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Sittings of the House (29 March)

Volume 657: debated on Thursday 28 March 2019

I beg to move,

That this House shall sit on Friday 29 March 2019.

May I start by saying that I recognise that changes to the sittings of the House agreed at short notice can create inconvenience to Members and their constituents? I know how important constituency work is to all of us, and I regret not being able to give more notice. I do, however, believe that all of our constituents expect the House to continue to make progress at this crucial time. To be of assistance to the House, I can again confirm that, should the House agree to this motion, it is intended that the sitting hours tomorrow will be the same as for a normal sitting Friday, with the House sitting from 9.30 am and the moment of interruption at 2.30 pm. Should any urgent questions be allowed, these would take place from 11 am and the debate would resume following those urgent questions in the usual way. As I said earlier today in my business statement, I join those who recognise the hard work and dedication of the staff of the House and of our civil servants. I thank them for their support to us in this place, and I am very grateful to them in advance for their work tomorrow should this motion be agreed.

As I said to the House during my business statement earlier today, the motion tabled by the Government this afternoon has been prepared in order that it complies with your ruling, Mr Speaker, while also reflecting that the European Union will agree an extension to article 50 until 22 May only if the withdrawal agreement is approved by 11 pm on 29 March. It is crucial, therefore, that we make every effort to give effect to the Council’s decision, and tomorrow’s motion gives Parliament the opportunity to secure that extension. I think we can all agree that we do not want to be in the situation of asking for another extension and facing the potential requirement of participating in European Parliament elections.

The motion has been tabled, and the hon. Gentleman will be able to find it in the Table Office. [Interruption.] I am happy to read it out. It is quite lengthy, so I hope Members will bear with me. It reads:

“That this House notes the European Council Decision of 22 March 2019 taken in agreement with the United Kingdom extending the period under Article 50(3) of the Treaty on European Union, which provides for an extension to the Article 50 period to 22 May 2019 only if the House of Commons approves the Withdrawal Agreement by 29 March 2019; notes that if the House does not do so by that date the Article 50 period will only as a matter of law be extended to 12 April 2019 and that any extension beyond 22 May 2019 would require the UK to bring forward the necessary Day of Poll Order to hold elections to the European Parliament; notes that Article 184 of the Withdrawal Agreement refers to the Political Declaration between the UK and EU agreed on 25 November 2018, but that the EU has stated it remains open to negotiating changes to the Political Declaration; notes that the House is currently undertaking deliberations to identify whether there is a design for the future relationship that commands its support; notes that even should changes be sought to the Political Declaration, leaving the European Union with a deal still requires the Withdrawal Agreement; declares that it wishes to leave the EU with an agreement as soon as possible and does not wish to have a longer extension; therefore approves the Withdrawal Agreement, the Joint Instrument and the Unilateral Declaration laid before the House on 11 March 2019 so that the UK can leave the EU on 22 May 2019; notes that this approval does not by itself meet the requirements of section 13(l)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018; and resolves that it is content to proceed to the next steps of this process, including fulfilling section 13 of this Act.”

I note that the motion talks solely about the withdrawal agreement and not the political declaration. Has the Leader of the House had any thoughts or information on whether an amendment that included the political declaration would be acceptable or in order?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that motions are amendable, and the selection of amendments is a matter for the Speaker.

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for reading out the motion; that is helpful for the House. So far as I understand it, if the motion were carried tomorrow, the Government would not be able to ratify the withdrawal agreement treaty. Is that correct?

No. It would mean that the withdrawal agreement Bill would then be before the House.

I think we can all agree that we do not want to be in the situation of asking for another extension and facing the potential requirement of participating in European Parliament elections.

I am at a loss to understand how this House can put into law section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 and then the Government can offer us only one part of that. What advice has the Leader of the House had on whether what the Government are doing is legal?

The hon. Lady will appreciate that Mr Speaker’s ruling ensured that this would not be a meaningful vote. She will also appreciate that, since it is for this Parliament to decide on the laws and amendments to them, it will be a matter for discussion tomorrow, followed by the discussion on the withdrawal agreement Bill, should that be approved, to rectify any outstanding matters. I encourage all hon. and right hon. Members to support this motion, so that we can leave the EU in an orderly way that gives businesses and people the certainty they need.

I turn to the amendment tabled by the shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), and the Opposition Chief Whip, the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown). It may help the House and provide some reassurance to the shadow Leader of the House if I confirm that we will be sitting tomorrow with a very clear purpose in mind: so that the House has time to debate the motion tabled by the Government this afternoon. That is our only intention for tomorrow’s sitting.

Article 184 of the withdrawal agreement refers to the political declaration and they cannot be separated, so if the political declaration is changed later, the withdrawal agreement would need re-approval. I accept the ruling of the Speaker with regard to this question, but I just make that point about the substance of the question, because it is going to be very important for the debate tomorrow.

I can assure my hon. Friend that the motion seeks to ensure that we can meet the requirements of the EU Council for the extension that will enable us to consider these matters further.

In conclusion, I very much hope that the House can support this motion, and that it will agree to sit tomorrow so that we can make the important decisions the country expects us to take in its interests. I commend this motion to the House.

