Brexit: Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration - Motion to Take Note (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:30 pm on 14th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Chair, EU Internal Market Sub-Committee 4:30 pm, 14th January 2019

My Lords, I want first to focus on what may appear a parochial issue: the role of this House in the next few weeks. If the Government lose tomorrow, we are on course to crash out of the EU without a deal within three months. Yet, as a Parliament, we have nowhere near set up the legislative framework or regulatory order that will be needed for British business, agriculture or society as a whole to operate at home and abroad. When will the Government set out clearly their proposed sequencing and timetable for the scrutiny both of primary legislation required prior to Brexit and the large number of statutory instruments that we require to pass by the time we leave? That is a question that Ministers in various different contexts have dodged frequently over the last few weeks. Without this, we will, frankly, be in legal chaos. In primary legislation, we have at last restarted the Trade Bill, which is inadequate and incomplete. Yet we have not seen the Bills on migration. This House has not yet had sight of the Agriculture Bill. We need an environment Bill and the Fisheries Bill. On top of that, we have several hundred statutory instruments to pass to make sense of Brexit—if, indeed, we leave on 29 March. Only about 10% of those statutory instruments have been passed so far.

All that must be done within the next 10 weeks. That is a nigh-impossible task. I ask the Government: how are they going to manage it? When will they tell the rest of the House how we are going to manage it? Or do they have a different plan? Do they intend, perhaps, to recognise at last the folly of putting 29 March in primary legislation in the withdrawal Act? Alternatively, are they proposing to deal with it by emergency regulation and emergency legislation? In other words, do they intend to operate in the next few weeks government by decree? Does it mean that taking back control means, in effect, that we subject ourselves to a system of Napoleonic edict by the current Government? The role of this House and the other place, in looking at that legislation, is vital in order that we have a climate and legal structure in which to operate.

When the referendum result came through, like others, I was deeply saddened. But I did not immediately think that this must be overturned. Instead, both personally and as chair of one of your Lordships’ EU sub-committees, I focused on the options available to us for a new relationship with Europe, particularly in relation to trade. Just over two years ago, my committee produced a report looking at the various options: the Norway option, which would be the least disruptive; a customs union; a free trade agreement; a comprehensive association agreement; and, indeed, dropping out on WTO terms. The fact is that, nearly two and a half years later, all those options are still open to us. We do not know which form of trade arrangement we shall make with our leading trade partner. We are no further forward.

This is the result of a combination of incompetent negotiation and bad timing. We triggered Article 50 too early, without having a plan. We accepted the EU’s sequencing, so that there were issues in the withdrawal treaty, such as the Northern Ireland situation, which should not have been in the withdrawal treaty and are now holding up any agreement. In other words, we have spent two and a half years hung up on the wrong issues. There is no clarity to answer the questions the majority of the population and of businesses are asking. What will be the system of trade? What will be our human rights? What will be our system of security post Brexit?

The two major parties are split on this issue. The House of Commons is in gridlock and acting like a school playground. The country is much more bitterly divided now than it was during the referendum. Accusations and counteraccusations of betrayal will arise however we now deal with this issue. But the reality is that the political class, which includes all of us, has let the population down. We have comprehensively failed, in the two and a half years since the referendum, to point the way forward. The only conclusion I can draw from that is that we need to return the issue to the people—not as a subterfuge or a way to get out of earlier decisions, but as a way to face the future with the support of our population.