Parliamentary Scrutiny of Leaving the EU
On 12 October 2016 Keir Starmer, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Brexit, initiated a debate on parliamentary scrutiny of leaving the EU.
I inform the House that I have selected amendment (b) in the name of the Prime Minister.
Keir Starmer (Holborn and St Pancras) (Lab)
I beg to move,
That this House recognises that leaving the EU is the defining issue facing the UK; believes that there should be a full and transparent debate on the Government’s plan for leaving the EU; and calls on the Prime Minister to ensure that this House is able properly to scrutinise that plan for leaving the EU before Article 50 is invoked.
I will start with something I think we can all agree on. The decisions that will be taken by the Government over the next few months and years in relation to exiting the EU will have profound implications for the future of this country, its economy, its people and its place in the world. We have probably not seen a set of such significant decisions since the end of the second world war. Today’s debate is about the proper role of Parliament, and this House in particular, throughout that process. It is about scrutiny and accountability.
There was one question on the ballot paper on 23 June “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”
The majority of those voting voted to leave. That result has to be accepted and respected, notwithstanding the fact that many of us, including myself, campaigned for remain. However, that is not the end of the matter. The next question, and one that is increasingly pressing, is on what terms should we leave the EU? That question was not on the ballot paper. Nor was it addressed in the Conservative party’s 2015 manifesto—there was no plan B in the event of the referendum concluding with a leave vote. Nor did the Prime Minister set out her terms for Brexit before assuming office, because of the nature of the exercise by which she assumed that office. Nor do we have a White Paper setting out the proposed terms. Instead, hiding under the cloak of the prerogative, the Secretary of State has, until now, declined to give the House a meaningful role in scrutinising the Government’s opening terms for negotiations, and that matters.
I am glad to see that a Government amendment—amendment (b)—has been tabled. This implies that the Government are taking a step in the right direction towards scrutiny.
Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green)
I am sure that, like me, the hon. and learned Gentleman welcomes the half U-turn from the Government, allowing a debate before article 50 is invoked, but what about an actual vote? I am concerned that the amendment does not mention a vote in this House before article 50 is triggered, and that is crucial.
I will come on to the important question of a vote, but let us take one step at a time.
There is scrutiny and there is accountability. The first question is whether the Secretary of State is prepared to put the plans before the House so that Members can see them and debate them. The next question is what the House can do about them, and that is a matter of accountability. I hope that amendment (b) indicates that the Government will go further down the route of scrutiny than they have been prepared to do so far. If they are, I will not crow about it, because it is the right thing to do and it is in the national interest. We all have a duty to ensure that we get the right result for the country.
John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con)
I do hope that Labour is going set out how it would handle the negotiations.
I would happily swap places with the Secretary of State and play a part in the negotiations, but we are not in government—
I will answer the first intervention, please.
We are not in government and our manifesto did not have a referendum without a plan for exit. We need to be clear at the beginning of this exercise where responsibility for the position in which we find ourselves lies. It lies with a previous Prime Minister and a Government who had no plan for a no vote. That is why we are here today.
Rishi Sunak (Richmond, Yorks) (Con)
The hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned the terms of our exit and also national interest. I come from a business background, and I would love to get a sense of his approach to a successful negotiation. Does he believe that the national interest would be best served by the Government coming to this place and explaining in precise detail all their negotiating positions before we have even walked into the room?
I will deal with that, because that is an essential question that we need to discuss. In a sense, this should not be about point scoring across the House. We are debating a fundamental question, which is whether the basic plans for the negotiating position will be put before the House. That really matters. Of course there is a degree of detail that cannot be discussed. Of course there is a degree of flexibility that must be there in any negotiation. Of course the starting position may not be the end position. We all accept that; we are all grown up. The question here is whether the basic terms should be put before the House.
Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab)
Like the hon. Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Rishi Sunak), I also have a business background, as of course does the director general of the CBI, Carolyn Fairbairn, who said “At the moment if the commentary was to read into what we’ve heard so far, it’s that we’re heading to something of a cliff edge in two and a half years.” Does my hon. and learned Friend recognise, as I do, that there are many people in business who are very, very concerned about the lack of commentary and lack of direction from the Government?
I am grateful for that intervention. There are two aspects to today’s debate. Partly, there is the political aspect what is the role of Parliament. There is also the question of uncertainty. It is absolutely clear that, across business, across EU citizens and across the population as a whole, there is great uncertainty about what the plans are, and that uncertainty simply cannot be kept in place for the next three years. It is growing uncertainty.
Tom Pursglove (Corby) (Con)
Will the hon. and learned Gentleman set out for the House what scrutiny there was when the Lisbon treaty was ratified under the Gordon Brown Government?
There is different scrutiny for different treaties and provisions. One example is the scrutiny that was provided in relation to the original decision to go into the European Economic Community, because then, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, Command Papers were put before the House. An economic impact assessment was also put before the House, and some of the Command Papers were voted on. The idea that scrutiny cannot be done and that it was not done in the past is wrong.
Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab)
My hon. and learned Friend mentions uncertainty. I have been contacted by a business in my constituency that has, until recently, been growing very rapidly, and had plans to announce a £100,000 expansion this autumn. That has now been cancelled because of the uncertainty about our future in the single market and because of what it sees as the Government’s headlong rush to a hard Brexit. What can he say about Labour’s position to reassure those businesses across the whole of Britain that are worried about our future in the single market?
The priority should be the economy and jobs, which means access to the single market. On Monday, the Secretary of State confirmed that the Prime Minister will invoke article 50 no later than the end of March next year. Unless Parliament has a meaningful role in shaping the terms of Brexit between now and then—a maximum period of just five-and-a-half months—it will be too late. I can see what will happen. Once the negotiating process has started, there will be a claim by the Secretary of State that it would be inappropriate to put anything before the House by way of detail. Once the process is over, the risks of any debate will be purely academic.
The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union (Mr David Davis)
On a point of information, that is not correct. I have already said that it is not correct. In talking to the Lords Committee in September, I said that the House would have at least the information available to the European Parliament. What the hon. and learned Gentleman says is just not the case.
I am grateful for that intervention. I read the transcript of the Secretary of State’s evidence to that Select Committee. What was put to him was that, on one view, the European Parliament would have more answers than this Parliament. In 2010, as he knows, there was a framework agreement between the Commission and the European Parliament. It states
“Parliament shall be immediately and fully informed at all stages of the negotiation and conclusion of international agreements, including the definition of negotiating directives.”
That goes a long way further than I understood the Secretary of State’s position to be on Monday, and in his first statement. I would be very pleased to hear from him if he can confirm now that at least that part of scrutiny is guaranteed.
Mr Davis I can.
Thank you. This is a matter not just of process, but of real substance. Both those who voted to leave the EU and those who voted to remain recognise that different negotiating stances under article 50 could provide radically different outcomes, each of which carries very significant risks and opportunities. That is undoubtedly why there is a keen debate going on behind the scenes on the Government’s side. Everybody recognises the potential consequences of adopting the wrong opening stance.
Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab)
My hon. and learned Friend is making an excellent case. Does he agree that the British people may have voted to leave the European Union, but what they did not vote for is for their food to become more expensive, for the wages of low-paid workers to be hit and for jobs to be lost in the manufacturing, agricultural and banking sectors, which is what we are in danger of if we choose the wrong exit from the European Union.
I agree, and that is what is causing such great anxiety around the country. I doubt whether any Member has not been approached by constituents, either individuals or businesses, with real concerns about the situation. There are different concerns from different businesses and different individuals. I certainly have not met anyone without them—if there are MPs who have, well, so be it—and I think that the Secretary of State would recognise the deep concern across the business community and among a number of individuals, groups and communities about the uncertainty about the future .
