Left and right agree: retained EU law bill is a threat to parliamentary sovereignty

This article is being published in ConservativeHome and LabourList and has been authored by a coalition more mind boggling to British political doctrine than the French Catholics and the Ottoman Empire or Matt Hancock and Boy George – a committed Conservative Party Brexiteer peer and the MP chair of the Labour Movement for Europe.

We are united by our mutual worry parliament is sleep-walking into voting away its own sovereignty through the retained EU law bill. That’s why we are urging our colleagues not to get distracted by talk of sunset clauses but to focus on the threat this bill represents – the wholesale transfer of power from the House to the executive. We might have diametrically opposed reasons for doing so, but we both support the Hamilton Hope amendments to reinstate the role of MPs to the decision-making process and take control of our laws back to parliament. If something unifies those who would normally take to the barricades to stop each other, it should give all those who care about whether Westminster works pause for thought.

Colleagues could be forgiven for thinking those responsible have listened on the perceived problems with this legislation – but in giving up on a sunset clause for the removal of EU regulations from the UK legislative, the government has delivered a masterclass in distraction, not democracy. Whether it happens at the end of this year or in the next parliament, this legislation still gives them direct control over 4,000 areas of legislation and direct case law identified in the bill. It expands the once selective use of statutory instrument (SI) committees to become the routine way the basic rights of the British public will be determined. These are the Henry Ford of legislative processes – MPs are not able to propose amendments, so they are presented with bills on a ‘like it or lump it’ basis, unable to change something apart from to try to vote it down.

Bypassing the main debating chamber and any proposals MPs might have, it’s not hard to see why ministers find SIs such a tempting way to do business. The last time an SI was rejected by the Commons was in 1979, as each committee has an inbuilt government majority of MPs chosen by the whips who nod through whatever is proposed. When the Brexit campaign promised voting ‘Leave’ would take back control of our laws, they did not mean to switch one unaccountable body in Brussels for another in Whitehall.

Whatever flavour the next government is, giving ministers this level of control over future legislation without any checks or balances is like giving a 17-year-old the keys to a Porsche and asking them just to polish it. A democratic car crash awaits. That’s why together with many other parliamentarians of all stripes – and none – we’re supporting the Hamilton Hope amendments, which MPs can vote to support on Wednesday.

These amendments would ensure all SIs made by this bill are referred to a joint committee of both Houses, which would be able to split instruments into two categories. Where an SI makes only minor changes, the existing procedures set out in the bill would apply – parliamentary time would not be wasted debating a tweak to the detail of pressure washer labelling. Instead, when the committee considers that an SI contains significant changes, or has not been adequately consulted on, they would have the power to require it to be amendable. In line with recommendations made by the Hansard Society and others, this would enable MPs to put forward changes and win the support of their colleagues for them. The Lords would be given the same ability to consider amendments and refer these to the Commons for approval, but the House of Commons would retain the final say – meaning that our laws would not be substantively changed unless the democratically elected representatives of the people have had their say.

Under this proposal, non-contentious replacements could progress through parliament at a sensible pace, whilst enabling representatives to focus their attention on where and how substantial change is proposed – or not. We support these changes from different ends of the same telescope – with a Secretary of State who has dismissed the European scrutiny committee and the chamber and is planning to use the powers given her by this bill to retain the vast majority of European legislation, these powers mean MPs could act if she didn’t remove outdated European legislation from the statute book in a timely manner, allowing parliament to define our laws.

For those who want a closer relationship between the UK and Europe, it offers the opportunity to protect key employment rights or environmental standards. Whatever the reason why, we both agree that it should be those who the public vote to represent them, not ministers and civil servants in back rooms in Whitehall, who get the final say on so many laws that affect our daily lives. It is time we truly took back control.

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