European Union (Withdrawal) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:53 pm on 7th September 2017.

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Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union) 1:53 pm, 7th September 2017

Absolutely—that is what devolution means; if the powers are currently devolved, they should remain devolved.

If we cannot trust the Tories to keep their word on something as simple as arranging a joint meeting of Ministers, nobody in any of the devolved nations can trust their assurances that the draconian new powers in this Bill will not be abused. Our experience of promises from the Tories suggests we cannot take them at their word unless the legislation is nailed down so tightly that they have no wriggle room to go back on their word.

We have heard a lot of rhetoric about some issues needing a “UK-wide approach”. I wonder how the UK-wide approach to agriculture, animal welfare and food standards is going to work in Northern Ireland, because regardless of what the legislative or constitutional position will be, the matter of business survival means that the food industry in Northern Ireland will follow the same standards as are followed in the Republic of Ireland—the same standards as apply in the EU will be followed. So we are talking about different animal welfare standards in Northern Ireland from those in the rest of the UK, and I cannot really see how that is working.

What a UK-wide approach has been shown to mean in practice is that the Prime Minister and a few hand-picked colleagues get the right to dictate to the peoples of these islands and to our elected Governments. For example, the need for a “UK-wide approach” led to Scotland’s fishing industry being sold out by the British Government when we first joined the EU and there is a serious danger that it will lead to those fishermen being sold out yet again as part of the process of leaving.

My second concern is about the all-encompassing powers set out in clause 9, which was superbly torn to shreds by the shadow Secretary of State a few minutes ago. One of the Prime Minister’s own Back Benchers, Anna Soubry, described this on Wednesday as an “unprecedented power grab”, and there is no other way it can be described; 649 elected MPs will be expected to stand by and watch while a single Minister, with a single signature, can make new legislation. This includes the right to make legislation that should require an Act of this Parliament. The only requirement there will be on the Minister is that she or he thinks the legislation is a good idea. When we have Ministers who think that welching on the Dubs amendment and introducing the rape clause were good ideas, I am looking for a slightly harder test than a Tory Minister thinking that something is a good idea.

These new powers are often referred to as Henry VIII powers. Henry VIII was a despot with no interest in democracy, who thought Scotland and Wales were just places to be conquered and trampled on, so perhaps this is not such a bad name for something this Government are doing, but using that nickname hides the danger of these proposed powers. Despite his murderous deeds, a lot of people see Henry VIII as a figure of fun and pantomime villain—someone who even got to star in a “Carry On” film. But the fact is that the powers in this Bill are more “Nineteen Eighty-Four” than “Carry On Henry”. The powers that bear his name are anything but funny. They represent a significant erosion of parliamentary democracy; indeed to those Members here who believe in the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, I say that the powers in this Bill are utterly incompatible with that idea. This is not about taking back control to Parliament and resuming parliamentary sovereignty for those nations of the UK where parliamentary sovereignty exists. This Bill threatens to destroy it, once and for all. The powers are designed to allow Ministers to bypass all pretexts of parliamentary scrutiny. It is even possible that we could see an Act of Parliament receive Royal Assent one day and then be repealed by a Minister the next, simply because they thought it was a good idea.

The Government will argue that delegated powers are an essential part of modern government, and I agree. We do not have an issue with the principle of using delegated legislation. We do have an issue with allowing delegated legislation to be abused in order to bypass proper scrutiny. The only way this House can be satisfied that the powers will not be abused is if the Bill is reworded to make it impossible for them to be abused in that way.

The third significant weakness in the Bill has been touched on and it relates to our membership of the biggest trade agreement in the world. We are going to throw that away. We are talking about the loss of 80,000 jobs in Scotland and the loss of £11 billion per year coming into our economy as a result. The figures for the rest of the UK will be proportionate to that. This is being done simply to pacify the extreme right wing of the Conservative party and their allies, whose obsession with the number of immigrants has blinded them to the massive social and economic benefits that these EU nationals have brought to my constituency and, I suspect, to every constituency in the UK. The sheer immorality of the isolationist, xenophobic approach that the Conservatives are trying to drag us down is there for all to see, but it is not just immoral—it is daft. It threatens to destroy our economy. Already we are seeing key sectors in industry and key public sector providers struggling to recruit the staff they need. It was reported a week or two ago that a private recruitment firm is being offered £200 million just to go to persuade workers to come to the UK to work in our health service. I have a hospital in my constituency that we could rebuild for £200 million quite comfortably, yet this money is going to be handed to a private firm to try to undo some of the damage that has been done by the Government’s obsession with the immigration numbers. With the collapsing pound making British wages are worth a lot less to European workers than they were before, with the anti-European rhetoric and hysteria that we still get from Government Members and with the Government still refusing to give European nationals the absolute, unconditional and permanent guarantees that they deserve if they choose to come and live here, those recruitment difficulties are going to become much, much worse before they get any better. The Secretary of State wants our EU partners to be innovative, imaginative and flexible. I urge him to apply these same qualities to his Government’s attitude to membership of the single market.

I have mentioned the plight of EU nationals, and another major concern, which again has been raised, particularly by the shadow Secretary of State, is that this Bill threatens to undermine the rights of not only EU nationals but of everyone, regardless of their nationality or citizenship, who lives on these islands. I hear the promises from the Government, but we have had promises from this Government before. They are not worth the paper they are written on, even if they are not written down on paper at all.

At yesterday’s Prime Minister’s questions we had the usual charade of a Tory Back Bencher asking a planted question so that the Prime Minister could confirm how successful the Government have been in bringing down unemployment. She went so far as to say that unemployment in the UK is at its lowest for more than four decades, so let us just think about that. The Prime Minister is telling us that unemployment is lower now than it was when we went into the European Union and the single market. How can the Conservative party boast about having almost done away with unemployment altogether and then say that immigrants are to blame for the huge unemployment problem? The fact is that the free movement of people—free movement of workers—and membership of the single market has not caused unemployment; it has caused employment. It has benefited our economy and helped our businesses to thrive. It keeps schools open in places where they would otherwise have closed. All the evidence suggests that the most successful, wealthiest and happiest countries in the world—those with the highest standard of living, whether material or in the things that really matter, are countries that are open and inclusive. The Government are trying to move us away from that to become one of the most isolationist and isolated economies in the world. Only five countries are not part of a trade agreement, but none of them is a country we would want to see as an example.

The Government’s mantra on Brexit has been about taking back control, but that will not happen—at least not in the way that the people who voted to leave hoped it would happen—because it is not about taking back control to the 650 people who collectively hold a democratic mandate from our constituents to represent them; it is about taking back control from this Parliament and putting it into the hands of a few Ministers. It is about taking back control from the devolved and elected national Parliaments and Assemblies of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and putting it into the hands of a few chosen Members of a political party that cannot get elected into government in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. The Bill allows Ministers to usurp the authority of Parliament and gives them absolute power to override the will of Parliament.

A lot has been said about the UK Government’s red lines in the Brexit negotiations, and I will give the Minister one red line from the sovereign people of Scotland: our sovereignty is not for sale today and will not be for sale at any future time—not to anyone and not at any price. The Bill seeks to take sovereignty from us, probably more than any Bill presented to this Parliament since we were dragged into it more than 300 years ago. That is why I urge every MP who claims to act on behalf of the people of Scotland, who believes in the sovereignty of the people and who believes in the sovereignty of democratic institutions to vote with us and against the Bill on Monday night.