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European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:02 pm on 13th January 2020.

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Photo of The Earl of Kinnoull The Earl of Kinnoull Chair, European Union Committee, Principal Deputy Chairman of Committees, Chair, European Union Committee 4:02 pm, 13th January 2020

My Lords, annexed to the EU Committee’s report of last Friday is the letter that the committee sent to the Leader of House on 4 November last year, setting out our questions about the Bill’s provisions on parliamentary oversight. I draw the House’s attention to the Government’s response to that letter of last Friday afternoon, 10 January, for which I thank the noble Lord, Lord Callanan.

I want to make just two points concerning Parliament’s role, first, in overseeing the withdrawal agreement’s implementation and, secondly, in scrutinising the next round of negotiations. The Bill leaves much to be desired both areas.

I turn to the Joint Committee that will oversee the implementation of the agreement post Brexit. There will be much for the Joint Committee to do, particularly on Northern Ireland, where the revised protocol is little more than a sketch plan. I note particularly, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, that the Joint Committee can amend the withdrawal agreement itself. The Bill, however, provides no mechanism for parliamentary oversight of the Joint Committee. There is no statutory requirement to publish decisions, documents or agendas, to report back to the House, or anything else.

Our letter to the Leader last November urged the Government

“to bring forward amendments to provide for appropriate parliamentary oversight and scrutiny of the Joint Committee”.

No such amendments have been forthcoming. In his letter to me of last Friday, the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, said that Clause 34, which requires a Minister to co-chair the Joint Committee, was intended to enhance parliamentary oversight. He continued by saying that

“members from both Houses will be able to hold Ministers to account for actions taken at the Joint Committee. In due course, we would be keen to explore with individual members or committees how we can further strengthen ministerial accountability.”

I confess that I do not quite understand that logic. Ministers are anyway accountable to Parliament, including for the actions of civil servants. It is difficult to see how Clause 34 addresses the issue that we have raised, to which I am sure we shall return in later stages of the Bill. In any event, I ask the Minister whether he will agree to meet me shortly, as part of his exploration of strengthening ministerial accountability.

I turn to parliamentary oversight of the negotiations on the future UK-EU relationship. Clause 31 of the October 2019 text of the Bill provided for this. A resolution of the Commons—and a debate in the Lords —would have been required to approve the negotiating mandate and the final treaty. In between there would have been quarterly reports on progress. Clause 31 has disappeared from the new Bill. There is now no formal mechanism ensuring parliamentary oversight of the future relationship negotiations. There is still the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act, but that is a weak power at the end of the matter only, which can anyway be set aside by a Minister. Accordingly, the Bill means that there would be no legal barrier to the Government negotiating and ratifying the future UK-EU relationship treaty without any parliamentary involvement, other than in passing any implementing legislation.

It is worth contrasting that with the position in the EU. Negotiations under an Article 218 legal base require extensive consultation with the European Parliament and, potentially, its consent. Thus, there will be close parliamentary oversight on the EU side but, as things stand, next to nothing on the UK side. In summer 2016, the then Secretary of State, David Davis, commenting on whether the UK Parliament would enjoy parity with the European Parliament during the withdrawal negotiations, said:

“We will certainly match and, hopefully, improve on what the European Parliament sees.”

In the light of that, why was Clause 31 of the October 2019 Bill removed?

In his letter to me of last Friday, the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, said:

“The Government will however take its obligations to Parliament seriously. We look forward to discussing this role, and the role of Parliament more generally, with both Houses during passage of the Bill.”

I anticipate that this House will spend much time during the passage of the Bill on parliamentary oversight of the future relationship negotiations. If the Government are not willing to move on these issues, we will find that in leaving the EU, and losing the oversight powers of our MEPs and the EU Committees of both Houses, we will have weakened, not strengthened, transparency and accountability where international agreements are concerned, to the long-term detriment of our democracy.

I hope that the Government will hear and respond to these concerns. The best time to make concessions is when one enjoys a position of strength.