Wednesday, 30 December 2020

Democratic deficit in scrutinising Brexit Bill

These are the four best speeches in Parliament - two in the Houise of Commons, two in the Lords- this afternoon, highlighting the 'democratic deficit' in scrutinising the Brexit bill: House of Commons, 12.59pm Clive Lewis (Norwich South) (Lab) Members of this House have been recalled to vote on legislation of which we were given no sight until yesterday, to implement a trade deal that we have barely seen and had no input into whatsoever. Let us be clear about what is being asked of the House today: to issue a blank cheque to the Government to implement a deal that is devoid of democratic oversight. Let us also put to bed the idea that today’s vote is about deal versus no deal—that false framing is used to hold the House to ransom. Members are today tasked with the democratic oversight of how a done deal, which we cannot amend, will be implemented. Does the restoration of sovereignty not extend to democratic oversight by elected Members of this House, or is sovereignty to be restored only to the Executive? It is a great irony that Members are allowed less democratic oversight of the deal’s implementation than our friends in the European Parliament, who have until the end of February to scrutinise and ratify the deal. Change was what the public were promised: more control over lawmaking, more power for people in this country, and less done by bureaucrats behind closed doors. How are those promises fulfilled through less scrutiny, less accountability and less democracy? Where in the Bill is a clause restoring sovereignty to where it should rightfully be—with the people of this country? Change was demanded and more control was promised, yet what we are presented with today is, ironically, more of the same: unaccountability; power concentrated in the hands of a few; and an over-centralised Government evading scrutiny to act in favour of vested interests and to impose decisions from the top down. With mere hours to debate the Bill, Members are being asked to act as a rubber stamp, and to forgo our obligation and responsibility for democratic oversight. For example, many of the regulatory bodies and mechanisms used to settle disputes between the EU and the UK will be set up without any further scrutiny or oversight by Parliament. Brexit has shone a light on the deep democratic deficits in our arcane political system. Making good on this change demanded a new and codified constitution to give over sovereignty from this place to where it should rightfully lie—with the people of this country. We now urgently need to forge a modern democratic settlement to protect the hard-won rights and freedoms that are at risk of being run over roughshod by this Executive, who we know are champing at the bit to capitulate to the deregulatory demands of turbo-charged capitalism. I cannot in good conscience support a process that runs roughshod over checks and balances. I will not vote for more centralisation of power or comply with the erosion of an already weak democracy. I will play no part in giving this Government a blank cheque to bulldoze through democratic oversight. I will not be voting in support of this legislation. 1.25pm Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green) [V] This hardest of Brexit deals, for which there is no mandate, is one that cuts British jobs, sidelines our services sector, undermines hard-won protections for the environment, workers’ rights and consumers, and turns Kent into a diesel-stained monument to hubris and political myopia. It is a deal that condemns us to live in a poorer, more unequal and more isolated Britain, and it leaves us less equipped to rise to the greatest challenge we face—the nature and climate emergencies. This deal does not have the explicit informed consent of the British people, and I shall vote against it later today. Some will say that those of us who voted down some less-damaging forms of Brexit must take some responsibility. I can see that argument, but given such a narrow referendum result on the back of the most cynical, toxic and mendacious political campaign ever fought in this country and on an issue of such profound national importance, I believe it was right to campaign for a confirmatory referendum on the terms of any departure. I want to tackle head-on the ludicrous accusation that to vote against this deal is to support no deal. That is clearly not the case. Whatever the Opposition parties do, sadly, the Government have a majority of 80 and this deal will pass. That is why I do regret the official Opposition’s decision to vote for a deal that they themselves admit will make this country poorer and hit the most vulnerable hardest of all. Now more than ever people deserve principled leadership based on conviction, not party political calculation. While I understand why some would prefer to abstain, abstention is still acquiescence. It is standing aside and allowing something to be passed into law that is harmful for this country. There are some things so serious and so damaging in which we should not acquiesce. I am not prepared to acquiesce in the infliction of even greater economic hardship on my constituents. At this time of climate and nature emergency, I am not prepared to acquiesce in lower environmental standards and less rigorous enforcement of them. I will not be complicit in the creation of a smaller United Kingdom, with diminished global influence. I will not turn my back on a project that is imperfect—yes, of course it is; what project of such ambition would not be?