HomePolitical leadershipThe government’s Retained EU Law Bill u-turn was good and bad news

The government’s Retained EU Law Bill u-turn was good and bad news

This post is by Lord Krebs.

Last week both the left and right wing press ran the story of the government’s u-turn on the Retained EU Law (REUL) Bill currently passing through the Lords. On the right it was seen as a betrayal of true Brexit ideology, on the left it was viewed, with relief, as an outbreak of sanity.

The change the government made to the bill between the committee and report stages in the Lords was this: the ‘sunset clause’, which set the default as ditching all 4,900 (and counting) retained EU laws by 31 December 2023, was replaced by a clause which retains most of the laws until June 2026 and lists roughly 600 destined to be lost at the end of this year. Some, but by no means all, of these 600 are redundant or irrelevant. The minister, Lord Benyon, drew attention to the example of setting the fishing opportunities for anchovy in the Bay of Biscay for the 2011-12 fishing season as a redundant law.

This seems like a hint of good news. At least there will be time to look more carefully at the over 4,000 remaining laws before deciding whether or not to ditch them.

But it is also could be seen as bad news. The bill still gives ministers total discretion over which laws to get rid of, without a requirement to consult parliament or appropriate experts and other stakeholders. Furthermore, it contains a provision that prohibits any changes that would “increase the regulatory burden”. Ministers have been unable to explain precisely how this will work, but it is interpreted as a signal for deregulation.

An important amendment has strong cross party support
My amendment to the bill, which passed with cross party support on 15 May, would commit the government to three things relating to environmental protection and food standards.

First, non-regression: any future changes to retained EU Law could not water down environmental or food standards, or breach any international agreements on environmental protection that the UK has signed.

Second, expert input: any future changes could not be introduced by ministers without consulting relevant experts, including the Office for Environmental Protection and the Food Standards Agency, as well as their counterparts elsewhere in the UK.

Third, transparency: ministers would be obliged to publish the advice they have received from experts and explain how they have responded to it.

The amendment was signed by peers from all three major parties in the Lords and was also supported by the two Green Party peers.

In my introduction to the amendment, I said that it was not designed to block any future changes, but rather it was aimed at supporting the government in building on its commitments to improve our environment and maintain high food standards.  It would help to ensure that, in making any changes to retained EU Law, decisions would be based on the best available advice.

In responding, the minister, Lord Benyon, who is seen in the Lords as an excellent advocate for the environment, said that the government could not accept my amendment because it was both too burdensome and unnecessary.  As my crossbench colleague Lord Kerr of Kinlochard muttered to me when we shuffled through the Division Lobby “Logically, it can’t be both at the same time”.  If it’s too burdensome it can’t also be unnecessary.  If it’s unnecessary it can’t be too burdensome.

What will happen next?  The bill returns to the House of Commons on 24 May. The Commons may overturn the amendment, along with other amendments that strengthened parliamentary scrutiny of any future changes. The bill will then enter a stage of ‘ping pong’ where the House of Lords will have to decide how much further it can push the government, and whether a compromise can be negotiated.

Our role, as an unelected second chamber, is to suggest revisions to improve legislation, but the Commons has the final say. I am sure that colleagues among the crossbenchers, on the Opposition and Lib Dem benches, as well as some Conservative backbenchers, will want us to work together to do our best to secure these important protections for our environment and our food that derive from the EU laws we have retained.

Image: House of Lords Chamber © Parliamentary copyright

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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.