Yesterday, the House of Commons hold a General Debate concerning legislating for the withdrawal agreement. During the debate Sir William Cash made the following speech and interventions:
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union (Suella Braverman): I beg to move,
That this House has considered legislating for the withdrawal agreement.
It is a great pleasure to open this debate. The Government published the White Paper on legislating for the withdrawal agreement in July, and the Secretary of State made a statement subsequently. Over the summer, we have made further progress in the negotiations, and the vast majority of the withdrawal agreement has now been agreed. Progress has been made across a range of outstanding separation issues. At the same time, we continue to work on backstop arrangements to deal with issues relating to the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. Let me reiterate: it is unacceptable for a customs border to be drawn along the Irish sea, as that would be a direct threat to the territorial integrity of this country.
Sir William Cash (Stone) (Con): In the context of the exchanges that we had in the European Scrutiny Committee last Wednesday with the Secretary of State, can the Minister throw some light on how people will know, when there are changes to the rulebook, what those changes are going to be? What certainty will that provide, when in practice those changes will be decided by 27 other member states behind closed doors and without even so much as a transcript?
Suella Braverman: My hon. Friend raises an important point. He will know as well as I do that Council directives and regulations that will come into effect in the UK during the implementation period are currently going through the scrutiny process in the EU, so we will have played a part in the development of many of those rules that might come into effect—
Sir William Cash: rose—
Suella Braverman: If I may finish my point, I will then give way. For rules where we feel that there may be an adverse effect or on which we have not had sufficient say, we are committed to enabling parliamentary scrutiny, and we are looking forward to discussing those options with Members.
Sir William Cash: My hon. Friend has just conceded that there will be a joint committee. She did not specifically say that, but that is how things will work in practice. I am talking about changes to the rulebook. If the 27 member states decide something and we accept it by way of international obligation, I do not see how we can prevent it. The parliamentary lock will simply be a farce.
Suella Braverman: When it comes to the implementation period, the withdrawal agreement, in its draft treaty form, contains agreed provisions on a joint committee. That committee could be a forum for resolving the issue to which my hon. Friend alludes. I hope that that provides some reassurance that there is an element of governance that commands some confidence and legitimacy in this process.
Significantly, from March 2019 and during the implementation period, the UK will not be a member state of the European Union. As a result, for the first time in 40 years, we will have the freedom we need to strike new trade deals with global partners—a freedom that builds on our long and proud history as a great trading nation and a champion of free trade with all parts of the world. Important work is already under way to maximise such opportunities. In July, the Department for International Trade launched consultations to inform the Government’s approach to trading with the US, Australia, New Zealand and potentially to seeking accession to the comprehensive and progressive agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. I am excited that those opportunities for the UK are drawing ever closer.
To give effect to the implementation period in domestic law, the withdrawal agreement Bill must ensure that EU law continues to have the same effect in the UK as it does now for the duration of the implementation period. The House will be aware that the current mechanism by which EU law is brought into UK law is the European Communities Act 1972, which will be repealed on 29 March 2019 when we leave the EU as prescribed in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018—a vital step in our exit. The Bill will require a strictly time-limited transitional provision so that the legal effect of the ECA is saved until 31 December 2020, at which point the implementation period will end. That will reflect the UK’s unique status as a country that has left the EU but which, for a strictly time-limited period, will continue to apply EU law as it does now, to the benefit of citizens and businesses.
Sir William Cash: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was in the House at the time, but it may be of some interest to him that I made this very point on 18 July, just as the House was about to rise for recess, because there is a real inconsistency. After all, the White Paper came out on 12 July, yet the European Union (Withdrawal) Act, including the repeal of the 1972 Act in section 1, went through only around 14 days before.
Sir William Cash (Stone) (Con): I have made the point today—I have made it in previous debates—that it would not be satisfactory at all to accept the Chequers proposals. I shall explain why in relation to the particular arrangements under the White Paper.
