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Moved by Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town
12: Clause 21, page 25, line 5, leave out “(including modifying this Act)”Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would remove the ability to amend the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 itself by statutory instrument in connection with the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol.
I think we have got here earlier than some other noble Lords anticipated, which is why I may be speaking a bit slowly. They still have not arrived, so I give in—no, it is all right. Help is arriving at this moment. Amendment 12 stands in my name as well as those of the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham. I shall also speak to Amendment 15, which is also in my name and those of the noble Lord, Lord Beith, the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd.
Clause 21 is, as one of our committees describes it, a major clause adding significant new provision for Ministers to make regulations to implement the withdrawal agreement’s Irish/Northern Irish protocol, including
“any provision that could be made by an Act of Parliament,” including modifying the 2018 Act. Unsurprisingly, our Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, in its report of
“a most potent form of Henry VIII clause, allowing regulations to modify their parent Act in addition to creating a new legal regime that would otherwise require,” an Act of Parliament. Amendment 12 would remove the ability in the current Bill to amend the 2018 EU withdrawal Act by statutory instrument in connection with the protocol. Amendment 15 would place a series of limitations on the regulation-making powers allowed for in this clause.
First, Amendment 12 would, as I say, remove the ability to amend the 2018 Act. It is both unusual and unexplained as to why the Government want to give themselves a power, with only the most cursory scrutiny, to amend primary legislation. I know certain newspapers took umbrage this morning at my warnings to the Government yesterday against ramming through legislation even if it contains deficiencies, and of them being unwilling to listen to reason. But here we appear to have a provision almost certainly written as a failsafe; I think the Government know that they will almost certainly have got things wrong. This is not a way to make good law. We do not like it and it should come out.
Amendment 15 is needed as, for unexplained reasons, there are no restrictions on the scope of the Henry VIII powers in respect of implementing the Northern Ireland protocol. That is in contrast to all the other Henry VIII powers in the 2018 Act and elsewhere in this very Bill—for example, in Clause 18. Amendment 15 would add the same restrictions as are in the 2018 Act, and indeed elsewhere in the Bill, on making relevant new criminal offences, setting up public bodies or imposing fees and taxation by secondary legislation. Given what is elsewhere in the Bill and in the earlier Act, I hope that the Government will accept these changes.
Crucially, Amendment 15 would also ensure that neither the Human Rights Act nor the devolution Acts could be amended or repealed by secondary legislation. It is probably the view of the whole House that changes to fundamental rights should be made only by Parliament through primary legislation, not by Ministers through secondary legislation. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, whom I am glad to see in his place, said yesterday, it would be,
“ a terrible precedent … if we altered the devolution legislation other than by primary legislation”.—[
Unsurprisingly, the Welsh Government particularly support proposed new paragraph (f) in Amendment 15, with its restriction to prevent UK Ministers using such powers as are allowed in this clause to amend the statutes that embed the devolution settlements. There is already a perfectly viable way of amending the Welsh statutes without primary legislation, where the National Assembly itself agrees to the change: through a Section 109 Order in Council.
Why have the Government written themselves these powers in Clause 21? Should the Government refuse to accept Amendment 15, particularly its proposed new paragraph (f), they will by that refusal feed the suspicion that they want this power to make changes to devolution settlements even where the National Assembly and the Welsh Government are opposed to such changes. I therefore trust that the Minister will accept this amendment and, today, rule out any chance of the Government using these powers to amend the Government of Wales Act without the consent of the National Assembly. I beg to move.
My Lords, I wish to speak to Amendment 12, to which my name is attached. This is quite different from most of the other amendments which have come before the Committee. It is in no sense political; it is a matter of process, not politics. Its significance lies only in the clause’s defiance of our normal parliamentary processes and the danger of establishing a very unfortunate precedent. There are two consequences: first, this modest improvement cannot be characterised as holding the Bill up; and, secondly, it cannot be said to be a wrecking amendment because it is nothing of the sort.
I am disappointed that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, is no longer in his place—he was there just a few moments ago—because I listened carefully to his speech yesterday and I was struck by a point he made which then seemed to be followed by a number of noble Lords, albeit a small minority. I refer to the point he made about the Salisbury-Addison convention, which was agreed between the leader of a small group of Labour Government Peers and a large group of hereditary Conservative Opposition Peers after the 1945 election. The name is significant because it was a deal made between two individuals appropriate to those precise circumstances. It has limited relevance now, as was so comprehensively analysed by the 2006 Joint Committee on Conventions, on which I served.
