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European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:40 pm on 13th January 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Minister (Exiting the European Union), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Labour) 3:40 pm, 13th January 2020

I was saying that it is being rammed through, because no changes will be contemplated. That was the distinction I was trying— obviously unsuccessfully—to make. The issue is that our normal democratic method of law-making is for this Chamber to give serious consideration, and then for any amendments to be seriously debated in the other place to assess their worth and, where necessary, adapt accordingly.

Stephen Barclay, in the other place, warned and threatened us not to defy the will of the country. That reflects a complete—I hope not deliberate—misunderstanding of our role in a bicameral democracy. But it is not just Lords whom Ministers want to ignore. We have heard via the Speaker some serious concerns from the Welsh Government, which are not addressed by what the Minister has just said. Their concerns may lead to the likelihood—for the first time ever and risking the devolution settlement that has worked so well—of the Welsh Assembly denying legislative consent to a Bill; and still Ministers will not listen. A party with “Unionist” in its name should think twice before undermining a shared approach to making the devolution settlement work.

The Bill is also a bit strange. Clause 38 specifically recognises that the Parliament of the UK is sovereign, but the rest of the Bill proceeds to strip powers away from Parliament. It repeals the Benn/Cooper requirements to report to Parliament, disapplies CRaG, abolishes the meaningful vote for the withdrawal and final deals, and deprives Parliament of its say as to whether the implementation period should be extended, despite, as recently as October, Robert Buckland promising the other place that it would

“have its say on the merits of an extension of the implementation period”—[Official Report, Commons, 22/10/19; col. 915]

The Minister might say, “Ah, but that is what Clause 33 of the Bill—agreed by the Commons last week—does”. But the decision for no extension has been taken before we have even left, before we have seen any negotiating mandate either from the EU or from our own Government and before we know how such negotiations are progressing or what obstacles, from Northern Ireland or elsewhere, may stand in the way of a satisfactory agreement.

I have to tell the Minister that we are not going to try to save the Government from having a red face in the summer by giving them wriggle room now, but the chance of a deal, the implementation legislation and all the infrastructure being in place by December is frankly for the birds. I have waiting here my “I told you so” speaking notes, ready for when, in six months’ time, the Minister has to be here saying, “Oops. Can we change what we’ve just agreed?” We will leave that for him to do.

Our worries about the Bill stem from the Government’s own slogan, repeated just now, “Get Brexit done”. The electorate quite rightly judged that to mean “Come out by 31 January”. It did not mean “and do so by government diktat rather than by parliamentary process”, but that is what the Bill allows. There is no say over the implementation of our withdrawal, the objectives for the future relationship or the progress of those talks.

The Government say the Bill will

“ensure Ministerial oversight of the Joint Committee” that deals with the withdrawal, but it will not ensure parliamentary oversight of what our EU Committee calls a

“uniquely powerful and influential body” with

“significant responsibilities in relation to the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland” and with the power to amend the withdrawal agreement, a power immune from

“clear scrutiny procedures or parliamentary oversight”.

So, without UK MEPs, there will be no British parliamentarians able to scrutinise the decisions of government, whether over how we come out or, crucially, over the negotiations for our future relationship, because the Bill removes what was there before: our role on the mandate for and progress of negotiations on our trading, diplomatic, cultural, consumer, environmental and security relations with the EU. The Government have stripped out undertakings that Parliament would have an input into and oversight of these talks. Instead we will be left with a few “take note” debates and responses to Ministerial Statements. That is not proper scrutiny—