George Freeman urges Government to compromise with backbench MPs on Henry VIII powers

13th December 2017

George Freeman calls on the Government to listen to backbench MPs and explain why the so-called Henry VIII powers - legislative changes deemed not to need Parliamentary scrutiny or vote - are needed when the whole point of Brexit is to bring back democracy to the UK Parliament.


This House and the people voted to leave in the referendum, and I respect that. Like the vast majority of hon. Members across the House, I am committed to making a success of Brexit in the spirit of a Brexit that works for the whole country. I strongly support the Prime Minister in her endeavours, her Lancaster ​House speech and her Florence speech. Indeed, I was proud that my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) described me as a model convert to the cause. We have to show those who did not vote for Brexit that this is a moment of national renewal that will inspire renewal economically, culturally and politically. That brings us to clause 9.

The people of Mid Norfolk voted to bring powers back to Parliament. They want Parliament to be given the powers to scrutinise legislation, and they want to stop the process of European legislation too often passing through unscrutinised and this House passing bad legislation. Do not take it from me, take it from my hon. Friends who I suspect I am going to disagree with tonight. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) put it beautifully:

“This referendum gives the British people the great opportunity to restore their precious but damaged democracy.”

He went on to say that

“the sovereignty of the British people required a sovereign Parliament that they could dismiss and they could influence”—[Official Report, 9 June 2015; Vol. 596, c. 1099.]

in the legislation that we pass. Clause 9 goes right to the heart of whether we have that power. Do not take it from me, take it from the House of Lords Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, which has argued that clause 9 could enable significant constitutional rights, such as the rights of EU citizens resident in the UK, to be implemented in domestic law by negative procedure regulations, even if that requires amendments to primary legislation. The Committee also criticised clause 9 for providing the ability to amend provisions of the Bill through secondary legislation, saying that it was “wholly unacceptable”. The report argues that clause 9 is the widest Henry VIII power in the Bill.

It is for those reasons, I think, that we have heard doubts about the clause this afternoon, in a most fascinating debate, from hon. Members who, like me, support the Government. My right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) described the clause as containing “mischief” and urged the Government to take heed and recommend a compromise. The hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) has said very eloquently and very consistently that he is not comfortable with the clause. We all know what happened—the clause was drafted before the Government, laudably, promised to give this House a vote. That having been done, as my right hon. and learned Friends the Members for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) and for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald), a former Attorney General and a former Solicitor General, have made clear in legal terms rather more powerfully than I can, the clause makes no sense.

This afternoon we have heard Back Benchers on all sides ask Ministers to provide clarity on why these extraordinary powers are needed. We have not heard the answer. In such circumstances, the all-important trust that goes right to the heart of this issue—between Back Benchers and Front Benchers, between Parliament and the Executive, and between the people and their Parliament—is stretched. Those who fear a conspiracy against Brexit—a conspiracy to use the scrutiny they have fought so hard against them. However, to turn that back around on those of us who want to reassure the people of this country that this is not a conspiracy ​against them but a moment of renewal inverts the logic of this moment. To hear only a traditional stubbornness from the Front Bench—one that I have shared in my time on the Front Bench; we know the brief, with civil servants saying, “Don’t give an inch”—without any reason or explanation is worrying. If this was simply some technocratic measure to do with a minor implementation of minor secondary legislation, I dare say the Committee would not be worried, but this is a Committee of the whole House for good reason: this goes right to the heart of the protection of our liberties. One of the worst aspects of the problem we are all trying to solve is Parliament passing legislation without scrutinising it.

6.30 pm

There are simple ways to resolve the problem: the Government could specify the powers they need—I am prepared to give Ministers the benefit of the doubt, but we have had six hours and heard no reason to do so. They could limit those powers; they could undertake to clarify the amendment on Report; they could withdraw clause 9, which colleagues on both sides of the Chamber now seem to think is flawed; or they could support amendment 7.

I have not voted against my Government once since I came here eight years ago, other than once in my first week in voting to give the Backbench Business Committee powers to have a debate each week. I am a democrat first and foremost. I understand how difficult this is for Ministers, but the Government could, in half an hour’s time, signal that they take democracy in this House seriously and are listening and that they will come back in the new year with a sensible amendment that can satisfy us all.

It is incredibly ironic to hear the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), and the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), great troubadours of parliamentary scrutiny, champions of this place’s right to scrutinise legislation, batting us off tonight in the style of hardened Ministers being told by their officials not to give an inch. It will not carry, and it does not suit or befit them as champions of parliamentary democracy. This is Committee stage, which is when Parliament should amend legislation or invite the Government to improve it. I will be supporting amendment 7, and if we lose, I will vote against clause 9 and invite the Government to come back with proposals that I can support and that reflect the powers they say they need, but for reasons they have not explained this afternoon.






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