European Union (Withdrawal) Bill DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
John BercowMP Main Page: John Bercow (Speaker - Buckingham)
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(1 year, 8 months ago)Commons Chamber
I beg to move,
That this House agrees with Lords amendments 19C to 19E, 19G to 19L and 19P, and proposes Government amendments to Lords amendment 19P.
I will turn in a moment to the issue at the forefront of many hon. Members’ minds—Parliament’s role at the conclusion of the negotiations with the European Union—but first I want to set out the other issues before the House for approval today. These are all issues where the Lords agreed with the Government on Monday: enhanced protection for certain areas of EU law, family reunification for refugee children and extending sifting arrangements for statutory instruments to the Lords. The Government set out common-sense approaches to those three issues in the Lords, who backed the Government, and the issues now return to this House for final approval.
The fourth issue is, as I have said, Parliament’s role at the conclusion of our negotiations with the EU. Before we turn to the detail, let us take a step back for a moment and consider the long democratic process we have been on to get here. It began with the EU Referendum Act 2015, passed by a majority of 263 in this House, at which point the Government were clear they would respect the outcome of the referendum. This was followed by the referendum itself, which saw a turnout of over 33 million people and 17.4 million people vote in favour of leaving the EU.
We then had the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017, which empowered the Government to trigger article 50. Despite the attempts of some in the other place to impugn the validity of this notification, the Act passed both Houses, with a majority of 372 in this place on Third Reading. This was followed by a general election where both major parties, attracting over 80% of the vote, stood on manifestos that committed to respecting the result of the referendum: 27.5 million votes for parties that said they would respect the referendum—no ifs, no buts. We are now in the process of passing this essential Bill to get our statute book ready for the day we leave. It will ensure that we respect the referendum result but exit the European Union in as smooth and orderly a manner as possible.
We have already set out in law that this process will be followed by a motion to approve the final deal we agree with the EU in negotiations. If this is supported by Parliament, as I hope and expect it will be, the Government will introduce the withdrawal agreement and implementation Bill, which Parliament will have time to debate, vote on and amend if they so wish. Finally, as with any international treaty, the withdrawal agreement will be subject to the approval and ratification procedures under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. And this is all before we even consider the other pieces of legislation we have and will pass as part of this process.
Anyone who questions the democratic credentials of this Government or this process should consider the steps we have taken to get to this stage and those which we have already laid out in front of us. I believe they are greater than any steps taken for any international negotiations ever in the history of this country. Furthermore, contrary to what was said in the other place on Monday, the Bill gives Parliament significantly more rights than we see on the EU side. The European Parliament simply has to consent to the withdrawal agreement—a yes or no vote—and the EU member states will simply have a vote in the Council on the withdrawal agreement. We have considerably more powers than them, too.
I turn now to the detail of the amendment at hand. We start with a simple purpose: how do we guarantee Parliament’s role in scrutinising the Government in the unlikely event that the preferred scenario does not come to pass? Our intention is straightforward: to conclude negotiations in October and put before both Houses a deal that is worthy of support. In approaching our discussions on this matter, the Government set out three reasonable tests: that we do not undermine the negotiations, that we do not alter the constitutional role of Parliament in relation to international negotiations, and that we respect the result of the referendum.
It is on that basis that we have tabled our amendments. This is a fair and serious proposal that demonstrates the significant flexibility that the Government have already shown in addressing the concerns of the House. Our original amendment provided that, if Parliament rejected the final deal, the Government must make a statement setting out their next steps in relation to negotiations within 28 days of that rejection. Our new amendments provide for a statement and a motion, ensuring that there is a guaranteed opportunity for both Houses to express their views on the Government’s proposed next steps. Not only that, but we have expanded the set of circumstances in which that opportunity would arise, to cover the three situations conceived of in the amendment tabled by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) last week. First, if Parliament rejects the deal, a statement must now be made within 21 days and a motion must be tabled in both Houses within seven sitting days of that statement. Alternatively, if the Prime Minister announces before 21 January 2019 that no deal can be agreed with the European Union, a statement must be made within 14 days, and a motion must be tabled in both Houses within seven days of that statement. Finally, if no agreement has been reached by the end of 21 January 2019, a statement must be made within five days, and a motion must be tabled in both Houses within five sitting days. That would happen whatever the state of the negotiations at that stage.
