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Business of the House

Volume 657: debated on Tuesday 26 March 2019

To assist the House, I would like to make a short business statement. The first business tomorrow will reflect the decision taken by the House yesterday. At the conclusion of that business, the Government will bring forward the draft European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 (Amendment) Regulations 2019 for consideration.

I thank the Leader of the House for the statement. We welcome the fact that we can approve the statutory instrument to extend the exit day. I just have a couple of questions. When will the meaningful vote be brought back, given that the Prime Minister said it would be coming back this week? Can she confirm that it is also the Government’s understanding that: if the meaningful vote is passed, exit day is on 22 May; if there is no meaningful vote, we leave by 12 April; and there will be a further extension if we show purpose? We welcome the fact that the uncertainty of 29 March has now moved, albeit to 12 April.

I thank the hon. Lady for her questions. What I can say is that, as the Prime Minister has made very clear, the Government continue to believe that the best way to leave the EU is with a deal. The deal that she has negotiated has taken the best part of three years and is extremely complicated. It remains our view that it represents the best compromise for leaving the European Union while keeping a close economic and security partnership. As the Prime Minister has said, she will continue to have discussions with colleagues across the House to seek to build support for her deal, so we can, if possible, this week approve the deal and guarantee Brexit.

On the hon. Lady’s specific question, the draft statutory instrument the Government hope to bring forward tomorrow will provide for two durations that were agreed with the EU27. Exit day, as amended, would be 22 May if the withdrawal agreement is approved before 11 pm on 29 March. Otherwise, it would be 11 pm on 12 April.

Order. I understand the appetite of colleagues. This is an important business statement by the Leader of the House, but its terms are relatively narrow and it is not the normal business statement so it really should focus on tomorrow, which is the subject matter on which the Leader focused.

Will the Leader just clarify? I thought the 2018 Act required an exit date, not two optional dates. So I am surprised that the statutory instrument is actually naming two dates. I would have thought that the right thing would have been to have 12 April and then extend later if need be. Am I also right in thinking—I am sure the Leader would agree—that if those statutory instruments go through both Houses of Parliament, we will be coming out of the European Union, at least domestically, in three days’ time?

My hon. Friend raises an incredibly important point. This House voted on 14 March for a short extension to article 50. The EU Council’s conclusions were turned into a legal decision with which the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom agreed. Those conclusions came into force last Friday. So the date for our departure from the EU has already changed in international law. The draft statutory instrument provides for both the durations that were agreed with the EU27. As I said to the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), exit day, as amended, would be 22 May if the withdrawal agreement is approved before 11 pm on 29 March. Otherwise, it would be 11 pm on 12 April. I want to be very clear that a rejection of the statutory instrument that the Government seek to bring forward tomorrow would create a clash in UK law, because a large volume of EU exit legislation preparing the UK statute book for the moment that EU law ceases to apply is due to enter into force automatically on exit day. In international law, the exit date has already changed. The statutory instrument seeks to clarify that in UK law. I hope that that is clear to all Members.

We all look forward to the Leader of the House’s motion tomorrow, so this can be properly discussed. I think we are all particularly looking forward to a little bit of parliamentary innovation tomorrow. I am looking around for Prime Minister Letwin. He must still be with the Queen discussing the Parliament party legislative programme, which we will obviously get an opportunity to consider and debate tomorrow.

I get the sense that Parliament is about to take control of this process with all the enthusiasm of the first lieutenant of the Titanic taking over from Captain Edward John Smith. Can the Leader of the House confirm today that the Government will observe and respect whatever outcomes are agreed tomorrow, by a majority, in this great piece of parliamentary novelty? That is what the House really needs to hear from the Leader. We are sick and tired of voting repeatedly on motions that are passed, only for the Government to casually and contemptuously ignore them. Will they co-operate fully in ensuring that we get to some sort of solution with this House, and will they respect and observe it?

I reject what the hon. Gentleman says about the Government ignoring this House. It is, of course, as a result of the motion that was passed by this House on 14 March that we have an extension to article 50. As he knows well, as Leader of the House of Commons, I take very seriously my role to be Parliament’s voice in the Government.

