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Leaving the EU: Meaningful Vote

Volume 648: debated on Monday 22 October 2018

To ask the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union if he will make a statement on Her Majesty’s Government’s policy on how any motion under section 13(1)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 is to be put before the House of Commons for decision.

May I start by welcoming the question from my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve)?

The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 confirmed in statute the Government’s long-standing commitment to provide Parliament with a vote on the terms of our final deal. When it comes to the motion that we consider at the point when the approval of the House is sought, the decision whether the motion is amendable or not will be a matter for you, Mr Speaker, not for the Government. However, the Government have made clear our expectation, subject to your prerogatives, that the motion will be amendable. The Government’s response, dated 10 October, to the report of the Select Committee on Exiting the European Union, “Parliamentary scrutiny and approval of the Withdrawal Agreement and negotiations on a future relationship”, stated:

“Of course, we accept that the Speaker may permit the tabling of amendments to the motion, as is usual convention.”

That understanding is also reflected in our response to the inquiry by the Select Committee on Procedure, which I provided on 10 October. Both responses were made publicly available on the Committees’ websites in the interests of transparency and to ensure that this House understands the Government’s position on the matter—although again, I defer to the House and to you, Mr Speaker, on procedural matters that fall within the prerogatives of the House.

It will be evident to hon. Members that any amendment to the motion would not be able to effect amendments to the withdrawal agreement or the future framework, which will have been agreed at the international level between the United Kingdom and the European Union; nor could any such amendment delay or prevent our departure from the EU as set out under article 50. It is worth reminding the House that the timing of our departure from the EU is set out in international law under article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, which this House voted to trigger.

The Government committed to giving Parliament a vote on the deal, and section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 sets out how that will happen. In passing that Act, Parliament confirmed its ultimate role in delivering on the will of the British people. Approving the final deal will be the responsibility of the House of Commons alone—a responsibility I know all hon. Members will take very seriously indeed.

While I have every sympathy with procedural problems that the Government may encounter and any honest attempt at finding a solution to them, I have to say that I find the Government’s position as stated in the memorandum they sent to the Procedure Committee entirely unsatisfactory. It departs from the plain assurances given repeatedly to the House that we would be enabled to express a desire for alternatives when voting to reject or accept any deal.

To remind my right hon. Friend, when his predecessor, our right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), appeared in front of the Exiting the European Union Committee on 25 April, to Question 1383 from the Chair:

“Can you give an assurance that the Government’s motion on the withdrawal agreement will be amendable? Yes or no?”,

our right hon. Friend replied:

“Mr Chairman, if you can tell me how to write an unamendable motion in the House of Commons, I will take a tutorial.”

Actually, one way of reading the memorandum is that that is exactly what the Government are planning to do. I might add that the promises were repeated by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) on 18 April in front of the Select Committee on the Constitution, and that throughout debates on the Floor of the House in June, when we were looking at unamendable motions, no one on the Treasury Bench demurred from the oft-repeated statements that the motion on the substance of the deal would be amendable.

Could my right hon. Friend please tell the House how he can reconcile those statements with the Government’s plain submission to the Procedure Committee recommending that a vote is first taken on the Government motion and before amendments are considered? What happens if Parliament approves the Government motion, but then amends it afterwards? Are the Government suggesting that they have what they need to ratify or not? Surely the issue will be no clearer if the Government adopt their method rather than the one they are criticising in the memorandum. Why, if there is a genuine problem over uncertainty, which I do understand, have the Government not suggested allowing different motions and choices to be put to the House for a view to be expressed prior to the Government motion being put? Why does that not feature in the Government’s submission at all?

My right hon. Friend knows that a lot in this House depends on trust. If I may say to him, the difficulty with the memorandum is that on one reading of it—I am glad to hear what he said at the Dispatch Box—it tends to undermine trust in the Government’s intention to honour the commitments they gave to the House.