First, while the White Paper contemplates saving the European Communities Act 1972 only during the implementation period, there are some very specific instances in which EU law will continue beyond the implementation period. The Government have already conceded in principle that some specific European Court jurisdiction will continue after the end of the implementation period, and that, of course, includes citizens’ rights. The withdrawal agreement, however, also includes other areas for which that would be the case, such as in relation to pending cases in which the facts arose before the end of the implementation period. Furthermore, continuing participation in EU agencies could entail automatic acceptance of the European Court’s decisions.
The Government say that they are going to save the European Communities Act in part. That is all very well but, as I said in my presentation of the arguments last Wednesday during the European Scrutiny Committee’s proceedings with Mr Olly Robbins and the Secretary of State, the reality is that within a mere 14 days of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 receiving Royal Assent, a White Paper was introduced on saving parts of the 1972 Act even beyond the implementation period in circumstances that I find not just weird but thoroughly unacceptable.
John Redwood: Paragraph 89 in chapter 1 of the future partnership White Paper says:
“The UK will seek reciprocal arrangements on the future rules around some defined elements of social security coordination.”
Does my hon. Friend share my fear that that may also involve jurisdiction over our banking system?
Sir William Cash: That is part of the same problem. I am afraid that there are some really very difficult questions that Ministers and the Government have to answer. I put all this to the Prime Minister immediately after 6 July, when the Chequers proposals came through. I questioned whether we could in fact reconcile the Chequers proposals with the European Communities Act 1972, and the reality is that we cannot. We may then say that we have an agreed implementation period to give certainty to businesses. However, as I pointed out in an intervention, it does not create certainty for business on product standards, for example, because anyone who knows anything about the workings of the European scrutiny system knows that decisions are quite often taken by officials in such things as working groups and then are effectively rubberstamped by Ministers. Furthermore, under the existing arrangements, decisions are taken behind closed doors without any transcripts of the proceedings.
Businesses need to wake up to this. They are told that they will have greater certainty, but do they really know and understand anything about how the system functions in practice? In practice, decisions are taken by consensus, because everybody knows what the outcome will be before they even walk in the room, but we will not even be there in relation to the common rulebook, so how can the Government provide business with certainty when they do not know what changes might be made to that rulebook? Moreover, people in business will have absolutely no idea why changes are being imposed on them because there is no transcript of proceedings.
Furthermore, a problem exists in relation to the scrutiny that will take place, because the so-called provisions of the joint committee represent no more than consultation. There will be no right for us to refuse to do something—I will come to the parliamentary lock in a moment—as the reality is that consultation means no more than saying, “We will listen to what you say,” but it does not mean that anyone will act. Anyone who is foolish enough to believe the European Union, given its background, its bullying tactics and the way in which it has operated over the past months and even before, needs to realise that the decisions will be taken by the other member states and that we will effectively have no real control over them whatsoever. That is a really serious problem.
John Redwood: Is not it also the case that, far from ending business uncertainty, the Chequers proposals create another 21 months of perpetual renegotiation, thereby maximising uncertainty?
Sir William Cash: That is completely true. I am very concerned about the suggestion that the Chequers proposals somehow or other end up creating more certainty—it is just not the case.
Peter Grant: When I was in the Netherlands with the Exiting the European Union Committee a few months ago, we had the opportunity to meet members of the Dutch Parliament’s equivalent committee. Halfway through that meeting, we had to stop because the Dutch Members were called to a vote. The Dutch Parliament had an absolute, binding vote on how its fisheries Minister would conduct himself or herself at an EU Fisheries Council vote later that week. The equivalent process in the United Kingdom is that the European Scrutiny Committee expresses a view, and then the Minister ignores it and does what he or she likes, and nobody can touch a Minister as a result. Is not it the case that the reason why so much EU legislation appears to be done over the heads of the people in the United Kingdom is because it is done over the heads of those in this Parliament? Other EU countries have much better parliamentary oversight of what their Ministers are up to than the United Kingdom?