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Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am reading here in the media for the first time a ministerial statement from the Secretary of State purporting to explain how “neutral terms” would operate in practice, and I assume that you have seen the statement, Mr Speaker. It says:
“Under the Standing Orders of the House of Commons it will be for the Speaker to determine whether a motion when it is introduced by the Government under the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill is or is not in fact cast in neutral terms and hence whether the motion is or is not amendable.”
Therefore, Mr Speaker, my question to you is this: what discretion does that leave you in practice if such a motion is cast in time-honoured neutral terms in the first place?
I am very grateful.
Will my right hon. Friend commend our hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), who on the radio today, with his characteristic openness, said that he hoped that, if the amendment of our right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) were passed today, the House would use that in order to suspend the triggering of article 50, which let the cat out of the bag of what the motive is, which is to delay, frustrate or even stop entirely the UK leaving the European Union?
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I am grateful for the chance to take part in this debate.
Once again, we will be hearing the siren voices of the hard-line no deal Brexiteers, of whom there are some in this place, claiming that they, and they alone, have a monopoly on respect for democracy, on respect for Parliament and on a patriotic love for their chosen country.
They will demonstrate their regard for democracy by unilaterally and retrospectively changing the question that was asked in the 2016 referendum while assuming that the answer will stay the same. They demonstrate their respect for Parliament by doing their damnedest to keep Parliament out of playing any meaningful role in the most important events any of us is likely to live through. And they demonstrate their patriotic love for their country by pushing an agenda that threatens to fundamentally damage the social and economic foundations on which their country, and indeed all of our respective countries, was built.
There should be no doubt about what the hard-liners are seeking to achieve here. They tell us that the Lords amendments are about attempting to stop Brexit but, in their private briefings to each other, they tell themselves they are worried that these amendments might stop a cliff-edge no deal Brexit—that is precisely what I want these amendments to stop.
The hard-liners are seeking to create a situation where if, as seems increasingly likely by the day, a severely weakened Prime Minister—possibly in the last days of her prime ministership—comes back from Brussels with a miserable deal that nobody could welcome, the only option is to crash out of the European Union with no agreement on anything.
Although I hear the Secretary of State’s words of warning that a person should not go into a negotiation if they cannot afford to walk away, I remind him that the Government started to walk away on the day they sent their article 50 letter. From that date they had no deal, and the negotiation is about trying to salvage something from the wreckage of that disastrous mistake.
The far-right European Research Group would have us believe that its opposition to amendment 19P is just about preventing Parliament from being allowed to tell the Government what to do. I am no expert in English history, but I thought the civil war was about whether Parliament has the right to tell the monarch and the Government what to do.
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First, let me say that I very much agree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) about the nature of political debate in this country. He is absolutely right to point that out and I agree with him wholeheartedly.
The second point I wish to make is that many people in this House seem to forget that there have been two meaningful votes. The first was when this House decided to give a referendum to the British people. The second was the referendum itself, in which the people voted to leave the EU. They were meaningful votes.
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Does not this compromise give enormous power to you, Mr Speaker? That is all very well, because you are a Speaker who has stood up for the rights of this House and of Back Benchers, and for the majority in this House to be able to have meaningful votes, but were you to fall under a bus in the next few months, what guarantee would there be that a future Speaker would stand up for the rights of this House in the same way that you have done?
It is not for me to advise you, Mr Speaker, but please do not cross any roads between now and the end of this process.