Order. The Leader of the House has moved the sittings motion, and I have selected amendment (a) to it in the name of Valerie Vaz. I just thought I would get that on the record.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I appreciate that the Leader of the House has given us the business for tomorrow—it is helpful not only that she has read out the motion, but that it has now been circulated—but has there been any indication whether the Attorney General’s legal advice on whether what the Government are doing tomorrow is actually legal could be placed in the House of Commons Library or published for Members before the debate starts at 9.30 am tomorrow?

The Attorney General can offer an assurance on that front. I know that he is satisfied, but it is for him to say.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. May I say on the proposal the Government are making that when the House listens to the rationale behind it and hears the full context of it, I am sure the House will accept that it is not only perfectly lawful and perfectly sensible, but designed to give this House the opportunity of availing itself of a right that the European Union has given us to avail ourselves of an extension until 22 May. The view of the Government is simply that we could not let the time limit expire at 11 pm tomorrow without allowing this House the opportunity to avail itself of that right, and it is perfectly reasonable and perfectly lawful.

Order. I will happily take points of order. People sought the judgment of the Attorney General, and the Attorney General has provided it. I would not dream of pronouncing on the matter of law—that is not something with which I need to preoccupy myself—or on the matter of the desirability or otherwise of the motion, which is a matter for the House. My concern was solely with the propriety of the convention and the importance of its being upheld and asserted. I am satisfied that the propriety of the convention has been upheld and asserted. Colleagues must make their own judgment on the political substance of the matter.

Of course I will take a point of order from the right hon. Gentleman before we proceed with the debate on the sittings motion.

Given that the Government now say that, if the motion passes, we will go straight on to the Bill, can we insist on the Bill being part of the documents for tomorrow’s debate, because it would be very important to know what we were in for before being asked to vote for it?

I say to the right hon. Gentleman that whether the Government intend to tag—using the term that is commonly used in relation to House of Commons motions—the withdrawal and implementation Bill to the motion is a matter for their determination. My understanding is that that Bill was drafted some time ago. I do not think that hot wet towels over officials’ heads or any burning of the midnight oil will be required. The document exists, but whether it is the Government’s intention to table it tomorrow for the benefit of colleagues conducting the debate is a matter for them.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You have very kindly referred to the withdrawal and implementation Bill, which I have raised on a number of occasions over the last few weeks. In its most recent report, the European Scrutiny Committee has insisted that that Bill be made available, because it is quite unfair on the House to be making decisions about a Bill that it has not seen, and I understand that other Committees take a similar view. Will you be good enough perhaps to give the Government a firm nudge in order to produce that Bill forthwith?

Yes is the short answer. It is a matter for their judgment; it is not a matter of a ruling. However, in light of the fact that colleagues are expressing a desire to see the Bill, I think it would be out of keeping, shall we say, with the legendary—some would say exemplary —courtesy of the Attorney General for the debate that might well be opened by him to be staged without the benefit of that important document. Knowing the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) as well I do and for as long as I have, I have a feeling that if the Bill does not appear tomorrow, in time for the debate, this will not be the last we will hear of the matter.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. It seems that, as so often in this whole saga over the last couple of years or so, the Government have got themselves into a bit of a procedural mess. It is plain that tomorrow’s motion will not be a section 13 motion under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. But the motion does state very clearly—I am reading the operative bit—that this House

“therefore approves the Withdrawal Agreement, the Joint Instrument and the Unilateral Declaration laid before the house on 11 March 2019”,

so even though it is not a section 13 motion under the 2018 Act, it is absolutely plain from the Government’s own wording that this is a decision in principle on whether or not the House “approves”—the operative word—the withdrawal agreement. Have I understood that correctly, Sir?

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Section 13 is in front of me, and it is extremely clear. Paragraph (1) says:

“The withdrawal agreement may be ratified only if…the negotiated withdrawal agreement and the framework for the future relationship have been approved by a resolution of the House of Commons on a motion moved by a Minister of the Crown”.

That is the original legislation that we fought for—the right for this sovereign Parliament to have its say on both things together. As I put it earlier, these are two horns on the same goat. The goat’s head cannot be divided as the Government are seeking to do. This is an extraordinary and unprecedented reverse-ferret of the commitments that have been given by Ministers to this place: that we should have our say on both items together. Is it not extraordinary, Mr Speaker, that this comes right on the day when we know that far-right demonstrators will be gathering in Parliament Square?

The hon. Lady has made her point with considerable force, educating me in the process—I am grateful for that—with the use of the expression “reverse-ferret”: apparently one with which the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) is well familiar, but of which I was previously unaware.

I do not seek to trivialise the hon. Lady’s point. She has made her point, but there is not a procedural issue for the Chair. There is a political issue for the judgment of the House, but not a matter for adjudication by the Chair.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. It appears clear that if we pass the withdrawal agreement, that will satisfy the European Union in terms of the extension to 22 May. However, the withdrawal Act requires both the agreement and the political declaration to be passed prior to ratification— that much is clear. May I ask you whether it would be orderly for the Government to bring forward an implementation Bill that sought to knock out the requirement for the political declaration to be passed, therefore bypassing the political difficulty that they found themselves in?

