Considered in Committee
[Mr Lindsay Hoyle in the Chair]
New Clause 49
Date of exit from the European Union
‘The United Kingdom ceases to belong to the European Union on 30 March 2019.’.—(Frank Field.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 79, in clause 1, page 1, line 3, at end insert—
“(2) Regulations under section 19(2) bringing into force subsection (1) may not be made until the Prime Minister is satisfied that resolutions have been passed by the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly signifying consent to the commencement of subsection (1).”
This amendment would make the repeal of the European Communities Act 1972 on exit day conditional on the Prime Minister gaining consent from the devolved legislatures.
Clause 1 stand part.
Government amendments 383 and 381.
Amendment 386, in clause 14, page 10, line 25, leave out from “means” to “(and” in line 26 and insert
“the time specified by an Act of Parliament approving the final terms of withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU”.
This amendment would require ‘exit day’ to be specified, for all purposes, in a separate bill seeking approval for the final terms of the withdrawal of the UK from the EU. It would therefore have the effect of requiring a statute on the withdrawal terms - whatever they might be - to be passed by Parliament before ‘exit day’.
Amendment 43, page 10, line 25, leave out
“a Minister of the Crown may by regulations”
“Parliament may by a majority approval in both Houses”.
This amendment together with Amendments 44 and 45 would empower Parliament to control the length and basic terms of transitional arrangements, and would allow Parliament to start the clock on the sunset clauses within the Bill.
Amendment 6, page 10, line 26, at end insert
“but exit day must be the same day for the purposes of every provision of this Act.”
To prevent the creation of different exit days for different parts of the Act by SI.
Government amendment 382.
Amendment 387, page 11, line 24, leave out from “Act” to end of line 32 and insert
“references to before, after or on exit day, or to beginning with exit day, are to be read as references to before, after or at the time specified by an Act of Parliament approving the final terms of withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU”.
This amendment is consequential on Amendment 386 and ensures that references to exit day in the Bill and other legislation operate correctly in relation to the time as well as the date of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the EU.
Amendment 44, page 11, line 25, leave out
“a Minister of the Crown”
and insert “Parliament”.
This amendment together with Amendments 43 and 45 would empower Parliament to control the length and basic terms of transitional arrangements, and would allow Parliament to start the clock on the sunset clauses within the Bill.
Amendment 45, page 11, line 30, leave out
“a Minister of the Crown”
and insert “Parliament”.
This amendment together with Amendments 43 and 44 would empower Parliament to control the length and basic terms of transitional arrangements, and would allow Parliament to start the clock on the sunset clauses within the Bill.
Amendment 81, in clause 19, page 14, line 32, at end insert—
“(a) section 1(2);”.
This amendment is a consequential amendment resulting from Amendments 78, 79 and 80 to Clause 1 requiring the Prime Minister to reach an agreement on EEA and Customs Union membership, to gain the consent of the devolved legislatures and to report on the effect leaving the EU will have on the block grant before implementing section 1 of this Act.
May I first draw the attention of the House to a mistake on page 1 of the amendment paper? The name of the hon. Member for Keighley (John Grogan) should not have appeared as a supporter of new clause 49.
I rise to speak to the new clause in my name and all the other names that still remain on the amendment paper. Although I am limited to speaking to new clause 49, it is linked to new clauses 50, 51 and 52, for reasons that I will develop.
I wish to begin by declaring my sentiments in tabling this new clause and supporting the new clauses that are umbilically attached to it. I am a reluctant Brexiteer. I am too old to feel that I was born to bring us out of Europe, and I have not had one of those evangelical revivals in thinking that somehow life began again once we entered the Common Market and that my aim, purpose, being, and everything I breathed was towards getting us out of that organisation. That is not so.
In my own constituency and in the small amount of work I did nationally, I stressed that things were on a balance: we had to make a decision about Europe. We did not need more facts about Europe, but had to draw on our very natures—all that we had been taught in our culture and where, in our very being, we felt we stood in this country—to make the decision about whether we wished to leave or not.
On a point of order, Mr Hoyle. In this new clause we are debating an exit date of 30 March 2019, yet grouped with it there are Government amendments to be voted on at a later date that put the exit date at 11 pm on 29 March 2019. There is a difference of an hour, and as far as I am aware the clocks only go forward on Sunday 31 March. Could you give some guidance to the movers of these amendments so that the arch-Brexiteers on both sides get their clocks and house in order?
Let us not worry too much about time because we are eating away at it at the moment. It is a matter to be decided in the debate, not for me to decide. When we get there, we will know better. Let us not take up more time now.
That was a good intervention. My new clause decides on British time when to leave, whereas the Government’s amendments are at the beckoning of Europeans. We have a very clear choice. I will willingly take interventions that are trying to trip me up in making this short contribution.
I fought the referendum campaign, as much as I could, as a reluctant Brexiteer. On balance, I thought that our country’s future would increasingly thrive outside rather than inside the European Union. I have always wanted to make a deal, although it is immensely sensible, in any negotiations, to make sure that the other side knows that one may be banking on and planning for no deal.
The next factor—I will touch on this again when we think of what the House of Lords might do to a Bill of this size—is that it has been very difficult for most of us to come to terms with what our role has been as MPs in a representative democracy, and with how we digest the fact that a referendum has taken place and the British people have spoken. How do we react in those circumstances, which I believe are unique and in no way comparable with any other parliamentary procedure that we deal with in this House?
As I said at the beginning, before I was helpfully interrupted, this new clause stands with three other new clauses. Together they present the Government with a clean, small, slimline Brexit Bill. By the time we get to the end of this process, they will thank the Lord that this life raft is in the Bill and they are able to get on it. In the new clause, we decide on the date—by British time, not European time—when we actually leave. That is our choice. It is about the beginnings of the freedom that we hope will flow—with difficulties, of course—from setting us on the course of leaving the European Union.
The second new clause simply ensures that all the laws and regulations come on to our statute book at that point in time—British time, not European time.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
Can I just finish this point, and then I will willingly give way?
The third new clause is on how Parliament reviews those laws—those we wish to keep fully, those we wish to amend, those we wish to add to, and those we wish to kick out. It says that this House will decide how that process is done. I am sure that before we have finished our debate on this Bill in Committee, the Government will be agreeing with me on that. The Henry VIII stuff is an absurd way of going about this business, although as we get down to the mega-task of reviewing this, we may beg the Government for a touch of Henry VIII to get through a task of the size that will be before us.
Finally, given that we have real difficulties in completing a negotiation—
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
I said that I would give way as soon as I had finished explaining the new clause and the three new clauses attached to it. Finally, we need a safe haven. Speaking of which, I give way to my hon. Friend.
Will my right hon. Friend not concede that an arbitrary date for Brexit could risk damaging the British economy if clear evidence emerges, as it already is, that hurrying Brexit may badly damage our manufacturing sector, our agricultural sector and our financial services sector?
I am supported by people whose constituents largely agree with my views, not theirs. How they deal with that is not my problem. I agree that it is a difficult problem, but that does not mean to say that one should have any particular solution to it. Generally speaking, the larger the majority, the more clearly Labour voters spoke about Brexit. [Interruption.] No, that is absolutely true. I will deal with my hon. Friend’s point in a moment, but it comes down to who we think we are dealing with. Are we playing a game of cricket, or have we got people who are trying—
It is not a game!
I am just saying that—I am saying that we will be fighting for our lives, as I will set out if I ever get on to explaining the new clause fully.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) wants to intervene.
I am confused by my right hon. Friend’s suggestion that all Labour voters supported his position, because the majority of them did not. The majority of Labour members do not support his position either. That is an important point, so will he correct the record?
I happily add to the record. It makes some people’s circumstances more difficult, but I said that generally speaking, the larger the Labour majority in the general election and the bigger the turnout in the last general election, the one before that and the one before that, the more likely constituents were to vote leave.
Order. We do not need everybody standing up at the same time. I am sure that if the right hon. Gentleman is going to give way, as he has already done, he will say so. Please, do not all keep standing up at the same time.
I would also say—
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
That includes Mr Farrelly, who has already had a good start to the day. Let us not continue in the same way.
I would also say, to qualify that general statement, that areas that I would love to represent—not my own constituency, but others—voted to remain, against the trend of Labour support, in the referendum.
My right hon. Friend is making a case that I do not agree with, but he is doing so with his usual reasonable approach. I think he is probably right that at the moment, most people have not changed their minds. The reasons why they voted to leave are still, as far as they are concerned, unresolved, and they think that those things will be resolved by leaving. Suppose, however, that it emerges in the next 12 months that all the reasons why they voted as they did will not be realised, and that, on top of that, the economic consequences will be disastrous—what then?
I have only four small sheets of paper, and it has taken me all this time to get this far. I have an answer for my right hon. Friend—[Interruption.] Indeed, it seems to me that the Labour side needs educating about where Labour voters are. If my right hon. Friend can contain himself, I will take account of that. I emphasise his wisdom in saying that we do not know where these negotiations will end up. They are fraught, particularly because we are negotiating with a group of people who do not want us to succeed because they fear what will happen in their own countries if we do.
Did the right hon. Gentleman receive a pamphlet—paid for by the taxpayer—from the Government during the referendum, on the back of which they stated that they would carry out the wishes of the people via the vote in the referendum? Does he believe that by having a fixed date, which everybody knows, we will deliver what the people voted for?
I have to confess to receiving the pamphlet and throwing it in the bin immediately. I never believed that the sort of campaign we fought, with false truths on both sides, enhanced our standing as a political class. Neither did it address the very serious issues of what people thought about their own identity, their community’s identity, their country’s identity and their country’s position in the world, on which we all know that people take different views. The idea that a Government pamphlet was going to help us—dear God!
I note that my right hon. Friend qualified his earlier statement, but does he accept that at the last general election, more than 85% of Liverpool, Riverside constituents voted for the Labour candidate, and that 73% of them voted to remain? Does he accept that the people of Liverpool, Riverside have great wisdom, and that that ought to be followed?
If I did, it would mean that the voters of Birkenhead did not have wisdom, which is the very opposite of my hon. Friend’s point. I am not going to put my head in that noose.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
No, I have given way once. This a serious debate and, if I can make progress, I will willingly bring people in as we go along.
I wish to express disappointment with the Government’s strategy and their handling of the situation. I do not think it has the sense of importance, drive or coherence that the issue merits. I have argued, publicly and privately, that anyone who seriously compares this historic event to our fight for survival in world war two would follow the move that Churchill made on taking over from Chamberlain, when he established a war Cabinet in place of the existing ramshackle institutions. As I will explain in a moment, the new clause represents the beginning of a new negotiating hand, and I think we need a Brexit Cabinet. It should be small, and the Opposition should be offered places in it. The Opposition were offered places in the war Cabinet, and Mr Attlee and Mr Greenwood accepted those places. We should try to act in the national interest—[Laughter.] Hon. Members may laugh—
Clearly, my suggestion is proving shocking to my right hon. and hon. Friends, but it will be a test of whether we are intent on the best possible terms, whether we have a clear position and whether we are putting our country first.
I thank my right hon. Friend and neighbour for giving way. Does he agree that the reason why we ought to have such cross-party co-operation is that this issue is not funny or a joke; it is about the future of our country? That is why we should listen to everyone in this place, and not just act in the narrow interests of the Tory party.
I think my hon. Friend ended her sentence rather early. I think she meant to say that we should try, difficult as it is, to put aside partial affections and concentrate on the national issue.
I can hardly finish a sentence. To those to whom I have given way, I will not give way again until much later in my speech.
My right hon. Friend has not given way to me.
I did give way to my hon. Friend.
It was a point of order.
Well, try another point of order and see if it works.
I have a sense of disappointment. We have ceased the aerial bombardment of this Bill, and we are now engaged in hand-to-hand fighting over the nature of our leaving. The sentiments of my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern), my constituency neighbour, about our trying to steer this debate in the national interest are crucial.
No, I will not give way. I want other people to be able to contribute to the debate.
The second reason why I feel disappointment at the Government’s stance is that they are misreading the other side with whom we are negotiating. A British assumption is always to allow give and take, but we now have the Barnier rule of all take and no give. I will in a moment comment on how we should respond to that. Anybody who is serious, as all of us in the Committee have been, about wishing to award equal status and citizenship to EU citizens in this country know that those negotiations could have been over in half an hour. It was never ever the intention but for the other side to tick that off and say it was very good. Millions of people could have been put at their ease about their lives—both Britons living in the European Union and European citizens, as they will become, living in Britain—and we should consider that very carefully in our negotiations from now on.
The third disappointment is that the Government have produced such a Bill. When we were campaigning to leave, I thought we would have a Bill with two, three or four clauses to get us out. I know that the Government have been beguiled by its first title—the great repeal Bill—with some group of clever people thinking it can be great only if it is large, rather than aiming to be effective. I do not believe that a Bill of this size, timetabled as it will be to deliver it for the Government, actually stands much chance of getting through the House of Lords. Hence, my emphasis on the rescue launch waiting in the form of my four new clauses, including this new clause, which I have had such pleasure in moving.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the House of Lords, which is of course unelected and which itself decided to pass the European Union Referendum Act 2015, really has no justification whatsoever for attempting to obstruct, delay or undermine this Bill?
A very important lesson needs to be learned by some of those in the House of Lords who think they can wreck the Bill and wear us down so that Brexit never takes place. There is a very important convention—the Salisbury convention—and there is a very important difference between a referendum and a party’s manifesto. The Salisbury convention allows us to give and take on the important parts of a manifesto—the parts to which Governments rightly feel committed, and which they wish to pursue in Parliament so that when they stand for re-election they can say they have done the job they promised to do.
This is a different ball game. As I tried to say at the beginning, it is difficult for us all to come to terms with the role we have as MPs and the role we have in a post-referendum debate. I think their lordships should know that if they try to wreck the Bill, many of us will push the nuclear button. Labour wants to see the House of Lords go—I am surprised there was not a cheer at this point—but their lordships will sound their own death knell. Not one of them is elected, and none of them has any standing whatsoever in preventing the Government from inviting the House of Commons to implement the referendum decision, as we are doing today.
I am following the right hon. Gentleman’s argument with close attention. Part of the leave argument was to take back control—not just to the House of Commons, but to the country and Parliament as a whole. Is he now trying to undermine the bicameral system?
No, not at all. We will be going late on days such as this, so if the hon. Gentleman would like to read my website, he will see I have outlined my views on House of Lords reform. They are different from those of most others. They are about its being elective, but through electing the great powers in this country—influences such as trade unions and so on—and certainly not through decisions by the party Whips. However, I dare not go down that path because it would take me away from the my new clause.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
No, my hon. Friend has had one intervention via a point of order, and I think that is it for him.
I doubt it.
So do I.
I think new clause 49 should be the start of a new negotiating position. Mr Barnier has told us that we have to put our money on the table and get serious within two weeks, and I think we should jump at this opportunity. In two weeks’ time, the Government should lay the outline of our agreement. I believe they should say over which decades they are prepared to meet our commitments, and at the end of the two weeks, we should say that at that point we will cease to pay any contributions to the European Union. I want the balance of power to move swiftly from their boot to our boot. From that date, two weeks hence, at the invitation of Mr Barnier, we should say, “Fine. Here’s the outline of the agreement. Here’s the beginning of the money settlement”—paid over a period of time, because there are pensions contributions and so on—“but from this day, until you start seriously negotiating with us”, which they have not, “there will in fact be no more money.”
It is wrong to think that all the £17 billion a year will be coming back to us. The £5 billion that Mrs Thatcher negotiated from the unfair formula is already coming back to us. That was watered down—by whom I will not say, but there is only so much one can say from the Labour Benches—but, nevertheless, £5 billion is coming back. There is also £4 billion coming back to promote anti-poverty programmes in this country. I wish to tell the Committee that I applied for money from those funds to feed people who are hungry and may be starving, but what did Mr Barnier and his group do? Nothing. We supposedly have huge sums of money coming back—spent at their direction—but that does not actually feed people who are hungry.
I want to end by saying that I shall push the new clause to a Division for a number of reasons. One is that it always seems to me better to gain an advantage when one can, rather than later: a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. The Government are introducing their own timetable, as set by the European bureaucrats— whoever they are—instructing us when we might take leave of them, but I think we should decide today to leave on our terms and at a time of our choosing.
