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House of Commons Hansard
26 January 2017
Volume 620

    Motion made, and Question proposed,

    That, in respect of the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill, notices of Amendments, new Clauses and new Schedules to be moved in Committee may be accepted by the Clerks at the Table before the Bill has been read a second time.—(Mr Lidington.)

  • I was hoping that the Leader of the House might at least explain to the House and those watching proceedings what the effect of his motion would be. In fact, it is the very first step, perhaps not necessarily an entirely bad one, in the concertinaing of the debate process—of making shorter the process for the House to consider the European Union withdrawal Bill, as it ought to be called. The motion seeks to allow Members the opportunity to table amendments to the Bill in Committee at this point, or after it is passed, rather than under the usual procedure, which is that amendments for Committee are not normally allowed to be tabled until the Bill’s Second Reading has been debated and voted on. I understand that there are good reasons for that convention, which I suppose relate to the fact that Members would normally want to hear the thoughts of Ministers and other Members on the principle of the legislation so that they can reflect on what has been said and the Government’s policy. At that point, they would draft and table their amendments.

  • Does it strike my hon. Friend as somewhat odd that the motion assumes that the Bill is going to pass Second Reading and that reasoned amendments might not be made? We can all make our judgments about calculations on votes in this House, but on a point of principle it is odd that we seem to be assuming that the Bill will automatically have its Second Reading before we have even reached that stage.

  • Indeed, my hon. Friend is entirely correct. The Government seem to make a lot of assumptions; it is part of their general instinct to railroad legislation through. Particularly for this piece of legislation, though, they are assuming that the House will have nothing much of any consequence to say about one of the most important issues in a generation: the fact that the UK will be withdrawing from the European Union. I suspect that Members will want to table very many amendments under the motion, should it be passed.

    I say to the Leader of the House that it is massively regrettable that the Government are taking this approach. They could have taken a far more relaxed, open-palmed approach to dialogue and debate and listened to the issues raised by Members on both sides of the House. When amendments are tabled in the normal course of events, they can reflect on them and rebut them, if they so wish. Instead, they are taking an approach that speaks volumes of Ministers’ frailty and their fear of ordinary debate and discussion in the House of Commons.

    Members have a lot to say about the Bill in question. I do not believe that we can ignore the outcome of the referendum, but withdrawing from the European Union will have phenomenal consequences, so the amendments we may wish to table have to cover all the issues surrounding the triggering of article 50. I understand that, in moving the motion, the Leader of the House is seeking to allow and afford Members the opportunity to table amendments in advance of the weekend and before Second Reading, but it would be regrettable if we were to lose that space between Second Reading and Committee for people to reflect on some very important things, one of which is the matter of the White Paper. The Prime Minister has conceded that we are going to have one, but as yet we still do not know when it is going to be published. If we had the White Paper today, it might help to inform the amendments that, in an hour’s time, we might be able to table.

  • Order. This is a very narrow motion about the tabling of amendments. The hon. Gentleman is now moving in the direction of White Papers. I will be very strict about keeping to the wording of the motion. If he comes back to that, I will allow him to continue, otherwise I will cut him short.

  • Madam Deputy Speaker, you are entirely right to focus on the narrow nature of this particular motion, but I believe that the motion should have made reference to the White Paper. Although it allows Members to table amendments before Second Reading, it does not necessarily mean that we can table amendments with the White Paper having been published. We are tabling amendments for discussion after Second Reading, when the White Paper that has been promised may not be available.

  • I will give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Paul Farrelly) first.

  • Clearly, this Bill has been tabled with great speed following the Supreme Court decision. We are, I understand, not being given that long a time to debate it. Is my hon. Friend certain that, given the complexity of this matter, this Bill is fully compliant with the judgment of the Supreme Court, particularly as the triggering of article 50 is irrevocable?

  • I do not want to stray beyond the precise terms of the motion, which I appreciate is very much about the timing of the tabling of amendments. My hon. Friend may not only bring up that point in debate on Second Reading, but consider addressing it by tabling an amendment to the legislation.

  • May I help my hon. Friend? The point he makes about the White Paper and its relation to possible amendments is a good one, because Members may wish to table amendments, new clauses and new schedules that relate to issues that they are not happy with in the White Paper, but we have not yet seen that White Paper. There is a very practical concern here, which is that we can table amendments before we have actually had a proper presentation of the facts by the Government—

  • Order. May I make a helpful suggestion? Members should put their names down to speak in the debate on Tuesday, at which point this would all be very relevant, but it is not relevant to what we are debating now.

