Since January, the main focus in Parliament for Labour’s shadow Environment team has been secondary legislation, while we wait for the government to decide they can safely bring back the Agriculture and Fisheries Bills for their next stages without fear of losing crucial votes.
This is low profile, detailed, technical stuff, but it has many direct impacts on people’s day to day lives and a vital role in regulating industry.
Most EU legislation operates at this level, so the EU Withdrawal Act (which started out in 2017 as the so-called Great Repeal Bill) has already provided for EU legislation to be retained on the UK statute book at the point we leave. But every single piece of that legislation still has to be amended in multiple ways to legally work outside the EU.
Functions currently performed by the Commission, or other EU bodies will need to be carried out by UK bodies. These can be extremely complex and demanding, eg just in my area, we have scrutinised amending regulations covering things like access to expert scientific advice, rules about safety and pollution control, guidance on the format for labels and consumer rights, pet and horse passports, systems to track meat and plant material and control the spread of diseases, what fertilisers and pesticides are allowed and controls on their use, bathing water quality – the blue flag scheme for beaches, controlling alien invasive species – Japanese knotweed or grey squirrels.
The scrutiny process is highly unsatisfactory. The government has recruited thousands of extra civil servants and lawyers and spent £100 million on consultants. The result of their work is being dumped on Parliament in hundreds of densely worded complex, technical documents, running to dozens of pages with multiple cross-references to existing EU Directives and Regulations. If it’s debated at all, this type of legislation typically gets just 90 minutes in a committee.
Often we are given only a few days notice of a debate – sometimes only getting confirmation in Thursday’s business statement that we will have a debate the following Monday. One of these is the REACH Regulations, now on its second version, after the original had to be withdrawn when mistakes were found. This sets out 64 pages of amendments to all the detailed rules under which chemical substances are registered and controlled.
In most cases, the government has not formally consulted industry and individuals affected or even conducted an impact assessment – because they claim they are just maintaining the existing regime. But of course, this is simply not true: functions and powers which are exercised in the EU will transfer to UK Ministers, frequently with much less scrutiny and control than applies in the EU.
There are also major gaps emerging. EU legislation is set within broad frameworks. It has a preamble covering principles such as the polluter should pay, or the precautionary principle. The amending legislation does not carry this through and does not say how we will ensure dynamic alignment with the EU, or the continued participation in EU agencies that Jeremy Corbyn’s letter to the PM on 6th February called for. We need to know not just that we will not fall behind improvements in EU standards and protections, but that the UK will be able to lead the way and set the high standards we want the EU to follow.
Michael Gove claims his draft Environment Principles and Governance Bill and proposed new watchdog will fill the gap. But it has been virtually universally criticised as being too weak to hold government and other public bodies to account on such important issues as reducing air pollution, increasing recycling, or maintaining drinking water quality.
So, there is far too much work still to be done to be ready for Brexit and everyone knows it’s inevitable the government will have to apply for an extension of Article 50. What’s more, the work of disentangling ourselves from the vast web of the EU and making sure we have adequate and fully accountable systems in every area of government will continue for many years yet, dominating the work of Parliament and making it extremely difficult to achieve important social and economic progress.
Despite all of this and the recent depressing resignations, we have a great Labour team in Parliament and we have still been able to develop excellent policy proposals – eg the Women’s conference announcements on flexible working from day one, and sustainable funding for women’s refuges, our public ownership plans for rail and water, investment in a green transition, a plan for sustainable and healthy food, and major steps forward with our animal welfare plan.
So, in or out of the EU, we are ready for the task of rebuilding Britain from the wreckage of Tory austerity.
Labour’s 5 Brexit demands (Jeremy Corbyn’s letter to the PM of 6th February):
– A permanent and comprehensive UK wide customs union, including alignment with the customs code, a common external tariff and a UK say on future EU trade deals.
– Close alignment with the single market, with shared institutions and dispute resolution.
– Dynamic alignment on rights and protections, keeping pace as a minimum and allowing the UK to lead the way.
– Clear commitments on participation in EU agencies and funding programmes, including the environment, education and industrial regulation.
– Unambiguous agreements on future security, with access to the European Arrest Warrant and shared database.
This is an edited version of the talk I gave at the SW Herts CLP Conference on 23rd February.