As I have said, the new clause should not be read in isolation, because it and the other three new clauses provide us with an alternative way of exiting without all the claptrap the Government have put in the Bill. I believe that, before the end of the negotiations, something like such a four-clause Bill will be adopted.
On the first and civilised intervention—the point of order—about timing, it is perhaps a fallacy to think of terms for oneself applying to terms for the nation, but I have never bought a house without having in the contract the date when it will be mine and on which I can actually move in. When I was elected to the House of Commons I knew that I would have a contract of up to five years, and I have never had a job without being given a starting date.
My right hon. Friend’s analogy about buying a house falls down at the first hurdle, because nobody commits to a date to buy a house before they know what it is they are buying. My substantive point, however, is about the fatal weakness of his proposal, even though, as always, I respect the way in which he argues his case. When the Secretary of State appeared before the Select Committee, he told us that it is possible that the negotiations may go to the 59th minute of the 11th hour. That is undoubtedly possible. In those circumstances, does it really make sense to bind the hands of the country and those who are negotiating on its behalf to get the best possible deal, which is also the weakness of the Government’s own amendment 383?
As my right hon. Friend was kind to me about the house analogy, I say that I have always bought my houses, never inherited them. [Interruption.]
I bought mine too!
I have been corrected and I withdraw my comment, but the idea that the biggest decisions of our lives, such as that to buy a house, are the ones that we take the most time over is not borne out by any research whatsoever. I do seriously apologise to my right hon. Friend.
The right hon. Gentleman has been a political ally of mine in previous cross-party arrangements, but not on this occasion. He has dodged answering the perfectly serious point that the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) just put to him. As things stand, article 50 will take effect in March 2019 and we will leave. Anything in the Bill is superfluous to that. A problem could arise only if—and this is possible—28 member states all agree that they are near to a conclusion but that they require a few more days or weeks to settle it. Once we are going they will not want us to stay in much longer, because they will not want us around for the European Parliament elections. However, it would be utterly foolish if 28 Governments all agreed to extend the process and the British representative had to say, “But we’ve put into British law a timing that says, to the second, when we are actually leaving.” That seems to me a rather serious flaw in the proposed new clause.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is such a good lawyer, but I wish he had read my new clause, because it notes the day rather than the minute that we will leave. Despite all the encouragement from Members behind me, I was so anxious to withdraw what I said about my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) that I forgot to address his substantive point, and the right hon. and learned Gentleman has reminded me to do so. If we look over our whole history in Europe, we will see that the idea that we finish any negotiations other than at the very last minute is almost unheard of. By including the time, we will be saying, “You will have to begin your shenanigans the month before rather than the month after.”
In conclusion, I am grateful for being allowed to move the second reading of this new clause, to remind people that it is part of a short exit Bill.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, because I know he is concluding. I want to make a simple point. The whole argument about having flexibility falls when we look at article 50 itself. It was very specific for a very simple reason, which is that the timescale determines that those who are negotiating must reach, or agree not to reach, an agreement. Simply changing the timescale will not allow them to reach an agreement; they have the time to do it. That is the whole point about compression—to get an agreement. That is why the date was prompted by article 50.
I have one last point to make. I thought that my proposed new clause merely implemented article 50, which we all voted for, to tell our constituents that we had—[Interruption.] Well, apart from one Member who voted against triggering article 50. [Interruption.] Apart from two or three—[Interruption.] Were there any more than four? Perhaps there were five, six, seven or eight.
I thought that what I had to say was so uncontentious that my speech would last only five minutes. I apologise to the Committee for the time I have taken. All the proposed new clause does is put on the statute book the actual timing of article 50, which we voted for in overwhelming numbers almost a year ago. I move the new clause in my name and the names of those on the amendment paper.
Before I call the Minister, I inform the House that he is not feeling well today and, for the sake of clarification, that another Minister will come along later.
I am extremely grateful to you, Mr Hoyle. I very much hope that my voice makes it through these remarks.
I rise to support clause 1 stand part and to speak to Government amendments 381, 382 and 383. It may help the House and members of the public if I say that the decisions on those amendments will be taken on days seven and eight.
Clause 1 reads:
“The European Communities Act 1972 is repealed on exit day.”
It is a simple clause, but it could scarcely be more significant. In repealing the European Communities Act 1972, the clause will be a historic step in delivering our exit from the European Union, in accordance with last year’s referendum. I hope that all people on all sides of this issue can agree that the repeal of the Act is a necessary step as we leave the European Union.
Does my hon. Friend recall that the official Opposition voted against the Bill on Second Reading and therefore the repeal of the 1972 Act? They still claim that this Bill is not fit for purpose and that it usurps parliamentary sovereignty, when in fact it does exactly the opposite.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend and I look forward to seeing whether Opposition Members support clause 1 stand part.
If we were to not repeal the European Communities Act, we would still, from the perspective of EU law, exit the European Union at the end of the article 50 process, but there would be confusion and uncertainty about the law on our own statute book. For example, it would be unclear whether UK or EU law would take precedence if there was a conflict between them. The status of new EU law would also be unclear once the UK left the EU.
I intend first to set out briefly the effect of the European Communities Act on our legal system and the implications of its repeal. The UK is a “dualist” state, meaning that a treaty, even when ratified, does not alter our laws unless it is incorporated into domestic law by legislation. Parliament must pass legislation before the rights and obligations in a treaty have effect in our law. The European Communities Act gave EU law supremacy over UK law. Without it, EU law would not apply in the UK. The 1972 Act has two main provisions. Section 2(1) ensures rights and obligations in the EU treaties and regulations are directly applicable in the UK legal system. They apply directly without the need for Parliament to pass specific domestic implementing legislation. This bears repeating in the context of the clauses to follow.
EU regulations and certain EU treaty provisions have effect in the UK without further parliamentary intervention, thanks to the European Communities Act. Section 2(2) provides a delegated power for the implementation of EU obligations, such as those in directives. Over 12,000 EU regulations flow into our law through section 2(1) of the Act, none of which could be refused by this House or the other place. These range from chemical classification rules to rules about the rights of passengers travelling by sea.
Does the Minister agree that this simple crucial clause is the way in which our democracy is completely restored and that once it has gone through and been implemented any matter that worries the British people can properly be the subject of parliamentary debate and decisions, no laws and treaties withstanding?
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend. He has perhaps anticipated my speech by a few paragraphs.
UK Ministers and Ministers in the devolved Administrations have made nearly 6,000 domestic regulations under section 2(2) on topics as disparate as air fares, public contracts and preserved sardines. The House, of course, has not remained supine in absorbing all this legislation. We have benefited from the tireless work of the European Scrutiny Committee, chaired so ably by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash). It has scrutinised a vast number of EU documents, supporting this House in holding Ministers to account when representing our interests in the EU. Its work has been of paramount importance in holding Ministers to account and maximising the voice of this House on EU matters. On occasions, deliberations in this House have influenced the laws adopted by the EU, but ultimately this House was, on every occasion, obliged to implement our EU obligations. We could not refuse new EU law because of our obligations to the EU.
Does my hon. Friend accept that most of this legislation is proposed by the Commission, considered by the Council of Ministers, including a British Minister, and, nowadays, approved by the European Parliament before it becomes law? Can he name a significant European law or regulation that was opposed by the British Government at the time, which the Government are now proposing to repeal? Most Brexiteers cannot think of one.
I am most grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend. I think the question at stake here is not whether there are legitimate processes in the EU; it is whether we approve of them. The one that I am always glad to bring to people’s attention is, of course, the ports regulation, which we will have to stick with all the while we are within the EU. It is perhaps unique in being opposed by the owners of ports, trade unions and, it seems, all parties involved with our strategic interests in ports. They are all opposed to that regulation. I very much look forward to the day that we can make our own decisions about how our flourishing private sector infrastructure works.
Does my hon. Friend agree that those who accuse the Government of a power grab would be very happy for unelected EU officials to continue to exercise these powers, rather than an elected Government accountable to this elected Parliament?
Indeed. I have often thought that the scenery of our constitution had remained in place throughout my lifetime, but not the practical effect the electors of this country expected it to have.
In response, vicariously to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), may I point out that most decisions taken by the Council of Ministers are effectively made by consensus behind closed doors, with no record of who said what, how the decision was arrived at, or, unlike this House, with no record of any of the proceedings either?
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. I thoroughly recommend the report of his Committee relating to that subject.
I think what has been established in this sequence of interventions is that clause 1 could scarcely be of greater constitutional significance. It will repeal the 1972 Act on exit day, removing the mechanism that allows EU law to flow automatically into UK law, and remove one of the widest-ranging powers ever placed on the statute book of the United Kingdom. The repeal makes it clear and unarguable that sovereignty lies here in this Parliament.
If the 1972 Act is repealed before the end of what Ministers call the implementation period but what I prefer to think of as the transition period, what will be the legal basis for our relations with the EU and our free trade agreements with the 57 third countries?
I am happy that we have announced the withdrawal agreement and implementation Bill, which will follow in due course, to establish that legal basis, but for the moment I want to conclude this section of my remarks and move on to the amendments.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
Not just now. [Hon. Members: “Ooh!] I have given way quite a few times. I am now going to make some progress and get on to the amendments.
How we exercise this restored power in the future will be a choice for this place. The Government are clear that we want a smooth and orderly exit, achieved through continuity in the law at the point of exit, as we shall discuss at later stages. For now, I hope that all Members can agree that it is essential that clause 1 stand part of the Bill.
I now turn to today’s amendments. It is fitting that the first amendment debated in Committee is from the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field). He has got to the heart of the matter of when we leave the EU.
On our time.
I will come to that point.
I listened carefully to the right hon. Gentleman’s speech, and I have great sympathy for the case he makes. I will just pick up on two points. First, on using our time, he has not of course given a time of day in his new clause. One thing I learned during my service in the Royal Air Force is the ambiguity that arises when one implies or deliberately specifies midnight, which of course can be taken as the beginning or end of a day. For that reason, his amendment is technically deficient. I hope that in due course he will choose not to press it to a Division, but will instead accept the Government’s set of amendments, including the consequentials.
I would love the Government to move an amendment specifying 23 hours and 59 minutes on the day we leave, but it should be on our time, not on their time or terms. Will they move that amendment to my new clause at a later stage?
I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. He has made his case well, of course, but we will move the amendment that we have tabled.
Will the Minister give way?
I will give way once more, and then I will make some progress.
Does the Minister not agree that exactly this argument is creating division between us and our European neighbours, which will make it very difficult to create a deep and special partnership?
I do not accept that at all. When the Prime Minister wrote to the President of the European Council in March, she set in train the defined two-year process of article 50, which, unless extended by unanimity, will conclude on 29 March 2019. That is why the Prime Minister said in her Florence speech that the UK would cease to be a member of the EU on that day. That is the Government’s policy.
As I said, I would like to make some progress.
The Government have, however, listened carefully to the debate about the setting of exit day for the statutory purposes of the Bill. There has been some uncertainty about whether the exit day appointed in the Bill would correspond to the day the UK leaves the EU at the end of the article 50 process. The Government sympathise with this uncertainty. This is also an issue on which the Lords Constitution Committee opined in its report in September. It stated:
“We are concerned that the power to define ‘exit day’—a matter that is pivotal to the operation of the Bill—is unduly broad in its scope and flexibility, and that it is not subject to any parliamentary scrutiny procedure.”
Such concerns were further voiced by the hon. Members for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra), for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) and for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) on Second Reading, not least regarding the breadth of the power potentially to set numerous exit days. In fact, there has been a notable disconnect, as we perhaps saw earlier, between Labour Front and Back Benchers on this issue. While several of its Back Benchers have submitted amendments and raised concerns about exit day, its Front-Bench team seem to have refused to acknowledge the need to establish clarity.
We would like to put this issue to rest. We recognise the importance of being crystal clear on the setting of exit day and are keen to provide the certainty that the right hon. Member for Birkenhead and others are seeking. In the light of this, the Government have tabled amendment 381 to clause 14, along with the consequential amendments 382 and 383, which will set exit day at 11 pm on 29 March 2019. Of course, this is slightly different to his amendment, in that it sets a time as well as a date for exit.
I am sorry that the Minister is not feeling well, but does he understand how impossible it is for me to explain to my constituents that they can have certainty about nothing in relation to Brexit as the Government plan it, except, according to him, the date when it will happen?
I forget for the moment whether the hon. Lady voted for the triggering of article 50, but the House did trigger article 50, and the process is quite clear: two years after that, we leave the European Union.
I wonder whether the Minister is going to admit to the Committee that setting a date for exit is mere political window-dressing. The Prime Minister has told the House that if there is to be a transitional deal, which she wants, her understanding is that it will be under article 50. That means that we will be staying in the single market, staying in the customs union and subject to EU law during the transitional period, so this exit day is simply a sop to Back Benchers. When is the Minister going to tell them the truth?
I will come to the implementation period in a moment, but one of the crucial points is that we need to become a third country in order to conclude our future relationship agreement. The Prime Minister set out in her Florence speech the outline of that implementation period, which would allow practical continuity under new arrangements that would enable us to be a third country and conclude the future relationship agreement.
I will give way just once more, to one of the Members behind me, and then I will make progress. I give way to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), my beloved neighbour.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. Does he recognise that there are two different issues relating to exit day? Some of the amendments were tabled to express the fear that there might be multiple exit dates. That is very different from fixing a day. Obviously, under article 50 there is an expiry date, but, as my hon. Friend knows, article 50 itself contains provision for a possible extension of the period if that is what is needed to conclude an agreement. That is why I find the Government’s amendment so strange. It seems to me to fetter the Government, to add nothing to the strength of their negotiating position, and, in fact, potentially to create a very great problem that could be visited on us at a later stage.
My right hon. and learned Friend has made his point with considerable clarity. Of course I accept that the article 50 process involves certain provisions, but I should say to him that a number of learned voices in private expressed concern about the existence of a degree of elasticity in the sunsetting of the powers in the Bill, and, for that reason, were anxious for us to fix the exit date. I should also say to him that, while he made his point with his usual clarity, other Members expressed the view that we should put beyond doubt the time and the date when we leave the European Union, and that is what our amendment does.
I did say just a couple of minutes ago that I would give way only once more, but on this occasion I will give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone). Then I really will make a little more progress.
The Minister is making a very good speech, but what is not clear—and there is some media speculation about this—is whether, if amendment 381 is passed with the exit date confirmed as it is, the Bill allows that date to be changed subsequently by means of regulation.
The answer to that is no. The point has been raised specifically in respect of the powers in clause 17, which relate to the consequences of the Bill’s enactment. I look forward very much to a full debate on those powers when we reach clause 17, but the short answer to my hon. Friend’s question is no.
I will get on with my speech now.
Will my hon. Friend give way on that very point?
No. I did say to my right hon. and learned Friend, and the Committee, that I was going to get on with it. If I give way to him, I will not make the progress that I need to make.
We said on Second Reading that we would listen to the concerns of the House, and our amendment delivers on that promise. Ultimately, the Government want the Bill to provide as much certainty as possible, and we are happy to consider amendments that share that goal. I hope that in the light of this the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) will be willing to withdraw his new clause, and hon. and right hon. Members with related amendments will withdraw them, too.
I now want briefly to turn to amendments 386 and 387 in the name of the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper). These amendments are ill-conceived and could result in chaos. Following a majority vote in this House, the Prime Minister wrote to the President of the European Council to trigger article 50. That set in train the article 50 process whereby, as the treaty on European Union says:
“The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification…unless the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned, unanimously decides to extend this period.”
That is why the Prime Minister said in her speech in Florence that the United Kingdom will cease to be a member of the European Union on 29 March 2019.
The Government have always been clear that the purpose of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill is to ensure that the UK exits the EU with certainty, continuity and control. This is an essential Bill in the national interest, which will ensure that, whatever the outcome of the negotiations, the statute book can continue to function. The right hon. Lady’s amendments would destroy the Bill’s capacity to function if a withdrawal agreement was not concluded. As a consequence of these amendments, the Bill’s crucial provisions could not come into effect until a second Act was passed; the consequence would be legal chaos if the second Act was not passed before 29 March 2019.
