European Union (Withdrawal) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:15 pm on 30th January 2018.

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Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 12:15 pm, 30th January 2018

My Lords, I want to make three points: on the degree of freedom the Government are asking for to make secondary legislation; on the absence of guarantees for consultation with English regions and local authorities; and about the uncertain links between withdrawal from the EU treaties and Britain’s future contribution to Europe’s political and security order.

The Leader of the House has just told us that the Bill offers certainty. It does not. The Government are asking both Houses to take an enormous amount on trust. It would be easier to trust the Government if they could provide some indication of what future relationship with the European Union they want to negotiate. Scrutinising this Bill against a background of open disagreements among Ministers and Conservative MPs about future alignment or the divergence of regulation will be peculiarly difficult. If half the Conservative Party does not trust the Cabinet on this, and the unelected journalists of the Daily Mail and the Telegraph are actively mistrustful, how can we grant the Government such wide ministerial discretion?

The cloudy phrases that the Prime Minister trots out to obscure where the Government intend to take us, on a relationship that is fundamental to Britain’s future economy, security and place in the world, make the confusion worse. What is a “bespoke” agreement? A friend has told me that a bespoke suit is one that costs a great deal more than one off the peg, but offers only a few tweaks in the way it is put together. The phrase a “deep and special” agreement is deliberately ambiguous. No Minister has spelled out the subtle differences between a “transitional” agreement and an “implementation” agreement, or the distinction between “a” customs union and “the” customs union. This House is justified, therefore, in narrowing the degree of ministerial discretion that the Bill permits. We have been given little idea of what Ministers might consider “appropriate”, as the Bill says, in exercising the Executive powers it gives them. We should therefore amend that term wherever it appears to “necessary”, to narrow the degree of freedom they are given. I hope that this will command support across the House.

There will be much debate in Committee about the implications of Brexit for the devolution settlement with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and whether repatriation will tip the existing balance of competences in favour of Westminster. Those of us who live in the English regions—above all those of us who live in the north—will want to see how far we can insert amendments to provide for effective consultation also with English local authorities. Yorkshire and the north-east have a combined population larger than Scotland, have much greater economic interdependence with the European continent than Wales or Northern Ireland, and have benefited from EU funding while Westminster has starved the north of funds. We will work with the Local Government Association to insert a requirement for consultation in this Bill, unless the Government come forward with clear proposals of their own—and I gather that that is now under discussion.

The Bill’s focus is primarily on repatriating powers under the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. I will seek also to probe the Government on the implications of withdrawing from the more intergovernmental Treaty on European Union, which is concerned with fundamental rights, democratic principles, common foreign policy, and security and defence policy. Do the Government intend to opt out of any concern about the future European order after we leave? Or do at least some Ministers intend that continued co-operation in these crucial fields will somehow be woven into the “deep and special partnership” that the Government promise us they will eventually define? It would be a complete betrayal of a crucial theme in Margaret Thatcher’s Bruges speech to opt out of sharing the responsibility for maintaining and strengthening a democratic order across the whole of Europe. If I may remind the House, she said:

“Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community. Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community … The European Community is a practical means by which Europe can ensure the future prosperity and security of its people in a world in which there are many other powerful nations and groups of nations”.

This Bill shows that those who claim Mrs Thatcher’s legacy have betrayed it.

However, the Government are now reported to be reconsidering the complete withdrawal from foreign and defence collaboration. There are even whispers about continued membership of the European Defence Agency, covered by Article 45 of the Treaty on European Union. I and others will be probing the Government on what form of continued association they intend to negotiate on the areas covered by Articles 23 to 46 of the TEU, and how they intend to seek parliamentary approval for their engagement in these fields.

Another empty phrase, “We are leaving the European Union but we are not leaving Europe”, is intended to blur the question of how we will associate with the EU’s established frameworks, which successive British Governments, from Lord Carrington onwards, helped to build. The Foreign Secretary has said nothing about this central issue so far as I am aware, but we are entitled to an answer as the Bill goes through.