Monday 9 September 2019
[Joan Ryan in the Chair]
Prorogation of Parliament
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petitions 269157 and 237487 relating to the prorogation of Parliament.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I will read the wording of both petitions into the official record. The first petition is titled, “Do not prorogue Parliament”, and states:
“Parliament must not be prorogued or dissolved unless and until the Article 50 period has been sufficiently extended or the UK’s intention to withdraw from the EU has been cancelled.”
That petition received 1,721,119 signatures within a very short space of time. The second petition, which has already closed, is titled, “The Prime Minister should advise Her Majesty the Queen to prorogue Parliament”, and says:
“The Prime Minister should advise Her Majesty the Queen to prorogue Parliament suspending the current parliamentary session until 2nd April 2019”—
that is clearly out of date now—
“to prevent any attempts by parliamentarians to thwart Brexit on 29th March 2019. Preparations for no-deal/WTO will continue. The Prime Minister’s deal has been rejected. No further deal is available from the EU. Remaining in the EU is not an option. Extension or revocation of Article 50 is not an option. I believe the British people voted to leave with no mention of a deal and that WTO rules, to which Britain will default on 29th March 2019, are in Britain’s best interests. We may get a better deal after, but not until, we have left.”
As I said, the second petition is out of date; events were moving so quickly at the time that it was difficult to schedule a debate on it and to keep it topical. Naturally, with the Prorogation of Parliament upon us tonight, as I believe has been declared, it was deemed suitable to bring the two petitions together.
It is important that the Petitions Committee should always try to allow people to have their views aired. There is a reason why debates on petitions in Westminster Hall are some of the most read and watched debates: it is because we are talking about what people want us to talk about, rather than what we want to talk about. Unfortunately, or fortunately, the two coincide in this case. I have noticed that over the last three years we have wanted to talk about Brexit quite a lot; and because of the topicality of the issue, and because the Prime Minister has been clear that we will leave the EU by 31 October, come what may, people want to express their opinion, whether they want to stop no deal or stop Brexit in its entirety. It is important that we discuss that in the House of Commons.
There is a clear reason why Prorogation is a sensible idea. The Prime Minister was elected by members of the Conservative party, and people have asked what his domestic agenda will be. It is therefore right that we debate the wider domestic agenda, as well as Brexit, in this place. That can be done through a Queen’s Speech, in which the Prime Minister can set out clearly what he wants to do in the coming year, in a new Session of Parliament, to move the debate on, move Parliament on, and move the bandwidth of the media away from Brexit as we leave on 31 October.
I will come back to the question of mandate, because in about five hours the Prime Minister will ask Members to vote for a general election. We have all said that we do not want one at this time, because we want to get on with the job in hand, but at the moment, that is the best way not only to resolve the conundrum that we face in the lead-up to 31 October, but to move on and to show that there is a mandate for the domestic agenda.
As ever, my hon. Friend is doing sterling work in presenting the petitions. The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) mentioned the number of 100,000; he mentioned the number of 1.1 million—those people who signed the first petition. I have another number for him: 17,410,742. That is the number of people who voted to leave the EU, but due to parliamentary artifice, they are being denied that right.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I could not agree more, and I was one of those 17.4 million people. I understand that there are many facets to this complex argument, but we Members are charged with showing political leadership. For three years, we have talked about what we do not want; we have um-ed and ah-ed; we have had political shenanigans; and there have been games afoot. In the last few weeks—it seems a long time since the summer recess—the debate has been like the trash talk in a press conference ahead of a heavyweight boxing match, with people trying to win the fight before the first punch is thrown.
People clearly expect us to get on with the job and leave the EU, with or without a deal. By now, we should be talking about how, not whether, we will leave. The fact that we are still talking about whether we will leave, three years after the referendum, demonstrates the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) made: we cannot pick and choose the election results that we want to uphold, and 17.4 million people—the most people to have voted for anything in a British election—have charged us with leaving the EU.
Do we not need to know whether we are leaving with or without a deal in order to understand what legislation will be required? How can we have a Queen’s Speech on 14 October, before the European Council, and how can we frame legislation when we do not know whether we are leaving with or without a deal?
To be fair, I have allowed the last two interventions to distract me from the fact that the key purpose of a Queen’s Speech is to set out the domestic agenda—to talk about the 20,000 new police officers, and to ensure that people see the benefits of frontline funding for the NHS, levelling up funding for schools, and delivering full-fibre broadband across the country. However, as we ramp up preparation for no deal, we know exactly the kind of thing that we will need if we get a deal, although the deal that we are likely to get—if we get there—will be substantively different from the last withdrawal agreement. Also, we have been trying to pass legislation regarding no-deal preparations over the last few months.
