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Exiting the European Union

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:32 pm on 28th June 2018.

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Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Chair, Committee on Exiting the European Union 12:32 pm, 28th June 2018

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for giving me the opportunity to present the sixth report of the Exiting the European Union Committee, on parliamentary scrutiny and approval of the withdrawal agreement and negotiations on a future partnership. I am grateful to all those who gave evidence to the Committee, including two Ministers from the Department for Exiting the European Union—and it is good to see a third here today. I am also grateful to the terrific team who support us in our work, and to all the members of the Committee. On occasion we are not able to agree on everything, but that is the nature of Brexit.

The Committee thought that it would be helpful to the House to set out the task that will face us as the process of leaving the European Union unfolds, and that is what the report covers. Let me say first that time is very tight. Even if we secure a withdrawal agreement and a political declaration at the October Council—and that must now be in doubt—the Committee will expect to take evidence from the Secretary of State as soon as possible thereafter so that we can report to the House. That would probably take us to about mid-November for Parliament’s debate and meaningful vote to approve the agreement. We recommend that the debate should last at least five days, which is the amount of time that was provided in 1971 for the House to debate whether we should join the common market.

This will be a very important moment, and the Committee believes that the debate will need to be managed in a way that gives the House an opportunity to express its opinion clearly. We recommend that the Business of the House motion should make it possible for the Speaker to select a series of different amendments, and we are asking the Procedure Committee to advise on how that could best be done.

If this House and the other place approve the withdrawal agreement, the Government will introduce a withdrawal agreement and implementation Bill to give effect to it in UK law. The Bill will have to receive Royal Assent before we leave the EU, because otherwise the UK would be bound by the agreement without the legislation to implement it. That would put the country potentially in breach of international law, and would create legal uncertainty for businesses and citizens.

We could have just three to four months, or approximately 60 to 70 sitting days, in which to pass the Bill. Given that it took more than 11 months for the European Withdrawal (Withdrawal) Act 2018 to complete its passage, that is not a lot of time for the scrutiny that will be required. We then need to add to that the 21-day CRaG process—which relates to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010—for the ratification of treaties, which is likely to take place in parallel with the withdrawal agreement and implementation Bill, and the time required for other Bills to do with Brexit, and statutory instruments that will need to be passed before exit day. We shall be legislating for a new immigration system, a new customs system, new systems for agricultural support, a new legal basis for management of our fisheries, and lots of other things. When we consider all that, the scale of the task becomes very clear.

Now, let us imagine for a moment that the withdrawal agreement and political declaration are not finalised at the October Council. Given where we are, that would not be surprising. Indeed, the draft conclusions from the European Council suggest that there will not be a breakthrough in negotiations today or tomorrow. On the contrary, the EU is saying that we need to speed up the process—although I would observe that it takes two to move faster—and it wants much greater clarity about what the UK is seeking for the future partnership.

The fact that, two years after the referendum, Ministers have yet to reach agreement on what kind of customs arrangements they would like with our biggest, nearest and most important trading partner reminds us how much more is still to be done. It is also a cause of growing concern to business, as we have seen in the last couple of weeks, and there is still no agreement on the backstop to prevent the return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Today’s European Council was once billed as a “make or break” meeting on the Irish border, on which progress would be needed to keep the negotiations on track, but that does not seem likely either now.

If there is no agreement until November or the end of the year, that will leave even less time for Parliament properly to scrutinise the proposed deal and to put in place the required legislation by March 2019—and, of course, we are not the only Parliament that must approve the agreement. As the Committee heard from Guy Verhofstadt MEP last week, the European Parliament needs three months in which to consider and give its consent to the agreement before the EU can conclude it. He said that the Parliament must receive the deal by the end of this year, or it will not have enough time to vote on it by March next year.

Then we come to the meaningful vote in the House. If we approve the agreement, matters can progress, but what if we choose to place some conditions on our approval? What if we reject the agreement? What if the European Parliament rejects it? The Secretary of State has previously said that the House of Commons voting down the deal would mean the UK leaving without a deal, but the Committee does not accept that.

In considering an amendable motion, the House of Commons would have the opportunity to make its reasoning clear in any decision to reject the agreement or to place conditions on it. In such circumstances, the House would surely expect the Government to take full account, to seek to re-enter negotiations if required, and then to come back to the House with a further motion. That is why we say in our report that it is important for Parliament to be able to express its view clearly and advise the Government on how to proceed. The Government would then need to return to the House with any renegotiated text and resubmit the motion, because they cannot introduce the withdrawal agreement and implementation Bill until Parliament approves the agreement.

The Committee remains concerned that the looming deadline of March next year leaves very little room for manoeuvre. We call on the Government to publish details of their intended legislative timetable, the publication dates of any White or Green Papers, and any contingency plans for handling a no-deal outcome. We reiterate the recommendation in our third report that the Government should be prepared to seek a limited extension to the article 50 period in the event that substantive aspects of the future relationship remain to be agreed, or if there is a lack of parliamentary consent to the withdrawal agreement, or if there is no deal. However, we do recognise that it is by no means certain that the EU would respond positively to such a request.

Finally, I turn to the negotiations on the future relationship. Assuming that a withdrawal agreement and political declaration is concluded, we will have only 21 months from the date of our withdrawal to the end of the transition period in December 2020 in which to turn a political declaration into legal text on the future relationship and for such a treaty—and it could be more than one treaty—to be ratified. I think we all know that the negotiators will be dealing with a task that is frankly unparalleled in its scope and complexity and in the detail that will be required. There is a possibility that this will prove insufficient time to do all that work. We therefore call on the Government to seek that a mechanism be put into the withdrawal agreement for the extension of the transition period if that is required. We also call on the Government to ensure that Parliament is given a meaningful vote on the final text of the agreement with the EU that will cover the UK-EU relationship in the years ahead.

The report says:

“The debate on the motion for approval of the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration will be one of the most significant parliamentary debates in a generation.”

We all want to do that moment justice, and I hope that our report will assist the House in doing precisely that.