The short answer to the hon. Gentleman is that that would be orderly. Whether it would be desirable, whether it would secure the approval of the House, and whether it would cause commotion or earn disfavour, are all separate matters. I am looking narrowly at the question of procedural propriety. We do not know—or at least I do not know, I confess—quite what the withdrawal and implementation Bill currently contains or what, at a point in its passage, it might contain, but it is of course open to the Government to bring forward a piece of legislation that differs from and possibly even changes the provisions of another piece of legislation. The House will have to make a judgment about whether that is something that it accepts. I put the matter, I hope people will agree, entirely neutrally.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. If the House were to reject the Government motion to approve the withdrawal agreement tomorrow, would that mean that the Government were not able to bring back to the House a separate position between the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration in future, but would have to bring back the same position that has already been ruled by you to have been considered in the past?

The Government would not be in a position to bring back the same or substantially the same proposition if their proposition tomorrow were defeated. I am very clear in my mind about that.

By the way, reference was made earlier—I think by the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan)—to amendments. The question he had in his mind was whether an amendment could be tabled to ensure that the motion required both sets of questions to be considered. Of course, the answer is that an amendment could be tabled but the selection of amendments is a matter for the Chair. I am clear that the convention that the same question shall not be put again in the same Session will be asserted and upheld.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. You have rightly pointed out the same question point. But another point that is very important is that in agreeing tomorrow’s motion we will trigger the automatic extension to article 50 to 22 May, and if we do not agree the withdrawal agreement tomorrow, we will not. That leaves in doubt the future of the arrangements with the European Council.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I am sure that, like me, you will have looked closely at section 13 of the withdrawal Act which has been mentioned by other hon. Members, as well as at section 20, which interprets various phrases used in the Act. I wonder if the fact that neither “political declaration” nor “future framework” is defined in section 20, but that the “withdrawal agreement” is defined in section 20, may have something to do with the Attorney General’s thinking.

Well, I fear that the hon. and learned Lady invests the Chair with powers that he does not possess. I am well familiar with the notable and widely observed oratorical style of the Attorney General and that, to some extent, I can comfortably and with enthusiasm predict: what I cannot do is say what is in his mind. That is not known to me. It may be known to a great many people in Torridge and West Devon, and it will be known to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, but it is not known to me.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On the business for tomorrow, the Leader of the House mentioned the tabling of amendments. Can you please indicate whether amendments will be taken in a singular fashion, as they have been in the past, or will they be taken in a multiple fashion, as they were on one sheet of paper last night?

There will be a business of the House motion in the standard form governing the proceedings. I would hope that that would offer the hon. Gentleman the comfort that he seeks. Amendments can be considered to it.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The House will be asked to agree the withdrawal agreement on the presumption that it will subsequently agree the political declaration, yet it is clear that the House has not agreed the political declaration in the past, by 230 and 149 votes. How is it in order to ask us to agree the withdrawal agreement on that assumption?

The responsibility is that of the Government to table the motion that the Government wish to table, subject to the overriding constraint of procedural propriety. The hon. Gentleman asks how it can be orderly; it can certainly be orderly, and it is for the House to decide whether it endorses it. The motion that it is proposed by the Government to have debated tomorrow is not the same, or substantially the same, as that which has previously been disposed of by the House—for the benefit of those observing our proceedings from beyond the Chamber, I use the term “disposed of by the House” in the sense in which we use that term in Parliament, meaning treating of, decided by.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Can you clarify—or perhaps somebody on the Treasury Bench can—whether the Prime Minister resigns if she wins tomorrow or whether she has to get both parts before we see the back of her?

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Government now having tabled the motion for tomorrow, is it possible that you could give us an indication at this time—I realise that this session could proceed until any hour—as to how you intend to treat possible amendments and any time limit for the submission of amendments, including manuscript amendments?

Ordinarily, as the hon. Gentleman will know, the attitude would be that amendments should be submitted before the rise of the House. There is, however, a degree of unpredictability as to how long this session will run today on the sittings of the House motion, and therefore I am open to the possibility of manuscript amendments.

Forgive me, my response to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) was perhaps not entirely self-contained. He was quizzical about the matter of amendments, and I said that the business of the House motion governing the proceedings tomorrow was a relatively standard business of the House motion, but it might be worth while my opening that envelope and explaining what that means.

Because there is a business of the House motion, after the moment of interruption, the questions will be able to be put, and that means that such amendments as have been selected, if there is more than one, will be able to be voted upon by the House, so there is no danger of our running out of time for deciding upon amendments. I have, at this stage, no way of knowing whether I will select one amendment or multiple amendments, but the hon. Gentleman need not be concerned on that front.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Probably like many people following this—or trying to follow this—I am having great difficulty understanding how the motion, which says itself that it does not meet the requirements of the withdrawal Act, can actually lead to us approving the withdrawal Act. My understanding now is that it seems to be saying that, for the purposes of the European Union, we will have approved the withdrawal Act, but for the purposes of British law, we will not have approved the withdrawal Act. Can such a position have any basis in reality? Can it be orderly for it not to have any basis in reality?

