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European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:27 pm on 13th January 2020.

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Photo of Lord Callanan Lord Callanan Minister of State (Department for Exiting the European Union) 3:27 pm, 13th January 2020

My Lords, it is indeed an honour to open today’s debate on a Bill of such historical significance and I am delighted that we have been able to secure our departure from the EU with a deal that gives certainty to businesses, protects the rights of citizens and ensures that we regain control of our money, our borders and our laws.

This Bill, which has passed its stages in the other place with a substantial majority, prepares our country to leave the EU at the end of this month by implementing the withdrawal agreement in domestic law and ensuring that the government can honour our international obligations. It also allows us to meet our commitments in the separation agreement we have concluded with EEA EFTA states and the agreement on citizens’ rights with Switzerland.

Before I turn to the Bill in more detail, I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the valuable work of the Select Committees of this House that have now re-formed. Their work throughout the EU exit process has been insightful and I look forward to engaging constructively with them during the passage of the Bill. I am also grateful to those Peers across the House who have already taken the opportunity to engage with myself and ministerial colleagues on this important legislation.

Part 1 of the Bill covers the implementation period. The withdrawal agreement sets out that during the implementation period EU law will generally continue to apply in the UK as it does in member states, thereby providing certainty to businesses and citizens as they will have to prepare for only one set of changes. The Bill will save and modify the legal effect of the European Communities Act 1972 for the duration of that period; it will preserve EU-derived domestic legislation and ensure that it continues to operate properly during the implementation period; and it provides a supplementary power to make any further technical modifications that may be needed.

The Bill prohibits an extension of the implementation period: it will end on 31 December 2020. With clarity on the timetable that we are working to, the UK and the EU will be able to progress negotiations and use the implementation period in order to secure the future relationship. This Government will work with the scrutiny committees in both houses to ensure appropriate parliamentary scrutiny of new EU law made or proposed during this period.

Part 2 gives the withdrawal agreement the same legal effect in UK law as it will have in EU law, as required by Article 4 of the withdrawal agreement. It means that individuals and businesses will be able to rely directly on the withdrawal agreement as a matter of domestic law. This is replicated for the EEA EFTA and Swiss separation agreements.

Citizens’ rights have been our greatest priority throughout the EU exit process. Giving legal effect to the agreements is a critical step in providing certainty to those who have chosen to make the UK their home. This Bill also takes a number of delegated powers to allow for changes to be made in relevant areas; for example, enabling the establishment of a permit system for frontier workers, providing for routes of appeal and ensuring that professional qualifications continue to be recognised and that social security co-ordination operates for those covered by the agreements. I reassure noble Lords that these powers are tied to the relevant articles of the agreements which they implement.

The Bill will also formally establish the independent monitoring authority which will oversee the rights of EU citizens and citizens of Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein who reside in the UK. This new UK-wide public body will be able to launch inquiries, receive complaints and bring legal action. It will be fully independent of government. The Bill requires that the IMA’s board must contain appropriate expertise on citizens’ rights in relation to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the devolved Administrations will play a central role in appointing those board members.

The Bill also provides the mechanism to pay the negotiated financial settlement. This will take the form of a standing service provision until 31 March 2021. The majority of the remaining obligations will then be met through the annual supply process, bringing it in line with other government expenditure.

In addition, the Bill covers other separation issues. These provide clarity about what happens to processes and arrangements that are ongoing at the end of the implementation period. Many of the details give effect through the main provisions delivering the agreements in Clauses 5 and 6. However, technical changes will need to be made in certain scenarios. We have therefore taken a delegated power, limited to being able to implement Part 3 of the withdrawal agreement and the EEA EFTA agreement only, which ensures that, for example, our rulebook works for goods being placed on the market before the implementation period concludes.

The withdrawal agreement Bill will make provisions to deliver the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland. The deal that the Government have negotiated with the EU protects the constitutional and economic integrity of the United Kingdom. It ensures that the whole United Kingdom leaves the EU customs union and that Northern Ireland remains in the UK customs territory. It also upholds the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. I know that the issue of the access of Northern Ireland goods to the rest of the UK is of great concern to many Members of this House and the other place. The protocol is clear that there is nothing in it which prevents the UK ensuring the unfettered access of Northern Ireland goods to the rest of the UK. Let me reassure the House that the Prime Minister’s commitments in this regard, as well as the commitments made in our manifesto, are clear and that the Government stand by them. Indeed, these commitments were reiterated in last week’s joint UK-Ireland publication New Decade, New Approach, which laid the foundation for the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive over the weekend, something which I am sure noble Lords agree is a very positive event.