  • I appreciate that, Madam Deputy Speaker, but this motion today, about the timing of the tabling of amendments, is a symptom of the Government’s strategy and approach to the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union. Therefore, it is entirely appropriate that the House spots that and recognises what is going on. This is the very first step in the compression of this process, where normally Members would have, for very good historic reasons that are long-established by convention, the right to listen to Ministers on Second Reading, reflect on those thoughts and then table amendments. What Ministers are intent on doing is ramming this Bill through the House of Commons without thinking of the consequences. They are giving Members the opportunity to table amendments now before we have even heard Government policy properly on Second Reading—

  • Order. This really is my last warning to the hon. Gentleman. He is talking about the Bill, which is coming up next week. That is not what we are debating here. This is entirely about the amendments that are being accepted by the Clerks at the Table before the Bill has been read a Second time. It is a very, very narrow motion. If he keeps to that, he may continue, but he is really testing my patience.

  • I do appreciate that it is a very narrowly drafted motion. It does indeed say that, in respect of this particular Bill,

    “notices of Amendments, new Clauses and new schedules to be moved in Committee may be accepted by the Clerks at the Table before the Bill has been read a second time.”

    That in itself begs a number of questions. You may have noticed, Madam Deputy Speaker, that a queue has already formed beside your Chair of hon. Members who may wish to table amendments. I understand that if we wish to table amendments at the passing of this motion, we should approach the Table and hand them over to the Clerks. I suspect that there will be a great deal of demand for the Clerks’ time and attention. Indeed, one issue that I wish to raise—perhaps the Minister can respond to this—is to do with the pressure that will be on the Clerks over the coming days because of the demands of Members wanting to table amendments. [Interruption.] There is sympathy, I hear, from my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane), who is known for his close affinity with the Clerks and his appreciation of procedure. It is a serious point. The Second Reading debate is on Tuesday and Wednesday, and the Committee stage is the following week, ridiculously gagging Parliament in its ability to scrutinise the legislation properly, given that the Maastricht treaty had 23 days of consideration and the Lisbon treaty had 11 days.

    With regard to the motion and the timings for tabling amendments—I hear your entreaties, Madam Deputy Speaker—I would like the Minister to consider whether there are any precedents for this sort of motion, for example when legislation relating to other EU treaty revisions was considered. Did we have this for the Maastricht treaty, the Amsterdam treaty, the Nice treaty or the Single European Act? Does the Minister have something to say about the timing of the White Paper that could inform our ability to table amendments?

    I have managed to scribble down—not on velum, but on the paper available in my office—22 amendments that I think are appropriate for this legislation. Perhaps I have shot myself in the foot by catching your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, because I have missed my place in the queue that is forming by your Chair to table said amendments; that is the lot that I will have to live with by making these points about the motion.

    I would also like to know whether the Procedure Committee has been consulted on the motion, because, as I understand it, this is a highly unusual change. It is not necessarily unwelcome, but it is symptomatic of the Government’s intention to override the procedures and conventions of the House that would normally allow us to reflect on something before tabling amendments.

    It is important that Members of the House exercise their right to reflect on the consequences of this legislation. It is one of the most important decisions that we will make, certainly this year, definitely in this Parliament, and perhaps in my time in the House. I think all Members should think about amendments that might be pertinent to the legislation. Yes, the Bill might be narrowly drawn, as some have said—how could we possibly want to amend a Bill that is just one clause long?—but a short sentence can have a vast effect on public policy and on our constituents. It is our duty to think about the amendments that might be relevant and table them when the motion is passed. I hope that all hon. Members will think about their responsibilities.

    It looks as though the Clerks are going to have a very busy weekend trying to ensure that the drafting of amendments is in order. Some people say that there are a lot of lawyers in the House—I am not a lawyer, but I know many who are—but we still sometimes need assistance in the phraseology and terminology of amendments.

    The Minister should at least do us the courtesy of explaining why he has tabled the motion and set out the fact that this is the beginning of the concertinaing of the parliamentary consideration of the European Union withdrawal Bill. For him not to do so, and simply to stand and say, “I beg to move”, is yet another sign of the Government’s arrogance. Perhaps they have not properly reflected on the judgment of the Supreme Court, which insisted that Parliament has the duty to legislate on these matters and that it is not something for the Crown prerogative. It is for us to amend the Bill and ensure, if we have to table amendments before Second Reading, that we have those particular rights.

