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  • Internal Market Bill Debate 22/09/20

The UK Internal Market Bill is an act of wanton vandalism on devolution. Although Clause 3(9) of the Bill says that ministers must ‘consult’ the devolved governments of the UK when making decisions in devolved areas, you only need to look at the last four years to realise the meaninglessness of this phrase.

The Bill also poses a threat to food hygiene standards both in Scotland and across the rest of the UK. Mutual recognition clauses in the bill gives UK ministers unfettered ability to lower these standards without the consent of the Scottish Parliament. This is despite food standards being a devolved area since 1999.

Creative and widely popular policy reforms passed by the Scottish Parliament will also become harder to implement in the future. Replication of successful public health policies such as the smoking in public places ban and minimum unit pricing of alcohol will become harder to replicate due to the restrictions posed by this Bill.

You can watch my speech and read my full contribution below.

Dr Whitford

I also rise to speak to amendment 89 and the other amendments listed in my name and the names of my colleagues.

Part 1 of the Bill introduces two key trade mechanisms within the UK for the first time: mutual recognition and non-discrimination. The hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley) tries to make these sound benign, but that just shows his lack of ability to see what they look like from any of the devolved nations. Non-discrimination, which is covered in clauses 5 and 6, would affect labelling regarding the source of produce. It would therefore remove the ability for consumers to reduce their food miles or to support local producers if they choose to, and could be used to undermine or challenge protected geographical indicators or the Scottish brand—as in Scotch whisky and Scotch beef. Despite their long tradition and international recognition as Scottish products, we already see the promotion of British whisky and British haggis, of all things.

Clauses 2 and 3 cover mutual recognition, which creates a powerful deregulatory pressure, because if any UK nation has lower standards or regulations, the other three must just shut up and accept such goods. As ​England is the largest nation and economically the most powerful, it is assumed that its standards will dominate, particularly as the Secretary of State has the power to change the Bill on a whim if he wishes. Although clause 3(9) says that the Secretary of State “must consult” the devolved nations, I am afraid that the last four years have shown just how worthless and meaningless such a phrase is.

Clause 3(4) lists the aspects of a product that could come under mutual recognition, including its characteristics, performance standards, packaging and labelling, and certification.

There is even a catch-all line for

“anything not falling within paragraphs (a) to (f)”.

Basically, every single aspect of commercial goods could be challenged under this legislation.

The Government claim, as indeed do many on the Conservative Benches, that the Bill is needed to maintain trade throughout the UK, yet previously trade continued without any problems, despite the variations in the four nations’ regulations. All three devolved Governments have been working to agree common frameworks to ensure that there are no obstacles to trade but also that the devolved powers and different priorities of the four nations are respected.

It is claimed that the Bill is needed to protect British producers, but clauses 2 and 5 refer also to goods that are “imported into” or that “pass through” any part of the UK. This is not about UK producers, which already meet high standards; it is clear that, despite all the rhetoric and protestations, it is about either lowering UK standards or accepting lower-quality products to achieve a trade deal. That concern is heightened by the UK Government’s repeated refusal in the proceedings on the Agriculture Bill or the Trade Bill to protect food standards or exclude the NHS and other public services from future trade deals. Indeed, there is no guarantee of preserving minimum standards on anything.

Drew Hendry

Does my hon. Friend agree that it tells a huge story that the Government have voted against those kinds of protections on 10 occasions?

Dr Whitford

Absolutely. An amendment was tabled by one of their own Members—the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish)—to protect food standards in farming.

Deidre Brock

Does my hon. Friend share my amazement that not a single Scottish Tory has attended today’s debate, despite the impact that the proposals will have on the devolved nations and on Scotland?

Dr Whitford

The Conservatives tend to count on the farming community in Scotland. I echo what others have said: the National Farmers Union of Scotland is none too happy with what has been happening, particularly the failure to protect standards.

