Brexit: Parliamentary Approval of the Outcome of Negotiations with the European Union

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Monday 28th January 2019

(5 years, 5 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Moved by
Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Portrait Baroness Evans of Bowes Park
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That this House, in accordance with the provisions of section 13(6)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, takes note of the Written Statement titled “Statement under Section 13(4) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018”, made on 21 January, and of the Written Statement titled “Statement under Section 13(11)(a) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018”, made on 24 January.

Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Portrait The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Evans of Bowes Park) (Con)
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My Lords, the EU withdrawal Act set out a process for the Government to follow in the event that at this point we had not secured a deal to leave the European Union which had been approved by the House of Commons. In accordance with Section 13 of the Act, last week the Government made two Written Statements. The first was to set out next steps following the result of the vote on Tuesday 15 January. The second was to confirm how the parliamentary process would work going forward. So today’s debate—the latest but, I suspect, not the last—is in one sense simply a formal step that we have to take to satisfy the requirements of the legislation, but it also offers an opportunity to take stock.

The Motion before the House asks us to take note of both Statements in the same terms as the government Motion that the House of Commons will debate tomorrow. The Commons Motion is amendable, so there are likely to be votes on a variety of options at the conclusion of the debate. Noble Lords will be aware that a number of amendments have been tabled in the other place. They range from time-limiting the backstop, or replacing it with alternative arrangements, to seeking an extension to Article 50 or membership of a customs union. It will be for Mr Speaker to select the amendments to be voted on, and for MPs to decide what to support.

It is not my role to speculate on the outcome of the proceedings in the other place, and I will not do so. However, the Government and this House will need to reflect on any decisions that are made tomorrow. In this House, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, has tabled her own Motion. I will leave it to my noble friend Lord Callanan to respond to it; I have no doubt that he is eagerly looking forward to his third opportunity in recent weeks to respond to a debate of this sort.

This will not be the last time that the House of Commons is on the cusp of significant decisions which this House will want to have an opportunity to inform. I will do all I can, working with the other parties in this House, to ensure that that happens. We in this House have helped shape the process of leaving the EU and will continue to do so in the months ahead. In opening the debate on 6 December, I outlined the contribution that this House has made to the legislative programme needed to leave the European Union. It has considered legislation line by line. It has asked questions of government, proposed amendments and improved Bills through its work, but it has ultimately recognised the primacy of the House of Commons when the two Houses have disagreed. As Leader of this House, I have defended its right to do this and will continue to do so.

All of us—Government and Opposition, Front Benches and Back Benches—are working in a political environment charged with uncertainty, and in view of this noble Lords have reasonably raised questions about the legislative programme ahead. I heard the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, when she asked us last week to give the greatest possible notice of our plans so that the House as a whole, and its Select Committees in particular, can plan their work. All of us recognise the unusual constraints the Government are currently facing in planning their legislative agenda due to the fact that significant decisions are being taken on the Floor of the House of Commons which fundamentally shape what happens next. We are a bicameral Parliament. This House does not operate in a vacuum, and very often the business in each House is dependent on the progress of the same business in the other.

The uncertainty we face today relates to future decisions of the House of Commons over a deal, to future negotiations which may follow such decisions, and to the timing of subsequent legislation which would be needed to give effect to a deal. Finding satisfactory outcomes could scarcely be more critical. But we should not be distracted from the task at hand. The uncertainty surrounding elements of the process does not mean that this House has been sitting idly by while others attempt to find answers to these questions. So far this Session, we have played a key role in passing five Acts which help ensure that the UK will have a functioning statute book whatever the outcome of the negotiations. In the remainder of this week alone we will be considering exit-related bills such as the Financial Services (Implementation of Legislation) Bill and the Trade Bill. Next week we begin our consideration of the Healthcare (International Arrangements) Bill. We are also pressing ahead with key domestic legislation: over the next fortnight we are considering the Offensive Weapons Bill and the Finance (No. 3) Bill.

A number of noble Lords have expressed concern over our ability to scrutinise EU exit-related secondary legislation effectively. The Government have worked hard to ensure that this legislation is brought forward in a timely way, and we have engaged proactively with committees and opposition parties in both Houses on the way it should be scrutinised, including through the introduction of new sifting mechanisms.

