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

I will not, because large numbers of people want to speak and I want to touch briefly on the time constraints. During the proceedings on the 1972 Act, I have no doubt that the hon. Member for Bolsover, like me, sat through days and days and weeks and weeks of very high-quality debate. It was a historic moment and it was not constrained by these Blairite notions of family-friendly hours, timetables and so on. I do not want to go back to the all-night filibustering and some of the nonsense that led to those practices being discredited—that is not suitable in the 21st century—but this Government began this process by trying to argue that the royal prerogative enabled them not even to bring article 50 before the House. They have been trying to reduce parliamentary scrutiny and votes ever since the whole thing started.

As a simple example, I raised with you a few moments ago, Mr Speaker, the question of the 5 o’clock rule. Apparently we all have to stop at 5 o’clock this afternoon. It would reassure me about the Government’s intentions if the opportunity were taken to lift that limit now. The Leader of the House only has to rise at some time in the next hour or so and say that the 5 o’clock will not be invoked today, and all the time constraints that we face will not be a problem. I hope that the Bill’s programme motion will not confine debate to a comic number of days. The speech of the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras showed how complex some of the debates will be, and we do not want to be told that we have to give legal analysis in five minutes flat or be cut out by some quite unnecessary timetable. We have at least until the end of 2019 to get these procedures right.

There are two broad issues. One of them I will leave alone because the concerns have been dealt with brilliantly and will dominate a lot of today: the Henry VII clause, the sweeping powers and the extraordinary nature of the legislation. I will not try to compete with what I think, with respect, was a brilliant speech from the right hon. and learned Gentleman, and I hope that we will hear some reply to it over the next two days of debate—I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend Mr Grieve will touch on it.

My own analysis of clauses 7 and 17 is probably not up to the standards that have already been demonstrated, and there is no point in repeating the case, so I will just say one thing to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his colleagues about what I expect in response. We are told that conversations will be held with my right hon. Friend Anna Soubry, and I am delighted to hear that. We are told that we will have assurances about how Ministers are going to use the powers, but at every stage in my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s speech he actually defended the wording in the Bill, as he had to, and did not make the faintest concession either to the justifiable concerns about the impact on devolution or to the even bigger concerns about whether we are going to fritter away parliamentary democracy in this House by passing the Bill in its present form.

I know that my right hon. Friend is sincere in his assurances. He is one of the people in this House whom I would trust to seek to deliver what he is offering to us, but the reality, as someone has already said, is that we are all transient in politics. He will come under pressure from some of his colleagues, and we have no idea who will be in any particular post in 18 months’ time. The letter of the law will determine the scope for parliamentary scrutiny. I do not want more assurances or charm; I want positive amendments and changes. The Government will salvage their reputation if they take the lead and produce amendments that answer the points made by the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras, and if they reassure us that the drafting was a misunderstanding. Better drafting can make it the no-policy-change, technically necessary Bill that I would quite happily support.

The second issue, very briefly, is the question of staying in the single market and customs union during the transitional period. Of course we will have a transitional period, of course it has to be a smooth transition and of course by the end of 2019 we will negotiate a basis for future free trading arrangements, but the Government have to move, just as the Opposition have moved. I made a speech in the Queen’s Speech debate explaining why I am in favour of staying in the single market and customs union at least for the transitional period, and I then answered the various arguments that are routinely thrown out, so I will not repeat any of that now.

There is now only a whisker of difference between us. I do not deceive myself that I converted the Labour party, which has tabled an amendment identical to my arguments in the Queen’s Speech debate, with which it did not then agree, but its proposals are remarkably near the Government’s proposals.

We all know, and British business knows, that we need a smooth transition. We do not need change until we are certain that we have some acceptable new arrangements. The Government’s position paper on customs arrangements—I will not read it all—says:

“This could involve a new and time-limited customs union between the UK and the EU Customs Union, based on a shared external tariff and without customs processes”.

I will not go on, but there is an absolute whisker of difference between the Government’s paper and what the Opposition are now saying, and what everybody of the slightest common sense, in my opinion, is saying—that we should stay in the single market and the customs union until we know that we can smoothly transfer to some new and equally beneficial arrangement. Again, I would like some reassurances on that.

I detect in the wording of the Bill and the Opposition’s amendment that we are crawling towards the cross-party approach that will obviously be required to settle this in the national interest. It is absurd for the Labour party to say that it is all agreed on the new policy it has adopted, and it is absurd for the Conservative party to say, “We’re all agreed on whatever it is the Secretary of State is trying to negotiate in Brussels.” The public are not idiots; they know that both parties are completely and fundamentally divided on many of these issues, with extreme opinions on both sides represented in the Cabinet and shadow Cabinet, let alone on the Back Benches.

Let us therefore resolve this matter. Let us make sure this Bill does not make it impossible to stay in the single market and customs union, and let us have a grown-up debate on the whole practical problem we face and produce a much better Act of Parliament than the Bill represents at the moment.