2nd Day

Part of European Union (Withdrawal) Bill – in the House of Commons at 6:19 pm on 11th September 2017.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Seema Malhotra Seema Malhotra Labour/Co-operative, Feltham and Heston 6:19 pm, 11th September 2017

I am grateful for the chance to contribute to this debate. I look forward to re-joining the Exiting the European Union Committee, whose important work will finally recommence this week.

I will vote tonight for Labour’s reasoned amendment and against the Second Reading of the Bill, not to frustrate Brexit, but because I believe that Parliament and the country must not be side-lined in how we move forward. The Bill has clearly been written without thought to its implications. As it stands, it sets a precedent that our democracy, or any other, should not allow. Ministers would be able to amend primary legislation—the Bill and other Acts—without needing a debate or vote in this House. Ministers could remove rights and protections through secondary legislation without any meaningful or guaranteed parliamentary scrutiny.

Many excellent points on the scope, scrutiny, transparency and accountability of the powers in the Bill have already been made, especially by my right hon. Friend Margaret Beckett. I want to focus the detail of my remarks on one specific issue of concern, on which I would be grateful for the Minister’s response.

Once upon a time, before the general election, there was a lot of stirring rhetoric from the Prime Minister about how no deal would be better than a bad deal. These days, we hear less public talk of no deal, but the Bill nurses one hangover from when the Prime Minister could still pretend she had a mandate for her vision of what Brexit means. We do not have to look very far to find it. It is in clause 1, which states:

“The European Communities Act 1972 is repealed on exit day.”

“Exit day” is defined as

“such day as a Minister of the Crown may by regulations appoint”.

Now stand back. What clause 1 proposes is that any Minister can decide when our membership of the EU ends.

On any day, if the Prime Minister or Foreign Secretary decided, the Executive could withdraw from talks and decide to make hard Brexit a reality by repealing the European Communities Act, without a proper debate and without a full vote of this House. Clause 1 appears to put perhaps the most important power in the Bill—the power to repeal the European Communities Act—entirely into the hands of any Minister at a time of their choosing and whether or not there is continuity of our laws at that time.

Exit day is not even defined as being, at the earliest, 29 March 2019. There appears to be no parliamentary supervision over that power. It would appear that Parliament does not need to approve the regulations. Parliament does not even get to see them in advance. Hon. Members will have their own views about the wisdom of Ministers having that power. For my own part, I find it hard to see how giving an unfettered power to any Minister—especially a Conservative Minister—is what Parliament taking back control looks like.

There is no need for Parliament to be cut out of that decision. If our talks with the EU produce a deal, it will need to be approved by the other member states and the European Parliament before the cut-off date of March 2019. So there will be ample time for Parliament to choose to accept it, and consequently for the UK to see the repeal of the 1972 Act on what most assume will be exit day—29 March 2019. But if our talks with the EU break down, it must be for Parliament and not Ministers to determine our response. Parliament may decide to repeal the 1972 Act anyway, or it may say that no deal will have calamitous consequences—crashing over the cliff is a long way from the sunlit uplands promised to the electorate.

Either way, what is important is that it is Parliament, not a Minister, who chooses how to respond. That is why Labour’s manifesto promised voters a meaningful choice. The question of what action we should take if talks break down is for Parliament to answer. The power for Ministers to exit with no deal should not be in the Bill. I will vote against a Bill containing this unfettered clause 1, and I hope for some words of reassurance from the Government on that today.

The vote tonight is not about whether we leave the European Union, it is about how we do so. For want of a better phrase, the Bill is little short of a dog’s Brexit. Parliament and the country deserve better.