Iain Duncan Smith is a former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, founded the Centre for Social Justice, and is MP for Chingford and Woodford Green.
On Thursday last week, we started debating the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, once termed the Great Repeal Bill. Yet by the time this column gets published, some five days on, the result of the vote will only just have been announced. Five days where much of the debate inside the House of Commons was calm, considered and worth listening to, whereas a great deal of the frantic – and at times hysterical – reporting in the broadcast and print media was not. It reminded me that when it comes to the great issues that must be decided, Parliament often rises to the occasion. Even though there have been great differences on this issue, there was much in the debate to give the Government food for thought before the committee stage.
However, of one thing I am clear: the Labour Party’s decision to oppose the Bill at Second Reading is transparently about tactical positioning and not in the public interest. Their position hinges on their claim that this is the greatest power grab by a government in modern times. By using what is often referred to as Henry VIII powers, they maintain that the Government is extending their power and will abuse it to make changes to the legislation they are importing from the body of EU law, or, worse, they claim that the Government will be tempted to use these powers to change important domestic laws such as criminal law, without reference to Parliament. For this reason they are voting against the Second Reading of the Bill.
However, they are wrong – for the Second Reading of a Bill is essentially about the principle enshrined in the Bill. In this case it is to re-write existing EU legislation into UK law in time for our departure from the EU, to avoid the chaos of legal uncertainty as we leave for individuals and businesses. Even the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution made it clear in their report that they accepted the need to use such powers to get the required changes through in time (whilst questioning whether sufficient safeguards were in place).
It has always been accepted that to vote against Second Reading is to express opposition to the purpose of a Bill. As this Bill is about our departure from the EU, Labour’s vote calls into question their election pledge to support Brexit. The way they should have expressed any legitimate concerns would have been to have made their arguments and then abstained on the Second Reading, with the reservation that they would seek to amend it if the Government failed to make sufficient changes.
This argument was bravely made by Caroline Flint, who reminded Labour that at the last election they had stood on a platform supporting the decision to leave, and that voting against the Second Reading was tantamount to reneging on their election pledge.
This brings me to where there was a degree of consensus, particularly from Conservatives who occupy different sides of the Brexit debate. As Peter Lilley pointed out last week, Section 2 of the European Communities Act 1972 granted much greater powers to successive governments for 40 years to change British law at will to accommodate EU law. So although the granting of such powers has a precedent, it would be wrong to dismiss legitimate concerns about the need for some checks against their excessive use. After all, once we leave, the purpose of taking back control is that Parliament should re-establish the supremacy it lost 40 years ago.
Notwithstanding the legitimate need of the Government to get the changes through swiftly (after all, there are some 20,000 pieces of legislation that need to be resolved before we leave), they need also to re-assure Parliament that they are making no change to the purpose and effect of the legislation. It has to be accepted that debating large amounts of such legislation in the chamber of the Commons would take a vast amount of time and create chaos in the legislative programme. I have proposed a way through this which I believe satisfies the need for scrutiny as well as with the need for speed.
I pointed out that there is scope, when we get to the committee stage, to create a body similar to the existing Social Security Advisory Committee (an external committee made up of experts advising the Government on elements of legislation). Until the powers granted in this Bill ceased to exist, such a body would be tasked to review legislation brought forward under these powers and assess whether the proposed changes would result in the new UK law having no more effect than the EU law it seeks to replace. Should they advise otherwise, the Government would take their concerns into consideration and amend their draft Instrument accordingly. Such a process would take the raw politics out of the debate and help reassure legislators that the government is being true to their word concerning the use of such powers. It would also help ensure that these vital legislative changes face no unnecessary delays. This wouldn’t stop a parliamentary committee raising concerns about the changes proposed but would at least inform the process in a dispassionate manner.
As Ken Clarke pointed out whilst calling for greater scrutiny, the simple truth is that the vast majority of the Government’s proposed regulation changes will pass through speedily, but what is needed is a process to flag up those exceptional items where the change proposed would need remedial alteration.
That is why I believe if there is good intent it will be possible to achieve some consensus on this Bill, so that the Government gets its changes in a timely manner and the UK can leave the European Union in an orderly manner.
I believe Flint spoke for many when she questioned Labour’s outright opposition to the Bill whilst pointing out the need to modify the checks and balances contained within it. Instead of playing political games, that would have been the better and more reasoned course to take.