Sir William Cash: I am bound to say that the system in this House involved much more transparency. For example, we do not have decisions taken by Parliaments that are determined by proportional representation. We do not have a system under which there are no transcripts of the proceedings. In this House, the Bills that go through Parliament set out all the provisions, and all legislation is subject to amendment by both Houses. Everything is printed. Hansard is available. Proceedings are filmed and shown on the parliamentary channel. People know where and how decisions are taken. The proposed joint committee will be no more than a consultative operation, and that does not mean that anything will come out of it.
A letter from the Secretary of State was put before my Committee on 5 September—more or less as we sat down that morning—regarding the discussions that we were going to have with Mr Olly Robbins and the Secretary of State. The letter says that there will be a
“working assumption that we would continue with the current model for providing written evidence to the committees through Explanatory Memoranda”.
My Committee is quite clear that that will not be anything like early enough. We want to know that we are going to get an explanatory memorandum at a very early stage. With regard to the scrutiny of the EU’s legislative proposals during the proposed joint committee procedure, the Secretary of State goes on to say:
“we will work closely with Parliament to agree upon a scrutiny system which, in the first instance, facilitates Parliament’s role in scrutinising EU proposals that may affect the UK during the implementation period.”
There is nothing, of course, about the fact that the process will go on afterwards. This is a pig in poke. We do not know what the scrutiny system will be, but we are being asked to approve it. Today’s debate is just a foretaste of what is to come. Working closely with Parliament to agree a scrutiny system but not actually telling us how the joint committee will work in practice is absolutely fundamental in this debate.
In the letter, the Secretary of State goes on to say:
“Given the way the EU’s legislative process works, most Council directives and regulations which will come into force during the implementation period have already been agreed or are being negotiated now, while the UK is still a Member State.”
Now, I know that the Minister referred to that point in her opening statement but, unfortunately, this does not deal with changes to the rulebook.
Let us suppose that it is the case that the 27 member states—with us not even at the table—will be able to make changes themselves and then effectively impose them on us, and that we are going to have a committee system. That system has not yet been agreed with us, and the details of it are extremely obscure but involve no more than consultation. If that is the case, when the negotiation of treaty obligations has been completed and we have entered into international obligations, which is what this will amount to, how on earth are we supposed to accept it when we—or the Committee or Committees scrutinising those questions—are then told, “Oh, this has all been agreed by international obligation behind closed doors”? We will have accepted the fact that that something will happen, but we will not actually be in a position to do anything about it at all. We are not merely buying a pig in a poke; we are also being bound and shackled by European law, and I have not even touched on the question of the arbitration arrangement.
Although I am in favour of arbitration in principle, the real question is whether it will be subject to European Court of Justice interpretation. I do not have time to go into all that today, but I simply put it on the table that that is a really serious problem. I know that the matter is currently under discussion, but it looks very much as if we will be buying into a reshackling of our Parliament and our businesses. The certainty that is being offered would be absolutely catastrophic if, in fact, the process went wrong and rules were imposed on us. That is what I am most concerned about in this context.
As for the parliamentary lock, the Prime Minister herself, in a pamphlet published by Politeia in 2007, was very explicit about the failures of the European system of oversight in the UK Parliament. Anyone can read it for themselves. All I am saying is that it is absolutely catastrophic. I have been on the European Scrutiny Committee for 33 years, and not once in all that time—and certainly not at any time before that—has Parliament ever overturned an EU decision that has been taken in the Council of Ministers. What confidence could we possibly have that that would ever happen, particularly as the Prime Minister said herself in her pamphlet that parliamentary sovereignty in this context was a fiction?
It is all very well to fall back on the concept that under our constitution we have the power to overturn legislative arrangements by Act of Parliament—that no Parliament can bind its successors and the rest of it. However, if, in practice, as with the European Communities Act in the first place, we voluntarily agree that we are going to accept what is being done, that situation is made worse by the context—a referendum in which the British people agreed by common consent that we will leave the European Union, with the Government accepting that; and the fact that the European Union Referendum Act 2015 was passed by Members of the House of Commons by six to one and the withdrawal Act was passed by 499 to 120, or whatever it was. It is crystal clear that we should be in control of making of our own legislation on our own terms, not supplicants to the European Union.
