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Dianne Hayter on what to expect from Labour Peers and others in the Lords during scrutiny of the UK Internal Market Bill

It’s hard to imagine how an urgent but necessary piece of primary legislation can have been so poorly drafted that it has met with opposition by so many different people and organisations. Yet our government has managed to do just that in its attempt to ensure we have a workable internal market across the four UK nations once the Brexit transition period ends on 31st December.

In doing so it has upset not only our former EU partners but virtually every lawyer in the land (including its own chief legal advisor and the relevant Lords Minister, both of whom in turn resigned), the parliaments and governments of Scotland and Wales, and those working hard to solve the Northern Ireland conundrum.

Much play has rightly been made of the fact that the government is seeking to renege on the Treaty that Boris Johnson signed earlier this year, tearing up the Northern Ireland protocol, and gifting itself the right to disregard national and international law. This part of the bill has attracted colourful speculation about how the Lords might respond and it is doubtful that it will survive our thorough scrutiny.

But there are other major elements of the government’s proposals where changes are needed, on both devolution and the competitive framework for our post- transition market.

Despite ministers’ claims that the bill will strengthen the integrity of the Union whilst respecting and upholding the devolution settlements, it would in fact alter the devolved governance arrangements. “A significant constitutional” move, according to the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, creating new reserved powers – and all without any prior discussion with those whom it seeks to reign back. Meanwhile, the Lords Delegated Powers Committee is horrified by what it calls ‘extraordinary’ and ‘unprecedented’ powers that allow ministers to amend or repeal parts of the bill – or indeed any Act of Parliament or statutory instrument.

Little wonder the Scottish Parliament promptly voted by 90 to 28 against granting legislative consent; or that the Senedd’s ‘Legislative Consent Memorandum’ concluded that “unless the Bill is substantially amended” the Welsh Government would not be able to do so either. Indeed, the possibility of taking through a bill with major implications for devolution without the consent of either of those parliaments should be of great concern to a government that claims it wants to safeguard the Union.

Instead, the UK government takes state aid to itself, gifting powers to a Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) that is unrepresentative of the devolved nations. It is surely inappropriate for a non-ministerial department of the UK Government, whose existing functions relate to reserved matters, to be given a wider role without reform of its own governance.

The bill also gifts UK minsters powers on mutual recognition, with little input from the devolved administrations. So, if England chose to import nasty chicken meat, consumers in Aberdeen and Abergavenny could find it on their supermarket shelves, without any say by the devolved governments. Perhaps we should adopt a binding ‘non-regression’ proviso before we start any other talks.

The CMA as presently constituted is inadequate, not simply by failing to represent all four nations, but in having neither the structure nor a clear duty to place consumers at the heart of its work. The word ‘consumer’ is notably absent from a ministerial letter to peers on 1st October – and you have to get to clause 32 of the bill (dealing only with advice) before any mention of the impact of measures: “on prices, the quality of goods and services or choice for Consumers”.

Competition works best when it serves consumers, prevents rip-offs, and promotes fair trading and growth. Intervention exists to get a market working for consumers and should be hard-wired into the CMA’s DNA.

Labour will be working with others from all corners of the House to write amendments into the bill that reflect our concerns and those of the four nations, and to enable the CMA to protect consumers and promote competition across its expanded remit. And if the offending clauses that facilitate the breaking of international law are not pulled by the government itself, we will do all we can to ensure the Commons has ample opportunity for a rethink on proposals that shame our country.

Baroness Dianne Hayter is Labour’s Shadow Deputy Leader in the House of Lords and speaks from the frontbench on constitutional affairs, devolved issues, and consumer rights, She tweets @HayteratLords

Published 16th October 2020

Market movement

Dianne Hayter on what to expect from Labour Peers and others in the Lords during scrutiny of the UK Internal Market Bill

Wilf Stevenson on the dire impact on jobs and communities of the government’s approach to Covid and the hospitality sector

‘Community’ can often centre on the hospitality sector, whether the pub where locals come together, a bar where a group of people feel most accepted, or a neighbourhood or village restaurant. Exactly the sort of businesses that are most affected by the government’s latest measures to try to halt the spread of Covid-19. With a growing number of cases, the tightening of restrictions, and the ending of the furlough scheme, the sector is facing tough times. Indeed, UKHospitality is predicting an extra 560,000 redundancies by the end of the year.

The new measures introduce the ‘rule of six’ for hospitality venues, while businesses must “take all reasonable steps” to stop people singing and dancing, and limit music noise levels. Along with targeting specific behaviours, there is also a broad year-long timeframe and wide enforcement powers. On public health matters, Labour continues to be broadly supportive of the government’s approach to Covid. But the restrictions being placed on the hospitality sector must come with additional financial support; as well as incentives to retain affected jobs.

