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Amendment 12

European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill - Report (1st Day) – in the House of Lords at 6:45 pm on 20th January 2020.

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Lord Beith:

Moved by Lord Beith

12: Clause 26, page 30, line 13, leave out paragraph (b)Member’s explanatory statementThis amendment would remove the power of Ministers by delegated legislation to decide which courts and tribunals should have power to depart from judgments of the Court of Justice of the European Union and by reference to what test.

Photo of Lord Beith Lord Beith Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I rise to move Amendment 12. This amendment will not delay Brexit. It will not even delay this Bill, which is going to the Commons in any case. However, it will avoid a great deal of legal confusion and safeguard the independence of the judiciary. It reflects concerns held by the Constitution Committee, several members of which have taken part in the debates, including of course our chair, the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor. The background is that European Court of Justice case law will be relevant in interpreting retained European law. We recognised that in the 2018 withdrawal Act and made provision for it to be dealt with, so that the Supreme Court and the High Court of the Justiciary would be able to depart from EU case law when they thought it right to do so.

Clause 26 of this Bill gives Ministers very wide regulation-making powers to decide which courts can depart from CJEU case law. It could be any court, right down to the magistrates’ court, the county court or the sheriff court. Through unamendable statutory instruments, Ministers could decide what test the courts should apply when considering whether to depart from EU case law. Ministers could effectively direct the courts to disapply case law in specified circumstances. Bear in mind that lower courts cannot bind other courts, so we will have conflicting interpretations and a lot more litigation as a result.

These are not appropriate powers to be exercised by regulation. They open the way to ministerial interference with the courts. If any of this needs to be done, it should be done in primary legislation. I would have been happy to see provision in the Bill to extend the powers in the 2018 Act to the Appeal Court and the Inner House of the Court of Session, for example. However, I have tabled these amendments on Report because last week’s proceedings in Committee were inconclusive. I said then that when such serious concerns are raised by so many noble and learned Lords, including those with a lifetime of experience in interpreting the law, Ministers need to think again and respond.

I encouraged the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, to use his skills when he spoke in the debate to think of ways in which we could get through this and to encourage Ministers to do so, which he certainly has. Amendment 14, his valuable amendment in this group, would be very helpful. It does not do all the things I sought to do by deleting some of these powers, but it would very much clarify the situation I am worried about, of lower courts making rulings which conflict with those of other courts. If the noble and learned Lord decides that he wants to press his amendment to a vote, in circumstances which I will refer to in a moment, I would be happy to make way by withdrawing mine in due course to enable him to do so. I hope he can make it clear to us when he explains his amendment whether that is the course of action he wishes to take.

I said that reconsideration was necessary. I believe that such reconsideration had taken place and that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen of Elie, was ready to move an amendment at Third Reading which would have met all our concerns. I have a copy of that draft amendment. The noble and learned Lord was expected to wind up this debate, but is no longer doing so. That seems very significant to me. I think he knows full well that the Bill as it stands would be a source of legal confusion and would lead to this danger of Ministers having the power to impose an unspecified new legal test on the courts, a test which could not be amended by Parliament. Parliament is about to make bad law which Ministers know to be bad. I am afraid that my conclusion is that No. 10 Downing Street is in a sulk because this House carried an earlier amendment to the Bill. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, is an entirely honourable man who serves the House very well and is always a man of his word. I think his absence from the debate at this stage indicates that some exchanges in the Government have led to this House being asked to make law that it knows to be bad. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Mackay of Clashfern Lord Mackay of Clashfern Conservative

My Lords, when we debated this clause in Committee, we looked at two key provisions: which courts should be able to look at this matter, and what the test should be. I was particularly concerned about saying what the test should be, because I regarded that as an interference with judicial independence—and I still regard it as such. If Parliament sets out the test, as it did in the 2018 Act, for the Supreme Court and the High Court of the Justiciary, that is the law and the courts can therefore take it and act on it. However, it seemed to me and a number of your Lordships that it was not proper for a Minister to deal with the judiciary in these circumstances. Having the Minister set what the test should be by regulation really should not happen. That was the conclusion of the debate in Committee, generally speaking.