Furthermore, no one should fall into the trap of thinking that these amendments would keep us in the EU if no withdrawal agreement were concluded. We would leave under article 50, and the treaties would no longer apply, but our domestic law would be in an unfit state and we could have legal chaos. As a responsible Government, we must be ready to exit without a deal even though we expect to conclude a deep and special partnership.
I am grateful to the Minister for being pretty frank with the Committee now, because if what he says is right, his Government’s set of amendments pave the way for no deal. If I am wrong about that, why did his predecessor, Lord Bridges of Headley, say that he did not believe it would be possible to sort out the divorce bill, the implementation period and the final deal on our withdrawal within the timeframe envisaged? What the Minister is planning for—he should be absolutely frank with the British people about this—is no deal, and he has no mandate from the British people to do that.
I responded on this subject in a recent debate, and I refer the hon. Gentleman to everything I said on that occasion. He is wrong: we are planning to secure a deep and special partnership with the EU, and we intend to achieve that within the implementation period, which the Prime Minister described and set out in her Florence speech, and we look forward to passing the necessary legislation to do it.
I shall give way twice more and then conclude my remarks.
Is the Minister aware that the chief financial officer of Aston Martin has said that it would be a semi-catastrophe if the UK went for no deal? Also, why will the Minister not allow the option for article 50 to be extended, to ensure that there was a deal if we were very close to reaching one on the date he has set?
As a responsible Government, we are going to go through the process of making sure that our country is ready to leave the EU without a deal if that proves necessary. We will take the steps to be prepared, as a responsible Government should.
However, this Bill cannot pre-empt the negotiations by putting things into statute before they have been agreed. The Government intend the UK to leave the EU on 29 March 2019, and that is why we intend to put that on the face of the Bill, but we have always been clear that we will bring forward whatever legislation is necessary to implement the agreement we strike with the EU, which is why yesterday my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced the Withdrawal Agreement and Implementation Bill, which we will introduce once Parliament has had a chance to vote on the final deal.
This Government take their responsibilities seriously and are committed to ensuring that the UK exits the EU with certainty, continuity and control. It makes no sense to legislate for one piece of legislation on the face of another, and I therefore ask the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford not to press her amendment to a vote. With that, I recommend that clause 1 stand part of the Bill.
I am pleased to speak to amendments 43, 44 and 45, which would give Parliament control over the length and basic terms of the transitional arrangements and allow Parliament to set the clock on the sunset clauses. These are the first of many amendments tabled by the Opposition that we will consider over the next few weeks, all of which have one purpose, which is to improve the Bill. Frankly, it is not helpful when Ministers—and, indeed, the Prime Minister over the weekend—seek to characterise scrutiny and accountability in this House as an attempt to thwart Brexit. It is not. We accept that the British people voted to leave the European Union. It might have been a close vote, but it was a clear vote. That is why we voted to trigger article 50. Whether we leave the European Union is not a matter for debate, but how we do so is crucial for the future of our country. The British people voted to pull out, but they did not vote to lose out. They look to Parliament to secure the best deal, and that includes not stumbling over a cliff edge in March 2019.
Could the hon. Gentleman define the Labour party’s idea of leaving the European Union?
I am surprised that such an ardent Brexiteer as the right hon. Gentleman does not understand what leaving the European Union involves. We do.
Until last Thursday, the debate on clause 1 looked fairly straightforward. The article 50 notification made our exit from the European Union in March 2019 a legal certainty, so, for the purposes of the Bill, exit day could be left in the hands of Parliament. But then the Government did something needless: they tabled amendments 381 and 382, putting a specified exit date—and, indeed, a specified exit time: 11 pm, or midnight Brussels time—into the Bill. Their consequential amendment 383 seems to contradict the other amendments in some regards, which underlines the chaotic way in which the Government have approached the Bill, but taken together, the intention of the three amendments is clear.
The rather mysterious explanation that the hon. Gentleman gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) needs some elucidation. Would he be good enough to explain whether leaving the European Union means repealing the European Communities Act 1972, and why Labour voted against the Bill on Second Reading?
I would have thought that it would be as clear to the hon. Gentleman as it is to me that leaving the European Union does involve revoking the European Communities Act. I will go on to explain why we have concerns about the Government’s amendments and the different decisions within them.
Did the hon. Gentleman understand, as I did, when the vote on article 50 took place, that the provisions outlined in article 50 would apply, including the ability of 28 nations to agree to extend the negotiating process?
I did indeed, and I will come to that point later in my remarks.
I said that the intention of the three amendments is clear despite the confusion caused by amendment 383. It is clear, but it is needless because article 50, triggered on 29 March 2017, provides for a two-year exit timetable.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I will make some progress.
There is therefore no question about whether the UK will leave the EU at the end of that period in accordance with the article 50 notification. So what is the purpose of the Government’s three amendments? Is it simply to appease extreme elements within the Conservative party, not thinking of the consequences for the country, or is it a deliberate decision to unpick the Florence speech, demonstrating that the freelancers in the Prime Minister’s Cabinet are actually in charge of policy?
I suspect that it may be the latter. Given the chaos that the negotiations are in, the public will be wondering about the lack of progress. When the Government suddenly want to impose a guillotine, rather than use the article 50 process, the public may have good reason to be suspicious.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. The public have reason to be suspicious and worried.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I will not. I want to make some progress, but I am sure that I will give the hon. Gentleman the opportunity to intervene later.
Whatever the reason for the Government’s decision, it is reckless and represents an extraordinary U-turn. The Minister said a few moments ago that it was important to give clarity on the issue of departure and that it was the Government’s fixed view, but that is not the view they held before last Thursday. In fact, for the past four months their position was represented by clause 14(1)—page 10, lines 25 and 26—which says that
“‘exit day’ means such day as a Minister of the Crown may by regulations appoint”
and by clause 19(1)—page 14, lines 41 to 42—which states that
“different days may be appointed for different purposes.”
Now, the Opposition thought that that was a sensible principle. We wanted Parliament, not Ministers, to agree the dates, which is why we have tabled amendments 43, 44 and 45. That principle makes sense, and I will outline why.
As I have said, our departure from the European Union is a settled matter. However, the Bill deals with three different issues: the date that the 1972 Act will cease to have effect; the cut-off point for the use of delegated powers; and the ending of the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union. On that last point, there is a fundamental impact on the transitional arrangements. Labour has been clear about the need for a transitional period in order to prevent a cliff edge and to ensure that businesses do not have to adapt to two new customs and regulatory arrangements in quick succession. We need a transitional period on the same basic terms that we currently have in the single market and in the customs union.
Businesses and trade unions support that transitional period, and we were pleased when the Government caught up with us on that in September. In her Florence speech, the Prime Minister finally recognised its importance and said that
“people and businesses—both in the UK and in the EU—would benefit from a period to adjust to the new arrangements in a smooth and orderly way.”
She went on to say:
“Clearly people, businesses and public services should only have to plan for one set of changes in the relationship between the UK and the EU. So during the implementation period access to one another’s markets should continue on current terms and Britain also should continue to take part in existing security measures. And I know businesses, in particular, would welcome the certainty this would provide.”
Her spokesperson reiterated just yesterday that she gave businesses reassurance on agreeing a time-limited transitional or, as she prefers to describe it, implementation period as soon as possible. However, amendment 383 blows the prospect of a transitional deal on current terms out of the water. Put simply, if there is no role for the Court of Justice of the European Union, we will not be operating on current terms and the Prime Minister will be unable to secure an agreement with the EU27 for the transitional arrangements that she set out in her Florence speech.
Is not the difference between an implementation and a transition the whole point? If it is an implementation, we are implementing the consequences of having left; if it is a transition, we are transitioning from being inside the European Union to being, at the end of the process, outside. Therefore in the transition we would be de facto members of the European Union, on the basis that the hon. Gentleman is setting out, defeating the whole purpose of this Bill.
Clearly, the transitional period is a bridge between where we are now and where we will be once we have left the European Union. The hon. Gentleman’s point is not relevant to the point I am seeking to make.
I wanted to make this intervention on my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), but he would not take it.
I commend the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), and I seek his opinion on new clause 49. The new clause is linked to other new clauses, but if it is agreed there is no guarantee that the other new clauses will be agreed. Passing new clause 49 would therefore do a grave disservice to this country. Will he make clear the Opposition Front Bench’s position on new clause 49?
I am happy to clarify that we oppose new clause 49.
Whether in relation to new clause 49 or to the Government’s amendments, closing down the opportunity for effective transitional arrangements is deeply self-harming.
I believe that the Labour party wants to have a smooth transition to a good quality future relationship, but I draw to the hon. Gentleman’s attention what the Prime Minister said in her Florence speech:
“Neither is the European Union legally able to conclude an agreement with the UK as an external partner while it is itself still part of the European Union.”
My point is that we need to become a third country before we can conclude the kind of future relationship that I think the hon. Gentleman would like us to have.
I do not disagree with the Minister. It is precisely our point that, during the transitional period, we cannot disable the role of the Court of Justice of the European Union, otherwise we will not achieve the arrangement that we apparently both seek.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful point, and I wonder whether I might help. I asked the Prime Minister what she thought the legal basis of any transitional deal will be, and she said that the EU takes the view that it will be article 50. When I was in Brussels with the Exiting the European Union Committee last week, I raised this issue at the highest level of the EU and was told that, yes, it is envisaged that during the transitional deal Britain will stay in the single market, in the customs union, within EU law, within the acquis and under the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union.
I agree with the hon. and learned Lady. In fact, the Brexit Secretary talked about the Court in those terms yesterday.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. Is not part of the difficulty that there is a sense of people being disingenuous about the reality of the process of Brexit? Of course it is possible that, at the end of this, despite how we pass this legislation, the Government will come back with a withdrawal agreement Bill—the statute they have promised us—that does the very thing they will not admit at the moment: keep us within the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union during a transitional period. Would it not be better, and would it not help us in our debates on this Bill, if we had a bit of honesty and clarity from all sides about the implications of withdrawal, about how we have to go about it and about the options—sometimes the lack of options—that may be open to us?
I very much agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman. Otherwise, we will face the nonsense of the Government introducing new legislation effectively repealing the repeal Bill, or a key part of it.
Further to the point of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) on the difference between transition and implementation, we know for sure that it will be an implementation period because we will have to implement the withdrawal agreement. We do not yet know whether it will be a transitional period because we do not know, and will not know at the point of Brexit, whether we will have any final deal to implement.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, and I will now make some progress.
I was at the point of talking about why closing down the opportunity for effective transitional arrangements would be deeply self-harming. As the director general of the CBI, Carolyn Fairbairn, said just last week,
“The message from us, from business, is more certainty quickly particularly around transition, particularly in the next four weeks”.
The Government amendments undermine the prospect of a transitional deal and create more uncertainty. The CBI, the British Chambers of Commerce, the EEF, the Institute of Directors and the Federation of Small Businesses came together to call for a transitional deal, saying:
“We need agreement of transitional arrangements as soon as possible, as without urgent agreement many companies have serious decisions about investment and contingency plans to take at the start of 2018”.
“Failure to agree a transition period of at least two years could have wide-reaching and damaging consequences for investment and trade”.
It will also mean lorries backing up at Dover, because the adjustments necessary to avoid that cannot be physically put in place within 15 months, as I am sure everyone would agree. For the same reason, it will mean a hard border in Northern Ireland, with all the problems that that would create.
The Government’s approach is simply not in the national interest, and it closes down the flexibility that we might need. If negotiations go to the wire, both we and the EU 27 might recognise the need for an extra week, an extra day, an extra hour, an extra minute or even an extra second, as the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) pointed out, in order to secure a final deal. But that agreement would be thwarted by the Government’s having made it unlawful for themselves to do what they would want to do at that point.
The Prime Minister has consistently talked about parties working together in the national interest, and we are up for that—we have tried to be constructive; we have scrutinised and identified gaps; we have offered solutions; and on this crucial issue we seem to be in the same place as at least some members of the Government on the need for an effective transitional period. So let me make an offer to the Government. If they withdraw amendments 381, 382 and 383, and work with us on an alternative that affirms a departure date in line with the article 50 process but without destroying the chances of transitional arrangements, we are happy to look at that and work with them on it. If they do not—
Does my hon. Friend agree that the real way in which the Prime Minister could reach out is by making it clear that she accepts the jurisdiction of the ECJ for the implementation period? That would resolve a lot of her problems.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The reckless ideological red line on the ECJ has got us into many problems—not only on this, but on the membership of Euratom and in many other ways.
If the Government cannot withdraw their amendments and engage in that process with us we cannot support them, because of the impact on the economy, jobs and livelihoods, as we would plunge over the cliff edge. I should also say that we cannot support amendment 79. We believe the Bill should operate on the presumption of devolution. My hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) will set out our position in greater detail in subsequent days.
The Government have had months to repair this deeply flawed Bill. They could have come forward with amendments on workers’ rights, environmental protection, the charter of fundamental rights and limiting the scope of delegated powers, but instead they have chosen to come to this House with a gimmick on the departure date. This gimmick is about the Prime Minister negotiating with her own party, rather than trying to get a Brexit deal that prioritises jobs, the economy and the livelihoods of our people. The Government’s amendments are a product of the divisions at the heart of this Government on their approach to Brexit—divisions that are causing chaos, and this chaos is threatening our economy. We have a Prime Minister so weak that she is trying to tie her own hands behind her back to appease the extremists within her party.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
No, I will not.
Rather, I should say that the Prime Minister is letting the Foreign Secretary and the Environment Secretary tie her hands for her. She is putting internal party management before the national interest. This country deserves better, and we are offering it.
I abstained on Second Reading and I voted against the timetable motion. I felt it was not possible to vote against Second Reading because a technical Bill of this kind is certainly required for when we leave the European Union, to avoid the legal hiatus and total uncertainty that would otherwise occur about what law actually applies in this country. I abstained rather than supported the Bill because I feel that, for many reasons that will become clear in the days of debate to come, the Bill goes far beyond its original purpose and is drafted in such a way as to try to deprive Parliament of a proper vote and say on perfectly important features. I hope that all that will be corrected by a Government who we have been assured—I accept this—are going to listen to the debate and see what is required and what is not.
I wish to touch briefly on two features of this debate, the first of which is the repeal of the European Communities Act 1972. There are only two Members left in the House of Commons who were here when the European Communities Act was passed, and I am glad to say that we are both consistent. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) and I continue to vote against each other on all matters European, and we always have done. I always assure the Conservative Whips that they can look forward to the hon. Gentleman supporting them on most of the issues on which I vote against them, and I am sure that that will continue to be case.
On a serious note, the European Communities Act was passed on a bipartisan basis, which I helped to negotiate as a Government Whip—that is, Labour rebels supported the majority of the Conservative party to get us in. Before everyone deplores it, let me say that I do not think it has turned out to be a harmful piece of legislation at all. Apart from the predictable people—my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Back Benches—no one has ever sought to repeal it. The idea, which is very popularly put forward by the UK Independence party and others, that the Act has led faceless grey Eurocrats to produce vast quantities of awful legislation and red tape, is one of the biggest myths of our time. I pay tribute to Nigel Farage’s campaigning abilities. There is absolutely no doubt that he is the most successful politician of my generation, because he has persuaded a high proportion of the population that that is exactly how it runs. No doubt they are all looking forward to having bent bananas again once we have repealed all these pieces of legislation. I once fought an election in which quite a lot of my constituents had been persuaded that the Eurocrats were about to abolish double-decker buses. It took some considerable time to try to refute that rather worrying belief.
My right hon. and learned Friend’s stand on this issue has been completely consistent for decades, but can he stand up before the Committee and justify staying within the common fisheries policy on ecological, environmental, economic or social grounds?
I look forward to seeing what a British fisheries policy is going to comprise. This is outside the scope of the debate, so I shall be as brief as I can be, but the average fisherman I meet seems to believe that if we exclude foreign ships from our waters, we can give up all this scientific stuff about conserving stocks and there will no longer be any quotas. That is the usual argument put to me. Of course, most British fish is sold in the European Union—it is a very important market for us—and it is of course inconceivable that EU countries could be so vicious as to react to our throwing their ships out by not buying the fish that we catch. No doubt in due course a more rational British fisheries policy will emerge, and no doubt we will debate it in a more comfortable context.