I genuinely do not want to cavil at what the hon. Lady is saying, because she is asking me a perfectly fair and reasonable question, but the way I would characterise it for colleagues, and I hope carry them with me in doing so, is as follows. It may seem a fine line, but there is a clear distinction between procedural propriety, with which the Chair has to be concerned, and legal exegesis, with which the Chair need not be concerned. Those matters are separate and distinct. Many right hon. and hon. Members of the House will be well versed in and have opinions about both those things, but my concern is with procedural propriety and the orderly conduct of business. Whether something makes sense in law and satisfies the hon. Lady’s palate in that regard is another matter.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This is being done late in the day, and many Members are just getting news of this provision, as they have been involved in meetings and other parliamentary proceedings. Will you ensure that this information is widely disseminated and that the Library provides some independent advice? This looks to me like trickery of the highest order. Can we ensure that all Members are fully briefed and fully understand what is going on here, and what the Government are trying to do?

Certainly the Library can be asked to provide information and a note on this matter, copies of which can be made available, and I have every expectation that something will be provided. I had earlier discussions with and have just spoken to the senior Clerk at the Table, whose professionalism will be universally respected across the House. Those who serve us will do all they can to ensure that all possible material is available to colleagues as they undertake this deliberation. That is a very reasonable request, and I hope the answer suffices.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Given that the withdrawal agreement and political declaration are intrinsically linked, could we be getting into a situation where we could comply with European law, but not with our own legislation?

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Can we be reassured by the Attorney General that if we approve the motion to the satisfaction of the European Union, whatever we do in this House will become irrelevant because the European Union would regard us as having approved a motion that we have not in fact approved using our own purposes?

For the record I can say that the Attorney General is shaking his head, and he dissents from the hon. Lady’s proposition. Forgive me, because I think the House will want to move on, but I hope she will accept it if I say that that is a political point. It is an important point, and I am not knocking it in any way, but it is not germane to the remit of the Chair, nor—if I may politely say so—is it material to the sittings of the House motion with which we are now dealing.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Having just read the motion, I wonder whether an opportunity might be given for the Government to clarify a really important point. If the EU agrees that, if the motion is passed tomorrow, the UK will be granted an extension until 22 May, at that point it will no longer be possible for the United Kingdom to apply for a further extension, because we would have failed to make the arrangements necessary to take part in the European elections. Therefore, to pass this motion will preclude the United Kingdom from asking for any further extension. It would be helpful to the House if a Minister could come to the Dispatch Box and clarify that point.

I must say to people listening that I am mightily glad that the right hon. Gentleman was not asking me to adjudicate on that. It is very helpful that he has excused me from any responsibility. I do not sense that the Attorney General, who is comfortably seated on the Government Front Bench, is looking to come to the Dispatch Box, or indeed that the Leader of the House is inclined to do so. I think I can safely say—I do not think I will be accused of disclosing a state secret—that as things stand the Attorney General is intending to declaim from the Dispatch Box tomorrow.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I rise out of respect for the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn). This is clearly a matter that I shall address tomorrow morning in full. It requires serious consideration, as virtually everything the right hon. Gentleman says in this House is entitled to. I will address that point in full tomorrow.

Colleagues, the motion has been tabled, moved and spoken to in a perfectly orderly way. I suggest that we now hear from the shadow Leader of the House.

I beg to move amendment (a), at end, to add

“but that sitting shall not be used for proceedings on consideration of the Overseas Electors Bill.”.

I thank the Leader of the House for the statement, the second business statement we have had today. Mr Speaker, you say that the public are watching up there in the Gallery. They are watching our proceedings throughout the world. They should know that none of us on the Opposition Benches—not a single hon. Member —received a copy of the motion. I came into the Chamber 10 minutes before these proceedings were due to start and it still was not in the Table Office, so it is right that my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has asked for it to be read out as though it were a bedtime story.

The treatment of this House is absolutely disgraceful. Members are going about their business, but have now been told that they have to come back for tomorrow’s motion. This underlines the Government’s disrespect for the House of Commons and for Parliament.

I have had the chance to look at the motion while sitting here on the shadow Front Bench. [Interruption.] I am not going to say anything until this exchange is over. Is that okay for the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mrs Wheeler)? [Interruption.] Good. I need to know whether you, Mr Speaker, are content to see that the law is actually being broken. The motion states that the House approves what was put before the House

“on 11 March 2019 so that the UK can leave the EU on 22 May 2019; notes that this approval”—

the House is going to note this—

“does not by itself meet the requirements of section 13(l)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018; and resolves that it is content”—

hon. Members need to know that they are signifying their content—

“to proceed to the next steps of this process, including fulfilling section 13 of this Act”,

even though it does not comply with that section of the Act. Is that in order? Is the motion in order? On the face of it, it does not comply with the Act.

The shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), has made it consistently clear that he does not want the separation of the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration. That is not just his view; it is the view of the Prime Minister. I just wonder whether asking the Prime Minister to resign to get the withdrawal agreement through is the price that the Government are paying. On 14 January, she told the House that there was

“absolute clarity on the explicit linkage between the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration.”

She added that

“the link between them”—

the two documents—

“means that the commitments of one cannot be banked without the commitments of the other. The EU has been clear that they come as a package.”—[Official Report, 14 January 2019; Vol. 652, c. 826.]

The Prime Minister was right then. It seems that she is wrong now. That is why we on the Labour Benches will not be supporting the motion.