On the options that will be brought forward tomorrow, what I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that, at this stage, we do not know which options will be debated and voted on, let alone which will pass. To use his analogy, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin), the new Prime Minister for West Dorset, has not yet indicated that manifesto. Nor indeed has the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) indicated his manifesto. I think we need to wait for that advice. I do jest, in case any hon. Gentleman is determined to take offence at my joke there, Mr Speaker. I say that for clarity in this Chamber.

The second point is that any options passed by this House must be negotiable. They have to be deliverable in negotiations with the EU and they would also have to take account of how long those negotiations would take.

Finally, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister pointed out in the discussion yesterday, and as the shadow Brexit Secretary also made clear in the House, it would not be possible for different parties to accept proposals that their party manifestos rejected at the last general election. [Interruption.] The shadow Brexit Secretary was clear in the House yesterday that Labour would reject certain potential outcomes as inconsistent with the Labour manifesto. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) shouts “Rubbish”, but she needs to talk to her Front Benchers. It is absolutely vital that this House delivers outcomes that are negotiable, feasible and in line with the will of the manifestos and the referendum on which we all stood.

If the measure was defeated or the Prime Minister stayed her hand, then the European Communities Act 1972 would cease to apply on Friday evening and we would be free, wouldn’t we?

My right hon. Friend is correct to say that a commencement order is required under section 25(4) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 in order to give effect to the repeal. The timing of that commencement order will depend on the date we leave the EU. We need to commence the repeal of the 1972 Act on the date of our departure, which is either 12 April as things stand if the deal is not approved, or 22 May if the deal is approved.

May I join the Leader of the House in welcoming her resistance to what I must now call the anarcho-Brextremists on her own side who want to mess around by voting against the motion she has brought today to put UK law in line with the international treaty agreements that the Prime Minister has made? Will she clarify something she said in her statement? Yesterday, the Prime Minister said she was no longer going to bring the deal back for a third meaningful vote, but the Leader of the House has just said that that might happen this week. Can she clarify which is true?

The Prime Minister has said that she will continue to seek further support for the withdrawal agreement and political declaration. Should she succeed in that, we will seek to bring back the meaningful vote for this House to consider. To be clear again, it is only if this House approves the withdrawal agreement before 11 pm on 29 March that there is then an extension to 22 May.

If this House does not approve the withdrawal agreement—indeed, it might be that it is not possible for the withdrawal agreement to be brought back before this House anyway—and if the Prime Minister therefore decides that exiting on World Trade Organisation terms is preferable to no Brexit, is there anything that this House can actually do to prevent the Prime Minister ensuring that we exit on WTO terms? I think the answer to that question is no, isn’t it?

I think my right hon. Friend poses an unanswerable question, because of course the ingenuity of the House knows no bounds. What the House has been clear about is that it does not want a no-deal Brexit or a Brexit on WTO terms. I share that desire, but, as we have always been clear, the way to avoid a no-deal Brexit is to vote for the deal. If I may, Mr Speaker, I will quote directly from the European Council conclusions:

“The European Council reiterates that there can be no opening of the Withdrawal Agreement that was agreed between the Union and the United Kingdom in November 2018. Any unilateral commitment, statement or other act should be compatible with the letter and the spirit of the Withdrawal Agreement.”

So all the terms under which the UK leaves the EU are subject to the agreement by this House of the withdrawal agreement.

It is potty to announce today that we are going to have the statutory instrument tomorrow evening, at the fag end of the business. That is absolutely ludicrous when we could perfectly easily do it on Thursday.

May I ask the Leader of the House whether we will be sitting on Friday? I have a particular interest: Friday is Brain Tumour Research’s Wear A Hat Day, and it is encouraging everybody around the country to wear a hat to work on that day. As you will know, Mr Speaker, “Erskine May” is now silent, on page 451, about whether we can wear a hat in the Chamber, although I think we are expected to speak uncovered. Would it not be a good idea for the Leader of the House to announce now, if we are sitting on Friday, that we are going to do that on Friday, or if not, that we can all wear hats on Thursday?