I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s question and his comments. Let me try to address them, if I may. He fears, if I understand correctly, that the Government are in favour of an unamendable motion, but in fact, as the memorandum he cites makes clear in paragraph 4:

“The approval…will be a substantive motion”—

that was, I think, the first point he made—

“and therefore, under existing House procedures, will be amendable.”

I hope that gives him some reassurance. It is also worth pointing out the implications that we set out in paragraph 6 of the memorandum, which was published on 10 October, which is that

“due to the legal status accorded to the motion under s. 13 of the 2018 Act,”

which I know he scrutinised very carefully,

“a clear decision on approval of the motion is needed in order for the Government to be able to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement.”

Again, I hope that that makes clear what the basic challenge is.

If I understand my right hon. and learned Friend correctly, he may wish to change the terms of the agreement that has been struck. I think that would come up against very real, practical and diplomatic obstacles. So late in the day, there would not be time to revisit the negotiation. Secondly, just from a practical, diplomatic point of view, is he really suggesting that at that point we would actually be offered different or more favourable terms? I think that that is unlikely in the extreme.

It is very important that this House is presented with a very clear decision of the most meaningful sort available, which is between the terms of the best deal that the Government can negotiate and the alternative. I hope and I am sure that that will focus minds when that point comes.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question.

May I start by saying this: I profoundly disagree with the Prime Minister on a number of issues, including Brexit, but some of the quotes and comments about the Prime Minister this weekend, attributed to Conservative MPs, Ministers or former Ministers, are nothing short of disgraceful. In a time of growing extremism, hostility and threats to those in public life, MPs should know better. The comments are, as ever, from unnamed sources. I hope the House can agree that this kind of language has no place in our politics and has to stop.

Labour has spent 18 months campaigning for a meaningful vote and for Parliament to be properly involved in the Brexit negotiations, yet at every stage the Government’s response has been to push Parliament away. We fear that this is the latest example. Labour is clear that Parliament must be able to express its view on any deal the Prime Minister brings back, yet the Secretary of State’s letter brings that into question. Of course Labour recognises that Parliament will have to approve or disapprove of any Brexit deal—it must be a decisive decision—but it is the role of Parliament, and not the Executive, to decide how that view is to be expressed.

Labour has always believed that Parliament should be able to table, debate and vote on amendments. That is consistent with paragraph 5 of the Government’s own legal advice, which makes it clear that absent a business motion being approved by the House,

“Multiple amendments may be tabled”,

the selection of amendments and the order they are taken in is

“in the hands of the Speaker”,

and that multiple amendments can be selected. I want to be clear that Labour will not support any business motion that does not meet these criteria, and I urge the Secretary of State to think again.

I thank the shadow Brexit Secretary for his comments, and I agree with him about the need for a serious, substantive debate and for the right tone for this debate. He is right that the meaningful vote needs to be a decisive decision. We set that out in the memorandum and that is what section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 provides. As the memorandum that we have published makes clear, we expect amendments to be allowed on the motion, although again, that is an issue for you, Mr Speaker. The distinction that needs to be borne in mind is between the likely impact that any procedural amendments would have on the withdrawal agreement at the international level. The shadow Brexit Secretary is far too assiduous and astute a lawyer not to know that as a matter of basic law, they could not have an effect of altering the withdrawal agreement. Also, common sense—he will know—means that it will be highly unlikely, if not impossible, for us to refer back to the negotiating table.

I gently say to the Secretary of State that of course he was in the Ministry of Justice, and in his ministerial role he helped to negotiate the passage of the Bill that eventually became the Act that is the subject of this urgent question. And I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve): this is a matter of trust, and it is quite incredible for the Secretary of State to stand up and basically say that, as a former Minister who navigated the Bill through the House, they did not understand the consequences. This is a matter of trust not just in Parliament and along the Government Benches—my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State knows that many Members were very concerned about all of this and trusted the Government that we would have a meaningful vote—but among the people of this country, and if they think there is any breach in trust, they will not forgive this Government.