Ms Karen Buck (Westminster North) (Lab)
I am sure that I am not alone in having many representations from individuals among the millions of EU citizens living in this country and, of course, Britons living abroad who are deeply insecure about their position. Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that it is deplorable to discuss those individuals in terms of being bargaining chips and cards that we need to play in negotiations? Do we not need to make a priority of ensuring that those individuals, with their businesses and their lives, have the security that they deserve?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and again, many of us have had anxious conversations with EU citizens who simply want to know what their position is and want some guarantees about the future.
Some models for exiting have been much discussed. The most cited are the Norwegian model, the Swiss model, the Turkish model and the Canadian model. It is unlikely that any deal reached between the UK and the EU will replicate any of those models—nor should it—but in negotiating our future relationship with the EU, the Government will be defining the future of our country, so the terms matter hugely. It is frankly astonishing that the Government propose to devise the negotiating terms of our exit from the EU, then to negotiate and then to reach a deal, without a vote in this House. This is where my opening remarks become important because, in the absence of anything in the manifesto, in the absence of anything on the referendum ballot form and in the absence of any words from the Prime Minister before she assumed office, where is the mandate? Nobody—public or in the House—
Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con) The referendum.
No, the referendum is not the mandate for the terms. We have been round this block and everybody understands the distinction. I have stood here and accepted that there is a mandate for exit. There is no mandate for the terms. It has never been put to the country; it has not even been put to the Secretary of State’s political party; and it has not been put to the House. Where is the mandate on the terms?
Mr Kenneth Clarke
Reference has been made to the Lisbon treaty, which may provide a rather useful precedent. Is the hon. and learned Gentleman aware that the policy on that treaty was debated repeatedly on the Floor of the House, beginning with the abortive European constitution. The then Government were accountable to the House for the view that they were taking towards the treaty, and the treaty itself was then debated for days on end on the Floor of the House, with repeated votes at several stages in that process. Nobody mentioned the words “royal prerogative” throughout the entire process.
I will come on to the prerogative, and I think that the treaty was debated for at least 20 days.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) Is not the prerogative absolutely key here? In 1924, when there was a Labour Government, we insisted that all treaties would be laid before the House for 21 days, so that the House and the House of Lords could take a view on them. That was the Ponsonby rule. When there was a Conservative Government, they got rid of it. When there was a Labour Government again in 1929, we put it back, and in 2010, we put it on the statute book. Is it not really worrying that Ministers have been going to the House of Lords and this Chamber and relying solely on the prerogative in relation to treaties?
It is, and I will deal with the prerogative in some detail because it is not fixed. The prerogative changes over time, and in any event, even if it may legally allow the Executive to proceed without scrutiny and accountability in the House, it does not prevent that scrutiny and accountability. It does not require the Government to proceed in that way. It is being used as cloak to avoid the scrutiny that is needed.
Alex Salmond (Gordon)
Some of us were here during the Maastricht treaty debates, when there were many votes and the Government forces of the day were brilliantly whipped by the present Secretary for Brexit in favour of the Maastricht treaty. Just to be quite clear, is the hon. and learned Gentleman—I am very much minded to support his motion—calling for a vote, not just an examination, on the terms before we send the Secretary of State off to negotiate?
Absolutely, but I take this in two stages because both are important. Scrutiny—putting the plans before the House—really matters. There is a separate argument about a vote, and I say that there should be a vote, but we must not get to a situation where, to resist the vote, the Secretary of State will not even put the plans before the House.
Mr Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con)
Is not the convention very clearly established that a major treaty change has to be triggered by an affirmative resolution of the House? The fact that that may only be a convention is still something that must be respected. After all, there are lots of conventions, such as the convention that a Government resign if they lose a vote of no confidence. That is no more than a convention, but Members might be a bit surprised if a Government were not to go in those circumstances.