Again, I am allowing myself to be distracted. We keep talking about deal or no deal, but actually we mean the withdrawal agreement; the deal is yet to come. We use the terms interchangeably. The deal, in terms of trade deals, is all about the future relationship with the EU, and we have not even got there yet. All we are talking about—I say “all”; of course it is complicated and significant—is how we physically leave the EU. Deciding what the trading relationship will look like will take time. One of my fundamental concerns—albeit from two and a half years ago, so it cannot be revisited—was accepting the sequencing that Michel Barnier and the EU put to us: that we had to get the divorce done before we could talk about the future relationship. It would have been far more sensible—this formed the basis of the Vote Leave campaign—to do both at the same time.
On the backstop, for example, instead of coming up with the convoluted system that has failed to get through this place so many times, it would have been far easier had we known what the ultimate trading relationship between Northern Ireland, in particular, and the Republic of Ireland would be. We would then have been able to work on solutions—alternative arrangements—not just in the last year, but in the last three years. That would have been a far better and more holistic approach to leaving.
I agree with my hon. Friend that the public are keen for us to move on to the domestic agenda. Is it not the case, however, that we are talking about having a Queen’s Speech either in October, or in November, which would be after Brexit has taken place, given the Prime Minister’s determination to leave on 31 October? As my hon. Friend says, we may leave with no deal, and I agree that it would not be desirable or possible to take that off the table. Does Parliament not have an obligation to scrutinise the Government’s no-deal preparations, and should we not spend the five weeks during which we are to prorogue doing that, rather than anything else, including holding party conferences?
My right hon. and learned Friend has a point in theory, but unfortunately only in theory. We have already cancelled two recesses, to the angst of several hon. Members, but what did we do during those sittings? We considered statutory instruments on the Floor of the House, because there was not enough business about Brexit coming from the Opposition. I remember walking around this place and seeing Opposition Members with their coats on, leaving early. If they had wanted to get involved in debates, and to add to the 500 or so hours of debate that we have had in this place about Brexit, they could have done so in those two weeks. They could also have cancelled summer recess, but clearly, that would have been a little too inconvenient.
My hon. Friend inadvertently makes the case for a Queen’s Speech. In reality, the Government have been splitting up Bills to ensure that parliamentary time is used up. We need a new agenda, and a new raft of legislation to put before the House, so that people can see Parliament do something other than argue over and frustrate Brexit. That would restore their confidence in Parliament.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We already have the odd addition of this fortnight, which, when coupled with the five weeks of Prorogation, smacks of, “Look busy, the boss is watching.” We are scratching around trying to find something to do. I do not dismiss the fact that scrutiny of the Government’s legislation and action is important, but I caution that actions need to match words.
I have never known a Parliament where the business has collapsed so often, yet the Agriculture Bill, the Fisheries Bill and the Trade Bill all need to come back for Report and Third Reading, and to then go to the Lords. Where are those Bills? Why have they not come back? Why have we not used the time properly? It is quite disgraceful.
The hon. Gentleman uses the word “disgraceful”; I have been in this place for only four years, but for three of them, I have sat here scratching my head, thinking, “I have some of the most intelligent people around me acting in the most stupid way.” I blame people on both sides of the argument equally; I am an equal opportunity critic. We should be talking about how we leave, not whether we leave.
Brexit is a big issue that divides parties, communities and families. None the less, we were asked a relatively simple question: do we leave or remain? Leave won, and it is not beyond the wit of man to give businesses, communities, EU nationals here and British citizens abroad the sense of certainty that they need and deserve. In the coming weeks, I hope that we move on and reach a resolution, so that we can get back to the domestic agenda that will be set out in the Queen’s Speech on 14 October.
We saw a lot of confected outrage, as the Leader of the House described it, when the Prorogation of Parliament was first discussed. People conflated two different sets of statements. When several Conservative leadership candidates said that it would not be good to prorogue Parliament to bring about Brexit, come what may, they were talking about a Prorogation that straddled 31 October, so that we would fall out of the EU without discussion. That is clearly not what is happening. The hashtag #StopTheCoup started to appear on Twitter and social media, but frankly, that would be the worst coup ever.