It seems to me that the Government’s intention throughout has been to seek to neuter this House when we come to the end of the process. We are talking about the possibility of facing no deal at all. In his speech from our Front Bench, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) set the position out very clearly: first, not only would we be facing economic difficulty of the most serious kind—with impacts on trade, on our services industry and on broadcasting—but there would be impacts on the security of our nation, because with no deal in place, how would the exchange of information continue? These are not minor matters; they go to the heart of the Government’s responsibility to make sure that we are safe, that industry works, that taxes are raised and that public services are paid for. That is why people are getting exercised about this. It is not just some amendment to one Bill; it is the most important decision that the country has faced for generations.
As my right hon. and learned Friend pointed out, we are not ready to cope with the consequences. Members should contemplate this, for a moment: if, because the House cannot do anything about it, we fall off the edge of the cliff, and future generations look at us and say, “What did you do at that moment? What did you do? Didn’t you say anything?”, are we, as the House of Commons, really going to allow our hands to be bound and say, “Well, at least I took note of what was happening”? Our responsibility is not to take note; it is to take charge, to take responsibility and to do our job.
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I am grateful, again, to the other place for sending us the amendment. I have been concerned about this issue since the referendum, and have been open in my views about the need for a meaningful vote and parliamentary sovereignty. This is about our country’s future and ensuring that we enhance, not reduce, our democracy. When I was re-elected last year, my constituents were under no illusions about how important I thought a meaningful vote was, as I had already made my concerns public and, indeed, voted for such a vote during the article 50 process.
Views may differ regarding the desirability of no deal. In my view, it would be utterly catastrophic for my constituents and the industries in which they work, but surely all sides should welcome the certainty that the amendment would bring to the process. We are often accused of wanting to tie the Government’s hands, but nothing could be further from the truth. How can the amendment tie the Government’s hands during negotiations when it concerns the steps that should be taken when negotiations have broken down? In other words, it concentrates on events after the negotiations.
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Thank you, Mr Speaker, for selecting amendment (a); my pleasure at being able to speak to it is enhanced by the fact that this opportunity came completely out of the blue, and I welcome that.
The principal purpose of my amendment is to provide clarity such that in all eventualities there will be the opportunity for people to have a final say on any deal that the Government strike, and such that Parliament will not be left stranded with no deal, with which would come the closure of our ports, food shortages, medicine shortages and general chaos. [Interruption.] If Government Members do not believe that, I advise them to talk to the people at the port authority at Dover to hear what they think no deal would mean. I make no apology for the fact that I do want to stop Brexit, which I do not think will come as a surprise to many people in the Chamber. I do not, though, believe that the amendment tabled by the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), or, indeed, my own amendment, would achieve that aim.
Brexit is a calamity. We are going to be poorer, more insecure and less influential, with fewer friends in the world and more enemies as a result of it, and that is happening already. Some Government Members know that and say it; some know it and keep quiet; and some know it and claim the opposite, although I am not going to embarrass those who shared platforms with me during the EU referendum campaign and said then that it would cause calamity, but now claim the opposite. Some Government Members deny it. Their life’s ambition has been to achieve Brexit and they could not possibly accept that it is now doing us harm.
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I shall make the shortest speech here that I have made for very many years—[Hon. Members: “Ever!”]—and I shall take no interventions. [Interruption.] Well, the Government are restricting debate on this European issue as ferociously as they are trying to restrict votes and powers. I voted against both the previous timetable motions. With no explanation, we have been told that we have an hour and a half for this extremely important issue today. Presumably, it is to allow time for the interesting debate that follows, taking note on the subject of NATO, which could be tabled at any time over the next fortnight and has no urgency whatever. None of us are allowed to say very much about this matter.