When I thought over that, I concluded that we were blocking altogether what the Government were seeking to achieve. I therefore felt strongly that it was my responsibility, along with others, to see whether there was some other way of dealing with this problem. I have thought about it a good deal and, as I understand it, the Prime Minister said that he was in favour of every court being able to deal with this matter. I was anxious that my proposal should achieve that, if at all possible, because he had said that in good faith as part of his election campaign. Therefore, I felt that I should try to think up an amendment which gave that power. Amendment 14 does that because it allows any court in the United Kingdom to consider this matter and make a judgment on it. However, because of the nature of the judgment, there is a requirement that it be referred to the Supreme Court, which should have a power to grant the result, on condition that it has a power not to hear it if it feels that the application was not very substantial or very good, as it has for many appeals in the ordinary course of events.

I can see that having that sort of burden on the Supreme Court might be rather disagreeable. Therefore, it was quite reasonable to think of giving that power, the result of the reporting power, to the Court of Appeal in England—I think Wales and Northern Ireland would also be covered by that—and to the Inner House of the Court of Session in Scotland, which is its equivalent. The High Court of Justiciary would of course also have that responsibility in criminal cases. I am very open to negotiating how this should happen, but I venture to think it important that we consider this issue carefully. I hope that your Lordships may feel that we should pass this amendment.

In the situation that we face, I would like to see this option laid before the House of Commons. I know, as we all do, that there is a strong majority for the Government in the Commons and it is therefore entirely up to them. But if we do not pass my amendment or something like it, the House of Commons has no way at all of dealing with this issue at this time. I am very much in favour of this House trying to help the Government to do properly what they want to do. That is what motivated me to put forward this amendment: so that they should have this opportunity.

Many of your Lordships have a lot of experience in this area. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, was pleased to suggest that I had some. I have certainly had the considerable duty of departing from a decision of no less a distinguished judge than Lord Wilberforce when I sat as Lord Chancellor in the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords, so I have been much in this area—long ago, of course, but the memory of it still stays with me. I feel strongly that if we do not pass this amendment, it will be difficult to make some progress on this aspect.

There is also the problem that the regulations which the Minister makes under the existing powers would have to be approved. I can see some difficulty arising in that area. My proposal would make the law come into effect immediately upon the provisions in the Act of Parliament being made the law. There would therefore be no delay, whereas I can imagine that considerable delay might arise if it is done by statutory instrument with doubtful powers. I commend Amendment 14 to your Lordships and to Her Majesty’s Government as a way of achieving what I think the Prime Minister, in all honesty and good faith, said in answer to the question he was asked about this during the election campaign.

It is a pity for me that we have not succeeded in getting far with the Government in negotiation up to this point, but there is always the hope that something may happen. I certainly want to show as open a way to the Government as I possibly can to try to get on with this matter, which is important constitutionally, although it may not look that important to politicians generally. However, it is a very important part of our constitutional arrangement to secure the independence of the judges. I therefore intend to pursue this amendment, subject to what your Lordships may have to say about it.

Photo of Lord Pannick Lord Pannick Crossbench 7:00 pm, 20th January 2020

My Lords, I declare an interest as a practising barrister. I have signed Amendments 12 and 13, tabled in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Beith, but I am very happy to support the amendment in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern. The reason is that Clause 26 is fundamentally objectionable, because it would give the Minister a delegated power to decide which courts should be able to depart from judgments of the Court of Justice and what test those courts should apply. These are powers which step well over the important boundary between the Executive and the judiciary. They are matters which should not be decided by Ministers.

Perhaps I may briefly respond to the points made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, the Minister in Committee, because I anticipate that the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, will make the same points as his substitute today, as we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Beith. The first point that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, made was that we are not, as he put it, in “novel territory”, because Section 6 of the 2018 Act has already looked at which courts should have this power. The simple answer is that what is novel is a delegated power for Ministers, which I have described.