My right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) is a very sensible Brexiteer. We had more sane debates in British halls than we ever did during the referendum campaign on television, on the radio or in the newspapers. On facing a question from me about what regulation, which had been opposed by the British Government, he would repeal if we left the European Union, he came up with a list of chemicals and pesticides that he thought the farmers in his constituency would look forward to using again. He was on vulnerable ground, because it is highly unlikely that this House of Commons would wish to repeal that legislation. The British like high regulatory standards on product quality, health and safety, consumer protection, the environment, and animal welfare.
During the highly successful 45 years in which we have been one of the leading influential players in the European Union, the British Government have been the advocates of more regulation and higher standards. No British Government have ever taken up the cause of deregulating in Europe. The Barroso Commission, which was very sensitive to what appeared to be public feeling, was very keen to be a deregulatory commission. It gave it up. As one of the commissioners explained to me, it could not get any European Government, including the British Government, to come forward with any deregulatory proposals. Vice-President Tindemans, who was a very keen deregulator, was extremely anxious to get proposals. We tried to get some deregulatory proposals when we were in coalition. Not one Department could produce any that it was anxious to repeal. The joy that some people feel over the repeal of the European Communities Act is splendidly symbolic.
If there is anybody in this House who knows each of the 1,600 regulations in meticulous detail, it is my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash).
Indeed. I wish to challenge my right hon. and learned Friend on his assertion that the manner in which the Council of Ministers has been operating has been adequately democratic and transparent. Can he please explain to us, from his own extensive experience, how it works and will he deny that, for the most part, it is done behind closed doors and that it is done by consensus, so nobody knows who decides what, how and when?
Under the Major Government, we introduced a process whereby parts of the European Council meetings were held in public. The Council of Ministers do hold public sessions, and an attempt was made to reach decisions in public sessions. It probably still goes on. [Interruption.] It does not amount to very much.
No, let me finish my answer. We did try to tackle this criticism. What happened was that each of the 28 Ministers gave little speeches entirely designed for their national newspapers and television, and negotiations and discussion did not make much practical progress. When the public sessions were over, the Ministers went into private session to negotiate and reach agreement. I used to find that the best business at the European Council was usually done over lunch. I have attended more European Council meetings than most people have had hot dinners. The dinners and the lunches tended to be where reasonable understandings were made. There were very few votes, but Governments made it clear when they opposed anything. When the council was over, everyone gave a press conference. It was a slightly distressing habit, because some of the accounts of Ministers for the assembled national press did not bear a close resemblance to what they had been saying inside the Council. I regret to say that some British Ministers fell into that trap. British Ministers and Ministers of other nationalities who had fiercely advocated regulating inside the Council would hold a press conference describing their valiant efforts to block what had now come in, which confirms some of my hon. Friend’s criticisms.
The fact is that most British Governments made it clear what they opposed and what they did not. If a regulation was passed in their presence, they had to come back here to explain why they had gone along with it. Now, that is enough on the European Communities Act.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, notwithstanding what happened in the past, the reality is that we have had the referendum and 52% have voted to leave, so it is now imperative that we all come together as much as we can to get this right? We need to get the best deal and the best legislation to deliver that deal. Most importantly, we must return sovereignty to this Parliament, which should have its proper meaningful vote and say—deal or no deal.
My right hon. Friend leads me back to the serious core of this debate. It will be disastrous if we do not get it right on this important matter—the question how precisely the Bill sets out the timing of the departure that is going to take place.
Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?
I will in a second. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I am trying to be brief.
I made this point once in an intervention, but it is an extremely serious matter. When the Government produced this technical Bill to stop the legal hiatus, they saw no reason to put any reference in it to our departure date from the Union. They had reason: there was no reason to put it in. Article 50, supported—despite my vote against—by a large majority of the House of Commons, sets the date of 29 March 2019, and the whole Bill proceeded on that basis. But in the past few days, partly in response to the new clause of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), the Government have suddenly produced the most precise amendments, tying down our departure to the second.
With great respect to the right hon. Gentleman, his new clause could easily have been defeated: the Labour party would have voted against it; I would have voted against it, for what it is worth; and the Scot nats and the Liberals would have voted against it. Even the Government trying to apply their Whips to get it carried—if they had been foolish enough to do so—would have had a job getting a majority for his new clause. So I do not think that it was fear of the right hon. Gentleman, despite his formidable oratory, that caused the Government to table their amendments. What has happened is that they tried to make a concession to the pro-Europeans—the more moderate Government Back Benchers—by conceding the obvious common sense that, when we get there, we will have to have a meaningful, lawful vote on whatever deal is produced and that we will have to have legislation to move to the final period. It is not a great concession.
With great respect, the Government have not quite got it right yet, as we discovered the other day. All these great processes could take place after we have already left, particularly if the Government’s amendments are passed, which increase that risk. But they made what might have been seen by some as a dreadful concession to—of all people—my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry). Shock! Horror! What kind of press would that produce; what kind of reaction from the fourth row below the Gangway behind me? So somebody was urged to bring something that could be thrown as a sop to the Foreign Secretary and the Environment Secretary, and produced this ridiculous Government amendment. But it is not just ridiculous and unnecessary; it could be positively harmful to the national interest.
Despite what the right hon. and learned Gentleman just said, is not it fortunate that the Government have time to rethink this? It has already been made clear that the Government and the Opposition will oppose the new clause of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field). The Government amendment on the matter will not be considered until the eighth day in Committee. Therefore, is not there ample time for the Government—without losing face—to listen to the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s good sense and withdraw their amendment before that time?
I will not try to emulate the hon. Gentleman’s eminently sensible advice. By the time the Government have to concede this point, which I trust they will, we will all have forgotten the slightly odd circumstances in which this amendment was produced. He sums up the situation.
It is quite unnecessary to close down our options as severely as we are with this amendment, when we do not know yet what will happen. It is perfectly possible, on all precedents, that there is a mutually beneficial European and British need to keep the negotiations going for a time longer to get them settled and not to fall into the problems this Bill was designed to address.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend give way?
I am going to conclude now. I apologise to my hon. Friend.
Other things that have come up in this debate are extremely important and need to be returned to—and will be returned to—many times in the Bill’s Committee stage. The whole question of the obvious need for a transition stage, and the obvious need for a transition stage to continue with our relationship on its present terms, until the new terms have been clarified and so business can run smoothly, must be reflected in every word of this Bill, and we must not seek to put obstacles in the way.
The Florence speech was a most significant step forward—indeed, it was the only significant step forward that the British have so far taken in the whole negotiating process. I do not know—I suspect, but I do not know—whether there are amendments to the Bill whose main efforts are devoted to trying to step back again from the Florence speech, but just in case, I hope that the Government will welcome all efforts to put the spirit of the Florence speech, and indeed its content, into the Bill.
I hope that we will not have these necessary and detailed discussions, of which this debate is just our first, somehow interfered with or shot down when the criticisms get difficult by people saying, “Oh, you’re remoaners. You’re trying to reverse democracy. You have been instructed by the people to leave Euratom. You have been instructed by the people to reject the European Court of Justice.” The referendum—I have no time for referendums personally—certainly settled that the majority wanted to leave the European Union. It settled nothing else. As nobody expected leave to win—including the leave campaigners, who would have taken no notice of the referendum had they lost it—nobody paid any attention to what leaving actually meant in practical, legal, economic policy and business terms, which it is the duty of this House to debate. We had no instructions.
When anybody mentioned problems of trade, investment and jobs, which are only part of the problem, although a hugely important part, they were waved away by leave campaigners, including the leading leave campaigners. The present Foreign Secretary dismissed all that—it was the politics of fear. Trade would carry on just as before. Investment would flow just as before. That was what the public were assured and what most of them believed, whichever way they eventually voted.
Well, even the Foreign Secretary is going to have to read his brief and study the basis upon which international trade is conducted in the modern, globalised economy. We are going to have to avoid a House of Commons, which universally expresses a belief in free trade, quite needlessly putting protectionist barriers, by way of tariffs, customs procedures and regulatory conditions, between ourselves and our biggest and most important market in the world.
I look forward to hearing my hon. Friend the Member for Stone as the debate continues. I have listened to him, and greatly enjoyed listening to him and debating with him, for many years on this subject. He now represents orthodoxy and party loyalty. He now argues there is too much parliamentary debate and that we should not have votes on this—it has all been settled by the voice of people. I am the rebel. I espoused the policies that the Conservative party has followed for the 50 years of my membership of it until we had a referendum 18 months ago, and I regret that I have not yet seen the light. He and I, like the hon. Member for Bolsover, remain consistent; we are probably each of us wrong. In the course of this, there are some very, very serious issues to be settled in this Bill. I ask the Government to reconsider silly amendments that were thrown out because they got a good article in The Daily Telegraph but might eventually actually do harm. [Applause.]
It is an absolute privilege to follow the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke). I welcome the applause from those on the Labour Benches. [Interruption.] Yes, some of them.
Over the weekend, we passed the halfway mark between the EU referendum and actually leaving the European Union. It is difficult to argue that over those 500-plus days we have spent that time well, that the Government have a clearer idea of where we are, or that the promises made by the Minister and his colleagues in Vote Leave have come to pass or are any closer to reality than they were when they made them. We are certainly no closer to the post-Brexit utopia that we have been promised.
Those looking back on these debates in years to come will, as well as admiring the speech by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe, do so with a sense of bewilderment. Not only is this Parliament set to approve a Bill, if it goes through, that most Members seem to think is a bad idea—most Members think that leaving the EU is a bad idea—but we are being asked to make significant changes with an extraordinary paucity of information. No other piece of legislation may have been forced through on the basis of such a small amount of information. It is astonishing that 500 days on the Government remain clueless about the impact of their plans. We have still not seen the impact assessments that this Parliament voted for and that we were promised. That would have been quite useful ahead of this debate, had this Government been listening to Parliament.
All this is coming from Conservative Members who wanted to bring back decision making, power and so-called sovereignty to the House of Commons. Clearly, after all this time, either the impact assessments are being hurriedly rushed together right now or the Government are too feart to share them—that means too scared to share them, for the benefit of those on the Front Bench. Last night’s botched efforts to try to win support illustrate the desperate situation in which the Government—and, frankly, this Parliament—find themselves. We have been given a choice between approving a really bad deal or a really, really bad deal. That is no choice at all and one that we should avoid at all costs.
The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe raised an important point about promises that were made. There is a point here about accountability. Good governance in any Parliament—any legislature—relies on being accountable. The whole idea of why those of us from Scotland travel down here while those from elsewhere have to make their way here every single week is to hold the Government to account. One of the principles laid out in the Parliamentary Control of the Executive Bill brought forward in 1999 by the Secretary of State for Leaving the EU, who is not in his place at the moment, was that Government could not sideline this place. I wonder whether this Government would be in their current pickle had the Secretary of State’s Bill been passed in 1999. Accountability is sadly lacking. Parliamentary control should go deeper than even beyond June 2016. All of us here should be accountable for the commitments that we make ahead of any election or any referendum. All of us should do our best to implement the manifesto on which we were elected. Regardless of how much we may disagree with each other, we have a responsibility to our electorates and we are accountable to them.
I am left in a quandary. I will happily take an intervention from a Government Member if they can tell me this: if this place is accountable—if only!—who is accountable for providing £350 million a week to the NHS? The Government deny that they are. Who is accountable for giving Scotland lots of new powers, including powers over immigration? And who is accountable for the full access to the single market that many in Vote Leave promised? If only the EU had been successful in getting rid of double-decker buses, it would not have been so easy to splash promises across the sides of them. I would happily take an intervention about accountability for those things.
Would the hon. Gentleman like to add to his list the comments of those such as Dan Hannan, who argued for leave? He said, “Don’t worry, you can vote to leave because we will stay in the single market and the customs union.”
The hon. Lady makes an excellent and principled intervention. To double down on that, I will quote the leader of the Scottish Conservatives. The problem is that I cannot quote her directly; I will have to paraphrase what she said, because if I read out the quote, I would be held to be out of order in this place. She called into question the veracity of claims on costs in terms of the EU, and the veracity of claims made by people who are in government about Turkey’s EU membership and an EU army. I am sorry that I cannot quote her directly, but I would find myself in a bit of bother if I did.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the work done by Economists for Free Trade, which states that the £350 million promised to the NHS is fundable? Is he aware of the agreement yesterday at the European Union on a European army? Both those things can easily be answered.
If only the Government had seen the hon. Gentleman’s talents, he could have been in government implementing these changes. When it comes to increasing funding for the NHS, I look forward very much to the conversations that he and I will have as we pass through the same Lobby in an effort to get the health funding that was promised by people who are now in government.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, as we have seen today, the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) has his supporters in the Cabinet? The Department for International Trade was gleefully retweeting—until it deleted the tweet—the speech that he made earlier, which called for a race-to-the-bottom, low-regulation Britain.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point, as he always does on these matters, even though he and I may not agree on much. Ruth Davidson and I do not often agree on much either, but she was right that we deserve the truth. This place deserves accountability over the promises that have been made. I wonder whether the Minister, who is in his place and who made those promises as part of Vote Leave, will address the question of what will happen about these promises. They were made to the people before they voted in a plebiscite, and he has some responsibility for that.
I will give way to the hon. Lady, and then to the Minister.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that people voted to leave the EU because they wanted a better future? They did not vote for Brexit at any cost, including the cost of democracy.
The hon. Lady makes a good point. I will take an intervention from the Minister, since I mentioned him, and then I will make progress with my speech.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will read the report published by the Treasury Committee during the referendum campaign. The report, which has my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) on it, calls into question the veracity of claims on both sides of the campaign.
The Minister is trying to absolve himself of responsibility for spending on the health service. If only he had done that before the EU referendum. If only he had stopped people putting it on the side of a bus. It is extraordinary, because those Vote Leavers are Ministers now. They are in the posts that they wanted, and they need to take a bit of responsibility and deliver on their promises. If Labour get into government, Conservative Members will quite rightly expect them to deliver on their promises.
I will not give way at the moment; I will make some progress, as I promised I would. This is the question: in any future referendum on any issue, are we all free to say whatever we like, because nobody will be held to account for what has been said?
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Not at the moment, because I made a promise. Surely Members from all parts of the House must recognise the damage that has been done to politics as a whole by the empty promises that were made by Vote Leave. Frankly, that is one of the many reasons why this Bill deserves to fall.
The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) made a good point about compromise. In a Parliament of minorities, we need to have compromise. It is almost a year since the Scottish Government published their compromise, under which we would have remained part of the single market—the single market was mentioned by the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach). Leaving the European Union is not something I want or wanted, and it is not something for which my constituents or my nation voted, but the nature of compromise is one of give and take.
Remaining part of the single market is a compromise suggested not just by the SNP but by experts—on these Benches, we still listen to experts—and by members of other political parties, and it was pushed for by the Secretary of State for Scotland and the leader of the Scottish Conservatives as well. I urge Members to look at that suggested deal. Under our amendment 69, instead of our crashing out of the European Union, we would retain membership of the EU until we can sort this out. We will also be backing amendment 79, from our Plaid Cymru colleagues, because it is important that democracy does not begin and end in this place, and the devolved Administrations should have a key role as we go through this process. We are now in the situation where no deal is becoming more and more of a reality, as I will mention in my concluding remarks.
The hon. Gentleman will remember that the former Chancellor said during the referendum campaign that should we leave the European Union, we would be leaving the single market. That was made absolutely explicit. The hon. Gentleman has spoken about future referendums, and he wants a second referendum in Scotland. Should the Scottish people vote in such a referendum by 52% to 48% to leave the United Kingdom, will he, after much discussion, argue for a third referendum?
This is extraordinary, isn’t it? Something the Scottish Government had the decency to do before the independence referendum was to produce a 670-page White Paper. There are Members in the Chamber—I am looking at the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine)—who did not agree with it. She campaigned for a no vote, and I respect her for doing so, but we had the courage of our convictions and laid out what we stood for. The mess we are in today is because the Conservatives did not have the courage of their convictions and did not lay out what voting to leave the European Union would mean.