This is no way to run a Government. I do not know whether the Prime Minister will come back here, but she has a duty to tell the truth to the House. She has made it clear, on that basis, that the two documents are linked together. We are now presented with a motion that breaks that link. On the face of it, that breaks the law: it breaks the European Union withdrawal law. This is the Government playing games. Parliament, our constituents, future trading partners and the country will not countenance this.

I am sorry, because other colleagues will want to speak, but I want to make this very simple point: it is not for the Chair—and I absolutely respect what the shadow Leader of the House said—to pronounce on whether a motion, in terms of its effect, is lawful or not. The House makes a judgment on the merits or demerits of a motion and the law is ultimately interpreted by a court if there is a challenge. I am making no assertion of lawfulness or unlawfulness. The Attorney General is entirely comfortable in his own mind and will doubtless articulate that tomorrow. My concern is with the narrow confines of order and procedural propriety. I make no assertion beyond that.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In one breath, the shadow Leader of the House complained that she had not seen the motion until she walked into the Chamber, and in the next, she said that the Opposition would not be supporting the motion. Until they have heard the arguments that can be made to support the motion, how can they so quickly come to a point of view unless they are playing political games with the future of this country and this deal, which delivers on the vote of 17.4 million people? It is game playing, Mr Speaker, and it has to stop.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In view of the question raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) a few moments ago and either the Attorney General’s unwillingness or inability to respond to him, would it be in order for my right hon. Friend or somebody else to put in an urgent question to be answered tonight so that we can get a proper answer to what are very important questions?

I think that matter is governed by Standing Orders, so the short answer to the right hon. Gentleman is no, that is not possible. It is perfectly possible for there to be urgent questions tomorrow. He may say that that is too late and that it does not fit with his timetable, but I am simply making the point that there is no bar to urgent questions on a Friday. Typically, if there are such, they would come on at 11 o’clock—there were three, in fact, last Friday, if memory serves me correctly—but obviously, urgent questions interrupt a debate without changing the time of the end of the debate. That is the factual position. The opportunity is there, but there is a time consequence.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I think the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) might have inadvertently misled the House when she said that she had only just got sight of the motion. I have been having quite detailed discussions with the deputy Clerk of the House about procedures for the next few days. Indeed, he took me to the Table Office, and there was the motion for me to have a copy of at 4 o’clock, so I am surprised that the hon. Lady took an hour and a half to find this out.

The shadow Leader of the House can answer for herself, but I simply say to the hon. Lady that if she is referring to the motion for tomorrow’s debate, that motion certainly was not in the Table Office at 4 o’clock, as far as I am aware. I discussed the matter with the Attorney General, and I can assure her that it certainly was not there at that time, or absolutely not in anywhere near its final form. I think I am quite clear about that. As to the sittings motion, that is a different matter.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I rise out of respect to those asking questions about why the motion was late. I do apologise to the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz)—I was anxious to get it to her and to others as soon as I could—but I was particularly concerned that the motion should comply with your ruling, Mr Speaker. Therefore—I hope you will permit me to divulge this—as a result of some discussion with you, I am afraid that it was concluded only shortly before the time we came into the House. [Interruption.] Well, I cannot speak for that, but I say to the House that I am sorry it was late, but it was a matter that needed to comply with your important ruling, Mr Speaker.

These things are subject to change. There was a version of the motion earlier this afternoon. The Attorney General and I met, as is perfectly reasonable and proper, and then there was a later version. However, I am quite certain in my own mind that the motion was not in the Table Office at 4 o’clock, and I think that the shadow Leader of the House has been misrepresented, if I may politely say so.

I thank the hon. Lady for withdrawing what she said earlier, although I think the shadow Leader of the House would have liked an apology. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady has withdrawn what she said. [Interruption.] I am happy with that. We will leave it there.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am really sorry, but I am not happy with that. The hon. Lady called me a liar. She effectively said—[Interruption.] Let me just explain. I am in front of the Attorney General. I can get an affidavit or a written statement from the very nice person in the Table Office. I went in at 10 to 5 and I asked for a copy of the motion. I walked round to your office, Mr Speaker, to ask for a copy, and I have not received it. So I think that the hon. Lady does owe me an apology.

I think that the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) said that she thought that the shadow Leader had inadvertently misled the House. The simple point is that, as we now know, the shadow Leader did not mislead the House. That is a matter of fact.

Are we returning to the motion? Does the hon. Gentleman wish to speak on the motion, or is he seeking to raise a point of order?

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Perhaps you can help me. We have been accused of playing political games. At what time did you meet the Attorney General to talk about the motion?

I saw the Attorney General a number of times during the day. I would just say to the hon. Gentleman—I do not mean to be discourteous to him—that I think colleagues will recognise the Speaker regularly meets the Leader of the House, the shadow Leader of the House, the Government Chief Whip, the Opposition Chief Whip and a variety of other people. There is nothing particularly unusual about that. I met the Attorney General at half-past eight this morning; I then met him at 2.30 this afternoon, and then again at—if memory serves me correctly—approximately 4 o’clock, 4.15, or thereabouts. So we had three meetings during the day, and in the course of the three meetings I supplied the Attorney General with just one cup of tea.

Who else wishes to speak in the debate? I call Mr Christopher Bryant.

