the usual channels will be followed in Parliament. Committees will be put in place and decisions will be reviewed the Leaders of both Houses. Decisions can be taken openly and transparently. We also have the dashboard, which will be updated and already has thousands of EU laws on it.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP)

The Minister is right that the whole point of Brexit was to take control of our own laws. She is also right that there needs to be a single set of laws across the United Kingdom. But the Bill makes it clear that we will not have a single set of laws across the United Kingdom, because a wide range of laws in Northern Ireland are exempt from the provisions of the Bill. Furthermore, in future when EU law changes and applies in Northern Ireland, the gap between the laws in the rest of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland will get ever wider. Does she accept that unless the protocol is dealt with, there is a real danger that Northern Ireland will be treated differently and be constitutionally separated from the United Kingdom?

Ms Ghani

My right hon. Friend raises a very important issue. As it is sensitive, he must allow me a moment to ensure that my response is accurate. The UK Government are committed to ensuring that the necessary legislation is in place to uphold the UK’s international obligations, including the Northern Ireland protocol and the trade and co-operation agreement after the sunset date. The Bill will not alter the rights of EU nations that are protected, or eligible to be protected, by the relevant provisions in the Northern Ireland protocol. The Bill contains provisions that, when exercised appropriately, will ensure the continued implementation of our international obligations, including the Northern Ireland protocol.

It is our preference to resolve the Northern Ireland protocol issue through talks. The Government are engaging in constructive dialogue with the EU to find solutions to these problems. I must put on record that officials have been working with officials in Northern Ireland for the last 18 months. We know how important and sensitive this issue is.

Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green) rose—

Ms Ghani

I will just make a little progress before I take more interventions.

I cannot stress enough the importance of achieving the deadline. The retained EU law was never intended to sit on the statute books indefinitely. On 31 January last year the Government announced plans to bring forward the Bill, which is the culmination of the Government’s work to untangle ourselves from decades of EU membership. It will permit the creation of a more agile, innovative and UK-specific regulatory approach, benefiting people and businesses across the UK.

It is a priority of the Government that the United Kingdom will be the best place to start and grow a business. The Bill contains powers that will allow us to make good on that promise. It will allow outdated and often undemocratic retained EU law to be amended, repealed or replaced more quickly and easily than before. It will remove burdens on business and create a more agile and sustainable legislative framework to boost economic growth.

Sir James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend East) (Con)

I am sure that my hon. Friend will remember being on the Back Benches and sitting in statutory instrument Committees in which we had no ability whatsoever to change the legislation going through, because it was driven by the European Union. This is about taking back control by giving democratic authority to this place. Furthermore, on things such as maternity leave, minimum wage, annual leave, product safety and international regulations we are already doing better than the EU minimum standards. This Government will promise to keep those standards and, in many cases, increase them.

Ms Ghani

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There has been a lot of misinformation about the environment. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has committed to maintain or enhance standards. He is right that we had very little say over positions taken in Brussels, but now, in the Bill, those decisions are taken by the devolved authorities. That will remain devolved and they will have a say, so why would they want to give away that power?

Ian Blackford (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (SNP)

The Minister spoke of taking back control, but the harsh reality is that the Government are taking back control from the Scottish Parliament. Yesterday we heard about the UK Government enacting section 35 to strike out a Bill of the Scottish Parliament. The Scotland Act 2016 contains the Sewel convention, which requires the UK Government to obtain the consent of the Scottish Parliament when they are acting in devolved matters. The Scottish Government are not giving their consent. What is good for the goose is good for the gander. Why should the Scottish Government not have the right to veto this Bill, which tramples over devolution and our laws in a way that we do not consent to?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Roger Gale)

Order. Could I gently say to the Minister that in order to facilitate Hansard and hon. Members seeking to hear, it would be helpful if she could address the microphone rather than the Back Benches?

Ms Ghani

My apologies, Mr Deputy Speaker.