The noble and learned Lord’s second point was that there are safeguards because Clause 26 requires Ministers to consult the judiciary. That does not reassure me; it is still Ministers who will decide these important matters. His third point was that the power would, as he put it,

“be employed in a way that is consistent with our own constitutional norms and traditions”.—[

I suggest that it is no answer to the conferral of unacceptably broad powers to have Ministers assure us that they will exercise those powers reasonably. The objection is to the powers being conferred on Ministers, because once they are conferred the political and legal constraints if they decide to act unreasonably are limited.

The noble and learned Lord’s fourth point was that there are diverse views on the question of which courts should be able to depart from Court of Justice decisions, but this is not a new issue. We debated it at length on the 2018 legislation. Ministers have had plenty of time to consider whether the solution adopted in 2018 requires amendment. If Ministers want more time, and want to consult, the answer is not for them to take unacceptably broad powers. The answer is to bring a short Bill before Parliament, in a month or so, proposing such amendments—and then Parliament can decide.

These amendments raise issues of considerable constitutional concern and importance. As the noble Lord, Lord Beith, said, they have absolutely nothing to do with the merits of Brexit, the terms on which we leave the EU or the timetable for Brexit. It is, I suggest, our constitutional responsibility, when a Government bring forward a provision as constitutionally objectionable as Clause 26, to ask the House of Commons to think again. That is particularly so when, as the noble Lord mentioned, the Government have been in two minds—to put it politely—on this issue today.

Photo of Lord Howarth of Newport Lord Howarth of Newport Labour

The noble Lords and noble and learned Lord who have already spoken have advised us, rightly, that there are extremely important constitutional issues raised in Clause 26. They have dwelt upon the manner in which Ministers would trespass upon the proper responsibility of the judiciary. I simply add the thought that by taking powers to deal with these matters under regulations, Ministers are also trespassing upon the proper responsibility of Parliament, because Parliament would not be able to give adequate consideration to what could be very important policy decisions by Ministers. They might be seeking to require the courts to consider different tests where environmental policy, or workers’ rights policy and law, are concerned. These must be matters for Parliament to be able to consider fully and deal with in primary legislation.

The adoption of these powers by the Government would be doubly offensive in constitutional terms. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, has proposed a partial remedy at least that is, as always, both wise and practical. I simply say to the House that if we approve the amendment that he has tabled, and I hope we will, it is no more than damage limitation and does not undo all the mischief that this clause provides.

Photo of Lord Carlile of Berriew Lord Carlile of Berriew Crossbench

My Lords, there are a few countries in the European Union, all in central Europe, where the independence of the judiciary has been under attack for the past two to three years, as is evidentially measurable. We in the United Kingdom, of all political persuasions and none, have repeatedly condemned what has happened in those countries. My understanding was that one of the reasons put forward for leaving the European Union was that we could revert to our own best traditions of the law, with judicial independence, with the rule of law guaranteed by it and with the separation of powers intact.

I am not one who subscribes to the view held by some that the present Government wish to undermine the independence of the judiciary. It would be inconsistent with the basic views they expressed in relation to leaving the European Union. However, if one reads Clause 26 carefully, one sees that, textually, it raises the possibility of the independence of the judiciary being interfered with politically. That is not acceptable, and I do not believe that in their heart of hearts—if they have a heart or a heart of hearts—the Government wished to achieve that end.

My legal practice, lasting the best part of 50 years, has, I confess, been less esoteric and possibly more worldly than those of some other noble Lords and noble and learned Lords in this House, especially those sitting on these Cross Benches. However, my years as a practitioner, both as an advocate and as a part-time judge, have led me to magistrates’ courts all over the place, to county courts in parts of Wales whose names some of your Lordships would struggle to pronounce and to Crown Courts all over the country, including London. I have sat in some of those courts. Frankly, it fills me with concern that the Government would be able to determine by statutory instrument or ministerial fiat which of that huge number of courts would be able to make the determinations under discussion.