  • I totally agree with my hon. Friend about this very unusual motion. I would simply like to know what precedents there are for this on major or minor legislation. It is entirely unclear to me what the deadline will be for tabling amendments. Presumably,

    “before the Bill has been read a second time”

    means that we could hand in our amendments right up to the deadline, but unless they are printed for consideration, how can the House properly consider them?

  • That is a good point. I presume a notice of amendments sheet will be published tomorrow morning, as of course the House is sitting, and then again on Monday, and that it will list the amendments that begin to accrue before we get to Second Reading next week. I wonder whether hon. Members might like a wager on how many amendments we will have on the amendment paper before we even get to Second Reading. It could be a record for the House.

  • On the point about the number of amendments, the hon. Gentleman will recall that when the Scotland Act 2016 was debated, there were 147 amendments, but I think only 20 of those were put to a vote, purely because of the system of this Parliament and the time it takes to vote. The public will be looking on, watching the process and wondering how we can have so little time and so little debate on such an important issue.

  • The hon. Lady is correct, of course. People watching the proceedings may say, “This is just a simple measure. What are hon. Members talking about here?” We are talking about one of the most significant policy changes affecting our constituents in a generation. I certainly believe that I would not be doing my job as a Member of Parliament if I did not think about all the consequences that could arise from leaving the European Union. I regard the decision as having been made in the referendum, but it is for this Parliament to enact that and put that legislation into effect. To do so without amendment and without thinking of the consequences and all the ramifications for industry, trade, social policy—you name it, Madam Deputy Speaker—would mean we were not doing our duty. I have much more to say, but I think I would be testing the patience of the House if I were to do so, so I will keep my remarks short and conclude at this point.

  • I will also try to stick to the narrow remit of the motion. At the outset, I say that we welcome the opportunity to table amendments in advance of Second Reading. Whether they are tabled today or on Monday, a substantial number will be tabled. If I do not stretch your patience too far, Madam Deputy Speaker, may I make one small observation on the explanatory notes to the Bill? Paragraph 22 says:

    “The Bill is not expected to have any financial implications.”

    I suspect that is very far from what will happen.

    It is on matters financial that many of the amendments that we wish to table, and will table in advance, will be drafted. The difficulty is, as has already been suggested, that the White Paper that is to accompany the Bill has not yet been published. That brings us to the rather vexed question of how the Clerks, in advance of Second Reading, will deal with amendments as they are tabled. I do not mean to debate the policy by any means, but if I may, I will give just two small examples of why this is profoundly problematic.

    We know there is a demand in the financial services sector for financial passporting. We know that there is a demand in many sectors for significant and long transitional arrangements. Unless and until the Clerks know what the White Paper may say about that and whether the Government may indeed have accepted some sense on it, it will be extremely difficult to know the nature of any amendments that may be tabled, notwithstanding the welcome extra time in which to do so.

    The Bill is also very narrow. Again, although we welcome the opportunity to table amendments, we need to know what may or may not be in range and acceptable—not just tableable, but selectable and votable. I am sure some colleagues in the House would think it sensible, for example, to try to avoid a £1,000 levy on every EU employee. Although we could table such an amendment, we do not know whether it would be accepted or how the Clerks may choose to deal with such an amendment.

  • Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it will be perhaps disadvantageous to the Government if amendments are tabled without knowledge of either the White Paper or what Ministers may say to clarify points raised by hon. Members on Second Reading? We may have a range of amendments tabled that could have been completely averted if the process had been conducted in appropriate order.

  • The hon. Lady makes a very important point. I want to stick to the process, and the point is precisely that if all the information required were available—notwithstanding the generous additional time—that eventuality could absolutely be avoided. And there is another issue: this motion—we do welcome it—might be seen by the public in the future as problematic, rather than beneficial, for precisely the reasons the hon. Lady suggested.

  • I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He has raised some very strong points. Does he agree that there is a procedural issue—for those who are not familiar with the proceedings of the House—in that some people may now feel rushed into tabling amendments, because those can now be tabled, rather than taking time to consider them and to craft them in such a way that they might be selectable, votable and, indeed, endorsed on both sides of the House? That is a very real issue, which may affect our ability to debate this subject.

  • I am not going to reject the opportunity offered by the time to table amendments in advance, but the possibility that amendments will be badly drafted or rushed precisely because of this motion is a very real one. It would not be the first time that, having got to the later stages of legislation, the Government tabled substantial numbers of amendments because the draft legislation and other amendments were not drafted adequately or correctly in the first place.

