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Business of the House

Volume 658: debated on Monday 8 April 2019

I should like to inform the House that in the event that the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 5) Bill receives Royal Assent today, the House may be expected to approve a motion relating to section 1 of the Bill to seek an extension of the period specified in article 50(3) of the treaty on European Union. I will make further business statements as necessary this week at the earliest opportunity.

I thank the Leader of the House for advance sight of the statement. I have four quick questions. When is the motion likely to be tabled? How long will the Government give for the debate? Will the Government support the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 5) Bill? If so, will it definitely receive Royal Assent tonight?

The motion will be tabled later this evening. As the hon. Lady will be aware, if Lords amendments come back, the House will consider them later this evening, in line with the Bill. If the debate is brought forward tomorrow—that is subject to the Bill receiving Royal Assent tonight—it is not intended that the motion will be with a business of the House motion. Therefore, as a proceeding under an Act, the debate would be subject to the provisions of Standing Order No. 16, so the debate will last for 90 minutes.

Will the Leader of the House confirm that the Bill currently going through the House of Lords is the biggest dog’s dinner of any Bill we have seen in recent times? Are the Government opposed to the Bill? Will they do everything to defeat it?

I entirely agree that it is a huge dog’s dinner. As I mentioned to colleagues when we were looking at the business of the House motion, the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017—the Act to trigger article 50—had two clauses, containing only 58 words. It was debated for five full days in this Chamber. It seems inconceivable that Parliament looked at this Bill for the first time last Tuesday and has had just a few hours of debate across both Houses.

It is not so much a dog’s dinner as a dog’s Brexit. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] Come on, that was all right. The Government are simply managing this on a day-to-day, crisis management basis. No one has a clue what the business will look like tomorrow afternoon, far less what it will look like at the end of the week. All strength to the guys in ermine down the corridor, who have stuck diligently to the task and managed to get the Bill through their House. They are currently adjourned for pleasure—I am certain they will be enjoying that pleasure—but they will get back to dealing with the Bill, and the Government will be obliged to come back tomorrow within the strictures of the Bill that has been passed by this House and will be passed by the House of Lords.

I have a couple of questions. Will debate of the motion take precedence over all Government business tomorrow? Why is only one and a half hours given for consideration, given that there are likely to be a number of amendments coming back from the House of Lords? Will the Leader of the House take this opportunity to remind all her right hon. and hon. Friends on the Back Benches that there is no more opportunity to vote down the Bill; all we can consider is amendments put to us by the House of Lords?

Will the Leader of the House say something about what will happen for the rest of the week? For example, will we sit on Friday? Will we have indicative votes at some point this week? Will we hear about what has been compiled by this Labour-Tory Brexit blame sharing? Will we hear anything on any of those issues in the next few days? Can we get to some semblance of how we do business in the House? This really is a dog’s Brexit.

I fear that the hon. Gentleman might be insulting me somewhat as a keen Brexiteer. He is not being consistent, because he usually likes to stand there and insult the other place, talking about how the Lords should be gone, abolished and reduced, yet now, because they are giving him the answer he wants, he is praising them. That is not consistent. It is rather like his approach to referendums: he ignores those he does not like and insists on upholding those he does.

The hon. Gentleman asks whether the motion relating to the Bill currently in the other place would take precedence tomorrow over other business. I sincerely expect not. He asks about the rest of the week. He knows that I have already announced that business, and I have also made it clear that whether we need to sit on Friday will be a decision to make once we see the results of the European Council. I will always seek to give the House as much notice as possible.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that at all stages we will continue to oppose the Bill and that the Government oppose any amendments in process? Does she not agree that there is a distinct irony in that the other place has spent what is now two days debating the Bill while we ended up with a tiny amount of time and did not even debate Report or Third Reading? That is a travesty for the Chamber that is meant to be the democratic Chamber, with the other one the unelected Chamber.

My right hon. Friend is exactly right that it should be for this House to make key decisions, yet here we have the unelected House making play with the Bill, which is absolutely unconventional for the procedures of this Parliament. Despite the Government’s grave misgivings about this legislation, for all the reasons we set out in the debate, we will not prevent the Bill being presented for Royal Assent, should it pass both Houses.

