Henry VIII would “blush” at the Government’s attempt to seize powers under key Brexit legislation, a former minister has said.
Labour’s Chris Leslie raised concerns about the potential for ministers to use the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill to sign off changes into law which have an impact on people’s lives without requiring in-depth scrutiny in the Commons.
He warned the so-called Henry VIII powers, a term used when describing measures which allow reforms with little parliamentary scrutiny, were “extremely sweeping” and could result in “near-autocratic actions of a future government”.
The powers are named after the Tudor monarch who ushered in the theory of the divine right of kings and executed two of his wives.
MPs heard such scenarios could include a future government seeking to end the 48-hour working week or implement “aggressive” state intervention to distort competition.
Downing Street has announced it is to accept an amendment from the cross-party Commons Procedure Committee.
This will create a “sifting committee” involving backbench MPs who will decide whether statutory instruments proposed by ministers require a Commons vote.
But Mr Leslie labelled the concession “weak” as the “sifting committee” can only voice an opinion and may be “overruled” or “ignored” by ministers.
His remarks came as MPs debated clause seven of the Bill, in which the government asks Parliament to delegate legislative power to change the statute book so retained EU law functions effectively after Brexit occurs.
Amendments – including the “sifting committee” proposal – tabled by Tory MP Charles Walker on behalf of the Procedure Committee can be debated during committee stage day six today but not voted upon until tomorrow.
Speaking in the Commons, Mr Leslie said MPs were always keen for the scope of powers to be outlined in “black and white” in legislation to ensure verbal commitments from ministers were acted upon rather than open to change at a later date.
He focused on part of clause seven which states: “Regulations under this section may make any provision that could be made by an Act of Parliament.”
Mr Leslie said: “It’s not an exaggeration to say that this is a massive potential transfer of legislative competence from Parliament to government.
“And it is a sweeping power that would certainly make Henry VIII blush if he were to see it today.
“My amendment 57 proposes deleting the sweeping nature of that particular sub-clause because ministers have not ensured their powers are as limited as possible – quite the contrary, they’ve ensured they are as exceptionally wide as possible.”
Mr Leslie has also tabled other changes, including new clause 18 – which would require the government to commission an independent report into the constitutional implications of the powers in clause seven.
Tory former minister Sir Oliver Letwin expressed confidence in ministers in how they would carry out their duties.
He said: “I think we are dancing on the heads of pins here. I am very confident the government is not intending to use that power to get rid of the constraints which are in the Bill.”
Labour former minister Chris Bryant said it was “charming” and “sweet” of Sir Oliver to place so much trust in ministers.
Mr Bryant said: “I do just worry that this whole business relying on the government saying it will always go by the recommendation that has come from a committee.
“The number of times that I have heard government ministers stand in the chamber and say that if the opposition demands a vote on annulling a statutory instrument there will always be one.
“Yet over the last few years repeatedly there has not been any debate or vote even when demanded by the opposition and a large number of government members.”
He added: “It’s charming, almost sweet of him to place such confidence in government ministers but I think that sometimes they are not to be quite trusted, we put temptation in their way.”
Sir Oliver responded: “If the advice of the committee is not followed there will be people on this side of the House, as well as his, that would cause a sufficient fuss to ensure that actually the House does have an opportunity to debate what affirmative resolution orders in their place.”
Tory former cabinet minister and rampant Hard Brexiteer John Redwood said he was satisfied with the powers for ministers, but called for measures to ensure statutory instruments could be amended.
Dominic Grieve, the Tory former attorney general, who has tabled a number of amendments to the legislation, added: “I’ve signed up to the amendments tabled by the Procedure Committee, because I think it’s a reasonable compromise.
“But they are most deficient in my view, in the absence of a revision mechanism to ask a minister to reconsider the matter.
“And he may agree with me that even at this stage, the Treasury bench could go away and reconsider that, and could bring a further amendment forward at report, which would enable that to happen.”
Mr Bryant, meanwhile, used Tory concerns about Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to highlight the need for scrutiny.
“I suspect that [Mr Redwood] thinks that the leader of the opposition is a Marxist revolutionary in a Venezuelan style,” Mr Bryant said.
“Well, he might yet be a minister who will be making precisely these decisions, and that’s why we should always legislate with caution.”