The question is, why would the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) not take the power that the Scottish Government will be given through this Bill when it comes to devolved matters, to look at the EU laws and see whether they want to maintain them or enhance them for their own people? Why would they want to reject the power that they have been offered through this Bill? We remain fully committed to the Sewel convention. It is an essential element of the devolution settlement. The UK Government continue to seek legislative consent for Bills that interact with devolution. The right hon. Member’s argument does not make any sense. My worry is that Scottish Government do not want the powers because then they will have to exercise them. I know it is a little bit of work, but it is worth doing.

This Bill provides the opportunity to improve the competitiveness of the UK economy while maintaining high standards. It will ensure that the Government can more easily amend, revoke or replace retained EU law, so that the Government can create legislation that better suits the UK. This programme of reform must be done. The people of the UK did not vote for Brexit with the expectation that nearly a decade later, politicians in Westminster would continually rehash old and settled arguments, as those on the Opposition Benches so love to do. We must push on and seize the opportunities that Brexit provides. That will ensure that our economy is dynamic and agile and can support advances in technology and science.

Geraint Davies (Swansea West) (Lab/Co-op)

On agility, the Minister will know that the majority of the thousands of rules that need to be changed are in the environmental area. Does she think it is a good idea that civil servants are completely distracted and focused on the changes to these rules when we have one in four people in food poverty, 63,000 people dying a year due to poor air quality, sewage pouring into our seas and crabs dying off the north-east coast? Would it not be better if the civil servants and the Government tackled those problems rather than going down a rabbit hole and inventing worse standards than the EU, such as trying to get to World Health Organisation air quality standards by 2040, which the EU is trying to get to by 2030?

Ms Ghani

I think many people coming into the debate today think that this is the start of something, but this process has been in place for more than 18 months, and DEFRA has committed to maintain or enhance standards. The constant misinformation given out over what is happening on the environment is simply incorrect. DEFRA has already taken decisive action to reform areas of retained EU law and it already has flagship legislation on our statute book, including the Environment Act 2021, the Fisheries Act 2020 and the Agriculture Act 2020, all on powers that the SNP wants to give back to Brussels. The Environment Act strengthens our environmental protections while respecting our international obligations. It is simply incorrect to suggest that the Government will be weakening any of those protections. The Environment Act has set new legally binding targets, including to halt and reverse nature’s decline. Those targets, with oversight from the Office for Environmental Protection, will ensure that any reform to retained EU law delivers positive environmental outcomes. DEFRA will also conduct proportionate analysis of the expected impacts, so it is absolutely incorrect to misrepresent this Bill.

Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) (Lab/Co-op)

The hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East (Sir James Duddridge) talked about statutory instrument Committees. I think all of us have sat on statutory instrument Committees, where we know that it is a question of like it or lump it when it comes to what is being proposed. Under this Bill, Ministers will have powers over key issues that our constituents care about. The Minister talks about the dashboard and admits that it still needs to be updated. As a matter of good democratic practice, will she give us, here and now, today, the exact number of laws covered by this Bill, so Members of this House can at least have some sense of the task that they are voting for? If she cannot tell us how many laws are covered, it is definitely not clear to us how any of us can influence them.

Ms Ghani

The hon. Member was very astute in Committee, and we spent many hours together discussing this. The dashboard is public. It has had more than 100,000 views to date. I was on it only last night. It has thousands of laws on it, and it will be updated again this month. There is a process within each Department, which is why a unit has been established to work with each Department across Whitehall. Every EU law that is identified will be put on the dashboard. So it is public, it is accessible, and all the information is out there.

I must just respond to another point that the hon. Member raised, once again, about scrutiny in this place, because it is being misrepresented—[Interruption.] Unfortunately, it is. The Bill will follow the usual channels for when laws are being either amended or revoked. The Leaders of the two Houses will meet and the business managers will take a decision. The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee in the House of Lords has already said that it is comfortable with the way the Bill will progress and the laws will be scrutinised, and the European Statutory Instruments Committee has said that it is comfortable with the way the laws will be scrutinised and assessed. So there is a process in place, as there was for a no-deal Brexit. The crunch is: if you do not like Brexit and if you did not like the way the Brexit vote that took place, you are not going to like any elements of this Bill.

