European Union (Withdrawal) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:23 pm on 7th September 2017.

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Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Chair, Committee on Exiting the European Union 2:23 pm, 7th September 2017

First, I just say to Mr Duncan Smith that this is not about defying the will of the British people; it is about how sensibly we are going to give effect to it. The referendum campaign seems a long time ago now, but during it we heard endless assertions that the process of leaving the European Union would be easy, straightforward and all those things. Anyone who looks at the Bill will see with their own eyes just how wrong the people who said that were. Despite the brave face that the Secretary of State habitually puts on things, it must now be dawning on Ministers that their assertion that they would be able to negotiate the whole thing—a comprehensive agreement covering all the things we need and all the benefits we want—by the end of the article 50 process is not now going to be possible. The reason why both those assertions have failed to survive contact with reality is not for want of effort, but because of fundamental disagreements in the Government about what the policy should be, which has resulted in delay, and because the task is Byzantine in its complexity. I do not envy civil servants, who are working hard, or indeed Ministers, and I do not envy the House the task that confronts us, but we have a duty to be honest with each other and with the British people about the choices that we face, their consequences and the fact that we have to do all this against the ticking clock.

Apart from the repeal of the European Communities Act 1972, the Bill is not about whether we leave the European Union—a point the Secretary of State made in his opening speech—because that decision was taken in the referendum and given effect by the triggering of article 50, and we will leave at the end of March 2019. The Bill is about trying to ensure that our law is in shape when we leave. We all accept that there is a need to do that, and we all therefore accept that a Bill is necessary. But that does not mean that Parliament should accept this Bill, which is the 2017 equivalent of the Statute of Proclamations of 1539. I gently remind the Secretary of State that the Exiting the European Union Committee did urge him to publish the Bill in draft. Had he done so, he would be having fewer difficulties now, because its flaws and weaknesses are fundamental—they were brilliantly exposed in the speech by my right hon. and learned Friend Keir Starmer. The Bill is not about taking back control. If Ministers continue to fail to take Parliament’s role seriously, we will have to continue to prod, push and persuade or, in the case of Mr Clarke, to gently threaten, so that Ministers understand that in this Parliament—this is a new Parliament; it has been christened the Back Benchers’ Parliament, and rightly so—they are going to have no choice but to listen to what Parliament has to say.

On the detail of the Bill, if they remain unamended, clauses 7, 8 and 9 would grant Ministers new and unprecedented powers. Ministers are asking us to give them a legislative blank cheque; we should not do so. How can we accept a Bill if on the one hand Ministers get up and say, “Look at the safeguards; they are in the legislation,” and on the other they propose in another part of the Bill to give themselves the power to remove every one of those safeguards, if they are so inclined? How does that build a sense of confidence and reassurance? I accept that there is a balance to be struck between giving Ministers the latitude and flexibility to do what needs to be done and Parliament having control to scrutinise and decide, but as they stand, the delegated powers do not achieve that balance, which is why the Secretary of State is going to have a very long queue of Members outside his office wanting to have a conversation. If he wants to save himself some time, he should come forward with his own amendments.