That committee reiterated:
“In the House of Lords: A manifesto Bill is accorded a Second Reading; A manifesto Bill is not subject to ‘wrecking amendments’ which change the Government’s manifesto intention as proposed in the bill; and A manifesto Bill is passed and sent (or returned) to the House of Commons, so that they have the opportunity, in reasonable time, to consider the Bill or any amendments the Lords may wish to propose.”
“Election promises can be vague and easily manipulated by governments, who reserve the right to jettison manifesto promises if things change. If governments can have the right, why cannot Parliaments too have a say on circumstances as they change?”—[Official Report, 24/1/01; col. 294.]
Similarly, the Joint Committee took a great deal of evidence on the issue of secondary legislation. It was told by all parties that the Salisbury-Addison agreement did not apply. In relation to this clause and this protocol, we therefore have to conclude that Salisbury-Addison is totally irrelevant.
This is not a wrecking amendment. The provision was not spelt out in the manifesto, and in any case secondary legislation was specifically excluded from the convention—and that was just a bilateral agreement excluding other parties and the Cross-Benchers and was overtaken by events precisely as Lord Strathclyde pointed out.
I emphasise these points for two reasons. First, yesterday a few noble Lords seemed to be dangerously near to suggesting that your Lordships’ House should forgo its proper constitutional role in scrutinising this Bill, not least in relation to its significance in terms of the relationship between the Executive and Parliament. Indeed, one or two noble Lords seemed to be on the verge of bullying us with threats of reform to this House. As a very long-term advocate of reform, I say, “Bring it on”. The 2012 reform Bill, with which I was much involved, received a massive majority of 338 in the Commons with all parties giving it majority support—so it is over to you, Mr Cummings. Indeed, I would repeat Mr Clint Eastwood’s remark: “Go ahead, punk, make my day.”
Secondly, we must distinguish between on the one hand this amendment and the few others which seek to instil proper parliamentary process, avoiding precedents which future Governments could exploit, with more substantial political changes to the Bill on the other.
As the noble Baroness just said, there is a formidable recommendation from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, on which I have had the great pleasure to serve but no longer do so—but I have the greatest respect for the work it does on behalf of the House. It needs to be said that the committee’s recommendations are made in completely stark terms. For example, at paragraph 21 the committee states:
“Even if the House accepts that there is a good reason for Clause 21 to allow regulations to modify the 2018 Act, the power should, in our view, be limited to the minimum necessary. We therefore recommend that the Bill should spell out the purposes for which the power is to be used rather than leaving the matter at large.”
It goes on to say:
“Clause 21 allows regulations under Section 8C to make any provision that could be made by an Act of Parliament, but without limiting that provision (in the way that section 8(7) of the 2018 Act currently does and new section 8B(5) would do) so that it cannot be used to: … impose or increase taxation or fees, … make retrospective provision, … create a relevant criminal offence (i.e. with a penalty exceeding 2 years imprisonment), … establish a public authority, … amend, repeal or revoke the Human Rights Act 1998 or any subordinate legislation made under it, or … amend or repeal the Scotland Act 1998, the Government of Wales Act 2006 or the Northern Ireland Act 1998.”
The committee concludes this section by saying:
“The Government have not justified the difference in approach as between Sections 8 and 8B of the 2018 Act (on the one hand) and Section 8C (on the other). The House may wish therefore to seek a justification from the Minister for this difference in approach.”
I acknowledge that last night the Minister did attempt a justification, but I think noble Lords will agree that it was inadequate.
The Constitution Committee of your Lordships’ House said this morning:
“We agree with the DPRRC that the powers in Clause 21 to modify the 2018 Act should be limited to the minimum necessary and that the purpose of the power should be made clear. The Government must justify the powers in new section 8C(1)–(2) and explain why they are not subject to the same limits as those in section 8 and new section 8B of the 2018 Act.”