Excellent. I once wore a hat because I wanted to take my hat off to the right hon. Baroness Jowell, who sadly is no longer with us, for her brilliance in establishing Sure Start. I can tell you, Mr Speaker, that you tolerated my wearing of a hat in honour of what I felt was a very good cause.

The hon. Gentleman asks a very specific question. As he will be aware, at the moment there are no plans to sit on Friday. If there were plans to do that, it would require the passing of a motion to that effect, which the House would have to agree.

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that to get the longer extension requires the passing of the withdrawal agreement, not the withdrawal agreement plus the political declaration, and that the political declaration provides for a wide spectrum of potential outcomes for the long-term relationship between the UK and the EU?

My hon. Friend is right that the European Council decision requires that this House has agreed the withdrawal agreement—or has introduced the withdrawal agreement—in order to get the long extension ready for the legislation. I encourage all hon. Members to consider that a lot of the proposals being put forward for tomorrow would themselves require a withdrawal agreement to be approved in order for them to be taken forward. We need to be clear that what we will be talking about in the indicative votes tomorrow are, potentially, replacements for the future arrangements as opposed to replacements for the withdrawal agreement. I urge hon. Members again to consider the Prime Minister’s deal and to accept the reality, which is that the European Council requires us to look positively at the withdrawal agreement.

The Leader of the House knows, and I welcome the fact, that I am now semi-clear about what the future progress in the House will be, but does she agree that it is most important in this troubled and tumultuous time that we inform our constituents about what we are doing as honestly and openly as possible? Will she stop her colleagues in the Cabinet going on radio and television and saying that there has been a vote on a people’s vote, or a second referendum? That has not taken place. A minority group in the House moved a motion, on which most of the Opposition abstained. There has not been a major vote on the people having the opportunity of a new referendum. Will she stop her Cabinet colleagues saying there has been?

There very much was a people’s vote. That was in June 2016, and the people decided to leave the European Union.

Will the Leader of the House confirm that the very act of the Prime Minister signing what is, in effect, an amendment to the Lisbon treaty under royal prerogative makes whatever we have to say on the matter of an extension rather irrelevant?

This House voted on 14 March for a short extension of article 50. At the time, the Prime Minister made it very clear that if this House were to vote for that short extension, she would seek to negotiate it but that she could not be certain what the EU would offer in return. My hon. Friend is right. The Prime Minister agreed a short extension. That was not necessarily every individual’s definition of exactly what that should be, but she agreed it on behalf of the United Kingdom. As such, in international law, the date of our exit from the EU has now changed irreversibly to 12 April, or to 22 May if we have agreed to progress with the withdrawal agreement.

Is it the Government’s intention to table their own business motion for the Speaker to deliberate on regarding tomorrow’s business?

As I set out just now in the business statement, the first business tomorrow will reflect the decision taken by the House yesterday, and at the conclusion of that business the Government will bring forward the draft European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 (Exit Day) (Amendment) Regulations 2019.

Given that the Leader of the House has said that we are not sitting on Friday, and given that House business takes priority tomorrow, does she expect to make a business statement at the end of House business tomorrow announcing that the meaningful vote will take place on Thursday?

I cannot give my hon. Friend absolute certainty on any issues of future business right now. As I have set out, we are continuing to seek support for the Prime Minister’s deal, and that is absolutely the focus for the Government. Should we feel that there was sufficient support for that deal, we would seek to bring that vote back, because that would mean we would be in a position by the end of this week to have an orderly departure from the European Union, with a close economic and security partnership to go with it.

I am sorry if I missed it, but will the Leader of the House clarify tomorrow’s business? Will there be protected time for the SI? It seems strange to cram it in tomorrow, given the decisions the House has made about debates tomorrow. Will she clarify how much business there will be, whether we will have protected time for it and whether the Government will table their own business motion to deal with the indicative votes tomorrow?

