Under article 50 of the treaty on the European Union, if the United Kingdom were to decide to leave the EU, it would need to negotiate and conclude an agreement with the remaining member states, setting out the arrangements for withdrawal. The EU treaties would continue to apply to the UK until the article 50 agreement entered into force or for two years if no agreement were reached and no extension to that period were granted. Any further changes to the UK’s legal obligations would of course depend on the nature of any further international agreements entered into.
Newcastle has a thriving legal services sector with many internationally renowned firms as well as two excellent degree courses at our universities. Does the Attorney General agree that leaving the European Union would mean that we would face years of uncertainty and confusion over our legal framework, which would necessarily undermine the success of our legal and financial services sectors?
First, I should say that I have boundless faith in the ingenuity and entrepreneurial spirit of our legal professions, and I am sure that they would find a way through. However, the hon. Lady is right to say that there would be considerable uncertainty after any departure from the European Union, at least in part because there is a regulatory structure in this country that substantially depends on European regulation. We would have to decide how much of that to keep and how much we wished to change. She might also know that Professor Derek Wyatt, one of the leading experts on European law, recently gave evidence to the House of Lords European Union Committee. He said that
“it will take years for Government and Parliament to examine the corpus of EU law and decide what to jettison and what to keep”.
That is one of the reasons the Government believe that we are better off remaining within the EU.
Given my right hon. and learned Friend’s immense legal brain and huge legal capabilities, will he confirm to the House that he would want to remain as Attorney General should this country vote to leave the European Union so that he personally would be best placed to negotiate a super-duper British exit agreement in double-quick time?
I have nowhere near my hon. Friend’s faith in my abilities, but I do think that it remains in Britain’s best interests to stay within the European Union. However, if the British people decide that we should leave, the British Government will continue to do their best for the British public.
A condition of our membership of the European Union is that we are also a signatory to the European convention on human rights. Can the Attorney General confirm that this Government are committed to remaining a signatory to the convention and not to join Belarus, the only European country that is not a signatory?
I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman’s first statement is entirely correct, but the Government’s intention is nevertheless clear: we are not seeking to leave the convention but we are seeking to construct a better and more sensible arrangement on human rights law in this country. We do not think that the interpretation of the convention by the European Court of Human Rights is always sensible, and we wish to see a good deal more common sense being brought into human rights law. I regret that that opinion is not shared by Her Majesty’s Opposition.
I appreciate that the Attorney General’s hands are tied somewhat, in that nobody in the Vote Leave campaign has been clear about what we would be leaving to, but surely his officials will have made some assessment of the amount of legislative time that would be taken up by this Parliament trying to unpick 43 years of our involvement in European laws, rules and regulations.
I have just quoted the remarks of Professor Wyatt when he gave evidence in the other place. There is no doubt that considerable time and effort would be required in those circumstances. Of course it is difficult to be specific, because it would rather depend on what alternative arrangements were sought, post-departure from the European Union. The hon. Gentleman is right to say the onus is on those who wish to leave to explain what the world would be like if we did so.
The human rights laws within European law are extremely limited. The charter of fundamental rights within the European Union law canon does not create new rights and, as my hon. Friend knows, the European convention on human rights is a separate institution. He is wrong to suggest that this would be simple in any way; it would be extraordinarily complicated and take a very long time.