Saqib Bhatti (Meriden) (Con)

Just before that intervention, the Minister was talking about the environment. Is it not the case that Members on this side of the House have delivered the Environment Act, that we are perfectly capable of making our own laws and delivering for the British people and that we do not need guidance from the European Union, unlike those on the Opposition Benches?

Ms Ghani

Absolutely. We on this side of the House have done a tremendous amount of work that did not require us to be directed by bureaucrats in Brussels. This gives me a great opportunity to point out all the fantastic work that we have achieved.

First of all, I must just say again that we will be maintaining and enhancing environmental standards. I want to touch on a list of things that we have achieved, especially on animal welfare, which has been a huge priority for Government Members. We have had the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Act 2021 and the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act 2022. Since 2010, we have had new regulations on minimum standards for meat and chickens, banned the use of conventional battery cages for laying hens, made CCTV mandatory in slaughterhouses in England, made microchipping mandatory for dogs in 2015, modernised our licensing system for a range of activities such as dog breeding and pet sales, protected service animals via Finn’s law, banned the commercial third-party sale of puppies and kittens via Lucy’s law, passed the Wild Animals in Circuses Act 2019 and led work to implement humane trapping standards. Our Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill will further the rights of animals outside the EU, including the banning of export of live animals for slaughter and fattening. It is remarkable how much we can achieve when we are left to our own devices.

Caroline Lucas rose—

Hilary Benn (Leeds Central) (Lab) rose—

Ms Ghani

I will just make a little bit of progress.

As I have said, the sunset clause is necessary and is the quickest and most effective way to pursue retained EU law reform. It is only right to set the sunset and the revocation of inherited EU laws as the default position. It ensures that we are proactively choosing to preserve EU laws only when they are in the best interests of the UK. It ensures that outdated and unneeded laws are quickly and easily repealed. It will also give the Government a clear timeline in which to finish the most important tasks. Some retained EU laws are legally inoperable, and removing them from the statute book easily is good democratic governance. Requiring the Government to undergo complex and unnecessary parliamentary processes to remove retained EU law that is no longer necessary or operable, and can more easily be removed, is not good governance.

Mike Amesbury (Weaver Vale) (Lab)

Surely parliamentary sovereignty is giving Members of Parliament control, not the Executive or bureaucrats in Whitehall.

Ms Ghani

The reality is that Ministers take decisions all the time, and there is a process in place where laws are amended or updated if there is a significant policy change. The same policy process will be in place. If the hon. Member is not comfortable with Conservative Ministers taking those decisions or with the SI process that is already in place, fundamentally he is just not comfortable with the decisions we are taking because we are taking these rules from Europe and placing them here on our UK statute book. That is a different argument altogether.

Vicky Ford (Chelmsford) (Con)

I want to react to what I think I heard the Minister saying when she suggested that those of us who did not support Brexit in the referendum would not support this Bill. That is not the case. As someone who did not vote for Brexit but who absolutely recognises that democratic choice and respects the referendum, I do support the premise of the Bill. We need to look at the EU law, although there are elements of the Bill we could improve on to give some certainty, and I hope that I will be called to speak later.

Ms Ghani

I would not want to misrepresent my right hon. Friend’s position. The point I was making was that Opposition Members who have complained about the Bill have a particular position that has been long held because of the outcome of the vote that took place.

We believe it is right that the public should know how much legislation there is derived from the EU, and know about the progress the Government are making. For that reason, we have published a public dashboard—perhaps colleagues would like to go on to the site for a moment—containing a list of UK Government retained EU law. The site will also document the Government’s progress on reforming retained EU law and will be updated regularly to reflect plans and actions taken. It will be updated again this month. I was slightly inaccurate earlier: there have in fact been 148,727 visitors to that site. It is not as if people are in the dark. There are many opportunities to be aware of what we are doing.