The Government have been trying to minimise the parliamentary role throughout the process. That is only too obvious. I will try to avoid repeating anything that others have said, but the fact is that it started with an attempt to deny the House any vote on the invocation of article 50, and litigation was required to change that. A meaningful vote has been resisted since it was first proposed. The Government suffered a defeat in this House during the earlier stages of our proceedings before they would contemplate it, and then they assured us that they would not try to reverse that; there would be a meaningful vote. But actually, because that amendment needs amplification and the Bill needs to be made clearer, we now have this vital last stage of Lords amendments and the final attempt to spell out what meaningful votes and parliamentary influence is supposed to mean, and it is being resisted to the very last moment.
Last week, I thought that the Government would be defeated because of their resistance. I was not invited to the negotiations. I do not blame the Chief Whip for that in the slightest. I have not fallen out with him personally, but I think that he knew that I would take a rather firm line as I saw nothing wrong with Lord Hailsham’s amendment if nothing else were available. My right hon. and hon. Friends, including my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve), actually believed that they had undertakings from the Prime Minister, and I believe that the Prime Minister gave those undertakings in good faith.
My right hon. and learned Friend for Beaconsfield negotiated with a very distinguished member of the Government acting on the Prime Minister’s behalf, and they reached a firm agreement. That agreement is substantially reflected in Lords amendment 19P and my right hon. and hon. Friends expected that it would be tabled by the Government. It was not. And now the Government are resisting the very issue upon which last week a very distinguished member of the Government reached a settlement—to use the legal terms—because the Government are not able to live up to their agreement. We are being asked to substitute, for a perfectly reasonable Lords amendment, a convoluted thing that would mean arguments about the Speaker’s powers if it ever had to be invoked.
There are only two issues that come out of this debate. The first is about honour. The right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) tried to ensure that he got a deal from the Prime Minister. He went with other Members to negotiate with her and she made a promise to him about an amendment, but that promise was not necessarily fulfilled in the interpretation of the Members who heard her say it, so the House of Lords had to send this issue back to us today. This issue is definitely about honour. Other hon. Members have said that they believe that the House can pass resolutions and motions, and that they will be honoured, even if they are not necessarily binding. I believe that the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield is an honourable man, and he is again taking the Government at their word.
That brings me to the second issue, which is that this is also about Parliament. If the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield has achieved anything, it is that he has moved the Government from where the Prime Minister was on “The Andrew Marr Show” on Sunday, when she said that Parliament cannot tie the hands of Government. The right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield has managed to extract a statement from the Government, who are now saying that it is open for Members to table motions, that parliamentary time will be provided, and that it is open for this House, through Mr Speaker, to ensure that motions and decisions can be made. The right hon. and learned Gentleman believes that that is worth having and it is indeed true that it is a step forward. The difference that I have with him is that he believes that the Prime Minister and the Government should be given the benefit of the doubt yet again; I would suggest that he should not and could not necessarily trust their word. That is where we differ.
There is just one fundamental point that I would like to make about this debate, which is that the decision that was taken in the European Union Referendum Act 2015—by six to one in the primacy of this House of Commons and in the House of Lords, which endorsed it—was to accept that the people of this country, not 650 Members of Parliament, would make the decision in the referendum. I need say only one word about this: our constitutional arrangements in this country operate under a system of parliamentary government, not government by Parliament.
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On a point of order, Mr Speaker. What means do I have to correct the record given that at Prime Minister’s questions today, my neighbour, the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), may have inadvertently cited my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Transport as being responsible for a timetabling issue that affects my constituency? The emails that she referenced were three years old, from a time when neither of my right hon. Friends were in their current roles. The timetabling issue and the current disruption are separate issues. I will continue to work with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to ensure that the best service for my constituents is met. I felt that it was important to bring this point to the House.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I am sure that the hon. Member for Southport (Damien Moore) was as shocked as I was to read the content of many of the emails that were released both to him and me under the Freedom of Information Act. Their content has had such serious implications for my constituents and his. Given that the Department has not released emails during the current Secretary of State for Transport’s tenure and has stopped at the point at which the current Secretary of State was appointed, I wonder whether I could seek your guidance as to whether it might be in order to direct the Secretary of State to release those emails and come clean about what he knew, and when.