The prerogative has come up so often that I will deal with it now in substance. Prerogative powers, of course, developed at a time when the monarch was both a feudal lord and Head of State. That is the origin of prerogative powers, but they have changed over time, yielding where necessary to the demands of democratic accountability. There are plenty of examples, as the Secretary of State will know, in the courts of that change in accountability, but there is also the example of the prerogative power to commit troops in armed conflict. In theory, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet retain the constitutional right to decide when and where to authorise action, but in practice Governments in recent times have ensured parliamentary debate and a vote.
Responding to the Chilcot report earlier this year, the then Prime Minister made the point during Prime Minister’s questions when he said “I think we have now got a set of arrangements and conventions that put the country in a stronger position. I think it is now a clear convention that we have a vote in this House, which of course we did on Iraq, before premeditated military action”.—[Official Report, 6 July 2016; Vol. 612, c. 881.]
A strong political convention modifying the prerogative has thus been set. The underlying premise of the development of the prerogative is clear and obvious. The more significant the decision in question and the more serious the possible consequences, the greater the need for meaningful parliamentary scrutiny. That lies at the heart of this, and it is hard to think of a more significant set of decisions with very serious possible consequences than the terms on which we leave the EU.
I will press this point because all this is well known to the Secretary of State. After all, he tabled a ten-minute rule Bill in June 1999 that was concerned with “the exercise of certain powers of Ministers of the Crown subject to control by the House of Commons”.
I shall quote his approach to the prerogative. When he introduced that Bill on 22 June 1999, the right hon. Gentleman, now of course the Secretary of State, said “Executive decisions by the Government should be subject to the scrutiny and approval of Parliament in many other areas… The Bill sets out to…make” the prerogative “subject to parliamentary approval, giving Parliament the right of approval over all Executive powers not conferred by statute—from the ratification of treaties to the approval of Orders in Council, and from the appointment of European Commissioners, some ambassadors, members of the Bank of England”.—[Official Report, 22 June 1999; Vol. 333, c. 931.]
So he has changed his position. Back then, he recognised that the prerogative ought to be subject to Parliament. It was 20 years ago, but progressive movement with the prerogative is usually in favour of greater accountability, not less, so the fact that he argued that 20 years ago is not an argument against doing it now. That Bill did not proceed, but the principles are clear and set out. The prerogative is not fixed; parliamentary practice and convention can change the prerogative, and have done so in a number of ways. In any event, I fall back on my primary point even if the prerogative permits the Government to withhold the plans from Parliament, it does not require them to, and political accountability requires the Government to put their plans before Parliament.
Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con)
The hon. and learned Gentleman misses one rather important fact there has been a vote of the British people—a vote delegated to them by the terms of the European Union Referendum Act 2015. This is the question that he has to answer suppose there was a vote in this House; how would he vote? Would he vote against article 50 invocation, or in favour? Just give a straight answer to that.
I will not take long responding to that, because I have made the point, which is that the mandate on 23 June was not a mandate as to the terms, and I think that most people understand that; I cannot put it any clearer than that. There is the question of how Members would vote, what they would vote on, and what happens if Parliament does not like the terms. The Secretary of State, in his statement on 5 September, emphasised that he would consult widely, including the devolved countries, which of course are very important in all this, and which deserve scrutiny of how exit will impact each of them. He also said he would “strive to build national consensus around our approach.”—[Official Report, 5 September 2016; Vol. 614, c. 38.] The question for the Secretary of State is how will he build consensus around his approach if he will not tell the House what his approach is?
Joanna Cherry (Edinburgh South West) (SNP)
The hon. and learned Gentleman is, of course, a first-rate lawyer of international renown, and it is a real pleasure to hear him develop his argument. I am interested in what he said about the devolved Administrations. Does he agree that the Scottish Government and other devolved Administrations should have a central role in negotiations on the UK’s terms for exiting the European Union, and will he and his party throw their weight behind that argument?
I do agree with that, absolutely, and we will throw our weight behind it. In fairness, the Prime Minister signalled that by her early visits as soon as she assumed office. I was hesitant to answer that question in case I got relegated from second to third or even fourth-rate lawyer. I will press on unless the Secretary of State is about to give me a ranking.
