I shall be brief because I support amendments 381 and 400, advocated by my right hon. Friend Sir Oliver Letwin and my hon. and learned Friend Mr Cox. I congratulate them on arriving at quite sensible arrangements. I know others want to speak, so I will not be drawn into the wider debate that Mr Leslie initiated with his new clause, and took some pleasure in pursuing—as others have done, too. A lot of today’s debate has been about rerunning the arguments around the referendum and coming to a different conclusion. People are welcome to do that as much as they like, but when they say that the British people have not been consulted, I think they were consulted, and they voted and that vote was binding, and we are now getting on with it.
I congratulate Ministers on their persistence on the Front Bench over the past eight days of debate on the Bill. I believe that they listened carefully to those with different opinions and made many, many changes. I say to many of my right hon. and hon. Friends who have disagreed with the Government over this issue on a number of occasions—and even voted against them, where necessary, as I have done in the past—that I am just a touch jealous of them. When I voted against the Government on Maastricht, I knew I did not have a hope in hell of getting anything changed. I was always told, “You can’t change any of this because we have just signed an agreement.” I am jealous because they have actually managed to get some change, so I congratulate them on achieving something that I was never able to achieve 25 years ago. None the less, I hope that tonight they do not necessarily choose to pursue that course of action with the amendments before us.
I say so because I think, in congratulating Ministers and others on signing up to the amendments, they do tidy up something that has been a concern—not just a concern felt by right hon. and hon. Friends who were in a strongly opposed position, but many others. I feel it is right to put the date of our departure in the Bill. I think it is quite right because it makes a statement of reality, which is that we are bound under article 50. The Bill, which is a process, should have the same provision in it. But we have to retain some flexibility within that. Following clause 1, which essentially says that we are repealing the European Communities Act 1972, we do not want to get into a mess where we end up having one set of dates for the repeal of that Act and another set of dates for a final conclusion of any arrangements we make with the European Union.
That conflict of law would have created a bigger problem, and I am sure we would have had to return to the matter on Third Reading, or even after the Bill came back from the other place. I therefore think that this way of doing things is neater and more flexible than the alternative, which would have been to pass a set of primary legislation to modify this Bill, as and when we reach agreements. I think that would have been a bit of a nightmare for my right hon. and hon. Friends. To that extent, I believe that this is a better way to do things.
The words in article 50 are pretty clear. I have read them on a number of occasions—I do read other things as well. Article 50 states quite clearly—it has always been clear—that the treaties shall cease to apply
“from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification…unless the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned, unanimously decides to extend this period.”
Article 50 has always been clear that, should there be a requirement for an extension for practical reasons or whatever, it is up to the 28 countries to agree unanimously. To that extent, the amendment achieves that rather succinctly, but I stand by the fact that it was right for the Government to have been firm in wanting to put the date in the Bill. It would have been an anomaly not to have a date in the Bill and they would have had to come back at some stage to put it in. To provide that flexibility now makes it worthwhile.
I have heard that some colleagues do not like the amendment, because they cannot trust the Government to stick to it and to make only marginal changes. The problem for those of us who have supported the Government is that we have had to bite the bullet a lot and give them a great deal of trust. For over 44 years, I have watched successive Governments—I have been a part of some of them, happily, up to a certain point—implement, through section 2 of the European Communities Act 1972 and the use of statutory instruments, vast changes to the way we regulate and legislate here in the United Kingdom. The Government’s original position when this was first debated was that they did not think it would lead to many changes being brought in by statutory instrument. I wonder if those who pushed the Bill through, on revisiting the scale of the changes brought in by statutory instruments over 40 years, would think that they had misread what they were actually giving Governments the power to do.
I have a lot of sympathy for those who do not want to be left in the position of trusting the Government—none of us do. One reason why I felt all along that I was prepared to give the Government the benefit of the doubt is simply because the process has a conclusion beyond which they will not be able to proceed. The process of leaving the European Union will ultimately bring back—this is one of the reasons I am very keen on it—an enhancement of Parliament’s role to a far greater degree than it has been over the years. I have on many occasions watched pointless debates in the House knowing full well there was absolutely nothing we could change—not just Maastricht, but all the other treaty changes and so on—as we in Parliament had no power whatever to call the Government to account on any of these issues. The reality was that they were already bound by a process in another place.
The argument that the use of statutory instruments to push European regulations through the House was legitimate because Government Ministers entertained a debate among Government Ministers within the European Union does not make any sense to me. Those who advance that argument then say they want Parliament to have all the say and that they do not trust the Government on statutory instruments. They seem to be colliding in their own argument from two different directions.
I fully accept that we want to ensure that the Government are not just working on the basis of trust. To that extent, I recognise and accept that the changes will help to ensure that they do not. However, I would say that we cannot just sweep away the past 40 years on the basis that this was somehow okay because Government officials and Ministers discussed these things. Parliament had no say whatever for 40 years. It could not change anything. As I said when I talked about Maastricht, we could not change anything. I knew it was pretty pointless, but I none the less opposed various elements and voted accordingly. I knew there was not a chance of us changing anything because Parliament had no power. Parliament will now again have power over a Government. I think that some of the very poor behaviour of Governments of both parties over the years in being able to ignore Parliament will start to fall away. I hope and believe that Parliament will again reassert itself.
I say to my right hon. and hon. Friends who are concerned about this, the idea—