A no deal would mean 80,000 jobs gone in Scotland. A city such as Aberdeen would lose £3.8 billion, and Edinburgh would lose £5.5 million, while there would also be an impact on rural areas. I welcome what the Prime Minister has said on security issues—that we should pull together—but with no deal we would lose access to EU security databases in combating cross-border crime, which would be grossly irresponsible.
May I just say that from the perspective of Northern Ireland, no deal would be absolutely disastrous? It would inevitably mean a hard border. As one of those who grew up in Northern Ireland through 32 years of violence, killing and mayhem, I am not prepared to sit in this Chamber and allow the House to go down a no deal route, which would endanger people, UK border officials and Police Service of Northern Ireland officials along the border. It is imperative that we have a deal.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. Hon. Members on both sides of the House would do well to listen carefully to her words. Northern Ireland has been vastly overlooked and it continues to be overlooked, and the hon. Lady makes an excellent point. One thing that concerns me and should concern Members on both sides of the House is that we have a no deal scenario, with Ministers playing Russian roulette with our futures—the futures of people in Northern Ireland and across the United Kingdom—as well as a slash-and-burn approach to politics that will profit absolutely nobody whatsoever.
I will conclude by saying that we may disagree on many issues, but we come to this place hoping—I respect Members as they do this—that we will leave our constituencies, our respective nations and the UK a little bit better off. By backing the Bill with such a lack of preparedness, we will be doing no such thing: we will not be leaving future generations better off. So weak are the arguments of those who back leaving the EU—I have heard this not so much from SNP Members, because Scotland voted to remain, but from Labour, Conservative and other colleagues—that they question why we are tabling amendments rather than challenge us on their substance. We will seek to amend this Bill as it goes through the House and to find common cause with colleagues from across the House. However, we know that what we are trying to achieve, even if we do get common ground, is to make this situation not better, but less bad. That is not a situation in which any Member should ever find themselves in this House.
I urge Members to reconsider and I urge the Government to press the reset button. There is far more at stake than the future of this Government or, indeed, that of any Member of this House.
I want to start by simply outlining that, contrary to what the hon. Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins) has just suggested about there being weak arguments for why we should leave the EU and repeal the European Communities Act 1972, it is absolutely essential that we do so if we are going to have a self-respecting, self-governing democratic country. The Bill and this whole issue are about one main question, namely democracy, which is what everything else necessarily flows from. All the economic arguments and questions relating to trade and other matters are ultimately dependent on the question of whether we have the right to govern ourselves in this sacred House of Commons. That is the basis on which the people of this country make decisions, of their own free choice, in general elections—whether it is to vote for the Labour party, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP or the Conservative party—and then a decision is made in this House as to how they will be governed.
I repeat what I have said: we have just had Remembrance Day. I simply want people to reflect for one moment on the fact that those millions of people who died in both world wars died for a reason. It was to do with sustaining the freedom and democracy of this House.
But does not democracy presume that a Government would listen to the will of the House of Commons, whose Members are individually elected by their constituencies? Would it not be slightly odd, therefore, to proceed with the Bill without taking out the Henry VIII powers?
Put simply, on the European Union Referendum Act 2015, which was a sovereign Act of this House—the point that the hon. Gentleman has just made—the House of Commons agreed, by six to one, that it would deliberately transfer to the people the decision whether to leave or remain in the European Union. Unless that Act is repealed, I do not believe that that decision should be returned to by the House.
The hon. Gentleman has referred to the millions of people who died in two world wars. Those two world wars took place before the existence of the European Union and we in Europe, including this country, Germany and France, have lived in peace for decades. Is not it the case that France, Germany and other countries will now never, ever go to war because of the European Union?
The answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is that no two democracies have ever gone to war with one another. I declare a personal interest in this issue because my father was killed in Normandy, fighting for this country, and I am proud that he got the Military Cross for that reason. This is something that many people in this country really understand and believe. It is not easy to explain, but it is to do with the fact that people understand the real reasons that self-government is so important.
The proposal in the European Communities Act 1972, which we are now repealing, was the greatest power grab since Oliver Cromwell. It was done in 1972 with good intentions. I voted yes in 1975 and I did it for the reason the hon. Gentleman mentions: I believed it would create stability in Europe. The problem is that it has done exactly the opposite. Look, throughout the countries of the European Union, at the grassroots movements and the rise of the far right, which I deeply abhor and have opposed ever since I set about the Maastricht rebellion in 1990. I set out then why I was so opposed to the Maastricht treaty: it was creating European Government and making this country ever more subservient to the rulemaking of the European Union. As I said in response to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), that has been conducted behind closed doors. We have been shackled by European laws. He asked at one point if we could give one example. The ports regulation is a very good example. We fought that in the European Scrutiny Committee and in the House of Commons, but we were not allowed to make any difference to it. It was opposed by the Government, it was opposed by the Opposition, it was opposed by all the port employers and it was opposed by the trade unions. What could we do about it? Absolutely nothing!
Does my hon. Friend agree that once Parliament has passed the repeal of the 1972 Act, Ministers will only be able to do things that this Parliament permits them to do? Today, Ministers have to do many things that the European Union insists on, which this Parliament cannot discuss or overturn.
There are at least 12,000 regulations, every one of which would have required a whole Act of Parliament, with amendments and stages in both Houses. A transcript would have been available. People would have known who voted which way and why, and known the outcome of what was a democratic process. Instead, as I said to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe—even he conceded that I was right on this—the process is conducted, over bibulous lunches and in the Council of Ministers, in a manner completely lacking in democratic legitimacy, yet, because of consensus arrangements behind closed doors, it becomes part of our law through section 2 of the 1972 Act. It is imposed on us by our voluntary consent. It is therefore up to us and the people of this country to decide, by their voluntary consent and their freedom of choice, to get out of this, just as it was brought in by an Act of Parliament, without a referendum, in 1972.
Has the hon. Gentleman not shown a deep misunderstanding of how the European Union works through consensus and participatory democracy? Rather than one country dictating to another, that is the whole spirit of the European Union. No one country is sovereign, but decisions are taken in the round.
I am sorry to disillusion the hon. Lady. I have been in this House for 33 years and I have been on the European Scrutiny Committee for 32 of them. I can absolutely assure her that what she says is simply not reflected by the practice of the European Union. The system is essentially undemocratic.
Does my hon. Friend not feel that it is ironic that all 12,000 EU regulations will be imported into UK law under a process that will not have the detailed scrutiny of the House, because Henry VIII powers will be used to do it?
My hon. Friend might just reflect on the fact that there is no other way of transposing the legislation. I drafted the original repeal Bill, so I understand it very well. I did so before the referendum, in fact, because—I say this to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe—I believed we would win. In reality, once we have brought this into UK law, we will be able to have our own Bills—on agriculture, fisheries, customs, immigration, and various other parts of our constitutional arrangements—that can be properly discussed and amended.
Does my hon. Friend agree that every single one of the regulations coming into UK law is already abided by in this country and in this Parliament and are to its satisfaction at the moment?
Yes, the reality is that the Bill, if and when it goes through—and I believe it will—will incorporate into UK law EU legislation already consented to in the way that my hon. Friend mentions. We have agreed to them, but unfortunately they have not had the democratic legitimacy that will be conferred upon them when the Bill goes through.
I proceed now to the important question of the European Court of Justice. I made this point to the Prime Minister about 10 days ago and again to the Brexit Secretary last week. I wish to mention three pieces of case law that we inherited when the treaties that had accumulated after 1956 came upon us through section 2 of the 1972 Act. The first two are Van Gend en Loos in 1963 and Costa v. ENEL in 1964. In its judgment in the first case, the European Court asserted that
“the Community constitutes a new legal order in international law for whose benefit the states have limited their sovereign rights”.
In Costa v. ENEL, the Court ruled:
“The transfer by the States from their domestic legal system to the Community legal system of rights and obligations arising under the Treaty carries with it a permanent limitation of their sovereign rights”.
In 1970, in the Handelsgesellschaft case, the Court said that community law should take precedence even over the constitutional laws of member states, including basic entrenched laws relating to fundamental rights. It does not get more profound than that. Those decisions are mere assertions by the Court, yet under section 3 of the 1972 Act, we agree to abide by them.
Will my hon. Friend agree that all treaties involve a pooling of sovereignty? We gave up immense sovereignty when we joined the United Nations and NATO, membership of which we would never dream of renouncing. The European Court exists to enforce treaty rights, including obligations on members. Does he recall probably the most important case there of modern times, when the British Government took the European Central Bank there to assert our treaty rights so that the City of London and our financial services industry could have a passport to financial services in the eurozone? It was worth thousands of jobs and showed the benefit of the Court in upholding treaty rights, including the most important treaty rights of the UK.
I also remember the case of Factortame, when Lord Bridge made it clear that by Parliament’s voluntary consent, given by virtue of the 1972 Act, an Act of Parliament—namely, the Merchant Shipping Act 1988—could be struck down. I am not trying to be disingenuous. The fact is that the 1972 Act empowers the European Court to strike down UK Acts of Parliament. That is what sovereignty is all about.
The hon. Gentleman talks about sovereignty and the pooling of sovereignty. Building on the point from the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), how does the hon. Gentleman think we will achieve new trade deals without ceding sovereignty, given that all trade deals—like EU membership, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman just pointed out—require the ceding of sovereignty?
I must say to the hon. Gentleman, and to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe, that there is a world of difference between that and having agreements by virtue of treaties in international law, which are actually matters on which it is possible to make decisions without being absorbed into and entangled in a legal order. That is the difference. It is the acquis communautaire and its principles that completely undermine the sovereignty of this House. I am prepared to concede that some people—
I am sure that my hon. Friend will be making this point, but I will try to anticipate it. There are circumstances in which the pooling of sovereignty by virtue of, for example, NATO is claimed to be a genuine pooling, but it is not, because it is possible to withdraw from it. The whole point about the European Communities Act is that it is not possible to withdraw from it except by repealing it in this manner. That is what we are doing now.
My hon. Friend has strongly emphasised the importance of the sovereignty of the House, and I agree with him. Is it not all the more important that, as we leave, this sovereign House should have a meaningful vote on the terms on which we leave, rather than there being a “take it or leave it” vote at the end of the process? Is that not the ultimate expression of sovereignty, and will my hon. Friend therefore support it?
The answer is that I am supporting the outcome of the referendum, which, by virtue of our sovereign Acts of Parliament, we decided that we would pass over—
On a point of order, Dame Rosie. Delightful though it is to sit listening to the hon. Gentleman expatiate on all manner of things, I am struggling to discover what this can possibly have to do with new clause 49—or, for that matter, any of the amendments and new clauses linked to it.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order. We are also debating clause 1, which is fairly wide-ranging, so the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) is in order.
I had actually spotted that, Dame Rosie, and I am most grateful to you for confirming that I am in order.
Let me now touch on some of the issues that arise from this continuous emphasis on the virtues of the European Court of Justice. There is the constitutional principle, which I have already explained, and there is the case law, which I have also already explained. But it goes further than that. The very great Lord Justice Bingham, in chapter 12 of his book “The Rule of Law”, describes the relationship between the courts and Parliament. He comes down unequivocally in favour of Parliament. He makes it clear that when Parliament passes a Bill such as the one that we are to enact, it will override all the laws in the European system that have shackled us so far, and also all the Court judgments, save only that we have agreed, by virtue of the retained law, to transpose some aspects of the process to which we have become used, and which we can decide what to do with at a future date.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I certainly will; I should be only too delighted. I have been waiting to hear from my right hon. and learned Friend, whom I happen to know very well, and for whom I have great respect. I shall listen to him with interest.
I do not think my hon. Friend can have it both ways. A moment ago, he was talking about direct effect. There is no doubt that if we leave the European Union, direct effect will cease on the day we go; but, as I am sure he knows, we are signed up to about 800 treaties with arbitral mechanisms that can lead to judgments affecting the United Kingdom, which we then undertake to implement, sometimes by changing our own laws. I do not quite understand why my hon. Friend has such an obsession with the Court of Justice of the European Union if its direct effect will be removed, although we will have to be subject to it during the transitional period as we are leaving.
I do not think that matter has been entirely settled, by any means. The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) earlier referred to a lunch she was at, where it appears that she was told we were going to be subject to the European Court of Justice, and my right hon. and learned Friend has made exactly the same point.
I have to say that there are serious questions about the nature of the European Court. The problem is that the European Court is essentially not an impartial court at all. It has never discharged the function impartially, and from the early 1960s it developed a range of principles, such as those of the uniform application and effectiveness of EU law, that it then expanded of its own volition into the general principles of the supremacy and direct effect of EU law over national law. These judge-made principles had no basis in the EU treaties until the Lisbon treaty, which my right hon. and learned Friend, who was then Attorney General, opposed. The fact is that until Lisbon—
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am afraid not, as I really must proceed.
None of these judge-made principles had any basis in the EU treaties, and the principle of the primacy of EU law is a judicial creation recently codified, and no more than that. However, because we have accepted judgments of the European Court under section 3 of the European Communities Act 1972, which we are going to repeal, we are saddled with this, and that is one of the things we are going to unshackle.
Interpretation is done in the European Court by what is known as the purposive approach. In fact, as has been well said, there are many different purposes that can be in conflict with one another, and the methods of interpretation applied are anything but satisfactory. I therefore say to those who want to advocate the European Court, whether in the transitional period or in general, “Beware of what you wish for,” because the European Court can create havoc in relation to our trading arrangements.
If the hon. Gentleman is so opposed to the European Court of Justice, what is his dispute resolution mechanism going to be? Independent states need a dispute resolution mechanism where they cede sovereignty; they give some of their sovereignty and get some of somebody else’s sovereignty. What is that going to be?
Order. I been generous in allowing the hon. Gentleman to range over a number of subjects, but I gently remind him that there are a lot of speakers in this debate, so I am sure his list about the European Court of Justice is now a little shorter than it was before.
I shall conclude my remarks on this point. The European Court is seriously deficient in a whole range of matters. On the question put by the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil), the idea has been put forward by Martin Howe QC, and I have put it forward myself in the House, of a system of jurisdiction that would be more in the nature of an arbitration, where there might be, for example, retired European Court judges or whoever, who would adjudicate—but on a bilateral basis, not on the basis of a decision taken by the European Court. It is possible to come up with a solution, therefore, but I do recognise the problem.
We are now embarked upon a massive restoration of self-government in this country. This Bill is essential to achieve that, and should be passed without any of the obstacles and frustrating tactics being put in its way.
I rise to speak to amendment 386, which has cross-party support and which I tabled late last night. The Minister said that it was somehow introducing “chaos” into this process. With the greatest respect, after a fortnight in which we have seen the Foreign Secretary, the International Development Secretary, the former Defence Secretary, the current Defence Secretary and the Cabinet Secretary all subsumed in controversies, I think the Government are doing quite well on the chaos front without any help from me. Also, the idea that taking the exit date out and putting it into a different Bill would create chaos when, just five days ago, Ministers did not want it in any Bill at all, makes the Government’s argument look rather silly.
The amendment would require Parliament to vote on the terms of withdrawal through primary legislation before Brexit day. That would mean that exit day would be set in UK law not in this Bill but in a future Bill, either in the withdrawal agreement and implementation Bill that the Government announced yesterday or, if there is no deal at all, through an alternative Bill setting out the terms of departure and presumably whatever implementation plan would be needed in those circumstances.
The purpose of the amendment is not to dispute the Government’s intentions about the timing of exit day; it is simply to ensure that there is a proper parliamentary and democratic process before we get to that date. The central focus is not the date itself but a requirement on the Government to do as they have promised and set out a meaningful vote for Parliament in advance of that date. The amendment would also ensure that Parliament could properly respond, whatever the outcome of the Government’s negotiations, rather than being inadvertently timed out if things were to go badly wrong.