It is a well-established convention that the Government have the ability to seek and negotiate international agreements, so the Government will support one amendment in the other place: the royal prerogative amendment. There may be one or two others that seek to ensure that the prerogative is maintained as far as possible.

This is the first opportunity I have had to raise this, Mr Speaker, but I did let the Leader of the House know. Last Thursday, in exceptional circumstances, the House was forced to adjourn early, so the debate on the 2019 loan charge, after 16 speakers and 2 hours and 40 minutes of debate, was not afforded a ministerial response. Given the unprecedented circumstances, can we find some way to rectify that position and get a proper ministerial response, please?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that issue. I fear the House was a bit jealous of all the Cabinet leaks and decided to have one of its own. It was rather a big problem for the House, and the debate had to be adjourned. I have already spoken to my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, who is very much looking forward to the resumption of that debate and making his points as well as facilitating those of the Opposition spokesperson. I will announce that as soon as possible.

Why the undue haste? Why are the Government conceding the Bill that they do not want before they have even had the amendments or the votes? Why have they not dug in over the need for a money resolution? It will be enormously expensive to delay the exit from the European Union, given the very high taxes that it imposes on us. Surely the Leader of the House should dig in on that and insist that the normal procedures apply.

My right hon. Friend is exactly right that if passed the Bill would place a severe constraint on the Government’s ability to negotiate an extension and reflect the new date in the UK statute book before 12 April. The Government do not accept that the Bill is necessary and deeply regret that the House has taken it upon itself to introduce a Bill that has not had the proper preparation, scrutiny or drafting. It is of grave regret to the Government; none the less, the Government will abide by the law at all times.

Just to clarify precisely what the position of the Leader of the House is, is she saying that the Government do not intend to disagree with the amendment that was put forward in the other place by the former Lord Chief Justice?

The hon. Lady will have to forgive me: I am not sure which amendment she is referring to and therefore, I cannot answer that question on behalf of the Government at this moment.

Will the Leader of the House explain why Her Majesty is being drawn into this matter by being asked to give Royal Assent immediately? Normally, Royal Assent is done at Her Majesty’s pleasure. It seems to me wholly inappropriate to be forcing Her Majesty into a political position.

In raising that matter, my hon. Friend is inviting me to involve the monarchy in this question, and I am afraid that it is not something I am prepared to do, other than to say that Royal Assent is given at the convenience of Her Majesty.

May I press the Leader of the House on indicative votes? When will we be able to have them, and will they include the option of linking the Prime Minister’s deal to a people’s vote?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the Prime Minister has said that she is seeking agreement with an approach that the whole House can support as a way to ensure that we leave the European Union in very short order. However, if the talks that are under way now do not lead to a single, unified approach very soon, the Government will instead look to establish a consensus on a small number of clear options on the future relationship that could be put to the House in a series of votes.

Following the point made by the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), as the loan charge debate was concluded prematurely, is there a procedural question that might be considered by the Leader of the House, and perhaps by you, Mr Speaker, as to whether if House business collapses or ends earlier than expected, a proposed Government motion for business the following working day might be considered at the usual time? We anticipated Government motions and business coming forward late on Friday. It could not happen and I think we ought to have a procedure under which it could.

I am always keen to look very carefully at proposals made by hon. Members across the House and I will certainly take away my hon. Friend’s suggestion. However, what I have discussed with you, Mr Speaker, and my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury is that we intend to bring the debate back for resumption. I hope that those who had already spoken in the debate would attend and those who were waiting to speak in it may have the opportunity to do so. Importantly, the Government and Opposition spokespeople will then be able to respond, hopefully giving some closure on that debate to the many people in the country who are very concerned about the matter.

The House of Lords has completed the Committee stage of the Bill and all the amendments carried at the Committee stage in the Lords have been supported by the Government Minister there. Will the right hon. Lady confirm, as the Leader of the House and a Cabinet Minister here in the Commons, that when the amendments come back down the corridor to us later, the Government will follow on from what happened in the Lords and support those amendment?

The hon. Gentleman will know that whipping is a matter for the Whips, and I am not prepared to confirm from the Dispatch Box exactly how Government Members will be voting.