Who would have thought that a debate on whether we should sit tomorrow would get everyone so wound up?

In one sense, this is very simple. We are simply deciding, at a moment of national crisis, whether or not we should sit tomorrow, notwithstanding the normal practice of the House, which is that we only sit on Fridays for private Members’ business. I do not think that a single Member of the House would resent the Government’s motion proposing that we should sit tomorrow, because we know that this is a very important moment for our country, and we need to get this right. However, as every good architect will tell you, form must always follow function. My anxiety is that when the Government announced that we were going to sit tomorrow, they should have told us what we were going to sit for. We should have had plenty of prior notice, not the negligible notice that we have had.

I understand, and take in good faith, the difficulties that the Government have had in trying to get to this moment, but I think that the motion that we will debate tomorrow is problematic in many ways, and I think that that gives us reason to ask whether we should really be sitting to consider this matter tomorrow. [Interruption.] No, this is not a point of order. I am taking part in the debate. This is a debate on a motion which is before the House.

I have a problem with the function that we are being asked to address tomorrow. First, the motion expressly does not meet the requirements of our own law, passed in this House, namely section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which clearly binds together the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration. Indeed the Prime Minister herself had repeatedly said the two things could not be separated out, and for that matter senior members of other Governments elsewhere in Europe have also said the two things go together. Indeed the Prime Minister’s express point was that if they were separated out, we in the UK would be losing the benefits we gained. So I have an anxiety about that element.

May I finish the point? The second problem I have is that the motion, to my mind and according to what the Leader of the House herself said earlier, is only there to appease the EU’s desires. Well isn’t that an irony; this is not exactly taking back—

Order. I have the highest regard for the hon. Gentleman, but we are in danger of eliding into tomorrow’s debate. I am not casting aspersions on the hon. Gentleman, who is a consummate parliamentarian, but the issue before the House now is the motion moved by the Leader of the House, which is a sittings motion: the issue is whether we should sit tomorrow for the period specified. A very occasional reference to what we would be meeting to discuss is one thing, but to devote a speech to the merits or demerits of tomorrow’s motion goes way beyond that, and I do not want this debate to be the debate we are proposing to have, and that the Leader of the House is advocating having, tomorrow.

Mr Speaker, if you had just told me to shut up I probably would have done so; you could have done it a bit more briefly, if I might say. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]

Order. Let me just say to the hon. Gentleman that although I always profit by his counsels he has already devoted some minutes to the substance of tomorrow so it ill behoves him to lecture me on brevity. He has spoken for quite a long time, not on the sittings motion but on the substance of tomorrow. Wrap it up, man.

Resume your seat. I say very gently to the hon. Gentleman, let it go, make your point—which we always enjoy hearing—finish the speech, and let others take part. I do not need any backchat from the hon. Gentleman.

What the Leader of the House is proposing in this motion is that we should adopt a new precedent. There has been much talk of precedent in the last few days in terms of the way we proceed here, and I believe in precedent, which is why I believe we should very rarely set the precedent we are setting for tomorrow. I think for instance we should abide by the precedent that when a Government lose a major policy they fall, and that when a Government Minister proposes a motion they vote for it. All of these are precedents that have been abandoned.

I am happy for us to sit tomorrow, but I would just say that if it is absolutely clear, as has already been stated, that tomorrow’s motion is not a meaningful vote, it is then a meaningless vote and consequently there is little point to us sitting. And the one precedent that I am absolutely sure the House will always have abided by in the past and will probably abide by tomorrow is that when the Government come up with a policy—a change of mood, a change of style, a different way of doing business—that is too clever by half, they always lose.

I will confine my remarks exclusively to the motion before us this afternoon—I am sure you will be pleased about that, Mr Speaker—and I will leave it to others to continue to debate the merits of the motion tomorrow.

I do not think I have ever seen in the last 18 years a start of a business motion which has been preceded by endless points of order. That more than anything demonstrates the mess this place is in—the absolute guddle we have in procedure and process. All these points of order are trying to examine and define and find out exactly what is going on. I am pretty certain all of our constituents, who are taking a great deal of interest in our proceedings just now, are absolutely bemused and mystified, frustrated and increasingly angry about the way we do our business in this House, with all these issues trying to come to the front of our attention. It has almost got to the point in this House where it is so broken and the debate is so corrupted that we are now having debates through points of order. I can barely imagine that we have reached that stage just now; it demonstrates how badly broken things are.

The sitting tomorrow is all about the Government’s latest wheeze to get their doomed Brexit deal through. They are inviting us to consider the withdrawal agreement without the political declaration attached. It is a meaningful vote, but it is a sort of Schrödinger’s meaningful vote: it is both alive and dead at the same time. After three years without any attempt to create any sort of secure consensus on the way forward, and after two months of defeats and this House taking control yesterday, this is the last throw of the dice for the Government tomorrow. It seems that even the Prime Minister offering herself as a sacrifice to the Brexiteers this week was not good enough for them. As the First Minister put it so elegantly in the Scottish Parliament today, this is a Prime Minister who threw herself on her sword and missed. It cannot get any more calamitous than that.