The proposal in Clause 26 undermines the consistency of decision-making and the importance of precedent—the principle of stare decisis—which have enabled barristers in ordinary courts around the country to know what the law is on sometimes very complicated issues and therefore to be able to make submissions to judges, who also know what the law is. What is proposed will remove that consistency and undermine the importance of precedent unless the decision-making on these issues is limited to a number of courts which are genuinely regarded as binding by the other courts; that is, as courts of record. If we are given the opportunity, my preference is that we should vote for the amendment proposed so brilliantly by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, and that the Government should then have the opportunity to amend that amendment before it comes back to your Lordships’ House to include, as the noble and learned Lord suggested, the Court of Appeal and its equivalent in Scotland. I suggest to your Lordships that this is realistic, it is practical, it is certain, and it is probably what the Conservative Party really meant anyway before it was maybe trapped into a little bit of rhetoric which has gone wrong.

Photo of Lord Goldsmith Lord Goldsmith Labour

My Lords, I did not have the privilege of attending the House when Committee took place, but I have read every word of the debate on this clause. It is so powerful to see, I think, three former Lord Chief Justices, a former Lord Chancellor, a former Law Lord, the chairman of our Constitution Committee and other distinguished people speak perhaps not unanimously as to the right outcome but certainly unanimously condemning what the Government seek to do. We have heard it again today; I fully agree with what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, by my noble friend Lord Howarth and, of course, by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern.

The Bill cannot stay in this form, for the reasons given by a number of your Lordships. It will create uncertainty; it will create risks as to the independence of the judiciary. Almost the most powerful reason given in Committee was expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Ipswich. I shall quote his words as an experienced advocate and legislator. He said that he would support the amendments even though

“these paragraphs and the legal uncertainty they unleash bring the prospect of endless work and riches as yet undreamed of”.—[Official Report, 15/1/20; col. 680.]

To pass legislation which creates that risk of legal uncertainty and work for lawyers in that way cannot be what your Lordships think is the right way to deal with this important issue. The issue had been dealt with in the 2018 Act; if it needs some adjustment, that could be considered, but it is not what is proposed here.

From these Benches, we support the amendment put forward by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern. We do not think that it is ideal or perfect, so the solution proposed—that if the amendment is passed by your Lordships it can be considered and debated further by the other place to make it perfect—at least goes some considerable way to deal with the mischief that we have.

I see the hour; I apprehend that noble Lords would wish to take the opportunity of expressing their opinions in relation to the amendments. I hope that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, will seek to test the opinion of the House. I understood from what he said that he would press his amendment to a vote. If it is passed, we will be happy to see it stand and not push for a further amendment.

As to the position of the Government, we will wait to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, has to say. Noble Lords will have noted what the noble Lord, Lord Beith, said in opening about the position of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen of Elie, whom I too admire and consider a serious lawyer and a proper and ethical person. That he is not here says a lot about the state of the Bill as it stands.

Photo of Lord Callanan Lord Callanan Minister of State (Department for Exiting the European Union) 7:15 pm, 20th January 2020

My Lords, I shall speak to Amendments 12 and 13 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Beith, and Amendment 14 in that of my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern. We debated this matter at length in Committee and the Government have noted the strength of feeling across the House about both a power in principle and the different uses to which it might be put. However, I regret to inform the House that the amendments cannot be accepted.

The clause provides for an important principle: UK courts should be able to interpret UK laws. After the implementation period, that is a matter for us to decide. My noble and learned friend Lord Keen and I have had significant engagement on this issue with noble Lords across the House during the past few days. I can say on behalf of both of us that we are grateful to those noble Lords who met us. While I know that it has not been possible to allay noble Lords’ concerns, I hope that it has become clear that the Government will implement this policy sensibly and in a way that works for courts across the whole United Kingdom.

