I spoke against the EU Retained Law Bill today, arguing the Tories once again putting ideology before common sense. The principle of retained law was that we would retain laws originating from our EU membership – reviewing and amending legislation over time. But a ‘sunset clause’ in the Bill would see all 2,400 laws dropped next December unless agreed otherwise – risking environmental protection, health and safety, workers’ rights and more.
Read and watch my speech below:
In last Thursday’s business questions, there was some discussion about whether the Bill should be proceeding at this time. It is a good question not simply because of the uncertainty caused by the latest episode in the Tory leadership soap opera, which of course reflects the deep divisions that have torn that party apart in recent years, for which the country has paid the cost, but because the Bill comes from the same thinking that drove the mini-Budget. It puts ideology before common sense, ignoring evidence, refusing advice, dismissing experts, and causing huge damage to the economy and to families, in pursuit of what Conservative Members described as a libertarian experiment. That approach was honed in the referendum campaign. Let us remember the way the Office for Budget Responsibility projection of the hit on our GDP was dismissed. However, as the former Governor of the Bank of England pointed out last week, in 2016, Britain’s economy was 90% the size of Germany’s and now it is less than 70%. That is where putting ideology before common sense leaves us.
The point is not to reopen the Brexit debate, despite the best attempts of some Government Members to frame every discussion on the EU in that way. We are not rejoining the EU. We are not rejoining the single market or the customs union, although major Tory donors have made that case this week.
The point is that we should learn from our mistakes, but the Bill doubles down on putting ideology before common sense, and which side he falls on will be a real test for the new Prime Minister.
Let us remember why we have retained EU law—it is because the Conservative Government proposed it as a sensible way of dealing with the practical problem of the legal vacuum that we would face if we left the EU without it. Hundreds and hundreds of laws that are part of the fabric of our lives would otherwise have fallen without proper consideration. We should remember —and the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds) made this point—that often those laws were driven through the EU by the UK; they were shaped by us; they were laws we needed.
The principle of retained law was that, over time, we could review the legislation and, if we chose, update, amend or drop it, but there are 2,400 laws. The madness of this Bill, but also its central purpose, is the sunset clause, which will see all retained law expire next December if it has not been incorporated in UK law. Of all people, the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) warned about that quite forcefully as an ardent Brexiteer.
The Bill is the brainchild of a Secretary of State who is no longer in government. We know he faced significant opposition in Cabinet when he proposed it, and for good reason: it forces every Government Department to prioritise, above everything, the review of retained law over the next 14 months, or lose it. Is that really the priority for Government? We have an economy that is tanking as a result of their actions, a cost of living crisis that will break thousands of families, a war in Europe and a climate emergency, but in the face of all of that, the Bill tells every Department that its priority is to review retained EU law. It is complete madness.
What is at risk? In a cost of living crisis, with prices rising and businesses struggling, uncertainty will push costs even higher. The regulations and standards that we risk losing at the end of next year, as civil servants are stretched with the real business of government and struggling with the issues, are necessary for confidence in businesses, purchases and markets. They provide the certainty needed for growth. Without them, we are deliberately damaging investment—who would want to bankroll ventures that might lose their viability or access to markets as regulations are set to change significantly? How do British standards remain high and of good quality if we risk their simply dissolving without consideration either by Ministers or by the House when the sunset clause is triggered?
The legal chaos unleashed by this process is wildly unproductive. By tearing up all these regulations at a time of huge pressure on our public services and Government, the potential for things to be missed, late, or poorly executed is huge. How can businesses be sure of the obligations they need to fulfil in this situation? How can they ensure health and safety standards for their employees? How can they be certain that there will not be legal repercussions for their activities if these frameworks are binned in favour of a Daily Mail headline?
The head of the Government Legal Service from 2014 to 2020—the crucial period in which we debated our departure from the EU—said this weekend that this is
“absolutely ideological and symbolic rather than about real policy…there is no indication of which areas the government is thinking of retaining and which it is getting rid of. So there is no
certainty about what laws we will have and what will replace them. It is a very, very bad way to change and make law…It creates…uncertainty within a very tight, and completely self-imposed timescale.”
Business is clear too—it has enough to be getting on with, protecting jobs and livelihoods, without the Government creating more barriers to their work. The Federation of Small Businesses has said that the Bill adds
“an extra burden to already very difficult trading conditions.”
“A year just isn’t long enough for small businesses”—
the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner made that point well too—
“to work out how their operations will need to change in response to a fundamental shift in the regulatory environment, such as the one proposed by the EU revocation and reform bill.”
As I was saying, through the UK Trade and Business Commission, which draws representatives from every single party in this House, we have heard many frustrations from businesses over the past two years. Those businesses have asked for many things to improve the environment in which they are operating. Not one has said, “Please, ditch EU retained law.” Laws make sense—laws that we have helped to shape, laws that we have often played a key role in creating. Laws, as described by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), protect pensions, prevent carcinogenic materials in cosmetics, protect part-time workers’ conditions and so on. They are not bureaucratic red tape, but basic laws that underpin a civilised society and a good quality of life.
Why chuck everything in a bin and set it alight? Over the past few weeks, in particular, have we not had enough of disrupters in Government? I listened to the new Prime Minister this morning. He talked about placing economic stability and confidence at the heart of the Government’s agenda. He set out priorities in which this Bill does not figure. He said that his Government will
“have integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level.”
If he is serious, he will drop this Bill. Let us legislate with purpose, not for a headline in the Daily Mail. Let us reject this Bill today.