Our Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, chaired by my noble friend Lord Trefgarne, and its two sub-committees, chaired by my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham of Felling, are doing an excellent job—as of course are the Members of this House who sit on the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. I know that we are all extremely grateful to them for their hard work. This legislation is essential to provide legal continuity in a no-deal scenario. But of course much of it will also be needed if we leave the EU with a deal.

Since Christmas we have spent well over 20 hours debating this legislation in Grand Committee and on the Floor of the House, although some contributions were perhaps not quite as focused on the policy issues at hand as they could have been. In organising the forward programme of work, my noble friend the Government Chief Whip and I will continue to work in a constructive way with our counterparts in the usual channels and to give as much notice of our timetable as is practical. We are all aware of the challenges ahead. By working together, we have already shown flexibility in timetabling. For instance, during the course of the withdrawal Bill, we sat earlier to ensure that the House had more time to scrutinise the legislation. Of course, as is normal at this point of the year, from the end of this month sitting Thursdays will revert to government business.

The decisions that Parliament takes in the next few weeks will have profound consequences for the future of this country. Recognising this, since I last addressed this House the Prime Minister and other Cabinet Ministers have continued to meet parliamentarians and others across the political spectrum—including Members across the political parties in both Houses and representatives of business groups and trade unions—in order to find the broadest possible consensus on a way forward. I am sure that tomorrow the Prime Minister will provide an update on these discussions when she addresses the other place.

The Government recognise the responsibility they have to deliver the result of the referendum and to maintain the trust of the public in the political system which serves them. Parliament must recognise that it too has a responsibility in this regard. We all have to act in the interests of the people of the United Kingdom. Although I strongly disagree with them, some noble Lords will no doubt argue today that those interests would be best served by sending the question back to the people or even by Parliament coming to the opposite conclusion of the referendum result and deciding to remain in the European Union.

This Front Bench recognises the right of noble Lords to strongly challenge the Government, but we can work effectively only if the House acts responsibly and constructively. I know that my noble friend the Government Chief Whip is pleased that the usual channels in this House work so well together. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said last week, we intend for Parliament to have a still greater role in the next phase of our negotiations should a withdrawal agreement and future framework be agreed. This will include confidential committee sessions that can ensure that Parliament has the most up-to-date information, while not undermining the negotiations.

As I said in response to questions last week, this commitment applies to Select Committees of this House as well as to those of the House of Commons. That was reiterated by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union when he gave evidence to the European Union Committee last week.

I think it is fair to say that we are in uncharted waters. However, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister remains focused on finding solutions to deliver Brexit that are negotiable and that command support across the political spectrum. Only by doing that can we provide the country with the certainty that it urgently needs. I beg to move.

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Lord Callanan Portrait The Minister of State, Department for Exiting the European Union (Lord Callanan) (Con)
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My Lords, as my noble friend Lord Cormack and the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, helpfully reminded us, here we are again. As my noble friend the Leader noted in her opening remarks, this is not the first such debate that I have had the pleasure of responding to in recent weeks. However, as always, I am grateful for the insightful contributions of noble Lords, who have examined the breadth and depth of the withdrawal agreement and political declaration. It was a particular pleasure to see my noble friend Lord Saatchi fully recovered and back in his place.

I have heard, and of course recognise, the differing and strongly held views from all sides of the House on the next steps in this process. I am grateful to noble Lords for voicing these views and pay tribute in particular to the work of the Select Committees, which have taken a constructive approach and are ensuring that the statute book is ready for exit day. I echo the words of my noble friend the Leader in extending my gratitude also to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee and its two sub-committees, chaired by my noble friend Lord Trefgarne and my geographical neighbour, the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham of Felling, for all their work in the scrutiny of that legislation.

That work includes the scrutiny of statutory instruments. I can tell the House that, as of today, we have laid more than 350 of them. These SIs help provide certainty for businesses and the public by ensuring that we have a functioning statute book when we leave the European Union. The majority are needed in either a deal or a no-deal scenario as they will be deferred to the end of an implementation period if they are no longer needed on 29 March. All instruments and the procedure they follow can be found online via GOV.UK or, and Parliament’s own SI tracker also has all this information. I say that because many noble Lords are writing to me daily, asking me for updates on where we are with that programme.