Parliament is coming back on 14 October, and on the week following that, we will debate the Queen’s Speech, which will no doubt involve Brexit, because that will clearly be a major part of it. We then have weeks after that, because a Brexit deal will come back to Parliament only if we get a deal on 18 October at the end of the EU Council. Hopefully, at that point we will achieve a deal and bring it back to this place; we can then discuss it. We will have something that we can all circle around, and that will allow us to say, “Nobody gets everything they want, but this is enough to allow us to say that we have respected the referendum, and to enable us to start looking at the opportunities that Brexit offers, rather than at whether we are leaving.”
This is a national crisis; it is not business as usual. We elected parliamentarians should be in this House debating all the crucial issues related to Brexit, not least of which is what the Government will come up with in relation to the Northern Ireland backstop; at the moment, it looks like the emperor’s new clothes. The hon. Gentleman’s argument that we should use the façade of a Queen’s Speech to introduce a new parliamentary agenda, while we have the big cloud of Brexit over our heads, is weak.
I agree with the hon. Lady that this is a political crisis. It is grinding the country to a halt—certainly, to boredom. There is one way to sort it out. We can sit here contemplating our navels, or we can go out and speak to the people. We can have a general election, in which we can discuss Brexit and engage 70 million people, not just 650. To me, that is democracy in action.
Some hon. Members might say, “Let’s have a second referendum.” There are clearly issues with that. It took nine months to get the first one through this place and to hold it, and we would also have to decide on the question, and the electorate. Those issues, which would be hotly debated in this place, would have to be decided before we could even get to the referendum. People may say that the current situation creates uncertainty, but that option would perpetuate uncertainty. To those people who say, “The EU referendum caused division,” I say: why have another one?
A new argument has come forward. A number of parties have said that if there is a second referendum, they will honour the result only if people vote in a particular way. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that would completely undermine that referendum, and all future referendums?
The hon. Gentleman has argued passionately in this place alongside me against a second referendum. I agree with everything he said, including about the referendum result being undermined.
I mentioned #StopTheCoup, and how bad a coup the Prorogation of Parliament would be. Instead, parliamentary games are being played by those on the other side of the argument. Parliament took control, and took parliamentary time away from the Government to pass the Benn Bill, which passed due to an amendment that was granted by the Speaker, who was frankly making it up as he went along. The right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) has told me that even he did not expect the amendment to be made that allowed him to lay the path for Parliament to take the business away from the Government.
On the question of a referendum, would the hon. Gentleman have a similar concern about a confirmatory referendum? As was the case with the Good Friday agreement, people would be empowered to show their acquiescence with a result that could become law. Hon. Members in this place who seek to disagree with that result are 650 votes, 350 votes, or one vote among the entire electorate.
I come back to the point that any referendum, confirmatory or otherwise, takes time. We are trying to leave the EU so that we can get on to the next stage of this debate, which we have been having for three years. I am not entirely sure that a confirmatory referendum would resolve anything, although it is a step up from the so-called people’s vote—frankly, we have already had a people’s vote; this would be a second people’s vote.
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct, as always. As I say, every time we diminish the negotiating position of the Government, we inevitably create a more distinct possibility of a watered-down deal. In fact, why does the EU need to speak to us at this time anyway? Theoretically, the way the Benn Bill works is that the letter that Parliament has written for the Prime Minister to take to the EU allows the EU to dictate the date that the UK leaves the EU. It has been nicknamed the “surrender Bill” for a reason; frankly, it is about as surrendery as it gets.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way; he is being very generous with his time.
Again, I agree that it would be wrong to postpone our departure from the EU beyond 31 October. If we leave then, we leave either with or without a deal. If we do not have a general election—we will know by the end of this evening whether we are to have one—we will prorogue. Is the point not that we will come back on 14 October and give ourselves two weeks to either analyse a new deal, pass the old one, or decide how best to the Government can prepare us for no deal—which is simply not enough time?
We have discussed no deal over the past few months, to quite an extent. There would clearly be more specifics, if it seems that that is how it will go. Rather than us not having enough time, people will probably be moving a bit more quickly and frantically.
I have never voted to take no deal off the table, because it is a serious proposition. I have always wanted to get a deal, but I am prepared to leave with no deal if we have done everything we can to get there. However, too many hon. Members in this place have just dismissed it. This goes right back to the heart of the referendum. Not enough hon. Members have taken seriously what people charged us with doing. Many times, I have had people pat me on the head and explain to me why I voted to leave, rather than ask me—and I am a Member of Parliament. Imagine how patronised by the establishment Joe Public feels in parts of the country that voted to leave.
