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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:10 pm on 31st January 2018.

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Photo of Lord Warner Lord Warner Labour 12:10 pm, 31st January 2018

My Lords, even if I was not a culturally pro-European Londoner who considers that Brexit will damage the future of my children and grandchildren, I would regard the Bill as seriously flawed. I accept totally that EU withdrawal requires legislation that ensures legal certainty and continuity the day after we exit. My problem with the Bill is not its purpose but its cack-handed approach to executing that purpose, as the Constitution Committee has forensically exposed.

The Bill neither achieves legal certainty nor upholds the sovereignty of the UK Parliament. Indeed, in its present form it diminishes that sovereignty. The Government have chosen to ignore the warning they were given last September by the Constitution Committee about the unsatisfactory nature of the Bill’s approach, when in an interim report it said:

“The executive powers conferred by the Bill are unprecedented and extraordinary and raise fundamental constitutional questions about the separation of powers between Parliament and Government”.

The Government simply did not deal with these matters during the passage of the Bill in the Commons, despite the valiant efforts of a former Conservative Attorney-General and others. The Bill remains a constitutional mess despite all the discussions in the Commons recorded in the pages of Hansard, which are now said to exceed the length of War and Peace. Yet a dozen or so crisp paragraphs in the Constitution Committee’s Report—paragraphs 40 to 52—explain the fundamental flaw at the heart of this Bill: the failure to attribute a single legal status to all retained EU law. It is that failure that produces many of the ambiguities and confusions and the convoluted legal drafting running through the Bill.

But that flaw is not the only problem. If we leave this confused and confusing Bill in anything like its present state it represents a clear and present danger to parliamentary sovereignty, to the entrenched rights and protections that UK citizens have under the existing blend of EU and UK law, and to the devolution settlements with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as so many speakers have identified. Clause 6 creates obscurity and uncertainty around how the courts are to use EU case law after Brexit. The Bill casually dumps the European Charter of Fundamental Rights with no clear justification, as the Constitution Committee points out. The scrutiny arrangements for delegated powers remain inadequate, without a proper role for this House. As others, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Hain, have made clear, the Good Friday agreement remains in jeopardy from the Government’s fantasy that you can have a frictionless border in Ireland without a common customs union.

Fortunately, the Constitution Committee’s report provides analysis and solutions. Paragraph 52 proposes a straightforward solution to the fundamental flaw, namely that the legal status that should be applied to all retained direct EU law for all purposes should be the status of domestic primary legislation. This approach would secure legal certainty and continuity post Brexit, remove swathes of Henry VIII provisions and simplify the Bill significantly. The report’s summary of conclusions and recommendations are, I suggest, 65 paragraphs of good sense that the Government would be wise to embrace. But will they?

During the passage in this House of what became the ill-conceived Health and Social Care Act 2012, David Cameron paused the Bill to try to sort out the mess that the Government had got themselves into. This Government would do well to consider doing something similar with this Bill, drawing on the Constitution Committee’s report and using all-party talks. Perhaps the Minister could indicate whether the Government have any appetite for such an approach. If, however, they choose to dig in for minimal change, it will fall to this House to tackle robustly the many constitutional problems posed by this Bill. We should not be deterred from doing so by any internal or external threats and rants about thwarting Brexit or the will of the Commons. After all, many Members of the House of Commons expect and want this House, with its knowledge and expertise, to sort out the Bill’s defects. It is in the national interest that we do so.