The House has not exactly wrapped itself in glory in dealing with the Bill, at least in the chamber. In my speech on Second Reading, I made the point that the House had taken its eye off the ball when passing the EU Referendum Bill. On that occasion, peers spent too much time discussing the merits or otherwise of EU membership and not enough focusing on the detail of the Bill. (To listen to some peers now, you would think we had nothing to do with approving the provisions for the referendum.) I fear we have repeated the same mistake with this Bill.
I concluded my speech on Second Reading by arguing that:
In essence, the Bill needs to be amended to strengthen the position of Parliament, to provide certainty for the courts and to meet the concerns of the devolved Administrations. We simply cannot afford to get this wrong. Those who have argued against Brexit today are not necessarily doing their cause or this House any favours. They are diverting us from our core task—the task that alone now falls to us: to scrutinise thoroughly and forensically the provisions of this Bill. We must not allow ourselves to be diverted.
Regrettably, we have allowed ourselves to be diverted. Time has been taken up with amendments that are not really within the scope of the Bill – they have dealt with policy issues that should be addressed consequent to passage of the Bill. We have had speeches throughout that are little more than Second Reading speeches, expressing views about the merits or demerits of withdrawing from the EU. The result has been time-consuming unfocused proceedings. There is considerable dissatisfaction among peers and a feeling we need to tighten up on self-regulation. There is a world of difference between self-regulation and personal indulgence.
Media attention has focused on amendments carried by the House against the government. These have played to general ignorance about the House and its role in the legislative process. The defeats mask what positive work the House has done on the Bill, much of which has taken place away from the chamber. While proceedings in the chamber have not done us any favours, committees of the House have been engaged in a constructive dialogue with the government. The Constitution Committee and the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee have been in regular discussion with ministers. The engagement has generally been positive, the ministers recognising the value of points raised with them and being willing to bring forward amendments designed to improve the Bill. The result has been a string of government amendments – a total of just over 200 have been agreed, 170 of them at Report stage in the Lords. They address in particular the three areas I spoke of in my Second Reading speech.
In short, the House in its public facing role in the chamber has not swathed itself in glory. Indeed, I regard it as something of a disaster. Behind the scenes, it has been doing important and constructive work. Unfortunately, media attention has focused on government defeats – which tend to be written up as definitive, rather than invitations to the Commons to think again – rather than on important and agreed changes that have strengthened the Bill.