No deal has always been there, whether or not it has been taken seriously by the Government at various points. That is possibly an argument for another day. No deal absolutely should have been discussed as a serious proposition and scrutinised over the past three years. We are at a point at which that proposition has ramped up, and I believe that there will be plenty of time to debate it. I hope that we get a deal. I hope that being able to say “We will leave by 31 October” focuses all our minds on ensuring that we get rid of the backstop. Bear in mind that although we have said what we do not want to do, that is the only thing that has been voted for affirmatively.
In conclusion, I come back to the point that proroguing until 14 October for a Queen’s Speech allows the new Prime Minister to set out his bold, ambitious domestic vision for this country, which people are absolutely screaming out for. They want us to get Brexit done, so that they can talk about what affects them daily: their hospital, their children’s schools and their safety at home and on the streets. Having more policeman and infrastructure, be it rail or broadband, is what affects people daily when they walk out their door.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I rise to speak on behalf of the 8,738 residents in Dulwich and West Norwood who signed the petition in opposition to Prorogation—the eighth-highest proportion of constituents in any constituency in the country—and on behalf of all my constituents, who will be denied their voice and democratic representation as a result of Prorogation today.
It has been argued that Prorogation is normal ahead of a Queen’s Speech, and that only three days of parliamentary time are being lost; we would normally break for conference recess anyway. However, we are not in ordinary times. Brexit has riven our country. We know that the Government’s own analysis shows that there is no version of Brexit that does not inflict damage on the UK economy, and that a no-deal Brexit will deliver a calamity for jobs, the supply of medicine and food, and peace in Northern Ireland. A no-deal Brexit poses a catastrophic threat to so many of the things that our constituents hold dear and on which they depend. To prorogue Parliament at such at time is not normal business; it is an outrage to our democracy.
My constituents voted overwhelmingly—77%—to remain in the European Union. I represent one of the most diverse constituencies in the country. We are internationalist and celebrate diversity. Our values are European values. The strength of feeling in my constituency of Dulwich and West Norwood has not diminished since 2016; it has strengthened and deepened. Since June 2016, however, 77% of my constituents and 48% of voters across the country have been told that we must be quiet, and that our views no longer matter. Even in the face of evidence that Vote Leave broke the law to an extent that might have been sufficient to influence the result of the referendum, we have been told that we must be quiet. We have been told that we must be silent in the face of evidence of the impact of Brexit, which was never discussed during the referendum campaign—most notably, the impact on the Good Friday agreement and peace in Northern Ireland. We have been told to be silent as the definition of Brexit, which was not discussed during the 2016 referendum, has become ever more reckless, right wing and extreme.
That is not how democracy works. It is never the case that, when we vote in a referendum or general election in this country, people who were on the losing side must simply change their views and acquiesce to those who won. It is never the case that, when we vote in an election in this country, everyone’s views are static from that point on for evermore. In our democracy, it is always the case that orderly discussion and debate continue in this Parliament—it is how we resolve our differences—and that we reflect on the result of a vote, on its consequences and impacts, and on what should happen next.
To shut down debate at this time—the House has not voted on the dates of conference recess, and extensive representations were made to the Prime Minister over the summer that Parliament should be recalled—is an insult to my constituents and an outrage to our democracy.
The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) spoke of the times when business has finished early and we have not had matters to debate before us, but the Prime Minister has not brought any solutions to Brexit to this House for discussion and debate. He wants to close down debate in this place to force through a reckless no-deal Brexit that will inflict harm on constituents across the country. That is irresponsible and will drive even more division through our country.
As the hon. Lady knows, I agree with the thrust of her argument that we should spend the bulk of the five weeks of possible Prorogation here discussing these issues, rather than elsewhere. Would it not be better if hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber made it clear we that we would use that time to discuss the best way for us to leave the European Union, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) said, rather than to re-fight the referendum campaign, as I fear the hon. Lady may be suggesting we should do? Is not the best way of proceeding for us to leave with a deal and forge what cross-party consensus we can to find a deal that we all agree on?
It is clear that my constituents do not want to leave the European Union. As a Back-Bench MP on the Opposition Benches, I reserve the right to represent their views and test with them how they feel and think about any deal that is on the table. We had a deal from the previous Prime Minister that was undeliverable in this House for a range of reasons on both sides of the House. We now have a Prime Minister who says he wants a deal but will not put one on the table or negotiate one in good faith with the European Union. In that context, I am not prepared to acquiesce to an “emperor’s new clothes” argument that this will somehow be fine for my constituents. I want the right to continue to represent their views and bring to this House in an orderly fashion their views and concerns, debate them with the Government and hold this reckless Prime Minister to account.
