On Monday 11 September, Members of Parliament voted on the Second Reading of the EU Withdrawal Bill. Steve McCabe MP sets out why he voted against the Bill.
As is common these days, I’ve been inundated with constituents asking me to vote for or against the EU Withdrawal Bill. Those who want me to vote against fear this is an attack on democracy. Those who believe this is about Brexit have bought the Government’s argument that it must have its own way on everything, even if that’s obviously against the interests of the majority of the British people.
I’ve given this a lot of thought and sat through hours of debate because it’s a crucial piece of legislation and could change our country forever. I’ve come to the conclusion that it has less to do with leaving the EU and more to do with the risks of living in a dictatorship with a minority government.
For those who think voting against this Bill is simply an attempt to frustrate Brexit, let me point out that David Davis, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, said himself, ‘it (the Bill) does not take us out of the European Union – that is a matter for the Article 50 process’. I voted for Article 50 because I’ve already accepted that we must respect the referendum result.
Normally Parliament debates legislation and after argument and debate the government, because it has a majority from winning an election or forming a coalition, passes a new law. This Bill is different, after it has been passed ministers can change the law as they see fit without reference to Parliament. That might be why so many people are worried about it. Even former Chancellor George Osborne has called it ‘rule by decree’. That’s the kind of thing we see in places like Russia or China not the United Kingdom.
We’re not really being given much time to discuss this Bill. The Government are planning for 8 days. The Bill that took us into Europe was given 22 days and the Maastricht Treaty, which caused Tory MPs so much concern, was given 20 days.
This Bill will see ministers impose about 1000 Statutory Instruments. That’s normally the total for an entire year and spread over several pieces of legislation. Most of these Statutory Instruments will be approved by ‘negative resolution’ that means they cannot be amended and the presumption is that they should become law. It is 38 years since a ‘negative resolution’ was overturned by Parliament.
Labour isn’t changing its position about the referendum outcome; we’re fighting for the rights of the British people. Our amendment insists on proper scrutiny of this Bill, which means enough time to debate it and opposing ministerial attempts to bypass Parliament.
Clause 9 of the Bill allows a minister to make any regulations which he/she considers appropriate for the purposes of implementing the withdrawal agreement. This is sometimes called Henry VIII powers. It means ministers changing the law by regulation rather than having to get a Bill through Parliament. And if this Bill is passed, the ministers can then even amend the contents of this Bill without further parliamentary approval. Clauses 7 and 8 give ministers the same powers to deal with what they might see as ‘deficiencies’ in the law by simply rewriting the law. It means that existing laws can be changed including those passed in the Queen’s Speech which was only announced a few months ago. We’ve never had such dictatorial powers in this country, not even in wartime. Even emergency powers introduced to deal with terrorist threats have never given ministers the power to alter an Act of Parliament without getting approval of the House of Commons.
Ministers have tried to claim that we are making a fuss over nothing but many rights e.g. rights of part-time and fixed term workers; transfer of undertakings (TUPE) when a worker’s company is taken over or job transferred to a new employer and all health and safety provisions are amendable if this Bill becomes law. Some people say we’re exaggerating but Boris Johnson is on record as saying he wants an end to ‘back breaking employment regulations’. The International Development Secretary called, during the referendum, for the government to halve the amount of protection British workers currently receive and the International Trade Secretary said we must deregulate our economy and political objections must be overridden. That’s why I fear these powers.
The Hansard Society is a non-political organisation which supports parliamentary democracy. It said of Clause 17 of the Bill that it would, ‘in effect, hand the government a legislative blank cheque’ The House of Lords says that the ‘executive powers conferred by the Bill are unprecedented and raise fundamental constitutional questions about the separation of powers between Parliament and Government’ They go on to say that the Bill would, ‘fundamentally challenge the constitutional balance of power between Parliament and Government..’
I’m not opposing this Bill because of Brexit. I’m opposing it because it threatens the very basis of British democracy. I recognise the referendum outcome and I’ll defend that but I wasn’t elected to sit on the side lines while a government that failed to win the election behaves as if we are in Iran or Turkey. That’s why I could not vote with the Government on this issue.
By Steve McCabe MP, Birmingham Selly Oak