What this is all about is that we are supplicants to the European Union, and I put that to the Secretary of State and Mr Olly Robbins. We are going to the European Union and saying, “What is it that you are prepared to give us?” And that is just not good enough. I say that because, apart from anything else, under this White Paper, the scrutiny process—during the implementation period and even afterwards—leaves us extremely exposed. That is the problem. It leaves us in a position whereby we are effectively engaging in a form of legal re-entry into the European Communities Act 1972. I do not believe—I have to say this in all candour—that the Government did not know that. I believe that they did know it, unequivocally, before the repeal of the ’72 Act was passed via the withdrawal Act’s Royal Assent. No one is going to kid me that the White Paper, which was produced 14 days later, did not get written in anticipation that we were going to repeal the ’72 Act through section 1 of the withdrawal Act at the end of June but then end up undermining that repeal within a matter of 14 days. I find that absolutely extraordinary. It was Chequers that did it. Up until Chequers, I was 100% behind the Government. Chequers ended up undermining the basis of the collective responsibility, as I understand it, of members of the Cabinet, because they did not know about that either.
I come back to the simple point: this is an unacceptable arrangement. We do not know how the joint committee will to operate. We have no confidence whatever that it is going to be more than a mere consultation, and what is COREPER going to be doing about all this in the meantime?
There is much more that I could say, but others want to speak. I regard this as a very, very serious breach of trust. I am afraid that that is the basis on which I approach this debate. I think that a lot of people outside—the punters; the real people of this country—know and understand this. We decided on 23 June 2016 that we would leave the European Union. We did not agree that we were going to come back with some form of legal re-entry to satisfy the whims of the European Union, and particularly the country that dominates it most—namely, Germany.
Sir William Cash: Of course, there is a simple reason for that. First, Germany calls all the shots in the European Union; and secondly, it hides behind the euro currency and therefore has an enormous trade advantage, as Mr Trump has identified. That is demonstrated by Office for National Statistics figures that show that we run a deficit with the EU27 member states of about £80 billion, and Germany has a surplus of £104 billion a year.
Peter Grant: An alternative explanation might be that Germany has had a succession of Governments who actually believe in investing in the long-term stability and sustainability of its economy, whereas the United Kingdom, for decades, has not had Governments with the ambition, the imagination or the long-term vision to do so.
In answer to a question from an Opposition Member about the 65 trade deals that we are currently party to, thanks to our membership of the European Union, the Minister suggested that the European Union has already agreed that all those 65 deals will be extended to a non-EU member after we have left. Well, the European Union might have agreed to do that. However, it does not have the right to do it unilaterally, because every one of those 65 deals has got somebody on the other side of the table, so the second signatories to all those 65 deals will have to be asked if they agree as well. Some of them will agree, but if any one of the 65 says no, we are immediately in a worse bidding position than we are as part of the European Union. Anyone who suggests that we can replicate all those 65 trade deals by March 2019 or December 2020, or at any time when most of us are still active in politics, is being wildly optimistic. It is almost as ridiculous as suggesting that these negotiations will be the easiest trade deals in history and it will be all done and dusted within six months. (…)
Sir William Cash: Will my right hon. Friend remind the hon. Lady and the House that a pamphlet was put out by the Government during the referendum campaign that explicitly said, “This decision will be yours”? There was no question of its being decided by Members of Parliament. We operate by a system of parliamentary government, not government by Parliament.
John Redwood: Indeed, but let us press on.