I was just about to say that the hon. and learned Gentleman will remember from Monday that I reiterated the support for his standing as a lawyer.
Mr Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con) rose—
I give way.
Hon. Members Apologise!
Mr Duncan Smith
I am going to. May I unreservedly withdraw the allegation that I made on Monday, only on the basis that it was clumsy? It was not meant about him; it was meant about advice. I do not for one moment doubt the hon. and learned Gentleman’s capabilities as a lawyer.
I am grateful for that, and I assure the right hon. Gentleman and the House that I was not in the slightest bit concerned, though I am very grateful to so many people who were concerned. I consider the matter closed.
Mr Duncan Smith
The hon. and learned Gentleman said that it was important for the Government to come before Parliament, specifically to lay out their negotiating position. He says that there was a simple question on the ballot paper on whether we should leave the European Union or not. Will he tell us what the simple definition is of leaving the European Union? Is it the non-application of European law?
No. There are very different models for leaving. We have to be clear about what is actually happening, because that is important when we come to the point about treaties; we are leaving one treaty and almost certainly signing new treaties, so this is not just about exiting one treaty. I have not yet met anybody who suggests that there should be no relationship between the UK and the EU. [Interruption.] No, seriously, speaking as someone who has spent five years dealing with counter-terrorism and serious criminal offences across Europe, it is inconceivable that we will not sign new treaties with the EU; to do otherwise would undermine our security. We are talking about a matter of parliamentary sovereignty, but this is not just a political point, albeit an important political point. By proceeding in this closed and secretive manner, the Government are causing huge anxiety. In the 2015 Conservative manifesto, there was a commitment to “safeguard British interests in the Single Market”, yet in recent weeks, the Government have emphasised that membership of the single market may not be a priority for Brexit negotiations. On Monday, the Secretary of State said that it was “not necessary” for the UK to remain a member of the single market. Then there was a telling exchange between him and my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting), who put to him the words of the Foreign Secretary on EU citizens. The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union answered—I will give the full answer, because I was struck by this at the time—as follows “The simple answer is that we will seek to get the most open, barrier-free market that we can. That will be as good as a single market.”—[Official Report, 10 October 2016; Vol. 615, c. 65.]
It is always hard to know when the Secretary of State is busking, but if that is the position, that is a significant statement and position, and it elides with the approach apparently taken by the Prime Minister, who increasingly appears to have extrapolated from the leave vote that there is an overwhelming case for a hard Brexit that does not prioritise jobs or the strength of our economy.
I congratulate the hon. and learned Gentleman on taking a factual tone in this important debate. I would like to reassure him that many of us on the Government Benches will do all we can to preserve the benefits of access to the single market for our local businesses. May I remind him that seven out of 10 Members from his party represent constituencies that voted to leave the EU? The pragmatic, rather than procedural, approach is in the Government’s amendment, which suggests that it would be negotiating madness for this House to give blow-by-blow scrutiny to the terms of exit. Why does he not vote for the Government’s amendment, which achieves what we all want—not a hard or a soft Brexit, but a smart Brexit?
I am grateful for that intervention, and for the indications about the single market. I know that there is a lot of shared concern across the House about the terms of exit. Obviously, I have looked at the amendment; may I make it plain that nothing in the motion is intended to undermine or frustrate the vote on 23 June, or frustrate the negotiations? We all understand that negotiations have to take place. There will of course have to be a degree of confidentiality, but that does not prevent the plans—the basic outline and broad terms—being put before the House. That is why I am waiting to hear what the Secretary of State says. I heard the tail end of Prime Minister’s questions, and the Prime Minister indicated that we have had two statements from the Secretary of State, and there was a Select Committee—
Two Select Committees.
I said two statements. [Interruption.] Oh, two Select Committees; well, whatever. If all the amendment means is that we will get similar statements to the two that we have already had, that does not give me much comfort. If we will get more than that, then we shall see.
Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC)
I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman for giving way, and for some of the points that he has made. Will he use this opportunity to outline clearly the Labour party’s position on single market membership? Yesterday in the Evening Standard, there was a warning from the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, against a “hard Brexit”, and he has said that a departure from the single market would be “deeply irresponsible”; I agree fully. Two weeks ago, in the National Assembly for Wales, we had the Labour Government voting with the Tories and the UK Independence party against single market membership. What is the Labour party’s policy on single market membership?
Best access to the single market. I was on the subject of uncertainty. There has been understandable uncertainty in business, universities, and trades unions, and among investors, including among people on both sides of the referendum divide. The head of the CBI has warned that hard Brexit could “close the door on an open economy”.
An open letter signed by business leaders cautioned last week that “leaving the EU without any preferential trade arrangement and defaulting to trading by…WTO rules would have significant costs for British exporters and importers”.
It is not just institutions that are concerned. So far, the Government have made broad statements on the principle of protecting the rights of EU citizens already living here. In his statement to the House on Monday, the Secretary of State suggested that the Government are doing everything possible to underwrite and guarantee the position of EU citizens resident in the UK, and at the same time seeking to do the same with British nationals living in other parts of the EU. That constructive tone is at odds with statements made by other Government Ministers, most notably the Secretary of State for International Trade. Speaking at an event at the Conservative conference in Birmingham last week, he told party members that “we would like to be able to give a reassurance to EU nationals in the United Kingdom”, but that that depended on the way in which other countries proceeded. He said that “to give that away before we get into the negotiation would be to hand over one of our main cards”.
That is treating EU citizens as bargaining chips. That is not good enough many EU citizens have been in the UK for years or even decades, and they deserve better treatment.
The Government should end this uncertainty in the market and among the people. They should set out their plans before the House at the earliest opportunity. We accept that concern about immigration and freedom of movement was an important issue in the referendum and that, in light of the result, adjustments to the freedom of movement principle have to be part of the negotiating process. We must establish fair migration rules as part of our new relationship with the EU, but no one voted on 23 June to take an axe to the economy or to destroy jobs and livelihoods.
Gloria De Piero (Ashfield) (Lab)
A clear majority in Ashfield voted out, and I respect that. Ashfield is an ex-mining community. The good economic times never felt as good up there; the bad times were felt. We do not have enough good jobs, so is it not imperative that we do not lose the good jobs that we do have?
I could not agree more. Concerns over freedom of movement must be balanced by concerns over jobs, trade and the strength of our economy. Striking that balance and navigating our exit from the EU will not be an easy process, and it will require shrewd negotiating. The Government must not give up on the best possible deal for Britain before they have even begun. They must put the national interest first and not bow to pressure from Back Benchers for a hard Brexit. That means prioritising access to the single market, protecting workers’ rights, ensuring that common police and security measures are not weakened, and ensuring that all sectors of our economy are able to trade with our most important market. It also means bringing the British people together as we set about leaving the EU.
I touched on the tone of discussions on Monday. Many people are appalled at the language that has been used in relation to exiting the EU. An essential step in that process is to publish the basic plans for Brexit and to seek the confidence of the House of Commons. The motion is intended to ensure that scrutiny and accountability. I will listen, of course, to what the Secretary of State says about his amendment.
Mr David Davis
On a point of information, does the motion require the guarantee of a vote? Is he after a prior vote?
I have made it absolutely clear that I am pressing for a vote. This exercise will obviously go on for some time, and we will have plenty of skirmishes. I am anxious that, first, we have proper scrutiny and also a vote. What I do not want to do is jeopardise the scrutiny by a vote against the vote. Anyone on either side of the House who wants scrutiny can happily support the motion, and I will listen carefully what the Secretary of State says about the amendment.
This is a serious challenge, and these are the most important decisions for a generation. The role of the House is a fundamentally important issue, and we have to ensure that it is compatible with scrutiny and accountability.