—but is based on one of history’s greatest and most noble experiments: bringing nations together to build peace out of the ruins of war. Now more than ever, in a world racked by insecurity and division, we should be cementing relationships with countries that share our values, not deliberately and knowingly cutting our ties with them. I will not abandon what I believe, and I believe that leaving the EU is a profound mistake. Ironically, and too late, a majority of people in this country now agree. Voting against this deal is how we keep alive the belief in something better, and that is what I will do today. House of Lords, 3.53pm Baroness Taylor of Bolton (Lab) [V] My Lords, I speak as chair of the Constitution Committee and I say at the outset that this Bill elevates to a new level our concern about the way the Government present legislation to Parliament. The Bill fails all the tests for achieving good-quality legislation. It is long and complex and gives significant new powers to the Executive. We have not had anywhere near enough time to scrutinise the Bill as we would wish, and in any other circumstances the Constitution Committee would issue a detailed, thorough and critical appraisal of it. However, the committee did meet yesterday, and we published our immediate response. We acknowledged that the fast-tracking of the Bill is now necessary, but only because of the Government’s own actions ahead of the cliff edge of 31 December. On the substance of the Bill, we noted that a prominent argument for the UK leaving the EU was to take back control of our laws—for laws to be determined by the UK Parliament, rather than the EU’s lawmaking bodies. Asserting the sovereignty of the UK Parliament was considered of such importance that it was included in the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020. It is regrettable that the Bill, which determines how the UK’s future relationship with the EU will be implemented into UK law, was published less than 24 hours before parliamentary scrutiny was due to begin. This does not allow Parliament much by way of control. This is the core of our concern. If, as the Government say, powers are coming back from the EU, where do those powers go? Are the Executive taking all these to themselves? What does this mean for the relationship between Parliament and the Government? Can this House fulfil its constitutional responsibilities? In the Explanatory Notes, the Government say: “The Bill is not suitable for post legislative scrutiny”. We very much disagree, because the content of the trade and co-operation agreement cannot be amended by Parliament, but the mechanisms used by the Bill to rewrite UK domestic law to implement this have significant and potentially long-lasting implications, particularly for the role of Parliament and for the devolved arrangements. The Constitution Committee therefore recommends that the House consider how best to conduct post-legislative scrutiny as soon as possible. We believe that the quality of such scrutiny will be an early and substantial test of whether or not Parliament possesses a significant tranche of returned powers. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, said, this is what increased parliamentary sovereignty requires. 3.57pm Lord Purvis of Tweed (LD) My Lords, I was wondering last night what a cynical Government would do if they knew they could get only a poor deal because they had limited their own hand so much in negotiations. Leave it to the last minute? Issue inaccurate and misleading press statements when it was made? Allow only for minute scrutiny? Seek to prevent any post-legislative scrutiny and refuse to publish an impact assessment, perhaps? But, as others do, I love my country and it was a rather heartbreaking exercise, over the last few days, to read, side by side, the Conservative Government’s draft negotiating document for a free trade agreement, published on 19 May, and the final agreement. In almost every single area, from the betrayal of fishermen and Gibraltarians through to the vast new burdens on our businesses, the consistency and scale of the poor negotiating was laid bare in cold text. The independent UK Trade Policy Observatory assessment stated: “Even with the free trade agreement (FTA) announced on Christmas Eve, Brexit increases UK-EU trade costs, reduces trade between them, and requires resources for form-filling, queuing, etc. These in turn, lead to changes in consumption which reduce UK residents’ welfare.” It goes on to a sobering conclusion: “Exports of value added will fall by nearly 5.5% relative to a pre-Brexit scenario and GDP by 4.4%.” My noble friends Lord Fox and Lady Kramer will outline this in more detail. The refusal yesterday of the noble Lord, Lord True, to commit to publishing an impact assessment, in direct contradiction to a letter he sent me in May, is likely to be seen more cynically by those communities and sectors that will be impacted most. The punishing absence of services was expected, as the UK’s “red line” on securing services continuity turned to pink and then to a white flag ages ago. We knew some of the details of this already. The noble Lord, Lord Grimstone, was appointed Trade Minister from being chair of one of the UK’s biggest banks, and when he moved Barclays’ European headquarters and almost €200 billion in assets from London to Dublin last year, he said: “We believe this will give us a competitive advantage”. Those of us warning of the damage of this course were told, first, that we were scaremongering and then that we were sore losers, but I looked at the Leave.EU website archive and in the questions and answers it said this to the question of what impact leaving the EU would have on trade: “The remaining EU member states will seek a trade agreement assuring the same level of free exchange of goods, services and capital as is the case today.” They did not, and this promise was made in falsehood and fully realised in its egregious breach. However, the lies, tangled webs of deception and parliamentary obfuscations are nearly over, and we will have to deal with the consequences. Liberal forebears joined together to ensure the widest benefit of free, fair and open trade well over a century ago. We fought relentlessly against Conservative protectionism at the turn of the last century. We split from the Conservative and National Government over their imposition of tariffs all round. Now, a century on, we need to try to militate against the worst elements of this poor agreement. We will have to be in the vanguard of supporting women entrepreneurs in the service sector to tackle the new barriers, helping our businesses export against the new burdens and supporting those wishing to seek advantage not by moving out of the UK but by staying in it and working with others to reconnect with Europe. I never thought we would need to rejoin this fight, but we do—we must, and we will with vigour.

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