That brings us to the dreaded chlorine-washed chicken. Of course, it is not the chlorine that is the issue—if someone is not a great swimmer, they will have swallowed more in a swimming pool; the concern is about why the chicken is washed in chlorine in the first place. Because of the overcrowding of poultry and poor animal welfare ​standards, the US has between seven and 10 times the salmonella food poisoning rate of the UK, even after washing its poultry. It is clear that most consumers are none too keen on chlorine-washed chicken or hormone-fed beef, but the labelling restrictions under the Bill may well mean that they are not allowed to know. A lot of people may consider becoming vegetarian when such products appear, but that will not help them, because the US also allows higher pesticide residues.

After clause 46, which takes back control of spending in devolved areas, the mutual recognition clauses will have the biggest impact in respect of removing powers from the devolved Governments. Mutual recognition will mean that any devolved legislation to maintain or drive up standards will end up applying only to local producers and not to goods from elsewhere in the UK. That would, of course, put local producers at a disadvantage, without achieving the benefit that the devolved Government were seeking. The EU single market is based on mutual recognition, but the EU generally sets higher standards rather than lower ones and, as was mentioned previously, new standards are agreed by all 27—previously 28—nations. Unlike the UK, the EU accepts derogation for social benefits such as public health, consumer protection, waste reduction or tackling climate change. The Bill has no such derogations at all.

It has often been the devolved nations that have driven forward ideas and legislation in the UK. That should be welcomed, not obstructed. On health, Scotland was the first UK nation to introduce the smoking ban in 2006, and it led the way on the minimum-unit pricing of alcohol in 2018, which Wales is now seeking to follow, but this was specifically attacked as a regulatory restriction in the White Paper and could fall foul of either mutual recognition or non-discrimination—the Government do not seem to be very clear on that. While legislation that is already in place is exempt, any change to that legislation could bring it within the scope of the Bill, so that might act as a disincentive to increasing the unit price on alcohol in the future. Indeed, the whole Bill is a disincentive to creative legislation within the devolved Governments to improve life for their citizens.

On the environment, Wales was the first to charge for carrier bags in all shops in 2011, followed a couple of years later by Northern Ireland and Scotland. England finally followed in 2015, but only for large retailers. Last year, Scotland was the first UK nation to ban plastic stemmed cotton buds, which make up 5% to 10% of marine waste. Yet Scotland’s plans for a deposit return scheme to increase recycling and reduce litter is attacked in the White Paper. If the devolved nations have to always wait for the slowest, innovation and action will be stifled.

Part 3 of the Bill establishes similar new rules over professional qualifications and, ironically, seems to be modelling itself on freedom of movement. Under clause 22(2), anyone recognised as professionally qualified in one part of the UK must be accepted in all other nations of the UK. Of course, medical qualifications such as mine are part of a UK-wide registration, but there are professions with specific requirements to be registered in Scotland and Wales.​

I note that, miraculously, there were still enough lawyers left in the Government to make sure that the new rule did not apply to the legal profession, as Scots law is of course completely separate, but what about other professions? England has introduced nursing apprentices and nursing associates, while Scotland still maintains nursing as an academic profession. Scotland and Wales both require a teaching qualification, but in England anyone with a degree can become a teacher without any formal teacher training. Education in Scotland was not devolved 20 years ago, but like Scots law and the Church of Scotland, it has been a separate entity since prior to the Act of Union and was protected in that Act.

This Bill is a piece of wanton vandalism. The Tories never supported devolution, and this Bill is driven by anti-devolution politics and control freakery, rather than anything to do with economics or business. There is an alternative to this high-handed and heavy-handed legislation. The UK Government should get back to the table and continue working on agreeing common frameworks, instead of winding back two decades of devolution.

I can tell the House that, regardless of their views on independence, the vast majority of people in Scotland support devolution. They appreciate the value of maintaining a unified public NHS and of Scotland’s wellbeing policies, from the baby box to free personal care. Last Friday was the sixth anniversary of our independence referendum, when the people of Scotland held control of their future in their own hands for 15 hours, but sadly gave it back. Among the broken promises of “Better Together”, which achieved that outcome, were “Vote No to stay in the EU” and promises of more devolution, not less, and of Scotland being an “equal partner” in a “family of nations”. This Bill leaves any shred of such a claim twisting in the wind. If the Prime Minister and his Government think this Bill will strengthen their precious Union, I have news for them: it will do precisely the opposite.

About the author 

Heather Knox

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