There is just one more issue about tomorrow. As Scottish National party Members, we are all, as you would expect, Scottish Members of Parliament. That means that there are particular issues when it comes to our travel arrangements. We spend more than half a day getting to this House and half a day getting back—that is one full day of travelling just to be able to come down here and do our business. This Government have so disrespected all of us who have to travel great distances. Confirming only this morning that the House will be sitting tomorrow is totally unacceptable—

This is just part of the pattern that we expect from some hon. Members. “Just go home!” “Go away!” That is what they feel about us. I would be happy to oblige the hon. Gentleman, and the way that we can elegantly achieve that is to secure independence for our nation.

The hon. Gentleman is making a point about travel. I say to him, my constituency neighbour, that our constituents in North Perthshire and South Perthshire will be plenty happy for us to be here making some of the biggest and most important decisions in this Parliament in modern political history. These decisions cannot wait any longer.

I am pretty sure that the electors of Perthshire would be delighted if we were here making decisions, but that is the exact opposite of what we are doing. We have probably not made any decisions in this House for the past few months, and he is responsible for that.

Lastly, I totally and utterly support the shadow Leader of the House when she said that it is absolutely disgraceful that we were presented with tomorrow’s motion only 10 minutes before this debate was supposed to start.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the business of the House motion makes reference to complying with Acts and the European Union documents, yet the motion that we are debating tomorrow acknowledges that we are not going to follow UK legislation and that we will catch up at some point in the future?

Absolutely, and I raised the question this morning with the Speaker about what exactly we are doing about section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. The hon. Gentleman is right. We have not seen the withdrawal and implementation Bill. We are expected to make critical decisions about the future of this country and about how we should progress Brexit without knowing what the Bill is. The Government are offering the ultimate blind Brexit. We are expected to give them a blank cheque to negotiate the political agreement as they see fit. This is the last throw of the dice for them. This is the only place they have left. The meaningful vote is dead, but they have tried to resurrect it by splitting it into two parts.

The hon. Gentleman is making an important point about a blind Brexit. Does he agree that the way in which the motion has been tabled goes against the spirit of this House, where we have been trying to expand and understand where there is consensus, and that it instead contracts the debate by trying to separate the debate about the future? That is at the very core of the debate, and this is why we do not want to leave without knowing where we are going to. It is like moving house and leaving your home without knowing where you are going to be living.

I have heard that analogy before, and the hon. Lady is absolutely right.

We can compare what happened yesterday when this House was able to consider all sorts of measures and ways forward in order to see whether there was any sort of consensus across the House on how we should determine and progress these ideas. Tomorrow, on the other hand, is all about trying to satisfy Conservative Back Benchers, with no attempt to reach out to the rest of the House. That is why I believe that tomorrow’s motion will ultimately fail. This is the last chance for the Government to bring it back, and the hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) can be certain that the Scottish National party will be here to take part in tomorrow’s debate even though we have hundreds of miles to travel. We will ensure that the motion fails tomorrow and that the interests of our country are maintained and progressed, and we will look forward to that. As an exercise, this is totally and utterly consistent with the chaotic cluelessness that lies at the heart of this Tory Brexit. This Tory Government have divided that nation and taken us to the brink. The SNP will be here tomorrow, and we will be voting the motion down.

I have learned to read the details of European Council conclusions. Last Wednesday night, Donald Tusk sent out a message that an extension—

Order. I am sorry, but I said it before to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who took it in pretty good spirit—[Laughter.] Well, reasonable spirit. With the greatest of respect to the hon. Lady, whose experience of the European Parliament is well known, this is not a debate about tomorrow’s motion. I have said this before and I will say it again: this is a debate on the sittings motion. That is all we are debating now. If the hon. Lady would like to make a few remarks—[Interruption.] No, I am telling the hon. Lady what the situation is. The debate is on the sittings motion. If she would like to make a speech on that motion, she can do so, but this is not about tomorrow’s debate.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Some of the points of order that have already been made this evening suggested that we should be voting on both the withdrawal agreement and other parts of the agreement, but Europe has made it clear that it needs a decision tomorrow on the withdrawal agreement. Let us agree that that is what we need to do tomorrow, and I will be here to do that.

In a point of order a few moments ago, Mr Speaker, I asked you whether there was any mechanism by way of an urgent question that we could get a response from the Attorney General to the point made earlier by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn). It is important that we get an answer before we conclude this evening’s proceedings, because how we vote tomorrow could, as my right hon. Friend said, have an effect on any further delay that the European Commission might consider. Can we ask the Attorney General to make a statement on that during the course of this debate?

In so far as it is germane to the right hon. Gentleman’s view as to whether the sittings motion should pass, it is a reasonable point for him to raise. I can say only that the Attorney General can respond now, but I think it became clear in earlier exchanges that he was minded to address such matters tomorrow.

If the right hon. Gentleman concludes that that is not good enough, that may inform his view of the sittings motion. I explained the situation on the sittings motion to the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) and I say the same to the right hon. Gentleman, but I thank him for what he said.