  • Now that the Supreme Court has given its judgment and empowered Parliament to take a vote on this issue, is there not an argument for saying that the Government, by pushing this process forward with such haste and not allowing hon. Members to wait to see what is discussed on Second Reading, are holding the Supreme Court judgment in contempt? The judgment is about making sure that Parliament does its job on behalf of the people of all the United Kingdom, and that has been denied by the Government’s sheer and utter haste in driving things through at the pace they are doing.

  • I think my hon. Friend is fundamentally right. Having the time to table amendments early is welcome, of course, and the Government will rightly argue that this is Parliament deciding. Nevertheless, the consequences are absolutely as my hon. Friend has described, and as was described previously.

  • The hon. Gentleman gave the example of the potential £1,000 levy for incoming non-UK EU citizens. Equally, in the absence of information from the Government, we may face amendments on employers who already have employees from other EU countries. I met employers from the London hotel sector yesterday, who are very worried because about 80% of employees in some of their hotels are non-UK EU citizens. We may seek to have amendments on that issue, but in the absence of Government information, that is unclear at this stage.

  • Indeed. This point is oft repeated, but one could—again, without stretching your patience too much, Madam Deputy Speaker—add the Scottish fish processing sector to the hospitality sector, for precisely the same reason. Given that the Clerks will not, I assume, have had access to the White Paper to identify what may or may not have been accepted by way of clarity or change, that makes these things extremely difficult.

  • I was just reading the explanatory notes to the Bill, explaining why the fast-tracking is being adopted and therefore we are considering this motion now. The House agreed in December—I did not; I voted against the motion, as the hon. Gentleman did—to authorise the invoking of article 50 by the end of March. But at that stage we did not know what the Supreme Court judgment would be, neither in respect of the role of this House nor in respect of the role of the other legislatures. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, now that circumstances have changed, it is right that the House reconsiders, and that therefore the explanatory reason for the fast-tracking really does not hold water?

  • I think, on balance, that that is probably correct. The additional time for the amendments is welcome, but the fast-tracking of what is a very small measure, when the Government would appear to have an in-built majority, seems like unnecessary haste, which is intended only to meet arbitrary timetables rather than to allow proper, detailed and timeous scrutiny.

    We will not oppose the motion—as I say, the opportunity to table amendments in advance of Second Reading is welcome—but I am sure that no one will be left in any doubt that it is not without some significant and substantial problems.

  • I fully appreciate that this is a very narrow motion, and I also will do my best to stick to the point, but I think the fact that it is so narrow is a point of principle in itself. When the public look on at this process they will want to have confidence in it, and people did not have confidence in the process in the run-up to the EU referendum.

    In October 2012, power was conferred from the UK Government to the Scottish Government for Scotland to hold a referendum on Scottish independence, and power is now being conferred, as the Bill says, to the Prime Minister. It strikes me that there are two major differences between the two processes. There is a significant difference between what is happening now and the timescale when power was conferred to the Scottish Parliament before we had our referendum in 2014.

    We went through a nearly two-year process of public engagement. We actually wrote things down. We had a White Paper—650 pages of a White Paper. I have it with me—this is what it looks like. The Minister is not paying attention; I wonder whether he read it. For the avoidance of doubt—for him and for any other member of the public—this is what a White Paper looks like. This is what putting blood, sweat and tears, and plans, into your constitutional future looks like—something that this Government have not bothered to do. The people of the United Kingdom deserve better. People in Scotland got the gold standard of referendum. They had a proper consultation process. In the run-up to the referendum in Scotland, over 90% of people registered to vote voluntarily, and over 80%—

  • Order. Could the hon. Lady mention amendments? She might be coming on to that, but she is talking about the Scottish referendum—not even the EU referendum, let alone the Bill that is coming up next week. It is a very, very narrow motion. I appreciate that lots of Members wish to speak, but there is only so much that can be said about it, and the rest of the debate takes place next week.

  • I absolutely take on board what you say, Madam Deputy Speaker, but you know that—

  • The hon. Lady will be very much aware that 16 and 17-year-olds did have a vote in the Scottish referendum. Would she welcome amendments to this Bill to ensure that in future, across the UK, 16 and 17-year-olds are guaranteed a right to vote on any change to constitutional arrangements?

  • Order. This is not about any amendments, but a very specific motion. We are not amending the Bill now.

  • I will seek to close shortly and keep away from the theoretical. However, these are the options that we are left with. I am a Member of Parliament who represents a Scottish constituency, and since we have arrived here we have sought to share the positive and constructive experiences that we had in Scotland during the referendum. Unfortunately, at every turn, on matters such as 16 and 17-year-olds, this Government have sought to ignore them.