Yesterday, we learned from the Government that there would be a second Bill to implement the withdrawal agreement, and that is welcome. That was the subject of other amendments that the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) and I had tabled because we were concerned that Parliament should not give the Executive a blank cheque through this Bill on the implementation of a withdrawal Bill that had not yet happened. Rather less welcome was the Government’s admission that the legislation might not actually happen before Brexit day. Even less welcome was the Brexit Secretary’s admission that the vote on the withdrawal agreement would simply be a take-it-or-leave-it vote, and that therefore if the Government negotiate a bad deal, if they have no implementation plan in place or if other things go wrong along the way, Parliament would simply have to accept that or choose to have no deal at all.
Under the Government’s proposals, Brexit day would be embedded in primary legislation through this Bill, and it would therefore become legally and constitutionally possible for Ministers simply to let us drift towards exit day without Parliament being able to insist on any kind of implementation preparations or any kind of plan at all. Such a concentration of power in the hands of the Executive would be unacceptable. No legislature should ever accept that: certainly not this legislature right now when we were given a hung Parliament by the electorate less than six months ago; and certainly not our Parliament, whose sovereignty has been such a key issue throughout the debates on the referendum.
The amendment would strengthen the democratic process around Brexit and ensure that Parliament could vote on the terms of withdrawal, whether there was a deal or not, before exit day. It would implement the Government’s commitment to a meaningful parliamentary vote. If everything goes according to the Government’s plans and promises, if they get the timetable they want for the transition agreements being agreed in the early part of next year and the withdrawal plans agreed by the autumn, and if we get the kind of deal that the Government have promised, with all the benefits that it will bring, all that the amendment would do would hold the Government to that by implementing their intentions and their timetable. It would hold the Government to what the Brexit Secretary said yesterday was his primary plan for the timetable. It would hold Ministers to that plan on the face of the Bill. It would also prevent the Government from delaying the withdrawal agreement legislation beyond the withdrawal date. It links the timing of exit to the terms of exit in the parliamentary process. It would prevent Parliament from being timed out because it would give Parliament the final say. If the Government’s plans go wrong—I hope they will not—it also gives Parliament a say in how the country should respond. For example, if we end up with no deal at all, if we run out of time—I hope that will not happen—or if the whole thing goes belly up, it gives Parliament a role. It allows for a debate on whether the Government should go back to the negotiating table or just walk away. It allows for a debate about the timing of Brexit day. It allows Parliament to debate and decide, rather than just throwing up our hands and leaving it to Ministers—rather than just drifting along.
By way of a specific example, let us suppose that the Government come forward with withdrawal terms that do not include a security deal. The Home Secretary has said that that is “unthinkable” and, like her, I expect a security deal to be done as that is in all our interests, both here and on the continent. However, the EU security commissioner has warned:
“Just because everybody agrees that something is the right thing to do doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy.”
What if we get some kind of deal that does not include a security deal? Is Parliament really going to bind its hands now and let the UK crash out on 29 March 2019 without any kind of arrangements for security co-operation, meaning that people would literally have to be released from police custody because we could not use the arrest warrant? Would we leave without an aviation deal, meaning that planes would be stuck on the ground? I do not expect that to happen, but I also know that it is not impossible. If it does happen, as Chair of the Select Committee on Home Affairs I want to be able to argue for urgent action to ensure that we have a contingency plan, to protect our security and to keep our country safe.
My right hon. Friend is making an important point. This morning, she and I both heard the Mayor of London clearly set out the implications of not having a security treaty for the safety of London, let alone the rest of the country, so I wholeheartedly agree with her points.
My hon. Friend is right. That was the evidence we heard. Parliament has a responsibility to have a contingency plan. Whatever it is that we hope might happen over the course of the next 12 months, we have a duty to ensure that we have plans in place for every eventuality and that Parliament itself can take some responsibility.
Right now, with the Government’s amendments made and without my amendment, it would theoretically be possible for us to just drift towards exit day without any substantive opportunity for Parliament to step in perhaps to amend the withdrawal terms in the Bill or maybe to require the Government to change their plan or to go back and negotiate some more. That would be up to us in Parliament to decide, but we will not get the chance to decide under the Government’s current plans.
Has the right hon. Lady noted the sensible comments of the chairman of the Policy and Resources Committee of the City of London corporation? While an orderly Brexit might not be the desired outcome for the right hon. Lady and I, an orderly Brexit with a proper transition and with this House having a proper say is manageable for our financial services sector. However, a disorderly Brexit that was the result of our inability to extend negotiations for a short period if need be, for example, would be a disaster for this country and is regarded by some firms as being on the same level as the threat to cyber-security. On that basis, is it not foolish for the Government or the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) to try to put a leaving date on the face of the Bill?
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. As Select Committee Chairs, he and I have both heard evidence about security and wider issues, and I also share with him my personal views about the importance of having a transition period and a smooth process. To be honest, whatever people’s views on whether there should be a transition and on how we should respond to different negotiating outcomes, it should still be for Parliament to debate and to decide before exit day, not after. That is what Parliament should be for. Frankly, the Government would be irresponsible not to give Parliament the opportunity to debate and take a view on the terms and on the timing once they have been agreed.
There is a con in what the Minister said earlier, because the Government actually do recognise that there may be circumstances in which exit day has to be changed. The Minister said that clause 17 will not apply and that somehow it will not allow the Government to change the exit day through regulations after it has been agreed in the Bill, but that is not the advice I have had—it is not the advice the House of Commons Library gave me this afternoon, for example. In fact, the combination of clause 9 and amendment 383 will still allow Ministers to change exit day, if they so choose and if they think it appropriate. That is the impact of the Henry VIII powers throughout the Bill.
We understand why Ministers might want a provision to be able to come back and say that exit day needs to change because we have reached the 11th hour, because the negotiations need to be extended by an extra month or because the process needs to be changed. Ministers have kept that power in the Bill for themselves, but why should the power be reserved just for Ministers? Why cannot Parliament have that power, too? That is the flaw at the heart of the Bill. If in unforeseen or difficult circumstances Ministers need to change the timetable, they can, but Parliament will have no choice, no say and no ability to do so.
Does the right hon. Lady agree that, if Parliament did have that opportunity, it would be taking back control and sovereignty would be returned not to the Executive but to this House?
The hon. Lady is right. We had all those debates about taking back control and parliamentary sovereignty, yet somehow the Minister seems to want to rip it all up. The Government are trying to concentrate huge amounts of power in the hands of Ministers, rather than giving the whole of Parliament a say.
Ministers have to stop infantilising Parliament and treating Parliament as if it is the enemy. The truth is that the sky did not fall in because Parliament had a vote on article 50. The Government told us that it would, and they told us that the whole process would be stopped, but it was not stopped because each and every one of us understands that we have obligations and responsibilities towards the referendum result, just as we have obligations and responsibilities towards the negotiation process that the Government have to conduct on our behalf, and that we cannot directly conduct for them. We know that we have those different responsibilities, and we know that we have to take mature and responsible decisions given the complexity of the situation that faces every single one of us. We just do not think that those decisions should be entirely in the hands of Ministers; we think that the whole of Parliament should have a say on something so important.
My right hon. Friend is making an incredibly powerful speech and argument. Does she agree that having the vote and support of Parliament behind the Government and the action they take would strengthen the Government’s hand in the negotiations with the European Union?
I agree with my hon. Friend, because this should be about the whole of Parliament, just as when we had the responsible debate on article 50. We know it is complex. It is our job and our responsibility in a democracy to deal with that complexity, and not just to abdicate our responsibility and hand it over to Ministers because, somehow, it is too difficult for us in Parliament to deal with. Of course it is not too difficult, and of course we are capable of dealing with the complex situation we face.
Does the right hon. Lady agree that we simply have not had the debates? That, of course, is not lost on the European Union, and it is also not lost on the people of this country. If we had those debates and if we had a real say on what Brexit will look like, we would begin to form a consensus and we would begin to bring people together across the United Kingdom in getting that good deal, reuniting so many divided communities, families and even friends.
I agree with the right hon. Lady. The truth is that the plans for our Brexit future have to be sustainable and have to command consent. The plans will have implications for many decades to come. They have to give us the chance to heal the Brexit divide across the country from the referendum, and they have to give Parliament the chance to debate the details and to have a proper, honest debate about what it will mean across the country.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that had things gone differently in last week’s debate and had the information been laid before the House, emotions might not be running so high?
Clearly, we need more transparency.
I want to draw my remarks to a close. My amendment gives Parliament the opportunity to indeed take back control. The hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) said he wants us to debate in this House how we are governed. Well, then he should vote for my amendment, rather than concentrate power in the hands of Ministers. At a time when we have seen democratic values and democratic institutions undermined and under threat right across the world, we have an even greater responsibility to ensure that there is a proper democratic process and that we follow our obligations that come with the parliamentary Oath we took. So much of the debate we had during the referendum was about parliamentary sovereignty. What my amendment does is make that real.
It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) in this debate, particularly as the matters on which I wish to touch very much concern her amendment and some of the others we have had.
I hope that the House will forgive me if I start by dealing briefly with the opening remarks of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field). I am sorry he is not in his place, but I hope that he will forgive me if I say that the words he articulated were ones that I could fully understand and appreciate—heaven knows I have heard them often enough from constituents and from right-thinking people who want the best for our country—but that contained simplicities. Those simplicities simply do not match the problems this House faces in disentangling us from our relationship with the European Union. This issue has bedevilled the entire debate on Brexit and remain, and it is one reason why we find ourselves where we are today.
I happen to believe that what we did last year was a great and historic error. I cannot help it, and nothing that has happened since is going to alter my view. I recognise my responsibility as a Member of Parliament to try to give effect to what the public asked for in their response to that referendum. But in doing so, I am certainly not willing to suspend my own judgment, particularly when I have to witness what I see as an extraordinarily painful process of national self-mutilation, which I am required to facilitate. I cannot escape that; that is what I feel, and I am not going to abandon it because I am ordered to do so by anybody else.
With that in mind, I have to say what the right hon. Gentleman is asking for is the desire perhaps of many people in this country, which is to go to bed at night and wake up to find that the whole thing is over and done with. Unfortunately, it is not going to be over and done with for a very long time. The problem we have in this Bill, and on which we have to focus, is how we try to take this risky, dangerous—for our economy, our national security and our national wellbeing—and difficult process to a reasonable outcome. That is the challenge we have got. In doing that, Parliament cannot simply abdicate its responsibility to the Executive. Of course the Executive have to get on with the business of the complex negotiations, but Parliament is entitled to take a check on this at every conceivable stage.
I have to say to my colleagues on the Treasury Bench that the problem is that as the difficulties have piled up—in my view, they were inevitable, predictable and predicted—the tendency has been for everybody to get more and more brittle, more and more unwilling to listen, and more and more persuaded that every suggestion that is being made is in some way a form of treason. I have to say, with the deepest regret, that this culminated last Friday with a mad amendment, which I shall come back to in a moment. It was tabled, I believe, without any collective decision making in government at all and it was accompanied by bloodcurdling threats that anybody who might stand in its way was in some way betraying the country’s destiny and mission. I am afraid that I am just not prepared to go along with that.
I welcome the amendment tabled by the right hon. and learned Gentleman that would remove the Alice “Through the Looking-Glass” absurdity of there being different exit days for different purposes. I was an early signatory to all his amendments because they are eminently sensible. The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) described entertainingly the reasons for the remarkable metamorphosis of the Bill, from one that allowed Ministers to name an exit day or different days by regulations into one that names a day and a specific time. It was a sop to the denizens of what he called the fourth row below the Gangway. Has the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield reflected on what such a fundamental change signals to our partners in the European Union about how serious we are and how carefully we have thought through this crucial process?
There is no doubt that some of the problems we have are not going to be helpful in our negotiation. Equally, it is right to say that the more we can have mature, considered and sensible debate in this House, the more we improve our ability to negotiate with our EU partners.
I have tabled a number of amendments. As with all amendments, some are multiple choice—we have to do this in this House, because it is how we go about looking at and examining legislation—and some are probing amendments. Some are, in my view, more important than others. I tabled the one that hon. Gentleman highlights because the Government did not really explain that they wanted multiple exit dates. I wanted to tease out why and to suggest that one exit date might be better because of the consequences for the use of Henry VIII powers thereafter, but there might actually be a justification for what the Government are doing. All that needs to be worked through in the legislation, and that is what I have sought to do.
I say to my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench that over past weeks we have had some really sensible, constructive discussions on some of the areas covered by the amendments that I have tabled. I hope very much indeed that we can achieve some degree of consensus, in which case some of the amendments, whether on triage or the way we treat retained EU law, might not be required. I do not wish to get diverted into all that; I shall come back to it in later debates. The trouble is—I repeat this—that it all gets marred by events such as those last Friday, when extraordinary amendments are suddenly magicked out of the blue that simply do not make any sense at all.
When I read the amendments and those consequential on them, which I must say I saw only this morning, I saw another problem: as has already been highlighted, one of the consequentials seemed to me to totally undermine the purpose of the main amendment, to the point where the conspiracy theorist in me made me think it was a sort of double deceit or double bluff—that it was intended in some way to give the impression to some of my right hon. and hon. Friends who really worry about this that they were being offered this tablet of stone on our departure, but it was in fact teasingly capable of being shifted. My hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor General sent me a text earlier that said that I was mistaken and that that was not the intention—that it was the very reverse.
I am not a parliamentary draftsman, and I know that there are always different ways in which an amendment to a statute can be read. I remain of the view, though, that the wording is very peculiar indeed if the intention is to exclude the possibility of playing around with the exit date, which is being offered as a talisman. I must say to my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor General that I did naughtily begin to wonder whether in fact the parliamentary draftsman was so appalled at the folly of what the Government were doing that he had sneakily altered amendment 383 to try to offer them a lifeline in case they came to regret what they had done. I am sure that that is being very unfair to the parliamentary draftsman, whom I know always does what is requested of him or her.
The tendency of any Government, especially when they have such a major project on their hands, is always to try to manage the project and to manage Parliament. Has the right hon. and learned Gentleman discovered over recent weeks that the sad truth of the matter is that there is a consensus in the House that embraces all those on the Opposition Benches and a significant number of Government Back Benchers? It actually embraces half the Government—I can see at least three, possibly four, Ministers sitting on the Front Bench who would sign up to his amendment. Would not it be far more rational for the Government simply to calm down about this process and try to establish a consensus that can carry the country forward?
I endorse what the hon. Gentleman says. That is precisely what I wanted to start suggesting to Ministers. There are a number of key areas in this debate this afternoon. The first is the recognition, belated but nevertheless I am grateful for it, that leaving the EU requires statutory authority from this House to make it part of the rule of the law of our land. It is a very important principle. Indeed, I detect that the Government also recognise that if, at some point in the future, we get beyond transition we will probably need another statute to alter the law of our land for any final agreement that we have with our EU partners. We will have to take it in a measured way, and the Government will have to accept that Parliament, being sovereign, must, at the end of the day, have the ability to support or reject this. There is no way around that.
Of course there are the hypothetical questions, such as “Well, there might be nothing to reject because we might be falling out of the European Union with no agreement.” Indeed, yes, but we will discover that when the time comes. In the meantime, the Government must get on with their negotiation, and we can carry on scrutinising them on that. At the end, we want a statute. That statute—I think that this has been acknowledged by the Secretary of State—has got to come before we leave.
That then brings us to a critical issue in this debate. The best point made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State yesterday was that, whereas moving into transition is a qualified majority decision, getting an extension to article 50 requires unanimity. Therefore, the Government may be living with legitimate anxiety that there could be circumstances in which, running up to the wire, there could be difficulty implementing the whole thing by statute. I personally think that that seems inherently improbable, because, on the face of it, if our partners agree a deal with us, why would they then decide to pull the rug from under our feet in such an extraordinary fashion—I know that they talk about “perfidious Albion”, and we probably think that they are all garlic eaters—to tell us that we cannot have an extension to article 50 for the necessary two or three months to take through our statutory processes while they have to take their processes through the EU Parliament?
Was the right hon. and learned Gentleman alarmed, as I was yesterday, when, after mentioning to the Secretary of State that the Prime Minister had asked in September for a two-year extension—six months after she had triggered article 50 —he did not seem to have a clue when the EU 27 might possibly agree to it? Some of the media think that that extension will automatically happen, but, as we speak, there is absolutely no guarantee that we will get it. Is he alarmed that the UK might indeed find itself out because of its own actions in March?
