Leaving the EU means that we need to convert decades of EU law into our domestic legislation. A Bill that can do that in a timely and effective manner is essential. That is not what this debate is about. The real question is whether the Bill is fit for purpose, and I am afraid that it is not. The Government claim it will restore sovereignty to Parliament and secure certainty post-Brexit, but that is not the case. It transfers huge powers to Ministers, not to Members of the House, over issues vital to people’s lives, such as maternity and paternity leave, holidays, environmental standards and a range of other issues. I fear that the Bill could increase uncertainty, including the likelihood of legal challenge and judicial review, because the powers in it are so broadly drawn.
My right hon. and learned Friend Keir Starmer and Mr Grieve have forensically exposed the reality of the key clauses in the Bill. Clause 7 gives Ministers the power to change EU-derived law that has failed or is deficient, without any definition of what that means; clause 9 could be used to amend the powers in the Bill after it is enacted; and clause 17 gives Ministers sweeping powers to make changes that they consider appropriate in consequence of the Act.
The Brexit Secretary claims, of course, that the Government will not use the powers to make major policy changes, which raises the question: why include them in the first place? Many people, myself included, fear that the powers will indeed be used to water down or remove workers’ rights and environmental standards. Some Government Members have tried to brush these concerns aside. Often they are the very same Members who have railed against the use of delegated powers in the past. For years, the Brexit Secretary argued vociferously against the
“trend from representative democracy to presidential oligarchy”.—[Official Report,
Vol. 333, c. 932.]
“It is the perpetual, almost the eternal, job of this House to try to keep the Executive, Her Majesty’s Government, under check” and urged Members to take
“tough decisions to hold the Government to account” even
“when it is a Government whom we support”.—[Official Report,
Vol. 537, cc. 57-60.]
I think that consistency in one’s political values and beliefs is vital, however difficult the circumstances, and I urge Government Members to remember the courage of their previous convictions.
As I said, a Bill is necessary to achieve Brexit, and as always I want to be constructive. I urge Ministers to bring forward measures to circumscribe more tightly the powers that the Bill delegates and to strengthen the scrutiny procedures for the most widely delegated powers. If they bring forward amendments along those lines, they will have support across the House.
Brexit presents us with a Herculean task. It encompasses not just transferring half a century of EU law into UK legislation or even agreeing the initial article 50 deal, but finances, the rights of EU and UK citizens, and Northern Ireland, which is already proving a huge challenge for the Government. It is about defining the future relationship between the UK and the EU for years to come.
Yesterday, the Brexit Secretary said that no one pretended this would be easy, but that is precisely what they did. Before the referendum, the Environment Secretary claimed:
“The day after we vote to leave we hold all the cards and we can choose the path we want.”
Just last month, the International Trade Secretary said that a free trade agreement
“should be one of the easiest in human history” to agree. Such comments are not just misleading but deeply misguided. They will not build respect or trust with our negotiating partners, and they will not bring Britain together. I fear that we are as divided now as we were at the referendum. Remain voters are angry that their views are being ignored; leave voters are frustrated at progress and worried that we could be tied up in knots for years. We need more honesty about the challenges we face and the inevitable trade-offs and compromises that will have to come. That is the leadership Britain now needs. The Government should step up to the mark.