  • This is a procedural motion. This debate is suddenly taking place, even though the Order Paper says that there would have been no debate if the motion had been moved after 5 pm. Does that not speak to something else we have tried to do since we were elected here, which is to reform the procedures and make them more transparent? There is much that can be learned from the Scottish Parliament experience in that regard.

  • I could not agree more. That brings me to the crux of my point. Many amendments will be tabled, and the timescale to do that is short. The timescale for debate and for voting will be short.

  • We are discussing amendments to what is euphemistically called a Bill, but in the spirit of respect, this process has to happen within all the nations of this United Kingdom. One has to ask, have the Government, before we get to the stage of considering these amendments, consulted the other legislatures in the United Kingdom? Have the Scottish Government, as part of the whole process of respect, had the opportunity to take part in the debate with this Government before the Bill is debated in this Parliament?

  • Once again, I find myself agreeing with one of my hon. Friends. The bottom line is that people will be watching this process. I do not think that people had faith in the run-up to the EU referendum. They now are looking on—the whole world is looking on, and our international reputation is at stake. It is so important that our process is seen to be fair.

  • Does the hon. Lady agree that something of such momentous significance as this type of change to our constitution deserves scrupulous and regularised parliamentary process, and that chopping and changing and playing games with our usual processes on a Bill of this significance will undermine public confidence in this House and its processes?

  • I could not agree more. Many things have brought down public confidence in politics, and we have an opportunity to change that, but I fear that we are going in the wrong direction.

    I finish by quoting Adlai Stevenson, who said:

    “Public confidence in the integrity of the Government is indispensable to faith in democracy; and when we lose faith in the system, we have lost faith in everything we fight and spend for.”

    I hope this Government think very carefully about that, and about the process that they are embarking on, and do a decent job.

  • It is unusual to have a debate on this sort of procedural motion, but it is important—it is a matter of principle—for our constituents to understand the processes of this House, given that we are about to embark on the enterprise of debating and amending the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill and of voting on it. It is a matter of generational significance. This is not just any other piece of legislation; it will affect the prospects of people in my constituency, as well as businesses, organisations and people up and down Wales, for many years to come.

    It is only right that the public understand the processes of this place, which can often seem labyrinthine. I support the agenda, which the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) just spoke about, of simplifying and straightening out some of our procedures. I wonder whether the Procedure Committee has looked at the matter. I have not seen such a motion before, except perhaps on emergency anti-terrorism legislation or things of that sort. It is an unusual motion.

    Although having more time to table amendments is welcome, this is an odd direction for the Government to take. We will not have been through the Second Reading debate, we will not have seen a White Paper and we will not have been able properly to think through the structure of the amendments, new clauses and new schedules that we might wish to table. We will not have had a chance to consider who we might wish to table them with, or who we might want to ask to support them, to show the confidence of the House. As you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, those matters have great significance in determining which amendments are selected and which can be voted on.

    I went through a frustrating experience recently on a similarly short Bill, the Commonwealth Development Corporation Bill, to which I and many others tabled amendments on several important issues. Because of the nature of the debate and the rules set by the usual channels and others, only a certain number of votes could be taken. An amendment that I had tabled, which had cross-party support from the SNP, the Lib Dems, the Greens and others from across the House, was not voted on because we were told that there could be only two votes as a consequence of the limitations on time and process.

    I was deeply concerned when I heard confirmation in the business statement this morning that there would be only three days of debate on the Bill in Committee. We do not know how much time there will be for debate on Report, or, crucially, what knives will be inserted into the debate.

  • Does my hon. Friend agree that this is a strange day on which to table a motion that effectively starts the exit process? No votes are expected, and therefore most Members—just look around—are back in their constituencies. Many are campaigning in two by-elections. Does he agree that the way in which the motion has been tabled today brings the House into disrepute? It would have been quite easy for the Government to have tabled a similar motion on Monday to give people a week to consider it, and then to start Second Reading the following week? [Interruption.]

  • My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is typical of this Government to table things at the last minute on a Thursday when they think that people have gone home, when nobody is watching and when they expect business to have concluded. It is important that my constituents and the public understand how procedural devices in this House are often used to frustrate debate and discussion, and to frustrate the reasonable scrutiny of Parliament; fundamentally, the Supreme Court has said that such scrutiny is crucial on a matter as important as this. I was disappointed to hear the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons chuntering “time wasting” during my hon. Friend’s intervention. This is about Parliament having a say, and it is about having proper scrutiny and proper process on something so fundamental, which will affect generations to come.