Let me be clear: the Government are committed to honouring the mandate of the British people and leaving the European Union in a way that benefits every part of our United Kingdom and every citizen of our country. Before I respond to the points raised in the debate, including the Motion tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, I will take a moment to respond to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Newby, and the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, regarding the referendum vote and my response to the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, last week. As I have made clear, the referendum result demonstrated that a majority of those who voted voted for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. I am sure all those present will have understood the correct position but, none the less, I am happy to make it clear to the noble Lord and the noble Baroness.

The best way for us to leave in an orderly manner is with a good deal. I note the arguments made by many noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Hannay of Chiswick, Lord Kerr, Lord Hain and Lord Liddle, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, all of whom are asking me to rule out no deal. There is a way to rule out no deal, which is for the other place to approve a deal negotiated with the European Union.

The Labour Party is fond of quoting the former Foreign Secretary, with his “cakeism” policy, but the Labour Party itself is adopting a negative “cakeism” policy. It is saying that we cannot accept the best and only cake available, but also that we cannot accept having no cake at all. Labour cannot carry on saying no to everything. I noticed that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, spent an awful lot of her speech telling us what she was against but very little of it telling us what she was in favour of.

Of course, the only other guaranteed way to avoid a no-deal Brexit is to revoke Article 50, which would mean staying in the EU. That is certainly not acceptable to this Government and, as far as I am aware, it is not advocated by any other party in this House. Noble Lords, including the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, and the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, who would like to extend Article 50, will of course be all too well aware that that this is not a unilateral option. An extension would require the consent of all 27 member states. As the Prime Minister correctly highlighted in the other place last week,

“the EU is very unlikely simply to agree to extend Article 50 without a plan for how we are going to approve a deal”.—[Official Report, Commons, 21/1/19; col. 25.]

Deferral is not a decision. I refer noble Lords who doubt that to the statement of the President of Lithuania last week. My noble friend Lord Balfe also made a particularly important point when he observed that the last session of the current European Parliament is on 18 April. I remind noble Lords that the European Parliament also needs to approve the withdrawal agreement.

We want a smooth and orderly Brexit, with a deal that protects our union, gives us control of our borders, laws and money, and means that we have an independent trade policy. Following the clear message from the other place earlier this month, the Government are working hard to speak to MPs from all parties to find a way forward together that delivers on the referendum and commands parliamentary support. I agree with my noble friend Lord Shinkwin that the British people expect the Government to honour the referendum mandate and deliver Brexit in a way that benefits every citizen of our country—and that is what we are committed to doing.

Many noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Newby, Lord Campbell of Pittenweem, Lord Dykes, Lord Hain and Lord Wallace of Saltaire, the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, and my noble friend Lady Wheatcroft have also, once again, expressed their preference for a second referendum, although I have noticed that their campaign has not had the courage to propose an amendment to this end in the House of Commons, so perhaps this option would have less support than they pretend.

It will come as no surprise to noble Lords when I tell the House that it is still not the Government’s intention to hold a second referendum. I think the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, wins the prize for the masochist Peer of the year with his call for both a second referendum and a general election. I was particularly struck by that, and I think that the noble Baroness should send him to Bristol to convey personally the good news to Brenda of her forthcoming travails.

This Government remain committed to respecting the clear result of the 2016 referendum, and on this I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Desai. I also very much agreed with the excellent speech by my noble friend Lord Dobbs, in which he said that a second referendum would not be a people’s vote, it would be a politicians’ vote, or, as he described it, a losers’ charter—politicians telling the people that they got it wrong the first time. We have been very clear about the dangers of calling a second referendum for democracy and the faith of the British people in our political system. We believe that it would divide the country. On that point, I agree with my noble friend Lord Sterling.

A fortnight ago I responded to a Question for Short Debate from the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, setting out the many steps that would be required to set up a referendum. In the first instance it would require primary legislation, which, taken alone, would require time and a consensus on key questions such as the franchise or the date on which the poll would take place. I highlighted to noble Lords, as I closed that debate, the fact that it took seven months for the previous referendum Act to pass through Parliament, and that was with a Government who had a majority in the House of Commons acting on a manifesto commitment.

