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