The Bill represents not just a step along the way towards departure from the European Union, but an unacceptable attempt by the Government to strengthen their hand when it comes to exercising legislative power—and this at a time when the general belief is that we should be going in the opposite direction, in effect giving a bigger role to Parliament.
Only three years ago, the Hansard Society published its robust critique of the system in its report, “The Devil is in the Detail”, yet this Bill confers a breathtaking range of delegated powers on Ministers. For example, the Bill, if given Royal Assent unamended, will give Ministers the power to start implementing the withdrawal agreement before this House has even had a chance to debate and vote on it. The Bill will also allow for its own amendment under delegated powers. There are instances, of course, of that happening in the past, but this is different, because the power is drawn so broadly that it could be used to amend all parts of the Act. The Bill also allows for the amendment, under delegated powers, of primary legislation already on the statute book.
Surely, if the Government were genuinely committed to a smooth Brexit that restored total sovereignty to Westminster, they would not have taken such a cavalier approach to this critically important piece of legislation. One can only conclude that the incorporation of significant delegated powers in the Bill, combined with the scope for extensive use of statutory instruments under the negative procedure, demonstrates that the Government are running scared of parliamentary democracy; or rather, that they are so arrogant that they believe that they can impose their will regardless of the opinion of the House.
I would go further and argue that the Government’s approach to the Bill threatens a chaotic Brexit, because they refuse to recognise that their use of delegated powers in the Bill pushes our democracy beyond breaking point. That attitude threatens nothing but discord if the Bill goes on the statute book unamended, and in that context, it will do little to deliver a smooth Brexit. Let me be clear: I accept that an efficient and businesslike approach is needed if we are to prepare ourselves successfully for exit from the European Union, but the Government seem incapable of accepting that this approach can be secured while according Parliament its proper and democratic role in scrutinising the powers in the Bill, and the statutory instruments that will emerge over time if it gains Royal Assent.
The Hansard Society has shown us the way, providing us with a framework for scrutiny that removes unnecessary and time-consuming procedures for uncontested SIs, while giving the Commons a more meaningful voice in the process leading to the enactment of the more complex and challenging instruments. I hope that the Government will change their mind; there is a way forward on the table. I hope that those on the Government Front Bench will indicate today that they are prepared to amend the Bill in Committee to allow for meaningful reform of the way in which Parliament scrutinises delegated powers and their use by Ministers, but so far we have had only a weak indication from the Government that they will bend on this all-important principle, and that is just not good enough. That is why I will vote against Second Reading tonight unless things change during the debate.
If I do vote against Second Reading tonight, it is not because I am voting against Brexit. That would be a huge misrepresentation of the nature of this debate and the nature of the decisions involved if we agree to Second Reading. Rather, I will be voting against a Brexit badly handled, which threatens to weaken further our long-established and hard-won democratic traditions.