Hon. Members will realise that the vote yesterday was that the Government would not be responsible for tomorrow’s business. The Government are seeking to engage in a productive and constructive way with those who have control of tomorrow’s business to ensure that we debate this very important statutory instrument, which will provide certainty—not certainty about our departure date but legal certainty between 29 March and, in the first instance, 12 April—to businesses and citizens. The Government are working closely with those right hon. and hon. Members who are controlling the business tomorrow to seek agreement that Government business will be able to carry on after the moment of interruption. As is normal with statutory instruments, I would expect that to be a 90-minute discussion followed by a vote, but that is not in my hands.

There has been a real lack of clarity in what the Leader of the House has said about whether meaningful vote 3 will come back this week, next week or perhaps even the week after. Given that the question sessions for the weeks beginning 8 April and 15 April are now available for tabling on Parliament’s Member hub, will she confirm what we all know to be self-evident: that recess is cancelled?

As the hon. Lady will know, I have announced the dates for the Easter recess, but recess dates are always announced subject to the progress of business. We will need time in the House either to find a way forward or to pass the withdrawal agreement Bill, and I think the country will rightly expect Parliament to be working flat out in either scenario. Further announcements on future recess dates will be made in due course in the usual way.

In answering my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), the Leader of the House said that anything the House proposed had to be negotiable and deliverable before the Government could support it. Tomorrow, with cross-party colleagues, I will be bringing forward an amendment on the revocation of article 50 to avoid a no-deal Brexit. Given that revocation has the virtue of requiring no negotiation and is deliverable, will she confirm that were that to be passed in an indicative vote tomorrow, she would respect that vote?

The Leader of the House has talked about the Easter recess. One of the dates she mentioned this morning is during that recess. The Table Office is already populating that fortnight for questions. When will the Government come clean and tell us the Easter recess is cancelled?

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the response I just gave. The Easter recess has been announced, but it will be subject to the progress of business. Of course, we hope to have a clear way forward in the next few days, and I will make a further statement on recesses as soon as I can.

I am sorry if I missed this, but, following the question from the hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), will the Leader of the House clarify whether the four SIs on the Order Paper tomorrow—on exiting the EU and food, the protection of trading interests, animals and constitutional law—will remain as Chamber business? I ask because I have a rather excellent Adjournment debate that I do not want Members to miss out on.

As I said in response to an earlier question, we are in proactive discussions with my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) on what Government business can take place tomorrow.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has referenced the silence of “Erskine May” on sartorial matters, perhaps the newly elevated right hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) could appear in the toga he once wore when he appears before us.

On tomorrow’s business, will the Leader of the House clarify what the Government’s attitude will be if, as expected, tomorrow’s indicative votes do not come up with a solution and more time is required? Will the House have to wrestle that time from the Government again, or, instead, given the clear views of the House, will they be prepared to provide more time to settle the matter?

There is no question of wrestling; what we do in this place is vote and take decisions. The Government’s position is that the withdrawal agreement and future political declaration are essential to an orderly and proper departure from the EU. That is the Government’s position. Anything else that is voted on by the House will have to considered as and when it arises.

It feels as though the Leader of the House and the Prime Minister still have not grasped that last night’s vote was because Parliament is fed up with this broken record about the only way to avoid a no deal being to vote for the withdrawal agreement the Prime Minister negotiated. To quote one of the most reasonable and respected Ministers, who resigned last night, the Government continue to play roulette with people’s livelihoods. The Leader of the house has not answered this question yet: what will the Government do to respect the votes tomorrow and what measures will be in place to contact the EU and plan for legislation to respect them?

The hon. Gentleman says it is boring, but it is actually true: the only way to avoid no deal is to vote for a deal. The second very important truth is that hon. Members can put forward other bespoke solutions, but they have to be negotiable—that is the absolutely incontrovertible fact. The House cannot just decide; it requires the EU to negotiate the other side of that transaction. The Government will look very carefully at what the indicative votes show tomorrow and then respond accordingly.