Rumours abound of an ill-advised customs union-based Brexit in talks with the Opposition. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the House would need time to debate the merits and demerits of a customs union in some detail, and is she personally still opposed to a customs union with the European Union?

What I can say to my right hon. Friend is that any discussion of a new and different proposal would need to come before the House for careful discussion and consideration. In answer to the second part of his question, I am absolutely opposed to remaining in the European Union’s customs union, but if we are to leave the EU in very short order, I think we need to be flexible and find a way forward that the whole House can support.

The Leader of the House continues to complain about the Bill, but the bottom line is that the Bill reflects the will of the House and the will of the other place. Is that parliamentary process not far more important than MPs having to turn on the TV to hear the Prime Minister’s latest formulations on what she is thinking, instead of her coming to the Dispatch Box?

The hon. Gentleman is not correct that I complain about the Bill. I fundamentally object to it on the grounds that it is totally unconventional for this House. When people vote for a Government at the polling booths, the Government go to form that Government as Her Majesty’s Government, and then it is the convention that the Government propose the business, and Parliament scrutinises it, and may amend or reject it. What does not happen—normally, for many, many years—is that those who did not win that general election, who do not form a Government and who do not have the confidence of this House should be putting forward any legislation, and particularly legislation with such significant constitutional implications as this Bill.

I very much support the realistic and pragmatic position currently being taken by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, but I was looking at her letter to President Tusk of 5 April in which she requested an article 50 extension to 30 June. In the letter she said that if she cannot get an agreement with the Opposition, “a series of votes” will be put to establish a position, but clearly that in itself will require the Opposition’s support, so could we say that not getting a deal with the Opposition will probably lead to a long delay to article 50?

We have to consider this step by step. The Prime Minister has said that she wants to seek a way forward that the whole House can support. If that is not possible, she intends to come forward with a small number of options for the House to consider to seek another and perhaps slightly different way forward. It remains our intention to leave the European Union with a deal that both means we leave in line with the decision of the referendum in 2016, and protects our economy, jobs and our security.

I am very disappointed to hear the tone that the Leader of the House is taking. I think it absolutely demonstrates why we have such a problem here. She fails to acknowledge that the Government have no majority, have not managed to carry this House, do not have the confidence of this House, have spent a great deal of time on anything but the business that we need to deal with, and have been absolutely intransigent. If Members think about the public out there watching this and listening to those responses, which basically seem to condemn this House and the responsible action it has taken, they will see that the public could well hold this House in contempt of our nation if it did not take the action it has taken as we face this national crisis. This House is sovereign, and the Government seem to reject that notion at every point and turn.

I am sorry to say to the right hon. Lady that what she has said is not correct. This Government do have the confidence of the House. They are Her Majesty’s Government, and, should the House feel that it does not have confidence in Her Majesty’s Government, it should, of course, table a no-confidence motion. It did attempt to do that, and it lost, so—as a matter of fact—this Government do have the confidence of the House.

Let me also say that the Government have, at all times, sought to find a deal that would honour the referendum that was held in 2016 and enable the United Kingdom to leave the European Union in a way that would ensure that we met the will of the people, but would at the same time protect our economy and our security. That is what the Government have sought to do, but what Parliament has then done is reject every attempt to secure a good deal that works for the whole United Kingdom. I am always keen to hear from Members, but it is a fact that this Government carry the confidence of the House, and that Parliament has failed to support the will of the people as expressed in the referendum in 2016.

This is an abomination of a Bill. It is not a question of what Members of this House should be saying; it is a question of what should be said by the people of this country, to whom we swore that we would leave after two years—and we are not. The Leader of the House now seems to be saying that she is pursuing a soft Brexit. I understand that we are still due to leave on 12 April, this Friday. Would it not be ironic if it were the EU that threw us out, rather than our fulfilling our honourable duty?

My hon. Friend is correct: the legal date for us to leave the European Union is indeed this Friday, 12 April. However, he will also be aware that the Bill that is currently being discussed in the other place seeks to change the date of our departure, and that is the substance of the motion that will be discussed tomorrow should the Bill receive Royal Assent tonight.