I thank my right hon. Friend. She will know, because it is set out in our memorandum—I know she scrutinises these things very carefully—that we are amenable, subject to the prerogatives of the Speaker and the House, to this being an amendable motion. She will also understand the need—this is why it is a meaningful vote of the very highest order—for there to be a clear decision that we are given on the deal we are confident we can strike with our EU partners, so that we know whether we can proceed to implement it.

I commend the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) not only for securing the urgent question but for the forensic way in which he has completely dismantled any credibility that the Government’s position may have had. I also endorse in their entirety the comments from the Opposition spokesman, the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), about the appalling comments that have been directed against the Prime Minister. I disagree with the Prime Minister on a lot of things, but nobody should be issued with the kind of threats that she has been expected to cope with over the last few days.

Too much of the discussion is now about who will become the next Prime Minister. The long-term career prospects for the Prime Minister, or any of us, are infinitesimally trivial compared with what will be at stake if and when this Parliament gets a chance to do its job in a meaningful vote—that means not only a meaningful motion, but that we must be able to put forward and vote on meaningful amendments before the final decision is taken.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that meaningful amendments will be allowed and that Parliament will have the opportunity to meaningfully amend the motion before we are asked to agree the final deal? Given that we are getting hour-by-hour and minute-by-minute updates on the Government’s negotiations with a select 50 or so Members of Parliament, will he tell us when the Government intend to start seeking consensus across the 600 Members of this House who are not members of the Democratic Unionist party or the European Research Group?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, as set out in the memorandum we sent to the Procedure Committee, which has been published, there will be a substantive and amendable motion. I do not think that any hon. Member, on either side of the House, would table a meaningless amendment, so I reject the premise of the question in that regard.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that no motion of this House can overturn the two Acts of Parliament on withdrawal or the article 50 letter, which all say we are leaving on 29 March next year, and that the Government are not minded to repeal those Acts?

My right hon. Friend is right on both counts. None the less, on the meaningful vote, the motion will be substantive and amendable, and it will be for you, Mr Speaker, to decide on the scope and acceptability of those amendments.

Having read the Secretary of State’s memorandum to the Procedure Committee, and paragraph 13 in particular, may I point out to him that the Exiting the European Union Select Committee’s recommendation on amendments to the withdrawal agreement motion is that these be taken before the vote on the main question, not after? That is the issue. Will he take this opportunity to accept both that that is what the Select Committee recommended and that to order the vote in any other way would be unacceptable to many Members of this House?

I always respect the views of the Select Committee Chair, but the position is set out in the memorandum. We think it the proper course to ensure both a meaningful vote to which substantive amendments can be tabled and a clear decision on the outcome.

When did the Secretary of State and the Government get the legal advice that told them they needed this so-called clean motion first? I do not remember, and I do not think my colleagues remember, it being the subject of any discussions with Ministers or Whips in relation to section 13. When did they get it and why did he feel it appropriate to break the news to the Procedure Committee and not Members of his own party with whom he had discussions?

We do not comment on legal advice, but obviously we took advice continually throughout the progress of the EU withdrawal Act, and the issue of section 13—the process and the need for it—and the importance of having a clear and decisive outcome to the meaningful vote, which is the surest way to make sure it is meaningful and substantive, were discussed at length during the passage of that Act.

The Secretary of State seems to be arguing that we cannot discuss any amendments in advance simply because those amendments might not be ones the Government agree with, might not give them the legal support they want or might not agree with them that there is no alternative to their motion. I am afraid they should be making those arguments when we discuss the amendments, before we discuss the main motion, in the normal way. Anything other than that is procedural ducking and diving to avoid the real substance of the debate and to avoid a meaningful vote.

I do not think there was a question there, but as the right hon. Lady will know, the selection of amendments and what the House can discuss is a matter for the Speaker. [Interruption.]

Order. People can take whatever view they like, but, to be fair, the Secretary of State is always an estimably courteous individual in the Chamber, and we must hear the fella.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm once again that the choice in the meaningful vote is clear—either to accept the Government’s proposition or to leave without a withdrawal agreement?

