European Union (Withdrawal) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:40 pm on 7th September 2017.

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Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Father of the House of Commons 1:40 pm, 7th September 2017

The Opposition spokesman has just reminded us that this Bill was trailed for a long time as the “great repeal Bill”, which is a very unlikely title. Fortunately, it repeals hardly anything at all, which is one blessing. One thing that it does repeal, however, is the European Communities Act 1972, which is a particular irony for myself and, no doubt, for Mr Skinner, as we well remember that Act. I was then a Government Whip and engineering, mainly by co-operating with the Jenkinsite faction of the Labour party, how we were to get the vote through against the rebellious, imperialist Eurosceptics who were then on our Back Benches. It is therefore an irony that a complete mirror-image debate now presents itself to me rather many years later.

My starting point is where Keir Starmer finished. I have to accept that we are going to leave the European Union. I accept that because this House passed the legislation to enact article 50 by a large majority. I argued and voted against it, but it went through, and it is idle to pretend that it is politically possible for that to be reversed. The question now is how we leave. I quite accept my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s basic premise that technical legislation is required to ensure that it is practicable to get a smooth legal transition, but I do not think that the Bill confines itself to that aim, as has just been said. A Bill of this kind is necessary, and we will have to vote for it, but the question is whether this particular form of the Bill is remotely acceptable.

I studied the amendments tabled by the official Opposition, and indeed those tabled by large numbers of other Members, and my conclusion was that I found myself agreeing with the overall majority of the sentiments and opinions in all of them. The one thing that gave me a problem was that they all suggest that the House

“declines to give a Second Reading” to the Bill, which would stop any possibility of our making the required changes. However, minded as I am to contemplate voting for Second Reading, I will need some assurances before we get there, in particular that there will be sufficient movement on some of the unanswerable points being made about parliamentary democracy and a smooth transition to whatever the alternative is, so that the Bill becomes something other than wrecking legislation if it proceeds. I have not decided yet—I am actually going to listen to the debate, which is a rare feature in this House, because if we were to defeat the Second Reading, the Government would be obliged to bring back another Bill to try to achieve the same purpose. If the Government will not move in the next two days of debate, we may have to force them to go back to the drawing board and try again to produce a Bill that is consistent with our parliamentary traditions and that gives this House the control that leaders of the leave campaign kept telling the British public during the referendum campaign they were anxious to see.