I will not be silent. My constituents’ voices will continue to be heard, and our values will continue to be represented in this debate. I urge colleagues on both sides of the House to continue to oppose this Prorogation vigorously and to remain sitting this evening. This cuts to the very heart of our democracy and the ability of Members of Parliament to hold to account the Executive, who seem determined recklessly to drive us over the edge of a cliff. We cannot stand for that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for this very important debate, Ms Ryan. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) for her excellent contribution: she spoke a great deal of sense. We probably disagree about some of the eventual outcomes, but her defence of democracy was first class, and I wholeheartedly support it.
The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) talked about a lot of issues, but something I regretted hearing from him was that we should not be here contemplating our navels. That is certainly not something that I do when I am here, and no hon. Member I am aware of spends their time here doing that. They are here representing their constituents and doing their very best for them. It would be wrong to suggest to the public at large that our time here is not important: it is normally well spent.
Many of my constituents signed the petition to block Prorogation. More than 10 times as many added their names to the petition against Prorogation as signed the one to support its implementation. I suspect that the number who are concerned about events will continue to rise. Many constituents have contacted me through social media and email. I agree with them that for the Prime Minister to shut down Parliament at such an important time in our country’s history, in the end stages of the Brexit process with by far the largest negotiations this country has undertaken in at least half a century, is nothing short of an outrage.
The Prime Minister is not content with ignoring Parliament: we know that he ignores his Cabinet colleagues, too. The number of people who were consulted about this decision before it was made was small. It is no wonder that most Cabinet members were not consulted, given that many of them spoke strongly against Prorogation during the Tory leadership campaign. For example, the right hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid) said:
“You don’t deliver on democracy by trashing democracy.”
The right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) said that the idea was an “archaic manoeuvre”. The right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) said:
“I think it would be wrong for many reasons. I think it would not be true to the best traditions of British democracy.”
I agree with what they said, even if they do not agree with themselves any more.
I do not know the precise context of those comments. What is clear is that Prorogation is designed to have the same effect—to shut down debate and stop Parliament analysing properly the effects of our exiting the EU by way of a deal or not. I am afraid that it amounts to the same thing—an absolute outrage for democracy.
That is where we are. Parliament will be suspended later today because the Prime Minister desires to avoid scrutiny and force us into a no-deal Brexit, despite the Government’s own analysis showing that a no-deal Brexit would mean food shortages, medicine shortages and chaos at our ports, and despite Parliament legislating to take no deal off the table.
The Government have no mandate from the British people to leave the EU without a deal, but what else would we expect from this Prime Minister? It was reported last week that his chief of staff described negotiations as a scam and an attempt to run down the clock. Even the right hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd) has decided that she can no longer take part in this charade. She resigned from the Cabinet this weekend because the Government had not undertaken serious formal negotiations with the EU. That exposes the truth of what the Government are about.
Let us be absolutely frank: the Government are about hiding from scrutiny and running away from the reality and the consequences of their decisions. It is a desperate attempt to cut and run before the truth catches up with them. A string of local companies came to see me over the summer with genuine concerns about the impact of a no-deal Brexit. Between them, they employ thousands of people. The Government’s decisions have the potential to wreak havoc on the local economy.
This is about not just the consequences of leaving without a deal, but Government decisions relating to that that could be changed. There are industry-wide issues, and that will almost certainly mean that jobs in other parts of the country will be affected. We are denied the opportunity to hold the Government to account on these matters, because we know that the truth is that they cannot justify their decisions. We are in the middle of the biggest constitutional crisis that this country has ever seen. We are on the cusp of enacting the biggest changes that this country has made for a generation, yet the Government are acting as if there is nothing to talk about. What an outrage!
If we leave the EU on 31 October with or without a deal, we will be woefully underprepared. It is simply inconceivable that all the legislation needed for an orderly exit is place, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) said. To my knowledge, there are at least six Bills that have not been passed and would need to be enacted for that to happen. If we crash out on the 31st without a deal—let us not forget that, despite what the Prime Minister said, that is still an option if he can persuade Parliament that it is the right thing to do—there is still an enormous amount of contingency planning needed in transport, medicines and food, to name but a few areas. Members of Parliament should be scrutinising the Government and holding them to account for what they intend to do.
I read a very alarming report the other day that suggested that the plans for a no-deal Brexit involve relocating thousands of council staff from around the country down to Whitehall to deal with no-deal fallout. Bizarrely, the council staff will be replaced with members of the armed forces. I have no idea whether that is true—I hope it is not—but surely we deserve to know what is going on. Surely our role as parliamentarians is to scrutinise Government policies, particularly when the effect might be as dramatic as that. We should sit every day until 31 October to sort this out, which is what we were elected to do. The Prime Minister should not be going around the country electioneering at a time of national crisis. That is snollygostering of the highest order.
