The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, which is approaching its final parliamentary stages this week, ought to be relatively uncontroversial. Its principal purpose is simply to repeal the European Communities Act 1972, the statute under which legislation emanating from Brussels passes automatically into the body of British law. It also contains a number of other provisions to ensure that, upon departure, we will have a properly functioning statute book. It is a highly technical Bill and, as Bills go, is not particularly “political”.
If there was a time for controversy, it was the passage of an earlier piece of legislation, the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill, which authorised the service of the notice under Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union of our intention to withdraw in March 2019. That Bill was indeed intensely and passionately debated, but, in the event, passed through the Commons by a majority of 494 to 122 on Third Reading.
One might, therefore, have expected that, by the time the current Bill was introduced, the heat would have dissipated and both Houses of Parliament would focus on the relatively straightforward task of producing a technically coherent piece of practical legislation. Not so. The Bill has been seized on by pro-Remain zealots – particularly in the Lords – as a vehicle for diluting, and potentially undoing, Brexit.
Last week, the Commons, in a marathon series of divisions, rejected all the anti-Brexit amendments that the Lords had made to the Bill by majorities at least in double figures; indeed, one amendment that sought to keep the UK tied into the European Economic Area was defeated by a majority of over 200. In some cases, the Commons proposed other amendments in lieu of the Lords amendments.
Today, Monday 18th June, the Bill returns to the Lords, who will have to consider whether to accept the Bill in its last amended form. I sincerely hope that they do, but am concerned that the Upper House may be tempted to continue along what is now looking like a perversely obstructionist course.
In particular, Lord Hailsham may be inclined to persevere with his ‘meaningful vote’ amendment, which seeks to trample over the doctrine of the separation of powers and have the entire Brexit process directed by the 650 members of the Commons and the 800-odd Lords if a draft withdrawal agreement is not approved by the end of November. It is hard to conceive of a recipe for greater chaos, or anything likelier to frustrate a successful conclusion to the withdrawal negotiations. I am sure that that is not what the noble Lord is trying to achieve.
The Lords really should not be pushing their amendments further; is time for them to call it a day. I have no doubt that many of them sincerely believe that Brexit is a thoroughly undesirable thing and should be stopped. Indeed, several of them make no secret of it. The cross-bencher Lord Bilimoria, for example, recently wrote a lengthy article in The Guardian in which he observed that Brexit was “like watching a train crash in slow motion. Our amendments in the House of Lords are made in the hope that we give MPs the ability to stop this crash“.
I am sure that many of Lord Bilimoria’s colleagues have similar views. But they should not continue to obstruct the progress of the Bill. They should recognise that Parliament devolved the decision as to whether we should remain in the European Union to the people of this country. In June 2016, the people voted to Leave. We have to respect and implement their decision, not try to frustrate it.
Furthermore, both Houses passed the Notification of Withdrawal Bill. When the Article 50 notice was served, the Rubicon was crossed. There can be no going back, and the duty of all parliamentarians should now be to help ensure that the process of withdrawal is as smooth and effective as possible. And, as part of that process, the Lords should now abandon their amendments.
The House of Lords is an institution that has much to recommend it. It is at its best when it fulfils its role as an advisory chamber: it has more internationally-renowned experts per square inch of red leather than any other legislative body in the world. But on this occasion, it is at risk of abusing its constitutional function. An unelected body, it is appearing contemptuous of both the referendum result and the manifesto commitments of both main parties at the last general election.
This is dangerous because there is a growing public perception that the Lords are not simply out of touch but are positively hostile to popular sentiment and actively undermining the elected chamber. The question is increasingly being asked: “What exactly are they there for?”
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