My hon. Friend will know that section 13 deals at length with the procedural variations and what would need to happen in the event of Parliament not approving the deal. On the proxy debates that some hon. Members want to repeat—on the type of exit or deal we should negotiate—we have, of course, had 11 votes on single market or customs union-type variations to the Government’s negotiating mandate, and the Government in this House won each and every one.

It is clear from what the Secretary of State has just told us that the Government are not offering the House a meaningful vote. How does it amount to Parliament taking back control if the Government are now attempting to gag our democracy by preventing MPs from being able to amend the motion first?

I gently refer the hon. Lady to the memorandum, which makes it clear that there will be a substantive motion. It is our view that, subject to the view of Mr Speaker, there would be amendments.

When will the Government accept that the time for negotiations is over, and the time for appeasing factions is over? The European Union has consistently offered two options, Norway and Canada. Norway does not meet the expectations of the Brexit-voting public, and Canada does not have a majority in the House. The Government’s latest attempt to prevent Parliament from having a meaningful vote is yet more evidence that the foisting of a Brexit fudge on the Commons is imminent.

In London on Saturday, three quarters of a million people recognised those realities. When will the Government do so too? When will they give the British public a meaningful vote to obtain their informed consent to whatever Brexit is on offer, or to remain in the European Union?

It was very inventive of my hon. Friend to get that in through the back door. All I would gently say is that the basic democratic arithmetic suggests that several hundred thousand taking part in what was an impressive protest cannot trump the will of the 17 million who voted in a national referendum to leave the EU.

I think that the Minister has gone through the looking-glass and left his dictionary behind. He seems to think that “meaningful” actually means “meaningless”, and he seems to think, in his topsy-turvy world, that it is possible to amend motions after voting on them. Why does he not get a grip, get back to the real world, and give this Parliament the meaningful vote that his Government and his colleagues promised us when they accepted that amendment?

I do not think that the hon. Lady was right in either of her key points. The memorandum that we published sets out very clearly that there will be a substantive motion. It will be, in our view, subject to amendments. What we cannot have is a vote that renders meaningless the outcome of the referendum.

There has been much reference to the Procedure Committee, of which the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) is of course a distinguished ornament.

The evidence given to the Procedure Committee last week was very clear. If there is no deal under section 13(4) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act, there will be a vote on a neutral motion. If there is a deal, there must be a meaningful vote under section 13(1). That motion is amendable, and amendments must be taken first, unless the Government produce their own business statement, and there has to be a vote on it. That is the procedure.

The important point to understand, however, is that deal or no deal, meaningful vote passed or not, can only affect the deal; it cannot affect the outcome of Brexit, because that is in statute. Only the Government can introduce legislation, so only the Government can stop Brexit on 29 March. Will the Secretary of State therefore give an unequivocal declaration to the House that in no circumstances—deal or no deal, deal rejected by the House or accepted—will Brexit not proceed on 29 March?

The Government are absolutely committed to giving effect to the referendum and leaving the EU in March next year.

The Government only agreed to a meaningful vote on the final deal to avoid a parliamentary mutiny by their own side during the passage of the withdrawal Act. The Secretary of State knows that there is no majority in this place for a no-deal Brexit, but that, by implication, is what he is offering in his memorandum. When will he change his mind—or will there have to be another case in the Supreme Court?

It is not our intention to go for no deal. We have been working tirelessly, and we continue to work, through the October Council and into November, to get the very best deal for the country. We have made clear that we could deal with a no deal scenario, but it is a sub-optimal outcome. What we want to do is get the best deal that works for the EU and the United Kingdom—for all quarters of the country.

Come off it, Secretary of State. If a motion is amendable but not in a meaningful way, it is not a meaningful vote, and this House will not take it.

