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Bob Neill MP: EU Withdrawal Bill should not hand Government a blank legislative cheque

3 min read

It’s no good banging on about ‘taking back control’ if you only follow that up in word, not deed, says Bob Neill MP.

In his statement to the Commons on Tuesday, David Davis commented: ‘we have a duty to our taxpayers to interrogate [the EU’s] position rigorously. That is what we did, line by line.’

Yet those of us who see it as Parliament’s responsibility to adopt the same approach and provide robust scrutiny of the Government’s policy have been labelled cantankerous by some - Remoaners intent on seeing the negotiations fail. That could not be further from the truth.

Like it or not, the vote on 23 June last year made Brexiteers of us all (that is, if you are a democrat). It’s in everyone’s interest, on this side of the Channel and on the continent, to make a success of our departure and secure a close, free trade relationship with the EU27. That does not though mean the Government should be handed a blank legislative cheque without further investigation.

I do not envy the scale of the challenge facing Ministers. The EU (Withdrawal) Bill, formerly the Great Repeal Bill, will be one of the largest legislative projects ever undertaken in the UK. I broadly support it, and very much welcome its underlying objective to transpose EU law into statute, offering stability and certainty in the immediate post-Brexit aftermath.

I also understand its reliance on the controversial ‘Henry VIII’ clauses, allowing Ministers to use secondary legislation to enact some aspects of the withdrawal agreement quickly. Let’s be realistic, Parliament will not have sufficient time over the next eighteen months to scrutinise all 12,000 EU regulations that are estimated to need adapting into UK law.

The Government must, however, justify the extraordinary scope of these powers. Even with a handful of restrictions in place, the Bill asks the public to bestow an enormous level of trust in the state. That may well be necessary, but it would be completely remiss of Parliament to sign off that level of competence unchecked. We need a clear commitment that those powers will only be used when absolutely necessary, and MPs should be afforded ample opportunity to fully scrutinise any secondary legislation brought forward. After all, ‘democracies die behind closed doors.’

Ministers must also provide clarity on a number of matters that require urgent attention, namely the relationship between our courts and the ECJ once we leave the EU. In that regard, the Bill is a complete cop-out, shifting responsibility for this problem on to the judiciary rather than fulfilling one of the executive’s primary functions – creating the legislation from which our judges will take their steer. We risk legal incoherence and inconsistency until that is resolved.

Even after the publication of a number of position papers over the last fortnight – which do, admittedly, display a more pragmatic stance from Ministers – its remains unclear what body will arbitrate on dispute resolution post-Brexit, something we will need in any future international agreement. There’s growing support for the EFTA Court to take on that role. It’s a well-respected and established body that can mirror the jurisprudence of the ECJ, but is, crucially, institutionally separate, meaning the Government can save face in not breaking its redline of ceding sovereignty to Brussels.

It’s no good banging on about ‘taking back control’ if you only follow that up in word, not deed. If that really is what the Government is doing, it should welcome Parliament’s unfettered scrutiny of this process, starting with the Withdrawal Bill. Working constructively together, we can achieve the business friendly Brexit we all desire.

Bob Neill is the Conservative Member of Parliament for Bromley and Chislehurst, and is the Chair of the Justice Select Committee

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