European Union (Withdrawal) Bill - Second Reading (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:53 pm on 30th January 2018.

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Photo of The Duke of Wellington The Duke of Wellington Conservative 9:53 pm, 30th January 2018

My Lords, at the end of a long day, I am sure we will all be brief. I will try to be so. I will restrict myself to commenting only on the provisions of the Bill. As always, I must declare my European interests, as detailed in the register, and add that I was an MEP for 10 years in the 1980s.

The Bill is about how to get European law on to our statute book. It is clearly necessary for the good government of the country and, at its Second Reading, I think it should be supported. However, this House, which has so much expertise and a deserved reputation for the effectiveness of its scrutiny, must make some changes to the Bill, in my opinion. I do not accept, as has been suggested by one or two noble Lords, the idea that amending the Bill amounts in some way to obstructing Brexit. In fact, it is probable that the Government are expecting the House to make some changes, and I have some concerns.

First, as a non-lawyer, I am concerned by the very great powers that Ministers are taking to themselves to make statutory instruments in great volume and great substance. Many Members of both Houses of Parliament wish to see control pass back from Brussels to London, but surely to Parliament, not to government Ministers. There will be amendments in Committee to constrain the powers in Clauses 7 and 9 and I am minded to support those amendments.

I first learned about Henry VIII powers when I chaired a lecture at King’s College London given by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge. I am therefore aware of the tendency of Ministers of all parties to propose ever-increasing numbers of statutory instruments, but in this Bill it has gone too far and Parliament should restrict these powers as much as possible.

My second concern is that the Government find it necessary to amend their own Bill by inserting an exact time and date for exit day. I realise that there is a power to change this, but I favour deleting the date from the Bill altogether. The only point that matters now is that the Government should be given as much flexibility as possible to try and negotiate a satisfactory agreement and a final deal that does not damage the economy. We must all hope that the Government can formulate a coherent negotiating position and that other Ministers can refrain from making comments outside of their own responsibilities.

I have still not heard a satisfactory explanation of how we can keep a totally open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic while we leave the single market and the customs union. When the Minister replies, can he address this point? My final concern is in respect of the devolved Administrations. If the decision of the referendum was to take back control, it was surely to this Parliament and on devolved matters to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly, when it resumes. There is a very regrettable impression given on this and other matters that the Government wish to take power back from Brussels to themselves and not to this Parliament and the devolved legislatures.

We have a duty in this House to accept the principle of the Bill, but to seek to scrutinise, amend and improve. Indeed, as our own Constitution Committee has declared and has much been quoted in this debate, the Bill as drafted is “constitutionally unacceptable”. That surely means that we have a duty to amend it. I hope that during the passage of this Bill through this House, Ministers will make concessions to ensure that Parliament indeed has more control. If that can happen, this House will have done its duty.