There are massive uncertainties in all this, and I do not want to pile the gloom on the Treasury Bench. All I will say is that there are great risks. I do understand that the Government have an important point on this, but if that is the case, the proper dialogue that should be taking place between those on the Treasury Bench and the House is how we craft and alter this legislation both to emphasise the statutory process to be followed and to make sure that the only circumstances in which it is not followed—clause 9 has to be used as an example—is where it would be impossible to get an article 50 extension to enable the statutory process to take place before we go. If we do that, we will start talking sense in this House, rather than the polemical nonsense that we have been talking over the past few days.
When Czechoslovakia decided to form two countries with two Governments—a very complicated task—it took six months planning and was implemented over a weekend. Why does my right hon. and learned Friend think that the 16 months remaining is not enough time in which to reach an agreement or to reach the sad conclusion that an agreement is not possible in the mutual interests of both sides, and to do all that in an orderly way? Surely 16 months is more than enough time to sort this out.
I cannot help it that the reality is that we entered into a partnership that now includes 27 other member states. We cannot just magic that away; they all have their interests, and they will all have to be taken into consideration at the end. As we have seen with trade agreements that are reached with the EU and other states, they take time. Indeed, my right hon. Friend and some of my other hon. Friends are, frankly, delusional in their belief of the speed with which these wonderful new trade agreements with third countries will be concluded once we leave the EU. My main anxiety on that topic is that there are 759 external treaties that come through our membership of the EU and that we are in danger of losing with amendment 381, tabled by the Government, in respect of putting a writ-in-stone date on when we have to leave. That should worry us just as much as any other aspect of leaving the EU.
Is not the real ludicrousness of amendment 381 that it is unenforceable and there is no punishment if that law is broken? As a former Attorney General, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman tell us the point of having a law for which—if the date is extended and the law broken—there is absolutely no consequence? The Minister will not be sent to prison for breaking it. It is a worthless political gesture.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but I do not entirely agree with him. If the measure stays on the statute book, the consequence would be that at 11 pm on 29 March 2019—even if the agreements, transitional arrangements and everything else have not been worked out—we will drop out of the EU, potentially into the void that so much of this legislation is apparently designed to prevent. All the possible benefits of continuing in transition would not be available, so this actually matters very much indeed. That brings me—although I do not want to take up the Committee’s time—to the infamous amendment 381.
Amendment 381 was sprung on the House, sprung on the Conservative party and certainly sprung on me—after weeks of talking gently to my ministerial colleagues and trying to find a sensible way through, which I continue to want to do—and suddenly landed on us as a diktat. It is quite simply unacceptable because it fetters the Government’s ability to carry out this negotiation, which makes me seriously question their competence, and it disenfranchises the House from properly exercising its scrutiny role, with the potential that, in fact, is almost an invitation to running into the buffers. Although I do not happen to believe that this is what the Government want to do, it certainly appears to play into the hands of those who seem to be so eager that we should leave the EU with absolutely no agreement whatever.
I seriously worry that I go to audiences of the kind that seem to extol the virtues of some of my colleagues on this side of the House, and I am told that only a departure from the EU without any agreement at all can detoxify us of the taint of our participation. Those were the very words used to me at the Conservative party conference. All I can say is that the individuals who are saying these things are utterly misguided, do not understand how a parliamentary democracy works and do not understand how an international community operates. But, whatever their grievances may be, they are the people to whom we have to sensibly articulate an alternative approach.
I am really pleased that amendment 381 cannot be put to the vote this afternoon, because I have to say to my right hon. and hon. Friends that I will vote against it. There are absolutely no ifs, no buts and no maybes about this—no arm-twisting and nothing that can be done to me in the intervening period. It is unacceptable and I will not vote for it. I will not vote for it if I am the only person to go through the Lobby to vote against it. The sensible thing for Ministers to do is to go away, have several cups of tea, think again, continue talking to me about all the other sensible things we have been talking about and on which we are likely to reach agreement, and just focus for a moment on where there is unanimity in this House about how we should proceed.
In recognition of the Government’s problem, I shall go away and try to craft an amendment as an alternative to my amendment 7 to see whether I can do something that enables the Government to have that backstop but that ensures that that backstop cannot be used under any other circumstances than article 15 not being extendable, which is the obvious way to resolve this problem—not these barmy cut-off dates and this insistence on some magical formula to which we all have to subscribe and bow down. I will not do so. The Government want my support, and they will have it in spades if we just get on with focusing on how we can carry out this difficult and, frankly, dangerous task sensibly and in the national interest.
Order. I remind the House of what Dame Rosie said earlier: there is a long list of colleagues still waiting to speak, so unless we have brief contributions, many colleagues will be disappointed, because the first votes come at 6.51 pm.
I rise to speak to Plaid Cymru’s amendment 79, standing in my name and those of hon. Friends from several parties. This amendment to clause 1 would require the UK Government to gain the consent of the devolved Parliaments and Assemblies before they repealed the European Communities Act 1972. It would require proper consideration, consistent with the constitutional settlement within these islands, for the Prime Minister to have all four parts of the UK in agreement before the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill could come into force.
While in each of the devolution statutes the UK Parliament retains the power to legislate in relation to devolved matters, the Sewel convention requires that it should not normally do so without the consent of the relevant devolved legislature. The Supreme Court, in the Miller case on triggering article 50, found that the Sewel convention is no more than that—just a political convention without legal standing. However, to proceed without the available agreement of at least two parts of the UK—Scotland and Wales—and with the agreement of the other parts ascertained only in ways that are obscure to me, and even in ways that are not normal, as the Government appear to intend, would be foolhardy and, indeed, outrageous.
As far as I can see—I hope the Minister can correct me—the Government have launched into this process without properly considering how the views of the four parts of the UK could be ascertained; without proper consideration of the views of the Scottish and Welsh Governments; with the means of ascertaining the views of Northern Ireland unavailable; and with the elephant in the room, of course, being the need to explain precisely who speaks for England—something that is always unconsidered or unspoken in this place.
What we do know, however, following the publication of the EU withdrawal Bill, is that the Scottish SNP and Welsh Labour Governments issued a joint statement calling it “a naked power-grab”. They have since made it clear that the Bill as it stands would be rejected by the respective devolved Governments. Given the continued lack of an elected Assembly in Northern Ireland, given that the Government here in Westminster are being compelled unwillingly to take powers to themselves, and given that the dispute between the parties in Northern Ireland appears to be no closer to resolution, it is also unclear how opinion in Northern Ireland is to be gauged.
The hon. Gentleman’s amendment refers specifically to a resolution of the Northern Ireland Assembly. There is not a Northern Ireland Assembly in place to grant such a resolution. While we hope there will be one soon, we surely have to countenance the possibility that we could get through to March 2019 still without one, so how would his amendment enable the European Communities Act to be repealed if there is no Northern Ireland Assembly to pass a resolution?
As I said, it is unclear to me what the situation is in Northern Ireland. I have heard the rumours, one way or another, that they are extremely close to a resolution other than on the Irish language—[Interruption.] It is being motioned behind me that perhaps that is not the case. However, anything could happen.
The principle of our amendments is that the democratically elected Assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland and the Parliament in Scotland should have their say.
It is a constitutional convention of the utmost importance that legislative consent is given by all the devolved institutions, particularly on such a major constitutional change. The fact is that we have no Northern Ireland Assembly and no expectation of having one in the near future. However, even if I were to be surprised by the fact that the main parties—the DUP and Sinn Féin—could agree in an Assembly, the figures are such that the majority of the 90 MLAs are anti-Brexit and will not give legislative consent to this Bill. The Government’s Bill is going nowhere without the legislative consent of Northern Ireland, and that will not be forthcoming.
I thank the hon. Lady for making that point. I am loth to stray into Northern Ireland politics for extremely clear reasons.
I would avoid it.
I take that advice. I say only that it has been suggested that some in Northern Ireland would surely see the Government’s taking this decision with no Assembly in place as being the diktat of a governor general, or at the very least unwise as a basis on which to proceed.
As I said, the elephant in the room is the question of who speaks for England. This is the last constitutional conundrum—the constitutional exceptionalism that successive Governments have failed to address in this place. Who speaks for England? Clearly on this matter, it appears that this Conservative Government do so. Are the Labour Opposition sanguine about that? I hope to press this amendment to a vote. I do not know how Labour will vote on it, but I remind them that their Labour colleagues in Cardiff are certainly not sanguine.
The Minister may point to the resurrected Joint Ministerial Committee as a cover for—
Members will no doubt be aware that the Joint Ministerial Committee on EU Negotiations has met only twice in the past year. Does my hon. Friend agree that that Committee fails to afford the devolved Administrations a real voice in these negotiations and that in its current form it is wholly inadequate for the purpose of facilitating discussion and agreement?
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. I was obviously about to come on to that matter.
The Government might wish to use the Joint Ministerial Committee as a cover for proceeding with this matter, but so far that Committee has not proved itself to be a substitute for proper agreement obtained directly with the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. The JMC—as obscure to many Members in this place as it is to the press and the population at large—met in February and did not meet again until October, during which period the most important and momentous events were taking place and fundamental decisions being taken. Following the October meeting, the Government sought to gloss over the real concerns of the Scottish and Welsh Governments, but as I said earlier, these have now been made clear.
In the Brexit Committee on 25 October, I asked the Brexit Secretary what the formal relationship was between himself and the First Secretary of State, who is handling the JMC. I asked:
“What is the formal relationship between your Department and his on this specific issue?”
“there is none at all. He is one of my oldest friends”,
to which I replied:
“He is a very fine man, I am sure.”
I have been in this place for long enough—though not in government—to know the ways of Whitehall working. There are two conditions: where there is a formal relationship between Departments and there is accountability, and where there is no formal relationship and there is no accountability. In the case of the JMC, there is no formal reporting back but perhaps a chat between old friends. I have a large number of old friends—fine people whom I respect—but I certainly would not base my decision about the future of my children and my grandchildren on an informal fireside chat.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the crucial issue is not the one he deals with in amendment 79, but whether the Government respond to the cross-party amendments about the Scotland and Wales Acts and other important matters, in line with what the Scottish and Welsh Governments have said? Responding to those amendments in a positive way would show true respect for the constitutional settlement, which the Government have yet to show.
I am arguing in favour of my own amendment, but I accept the force of the hon. Gentleman’s words. As he knows, we have supported several Labour amendments.
Plaid Cymru has warned of the problems for quite some time. We wrote to the Welsh Secretary over the summer outlining our opposition to the withdrawal Bill and asking for answers about what would happen if the Welsh Assembly withheld consent. The response that we received in September was an aspiration, and it was wholly inadequate. It merely replayed the mantra: “We want all parts of the UK to back the Bill.” It was no response at all.
We raised the matter during a general debate on Brexit and foreign affairs on 26 June, during Brexit ministerial drop-in sessions on 19 July, during the debate on the Queen’s Speech on 26 July, in Welsh questions on 6 September, on Second Reading of this Bill on 11 September and during oral evidence sessions in the Brexit Committee on 17 October. Not once has a Minister told us how the Government plan to proceed if the devolved legislatures do not support the Bill. The only conclusion that we can draw, therefore, is that the Government will press ahead regardless. It is, after all, their legal right to do so, for the time being.
It would be absolutely fascinating if the Government pressed ahead regardless, against the backdrop of three out of the four Assemblies or Parliaments of the United Kingdom opposing such pressing ahead. That would really show that we were not in a union but in an absolute superstate, which is what many Members say they are trying to get away from.
Amendment 79 might elucidate that point, which the hon. Gentleman put well. The final step of trying to prise an answer out of the UK Government about how they will react if the devolved Parliaments reject this Bill is to gauge their reaction to the amendment, which calls for the Sewel convention to be legally binding in relation to the Bill. That is why, with permission, I will press the amendment to a vote. It already has the support of the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, the Green party and, I understand, at least one Labour MP. In my view, it would be unthinkable for Labour, which is the largest party in Wales, to oppose Wales having a say, contrary to the stance of their colleagues in Cardiff.
If the UK Government are deadly serious about having all four nations on board, and if they are determined to respect the Respect agenda, they will accept the amendment. If not, we must assume that the Prime Minister intends to ignore the clearly expressed will of the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament, breaking her promise of working closely with the devolved Administrations to deliver an approach that works for the whole UK. I urge everyone in this House to support amendment 79.
Clause 1 of this historic Bill is the most important constitutional matter to come before the House of Commons since the 1972 Act. I have read some of the debates that Parliament conducted at the time, and we could indeed say that the repeal is more significant than the House believed the original Act to be. When the original Act was passed, the Government reassured the House that it was no surrender of sovereignty to a supranational body and no major transfer of power. They told the House that it was, instead, a major development of a common market; that the areas in which the European Economic Community would have competence would be very narrow and limited; and that the UK would preserve a veto so that if the EEC proposed anything the UK did not like, the UK would be able to exercise its veto and show that Parliament was still sovereign.
That was a long time ago. Over the years, what appeared to be a modest measure to form a common market has transformed itself into a mighty set of treaties and become, through endless amendment and new treaty provision, a very large and complex legal machine that is the true sovereign of our country. It has exercised its sovereignty through the European Court of Justice, the one supreme body in our country during all the time we have remained in the EEC and, now, the EU. We have seen how that body can now strike down Acts of Parliament, prevent Ministers from taking the action they wish to take and prevent this Parliament from expressing a view and turning it into action.
We were told, for example, that the EU would never be able to control our tax system, yet many items carry VAT that I think Members on both sides of the House would like to abolish, although we are not allowed to do so by European legal requirements. Before the renegotiation of our relationship attempted by the previous Prime Minister, the two main parties agreed that they wanted certain modest benefit changes to our welfare system, but both had to accept that they were quite illegal. It was therefore quite inappropriate and impossible for the House to take action that would have withstood challenges from the European Court of Justice.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I am not going to take any interventions. I am conscious that we have very little time, and I want other colleagues to be able to speak in this debate.
We have been unable all the time we have been in the EU to have our own migration policy or to decide who we wish to welcome into our country. We cannot have our own fishing policy and we cannot have our own farming policy. We have moved into massive deficits on both fishing and on farming, whereas we used to have a good trading surplus on fish before we joined the European Economic Community and we used to produce most of the temperate food we needed before the common agricultural policy started to bite.
The British people decided in their wisdom that we should take back control, and we will take back control by the passage of this very important piece of legislation. Above all, clause 1 will take back that control. The great news for colleagues on both sides of the House who had different views on whether we should leave or remain is that their genuine passion for democracy, which many on both sides of the argument have expressed today, can be satisfied by agreeing to clause 1, which repeals the original Act. Once that has happened and the repeal has taken place, this Parliament will once again listen to the wishes of the British people and be able to change VAT, our fishing policy, our agricultural policy, our borders policy and our welfare policies in the ways we wish.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
No. I have already explained that I am conscious that many colleagues wish to join in the debate.
I just hope that right hon. and hon. Members on the Opposition Benches will recognise that, far from this being a denial of democracy as some fear—they seem to think it is some kind of ministerial power grab—this legislation will be the complete opposite. Once it has gone through, no Minister of the Crown, however grand, will be able to use the excuse that they had to do something to satisfy the European Court of Justice or the European Union. They will have to answer to this House of Commons, and if they cannot command a majority for what they wish to do, it will be changed. That is the system that I and many Opposition Members believe in, and that is the system we are seeking to reintroduce into our country, after many years’ absence, by the passage of this legislation.
There are concerns about whether the date of exit should be included in the Bill. I think it is good parliamentary practice to put something of such importance on the face of the Bill, and to allow us extensive debate—as we are having today, and doubtless will have more of before the completion of the passage of the legislation through both Houses—so that the public can see that we have considered it fully and come to a view.
I listened carefully to the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) and I have a lot of sympathy with what he was trying to do, but I will take the advice of Ministers and support their particular version of the amendment. I will do so for the reasons that were set out very well by the Minister: we need complete certainty, and that requires a precise time of transfer. People need to know which law they are obeying and to which court they are ultimately answerable, minute by minute, as they approach the transfer of power on the day in question, and that is a very important part of the process.
