Hilary's speech on the EU (Withdrawal) Bill 7 Sep 2017


2.23 pm

Hilary Benn (Leeds Central) (Lab)

First, I just say to the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) that this is not about defying the will of the British people; it is about how sensibly we are going to give effect to it. The referendum campaign seems a long time ago now, but during it we heard endless assertions that the process of leaving the European Union would be easy, straightforward and all those things. Anyone who looks at the Bill will see with their own eyes just how wrong the people who said that were. Despite the brave face that the Secretary of State habitually puts on things, it must now be dawning on Ministers that their assertion that they would be able to negotiate the whole thing—a comprehensive agreement covering all the things we need and all the benefits we want—by the end of the article 50 process is not now going to be possible. The reason why both those assertions have failed to survive contact with reality is not for want of effort, but because of fundamental disagreements in the Government about what the policy should be, which has resulted in delay, and because the task is Byzantine in its complexity. I do not envy civil servants, who are working hard, or indeed Ministers, and I do not envy the House the task that confronts us, but we have a duty to be honest with each other and with the British people about the choices that we face, their consequences and the fact that we have to do all this against the ticking clock.

Apart from the repeal of the European Communities Act 1972, the Bill is not about whether we leave the European Union—a point the Secretary of State made in his opening speech—because that decision was taken in the referendum and given effect by the triggering of article 50, and we will leave at the end of March 2019. The Bill is about trying to ensure that our law is in shape when we leave. We all accept that there is a need to do that, and we all therefore accept that a Bill is necessary. But that does not mean that Parliament should accept this Bill, which is the 2017 equivalent of the Statute of Proclamations of 1539. I gently remind the Secretary of State that the Exiting the European Union Committee did urge him to publish the Bill in draft. Had he done so, he would be having fewer difficulties now, because its flaws and weaknesses are fundamental—they were brilliantly exposed in the speech by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer). The Bill is not about taking back control. If Ministers continue to fail to take Parliament’s role seriously, we will have to continue to prod, push and persuade or, in the case of the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), to gently threaten, so that Ministers understand that in this Parliament—this is a new Parliament; it has been christened the Back Benchers’ Parliament, and rightly so—they are going to have no choice but to listen to what Parliament has to say.

On the detail of the Bill, if they remain unamended, clauses 7, 8 and 9 would grant Ministers new and unprecedented powers. Ministers are asking us to give them a legislative blank cheque; we should not do so. How can we accept a Bill if on the one hand Ministers get up and say, “Look at the safeguards; they are in the legislation,” and on the other they propose in another part of the Bill to give themselves the power to remove every one of those safeguards, if they are so inclined? How does that build a sense of confidence and reassurance? I accept that there is a balance to be struck between giving Ministers the latitude and flexibility to do what needs to be done and Parliament having control to scrutinise and decide, but as they stand, the delegated powers do not achieve that balance, which is why the Secretary of State is going to have a very long queue of Members outside his office wanting to have a conversation. If he wants to save himself some time, he should come forward with his own amendments.

Chris Philp

It sounds as though the right hon. Gentleman agrees with the principle and thrust of what is being attempted here but has some comments on the detail and the mechanics. Will he therefore vote for the Bill on Second Reading and seek to address some of his concerns by amending it in Committee?

Hilary Benn

No, I will not—unless the Government move on this—because the flaws are so fundamental that they should go away and do their homework again. Not a single person in this Chamber does not accept that legislation is required to undertake the task; we are just saying that it is not the legislation before us.

There is a huge difference between a statutory instrument that proposes in some regulation to delete the words “the Commission” and insert the words “the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs” and a statutory instrument that will, for example, give responsibility for the oversight and enforcement air-quality legislation, which derives from an EU directive, to an existing public body. What assurance can Ministers give us that whichever body is given that responsibility will have the same effective enforcement powers as the Commission has had, including ultimately taking case to the European Court of Justice, and will give the public the same power to hold that body and the Government to account if there is a continuing lack of progress in making sure that our air is pure enough to breathe? If that is not provided for, Government cannot argue that the Bill’s aim is to produce exactly the same situation the day after we leave as existed the day before. Therefore, as many people have said, the Bill will have to produce a mechanism for sifting. We need to sift the proposals that come forward, so that we can distinguish the absolutely straightforward and non-controversial and those that raise really quite important issues of policy, so that we as Parliament can do our job.

Sir Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) (Con)

I have a very simple question for the right hon. Gentleman. Does he agree with the proposition put forward by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) that the Social Security Advisory Committee is a clear model of such a mechanism?

Hilary Benn

It was an interesting proposal, but, personally, I think that others can give advice, but in the end the sifting must be done by Parliament or a body established by Parliament and made up of parliamentarians. That is my clear view.

Anna Soubry

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the existing Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments could be that very body to do this exact work of triaging and sifting?

Hilary Benn

That would be one possibility. I hope that the Government will listen to all these suggestions and come forward with a proposal. I welcome what the Secretary of State said in response to my point about the relationship between Parliament voting on the withdrawal agreement and the exercise of the powers under clause 9. He was kind enough to say it was a logical point, so will he reflect on putting it in the Bill?

On how EU principles will be incorporated into our law and interpreted, I agree absolutely with the point made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) about the charter of fundamental rights: it needs to be brought across into our law not least because, as we have heard, the Secretary of State relied on it in the case that he brought. The same argument applies to the environmental principles that were set out in the Lisbon treaty. If Members look at the explanatory memorandum, they will see that it has an illustrative list of directly effective rights that derive from EU treaties that the Government say they intend to bring across under clause 4. However, it does not include the provisions of article 191 of the Lisbon treaty, which cover environmental principles and protection, and that will need to be remedied.

Finally, I want to turn to the state of the negotiations, which will have a huge impact on the way in which the Bill is used. The Secretary of State told Andrew Marr last Sunday that this is

“the most complex negotiation probably ever, but certainly in modern times.”

He is of course right, which raises the question: why do ministers, I am sorry to say, still pretend that a comprehensive relationship can now be negotiated in the 10 and a half months that now remain. Here we are, 15 months after the referendum and six months on from the triggering of article 50, and, as we know from the Secretary of State’s statement on Tuesday, the Government have not yet sorted out the money, citizens’ rights or Northern Ireland.

Michel Barnier has been absolutely clear that the negotiations must be completed in 10 and a bit months’ time, so that everyone involved can look at the deal. We have to take a view, as do other bodies such as the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers. The Government must now have realised that it was never going to be possible to negotiate a special bespoke deal that will cover all the issues that need to be addressed. Given that there will inevitably be many outstanding issues come the end of the talks in October 2018, and given that leaving without a deal would mean falling off a cliff edge, with all the disastrous consequences for the British economy, surely it is now plain that we must have transitional arrangements and that they will have to involve staying in the customs union and the single market for a period if we want to avoid the kind of disruption that businesses have repeatedly warned the Government about.

I realise that this self-evident truth will come as a shock and a bitter disappointment to some people. I do not know how Ministers will break it to them—presumably, gently bit by bit—but it will have to happen because only by doing this will we as a nation have the chance and the time to negotiate a comprehensive free trade and market access agreement that our businesses want and on which our economic future depends.


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