Margaret Beckett (Derby South) (Lab)
11 Sep 2017, 5 p.m.
On Thursday, the Secretary of State said in this House that this debate and the Bill are not about whether the United Kingdom leaves the European Union; I wish he could convince some of his colleagues of that, as they continue to make that argument even when it is totally inaccurate. The people made that decision in the referendum a year ago and this House endorsed it by triggering the article 50 process this year.
Today, we are not discussing whether but how we leave the EU and, in particular, how this House makes its decisions—not least, as the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) said a few moments ago, with respect to the precedent we will set for the future. In recent days, I have heard a number of people, including the Foreign Secretary, claim that a vote against the Bill would be a vote to obstruct the will of the people. That is arrant nonsense, as I think most of those who make that claim are well aware. To me, it is in fact this Bill that negates the declared purpose of the referendum, which was, as I understood it, to take back to UK legislatures the powers that in recent years we have shared with others through our membership of the EU.
The second thing the Secretary of State said the other day that I found particularly relevant was that no one said this was going to be easy. If only that were so. Actually, as he knows, many Government Members have been claiming that it would all be easy since before the referendum, and indeed ever since. I shall go rather further than he did. Apologies to those present and elsewhere who were not born in 1983, but in that year’s general election, my party made the case that after 10 years’ experience of being in the common market, we ought to leave. We said, explicitly, that unless we left then, our economies and societies would be so enmeshed that in future it would be impossible to leave without inflicting enormous, unsustainable damage on ourselves. That contention was supported by someone I would not normally cite, the late Enoch Powell, who urged people to vote Labour in that election for precisely that reason. Yet it is that task to which the Bill turns us, and which we are now trying to accomplish through the Bill.
In the dialogue during and following this debate, just as in the negotiations themselves, it is vital to establish, if at all possible, a degree of trust and mutual understanding. Yet it seems to me that the Government’s behaviour is almost calculated to undermine any such trust. The short amount of time that has been allowed for the debate does not remotely bear comparison with anything one could call a comparable debate, Bill or set of negotiations. I shall not repeat all the things everybody else has already said and no doubt will say right up until midnight about how the detail of the Bill is in itself so sweeping and so damaging, but there is no doubt that that is the nature of the Bill.
As was said a few moments ago by the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), in Thursday’s debate the Secretary of State sounded sympathetic to some of the points that were made about the restricted nature of the Bill’s proposals on the scrutiny of the statutory instruments that would be introduced under it. He asked, as did the hon. Lady, that those expressing concern should make suggestions as to the remedy for the problems that the Bill creates, so I shall make three observations to the Minister and, through him, to the Secretary of State.
First, as was mentioned on Thursday, the idea of making use of amendable statutory instruments has been discussed in this House forever. It has never been accepted, for obvious reasons—there are many flaws in such a procedure—but none the less it might be better than the proposals in the Bill. Whether by that means or by others, there are and will be ways to expand the scope of whatever procedures we follow, even if such special procedures were attached to a specific time, or were time-limited. That would be possible particularly if those procedures were linked to any similar limits on the powers that the Government are seeking to take and their duration. It seems by no means to be beyond the wit of man to find much better systems of scrutiny than the Government are putting forward today.
My second observation is that, in searching for such potential procedure, the Government should cast their net wide. As Leader of the House, I proposed, for the first time, the introduction of the programme motion. In giving effect to a previous recommendation of the then Procedure Committee to facilitate the examination of the whole of a Bill, we also addressed the serious drafting problems that existed. We worked with the Clerks, who were, as ever, brilliant in their expertise and helpful in their advice and also with others. The drafts for the procedures, which we were ultimately able to adopt and which the House uses to this day, came through the involvement not just of our Clerks, but of Parliamentary Counsel. Therefore, there are others, across Government, across Whitehall and across the organs of the state, who could contribute to such discussions as to what procedures might work better than what the Government now propose.