While any government would find it challenging during a pandemic to find the right balance between necessary public health measures and much needed economic support, the current one – from Boris Johnson down – has acted with serial incompetence while trying to do so. People were told to go back into the workplace while track and trace wasn’t functioning properly, and to eat out while the NHS App wasn’t ready. Businesses meanwhile were given no indication of what would replace furlough.

Many pub landlords, and bar and restaurant owners believe redundancies and closures are but a few weeks away. When Chancellor Rishi Sunak told this week’s Conservative Party Conference “I can’t protect every job and every business”, the sector would have seen that as a direct address. Accepting mass unemployment, as ministers are doing, is not just the wrong choice for hospitality business and workers but for our whole economy and society.

The government’s incompetence extends to the Job Support Scheme. Set up supposedly to stop employees being laid off by covering a percentage of their wages, serious questions have arisen about its effectiveness. Indeed, the scheme’s design makes it more cost-effective for some struggling businesses to lay off half their staff rather than pay £700 a month for each job they wish to save. Some employers may find themselves having to ‘flip a coin’ with livelihoods and sack one staff member for every two on their books.

Labour has called for a Job Recovery Scheme, to provide businesses with proper incentives to keep staff on; as well as a review into the 10pm curfew. We have also called for the business grants underspend to be brought together into a ‘Hospitality and High Streets Fightback Fund’, so that local authorities can target financial support at those in distress.

The hospitality sector is approaching a bleak run up to Christmas, and the government needs to recognise this urgently and change course. A failure to do so, will not only see the loss of many businesses and thousands of jobs but a hollowing out of communities and all the misery that this will bring.

Lord Wilf Stevenson of Balmacara is Shadow BEIS Minister in the House of Lords. He tweets @WilfStevenson 

Published 8th October 2020

Closing time

Wilf Stevenson on the dire impact on jobs and communities of the government’s approach to Covid and the hospitality sector

Simon Haskel on worrying developments for the future safety and security of UK chemicals

REACH is the registration and testing database run by the European Chemicals Agency (ECA) that ensures chemicals are safe. The CE mark is a conformity assessed quality standard for the same purpose. This system has worked well for many years and has ensured a high standard of safety, security and comfort for the British public. It has also helped protect the environment by laying down how certain products should be processed, stored and disposed of. Enforcing all of these regulations is a large part of the cost and requires many years to train the staff, set up the system and process the data. 

Because it is working well, industry would like to continue with the same arrangements post-Brexit by seeking associate membership of the agency. Our government, presumably for ideological reasons, has said ‘no’ – with a plan for the Health and Safety Executive to both take over the existing registrations and process new ones. The ECA employs 600 people with an annual budget of £110million pounds.

This compares with a thirteen million pound a year budget for the proposed UK version, which will employ some 50 staff.  There will also be a new UK conformity assessed quality standard to replace the existing CE mark. Ministers have agreed that this would be a significant cost and burden to industry. And all for no gain to our safety and security – even though DEFRA have said the existing registrations held by UK business’ will be carried over. But the need to register with the UK system will remain and could become an additional bureaucratic barrier to our future trade with Europe.

In a letter to MPs, the government admits there will be significant additional burdens to the industry in having to comply with the UK system while insisting that the benefits of having control of our own laws outweighs the costs. People in industry say that many small firms may not be able to absorb the tens of thousands of pounds that might come with extra registering and testing.

Also, many details are held in confidential business arrangements and will require so called ‘letters of access’, which again come at a price.  Data sharing could remove the need for these letters because the information is on record at the ECA in Helsinki. A draft agreement seeks to conclude such a deal by the end of next year, but the government admits there may be difficulties. One medium sized firm that I know would have to register over 400 products. A spokesman for BASF, meanwhile, said their UK company had about 1,200 substances to register and the cost would be about £60million pounds.

I have also learnt that people in industry are now worried about the breakdown in trust caused by the manner in which the EU negotiations are taking place. As a result, the UK system may not be recognized - forcing businesses to maintain registrations in both the EU and the UK to avoid both supply chain difficulties and the risk of making some products commercially non-viable. 

Ministers say their priority is maintaining jobs, as the threat of mass unemployment looms. One way to do this is to seek and ensure associate membership of the European system and so rebuild our relationship with our EU neighbours. Doing so would also allow industry to concentrate on recovery and the financial problems that many companies now face.

Lord Simon Haskel is a Labour Peer. He tweets @simon_haskel

Published 16th September 2020

Out of reach

Simon Haskel on worrying developments for the future safety and security of UK chemicals

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