Dick Newby: Withdrawal Bill exhibits Government’s arrogance and incompetence

As the EU Withdrawal Bill hits the House of Lords, here is Dick Newby’s speech in full:

It is now a year since Your Lordships House began its debate on the Bill triggering Article 50 and 10 months since the Article was triggered.

It is generally agreed that both the withdrawal agreement and the agreement on our future relations with the EU have to be concluded before the end of the year and so we are approximately half way through the entire period available for our exit negotiations. What has been achieved so far?

My Lords, Virtually nothing.

The Government has formally agreed on the future rights of EU citizens living in the UK, but this was something which from day one it said was going to do. It has agreed on a divorce bill – but again the Prime Minister had long been clear the Government was going to do so, even if some members of her Cabinet were not.

And on the status of Northern Ireland it has agreed a form of words which, far from settling the matter, are interpreted in a completely different way in Ireland from the gloss put on them here in London, as I discovered in a range of discussions I had in Dublin last week.

On our future relationship with the EU, beyond bland and meaningless platitudes, we have nothing.

In December we were told that the Cabinet would have agreed on our future trading relationship with the EU during January. Well January has come and virtually gone and there is still no sign of such a decision, or anything approaching one.

And the Prime Minister is now so cowed by a fractious and disunited Cabinet that she daren’t even make a speech on the subject. My Lords there are many Noble Lords in Your Lordships House with longer experience of governments than me, but I doubt whether any of them will have seen a Prime Minister and a Government in such a state of paralysis.

And in the real world, our growth rate has fallen from the highest in the G7 to the lowest, the head of the OBR describes the economy as “weak and stable” and the Government’s own assessments of the impact of Brexit on the economy are uniformly negative.

It is against this background that we begin our consideration of the Withdrawal Bill.  Of course it was never intended to be the Withdrawal Bill. It was supposed to be the Great Repeal Bill. That is until the Commons Clerks object to the use of the word Great. They could equally have objected to the word repeal, because this bill is not a repeal bill. It is a transfer bill, taking the whole bulk of existing EU legislation and turning it into domestic legislation.

ML whilst it is easy to dismiss the kerfuffle about the Bill’s title with a smile, it is very revealing of the Government’s overall approach to the Brexit process. It can be characterised as a combination of arrogance and incompetence which is now threatening the future of our country. And the background ticking of the clock is getting louder by the day. 

This Withdrawal Bill exhibits the arrogance and incompetence of the Government in equal measure.  And because of this the Government have turned a Bill which though very important, is essentially a technical measure of transferring legislative powers, into one of constitutional and political crisis.

Before turning to the Bill’s deficiencies I should make it clear that we on these benches have no intention of derailing it or unnecessarily spinning out debate. We will, as with any other piece of legislation, seek to scrutinise it carefully and where we feel it necessary, seek to amend it. We are fortified in this approach by the comments made from around the House during the Report Stage in the Commons.

Not everyone went quite as far as the Rt Hon Kenneth Clarke who said that “I hope and believe that the other place will make an enormous number of changes to the Bill” and that “I hope that the House of Lords will throw back some of the bizarre extension of the Henry VIII principle in this Bill.” But MPs from all benches, including some leading supporters of Brexit, accepted that the House of Lords had the right and the duty to make changes. I hope that we will not disappoint them.

My Lords the Bill is an extremely technical Bill and does not make for easy reading. But amidst the technicalities I see four broad areas where changes are warranted.

First on substance. The Bill does more than its ostensible remit, in seeking to make substantive change to legislation or allowing for that to happen as legislation is translated into UK law.

The most obvious example of this is the disapplication of the European Charter of Fundamental Rights but it extends to allowing any change to any piece of EU legislation which the Government thinks is merely “appropriate” i.e. virtually anything at all.

Second, the Bill gives Ministers the power to make an extraordinarily wide range of changes by statutory instrument and also to undermine the role of the devolved administrations.
This unprecedented extension of executive powers, including Henry VIII powers is not limited to this Bill, but characterises all the Government’s Brexit legislation.

