Frank Field: Simplify the Brexit bill – and save it from ambush
Labour MP Frank Field sets out his plan to slim down the EU Withdrawal Bill – and prevent the 'wolves in sheep's clothing' from frustrating Brexit
The government is in real trouble with its EU Withdrawal Bill, previously known by the boastful title The Great Repeal Bill. With a name like that it is understandable that the civil service equated ‘Great’ with ‘Large’. The resulting Bill runs to 62 pages.
The repeated delays in bringing the Bill to the House of Commons floor represent but a small element of the trouble surrounding this legislation.
The real danger to the legislation comes from wolves posing in sheep’s clothing who will gain easy prey as the minority government brings a massive 19-clause bill to the House of Commons floor.
In September, there was a resounding Commons vote to implement the referendum decision to leave the EU. But a vast majority of MPs voted in the referendum to remain. Some of this group will support the Bill in its main aspect. But a substantial number of MPs, who pose as supporters of withdrawal, are seeking every attempt to prevent the referendum decision being carried out.
The debate in the Commons is limited to ten days. That will not prevent the government from being ambushed. But the government will get its bill through the Commons. No such hope can be expressed when the Great Repeal Bill goes to the Lords.
Here there is no time limit for debates, nor does the government have a majority in the Lords, and Peers have already boasted that they will swamp the order paper with amendments posing as improving the Bill, but aiming to wreck it. My fear is that with the Bill in its current form, the Lords will succeed on this front.
Hence my amendments which will slim down the Bill to four essential clauses. These amendments are likely to open the debate on the committee stage of the Bill.
The aim now is to convince the government that the four clauses give them all they want successfully to withdraw from the EU.
Clause one sets the date for our withdrawal – 30 March 2019.
Clause two’s writ is to ensure on that day the huge, huge corpus of EU legislation and regulations are incorporated into the UK legal code.
Clause three sets about how Parliament should review that corpus of laws and regulations, to see which it wishes to stay on our statute book, which it wishes to amend, and which parts it will repeal.
Nobody yet has been able to say how many legislative and regulatory pages will need to be reviewed. Much contention has centred on the government’s wish to give itself Henry VIII powers to dictate the whole process. If this intention remains in the Bill, the government will lose on this front.
So clause three gives Parliament a timetable to decide itself how it wishes to conduct this review process. My own view is that we will need to construct a new select committee method by which Lords and Commons combine to go about this task. The key aspect is that the select committee review should recommend what stays, what is amended and what is rejected. Andrea Leadsom, when she was environment secretary, predicted that about two-thirds of the EU legislation relevant to her department would make into UK law.
Nobody now believes the Brexit negotiations will be completed by 30 March 2019. Hence clause four which lays down a duty for the Prime Minister to seek a safe harbour beyond that date, so that EU officials cannot get their sticky fingers around our country’s windpipe and force a settlement upon us as those negotiating days run out. Attention should centre here on the nature of that safe harbour, rather than fretting on suggesting an arbitrary length of time we may need to inhabit it.
Here again Parliament will have the decisive say, as it will have on the other three clauses that amount to a protected withdrawal bill – protected from ambush. As and when the government needs the other powers set out in the other clauses of its Great Repeal Bill, it needs simply to bring them forward and introduce simple bills which will be so much easier to defend from the wolves posing in sheep’s clothing and whose aim is to defy the will of electorate.
The four clauses are already tabled and I hope Members will add their names and so give this short decisive EU withdrawal measure the chance of carrying the day.
Frank Field is Labour MP for Birkenhead. This article first appeared in The House magazine.