European Union (Withdrawal) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:09 pm on 7th September 2017.

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Photo of Yvette Cooper Yvette Cooper Chair, Home Affairs Committee 3:09 pm, 7th September 2017

This has been a very thoughtful debate, and I hope that the Government are in no doubt about the scale of parliamentary concern about the way in which the Bill concentrates powers in the hands of Ministers.

In his opening speech, the Secretary of State recognised that the Bill is not what will take us out of the EU; Parliament has already voted for article 50, which will take us out of the EU—and rightly voted for it, as well. However, Parliament also has a job to do to hold Ministers to account and the Bill, as drafted, stops us doing that. It stops us standing up for democracy in this House, and it stops us making sure, frankly, that the Government do not screw up Brexit in the process they put it through and the decisions they take.

Many of the purposes behind the Bill are right. Parliament will need to repeal the 1972 Act, and Parliament will also need to transfer EU-derived law into UK law. As the Chair of the Select Committee, my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn, has already said, we will have to have a Bill, but not this Bill. There is a choice about the way in which we do this, and we do not have to do it in a way that concentrates so much power in the hands of a small group of Ministers.

Let me run through some of our concerns. The shadow Secretary of State, my right hon. and learned Friend Keir Starmer, set out a very forensic and powerful account of the Bill and the detailed powers that it will give Ministers, with no safeguards in place. There are the powers in clauses 7 and 17, as well as those in clause 9, and there is the fact that it will reduce British citizens’ rights. Far from allowing Brits to take back control, the Bill weakens protection for employment rights, equality and environmental standards; it weakens remedies and enforcement; and, crucially, it reduces the right of redress. It is both sad and telling that Ministers have chosen to exempt the charter of fundamental rights. I hope that that will be reversed, and that they will change their position.

The greatest concern—I want to focus on this point—is the concentration of powers in a way that, frankly, is not British. Parliament will not be able to do its job to stand up for citizens’ rights against a powerful Executive if the Bill goes through in the way that it has been drafted. The unprecedented powers given to Ministers in certain clauses—clause 7 and, in particular, clause 17 —are powers that would make a Tudor monarch proud. Everyone realises that the sheer extent of the provisions means that we will need both primary and secondary legislation as part of the process, but not to this scale, not with this lack of safeguards and not with this concentration of power in Ministers’ hands.

The Bill will give Ministers the power to change primary legislation for an incredibly broad range of reasons, and the test will simply be whether they think it is appropriate. The test is not whether a change is needed, proportionate or essential, but only whether Ministers consider it to be appropriate. The Bill also includes the power—the Secretary of State made slightly disingenuous remarks in the way he presented this—to create new criminal offences so long as sentences are not more than two years. That is a serious power to give Ministers on such a broad area without parliamentary scrutiny.

Let me give some examples of the things that the Bill would do. I raised the European arrest warrant with the Secretary of State, and his response to my question about what safeguards there would be was simply to point to the Human Rights Act. The Human Rights Act—by the way, Conservative Front Benchers have pledged to get rid of it—is not a sufficient safeguard. We know that we should not rely on the courts to have all the safeguards, and that we in Parliament should provide some of them as well. We also know that within the scope of the Human Rights Act there is a huge range of potential policies on extradition on which Parliament should have a say.

On my past record, I suspect that I am probably closer to the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary on what the extradition policy should be than many of their Back Benchers. I still do not think, however, that they should have unlimited powers to decide extradition policy without having to come back to Parliament.

We debated the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 forensically—in fact, it was an example of Parliament at its best. We gave that Act detailed consideration that balanced security and liberty and changed it as it went through. Given, however, that some of the Act’s genesis depended on ECJ judgments and its relationship with EU legislation, the Bill today could give Ministers the power to reopen the Act and change the primary legislation that we put forward with great care, and—again—to do so through secondary legislation only, without there being proper safeguards and checks in place. Ministers will have the power to rip up the working time directive, too, if it does not fit with what they think should happen under the appropriate arrangements after Brexit.

I do not trust the Prime Minister and the Cabinet with these immense powers. One would expect me not to do so, but no parliamentarian should trust them with these powers. None of us knows who the next Prime Minister will be or who will be in the next Cabinet. This is about the powers in principle, not who is doing the job right now. Clause 9 is particularly disturbing; it should not even be in the Bill. We should be legislating separately for the withdrawal agreement. We should have a separate Bill—and, yes, it would need to provide for secondary legislation; we should not be doing it now, when we have no clue what the withdrawal agreement will be, when we have not had a vote to endorse the Government’s negotiating strategy—we do not even know what it is on a whole series of different areas—and when there is not even a statutory commitment to a vote on the withdrawal agreement.

We could start legislating later, in the summer perhaps when we have a bit more of a clue where on earth this is all going, or perhaps in the autumn when the withdrawal agreement supposedly will have been signed. Then we could put the exit date, which some Government Members are concerned about, into primary legislation and legislate without giving Ministers any more powers than is strictly necessary, rather than hand them unrestricted power to do the job.