This timescale does not include the time needed to adequately take the other steps required. For example, the Electoral Commission recommend that referendum legislation should be clear at least six months before it is required to be implemented or complied with. Noble Lords may have seen the comments of the incoming interim chief executive of the Electoral Commission reported in Saturday’s Guardian. He said that,

“it’s difficult to think that it would be sensible for parliament simply to take the rules from the last referendum and paste them across”.

He was arguing that the whole of the referendum legislation needs to be looked at first. This Government remain committed to the clear result of the referendum and the democratic process that delivered that result. Noble Lords should not underestimate the division and dangerous precedent that would be created if we were to second-guess the result of that referendum.

Many noble Lords, including my noble friends Lady Neville-Rolfe and Lady Altmann, and the noble Lord, Lord Owen, have spoken with great insight about the Northern Ireland backstop, and expressed concerns about it, although I also notice that there were speeches supportive of the backstop from the noble Lords, Lord Desai and Lord Ricketts, and my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern. As the Prime Minister has said, we recognise the concerns that many have expressed regarding the backstop. The backstop is our ultimate safeguard: in the event that there is a gap between the end of the implementation period and the start of our new ambitious relationship, we will still uphold the commitments of the Belfast agreement and ensure that there is no return to a hard border. This is, in our view, essential to safeguarding the lives and livelihoods of the people of Northern Ireland.

Let us be clear: both the UK and the EU agree that the backstop should not need to come into effect and have committed to using our best endeavours to take the necessary steps to conclude a final deal that supersedes it in full by the end of the implementation period.

I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, that that is why the Government are engaging with Members of both Houses to find a way in which we can meet our obligations to the people of Northern Ireland and Ireland in a way that Parliament can support. If he can have a little patience, the Prime Minister will set out her conclusions in her closing speech tomorrow.

Let me repeat: let us be in no doubt that this Government are wholly committed to the Belfast agreement and will work to ensure that there is no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

Before I conclude, I must address the Motion tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon. I appreciate the sentiments in it—not least the call to take all appropriate steps to ensure that the UK does not leave without a deal—but, as it is the legal default, we cannot completely rule out no deal.

I remind noble Lords that this is exactly what the Prime Minister and her team of negotiators have been doing for the past two years: trying to agree a deal which will, of course, rule out no deal. It was the result of that work that was put to the other place for approval. Although the outcome of that vote was—to put it mildly—not the one that the Government wanted, it was clear that there was much that was supported in the withdrawal agreement. We are now keen to work with politicians from all sides, as the Prime Minister has been doing, to see how we can address those concerns. That dialogue will be essential to securing a successful exit with a deal—on that point, I agree with my noble friend the Duke of Wellington.

I therefore assume that that section of the Motion of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, was taken from a letter that she has also sent to the leader of her own party. It is pleasing to hear her speak of the importance that she and her party place on the timely passage of legislation, and her remarks on the subject of filibustering in the media last week. To be clear, we remain committed to ensuring that all the necessary legislation required is in place for exit day on 29 March 2019. As my noble friend the Leader of the House said, in organising the forward programme of work, both she and the Chief Whip will work with the usual channels and seek to give as much notice of our timetable as is practical, and will also work flexibly with timetabling.

In response to the question posed to me by the noble Lord, Lord Newby, about the Cooper Bill, although I cannot speak for any individual Back-Bencher, I can confirm that I am not aware of any such discussion and would be very surprised if that were the case. It is not for me to speculate on how MPs will vote, but I am sure that this House will consider all legislation passed by the Commons in the usual way.

Lord Butler of Brockwell Portrait Lord Butler of Brockwell
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My Lords, in the light of what the Minister has said, can he tell us which part of the opposition amendment he opposes? We know, as he said, that it is the Prime Minister’s determination to “take all appropriate steps” to get an agreement—so that is the first part of the amendment. The second part is to provide,

“for this House to ensure the timely passage of legislation necessary to implement any deal or proposition”.

He just said that that is what the Government also want. On what grounds could he oppose the Opposition’s amendment?