I hope those who have genuine fears that we will not have enough time to negotiate are wrong. I think 16 months is a very long time to allow us to see whether we can reach a really good agreement. Of course, we all hope that we can reach a good agreement. Some of us know that if there is no agreement, it will be fine. We can trade under World Trade Organisation terms and put in place, over the next 16 months, all the things we need to do, on a contingency basis, to make sure that if we just leave without an agreement, things will work.
I appeal to all Members to understand that, although most of them may not want that contingency, it is a possible outcome. We cannot make the EU offer a sensible agreement that is in our mutual interests, so surely this House has a duty to the public to plan intelligently and to scrutinise Ministers as they go about putting in place the necessary devices to ensure that it all works.
The Chair of the Home Affairs Committee should relax. She is talented and quite capable of leading her Committee, and I am sure that it can make a valuable contribution. Nobody is stopping her or her Committee scrutinising, asking questions, producing ideas or helping the Government make sure that there is a smooth transition. She and I both believe in parliamentary democracy. She has an important position in this House and I wish her every success in pursuing it, in the national interest, so that Ministers can be held to account.
The task before us should be one that brings Parliament together. We should not still be disputing whether or not we are leaving. We let the British people decide that and then this House voted overwhelmingly to send in our notice. I explained at the time that that would be the decision point—most Members took it relatively willingly, others very willingly—and we now need to make sure that it works in the best interests of the British people.
I urge the House to come together to work on all those details, to make sure that we can have a successful Brexit, even if a really good agreement is not on offer after a suitable time for negotiation; and I urge the European Union to understand that it is greatly in its interests to discuss as soon as possible a future relationship. If it does not do so soon, we will simply have to plan for no agreement, because it is our duty to make sure that everything works very smoothly at the end of March 2019.
It is, I think, a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood), who invited the House to come together and sort these problems out. The problem with his invitation, however, was exposed by the rest of his speech, in which he argued that if we do come together, it has to be on his terms. There is no scope for those of us who believe that there is a different way of doing this; we can only do it in the way in which he and those who have agreed with him over many years think it can be done. That is an invitation that I am more than prepared to resist.
I rise to speak in favour of the helpful amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) and that tabled by the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), to which I am also a signatory.
Before I move on to those amendments, I would like to say a word about the speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field). He is a good friend of mine: I have known him for many years and have always respected him. He compared this process to that of buying a house. That is a seductive way of looking at it, but he neglected to mention that the process of buying a house includes something called sold subject to contract. Article 50 might represent “sold subject to contract”, but we have yet to see what the contract is. My right hon. Friend’s analogy is perhaps more apposite than he realised, because perhaps we are in such a process but at a completely different stage from that which he suggested.
I will return directly to the argument by the right hon. Member for Wokingham about why the House should come together. Many of us believe that while that might be possible at some point, we are not at that point yet. I have two yardsticks to apply before I decide—if I am given the opportunity, provided by the two amendments I referred to—whether it is the right thing to do.
Everybody has rightly said that the people voted to leave. That is true. They did so by a smallish margin, but they did. In my constituency, they voted in exactly the same way as the national result. There is an obligation on us to recognise, acknowledge and deal with the implications of the referendum vote. What the people did not vote for, however, was an agreement the dimensions of which we do not even understand. That is where we are at the moment.
The first yardstick I will use to judge the question is the points my constituents raised with me on the doorstep. First, they said they would vote to leave because they did not like the amount of immigration. I argued with them, but that was the point they put to me. Secondly, they argued for parliamentary sovereignty. I tried to explore that more fully, but it did not often end up in a productive conversation. Thirdly, they argued for greater economic freedom. Other arguments were made and will no doubt be debated, but they were the three main issues raised with me on the doorstep.
I come back directly to the question put by the right hon. Member for Wokingham. What are we as a House supposed to unite on? At this stage, I do not know whether any of the reasons for my constituents to vote the way they did will be addressed—they certainly will not be addressed by the Bill—by the Government’s final deal. I do not know, the Government do not know, my constituents do not know and the House does not know, yet we are somehow being asked to take it on trust that at some point all will be revealed and there will be nothing to worry about. Forgive me, but I have been in this House for a number of years, in opposition and in government, and I know there is always something to worry about, particularly when the Government do not even know what the end of the process is likely to bring.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I will give way, but only this once because I want to conclude.
Is the right hon. Gentleman’s implication that unless he is satisfied with an agreement he will not allow us to leave the European Union?
I will answer precisely that point before I conclude, but if the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me I will do so in my own particular way.
The second test to apply is fairly straightforward: are we heading into economic disaster? At this stage, we are unable to say. We do not know what the trade terms will be and we do not know how they will affect businesses and workforces. All of that is to be negotiated. If, at the end of the process, all those questions have been answered to my satisfaction and that of my constituents, I could vote, provided I am given the opportunity, to leave the European Union. At this stage, however, there is such a lack of clarity about where we stand and where we will get to that I am not prepared to give that commitment. I cannot say to my constituents that everything they voted for will not happen, on top of which it will be economically disastrous for us.
I say to the Government: get on with the negotiations, but we want the opportunity to say this is not right for our constituents. I will vote for the amendments tabled by the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield and my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford to make sure that we have exactly that opportunity.
I have often taken part in such debates as these and felt rather in the minority in opposing a new European treaty, and I wonder whether I am still in a minority in the House today, as it probably has more remainers than leavers in it, which rather colours the judgment of those taking part in the debate.
Oh move on, for God’s sake!
I just put that forward as a problem. I believe as passionately in my case as my right hon. Friend does in hers. I sympathise and understand, but we have to accept that the country voted to leave. The one thing we know about how people voted—whether it was for this deal or that deal, whether they believed or disbelieved this or that piece of propaganda—is that they voted to leave the EU. That is the one thing it said on the ballot paper. I cannot understand how anyone can come to the House and say, “Well, there might be circumstances in which I will not respect that decision”, as the right hon. Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) just did. That is what it amounts to.
Sir Winston Churchill said that the role of an MP was to put country first, constituency second and party third. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, if the Government come back with a bad deal, allowing it to go forward would put none of those three first?
That brings me to my next point. This debate is rerunning many of the arguments during the referendum campaign. The remain case was premised on the idea that it is a horrible, cruel world out there, that we cannot survive outside the EU, that it will be completely disastrous and that unless the EU give us permission and lots of help and support and agree to a whole lot of stuff we would like, we will be on our own in the cold. You know what? It is not true. Most countries are not in the EU and they are fine. This debate sometimes loses sight of that.
I wish to speak in favour of clause 1 standing part of the Bill. I agree so much with my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood). This is the most important Bill since we joined—more important, in fact, because after 45 years of membership it is so much more significant than it was. The principle of democracy is that Parliament legislates and Ministers obey and implement the law. The problem with the EU is that it turned our Ministers into legislators. They go to Brussels, sit in council, legislate and then bring back fait accompli legislation that is then imposed on this House. The 1972 Act is the greatest Henry VIII clause that has ever existed, and there is something a bit inconsistent —I understand why they are saying it—in complaining about Parliament not being treated properly, given that the whole principle of our membership of the EU requires the removal of the House’s right to make the laws of this country.
I note that the hon. Gentleman just said that it was wholly inappropriate for Ministers to go to Brussels and bring back a fait accompli. In relation to the EU negotiations, would it not be wholly inappropriate, therefore, for Ministers to go to Brussels, bring back a fait accompli and not give Parliament a proper opportunity to say, “You know what? You’ve got this wrong. You’ve got to renegotiate.”?
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. The House should have the right to accept or reject the deal, and it will—it will have the right to reject or accept the withdrawal agreement and implementation Bill; but that will not change the decision to leave the EU. That decision has been taken.
I turn to the date of our exit. The referendum said leave. We were all told that we had to use article 50. Article 50 says on the tin that it takes two years maximum. The date is already fixed. There is no choice about the date. The date has to be in the Bill, otherwise we will weaken our negotiating position.
I will make my point and then give way.
The point is that we cannot go into the negotiations saying, “We have signed up to article 50, but we do not accept that we might have to leave after two years. We might come to you begging for a bit more time.” That will not put us in a very strong negotiating position.
I should preface my question to my hon. Friend by saying that, in my view, there is no evidence at the moment that public opinion on this issue has shifted at all since the referendum. But let us just suppose, as a hypothesis, that by the end of next year it becomes clear from opinion polls that 90% of the population believe that a mistake was made in the triggering of article 50. Does my hon. Friend seriously believe that we as a House should entirely ignore that evidence, if it were presented to us repeatedly?
My right hon. and learned Friend is a very able barrister, and he presents his case extremely well, but we really are into hypotheticals now. [Interruption.] It was my right hon. and learned Friend who used the word “hypothesis”.
The fact is that article 50 was passed by an Act of Parliament, the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017, by 498 votes to 114 on Second Reading of the Bill that became that Act. All that these three amendments do is align this Bill with what the House voted for so overwhelmingly.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will, but I have been told to take very little time.
I am very interested in my hon. Friend’s point about the fact that the date should have been in the Bill. It was an important point, so will he tell us why he did not table an amendment to insert the date?
Would I be telling tales out of school if I said that I had thought about it, and discussed it? In fact, there was plenty of friendly discussion about it, but in the end the Government decided the matter for themselves, and I support the Government. I think that, given that we are in a slight minority in this Parliament and we have to deliver a very difficult Brexit and take part in difficult negotiations, it is incumbent on all Conservative Members to support the Government whenever we can.
I completely agree with a vast amount of what my hon. Friend has said. Article 50 sets the date, but it also sets the process, and the last part of the process is a vote in the European Parliament. As I recall from my time in the European Parliament, it often asks for a little bit extra at the last minute. My concern about hard-wiring the date is that it makes it more difficult for our Government and the other 27 national Governments to give that little bit of extra time should it be needed. It loses our flexibility rather than giving us more. That is my only concern.
Unfortunately, even the European Parliament cannot change the exit date. It would have to be agreed by all the other member states. To predicate our negotiating position on our ability to persuade the 27 member states—and the Commission and the negotiating team in Brussels—to extend the date would be completely wrong.
Any Members who intend to vote against this date must be really confident that they can change a date that has already been set by the European Union treaties. The whole point about the deal/no deal scenario is that—as I have already said to the right hon. Member for Knowsley—either we accept the deal, and the House votes on it, or there is no deal. That is the choice that is available to the House. The House cannot veto Brexit—[Interruption.] I wish to conclude my speech.
Any Members who voted for the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill are obliged to support the amendment, because that is the date for which they implicitly voted when they voted for the Bill, and for a two-year period. Any Members who voted for article 50 but now do not wish to fix the date are open to the charge that they do not actually want us to leave the European Union—[Interruption.] Let me say this to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield. He has suggested that if we do not have a deal we will be jumping into “a void”, and that fixing the date will constrain our negotiations and disenfranchise Parliament. I respect the sincerity of my right hon. and learned Friend’s passion, but he calls the cut-off date barmy when he voted for that date by voting for the article 50 Bill. This amendment rumbles those who have not really accepted that we are leaving the EU.
My hon. Friend knows that I share his fundamental beliefs about the need for us to leave the European Union, but is there not merit in the suggestion of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) that we need not have a fixed date? After all, our own negotiators might wish to have an extension; this is curtailing the flexibility and room for manoeuvre of our own negotiators. My right hon. and learned Friend has proposed an ingenious and commendable solution: that we write into the Bill the date, but we create exceptions for circumstances in which the negotiators might need it. I urge my hon. Friend, and all my hon. Friends who share my view on the EU, to reflect carefully on the suggestion made by my right hon. and learned Friend; it is a commendable one and it requires careful reflection.
I am still seized of the truth that if we beg the EU to extend the time because it has run us up against the timetable—after all, it is the EU that is refusing to negotiate on the substantive issues at the moment, not us—that is the position and responsibility it must face. We should be clear and strong that if the EU does not reach an agreement with us by a certain date, we are leaving without a deal. That would put us in a stronger negotiating position than ever.
I am very pleased to start by saying that, irrespective of what might or might not be in this Bill, I would, of course, not want us to leave the EU. I must say that there have been some rational speeches from the Conservative Benches, in particular those of the right hon. and learned Members for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) and for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve). I also saw a significant and rational nodding of heads on the Government Benches during their speeches; I hope that as this debate develops many more of those rational Conservatives will be willing to speak out. I think that, like me, they believed before the EU referendum that leaving the EU would cause us significant damage and that they continue to do so to this day. As they have seen the Brexit negotiations proceeding, I suspect their view has been reinforced. I hope we will hear many more outspoken speeches from Conservatives.
The debate has inevitably been peppered from the Government Benches—the fourth row, referred to frequently—with the usual clichés from the usual suspects about the impact of the European Union: comments about EU bureaucrats plundering our fish and the secrecy that applies. The hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) is no longer in his place; I do not know whether he has ever participated in a Cabinet committee meeting, but if he is worried about secrecy, he could, perhaps, do so—he will then see how clear that decision-making process is.
There have also been many references to the importance of the sovereignty of this Parliament, which is of course important, and unfavourable comparisons have been drawn with the EU, along with a complete disregard of how that body conducts itself through the Council of Ministers and the role of Members of the European Parliament. The only thing that has been missing from the debate has been a reference to the EU stopping children from blowing up balloons. No doubt if the Foreign Secretary had been here, he would have been able to add to that list of clichés about the impact of the EU, and it is a shame that he is not here to reheat that particular canard.
I make no apologies for seeking to amend the Bill and supporting a large number of amendments tabled by Members on both sides of the House, although I do not have much confidence that the Bill can be knocked into shape.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I will give way later, perhaps to people who have not had an opportunity to intervene. I want to make a bit more progress.
I do not know whether the new clause tabled by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) was politically inspired, but it is clear that the amendment tabled by the Secretary of State, which we have heard a lot about over the past 72 hours, was very much a political initiative.
I will give way once.
As I think the right hon. Gentleman should, given what he was imputing. The new clause was politically inspired, of course, because I wanted to see a date in the Bill. If he is suggesting that someone else was directing the kind of new clause I should table, he might want to have a word with the Opposition Whips to find out how easy a job that is. [Laughter.]
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention, but I am perplexed: I was not suggesting that anyone had been pulling his strings. I was simply wondering whether it was his own political inspiration that had led him to table the new clause. However, both the new clause and the Government amendment are damaging and irresponsible. They are also pointless, in that the Government could, of their own volition, choose to change the end date. I have to wonder whether they would not in fact seek to do that if they were close to a deal just days or hours away from the deadline.
Does the right hon. Gentleman not accept that we are coming out of the EU and that this is not a game of hokey-cokey, with one foot in and one foot out?
We do not often play games of hokey-cokey in this Chamber, and I certainly would not want us to do so today.
We are debating what is without a doubt the most serious issue that the United Kingdom has faced in the past 50 years, but I am afraid that the Government are not conducting themselves terribly efficiently. The Prime Minister’s amendment secured one or two newspaper headlines, but I was pleased that it did not succeed in stemming the Tory resistance. I would like to encourage the use of the word “resistance”. I do not know whether many Members have read Matthew Parris’s article, in which he suggests that we should use the term “resistance” in relation to ourselves when some Conservative Members prefer to describe us as remoaners—or, indeed, traitors.
On that point, I am happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman.
I would not call the right hon. Gentleman a remoaner, but he is a Liberal Democrat; I am just wondering which bit of the democrat in him does not accept the result of the referendum, that 52% of the country voted to leave and that the Prime Minister made it absolutely clear that we would leave if that is what the people voted for. Let me remind him that 41% of his constituents voted for him, whereas 52% voted to leave the European Union. When is he going to ask for a rerun in his own seat?
I am sure that what I am about to say to the hon. Gentleman will reassure him that I am a democrat. He will be aware of the Liberal Democrats’ view that the only way that the vote on 23 June last year can be undone is by means of a referendum of everyone in the country, some of whom might have changed their minds. Perhaps he would like to explain why the people have the right to express their will on this particular issue only once and never again. We, as democrats, are arguing that there should be another opportunity—