European Union (Withdrawal) Bill Looks Like A Silent Coup

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It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton).

Last June, the British people voted to leave the European Union. It was an outcome that I campaigned against, but it is a decision that I fully accept and respect as a democrat. That is why I voted to trigger article 50, and I have spent the past 15 months considering how to make Brexit work. It is precisely in that vein, driven by a desire to defend and advance our national interest and to enact the will of the British people, that I have risen today to urge hon. Members to decline to give this Bill a Second Reading.

his Bill frustrates the will of the British people and it fails on its own terms. Brexit was supposed to be about Britain and her sovereign Parliament taking back control. Whatever a vote for Brexit meant, it was surely not a vote for the degradation of our fundamental constitutional values. The first principle of our constitution is parliamentary sovereignty under a constitutional monarch. That means that it is Parliament, not the Executive, that determines the rules and laws that govern this country. The Bill seeks to turn that fundamental principle on its head. Without substantial amendment, this Bill will usurp the sovereign power of this House, giving Ministers the absolute powers of feudal lords, and the Prime Minister the power of a 16th century monarch. It would emasculate this House, giving the Government, who were denied a majority in this House at the ballot box just three months ago, unaccountable power. As Lord Acton famously remarked,

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

The relationship between the legislature and the Executive works only if it is one of equals. This Bill, if passed in its current form, would fundamentally undermine Parliament’s ability to hold the Executive to account and to apply the checks and balances that are the lifeblood of our democratic processes and institutions.

If this Bill does pass tonight, we must work together across the Floor of this House to fix it. First, we need a substantive impact clause, which would codify and formalise the promise that this Bill will make only technical changes and would mean that substantive rights and protections originating in EU law could not be removed without a vote in Parliament. Secondly, we need a limitation on the use and scope of the discretionary powers in the Bill—this will likely take the form of the “necessary and proportionate” requirement—and a protection for substantive rights. Giving Ministers the power to determine what is “appropriate” is an inadequate safeguard, as it hands Ministers absolute and unaccountable power that they need justify to no one.

Thirdly, we need an enhanced scrutiny requirement. This could take the form of the “sift and scrutiny” Committee that has been proposed by the Hansard Society. Failing that, the task could be delegated to the European Scrutiny Committee, with the aid of a beefed-up explanatory memorandum. That type of amendment is required so that this House has the power to determine what will be done by statutory instrument, what by the affirmative principle, and what by the whole House.

Fourthly, there must be an institutional parity clause. Without UK institutions to take on the job of EU bodies, we will see fundamental rights removed by the ​back door, having been rendered unenforceable. Fifthly, we need proper explanatory statements from Ministers. That would be a further layer of protection; it would mean Ministers having to sign an explanatory statement whenever an instrument was made under the Bill, stating that it was not intended to impact on substantive rights and protections.

Lastly, but by no means least, we need a clause to enforce the principle of presumed competency for devolved institutions. There is presumed competence for devolved institutions when it comes to enforcing EU policy at present, so competency for these matters should be transferred not to Whitehall, but closer to the people through our devolved institutions. 

Amendments to cover those six areas would produce a Bill that protects the sovereignty of this House and gives back control to the people of this country, and not simply to those around the Cabinet table, but the Government have shown absolutely no willingness even to consider any such amendments. Rather, they seem determined to impose a tight time limit on Committee stage, in an attempt to ram the Bill through before anyone can appreciate its full implications.

As Lady Macbeth muses,

“What need we fear…when none can call our power to account?”.

Lady Macbeth knew that as long as her husband was on the throne, they would escape punishment for their crimes, because there was no check on their power. This Bill seeks to strip Parliament of its sovereign power, create a Cabinet of kings and transform the Floor of this House from the beating heart of our democracy into a spectators’ gallery, turning us from legislators to bystanders, wholly dependent on the benevolence of Ministers. Let us make no mistake: this Bill is not about delivering the will of the people; rather, it is about gagging our democracy and this House by way of a false discourse. It is a silent coup d’état, masquerading as a technical necessity. It is for that reason that I urge us all to decline giving the Bill a Second Reading, and the Government to return with a dramatically altered Bill that respects this House, our constitution and the will of the British people.