European Union (Withdrawal) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:05 pm on 7th September 2017.

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Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (International Trade), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union) 4:05 pm, 7th September 2017

There were some excellent speeches after the Secretary of State’s. Things went slight downhill after that but things started to look up with the maiden speech by Rosie Duffield. I have just one slight criticism: she did not mention Barham in her list of villages, which is one I know very well. I thank Mr Grieve for his speech and his reference to the monstrosity that is this Bill.

The Liberal Democrats believe that Parliament must be given comprehensive sovereignty and scrutiny over this process. This opinion is widely supported, not just by many Members on both sides of this House but organisations such as the Law Society, which states that the Bill

“must respect parliament’s role in making and approving changes to UK law”.

Parliament must drive the future of the United Kingdom and of Brexit, not Ministers using executive—indeed dictatorial—powers to exercise total control over the legislative process. The Government’s decision to provide just two days for Second Reading means that Members will have just five minutes in which to make their points and eight days in Committee for a Bill that unravels 40 years of closer EU co-operation, shows the extent to which Parliament is held in contempt by Ministers.

The Secretary of State and other Ministers might be quick to dismiss Lib Dem criticism of the Bill, but before they do I would encourage them to think back to 2008 and the by-election triggered by the Secretary of State, the catalyst for which was Labour’s highly illiberal plan to increase pre-charge detention from 28 to 42 days. A build-up of attacks on our civil liberties led him along that by-election path and there is a widely held view, which I share, that this Bill represents a major attack on parliamentary sovereignty and therefore a present and future risk to our civil liberties. I am not alone. A legal expert at Bryan Cave, commenting on the Bill, said that it will give

“powers allowing ministers to fast-track the implementation of certain EU laws into domestic law through regulations without parliamentary debate.”

Liberty’s analysis is that the Bill

“could be used by Ministers to ride roughshod over UK citizens’
human rights” leaving

“gaping holes where our rights should be.”

There are similar concerns from the Fawcett Society that the Bill could be used to alter UK laws on equality and human rights without parliamentary scrutiny.

Indeed, some Government Members, if they pride themselves on holding consistent views, should also be alarmed. Thirteen Government Members and five from these Benches, some of whom are here today, wrote to The Daily Telegraph in January 2016, stating:

“Whatever one’s views on the EU debate, many will agree that parliamentary sovereignty should be the key focus in any renegotiations.”

They now have an opportunity to demonstrate by their actions rather than their words that they value parliamentary sovereignty more highly than ministerial expediency. Will any of them have the courage of their convictions, or did their commitment to parliamentary scrutiny have an expiry date of 23 June 2016?

The truth is that the Bill was always going to be a sow’s ear, because the Government started the negotiations without clear objectives or outcomes in mind so the Bill had to cater for any eventuality or scenario, deal or no deal. What started with democracy must not end with a stitch-up by Ministers. The Liberal Democrats believe that the people, as well as politicians, must have a meaningful vote on the final deal. If they do not accept the deal negotiated by the Prime Minister and her Cabinet, they should have the option to remain a member of the European Union. The Bill must provide for this, but instead it denies Members of Parliament our right and duty to scrutinise and takes powers away from devolved Governments. It gives unbridled power to Ministers and makes a mockery of Brexiteers’ rallying cry of “Take back control of our laws.” It must be resisted at every turn.