Legislating for the Withdrawal Agreement

Part of Yemen – in the House of Commons at 6:04 pm on 10th September 2018.

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Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee 6:04 pm, 10th September 2018

I am bound to say that the system in this House involved much more transparency. For example, we do not have decisions taken by Parliaments that are determined by proportional representation. We do not have a system under which there are no transcripts of the proceedings. In this House, the Bills that go through Parliament set out all the provisions, and all legislation is subject to amendment by both Houses. Everything is printed. Hansard is available. Proceedings are filmed and shown on the parliamentary channel. People know where and how decisions are taken. The proposed joint committee will be no more than a consultative operation, and that does not mean that anything will come out of it.

A letter from the Secretary of State was put before my Committee on 5 September—more or less as we sat down that morning—regarding the discussions that we were going to have with Mr Olly Robbins and the Secretary of State. The letter says that there will be a

“working assumption that we would continue with the current model for providing written evidence to the committees through Explanatory Memoranda”.

My Committee is quite clear that that will not be anything like early enough. We want to know that we are going to get an explanatory memorandum at a very early stage. With regard to the scrutiny of the EU’s legislative proposals during the proposed joint committee procedure, the Secretary of State goes on to say:

“we will work closely with Parliament to agree upon a scrutiny system which, in the first instance, facilitates Parliament’s role in scrutinising EU proposals that may affect the UK during the implementation period.”

There is nothing, of course, about the fact that the process will go on afterwards. This is a pig in poke. We do not know what the scrutiny system will be, but we are being asked to approve it. Today’s debate is just a foretaste of what is to come. Working closely with Parliament to agree a scrutiny system but not actually telling us how the joint committee will work in practice is absolutely fundamental in this debate.

In the letter, the Secretary of State goes on to say:

“Given the way the EU’s legislative process works, most Council directives and regulations which will come into force during the implementation period have already been agreed or are being negotiated now, while the UK is still a Member State.”

Now, I know that the Minister referred to that point in her opening statement but, unfortunately, this does not deal with changes to the rulebook.

Let us suppose that it is the case that the 27 member states—with us not even at the table—will be able to make changes themselves and then effectively impose them on us, and that we are going to have a committee system. That system has not yet been agreed with us, and the details of it are extremely obscure but involve no more than consultation. If that is the case, when the negotiation of treaty obligations has been completed and we have entered into international obligations, which is what this will amount to, how on earth are we supposed to accept it when we—or the Committee or Committees scrutinising those questions—are then told, “Oh, this has all been agreed by international obligation behind closed doors”? We will have accepted the fact that that something will happen, but we will not actually be in a position to do anything about it at all. We are not merely buying a pig in a poke; we are also being bound and shackled by European law, and I have not even touched on the question of the arbitration arrangement.

Although I am in favour of arbitration in principle, the real question is whether it will be subject to European Court of Justice interpretation. I do not have time to go into all that today, but I simply put it on the table that that is a really serious problem. I know that the matter is currently under discussion, but it looks very much as if we will be buying into a reshackling of our Parliament and our businesses. The certainty that is being offered would be absolutely catastrophic if, in fact, the process went wrong and rules were imposed on us. That is what I am most concerned about in this context.

As for the parliamentary lock, the Prime Minister herself, in a pamphlet published by Politeia in 2007, was very explicit about the failures of the European system of oversight in the UK Parliament. Anyone can read it for themselves. All I am saying is that it is absolutely catastrophic. I have been on the European Scrutiny Committee for 33 years, and not once in all that time—and certainly not at any time before that—has Parliament ever overturned an EU decision that has been taken in the Council of Ministers. What confidence could we possibly have that that would ever happen, particularly as the Prime Minister said herself in her pamphlet that parliamentary sovereignty in this context was a fiction?

It is all very well to fall back on the concept that under our constitution we have the power to overturn legislative arrangements by Act of Parliament—that no Parliament can bind its successors and the rest of it. However, if, in practice, as with the European Communities Act in the first place, we voluntarily agree that we are going to accept what is being done, that situation is made worse by the context—a referendum in which the British people agreed by common consent that we will leave the European Union, with the Government accepting that; and the fact that the European Union Referendum Act 2015 was passed by Members of the House of Commons by six to one and the withdrawal Act was passed by 499 to 120, or whatever it was. It is crystal clear that we should be in control of making of our own legislation on our own terms, not supplicants to the European Union.

What this is all about is that we are supplicants to the European Union, and I put that to the Secretary of State and Mr Olly Robbins. We are going to the European Union and saying, “What is it that you are prepared to give us?” And that is just not good enough. I say that because, apart from anything else, under this White Paper, the scrutiny process—during the implementation period and even afterwards—leaves us extremely exposed. That is the problem. It leaves us in a position whereby we are effectively engaging in a form of legal re-entry into the European Communities Act 1972. I do not believe—I have to say this in all candour—that the Government did not know that. I believe that they did know it, unequivocally, before the repeal of the ’72 Act was passed via the withdrawal Act’s Royal Assent. No one is going to kid me that the White Paper, which was produced 14 days later, did not get written in anticipation that we were going to repeal the ’72 Act through section 1 of the withdrawal Act at the end of June but then end up undermining that repeal within a matter of 14 days. I find that absolutely extraordinary. It was Chequers that did it. Up until Chequers, I was 100% behind the Government. Chequers ended up undermining the basis of the collective responsibility, as I understand it, of members of the Cabinet, because they did not know about that either.

I come back to the simple point: this is an unacceptable arrangement. We do not know how the joint committee will to operate. We have no confidence whatever that it is going to be more than a mere consultation, and what is COREPER going to be doing about all this in the meantime?

There is much more that I could say, but others want to speak. I regard this as a very, very serious breach of trust. I am afraid that that is the basis on which I approach this debate. I think that a lot of people outside—the punters; the real people of this country—know and understand this. We decided on 23 June 2016 that we would leave the European Union. We did not agree that we were going to come back with some form of legal re-entry to satisfy the whims of the European Union, and particularly the country that dominates it most—namely, Germany.