    I do not normally like to get into big procedural debates in this place; I normally like to talk about issues of substance. But when we are about to embark on a debate on such an important matter, it is absolutely crucial that we have the most transparent, accessible and open processes for the tabling of amendments, new clauses and new schedules, and for debating and voting on them.

  • I am sure the hon. Gentleman understands that these are exceptional circumstances. The people have agreed through the referendum that they want to leave the European Union, and the Government understand and acknowledge that the people want the process for that to be out by 31 March. As that is the case, the logistical issues in relation to new clauses and amendments must be resolved in a way that allows the will of the people to be heard in this Parliament. We cannot ignore that, and with great respect to the hon. Gentleman and to other hon. Members on the Opposition Benches, the prerogative of Parliament is not to ignore the view of the people but to acknowledge the voice given to them through the referendum.

  • I do not necessarily disagree with the spirit of what the hon. Gentleman says. I know that he, as an assiduous contributor to debates in this House, including on amendments and parliamentary procedure, would welcome proper scrutiny. Whether or not we agree on the result of the referendum or about how to take the process forward, he would agree with me about the importance of this place, its processes and the way in which we debate such matters.

    It is important to understand that the order in which amendments are tabled in this place can significantly affect the ability to speak on them, particularly when the time to debate them is curtailed; it also affects which amendments we can vote on. I would be deeply concerned if we started to see procedural chicanery by the Government—by the Whips and others—and attempts to curtail debate and to prevent the reasonable discussion of matters in this House. [Interruption.] A Government Whip is chuntering already.

    We all understand the result of the referendum and we all have different views on it, but we have many concerns about how the process is being undertaken. I believe that the Prime Minister has already shown a great deal of contempt for this House by not turning up to explain herself and answer questions. The Government have been forced into a corner about publishing a White Paper. They now appear to be tinkering with the proceedings of this place, and to be rushing headlong into the process without allowing proper and adequate scrutiny.

    I raise these issues not as an attempt to frustrate or stop the process—I will not oppose the motion—but because I want the public, including my constituents, to understand that there are those in the House who often abuse its procedures to prevent reasonable scrutiny and to prevent votes. I would be deeply concerned if that were to continue during the next few weeks. We have already seen a habit formed by this Government and we have already seen their direction of travel, but I sincerely hope it stops right now, so that we can have proper debate and scrutiny.

  • Will my hon. Friend give way?

  • I will give way briefly before I sit down.

  • I have caught my hon. Friend in the nick of time. I certainly hope that my latest intervention is not “time wasting”. Does he agree that it would be a very sad day if the procedures meant that the time provided for debate in this House on such an important decision was less than the time provided in the unelected other place?

  • I absolutely agree. This comparison has already been made, but I also find it difficult to understand how we can spend less time on this matter than was spent on the Lisbon treaty or the Maastricht treaty, when all sorts of procedural devices were exploited. This is a matter of generational significance, and whatever we feel, whichever way our constituencies voted—to leave or to remain—and whatever our views about the type and nature of the arrangements we will be moving to, it is important that this is done properly, with transparency, care and consideration because my concern is that the decisions we make will last for decades to come.

  • I call Neil Gray. [Hon. Members: “Peter Grant.”] I am so sorry. I call Peter Grant.

  • I accept your apology, Madam Deputy Speaker, as always, but you will remember that next time I try to catch your eye, won’t you?

    I would be interested to know why the Government have taken this welcome but unusual step with the Bill. It is almost as though we will have more time to table amendments than we will to discuss them. It might be because they know a huge amount of amendments will be tabled, because there is a massive number of specific issues on which Members will want very clear decisions. We only have to think about all the questions that have been asked of the Leader of the House, the Prime Minister and the Brexit Secretary about what will happen to EU nationals in this country, to UK nationals over in the EU, to universities, to farming and fishing, and so on, to see that they might all lead to several different amendments. If, in the haste to get to the cliff edge, only a tiny percentage of those amendments are voted on, we will end up with bad legislation. For possibly the most important decision that Parliament has taken since the Chamber was rebuilt, we cannot afford bad legislation.

  • Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me, as somebody who campaigned fiercely for us to remain in the European Union, that the most important decision was made when the House decided—whether we were wrong or right, given the result—to have a referendum and to be true to the result, whatever it was?

