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Standards not privileges

Dianne Hayter on cross-party moves in the Lords to guard against those in government looking to water down hard-fought for rights and protections

In planning how to take the UK out of the European Union without losing a swathe of current legislation, the government rightly set about bringing onto our statute book the ‘exact same rules and laws the day after exit’ as were in force the day before. It was this intention that enabled Labour to support the principles of the EU Withdrawal Bill, even though our version of this Bill would have looked very different. The detail of the legislation before us, however, reveals it doesn’t achieve that laudable aim.

At present, many of our rules and regulations emanate from Brussels – 80% in the case of environment law, along with others protecting consumers and workers. So, although these are not written into primary legislation (i.e. Acts of Parliament) they are effectively ‘underpinned’ by virtue of our membership of the EU and cannot be weakened by the UK government.

Once these rules and regulations are brought over by the ‘secondary legislation’ method chosen for this Bill, there is no guarantee of changes being made without a new Act of Parliament. That means no safeguards against deregulation-obsessed Ministers looking to remove or dilute consumer protections, environmental standards or workplace rights. Liam Fox has described current rules as making it “too difficult to fire staff”, while Boris Johnson thinks workers’ rights stemming from the EU are “back-breaking”. A particularly inept description from the Foreign Secretary given that such rights protect workers’ health and safety – including their backs!

It is imperative, therefore, that any use of secondary legislation to write existing rules into domestic law is ring-fenced – so it can’t be weakened later on, without fresh primary legislation. A cross-party amendment tabled by myself, former Conservative MEP Lord Kirkhope and LibDem Baroness Smith of Newnham (both of whom know a lot about EU regulations), and crossbencher Lord Warner seeks to ensure this. Without such changes to the Bill, workers’ rights (on TUPE, working hours or holiday pay), the ‘polluter pays’ principle for the environment, or safe product standards could all be at risk.

These protections are not just good in themselves – they matter for trade. Non-tariff barriers are a far bigger hurdle to this than financial duties. That is why Michel Barnier warned that a comprehensive trade agreement (of the sort the Prime Minister wants) would require a ‘level playing field’ between the UK and EU. We could not sell them our cars or hairdryers by virtue of lower safety standards or forcing workers to work around the clock. We need regulatory alignment on consumer, environment, employment and food safety standards to be able to sell into their markets.

Donald Trump’s Commerce Secretary has warned that a UK-US trade deal would be contingent on our having greater alignment with its regulatory regime. This would include lower food safety and animal health standards – including hormone-fed beef and chlorine-washed chicken. (Although such a deal seems unlikely, with a more protectionist congress and limited time before the ‘purdah’ period leading up to the 2020 Presidential election).

Fears about diluted rights and protections, of course, go beyond Parliament. The public strongly supports current standards on reducing greenhouse gases, binding renewable targets, the working time directive, and consumers’ cancellation rights. And an Opinium survey for the IPPR reveals that Leave voters and Remainers alike want to retain the rights they currently enjoy.

That says something about the kind of country we are and people’s priorities for a post-EU economy. There isn’t a call for lower working rights and greater exploitation to produce cheaper goods, nor for environmental degradation or to allow rip-off companies to take advantage of consumers. Nothing about the EU Referendum vote entailed any of these losses. That is why there is such strong support building for our amendment across all quarters of the Lords.

Baroness Dianne Hayter of Kentish Town is Shadow Brexit Minister. She tweets @HayteratLords

Published 26th February 2018

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