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2nd Day

Part of European Union (Withdrawal) Bill – in the House of Commons at 6:39 pm on 11th September 2017.

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Photo of Heidi Alexander Heidi Alexander Labour, Lewisham East 6:39 pm, 11th September 2017

I will be voting against the Bill tonight because it is a thoroughly bad piece of legislation. It is unprecedented in the powers it gives to Ministers, it fails to guarantee all the rights and protections currently enjoyed by individuals and businesses in the UK, and it paves the way for a Minister to sit behind a desk in Whitehall and take us out of the single market with the stroke of a pen.

On the most important issue facing this country—our continued membership of the single market—the Bill could mean no direct vote in Parliament, no say for MPs and no voice for our constituents. When we talk about a power grab, it does not get much bigger than that.

I say this to Ministers: should the Bill pass its Second Reading tonight, I will table amendments to ensure that it is Parliament, not Ministers, that determines whether we come out of the European economic area. As currently drafted, the Bill repeals the European Economic Area Act 1993, the law that incorporates the EEA agreement into British law.

The European economic area, as all hon. Members will know, contains the countries of the EU plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. The EEA is a way to stay in the single market while being outside the EU; it is a way to maintain ease of trade while being outside the jurisdiction of the ECJ. I may prefer to stay in the single market by remaining in the EU, but that horse has bolted. I am a realist, and I recognise the result of the referendum, but I will not hand over all the cards to Ministers to determine how we leave.

The repeal of the EEA Act in part 2 of schedule 8 and the provisions set out in clause 8 are likely to be used by Ministers to claim they have parliamentary authority to notify other contracting parties to the EEA agreement of the UK’s intention to leave the single market. Ministers could claim the Bill authorises them to make a written withdrawal notification, in line with article 127 of the EEA agreement, despite that not being in the Bill. That is not good enough. Just as we had an Act of Parliament to trigger article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, we should have an Act of Parliament to trigger article 127 of the EEA agreement.

The EU and the EEA are two different things governed by two different agreements. Surely the withdrawal of the UK from an international agreement, not least one that could hold the key to our continued membership of the single market, should be a decision for every Member of this House. Irrespective of whether we believe the country should be out of the single market, in it for a transitional period or in it indefinitely, how can that not be a decision for this Parliament? It was not decided in the referendum last year. The words “single market” were not on the ballot paper. Anyone who claims that they were is simply interpreting the referendum’s outcome.

Let us not forget that when the Prime Minister put her extreme Brexit plan to the electorate this year, she could not win a majority. The idea that we allow this Bill to fudge it, and that we leave it to Ministers to decide our fate without recourse to Parliament, would be a democratic disgrace of the highest order.

Our continued membership of the single market, along with our ability to stay in the European customs union, is the most important issue for our country. It is about jobs and trade, but it is also about tackling austerity and investing in our schools and hospitals. If we crash the economy on the altar of concerns about immigration and sovereignty, our public finances will be hit and the cuts of the last seven years will pale into insignificance.

I understand Ministers’ desire to create a functioning statute book, but I want a functioning economy and a functioning democracy as well. I am not prepared to cede major decisions on our country’s future to the Prime Minister, her three musketeers and whoever comes after them. I am not prepared to let a hard-line Tory obsession with immigration determine our future prosperity. And I am definitely not prepared to legislate to exclude myself and, for that matter, every other Member of the House from having our say on behalf of our constituents.