Caroline Lucas rose—

Ms Ghani

I will give way to the hon. Lady because she has been so patient.

Caroline Lucas

I am grateful to the Minister for finally giving way. She is suggesting that those of us who oppose the Bill are opposing it for some kind of ideological reason. I draw her attention to the words of the chair of the Office for Environmental Protection, who herself said:

“Worryingly, the Bill does not offer any safety net, there is no requirement to maintain existing levels of environmental protection”.

Not only that, there is actually a requirement not to go on and make the legislation stronger. That is written into the Bill.

On the issue of certainty, I do not know how the Minister can stand there and pretend that this is about certainty when businesses have no idea which laws will be in or out and when she does not know how many laws are on her dashboard.

On democracy, when we were in the European Union we at least had Members of the European Parliament who had a say over these things. When the laws come back here, we have no say over them at all; it is all with Ministers. Is that what she means when she says this is supposed to be a good Bill that is full of opportunities from Brexit?

Ms Ghani

The hon. Lady has got the meme for her Facebook page. Unfortunately, she wholly misrepresents what the Bill is doing. Environmental standards will be maintained or enhanced. At the moment, the laws that come down from Brussels on the environment and land cover everything from the Arctic to the Mediterranean. This Bill is a great opportunity to maintain, to enhance and to review what more we can do to make things better for our environment across the UK. We already have flagship legislation in place: the Environment Act 2021, the Fisheries Act 2020 and the Agriculture Act 2020. The Office for Environmental Protection has been fully established to enforce those elevated environmental rules and standards. The water framework directive covers our water. Instead of misrepresenting what the Bill does, why not take the opportunity to ensure that we enhance provision for what we are not maintaining?

Alexander Stafford (Rother Valley) (Con)

Listening to the Opposition, we might think that the EU is the land of milk and honey when it comes to the environment. This is the same EU that put fossil fuels and gas in last year’s green taxonomy. Getting out of the EU allows us to have our own taxonomies and to make far greener efforts than naming gas as a green technology, which it is not.

Ms Ghani

We can make sure that we have a better focus on renewables, and we can take the decisions that work best for our communities. Fundamentally, we are maintaining and enhancing. We must not forget that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has been able to introduce substantial law on water, animals and land. I have covered the dashboard, and I assume colleagues will now be pouncing on it.

Departments have been actively working on their retained EU law reform plans for well over 18 months to ensure that appropriate action is taken before the sunset date. Additional work to lift obsolete laws will inevitably be slow, but that work will continue. We cannot allow the reform of retained EU law to remain merely a possibility. The sunset provision guarantees that retained EU law will not become an ageing relic dragging down the UK. It incentivises the genuine review and reform of retained EU law in a way that works best for the UK. What reforms are desirable will differ from policy area to policy area.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Dean Russell), the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, said on Second Reading, the environment is one of the Government’s top priorities. We will ensure that environmental law works for the UK and improves our environmental outcomes. As I said, we will be maintaining and enhancing. The Bill does not change the Environment Act, and we remain committed to delivering our legally binding target to halt nature’s decline by 2030.

Fleur Anderson (Putney) (Lab)

Many constituents have been in touch with me with their concerns about habitat protection, maternity leave protection and other issues. The National Archives says that 1,300 additional pieces of legislation are not necessarily in scope. Can the Minister give more clarity on how many pieces of legislation this Bill will cover?

Ms Ghani

We are working across Departments to cover laws that will either be assimilated, amended or revoked. We are finding that a number of those laws are obsolete, and the fact we are still identifying them is good. We are putting them on the dashboard as soon as we can, and we will update the dashboard again this month. It is right that we conduct this exercise to know where we are and to ensure that we refer to UK law where we assimilate, and that we amend it to improve the situation for our communities and businesses. If the laws are not operable in the UK, we can revoke them.