  • My recollection of the Act, apart from the fact that it was deeply flawed and that that is why we are now in this mess, is that it did not say that Parliament had to abide by the decision. It did not say that the decision was binding. It did not say anything about it. It just said that there would be a referendum. Perhaps the Government need time to draft an amendment to the Bill to make the European Union Referendum Act retrospectively binding.

    If the Government intend this Bill to be binding, will they use the additional time that they have given themselves to correct what appear to me to be mistakes in the drafting? The Bill is being rushed through because there is a political—not a legal—imperative for article 50 to be triggered by 31 March, yet it does not require the Prime Minister to do anything by 31 March. It does not require her to do anything—it permits her to do something. Is one of the amendments being cued up now a Government amendment to correct that mistake?

    Five days is not enough, although it is more than many Bills get, but the advice in the Government’s summary, which is 15 times longer than the Bill, is that its impact will be both clear and limited. Limited? It is the most important Bill that this House has ever considered. Given that it is so limited, why do the Government need to allow so much additional time for all the amendments—

  • Order. I gently remind the hon. Gentleman that he is talking about the Bill, which is different from the motion that we are debating. If he gets back to the tabling of amendments, I would be grateful.

  • I was referring not so much to the content of the Bill, but to its extent and limited impact and wondering why we needed so much additional time to table amendments.

    I concur with a lot of what has been said. Generally, the public are not interested in procedure, the timing of amendments, what days of the week Bills are debated and so on. This time, it is important because the procedures of the House are clearly being used to get the result that the Government want.

  • Let us not forget that the Government are here today only because the Supreme Court made them follow this procedure. Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that the two other legal cases that are already under way—one on European economic area membership and one on whether article 50 is retractable—could result in the Government’s requiring new clauses and new schedules?

  • I am grateful for that point. It is never a good idea to speculate about court cases here, especially if people have as little legal training as me, but those factors may well come back to haunt the Government in a big way.

    The Prime Minister has given herself a political imperative to implement article 50 by 31 March.

  • Further to the point made by the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle), will my hon. Friend join me in taking the opportunity to thank the democracy campaigners, particularly Gina Miller? Their actions and the interventions of the courts have meant that a Prime Minister who sought to ignore Parliament and treat the powers entrusted to her as an absolute privilege has been brought back into some sort of line. The campaigners’ contribution will have long-lasting effects on this issue and others.

  • I concur with my hon. Friend’s comments. It is in extremely bad taste for anyone to bad-mouth the motivation of someone who has just won a court case. Someone who has won a case in the High Court and the Supreme Court was by definition right to bring it. The treatment that Gina Miller got after the High Court case was utterly shameful and I hope that there will be no repetition of it.

    To come back to the matter in hand, I would like the Government to explain why they have taken this unusual procedural step today. Why is the Bill, possibly the shortest Bill we will consider during the Session, expected to attract so many amendments that the Clerks need extra time to collect them all?

  • I will not take any more interventions because I want to hear what the Minister has to say in the half-hour or so that is left.

  • I am grateful to be called to speak, Madam Deputy Speaker. I commend your patience, but sadly I think this will not be the end of the need for patience on the part of those who sit in that august Chair. We are discussing a motion to allow extra time for tabling amendments and new clauses, which I will be glad to support—we are certainly discussing the business of the house, not the content of next week’s Bill and debate. The charge is that the Government have begun, very consciously, to politicise the procedures and business of the House. That is why, now we have a little time, we have to hold the Government to account for that politicisation of the business of the House.

  • The hon. Gentleman is making a strong point. I wonder whether, like me, he has noticed the Government Chief Whip and other Whips scuttling back and forth, which suggests that they are worried about this place having its say on motions and procedures. Throughout the process, the Government have presumed that they can do whatever they like without reference back to this Parliament.

  • I take that point. I am not saying this to chide the Government, but I am trying to bring out into the open in this Chamber what we all know: the Government have been introducing a new parliamentary convention that flows on from the fact that we had a referendum that went against the Government. In panic and shock, the Government, whose Back Benchers are divided, decided on a new convention, which was to use the Crown prerogative to ram through whatever they wanted, based on the decision for Brexit in the referendum. That is in stark contrast to the whole history of this Chamber.

  • Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

  • I want to make a few points; we are running out of time and we want to hear the Minister.

    I want to say clearly that in a panic the Government chose to attempt to use the royal prerogative, but that has been struck down this week by the Supreme Court in a momentous and historic decision. One would have thought that in the light of that, the Government would have more regard to the procedures of the House and how its business is formulated, to give the House a proper say in the historic decision on Brexit. Did the Government learn that lesson? No, they came back with a one-line Bill to be fast-tracked. That is why, in the Government’s attempt to make some amends, we are discussing a way of getting some extra time, over the weekend, to draft amendments and new clauses to go with that fast-track procedure.