The Prime Minister’s game—that is what it is to him—has been clear for some time: make a load of spending announcements quickly, shut down any scrutiny of them, and hope that the traditional honeymoon period that all Prime Ministers experience lasts until mid-October. Well, we will not play that game. I have been on to him since his second day in office, when he announced a £3.6 billion fund for towns. When I heard about that, I thought, “That sounds pretty promising and is certainly something that Ellesmere Port and Neston could benefit from.” I was keen to see whether my constituency would be on the list, but as Parliament was not sitting, I submitted a freedom of information request to the Cabinet Office, which said in its response that it had no information at all.
Here we have a Prime Minister announcing a multibillion-pound expenditure, while his office does not have even one scrap of paper to set out how the money will be spent. What a complete charlatan. I want accountability, answers and a Minister at the Dispatch Box to explain where that money is going, how it is being spent and who made those decisions. Anything less than that and it looks like a political fix—a cheap stunt unworthy of a serious party of government.
That is not the only issue on which I want answers. A major employer in my constituency is talking about shutting down in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Two secondary schools are up in arms about the way that they have been treated. There are major concerns about the way that a company contracted by the NHS suddenly went bust over the summer, and about the future of the fire service. There are major problems with access to mental health services. There is rising unemployment and a chronic lack of affordable housing. We should be tackling all of those matters here and now, in Parliament.
In truth, however, we will not be able to talk about those things because the Prime Minister does not want scrutiny as what he says does not stand up to it. He tells us that he cannot negotiate with the EU if no deal is taken off the table, but given his claim that the primary change that he wants to make is on the Irish backstop—a very specific issue—I see no connection between the changes that he says he wants and the need to keep no deal on the table. He also tells us that the first thing that the EU will ask in respect of any proposals made by the Government is whether they have the support of Parliament. How can Parliament say that it supports the proposals if it does not even know what they are and it is not sitting to find out? That does not stack up; it is a nonsense that has unravelled in a matter of days since Parliament’s return.
No wonder the Prime Minister does not want Parliament to sit. The more exposure he gets, the more even his own party walks away from the circus. The clown routine is an insult to the office of Prime Minister, to Parliament and to the people of this country, who he thinks will be duped by Eton’s answer to Arthur Daley—we will not fall for it. One cannot claim, as the Conservative party has, to believe on one hand in parliamentary sovereignty, and on the other in shutting Parliament down.
I put on the record that I do not support the Prorogation of Parliament and believe it to be an unprecedented, antidemocratic and unconstitutional attack on our democracy. Taking back control means Parliament taking back control and standing up to the bully boys who want to shut us down.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) on his excellent speech.
The Prorogation of Parliament is just the latest in a series of reckless and opportunistic gambles undertaken by Conservative Prime Ministers on the issue of Europe. As always, the hardworking people of this country will suffer most as a result. David Cameron refused to face the consequences of his own decision to hold the 2016 in/out referendum on Europe with no conditions at all. Theresa May argued that no deal was better than a bad deal and, after she brought a bad deal back to Parliament, we now, unsurprisingly, face crashing out without a deal. That outcome was not even part of the discussion in 2016, yet nothing else will now satisfy this Government’s far-right backers.
In the last few years, poverty, inequality and homelessness have risen. Against that backdrop, Parliament has been reduced to banging on endlessly about Europe. As the Prime Minister suspends Parliament to take us out of Europe without a deal, experts and the Government’s own advisers warn of food shortages and limited access to medical supplies. Just stop and think about that for a second—peacetime shortages of food and medicine. That is not the result of a natural disaster but a political disaster—the Conservative party.
The damage of a no-deal Brexit will not be temporary; it threatens profound systematic damage to our economy. The Bank of England says that that outcome would permanently—not temporarily—reduce the UK’s export potential. The Treasury believes that it would result in an economy 8% to 10% smaller in 15 years than if we were to remain in the European Union, with the north- west hit the hardest. The president of the National Farmers Union, Minette Batters, said that a no-deal Brexit would be
“socially and economically catastrophic for farming in Britain.”
Make UK, the manufacturers organisation, said that it would be
“disastrous for the majority of UK manufacturers and the livelihoods of the millions of people they employ and their families.”
