European Union (Withdrawal) Bill: Timetable and Powers

Alongside my Labour colleagues I voted against the Government’s timetable for the Bill which gives MPs just 8 days to conduct line by line scrutiny and try to improve it. I’m sorry not to have replied before now but I have had a close family bereavement to contend with amongst other things.

Just the other day, on Thursday 19th October, Labour challenged the Leader of the House to allocate more time to this massive and complicated Bill – a challenge to which she could not provide any sensible answer.

Particular concerns have been raised about the extent of powers that have been outlined in the Bill that allow Ministers to make changes to other laws. I believe these are sweeping powers that require effective oversight or accountability. However, such safeguards are currently lacking from the Bill. The Bill also lacks clear enforcement mechanisms. Wherever possible, powers transferred from the EU should be devolved to the nations or to local authorities in England. It would of course have been easier to achieve this in England if the Government had not abolished Regional Assemblies.

I accept and respect the result of last year’s referendum. I still believe the decision was a mistake and based on the voters’ misunderstanding of the issues, but democracy is too important a principle to put at risk, and ignoring the decision of the majority of voters is not an option which I or the Labour Party will contemplate. Any attempt to “find a way round” the referendum decision, or to continue to ask the same question until we get the “right” answer, would be completely counterproductive, and would seriously weaken the electorate’s faith in democracy.

However, this does not mean we must accept the Prime Minister’s approach to Brexit which, in my view, puts jobs, the economy and individual rights at risk.  In particular, given that it is inconceivable that we will be able to negotiate comprehensive trade agreements with the other European countries by April 2019, it is imperative that we agree now to continue the Single Market and the Customs Union for a further two years, in order to give ourselves the time needed to negotiate a viable deal for the UK.  Theresa May has rejected this approach, although she continues to talk about “transition”.

The House of Lords Constitution Committee report on the Bill in March called for “proper parliamentary control of the content of the UK’s statute book.”  On 28 September the House of Lords’ Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee stated that the Bill “gives excessively wide law-making powers to Ministers, allowing them to make major changes beyond what is necessary to ensure UK law works properly when the UK leaves the EU.”

Responding to the House of Lords, the Labour Front Bench stated that the Government “should scrap this Bill and introduce new legislation that respects the referendum and enhances, rather than undermines, British democracy.”

Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary, Kier Starmer, has stated that “nobody underestimates the task of converting EU law into domestic law” but that the Bill as it stands is giving “sweeping powers to the Executive.” The Shadow Frontbench raised six areas of concerns with the Bill and tabled and voted for a reasoned amendment highlighting these, declining to give the Bill its Second Reading on 11 September. The reasoned amendment set out the Opposition’s concerns – “The Bill:

-fails to protect and reassert the principle of Parliamentary sovereignty by handing sweeping powers to Government Ministers allowing them to bypass Parliament on key decisions, without any meaningful or guaranteed Parliamentary scrutiny,
-fails to include a presumption of devolution which would allow effective transfer of devolved competencies coming back from the EU to the devolved administrations and makes unnecessary and unjustified alterations to the devolution settlements,
-fails to provide certainty that rights and protections will be enforced as effectively in the future as they are at present,
-risks weakening human rights protections by failing to transpose the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights into UK law,
-provides no mechanism for ensuring that the UK does not lag behind the EU in workplace     protections and environmental standards in the future and
-prevents the UK implementing strong transitional arrangements on the same basic terms we currently enjoy, including remaining within a customs union and within the Single Market.”

It really is not possible to please everyone, and I wouldn’t want to try even if I could – my job is to do what I think is best for Ipswich, and in this case joining with my Labour colleagues to try to hold the Tories to account seemed clearly the best way forward to me.