Amendment 29

Part of European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill - Report (2nd Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 5:30 pm on 21st January 2020.

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Photo of Lord Howarth of Newport Lord Howarth of Newport Labour 5:30 pm, 21st January 2020

My Lords, this is the grand finale of Report stage. If the Chamber is not packed then I am not personally dismayed because we prefer quality to quantity in our debates, do we not?

Subsections (1) and (2) of Clause 41, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, explained just now in the preceding debate, contain “breathtaking” powers, to use her word. The very valuable report of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee says that

“clause 41 … contains a Henry VIII power for a Minister of the Crown by regulations to repeal or amend any Act of Parliament passed from time immemorial until the end of the transitional period (the end of 2020) as part of such provision as the Minister considers appropriate in consequence of the Act. Such regulations are made pursuant to the negative procedure.”

That provision for the negative procedure is set out in Schedule 4 on page 68, line 9. It is that point of the Bill that I seek to amend.

Clause 41 and Schedule 4 provide a portmanteau Henry VIII power. It is the ultimate set of Henry VIII powers; you can go no further with such powers than the Government seek to go with these. The Government might seek to defend themselves on the basis that these powers are provided in the context of consequential and transitional provisions, but if the Minister seeks, in the pursuit of the policy set out in the Bill as a whole, to amend primary legislation there is nothing at all in the legislation to inhibit him in any way from doing so.

The Government might also seek to defend themselves on the basis that the courts in practice would construe pretty strictly what powers the Government sought to exercise under these provisions, but we do not want these matters going to the courts. If they do, it takes the courts and judges into political terrain that it would be much better they kept out of.

The Government take powers in Clause 41 to amend or, indeed, repeal any previous enactment up until the end of this year. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, pointed out to us yesterday that a certain provision of Magna Carta was vulnerable under the policy adumbrated in the Bill. I am sure that when he comes to respond, the Minister will explain that he has no intention of repealing Magna Carta. Indeed, we have already been reassured in previous debates that the Government do not intend to use the Henry VIII powers with which they have peppered the Bill to undo the devolution settlements or to pursue other draconian purposes.

However, the Government really have written a constitutional monstrosity into the Bill. As the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, said just now, this is a bad and improper precedent. Unless the Government can produce a justification, which I find unimaginable, for the taking of these extravagant powers they should not write them into the Bill at all. As the noble Baroness suggested, in an age of populism it is particularly undesirable that extreme powers be taken casually. It is a proper responsibility of your Lordships’ House to keep an eye on what is going on and, where legislative practice becomes unacceptable, to point it out to the other place.

If Members of Parliament perused the Bill and informed themselves in close detail about it, they might consider that they had been rather insulted. We should certainly give them the opportunity to consider that possibility. Members of Parliament on the Conservative side of the House of Commons might be uneasy about what appears to be in conflict with the Conservative Party’s manifesto. I have taken the precaution of looking at it. In the section entitled “Protect our democracy”, it is asserted:

“As Conservatives, we stand for democracy and the rule of law.”

It goes on to say:

“Once we get Brexit done, Britain will take back control of its laws.”

I do not think that, when voters studied the Conservative Party’s manifesto and Conservative parliamentary candidates took it as their oath of prospective office, they actually thought that taking back control of our laws following Brexit would mean a power grab on the part of the Executive, which is potentially happening.

Ministers have already sought to reassure us. In the debates we held on Clauses 21 and 26, it was insisted that there were no such malign intentions as the legislation would make possible. They wanted to reassure us by pointing out that the regulation-making powers so extensively set out in Clauses 21 and 26 could be exercised only under the affirmative resolution procedure. That is a mitigating circumstance, but it by no means undoes the mischief of taking the Henry VIII powers in the first place.

However, in the letter that he wrote to us, the noble Lord, Lord Duncan of Springbank, acknowledged that the regulation-making powers it is proposed that the Government should have under Clause 41 would be exercisable under the negative resolution procedure. He gave no explanation or justification for that. I do not know whether this inconsistency in approach and resort to extensive regulation-making powers under the negative procedure at Clause 41 is the result of a drafting error and a mistake, but if it was there will be an opportunity for the Government to amend it.

Following the amendments made by your Lordships’ House, the Bill will go back to the House of Commons. It would be quite easy for the Government to amend it in this regard, and they could do so with no loss of face or dignity. When Governments are flush with electoral success, they have a tendency to swagger. The bigger the majority and the higher the euphoria of electoral success that they feel, the more important it is that they act soberly when legislating and proceed with humility and magnanimity in their dealings with Parliament. Magnanimity is a Latinate word, which I hope will appeal to the Prime Minister, but if humility and magnanimity are too difficult, the Government should at least conduct themselves in relation to Parliament with respect and courtesy. Macho attitudes to legislation make for bad law.

The manifesto goes on to say that

“we… need to look at the broader aspects of our constitution: the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts”.

Indeed, our scrutiny of the Bill thus far has indicated that there is a great deal for the Government—and the commission it proposes—to consider in the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts.

The manifesto then goes on to say that the new Government and their commission will want to look at the role of the House of Lords. I hope that Ministers in the other place and Members of Parliament will understand that the traditional constitutional role of your Lordships’ House is to act as an advisory and revising Chamber. The principal way in which the House of Lords offers its advice and proffers its revisions is by way of amendments to legislation. In doing so, your Lordships’ House poses no threat to the Government. There is no lese-majesty. In all the debates we have had on this Bill, it is clear that this House accepts that the Government have a mandate for Brexit. There is no attempt by your Lordships to subvert Brexit and thwart the Government in their purpose of enacting this withdrawal legislation.