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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:35 pm on 31st January 2018.

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Photo of Lord Bichard Lord Bichard Crossbench 12:35 pm, 31st January 2018

My Lords, many Peers here and many Members in the other place have referred to this as a technical Bill. In its current state, it is anything but a technical Bill, because it has serious implications for our constitution and for our system of democracy. We should recognise this.

Since the referendum, we have heard a great deal of the need to respect the democratic mandate which the result provided. The people voted, albeit by a narrow majority, to leave the EU, and it must therefore be right that their decision is implemented. This is a moment for us to reflect on and respect the foundations on which our democratic system has been built, not to ignore them. For example, our system has within it a series of checks and balances which ensure that political leaders, once elected, cannot do as they wish without challenge, or without the need to transparently justify their actions and to be accountable in the long term. These checks and balances are never more important than when a policy is controversial or is the subject of the kind of passionate feelings that many politicians demonstrate for Brexit.

Theses checks mean that departmental accounting officers have the right to seek directions; that this House has the right to scrutinise and challenge; that the National Audit Office, which I chair, has the right not just to audit public bodies but to investigate and report on value for money and propriety; and, of course, that the judiciary has the responsibility to judge whether or not the law is being respected. These checks are not, as some seem to believe, irritating evidence of a determination to undermine democracy, but central tenets of our democratic model. We should treat them as such, cherishing and embracing them, because true democracy recognises that the best decisions derive from an exchange of opinion. As the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, said yesterday, some decisions are too important to be left to those who have no doubt.

As many Peers have said, our particular democracy has also placed limitations on the power of the Executive to make substantive changes to law by way of secondary legislation. However, the Bill before us specifically gives Ministers the right, via the correcting powers in Clauses 7, 8 and 9, to amend primary legislation by statutory instrument. For example, Clause 7 sets out the powers for Ministers using secondary legislation to amend or undo any EU laws they claim are not operating effectively or are suffering from any other deficiency arising from the withdrawal. The vagueness of these definitions gives Ministers unprecedented discretion, which strikes at the heart of our democracy.

Many people who voted for Brexit did so because they felt ignored and that they had lost control of their destinies. They did not vote for Brexit in order to give Ministers unbridled powers to take away their fundamental rights. The Government belatedly seem prepared to make concessions on this issue, but I am by no means yet convinced that these go far enough. The way in which these concessions have been offered—with apparent reluctance and so late in the day—does little to reassure me that the importance of this issue for the sovereignty of Parliament has been understood. This view was reinforced earlier by the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer.

Our particular democracy is also defined by the way in which we provide access to fundamental human rights—the right to education; the right of older people to lead lives of dignity and independence; the right to protect personal data, and the right to conscientiously object. But by excluding the European Charter of Fundamental Rights from retained EU law, the Government have called into question our commitment to those rights. They have created confusion at the very time when clarity is needed and they have diluted the domestic protection available to those who feel that they have been denied access. Our determination to create a society that recognises and values these fundamental rights, and that genuinely strives to turn the aspirations into reality, is what has given our democracy its meaning and purpose. We should never dilute our commitment to those rights or even give the impression that we are doing so.

Our future is not just about whether we remain part of the EU, as some seem to believe. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds said yesterday in what I thought was a wonderful speech, we need to ask ourselves what sort of Britain we want to inhabit. Who do we think we are? What do we live for and what are we prepared to die for? For me, and I suspect for many others in this House, the answer lies in the democratic system we have built down the years and in the fundamental human rights that many of us have sought to enhance and protect during our lives. The withdrawal process must never be achieved at the expense of those core values. There is not now, and I hope that there never will be, a mandate for that. We in this House need to have the courage to amend and improve this flawed Bill, not to frustrate democracy, but to protect it.