All I would gently say to my hon. Friend is that there is nothing meaningless about this vote. It would be one of the most ground-breaking decisions that the House has had to make for a generation: the decision on whether or not to accept a deal negotiated by the Government with the EU that works for all parts of the United Kingdom. I hope that at that point we would have some consensus in the House on a decision to accept the deal and move forward to the implementing legislation.

Let us cut to the chase. The Government have tried to gag Parliament at every turn in this process. Now they have a choice. The position that the Secretary of State is trying to take is, essentially, that it is no deal versus the deal that the Government have. That is not politically, constitutionally or morally sound. Further to the question from the right hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), will the Secretary of State tell us whether he took legal advice, when he took it, and who commissioned it? Was it him?

I have not commissioned any specific, bespoke legal advice on the point the hon. Gentleman raises, but we have been informed right the way through about the implications. Section 13 of the withdrawal Act was informed by legal advice not just from Government lawyers, but from all the lawyers across the House. It was scrutinised very carefully and at length in Committee, and it will give effect to what the House voted through in the Act.

As I understand it, all votes in this House are meaningful—that is my first point. My second point is that the Act states that the House will vote on whether or not the withdrawal agreement should stand. I might be voting against that agreement, but it will be the meaningful vote. Amendments would then follow, if that motion was lost.

Subsections (4) to (6) of section 13 set out the process, which includes the Government coming back to Parliament in a no deal scenario—it is all set out very clearly in the legislation and amplified in the memorandum that we have provided to the Committee.

Why does the Secretary of State not just confess that he has been caught red-handed trying to stitch up Parliament, again? It is the same as the way the Government would not publish papers or share the impact assessments. They tried to grab Henry VIII powers at every possible twist and turn. They certainly will not let the public have a final say. Now he is trying to fix the arrangements so that we have amendments coming after a motion. He knows that the meaningful vote is in the legislation—it is the law. It is Parliament that decided that, and we fought very hard for that outcome. He should not undermine that or recant when it is MPs’ duty to have that meaningful vote.

MPs will have their say in the meaningful vote. They have scrutinised at length every stage of the Brexit process. Of course, it is not for the Government or any Minister to set out which amendments are allowed; that will be for Mr Speaker to decide. We have made it clear that we not only accept but welcome the fact that we will have a substantive motion, and of course that means it should be amendable.

Once the Brexit deal has been secured, how long will it be before we move on to the meaningful vote, keeping in mind that Select Committees, for instance, will want to look at the terms of the deal in order to advise other hon. Members?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. We obviously want to bring forward the meaningful vote expeditiously, because that will give us proper time for scrutiny of all the legislation, but there must be time for the relevant Select Committees, and indeed every hon. Member of the House, to scrutinise it carefully. We are a little dependent on the time it takes us to negotiate the deal, but I will certainly bear in mind the important point he has made.

The reality is that the Government promised the House a meaningful vote on the withdrawal agreement, and now they are trying to backtrack and say that it is take it or leave it, in an attempt to bully MPs into accepting whatever they manage to cobble together. The Secretary of State’s predecessor said:

“Under the Standing Orders of the House of Commons it will be for the Speaker to determine whether a motion…is or is not amendable.”—[Official Report, 21 June 2018; Vol. 643, c. 13W.]

Can he confirm that it is also for the Speaker to determine the order of those motions, and the order of any amendments? If he does not think that is the case, will he publish the legal advice that says the contrary?

It is not for Ministers to determine the ambit, remit or scope of the prerogatives of the Speaker or this House, although we will of course respect them.

The Brexit Secretary has said that he needs the negotiations to be finished by the end of November. If he reaches that target, will the House vote on deal or no deal before or after Christmas?

My remarks were just reflecting the practical challenges, on both sides, for example in implementing legislation in the UK, but obviously there is a degree of flexibility to ensure that we have a meaningful vote and that there is as much time for legislative scrutiny and that the right balance is struck.

Order. I will call a very small number of Members now, but colleagues will also have an opportunity to question the Prime Minister, who is always very committed to the House.