Lord Callanan Portrait Lord Callanan
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Because the noble Baroness is asking us to take no deal off the table, and we do not think that that is possible because it is the legal default—as I have said many times in this House—because of the notification of withdrawal Act, because of the Article 50 process and because of the withdrawal Act passed in the summer.

My noble friend Lord Balfe asked me how much discussion there has been between Her Majesty’s Government and the incoming Finnish presidency. We are engaging with the Finns through our embassy in Helsinki. This engagement will increase, including potential secondees, as their preparation for the presidency develops.

As I conclude, I think it would be helpful to recap the way forward for this House and the other place. The rejection of the deal two weeks ago was obviously a disappointing moment for this Government. We are mindful that we cannot legally ratify the withdrawal agreement until a deal has been approved, and therefore the defeat precipitated some serious reflection on the concerns expressed by both MPs and Members of this House.

The best way forward, I repeat, is to leave in an orderly way with a good deal. It is not our strategy to run down the clock to 29 March. As the Leader of the House set out in her opening speech, the Prime Minister has highlighted a number of areas in which we intend to address concerns going forward. I have expanded on some of those this evening, including responding to concerns on the backstop, engaging with Parliament as we head to the second phase of negotiations, and demonstrating our commitment to social and environmental protections. It is these proposals, along with amendments to the Government’s Motion, that the other place will consider tomorrow. As the Prime Minister has said, we should all be prepared to work together to find a way forward, given the importance of this issue.

I know that many noble Lords will be following the debate there as keenly as we in government are listening to what is said in this place—and noble Lords’ words will be heard in the other place. We believe that the way forward that we have set out is the only way to seek to address the concerns of Members in both Houses at the same time as respecting the 17.4 million people across the UK who voted in favour of leaving the European Union.

Lord Cormack Portrait Lord Cormack
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As one who genuinely wants this to work out—as the Government wish it to work out—I ask: why are we going to the trouble of dividing on an unexceptional, entirely sensible, logical Motion that almost all of us in our hearts believe to be right?

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Lord Callanan Portrait Lord Callanan
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I refer the noble Lord to the question that I answered earlier. We cannot completely rule out no deal because, as I have repeatedly said, that is the legal default—and that is what the Motion is asking us to do.

Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Portrait Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town
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My Lords, it is true that in my winding-up speech I did say that we should denounce no deal, but the Motion that will be moved does not say that. It asks us to seek an agreement.

Lord Callanan Portrait Lord Callanan
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We are going round in circles here. I refer to the point that I made. Has somebody got a copy of the Motion?

Baroness Smith of Basildon Portrait Baroness Smith of Basildon
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While the noble Lord is searching for a copy, I refer him to the part of my Motion that he complained about, which calls on,

“Her Majesty’s Government to take all appropriate steps to ensure that … the United Kingdom does not leave the European Union without an agreement”.

That includes getting a deal that is acceptable to the other place. What is it that he objects to?

Lord Callanan Portrait Lord Callanan
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I think that you can read that as taking no deal off the table. Of course, we are doing our best. No deal is not our preferred option. We want to avoid no deal if at all possible, but we continue to believe that the best way to avoid no deal is to vote for a deal. For the Labour Party to come along here and say that it is against everything, without putting forward any positive proposals, is not acceptable.

I have set out our position. If the noble Baroness wishes to move her Motion, she is entitled to do so. That is the end of my remarks.

Lord Mackay of Clashfern Portrait Lord Mackay of Clashfern
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My Lords, it is absolutely plain that the Motion put down does not exclude expressly the no-deal situation. If we compare this with the Motion that was put down last time, it is different. What is required here—and it is an effort that I thoroughly support—is that everything should be done to get a satisfactory agreement and that we do not go out without an agreement. Surely, the right way to do that is to try to get an agreement. I look to the House of Commons to say tomorrow what its preferred alternative is to what the Prime Minister has done so far.

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Division 1

Ayes: 283

Labour: 135
Liberal Democrat: 84
Crossbench: 44
Conservative: 9
Independent: 4
Bishops: 2
Green Party: 1
Plaid Cymru: 1

Noes: 131

Conservative: 116
Crossbench: 9
Democratic Unionist Party: 3
Independent: 2
Ulster Unionist Party: 1

House adjourned at 7.55 pm.