European Union (Withdrawal) Bill DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Mr Geoffrey RobinsonMain Page: Mr Geoffrey Robinson (Labour) - Coventry North West)
When a Government come to a Parliament and say, “Give us more powers, or there will be chaos,” democrats should be worried. Over the years, when a Government have said, “Give us more powers, or there will be chaos,” they have acted like dictators. I am not saying that the Government are a dictator, but they are doing what Lord Hailsham said: they are acting like an elective dictatorship. That is why they are, through this Bill, undermining the very weak concept of parliamentary democracy that we have retained in this country.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, and I will come to that.
I would argue that the Bill undermines parliamentary sovereignty more than any EU directive ever did, and I will explain to the Minister why that is. I do not think, for example, that the Bill does what leave voters wanted in the referendum. Many leave voters I talk to say they voted leave because they wanted to restore parliamentary sovereignty—they wanted Parliament to take back control. But this Bill does not give control back to Parliament; it gives control back to Ministers, who do not want to be held to account properly in this House.
Leave voters talked about getting more democracy, but as the hon. Gentleman said in his intervention, democracy is being taken not by this place but by a Government who do not even have a majority in this House. That is not what leave voters voted for. During the hours we have debated this Bill, I have heard that when people answered the referendum question, they were saying we should do what we are doing now. Well, I am afraid that that is not what happened. The question before the House tonight was not on the ballot paper in the referendum; it is a completely different question.
People might say that the Bill gives effect to the referendum vote, but the point is that there are many ways of doing that, and this Bill is not doing that in the spirit of the referendum and the spirit of increasing parliamentary sovereignty. In fact, we have heard from right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House alternative ways of giving effect to that referendum vote. Early in the debate, we heard some ideas from the right hon. Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett). We have heard from the hon. Members for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), for Gloucester (Richard Graham) and for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock). They have put forward ideas that go way beyond what is in the Bill in terms of holding the Government to account as they transcribe EU law into British law. I could think of a whole series of enhanced procedures for doing that, including special Committees and Select Committee hearings. Perhaps the Select Committee on Procedure should be asking that question and reporting back to the House—except the Government do not want that. They do not really want this House to be involved, and that is why they are excluding the Committees and going for this fast-track, fundamentally undemocratic approach.
Ministers will say, “What about time? All these alternative options will take time.” We put Bills through this House quickly when there is a war or a national emergency. There is no war or national emergency now; we have time to consider this as true democrats to ensure that we get it right. The fact that the Government are not doing that is outrageous.
The Bill’s approach is dangerous because parliamentary sovereignty in this country is such a weak reed, as it has been for many years. Executives of all hues—even, dare I say, coalitions—have, through the Whip system, managed to ensure that this House has not really taken part in some of the key decisions of the day. This is most seen in how the House debates Government expenditure decisions. Right hon. and hon. Members might be interested to know that the last time this House voted against a spending request from the Executive of the day was in 1919, when it voted against spending for the bathroom of the then Lord Chancellor. Since then, hundreds of billions of pounds have gone through this House without a proper vote against, because the Executive do not really believe in parliamentary sovereignty.
Parliamentary sovereignty is a weak doctrine in this country, and the danger of the Bill is that even more of what is left of it will be taken away. That is shocking. I believe that when leave voters talked about parliamentary sovereignty, they wanted to increase the power of this place. If we see the last vestiges of that power walking out of the door tonight, and if we vote for the Second Reading of this Bill, that will be a backward step and will go against the spirit of the referendum vote. Allowing the Government these additional powers is tantamount to the temporary abolition of this House. That is not what people voted for, and this House should defend itself and defend democracy.
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Through the Bill, our UK Parliament will regain authority over whether and how EU law will apply, and that is what honouring the result of the EU referendum is all about.
This Bill is necessary to ensure an orderly Brexit. The alternative does not bear thinking about. It is chaos, uncertainty and the abrupt evaporation of laws overnight, leaving us with nothing but a legal vacuum on the day after we have left the EU. That is what those who oppose the Bill are asking for, which is why I urge Labour Members to reconsider their position in opposition to the Bill and to vote for the pragmatism and necessity that it encapsulates.
A vote against the Bill is a vote in breach of voters’ trust and a vote for chaos for two reasons. First, the fact that the Bill has the effect of placing all current EU law into UK law is eminently sensible. Many of the laws will work in UK law without amendment, but some will need to be amended. There has been much criticism of the Henry VIII powers, but it is exaggerated and unjustified. The Hansard Society has calculated that of the 23 Government Bills in the 2015-16 parliamentary Session, 16 contained a total of 96 Henry VIII powers to amend or repeal primary legislation. Of those powers, 65 were included in Bills when they were introduced, and a further 31 were added to Bills during their progress through Parliament. There is therefore nothing alien or sinister about such powers, and to suggest otherwise is unjustified and disproportionate.
The Opposition have proposed no alternative. If there were individual votes to amend the EU laws, that would mean an individual vote on all 20,000 EU laws. If we conducted the process in that way, it would take over 200 days of parliamentary time, sitting 24 hours a day, seven days a week. An alternative would be to have a debate on every page of the law, but that would mean debates on over 600,000 pages of law. That leaves us with the only option of abandoning all EU law, which, as I have said, would mean legal chaos.
Secondly, the Bill is important because it repeals the European Communities Act 1972, which gives force to judgments from the European Court of Justice and regulations without any further need for scrutiny by Parliament. That is the biggest power grab to which this country has been subject. Politics should be less about mechanistic procedure and more about the big vision; less about systematic management and more about creating on a grand scale with radical thinking, setting a blueprint for society. Brexit is a birth and a chance for a new beginning, not a death. Now there is a chance for those who campaigned to leave the EU and those who see the opportunity ahead, even if they did not campaign for it, to unite in painting that bold and bright vision of the future of our country and of the world. For those who cannot or will not see that, the politics of yesterday may be good enough for them, but not for me.
The debate stood adjourned (Standing Order No. 9(3)).
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Does the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson) wish to conclude his oration, or has he already concluded it?
I rise with enthusiasm to support the main principles of the Bill and its Second Reading. We have heard many excellent contributions and I would like to express my appreciation for the quality of this debate. To me, the debate comes down to something rather straightforward. When this House passed the Bill to hold an in/out referendum on the United Kingdom’s continued membership of the European Union, it entered a compact with the British people to act on their direct instruction. This Second Reading debate is about main principles. The first principle of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill is to repeal the European Communities Act 1972 on the day we leave the European Union. A vote against that principle will be an attempt to set aside the result of the referendum and a base disrespect to the British people—it is as uncomplicated as that.
The second principle of the Bill is to convert EU law, taken as a whole, into UK law so that we can have a stable and functioning statute book on the day we leave the European Union. A vote against that principle would create the potential for instability and uncertainty, because we would have a broken statute book on the day we leave the European Union. It is no more complicated than that. This is a grand moment for British pragmatism.
Sincerely held concerns have been and are being raised about the Bill’s so-called Henry VIII powers. A number of right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House have made positive suggestions that deserve the careful consideration of those on the Government Front Bench—[Interruption.] Thanks for the prompt. There is clearly a willingness on the part of the Government both to listen and to accommodate, and I fully expect them to be as good as their word. That said, I find it strange that some of those who object so strenuously to the so-called Henry VIII powers and the Bill seem not to have had many concerns over the past 44 years when Governments have been expected to enact a steady stream of EU laws and regulations that neither the Government nor Parliament have had the power to change or the capacity to scrutinise properly.