What the Government is seeking to do across the piece– and we saw it in the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill – is to bypass all normal Parliamentary rules and scrutiny. And this is not simply in order to make technical changes, but in areas where primary legislation is the accepted norm – whether creating new public bodies, introducing new criminal charges or imposing new taxes, fees and charges.

Some 1000 statutory instruments are apparently required to implement the Bill, yet it is unclear how such a deluge is to be managed and how we ensure that adequate scrutiny of these instruments is achieved. The Commons has inserted a sifting mechanism into the Bill but this is a very weak provision and does not apply to the Lords.

As for the devolved administration, the Government has repeatedly asserted that it would bring forward proposals to rectify what is currently seen as an unacceptable power grab – including by Conservative members of the Scottish Parliament. So far it has failed to do so.
It is therefore hardly surprising that the Bill has been described by the Constitutional Affairs Committee of YLH as “fundamentally flawed in multiple ways” and “constitutionally unacceptable”.

Third, we need to reduce the uncertainty and lack of clarity in the Bill about the status of the transposed law. In this respect, the extent to which UK courts should take account of evolving EU law needs to be clearer.

And the final area of inadequacy relates to what happens if a Brexit deal is reached. The Government has consistently attempted to constrain the role of Parliament at this point. The Bill as it stands fails to give Parliament a meaningful vote if no deal is reached and unnecessarily states that exit date will be 29 March next year, unless a Minister decides otherwise.

The Bill and the Government still also refuses to countenance the idea that, having fired the starting gun for the Brexit process, the people as a whole should decide whether the Government has produced a deal which they find acceptable. My Lords, opponents of a referendum on any Brexit deal have argued that such a vote would frustrate the will of the people.

Yet, as of today, polls show that the people wish to have such a referendum, and that they are likely to vote to remain in the EU. My Lords those of us who argue that the people should decide this issue are representing the views of the majority. The onus is therefore now on those who oppose such a vote to explain on what democratic basis they now do so.

I am sure My Lords that there will be other important technical issues on which your lordships will wish to improve the Bill and that there will be amendments which will seek to help the Government to define exactly what kind of relationship it wishes to have with the EU were Brexit to happen.

My Lords, if there is one overriding fear which I suggest NL should have in their minds as we debate this Bill, it is this. The Government has no substantive policy on what Brexit would mean in practice.

We are hurtling towards 29 March with no hand on the steering wheel. The Government appears to hope to get to the other side of Brexit by muddling through until the last minute, then leaving many of the critical issues covered by a thick layer of ambiguity in any end of year agreement.

It then hopes to ram this pig in a poke deal through Parliament, and the legislative process, by Ministerial fiat. This is to sell Parliament and the people short. It will not do. And we must and I believe will prevent it.

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5 Comments

  • Katharine Pindar 30th Jan '18 - 9:35pm

    How encouraging it is to read this powerful speech, and know that the Liberal Democrat voice is being heard loud and clear in the Lords, as our peers work to withstand the Government’s grab for greater power and oppose its delusion of a good outcome being possible if we do indeed leave the EU.

  • I also welcome this powerful speech. I am beginning to think that Brexit is largely nothing to do with Brexit. In other words it is being used, like the referendum, to further the Conservative’s agenda on a whole range of issues like public ownership, human rights and the free market. I welcome Dick’s commitment to amend and reject it with all the forces at his disposal.

  • Barry Lofty 31st Jan '18 - 2:45pm

    I also agree with the other comments about Dick Newbys speech, it has renewed my flagging confidence that we remainders are being sidelined in the media, if only the speech could have been more broadly reported!

  • Sue Sutherland 31st Jan '18 - 2:56pm

    I don’t agree with having an unelected House of Lords but I’m so glad we’ve got quite a few of them. They are an asset we may not be utilising properly but at the moment they’re a breath of fresh air in the party.

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