Charles Walker tables amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill

Charles Walker MP speaking in the House of Common, 12 Dec 2017

Charles Walker proposes amendments that would create a new European Statutory Instruments Committee - or ‘sifting committee’ - which would have the job of sifting negative statutory instruments proposed under the Bill by looking at each and recommending which require a debate and a vote in the House of Commons before they became law.

Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con)

I certainly will bear that in mind, Dame Rosie, and thank you for calling me.

I rise to speak to my amendments 392 to 398. I am not going to read out each one for the benefit of colleagues, because all colleagues can read. The amendments have been covered by various colleagues, from both sides of the House, so I shall stick to discussing the broad principles, but I will of course be happy to answer any questions or criticisms that colleagues may have.

First, may I thank the Procedure Committee for its hard work in producing the report published on 6 November? It is worth pointing out to colleagues how well Select Committees perform in this place. We are obsessed—or all too often we give the impression that we are obsessed—with partisan politics. Of course when people tune in on Wednesday at midday, that is what they see in this place. Our report was agreed unanimously by 15 Members of Parliament, six of whom are Government Members and nine of whom are Opposition Members. It is important to get that on the record. Also important is the fact that we did not let the pursuit of perfection get in the way of sensible compromise.

I can understand that a number of colleagues here today are somewhat disappointed, or remain dissatisfied, with what the Government have brought forward, but, as we have heard from Opposition Front Benchers, Opposition Back Benchers, Government Front Benchers and Government Back Benchers, including my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), there is broad acceptance that these amendments are a very positive step forward. As Chair of the Committee, I of course endorse that view.

Let us not underestimate the powers that the sifting committee will have. A Select Committee is like water: it gets in everywhere and all too often into places where it is not welcome. So I am certain that with a good and ​strong chairman who is respected by both sides of the House, a committee comprising experts—committed parliamentarians—will do the right thing by this place.

Chris Bryant

The thing is that the hon. Gentleman’s Committee is chaired by a man who is respected by both sides of the House and much loved by many people in all parts of this House, yet his Committee has regularly produced reports that have been completely and utterly ignored by the Government. That is the problem: he is still asking us to trust the Government in the end.

Mr Walker

I count the hon. Gentleman as a great friend, and say to him that yes, all too often I have come to this place in a state of high dudgeon, deeply depressed by the performance of my Government’s Front-Bench team, but on this occasion I assure him that the Government have accepted amendments and tabled draft Standing Orders, which are available today for all colleagues to read, so progress has been made. I also remind the hon. Gentleman that the report had the support of every member of the Procedure Committee.

The hon. Member for Nottingham East (Mr Leslie) expressed concern about what teeth the sifting committee would have. It is absolutely right that, as he identified, the committee would not be able to insist that the Government change a negative statutory instrument into an affirmative one, because if it could, the committee could just turn around and say, “Right, we want every single negative SI to be affirmative, and that’s the end of it. Be on your way and we’ll see you in a couple of years’ time.” I do not think that would be sensible.

The political cost to my Front-Bench colleagues of going against a sifting committee recommendation would be significant. The committee will have to give a reason why it is in disagreement, the Minister will be summoned to explain his or her Department’s position, and it will be flagged up on the Order Paper if a particular SI has not been agreed between the sifting committee and the Government. That will result in a significant political cost, because what we do most effectively of all in this place is to generate political cost. When a Government fail, or even, indeed, when an Opposition fail, there is a cost to their credibility and reputation. It is important to highlight that.

Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con)

I congratulate my hon. Friend and the Procedure Committee, and I really welcome its proposals. Does he think that this idea should be extended to all statutory instruments?

Mr Walker

My hon. Friend tempts me so much. It is not my intention today to spook the Government, but I think the sifting committee will probably be so successful that the Government and the House will want to embrace it for all negative SIs going forward.

I listened to the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) about the performance of Delegated Legislation Committees. I share those concerns, but a Minister turns up at those Committees, and it is often we Members of Parliament who fail to hold that Minister to account. Indeed, the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) is on the Front Bench, and I remember ​discussing this issue with him in the 1922 committee when he was but a humble foot soldier, like me. I remember a blog he posted early in his tenure in this place, in 2010, in which he expressed dismay at the lackadaisical approach of scrutiny in Delegated Legislation Committees. Again, that is not the Government’s fault; it is our fault as Members of Parliament. What is so refreshing about these eight days of scrutiny of the Bill on the Floor of the House is that right hon. and hon. Members of Parliament from both sides of the House and from all sides of the argument are turning up and holding the Government to account. It is our duty to do that in every Committee of the House.

I said I would be brief, and I think I have been. I hope I have covered most of the relevant concerns, but there is one further concern to which I would like the Government to respond. Several speakers have rightly identified that the Bill will result in up to 800 or 1,000 SIs—it could be more; it could be a little less. The Government have reassured us that the Cabinet’s Parliamentary Business and Legislation Committee will look at the workload to manage an effective flow without peaks and troughs. That is a useful reassurance, but the Government need to go further. There needs to be a system, which was identified by the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), where the House can have sight and pre-warning of what is coming. That might be difficult to achieve, but I hear what she is saying and think that it is a sensible suggestion. On that note, and accepting that all colleagues here have read the Select Committee report and the Government response, and are adequately familiar with the amendments, I shall sit down and not detain this wonderful place further.

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