Here are the main lines from the opening of the debate so far.
- David Davis, the Brexit secretary, has told MPs that they may get the chance to vote on the final Brexit agreement before ministers start using the new powers they will get in the EU withdrawal bill. In his speech opening the second reading debate on the bill, which will give ministers unprecedented powers to rewrite primary legislation by order (so-called “Henry VIII powers) as they transfer EU law into UK law, he said the bill was essential to allow “a smooth and orderly exit is impossible”. Much of the criticism focused on the extent of these powers, and the very limited opportunities MPs and peers will get to challenge ministers who as they use them. Davis confirmed that ministers will use these powers to pass an estimated 1,000 statutory instruments. Labour’s Hilary Benn asked for an assurance that these powers would not be used until MPs had approved the final Brexit deal. Davis said he was sympathetic to this idea, although he did not give Benn a firm commitment. He told Benn:
I’m just thinking through the logic of that, and it seems to me logical, in truth. If he’ll allow me a few moments to review the matter, it seems to me perfectly possible I could give that undertaking, but I won’t do it just on the fly in case I’ve missed something.
- Davis claimed that Britons would not have their rights diminished by the government’s decision in the bill not to retain the EU’s charter of fundamental rights. The intention is to transfer almost all EU law into UK law, so that there is continuity immediately after Brexit, but the charter is not included. Davis said this decision “will not affect the substantive rights available in the UK”. But Dominic Grieve, the Conservative former attorney general, said that as a result the rights of individuals to make legal challenges on the basis of EU law transferred into British law “will no longer be possible” in British courts. He added:
That seems to me to be a marked diminution in the rights of the individual.
The SNP’s Joanna Cherry made a similar point. And Sir Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, said that Davis himself had argued that the charter bolstered the rights of Britain’s when he launched a data protection case against the government as a backbencher. Starmer said:
[Davis] was very concerned that [the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act] would impinge on the ability of MPs to have confidential communications from their constituents, a point he continued into the debate we were having a year or two ago.
In his argument, he cited the charter. His lawyer said the charter was important. His lawyers made the argument the charter was important because it went further than the European Convention of Human Rights and, therefore, was an added protection.
- Davis signalled that he was open to making some amendments to the bill. He said he would “stand ready” to listen to “those who offer improvements to the bill in the spirit of preparing our statute book for withdrawal from the European Union”. He told MPs:
This bill does only what is necessary for a smooth exit and to provide stability; however, as I have repeatedly said, I welcome and encourage contributions from those who approach the task in good faith and in a spirit of collaboration.
- Davis accused Labour of a cynical attempt to delay Brexit. He told MPs:
Without this legislation a smooth and orderly exit is impossible. We cannot await the completion of negotiations before ensuring this legal certainty and continuity at the point of our exit. To do so or to delay or oppose the bill would be reckless in the extreme.
I have in the past witnessed the Labour party on European business take the most cynical, unprincipled approach to legislation that I’ve ever seen. They’re now attempting to do the same today. And the British people will not forgive them if the end of their process is to delay or destroy the process by which we leave the European Union.
- Starmer said Labour could not support the bill because it amounted to giving a “legislative blank cheque” to the government.He said he had never legislation give ministers such sweeping powers. It was an unprecedented power grab, he said.
- Ken Clarke, the Conservative pro-European and former chancellor, signalled that he would vote against the bill unless the government gave assurances about parliamentary accountability and the Brexit transition period. He told MPs:
Minded as I am at the moment to contemplate voting for second reading, I am going to need some assurances before we get there. In particular, there is going to be sufficient movement to some of the unanswerable points that are being made, about parliamentary democracy and a smooth transition to whatever the alternative is, for this bill to be anything other than a wrecking piece of legislation if it proceeds forward …
I haven’t decided yet [how to vote]- I’m actually going to listen to the debate, which is very rare feature in this House …
And if the government isn’t going to move in the next two days of debate, well I think we may have to force it to go back to the drawing board and try again.
- Davis said that he expected to lead to “a significant increase in the decision-making power of the devolved institutions”.
- The Labour MP Chris Leslie said ministers “assurances should not be trusted because they could be replaced, and the powers in the bill could be exercised by someone like Jacob Rees-Mogg as a future prime minister”. Leslie said:
It doesn’t matter when ministers opposite – the prime minister, the secretary of state – say ‘Oh trust us, we won’t us these regulations’ because they could be here today and gone tomorrow. And the honourable member for the 18th century from Somerset [Jacob Rees-Mogg] could be prime minister – we could be in his hands totally with all of these powers.
Ken Clarke made a similar point, saying: “We are all transient in politics.” In response to Leslie, John Bercow, the speaker, joked that Rees-Mogg viewed the 18th century as far too recent for his tastes.