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European Union (Withdrawal) Bill - Second Reading (2nd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:08 am on 31st January 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Kramer Baroness Kramer Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Treasury and Economy) 11:08 am, 31st January 2018

My Lords, it is intimidating, frankly, to hear the breadth of experience that has been brought to this debate, but I will do my best to speak from my much narrower experience. I spent the last couple of weeks heavily engaged in the anti-money laundering part of the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill. That has very much shaped my whole approach to this Bill, because the premise of that anti-money laundering part was the powers that currently go through a democratic process at European level: the fourth anti-money laundering directive was subject to consultation, scrutiny, debates within the European Parliament and votes in Council. The whole thrust of that Bill was that those powers should be repatriated to the UK, transferred not to this Parliament to treat in a similar democratic manner with primary legislation but directly to Ministers to make their decisions and enact them simply through regulation. That was an extraordinary shift.

This House negotiated with the Government. There were people anxious about the issue, led by the Law Lords—or rather our specialists in constitutional law, such as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge—but it was much broader than that. The Government made significant amendments, but it took two votes in this House to take out of that Bill the clauses that gave Ministers the power to create criminal offences and sentences—in one part of the Bill with imprisonment for up to 10 years, in the other with imprisonment for up to two years—by regulation alone.

I do not know how the Government will deal with those issues when that Bill goes to the other place, but when we read the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill and we hear the Government say that they will use their Henry VIII powers in very narrow ways, largely for technicalities, we recognise exactly the language that we heard during the debates on the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill, which in practice, in the eyes of almost everyone in this House, had a dramatically wide scope. In the case of that Bill, and I think this is illustrative, it was not just to achieve some immediate transposition of powers from Europe to the UK; the new system for exercising powers over anti-money laundering policy and frameworks was to be in perpetuity.

You can imagine that I take very seriously that part of Clause 9 in which the Government seek powers to change any piece of primary legislation, including the EU withdrawal Bill itself, and any of the limitations and constraints within it. It is with that hat on and with that concern that I will come to the Committee stage. I will be fighting particularly the Henry VIII powers to levy taxes, fees and charges, but I am sure that this House will tackle the issue far more broadly and recognise the significance of doing so.

In her opening speech, the noble Baroness, Lady Evans, talked about the importance of giving certainty. Who could disagree with that? It is critical. To me, though, certainty would mean that we knew what the Government’s plans were for the outcome of Brexit. The financial services sector, with which I am extensively engaged, has been denied even a position paper to outline what the Government’s preferred end position would be and to provide some sort of structure. That industry is part of the backbone of our economy.

We understand that there will be a transition period, largely a standstill, and that is welcome, but it is vital that individuals and businesses know now what it is meant to be a transition to. I talked last week to an inshore fisherman in Northern Ireland. He has to decide now whether to sell his boat because, following Brexit, all the good inshore fishing territories will be in southern Ireland and, if he does not sell his boat now, in a year or two it may be worth nothing. I talked to an architect, who told me that a Dutch client would like to engage him in a long-term development in the Netherlands. Will his qualifications be recognised? Will he be able to deliver his services from a UK base? He does not know, but he must decide now. A US company is seeking to do a five-year interest rate swap that it would normally clear through the London Clearing House, but will that be a valid swap in five years’ time or will the CCP with LCH be an unauthorised body, and will the company be in significant trouble with the regulatory authorities in the US? These are real decisions. Little companies, individuals and big companies alike have to be able to make decisions and act on contingency plans. For that, they must have clarity from the Government.

I realise that in a politically riven Government fudge is seen to have a great advantage, but we are at the point where that can be sustained no longer. I hope that the Government will see that certainty should apply not just to the measures in the Bill but to those broader issues as well. We must take the opportunity to use the Bill to make sure that people will be able to look at that final deal. The possible impacts on individuals, companies and people’s daily lives are across such a broad spectrum that surely, in a democracy, the people should have the final say.