Yet to realise this disastrous outcome, the Government have resolved to gag Parliament in these most critical days for our country. That they can proceed with such arrogance is astonishing, after all, it will not be their families who are on the breadline or their livelihoods that are destroyed. We need to prevent the irreparable damage of no deal at all costs.
The single greatest myth of a no-deal Brexit is the idea that it avoids the need for negotiations with the European Union. The day after we crash out without a deal, the need for a strategic relationship with our largest and nearest market would remain, and we would seek a free-trade agreement. The Government talk about strengthening our negotiating position with the EU, but in reality, the day after no deal, we would be forced to go cap in hand to the EU for a trade deal, with our economy in tatters. How would we negotiate then? We talk about keeping no deal on the table to negotiate, but if we crash out without a deal, how can we expect a good free trade agreement afterwards?
MPs from across the House must fight with all our might to stop no deal. That is why I will vote against a general election this evening until the threat of leaving the EU without a deal is ruled out. Otherwise, we are up for a general election and we are ready for one.
This is a really important debate, not least because 1.7 million people signed the petition. We have had demonstrations up and down the country, including in Leeds both this and last Saturday. The previous Saturday saw the largest demonstration in Leeds since the protests against the Iraq war, with 5,000 people turning out to hear some of the city’s and the region’s MPs, who are all from the Labour party.
Those demonstrations happened because people think that we need to be in Parliament to scrutinise the Executive at this crucial time, rather than spending five weeks in our constituencies and at party conference. Nor, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) said, should the Prime Minister be electioneering using public money in that time, before general election spending rules apply.
It is vital that we are here because the country is in no way prepared for crashing out of the EU on 31 October as the Prime Minister seems intent on doing. Today, I read in The Times that our EU negotiating team is composed of just four people. How will four people negotiate a new withdrawal agreement with the European Union in the time that we have left before the European Council? That does not seem credible and does not stand up to scrutiny. That is why Parliament is being prorogued: so that scrutiny does not exist.
What else do we need in that period? A number of Bills that have started to go through the House have not completed the process, and they need to before we reach any watershed moment with the European Union. If they have not been completed, it will be absolutely chaotic—we will live in a chaotic country in which international law has not been properly legislated for; not enacted by our legislature.
The Trade Bill, for example, has not been finished. Why not, because it should have? We were on track to pass the Trade Bill in May—I do not mind if the Minister corrects me on that, but I think we should have completed the Bill then. We have not done so because of the attempts—which I would have supported—to insert a customs union into the provisions of the Trade Bill, and the Government, under both this Prime Minister and the previous one, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), did not want a customs union. Progress on the Bill was therefore slowed down, so we will not complete it in time for 31 October.
An immigration Bill would have provided some surety for EU citizens in this country—though perhaps not, depending on what happened with it—and regulated immigration post Brexit. What now happens to those EU citizens if the Prime Minister does not negotiate a withdrawal agreement and we leave with no deal on 31 October? I hope that the Minister has a good answer, because 3 million people in this country are interested to know what their status will be without the completion of such an immigration Bill. They do not believe the promises that have come from Ministers and the Executive.
What about the Fisheries Bill? Central to the leave campaign in 2016 was that the UK would take back control of fisheries and fishing rights, but how will that be possible without a Fisheries Bill? Without that legislation, will not other countries with which we share our territorial waters contest us in international courts? What a laughing stock we will be if we leave on 31 October without the legislation. The Agriculture Bill, too, is meant to frame what we will have post the common agricultural policy.
I am sure the Minister will say, “Oh, but these Bills will be in the Queen’s Speech”—obviously, he cannot give us a decisive answer on what will and will not be in the Queen’s Speech, but he will try to reassure us. However, I want to know how we will legislate for all those Bills by 31 October.
Is my hon. Friend aware—I am certainly not—whether any carry-over motions have been tabled to save those Bills? That would avoid the necessity of them having to appear in the Queen’s Speech and mean that we could get back to them in the ridiculously short time that we will have left.
We only have a few hours before the House is prorogued. I am sure that colleagues of the Minister are busily preparing to ensure that we do not have to bring those Bills back in the Queen’s Speech, but one Bill we will without doubt need to be in it is an environment Bill. We were expecting an environment Bill to be introduced; we were expecting to be through First and Second Reading and in Committee—I wanted to be on the Committee, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin), who is sitting next to me—but we have no environment Bill. I would like to know what regulations will exist, and how we will enforce them from 1 November, if the Prime Minister completes the task that he has set for himself.