There are plenty of people in the Gallery today who will be here to see the magnificent historical features of this building. They should pay particular attention to the parts that are currently held up with scaffolding, which represent the places where MPs have been banging their heads against the walls for nearly three years in trying to make sense of the chaos that the Government have created. No MP resents coming into this place, because it is a pleasure and a privilege to be here to represent our constituents, but it is extremely disruptive when the Government are so chaotic and when they refuse to plan ahead and to communicate well in advance so that we can make proper arrangements. We saw that in the February half-term, when MPs with childcare responsibilities and other responsibilities were disrupted, and we are likely to see it in the Easter recess as well. Again, no MP has an issue with being here—it is a privilege to be here—but we have arrangements to make, so clarity would be appreciated.

When the Leader of the House returns to the Dispatch Box, it would be helpful if she could help me to understand something. Currently, the local government elections are due to take place on 2 May. If, for whatever reason, the business is not passed tomorrow, we might be heading towards a position in which we have to elect Members to the European Parliament. The European elections are currently scheduled for the end of May. Would the Government intend to reschedule the date of the local government elections to coincide with the European elections that take place 21 days later?

I shall not speak for long. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), I am very happy to sit tomorrow, even though it means a day not spent in the glorious city of Newcastle, but I am concerned that in effect the sitting tomorrow has been designed purely to circumvent British law—not to pass new laws, because the Leader of the House knows that she does not have the numbers to do that, but to circumvent laws that we have already passed. I hope she will address my final point. It seems to me that, for the House to sit in order to cede control of the process to the European Union goes against not only the spirit of the 17.4 million who voted for Brexit but the spirit and intention of the House.

Tomorrow, 29 March, had long been trailed as the Brexiteers’ brilliant independence day. It was the day that they had trumpeted for two and half long years, but it turns out that, actually, on 29 March we are going to be here in the House of Commons because the European Union demands it. The humiliation of Brexit will soon be very complete indeed. Rather than all that they promised, we have now seen, at the edge of the cliff, the horrors of Brexit and the disaster that is coming our way.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it seems the Government’s tactics have gone from, “Vote for the deal or it is no deal,” to “Vote for the deal or it is no Brexit,” to “Vote for the deal or there is no recess,” and now it is “Vote for the deal or there is just no going home at all”? The solution for those of us from Scotland who are stuck in the big Brexit house is to become independent and get out of here.

I hear cheers from the Tory Benches for Scottish independence. Is that a first? Are the benefits of Brexit finally coming to us?

My hon. Friend will, like me, remember that tomorrow was also supposed to signal the start of the festival of Brexit, at which the Attorney General, doing his best Gilbert and Sullivan, was going to be out there as the compere, talking about all the wonderful achievements of post-Brexit Britain? What happened to that?

The humiliation for the Brexiteers is greater and deeper than any single Scottish nationalist could have imagined. Not only are they here because the European Union demands that they be here, but they have to put off their festivals as a result of the European Union’s demand. It is humiliation for them.

As this is a debate on a sittings of the House motion, might it be in order for my hon. Friend to list the things that we could debate instead of this fixed-up motion that the Government have introduced with 10 minutes’ notice? I am sure my hon. Friend would like to adumbrate a great many things that could be on tomorrow’s Order Paper; would he care to give the House a bit of that?

Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes a good point. In a number of business questions sessions, I and other Members have asked the Leader of the House for time to make progress on the Refugees (Family Reunion) (No. 2) Bill—

Order. The hon. Gentleman was led astray from the path of virtue when his hon. Friend exhorted him to list matters that it would be worthy to debate tomorrow. I can advise the hon. Gentleman on that matter: the sittings of the House motion specifies the purpose for which the House will meet, and an amendment to it specifies a purpose for which it should not meet. It is clear from the motion what it is about, and this debate is not an opportunity to dilate on a vast range of other matters, which may be of interest to the hon. Gentleman but which are not consistent with the terms of the motion. If I have somewhat truncated the hon. Gentleman’s speech as a result, I am sure he is sad, but that is the reality.

I was rather enjoying your own speech there, Mr Speaker.

To finish, I want to underline the humiliation that is the House of Commons turning up at the demand of the EU. I wonder if the 50ps might get melted down tomorrow and turned into something a little more useful. God bless ya.

Amendment (a) agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.


That this House shall sit on Friday 29 March 2019 but that sitting shall not be used for proceedings on consideration of the Overseas Electors Bill.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is there any way to emphasise a point you made earlier concerning tomorrow’s motion, where it says the House

“resolves that it is content to proceed to the next steps of this process”?

Given that the next steps of the process very much depend on the EU withdrawal and implementation Bill, is there any way we can emphasise to the Government the importance of that Bill, which exists in draft form, being published so that, in resolving to move to the next steps, we can know what those steps are, particularly as some of us are of the view that we might see in that Bill the introduction of retrospective legislation to change certain parts of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018?

This matter was touched on earlier. Whether the Bill will be published in time for the debate I do not know—it remains to be seen—but the very strong wish of the hon. Gentleman and some others that it should be has been noted.

I note in passing to colleagues that 29 March is itself Brexit neutral. I say that because, if memory serves me correctly, tomorrow, 29 March, is the birthday of the noble Lord Tebbit of Chingford and of Sir John Major.

And, very importantly, it is the birthday of the hon. Lady’s daughter, and doubtless of a great many other people to boot, Brexiteer and remainer alike. [Interruption.] I cannot name them all, I am afraid. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), but I am afraid that my knowledge is not that great. It was a good try.