To: Rt Hon Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
From: Angus Robertson MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Constitution, External Affairs and Culture
Congratulations on your new appointment. Despite the circumstances of this letter, I hope that we can find a way to work constructively and respectfully together where our portfolio interests overlap.
I am writing to express again my deep concern and the fundamental opposition of Scottish Ministers to the Retained EU Law (Reform and Revocation) Bill, introduced today by the UK Government. This bill puts at risk the high standards people in Scotland have rightly come to expect from EU membership. You appear to want to row back 47 years of protections in a rush to impose a deregulated, race to the bottom, society and economy. This is clearly at odds with the wishes of the vast majority of the people of Scotland who will be dismayed at the direction the UK Government is taking.
This bill also represents a significant further undermining of devolution. By allowing UK Government ministers to act in policy areas that are devolved, and to do so without the consent of Scottish Ministers or the Scottish Parliament, is in direct contradiction to devolution and, in particular, the Sewel convention which was given statutory footing in the Scotland Act 1998, in 2016. The speed at which the legislation is being pursued – no impact assessment or basic evaluation has been shared with my officials – is nothing short of reckless, compounding the recklessness of the propositions themselves.
In my recent letter to you on 1 September 2022, I made clear my concerns that Brexit ideology, rather than the best interests of our citizens and businesses, appeared to be driving the UK Government approach to this bill. Now that we have received the full print of the bill (disappointingly with less than a day’s notice), it is alarming to see this concern realised.
In June this year you indicated in the House of Commons that only ‘perhaps dozens’ of the EU laws and regulations that were retained following our exit from the EU should be maintained. Indeed, one of the most alarming clauses of the bill is its wholesale ‘sun-setting’ of most of retained EU law by 31 December 2023, whereby these standards and protections would fall away from domestic law and no longer apply. Such a rushed ‘sunset’ date carries an unacceptable risk that vital law, on which the smooth functioning of sectors of the economy and society depends, simply drops off the UK statute book.
Here are just some of the important standards and practices which are woven into our society and which people in this country, quite rightly, take for granted in their daily lives, which you are now putting at risk with this bill’s introduction:
- obligations to label food for allergens to consumers;
- holiday pay, safe limits on working hours and parental leave will all become subject to amendment by a UK Government with an open ambition for deregulation;
- over 100 pieces of legislation ensure the health and welfare of both humans and animals by providing a last line of defence against importing dangerous pests and pathogens;
- laws which, were they to be removed, could result in GMO food and feed being placed on the UK market without any food safety assessment taking place, nor any obligation to label such food for consumers;
- legal limits on chemical contaminants in food, with possible consequences to human health;
- restrictions on use of decontaminants on meat, such as the chlorine washes on chicken, and businesses’ minimum hygiene standards more generally;
- incredibly, protections in relation to the safety and compositional standards of baby foods. Without legal standards, there would be no enforcement leaving some of our most vulnerable groups, and the public more generally, without any substantive protection.
I am also alarmed that our environmentally-principled approach of controls on polluting substances, ensuring standards for water and air quality, and providing protection for our natural habitats and wildlife are at risk from this deregulatory programme.
In short, the pursuit of this mirage of Brexit freedoms puts at risk environmental, food and animal welfare standards, as well as consumer protection, workers’ rights and business certainty. It does so unnecessarily – the BEIS Business Perception survey from 2020 reported that less than two-fifths (37%) of businesses agreed that regulation is an obstacle to success.
I am greatly concerned by the attitude of the UK Government in respect of devolved power, including the operation of the Sewel Convention with regards to this legislation – despite your assurances when we met in May that the Convention would be respected. At the time of writing, I have received no legislative consent request from you in relation to the Bill. As a matter of urgency, could you please clarify that you will be seeking this from the Scottish Parliament.
I consider it unacceptable that we have had no advance sight of the most controversial clauses of the bill up until a few hours before today’s introduction, mirroring the disappointing UK Government approach to engagement ahead of the introduction of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill and much of the Brexit related legislation. The sunset dates in the legislation would force the Scottish Parliament and Government to reconsider, review and legislate unnecessarily over much legislation which is supposed to be clearly devolved. This work will badly disrupt the Scottish Parliament’s legislative timetable. The Parliament and Government will find themselves consumed with unnecessary work to save important legislative provisions from being lost, when it should be acting to address pressing issues such as the cost-of-living and energy crisis, judged by real priorities.
It remains a fact that the overwhelming majority of people in Scotland voted in 2016 to remain within the EU, with recent evidence suggesting support for EU membership has since risen even higher. Retained EU Law provides Scotland with a high standard of regulation. It is Scottish Ministers’ view that the approach the UK Government is taking to this legislation will be hugely damaging to people and business in Scotland. The UK’s decision to leave the EU has not changed the EU’s importance to Scotland, nor our commitment to it. Scottish Ministers will continue to align regulation in Scotland with EU regulation where appropriate and in a manner that contributes towards maintaining and advancing standards across a range of policy areas. This retained EU Law bill is part of a wider, deregulatory race to the bottom approach being taken by the UK Government which I strongly oppose.
I strongly urge you to reconsider the bill and its implications for the Devolved Governments. I will follow up this letter with more technical questions in due course, once my officials have analysed the bill print in full.
I am copying this letter to Mick Antoniw MS, Counsel General for Wales and Minister for the Constitution, and to the Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service.
Central Enquiry Unit
Phone: 0300 244 4000
The Scottish Government
St Andrews House
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