I would like to take a moment to focus on the powers in the Bill, and in doing so I thank the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee for its report. In particular, I am pleased that the Committee agrees with the Government’s use of the word “appropriate” rather than “necessary” in the construction of the powers. I seem to remember that this was a subject of much debate in this House during the passage of the withdrawal Act in 2018. In fact, I am reliably informed that it even sparked a fashion trend among our department’s lawyers who had tote bags produced bearing the word “necessary” on one side and “appropriate” on the other. Never let it be said that lawyers do not have a sense of humour.

The Government understand the remaining concerns around the use of delegated powers across the Bill and note the committee’s recommendation regarding a sifting mechanism. However, I hope that noble Lords will see that the circumstances are very different from those we found ourselves in with the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018.

First, the volume of statutory instruments made under this Bill will be significantly lower than that under the 2018 Act, meaning that there will be sufficient time for the normal scrutiny procedures to apply and for debates to be held, should noble Lords find them helpful.

Secondly, as the committee’s report recognises, the scope of each power is naturally constrained by the articles of the withdrawal agreement that it seeks to implement. For example, the power at Clause 7 can be used only in relation to setting the deadline for the grace period. The Government have also noted the concerns raised by the DPRRC about the clauses to implement the protocol. I understand noble Lords’ concerns but we are confident that our approach is the best way to ensure that the UK can fully implement the protocol and fulfil its international obligations.

The DPRRC has recommended that the consequential power at Clause 41 be moved to the affirmative procedure to enable Parliament to scrutinise any amendments to primary or retained direct principal EU legislation. However, I remind noble Lords that the negative resolution procedure does not prevent such scrutiny taking place and that Members will still have the opportunity to pray against such regulations, should they consider them inappropriate. Members can see examples of the kinds of consequential amendments that will be made to legislation in Part 1 of Schedule 5 to the Bill.

I should now like to focus on the question of legislative consent. The Bill touches on a number of areas of devolved competence, including important powers granted to the devolved Administrations to protect citizens’ rights. We have sought legislative consent from the devolved legislatures in Scotland and Wales for those areas, in line with the Sewel convention.

It is indeed disappointing that the Scottish Parliament has already refused its consent to the Bill, particularly as the vote took place even before the Bill had completed its Commons stages. I should note that the Scottish and Welsh Governments’ consideration of whether to recommend consent to this Bill turns not on the clauses for which we have sought legislative consent but on reserved matters. I reassure noble Lords that there has been substantial engagement with the Scottish and Welsh Governments before and throughout the legislative consent process, and we are committed to continuing to work collaboratively with all the devolved Administrations.

I turn to Clause 26 on the subject of historic CJEU case law, which I know has raised some interest, particularly among noble and learned Lords. We want to provide legal clarity. We have no intention of undermining the fundamental principles of hierarchy, precedent and judicial independence that are so central to our world-renowned legal system. Nor is this about giving the Government a permanent power to review this matter; the power will expire at the end of this year. My noble and learned friend Lord Keen is of course prepared to respond to any points raised on this subject when he closes the debate later.

I take this opportunity to reassure noble Lords—in particular, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs—that the Government are fully committed to the principle of family unity and to helping and supporting the most vulnerable children. Our policy on this has not changed. That is why the Bill places an obligation on the Government to lay a policy statement before Parliament in relation to a future arrangement between the UK and the EU regarding family reunion of unaccompanied children seeking international protection.

This country receives approximately 15% of all asylum claims from unaccompanied children in the EU, making the UK the third-highest intake country. The Bill does not change that. Our policy is unchanged, but the Bill removes a statutory requirement to negotiate. That is entirely appropriate because these negotiations have already been initiated. Clause 37 makes it clear that supporting the most vulnerable children remains of the utmost priority.

With approximately 80 contributors on the speakers’ list—although that has now come down to about 72—I will draw my remarks to a close. As always, my noble and learned friend Lord Keen is here and stands ready to address noble Lords’ contributions at the end of the debate. Passing this Bill will allow us to honour the result of the 2016 referendum, get Brexit done and focus on our other national priorities. I beg to move that the Bill now be read a second time.