As my noble and learned friend Lord Keen noted when we debated the matter in Committee, two vital safeguards are built into the Bill. First, we must consult the senior judiciary. The Government are also happy to make it clear that, where the clause requires us to consult other appropriate persons, we also intend to engage with the devolved Administrations.

Secondly, this power can only be used before the end of the implementation period—a critical issue. There is no way in which a Minister can interfere with a live case, nor seek to unpick a single historic judgment which the Government have taken a dislike to. This is a power to allow the Government time to consult, consider and soberly extend the jurisdiction of UK courts to the historic case law of the Court of Justice of the European Union, properly reflecting that, after the end of the IP, such case law will form part of our domestic legal order. The way in which courts are to do this will be made clear. At all times, there will be legal clarity on the rules of interpretation when any cases concerning the body of retained EU law come before those courts. Again, I thank noble Lords for their contributions to this debate and their constructive engagement with our proposals.

Amendments 12 and 13, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Beith, would mean that retained EU case law would continue to bind our courts, other than the highest courts of appeal, long after the end of the implementation period. For this reason, those amendments are not acceptable to the Government. Amendment 14, in the name of my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay, is an interesting suggestion but, as drafted, it would create a reference process and confer a role upon the Supreme Court that would be novel in a domestic context and could have unintended consequences, including serious implications for the role and case load of the Supreme Court. We look forward to continuing to work closely with noble Lords in the development of these regulations and will continue to listen to the many constructive ideas that have been put forward on this subject. With our commitment to work closely across the House and consult on this issue over the coming months, I hope that the noble Lord will be able to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Beith Lord Beith Liberal Democrat

My Lords we are no further forward at all on which courts it is intended shall acquire the power; on what the test they will be required to carry out is; or on any reliable process by which we can ensure that Ministers do not get involved in specifying the circumstances in which courts, at any level, can depart from existing case law. The beauty of the amendment in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, is, as he explained, that it seeks to satisfy the Government’s objective—as restated now by the noble Lord, Lord Callanan—that any court in the land should be able to engage in this process. This is not a very wise thing to do but, if it is going to be done, it should be done with the protection suggested by the noble and learned Lord: that it should involve a reference process which the Supreme Court can take up if it sees reason to do so. On that basis, and knowing in what high regard the noble and learned Lord is held, I am content to seek the leave of the House to withdraw my amendment, so as to facilitate him pressing his.

Photo of Lord Mackay of Clashfern Lord Mackay of Clashfern Conservative

It would be right for the noble Lord, Lord Beith, to continue with his two amendments, because I am proposing the option in my amendment in the event of his disappearing. I think I am right in saying that. I may be wrong; I stand to be corrected. I understood from the Public Bill Office that I did not need to put my name to Amendments 12 and 13—in fact I could not, because there were four there already. It may be that those amendments should just stand.

Photo of Lord Beith Lord Beith Liberal Democrat

The consequence of my amendment, if it was carried, would be that the amendment in the name of the noble and learned, Lord, Lord Mackay, could not then be taken, because the words upon which it bites would have been removed. I would be content to divide on my amendment, to test the opinion of the House.

Photo of Baroness Taylor of Bolton Baroness Taylor of Bolton Chair, Constitution Committee

My Lords, it would be possible for the Government to bring back something along the lines suggested by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, should this amendment be carried. It would be foolish not to allow the House to make a clear decision about what it thinks on Clause 26(1)(b). As has been said, time and again, this is a serious and constitutionally significant move. It would, therefore, be wise to test the opinion of the House.

Photo of Lord Beith Lord Beith Liberal Democrat

I have received advice from two quarters for which I have particular respect, including my own committee chairman. It being the case that if my amendment were carried there would be no need for the amendment in the name of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, but if it were not then we could still press for a division on his, I will test the opinion of the House.

Ayes 241, Noes 205.

Division number 2 European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill - Report (1st Day) — Amendment 12

Aye: 239 Members of the House of Lords

No: 203 Members of the House of Lords

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Amendment 12 agreed.

Amendment 13 not moved.