Some Members of Your Lordships’ House may regard Clause 21 as a trivial departure from usual practice or they may try to pretend that, since it relates directly to Northern Ireland, with all the sensitivity that that implies, it is of no consequence more generally. However, nobody can deny that it would establish a very retrograde precedent. I am reminded of the authoritative warning of the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Ipswich, referring to this clause yesterday:
“This is Henry VIII on steroids.”—[Official Report, 13/1/20; col. 472.]
Ministers could accept this modest improvement without in any way endangering their legislative timetable.
I and my assistant have been trawling through apposite statements of principle illustrating the proper role of Parliament in our current situation. For the last four years, one journalist and politician has been consistently outspoken on this issue—taking back control. Out of many articles and speeches, I give a simple summary as follows:
“Only this Parliament can make this new relationship the work of the nation, and so Parliament should be at the heart of decision making as we develop our approach. I acknowledge that in the past we have perhaps not always acted in that spirit.—[Official Report, Commons, 19/10/19; col. 572.]
That was Boris Johnson, speaking last year. He acknowledges the true sovereignty of Parliament. This House, as well as the other place, cannot afford to neglect our own role in preserving that reality.
My Lords, I suppose I should declare an interest as regards Clauses 21 and 22 because I live and work in Wales, so the stability of the devolution settlement is therefore important to me personally, especially as my work is in areas of the devolved competences.
I should point out that, along with a clear majority, I was alarmed at the prospect of a no-deal Brexit and therefore relieved when the Prime Minister and the EU negotiators managed to agree a process for an orderly EU withdrawal. Clearly, the Northern Ireland protocol is critical to that, and I am sure that no one wishes to imperil the withdrawal agreement by wilfully obstructing the implementation of that protocol.
Nevertheless, the Henry VIII powers in respect of doing so are wholly unrestricted—something which other Members have quite understandably expressed disquiet over. The concern is that such powers would enable Ministers of the Crown unilaterally to amend the devolution settlement as laid down in the Government of Wales Act—and the equivalent legislation for Scotland and, indeed, Northern Ireland itself—or to enable Ministers to make such changes without any scrutiny by the legislature.
I understand that Ministers may conclude that it is necessary to adapt devolved competences; for example, to underpin the unfettered access of Northern Ireland agricultural produce to the market in Wales, even if it fails to meet the standards which have been adopted in Wales itself or across Great Britain as a whole. I also understand why they might not want to follow the cumbersome route of primary legislation to achieve this.
But where the National Assembly—or Senedd, as it will be known—agrees with changes to its own competence, there is a perfectly acceptable route, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, has said, via a Section 109 Order in Council to achieve this without primary legislation. I would argue that any attempt to proceed in a matter of this kind without securing the agreement of the devolved Government and legislature in question would be likely to ignite a major constitutional conflict. No one should underestimate the tensions there are at the moment around the devolution settlements.
The aim of the amendment is therefore to promote an exception to this power in respect of the Government of Wales Act and, for the sake of logical consistency, the equivalent legislation in respect of Scotland and Northern Ireland. If the Minister does not concede, or at least provide reassurance, that these powers will not be used to change the devolution settlements without consultation and agreement by the institutions affected, it will inevitably fuel suspicions, as has already been said, that the UK Government want the power to make changes to the devolution settlements even when the National Assembly and Welsh Government are opposed to such changes.
As I said at Second Reading, it is about ensuring consultation, not veto. In many areas the item of negotiation is very likely to straddle devolved and reserved competences. The use of an overriding Henry VIII power—rather than a Henry VIII power in conjunction with a Section 109 Order in Council, or simply the Order in Council—would be completely inappropriate. It would ride roughshod over the settlement we currently have. It would appear to be a potential abuse of power. I am not saying that this Government intend to abuse their power, but we have to be concerned that whatever we put in legislation now could produce unintended consequences in the future.
My Lords, earlier in our deliberations we debated some relatively small-scale Henry VIII powers that the Government were seeking to arrogate to themselves. We listened to entirely unsatisfactory explanations from the Front Bench attempting to justify them. But here we have a really egregious set of Henry VIII powers—the most whopping great Henry VIII powers.
If you look at Clauses 21 and 41 together, you see that the Government are proposing to take to themselves a power not only to amend primary legislation but even to abolish any statute that may have been enacted in centuries past to right up until the end of this year. I do not for a moment think that is what the Government specifically intend to do but it is offensive in principle that they should draft legislation of this character.
