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European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:22 pm on 9th January 2020.

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Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Green, Brighton, Pavilion 3:22 pm, 9th January 2020

No, the hon. Lady can sit down.

The fourth thing I want to say is that, as well as being deeply concerned, on the basis of evidence, about the very real risks of the Conservatives watering down environmental legislation, there is the issue that many have returned to again and again today: the cruel and hostile position on refugees in general and on child refugees in particular. Frankly, I thought that what happened yesterday, watching the Tory MPs troop through the Lobby to vote against provisions that would have protected child refugees, was quite shameful.

I want to focus on parliamentary sovereignty—an issue that should be, I would have imagined, a concern to all of us in this place. Surely we ought to be able to agree that, irrespective of our very different positions on Brexit or even on environmental standards, we do want a voice and a say for MPs in this place. For almost four years we have heard that leaving the EU would mean taking back control, and yet it is now clearer than ever that that control will not rest with communities, regions or even Parliament, but will be almost entirely in the hands of No. 10 Downing Street.

For this Government, democratic scrutiny is apparently a mere inconvenience, so MPs are to be denied a say over our most important post-Brexit trading relationship. So let us be very clear: this is an Executive power grab. Indeed, ironically given all the rhetoric about taking back control, this withdrawal agreement Bill gives MPs in this place less of a say over our trade with the EU than Members of the European Parliament will have in Brussels, who have a guaranteed vote on trade deals as well as sight of the pre-negotiation mandate.

Trade agreements may not always be headline-grabbing news, but they are very far from just being a dry subject about tariffs and taxes. They now have a profound impact on our efforts to tackle the climate crisis, and on our food standards, workers’ rights and vital public services. Our future relationship with the EU should be open to scrutiny and approval by this Parliament. We should be able to prevent the setting of a dangerous precedent of MPs being denied any oversight not just of this agreement but of future post-Brexit trade deals, such as that to be concluded with the US. Significantly, as we heard yesterday, the Prime Minister’s previous EU withdrawal agreement did include much-needed provisions for parliamentary scrutiny. They were outlined in clause 31. They gave MPs oversight of the negotiating objectives and a vote on the final deal, and required regular reporting during negotiations. That clause is conspicuous by its absence from the new Bill.

There is to be no parliamentary scrutiny of the future relationship with the EU, which is by far our largest trading partner. Indeed, any transparency will be entirely dependent on the good will of the Executive. We should have had an obligation for the Government to publish their negotiating objectives. They should have been unable to proceed with those negotiations until they had been approved by this House. We should have had real transparency during negotiations. Texts should be published after each round of negotiations, giving MPs the opportunity to review progress. The Government have often sought to reassure the public and parliamentarians alike about trade negotiations, but unless we have full transparency those reassurances are worth nothing.

We should have had a meaningful vote on the deal itself and, of course, it should have been on an amendable motion before any final deal was ratified. The lack of scrutiny afforded to trade agreements is a relic of a bygone era. Today, trade agreements permeate every element of our lives, from the food we eat, to our environment and labour standards to the protection of public services such as the NHS, yet it is staggering that MPs have less of a say over trade agreements than far narrower policy initiatives. Last, but not least, we should have had a comprehensive impact assessment that is available for proper review. So far, the Government have completely failed in their duty to assess the impact of Brexit. In the amendment that I moved yesterday, I proposed an independent body to consider the impact of any new deal on climate change, human rights and the economy. It seems a great shame to me that that amendment was defeated.

All I am asking for is that we should have our democracy upheld, so that MPs can do their jobs and hold Government to account. Significantly, the other place did pass an amendment to the Trade Bill in the previous Session, which would have given Parliament a say over post-Brexit trade deals, including on transparency during negotiations, a vote on the mandate and a final vote on the deal. The other place seems to be doing a better job of standing up for all our interests than we are doing here ourselves. We should not be letting this go through without parliamentary scrutiny. We should not be setting a precedent for Parliament to be denied scrutiny, not just of this agreement but of future trade agreements too.

The final point that I want to make is that clearly, under our rotten electoral system, the Government won the election with a majority of 80 seats. However, that does not reflect the public’s views on the deal, and, indeed, on the confirmatory referendum. I accept that under this electoral system they have a majority of 80, but that gives them particular responsibilities—[Interruption.] One of which might be to actually listen to what someone on the Opposition Benches is saying. A majority of 80 gives the Government particular responsibilities. Those responsibilities are to address the very many reasons that people voted to leave the EU. I have been travelling around the country listening to leave voters on the many reasons they had for voting leave. Of course, yes, some of them did indeed vote that way because they have fundamental disagreements with the EU, but many, many people I spoke to voted leave because they wanted to send a clear message to all of us here.

The message they wanted to send was that they believe the status quo is intolerable. To that extent, they were right. The social contract is broken, and the power game is rigged. The referendum outcome was a resounding radical rejection of the status quo, of an economy that brutally fails so many, forcing parents to use food banks to feed their children, demonising immigrants and condemning us to climate breakdown. It was also a powerful and furious comment on our broken democracy.

All too often, it feels to people—particularly those who are more distant from London—that politics is something that gets done to them rather than by them, or with them. Brexit laid bare the extent to which our governance structures are derelict. When citizens were deprived of a credible representative power that clearly belongs to or is accountable to them, it led to anger with the most remote authority of all. The EU was effectively blamed for the UK’s structural elitism and held responsible as the source of all powerlessness.

The Bill shows no sign of giving us back control, or crucially, of giving back control to many of the people who voted leave in good faith, expecting that that was what it was going to be about. There is no sense here that there will be any change to the settlement on the way we are governed. There is no sense that this Government will be one who, as well as redistributing financial resources, might just consider redistributing power. Those are some of the many reasons why I will vote against the Bill today.