My worry is about the Chequers proposal—and it is only a proposal; it is not a deal or an agreement—which was set out in the future relationship White Paper, and the consequent White Paper about how such an agreement, were one to arise, would be handled and implemented by this Parliament. My worry, and I think it is the worry of many leave voters and some remain voters, is that, having voted to get rid of treaty law—to dismiss the European Union treaty because we had not enjoyed living under its tentacles—the Government now suggest we need another two European treaties to replace the one that we are getting rid of. We are mightily suspicious of treaty law. Why are we so suspicious of it? Because the original treaty, the treaty of Rome, masqueraded as a free trade agreement, which is how it was sold to the British people in the long-distant 1975 referendum, but by accretion and development, over which the British people had no control, it changed—through Nice, Amsterdam, Maastricht and Lisbon—into a massive panoply of laws and controls and completely changed our constitutional structure, without the people ever having a proper vote on that process until the most recent referendum.
We know from our experience here that this became what I call a puppet Parliament. In dozens and dozens of crucial areas where we might like to legislate, we had no power to legislate independently of the European Union whatsoever. In all those massive areas—not just trade and business, but the environment, social policy, employment policy and even foreign affairs—we had to legislate in the way the European Union laid down. Quite often, many Members of Parliament and many members of the public disagreed with that way. Quite often, it was an area where the Government had either lost a vote or did not bother to hold one because they knew they were going to lose as they were in disagreement with other member states. It was that above all else that the British public rejected in the historic vote in 2016. They said to Members of Parliament, “Collectively, you often make a mess, we don’t always approve of you and we are very critical of you, but you are our MPs” and the joy the public have is that they can fire us if we really annoy them or we get it wrong, whereas the European Union often strongly annoys them and gets it wrong and there is absolutely no one they can, directly or indirectly, have fired because it is a system that the UK cannot control and has to receive. We are, therefore, very suspicious of the idea of more treaty law.
One of the things that makes this debate very difficult for a neutral observer to come to a sensible view on is the abuse of language and the scare stories that seem to characterise most of what passes for debate on these important issues. I do not for one moment believe that there is a cliff edge and I do not for one moment believe that we would leave the European Union with no agreements. There will be lots of agreements. We have always had lots of agreements: there are lots of business-to-business agreements, business-to-individuals agreements, business-to-Government agreements and even Government-to-Government agreements. Once we have left the European Union properly, I am sure that there will be a lot of diplomacy, discussion and joint action, but we want it to be bilateral and based on the merits of the case as we proceed each time. We do not wish it to be multilateral through the EU, where the EU has special legal powers that mean that it has duress over us or can prevent us from having a weighted dialogue with the EU and reaching an agreement if we wish and not if we do not.
The structure of what the Government are now proposing is quite alarming. The EU withdrawal agreement would take the form of an international treaty, which would of course need full ratification by Parliament in the way that has been laid out. However, if it was agreed with the EU and then subsequently ratified by this Parliament, we would be back in the position where European law had more significance and for the whole of the transition period we would of course be completely back under the control of the European Union. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) has pointed out, we would be even more vulnerable than we are today because the EU could legislate in our absence. At least we can see them annoying us at the moment around the same table, whereas we would be in the position where they could simply do it without consulting us or taking into account our views.
Therefore, that is not a good idea, but even worse is the proposed legal form of the so-called future partnership agreement. The UK Government call it a partnership agreement, but I think what the EU proposes, and would call it, is an EU association agreement. Such agreements are normally very comprehensive, and we can see exactly what they look like when we read the one for Turkey or for Ukraine. They have been designed by the EU to lock in countries that would like to become members but are not yet fully compliant with all its legal requirements, standards and so forth. They are used to drag those countries gradually into compliance—usually willingly, because they want to join.
We want something completely different. We want agreements on how to proceed in various areas, but we are going in the other direction. We do not want an agreement that drags us into closer compliance; we want the freedom and flexibility to have our own trade policy, our own fishing policy and our own business policy as time evolves. I am very worried that an association agreement model, rather than allowing that, would reintroduce the powers of the European Court, over which we will obviously have no control, and we would again be under strict control in a number of wide-ranging areas from which the British people wish us to liberate themselves.
Sir William Cash: If we look around the European Union—at Italy and, most recently, Sweden—many if not most of the other countries are voting with their feet against the restriction on their right to make their own decisions in their own Parliaments.