The hon. Lady mentioned maternity rights, which is one of the unfortunate misinformation campaigns on this Bill. I struggle with the fact that colleagues are sharing misinformation, as people who may be vulnerable are made more vulnerable by such misinformation. The UK has one of the best workers’ rights records in the world, and our high standards were never dependent on our membership of the EU.

Indeed, the UK provides far stronger protections for workers than are required by EU law. For example, UK workers are entitled to 5.6 weeks of annual leave compared with the EU requirement of four weeks—we are doing better here. We provide a year of maternity leave, with the option to convert it to shared parental leave. The EU requirement for maternity leave is just 14 weeks—we are doing better here. The right to flexible working for all employees was introduced in the UK in the early 2000s, whereas the EU agreed its rules only recently and offers the right only to parents and carers—we are doing better here. The UK introduced two weeks’ paid paternity leave back in 2003. Who can remember then? The EU legislated for this only recently—once again, we are doing better here. I ask Members please not to hold up Brussels as a bastion of virtue, as that is most definitely not the case.

Stella Creasy

Will the Minister give way?

Ms Ghani

I will make a little progress.

Significant reform will be needed in other areas, which is why the powers in the Bill are necessary. The people of the UK expect and deserve positive regulatory reform to boost the economy. Via this Bill, we will deliver reform across more than 300 policy areas. We cannot be beholden to a body of law that grows more obsolete by the day just because some in this House see the EU as the fount of all wisdom.

Robin Millar (Aberconwy) (Con)

My hon. Friend is setting out a very powerful case. On the one hand, she is making the case that in Britain we have many laws that are superior and offer greater benefits and protections to residents, and on the other hand, she is making the self-evident point that we should unshackle ourselves from laws that will become increasingly historical, some of which were assimilated into British statute without scrutiny.

Will the devolved Administrations be able to preserve retained EU law where it relates to devolved areas of competence?

Ms Ghani

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If the law is already devolved, the devolved Administrations have the ability to assimilate, amend or revoke, which is why some of the interventions from Opposition Members are slightly absurd. Why would they not want the opportunity to have a review? If the devolved Administrations want to assimilate the law, they can. If they want to amend it, they can. If they wish to revoke it, they have that choice. Why would the devolved Administrations not want to embrace the powers this Bill will give them?

Hywel Williams (Arfon) (PC)

The Minister talks about the devolved Administrations hanging on to their powers. Will she ensure that the dashboard on retained EU law is updated to identify which legislation is reserved and which is devolved, as well as how legislation in Wales might be affected?

Ms Ghani

Yes. The hon. Gentleman may have missed the earlier part of my speech. Government officials have been working with devolved Administration officials for more than 18 months, and that work will continue. When we discover an EU law, we put it on the dashboard. Of course, there are conversations with officials in the devolved authorities, and it is important that we continue to work closely with them.

I was going to say more about the UK’s tremendous work on the environment, because I saw some dreadful, inappropriate coverage in the press, including nonsense about marine habitats. I have just had some information from DEFRA about its fantastic work in Montreal on marine. We have done more work on environmental standards and status outside the EU, including in protected areas such Dogger Bank, to enhance protection by 2030. We are also integrating our ocean and coastal mapping.

Unfortunately, colleagues who are uncomfortable with the Bill have also peddled misinformation about our water bodies and water standards. There is an assumption that the target is being moved, which is absolutely incorrect. Targets are not being moved. It is incorrect to say that the target for the good state of England’s water bodies has been changed—it is still 2027, as outlined in the water framework directive. Hopefully that will cancel out any other misinformation on this stuff being shared on social media sites.

Reform will be needed in other significant areas, which is why the powers in the Bill are necessary. It has been suggested that the Bill will somehow be a bonfire of workers’ rights. We are proud of the UK’s excellent record on labour standards, and we have one of the best workers’ rights records in the world. Our high standards were never dependent on our membership of the EU. Indeed, the UK provides far stronger protections for workers than are required by EU law. I have already spoken about maternity rights, but we can also look at maternity cover, holiday pay and other rights for employees.