Let us bear in mind that the purpose of Brexit is to restore parliamentary government. It is not a decent thing for the Government to do to take this opportunity to make a large power grab on the part of the Executive. The Government should be respectful of Parliament. They should be prepared to work with Parliament. If they have significant changes of policy and legislation that they wish to propose, I do not doubt that Parliament will engage very constructively with the Government in their purposes.
Henry VIII powers are objectionable in principle and it is essential that the Minister gives us a full explanation and, if he can devise one, a justification for the taking of these extraordinary powers, which are constitutionally improper. It will not do if he seeks to argue that circumstances in Northern Ireland are peculiarly sensitive and complex. They always are, but there are certain abiding constitutional principles that the Government should respect, and that should be the spirit of this new Government’s approach in their dealings with Parliament.
I will make one or two observations, if I may. I accept that it is plainly the obligation of the United Kingdom Government to take steps to implement their international obligations—the justification given by the Minister in his summing up yesterday evening. It is also right that there may be circumstances in which changes to the devolution legislation are needed. But there are ways of doing this, which have been admirably explained.
This Henry VIII clause is extraordinary because it enables the Government not merely to amend the Act but to repeal it. I cannot conceive that anyone who was drafting this with a degree of sense would ever have thought the Government would repeal the Act. When you look at the wording—it is quite useful to look at wording—this has been drafted without any regard to the realities of a union Government. This clause is manifestly deficient in that it goes way beyond anything that could conceivably be needed, even if you ignore the argument about the precedent being set.
The Government should think again. There are proper ways of doing things. I respectfully ask them to see whether they can come back with something different, or, at the very least, explain fully what they intend to do—what consultation they intend to carry out—before they repeal the Act. It is difficult to see how you would ever think that the Act needed to be repealed. One must always recall that the union of England and Wales was brought about by Henry VIII. It would be an extraordinary irony if a Henry VIII clause was used to begin the undermining of that union.
My Lords, this has been an interesting discussion, which has focused on a broad range of issues affecting the wider devolution settlement.
Some things need to be set out very clearly at the outset. The first thing is that the purpose of the protocol, which was not mentioned a great deal in the discussion, is to ensure the delivery of clean access within the island of Ireland between Ireland and the UK. This is to ensure the integrity of the customs union of the United Kingdom but also that we have the powers available as we go forward in the calendar year ahead to make necessary amendments in real time to the various elements that will be required as we seek to deliver on the Northern Ireland protocol. The important thing to stress is that we are in a situation in which time is of the essence, but that can never be an excuse.
Secondly, a number of noble Lords have spoken of the repeal of the devolution settlements almost as a Domesday scenario. There was a reference to Henry VIII powers being used, in essence, to eliminate the devolution settlement with Wales or anywhere else. It is important to stress that this clause is in no way designed for, or seeks to achieve, that purpose. Where there are elements of primary legislation which are to be amended, this will be done through the affirmative procedure, which allows significant scrutiny to take place in both this House and the other place. It is important to recognise that we are not just talking about the letter of the law here, but the wider settlements which we have discussed more broadly with regard to Wales and Scotland. The very notion that we can, by some fiat, undo that which has been set in place through the devolution settlements is, frankly, borderline ludicrous. It is not going to happen.
To be clear, the information I have from my officials is that this will be done by the affirmative procedure. It is important to stress that point. Further, returning to the protocol, which has not been fully discussed in this particular debate, the question is: what do the two amendments seek to do? While we have no intention of in any way seeking to unravel the Wales Act or the Scotland Act, there will necessarily be elements in the Northern Ireland Act which will have to be explored and addressed, with full consultation—I express that clearly—with the restored Executive and Assembly. They will have this element for the first time: it was not there before. For example, the issue of democratic consent to the wider Northern Ireland protocol would represent a necessary adjustment to the Northern Ireland Act. This could only be taken forward by full dialogue and discussion with the restored Executive to ensure that the four and eight-year cycle that needs to go forward is inside the heart of this approach. There are also going to be elements, which we have anticipated, of disapplication of certain elements of retained EU law as they affect Northern Ireland. They too, in a domesticated form, would need to be adjusted using these powers.