    Hon. Members have every right to worry that the Government still have not got the point that we are now to have proper parliamentary scrutiny, including control over how the debate is conducted in the House. To underline that, let us look at what the explanatory notes say about the need for fast-tracking. First, we are told that there was an “unexpected” step in the process required by the Supreme Court. It is no fault of this House that the Government do not understand what is happening in the real world. It is no fault of Members on either side of the House if the Government were caught by surprise—the rest of us were not—and it is not an excuse for fast-tracking.

    The second explanation for the fast-tracking is that this step

    “would cause considerable delay to commencing the formal exit process”,

    but the triggering of article 50 by the end of March is a random, arbitrary decision by the Government. That is not this House’s decision. The Executive are saying we have to fast-track the Bill because they have decided when they want to do it by. If that becomes a principle of how we do business—if the Government can say, “We want to do something next week, so we are going to fast-track everything”—it will be an abrogation of democracy, and we cannot have that.

  • It strikes me that the need for this fast-track process and the lack of parliamentary scrutiny shows up the fact that the Government are aware that their case is not strong or water tight and that it would be very easy for Members across the House to pick holes in it—because there are so many holes.

  • Indeed, I fear that that might be the case, but actually the Government have nothing to fear from democracy. If the people of England and Wales have voted to leave the EU, that is up to them—I will not oppose that—but the people of Scotland have voted to remain, and that is what we will do.

    The Government are politicising the procedures of the House. We have been here before—I say that humbly to the Chair, because it is why this is a major issue. We saw it in the 1880s and 1890s, when the then Government thwarted the legitimate desire for Home Rule in Ireland, and that led to major debates in Parliament that became focused through the procedures of this Parliament. Again in the 1970s, when devolution was first being discussed for Scotland, it became intertwined with major issues around the business of the House. In both cases, that happened largely because the Executive set their face against Parliament having a proper democratic discussion.

    In the end, the business will go through this afternoon, but unless the Government learn this basic lesson—that every time they try to thwart democratic discussion in the House, Members will face them down—and open up the debate, we will be in for an awful lot of procedural discussion over the next year.

  • The motion before the House has one purpose, as set out in its own terms—to suspend the normal rule that amendments may be tabled by hon. Members only once Second Reading has been achieved. The Government’s motive in tabling the motion is to make it easier for hon. Members on both sides of the House to consider and then table any amendment they wish. If they choose not to avail themselves of that opportunity, either by blocking the motion or through simply waiting until the end of Second Reading, they are perfectly entitled to take that course of action. We are not, through the motion, limiting the continued right of hon. Members to table additional amendments once Second Reading has been completed, in line with the normal procedures of the House.

    As hon. Members have said, the Government are seeking to respond to the unusual fact that we are proceeding with the article 50 Bill through expedited process. In my time here, this process has been used by Governments of all political colours, often in response to High Court or Supreme Court decisions that have interpreted the law differently from how the law had previously been assumed to stand. It is usual for the Government to move this kind of motion when such an expedited process is applied. Our purpose in using the process is to enable us to comply promptly with the judgment of the Supreme Court, while also respecting the vote of this House that the Prime Minister should trigger the article 50 process by the end of March this year. The aim is to ensure that we can comply both with the ruling of the Supreme Court and with the clear and overwhelming view expressed in a vote in the House of Commons.

    I am afraid that the speeches that we have heard this afternoon are indicative of the shambolic state of some of the arguments being presented by Opposition Members. I am disappointed that there seems to be an obsession with debating the process of each and every stage, rather than focusing on what are the key objectives in a negotiation which will deliver the best deal for people in every part of the United Kingdom following the outcome of the United Kingdom referendum last year. That is what is at the forefront of the Government’s mind, and that, I submit, is what is in the minds of our constituents who send us here, rather than the detail of perhaps unusual and arcane procedure.

    We accepted the judges’ ruling on the steps of the Supreme Court, and we immediately complied with that ruling by introducing a Bill. Opposition Members have nothing whatever to complain about. The Government could not have been more prompt, efficient or responsible in complying with that Supreme Court judgment.

    Question put and agreed to.

    Ordered,

    That, in respect of the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill, notices of Amendments, new Clauses and new Schedules to be moved in Committee may be accepted by the Clerks at the Table before the Bill has been read a second time.