Rather than the Government’s being condemned for being in contempt of the view of the House, should not the House recognise that, in passing the Bill, it is in contempt of the views of the vast majority of people in this country, because they voted to leave? The Bill seeks to undermine the UK’s ability to leave the European Union. The Leader of the House should not hang her head in shame for being disdainful to the House of Commons, because she is right to say that the Bill is a constitutional outrage, and also a democratic outrage.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Not only is the Bill against our conventions, but it seeks to subvert the will of the people as expressed in the referendum in 2016. That is a great shame, and it does not do credit to this House.

Instead of trying to do a Ramsay MacDonald in reverse, why does the Prime Minister not just let this country leave the EU on time, at 11 pm on Friday?

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Bill that is currently being discussed in the other place seeks to put into law a different date, and to ensure that it is not possible for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union at 11 pm this Friday. That is the fundamental problem that we have before us: the Bill seeks to change the outcome of the referendum by ensuring that the United Kingdom cannot leave the European Union.

May I remind the Leader of the House that the Government lost their majority at the last election, and are a minority Government supported by a minority party? May I also say to her, with respect, that she should give a straight answer to the question about the Lords amendments, and tell the House which of them she is prepared to support? Let me remind her once again that, through its own amendments, the House has been trying to help the Government to achieve article 50, contrary to what the Government think.

I can only say to the hon. Gentleman that when the other House finishes its consideration of the Bill, it will come back to this place for further consideration later this evening, and it will then become apparent how all Members vote on amendments made in the other place.

A majority of my constituents want us to leave the European Union this Friday. Presumably the best way to represent their wishes would be to vote against any extension proposed by the Government.

My hon. Friend will, of course, decide how he, as an individual Member of Parliament, wishes to vote. However, let me say again to all Members that the proposal that the Prime Minister negotiated with the European Union over two and a half years seeks to deliver on leaving the European Union while at the same time protecting our economy, protecting jobs and protecting our security relationship with the EU, and I urge them to continue to consider considering it as the right way to leave the EU with a deal.

May I pursue what was said by the Leader of the House to my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown)? She is clearly unhappy about the Bill. Can she not see that it is owing to the Government’s complete mismanagement of the entire Brexit process that the House has wrested control from them by means of the Bill? Will she acknowledge that her party lacks a majority in the House not just because her party is so divided, but because the people of the UK have decided that they do not want the Government to have full control of this process?

The hon. Lady seems to suggest that the ends justify the means. I would never support the introduction of a Bill of this type by the House. If a Bill of such constitutional significance were introduced by the Government, it would be subjected to extensive consideration. That would include consideration by the Parliamentary Business and Legislation Committee, which consists of business managers, law officers, territorial Ministers and others. The Committee would test the policy and the handling plans, ensuring good engagement with Members on both sides of the House.

There is a private Member’s Bill procedure, which is what the Bill’s promoters have sought to use. According to that procedure, the Bill would normally be considered on a sitting Friday, and the process would take place slowly, enabling the Government to check for drafting problems and enabling all colleagues to consult on whether they believe that the outcome would be right. This Bill—following a couple of hours of debate, and with very poor drafting and a great degree of urgency—seeks to challenge the result of the referendum that was held in June 2916. That simply cannot support the hon. Lady’s apparent suggestion that the end justifies the means.

I echo my right hon. Friend’s comments about the abomination that is this Bill. Let me put it on record that many of us switched our position on meaningful vote 3 to support the Government. That was the limit of our tolerance. We bent over backwards to try to get a deal through the House. I will simply be unable to support the Government if they propose a customs union. Can my right hon. Friend confirm my understanding that that would mean that we would have no independent trade policy, and that it would in fact be Brexit in name only?

What I can say to my hon. Friend is that the Government intend this country to be able to have its own free trade policy once we have left the European Union. That discussion continues to take place, and I hope we will find a solution that my hon. Friend, and other Members on both sides of the House, will be able to support.

Does the Leader of the House think that the Government, the Opposition or the House understand that a customs union is not a state of frictionless trade? Does she not think that, if that is proposed, we should make time in this place to ensure that there can be that understanding?

My hon. Friend has made a good point. I can assure him that if an arrangement can be reached that appears to be able to command a majority in the House, there will be plenty of time for discussion of it.