We fear that there may be a hindrance of our ability to adopt the decisions of the Joint Committee, bearing in mind that that committee was established between the UK and EU. We will need to be able to move that forward in real time and this too will require a power similar to that which we have set out. Another thing we must be on top of is that we have, in this scenario, a potential restriction which might impact on the very issue which I thought might be more expansively explored—the unfettered access part—for reasons which will be touched on in the debate to follow. This debate has taken a turn that I had not anticipated—the notion that a power is now being granted to the Government to undo that which has been set before: if you like, the magisterium of the law which sets up the elements of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. That is not the purpose of this rule. Rather it is to allow the Government, where necessary and through full consultation with the powers of Northern Ireland, to deliver the elements that will emerge in the ongoing negotiations and in any other concomitant parts, to ensure that we are ready to deliver the required elements by one year from today. If we fail to do that, we run the risk of undermining our international obligations. That would then create the problem that this is designed to try and avoid.
It would be very easy for me to say: “You have just got to trust me”. That is not what I am trying to say, and it would be foolish as noble Lords should not try to trust me. The important thing is to test me, and to test the Government. That is why, as well as putting these points to the House now, and setting out the areas in which we do need these necessary powers, I am happy to put that in to a note which I will supply and make available to all noble Lords who are interested in this, so they can see where we believe this power will be required to deliver the very thing that Northern Ireland wants: safety and security within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That is its purpose and that is, principally, why we are here tonight. I am tempted to quote from Clint Eastwood, but the only quotes I could come up with are:
“Do you feel lucky, punk?” and “Make my day.” I am not sure either one is particularly relevant.
In conclusion, the purpose of this is to ensure that Northern Ireland is safe and secure as we move forward and is in such a place that the protocol will function in its entirety. Equally, and most importantly—it is a genuine pleasure to say this—there is now a restored Executive and an Assembly where these matters should be discussed and whose voices must be heard and heeded. In the year ahead, we commit to ensuring that Northern Ireland is a full component part of the debate and discussion on the issues of Brexit. That is something which I have not been able to say for a very long time.
On that basis, I cannot support the amendments as they have been tabled. I understand where they have come from, but I am afraid I cannot give comfort in that regard. However, I am committing to set out exactly why we believe these powers are necessary in the area of Northern Ireland and why they are there. I hope that, on that basis, the noble Baroness will recognise where I am coming from on these matters.
I am afraid that that does not answer the points noble Lords have made. It is not so much that the powers are needed for Northern Ireland, but there should be restrictions on them. I am sorry, because the Minister is normally brilliant at the Dispatch Box and very well briefed. However, had he read Amendment 15 he would have seen what we were trying to write in by restricting those powers, such as not undermining the Government of Wales Act. He would have understood that we were not questioning that some of the powers will be needed for Northern Ireland—we will come to that in a different debate—but the way they have been set out in this clause. Unlike Clause 18, which I quoted, Clause 21 does not have the restrictions on those powers that exist in the other clauses in the Bill or, indeed, in the 2018 Act.
Our concern remains. It is good to have a northern voice. Most of us here are Welsh or from the West Country, where we feel this very strongly. The Minister is saying that these powers were not designed to undermine devolution and that the intention is not to use them that way, but that is not good enough. When something is put in an Act of Parliament, it is a power. No matter that it is not intended to be used that way, the power is there. As the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, said, there is already another way. Although I cannot see that the Government of Wales Act would need to be altered for Northern Ireland, if it does there is a perfectly good way of doing it. Denying the restriction, whether it is new criminal offences or anything like that, which exist for all the other Henry VIII powers, is very hard to substantiate, simply because it is to do with Northern Ireland. Not accepting that the other devolution settlements should be in any way accessible to these powers is unsatisfactory. As other noble Lords have said, even the word “repeal” is like waving a red flag at the way these powers could be used.
Having heard from the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, my noble friend Lord Howarth, the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas, I hope that the Minister might look again at the wording of these amendments and understand why we have real worries about them. Perhaps he would be willing to meet before Report. Otherwise, it will be necessary to try to circumvent these powers in a way that happens elsewhere, but not in relation to the Northern Ireland protocol. I leave the Minister with that thought and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 12 withdrawn.