My vote on the EU Withdrawal Bill on 13th December 2017

19th December 2017

Ever since the Referendum result in June 2016, I have always been clear: a majority in the country and here in Mid Norfolk voted to leave the EU, and whilst MPs are not delegates, nevertheless, it is the democratic duty of all elected politicians to respect that. I am 100% committed to making a success of Brexit - but a Brexit that works for the whole country including those who were - and remain - deeply concerned about its potential impact on our economy, society and politics.

I believe we have to show that we’re committed to leaving the European political union, yes, but in a way which reunites our country and respects the concerns of those 48% who didn’t vote for it, so we can go forward united as a nation working together. To do that we need to make this an inspiring moment of national renewal: economically, culturally and politically. A “One Nation” Brexit that brings together the 48% and 52% in a happy compromise of mutual commitment.

In the Referendum, the people of Mid Norfolk voted to bring powers back to Parliament. They want Parliament to be given the powers to scrutinise legislation and Parliamentarians to have the power over our laws.

Good politics sometimes involves compromise. That’s why, following the vote last week, I have worked with Sir Oliver Letwin and others to negotiate a compromise on the all-important Clause 9 ‘Henry VIII’ powers, that both Government and Backbench Parliamentarians can accept, so that we can start the New Year in a spirit of unity of purpose in pursuit of the best possible deal we can negotiate, knowing ultimately that it is Parliament, and elected UK MPs, who will decide how best to proceed when the final terms of withdrawal are presented.

In my speech in the debate last week I called for Ministers to compromise on the Henry VIII powers and give Parliament the say on when they can be used.

See my speech in video and transcript below:

George Freeman MP

SPEECH TO THE HOUSE OF COMMONS ON AMENDMENT 7, CLAUSE 5, EU WITHDRAWAL BILL

Wednesday 13th December 2017

Mr Chairman,

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 new relationship with Europe that works for the whole country. I strongly support the Prime Minister in her approach as set out in 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.]

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 both the Government and a sensible Brexit that works in the interests of the whole of the UK. 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 on the Government’s final withdrawal proposal. 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 respectively), 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— trust between Back Benchers and Front Benchers, trust between Parliament and the Executive, and trust between the people and their Parliament—is stretched. Those who fear a conspiracy against Brexit—fear a conspiracy to use the Parliamentary scrutiny they have fought so hard for, back against them. However, to turn that fear back around onto those of us who simply want to reassure the people of this country that this is not a conspiracy ​against them, but a moment of Parliamentary renewal, invert 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 Bill goes right to the heart of the protection of our liberties in Parliament. One of the worst aspects of the problem we are all trying to solve is Parliament passing legislation without properly scrutinising it. We must find a way to reconcile the Government’s aim of having the necessary powers to negotiate, and implement, Brexit with the shared aim of renewing Parliamentary accountability.

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 compelling reason yet 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 even unnecessary; 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 Parliamentarian and democrat first and foremost. I understand how difficult this is for Ministers, but the Government could, in the next half an hour, 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 for 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 liberty and 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 Parliamentarians are expected and invited to 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.

I hope very much that Ministers will listen and that will not be necessary.

Big Tent Ideas Festival

Politics is undergoing a tectonic shift. That’s why this year I launched the first-ever Big Tent Ideas Festival, aiming to tackle the most difficult policy challenges we face. Bringing together over a hundred thinkers across the political spectrum, we discussed new ideas on everything from Brexit to intergenerational fairness, centred around three main themes: Politics, Society and Economy.

The Big Tent Ideas Festival is part of the new Capital Ideas Foundation, and will be setting off round the country over the next twelve months as the forum for the best new ideas in public policy. Click below and join us.

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Publications

19th December 2017 The need for a new foreign policy based on aid, trade and security | Bright Blue


25th November 2017 Tories in danger of becoming an outdated party talking to itself, says George Freeman | The Times


20th November 2017 George Freeman: We need a new Chairman and team at CCHQ to lead a radical programme of Conservative renewal | ConservativeHome


5th November 2017 Let's make science funding part of the aid budget – and help British tech save the world by George Freeman | The Telegraph


4th October 2017 Conservatives need to give people a vision they can believe in by George Freeman | The Times


1st October 2017 How do we Tories turn this around? Five ideas for conference by George Freeman | The Telegraph