What does the Secretary of State think the consequences would be if a majority in this House opposed the deal, opposed no deal and perhaps in those circumstances even supported a people’s vote if the Government tried to thwart the will of this House being expressed and implemented?

In December last year this House voted for a meaningful vote on the final deal, and we have subsequently, and again today, been reassured that any amendments to the motion on the subject of the deal will be a matter for the Speaker. Indeed, just last week the Prime Minister replied to me that in the case of no deal, the matter would come back to this House for us to agree on next steps. Why is the Secretary of State now undoing all those good assurances by suggesting that Parliament will have only a token role in all this? Does he not accept that this is a serious breach of trust? I ask again why he sought to communicate this change to the Procedure Committee before the MPs in this House.

There is nothing tokenistic about the meaningful vote set out under section 13, which will be on the deal that we do with the European Union—good for the UK and good for the EU—or the alternative, which is to leave the EU without that deal. The procedure that my hon. Friend refers to is clearly spelled out in section 13. The memorandum to which she referred was not somehow snuck out; it was given at the request of the Procedure Committee and made public so that every hon. Member could see it.

A number of parliamentarians are trying to establish whether article 50 can be unilaterally revoked. The Court of Justice of the European Union will hear that question on 27 November. If it says that article 50 can be revoked, does the Secretary of State accept that it would be open to this House to amend the Government’s motion, ordaining them to take whatever action is necessary to revoke article 50 and get us out of this unholy mess?

The Government have no intention of supporting a second referendum or the revocation of article 50.

For the sake of absolute clarity, will the Secretary of State confirm either that the motion described in section 13 is neutral or that Standing Orders could be disapplied?

The technical answer to my hon. Friend’s question is set out at some length in the memorandum, but if there is any doubt about it, he can write to me and I would be happy to give him further clarification.

The Institute for Government recommends that we have at least five days to discuss the deal that the Government reach with the EU. Can the Secretary of State guarantee that we will have at least five days for those debates?

We will have as much time as we possibly can, but the hon. Lady will know that this will in part be predicated on the time it takes to close the deal. We are confident that the remaining obstacles are narrowing and that we can get a good deal, but this will be at least partly determined by the length of time it takes to secure the end of the negotiations, and that depends on the EU as well.

You do not need to be a procedural junkie or one of the many historians in this House to know that here we vote on the amendments first. Can the Secretary of State give us any example at all of the House voting on the amendments second?

The simple answer is that I am not sure, but I can tell the hon. Lady that we will have a substantive motion and that it will be subject to amendments, which will be for the Speaker to decide on.

The Secretary of State’s memorandum justifies the ordering involving the substantive motion coming first, which is highly unusual, on the basis of Standing Order No. 31, which relates to Opposition day motions. On what planet could this motion be described as an Opposition day motion?

The hon. Gentleman may well be an expert on the Standing Orders, but I would say to him that on the substance of the issue, this is clear. There will be a clear decision for this House to accept the deal we negotiate with the EU or to leave the EU with no deal. I know which side I will be on in that debate. We are confident that we can get a good deal, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will row behind it.

Does the Secretary of State understand that for many in this House the only genuinely meaningful vote is one that allows MPs to vote for the deal or to vote to stay in the European Union, and one that must be ratified in the people’s vote demanded by 700,000 people on Saturday?

Is it not in the hands of the House of Commons to decide whether it wants a meaningful vote? We have Back-Bench time. I will be seeking time, with support across the House, to pass a motion that says that, if we do not approve of the Government’s final position, the fallback position will be Norway and Canada, and that we will not pay money until the agreement is through.

It is not for me to decide what procedures or motions the House puts forward, but I repeat the point I made earlier: we have had 11 votes on potential single market customs union variations to the negotiating strategy, and the Government won each and every one of them.

Order. I am sorry to disappoint remaining colleagues. My normal practice is to call everybody, but there are constraints of time and we must now move on. People will have the opportunity to question the Prime Minister.