In Leeds, we are due to have a clean-air zone, because our air quality is among the worst in this country. Three times the Government have been taken to court by ClientEarth and lost, on the basis of EU regulations forming part of UK law to enshrine, embed and widen air quality through a number of local authorities in the UK. The Government have failed to deliver to Leeds what it needs—a charging system, and equipment for such vehicles—so we in Leeds will be in breach of EU regulations on air quality for longer than we expected.
Who will provide the environmental protection that we need? I asked that question of the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), now the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, but until a few hours ago the Minister of State in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. She said that in a no-deal Brexit scenario, the new agency would not be formed until the end of 2020 or the beginning of 2021, and that people would have to take environmental action retrospectively. That means that we will have no environmental protection in this country from 31 October until that date. I have an issue with effluent discharge into the River Wharfe, and I hope for some enforcement action on it. Will I be disappointed? Will people have to swim in effluent for two more years because there is no regulation? I would like to know.
The issues are not small and minor; they are huge, and Parliament should be here, sitting to debate those Bills, scrutinising them in Committee, and getting them through so that on 31 October we are not in a situation in which the people of this country have a far worse quality of life.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his speech. So many factors are important. On 5 August, we saw the incursion in Kashmir. My constituents want to debate that issue, and to call the Government to account for their actions in the light of the lockdown in Kashmir and the sheer catastrophic humanitarian risk in Indian-administered Kashmir. Surely proroguing Parliament prevents this House from scrutinising the Government’s actions on important global matters as well.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In Kashmir, the internet has been shut down, and there is a lack of reporting on the crackdown by the Indian Government. We also have the events in Hong Kong. Britain is a party to the Chinese-British agreement of 1984, so in some senses what happens in Hong Kong is a matter of foreign policy but, equally, it is not. We will not be able to hold any scrutiny of the Foreign Secretary on that matter either.
There is a whole raft of things over and above legislation, but over that period all that people will be able to see are the party conferences, when only one party’s view will be given. In the week of 20 September, it will be my party’s view, which I will support. Once a year, we get a platform and a fair hearing in the media, but that is not the same as the parliamentary scrutiny that we would have if we were here.
The idea that—this is complementary to the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes)—we could vote tonight for a general election, hold one and come back with the whole issue of Brexit cleanly resolved is absolute nonsense. In the current circumstances, in what would be a general election with only one issue on the ballot paper, no one can predict what the result would be. That would subvert the general election into a vote on one issue, when it should be about the economy, our health, our education system, our environment and every other issue that is important in the country. That is not the way to deal with Brexit; the only way to deal with it is to confirm the decision of the 2016 referendum, or not, by the Government’s negotiating a withdrawal agreement with the EU. The Prime Minister repeatedly tells us he has almost completed one, although today the Irish Prime Minister said that he had no evidence of any progress on it—I am not sure which Prime Minister I would like to believe at this stage, but on 14, 15, 16 or 17 October we will see which one is correct.
This is an evolving situation on the EU side. If we prorogue tonight without a general election, I hope to go to Brussels tomorrow to meet a number of people in the European Parliament and the Commission, so that I can hear at first hand what is happening in the EU. It is difficult to know what is going on in the EU from the trial by media; it is hard enough to work out what is going on in our Government, never mind in 27 other Governments.
The general election is not an adequate alternative to solve our future relationship with the European Union. The only real way to finally address this question , as my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) said, is a confirmatory vote on whether to accept a withdrawal agreement, or not to and therefore stay in the European Union. That way, people would go to the ballot box on this issue in isolation and resolve it. Underlying Prorogation are attempts not to allow us the time for Parliament to decide that question. It concerns me that this is a politicised Prorogation of Parliament.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Ryan, and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel). This is an interesting debate, founded on petitions launched by people who were desperate to indicate their view to this House and this Government.
I represent East Lothian, where 3,867 constituents signed the petition not to prorogue Parliament, and 86 constituents signed the petition to prorogue Parliament. That made me think about what Prorogation is really about. It dates back to when this House was cleaned to make it ready for the arrival of His or Her Majesty—that was the reason we all had to get out. The effect is much greater at a constitutional level—we heard about the Bills that will be lost, but let me talk about one small problem that comes to mind: I will not be able to lodge any questions on my constituents’ behalf when we are prorogued.
I think of an EU citizen who successfully registered online and received a letter containing a number. The letter confirms that it is not proof of her status; the only way to gain proof of status is to log on, send a code by mobile phone, get an access code and then successfully prove it. She intends to leave this country on 1 November for a holiday, but she is worried that she will not get back in. When she arrives back with her German passport, it will not be read correctly because the data will not have been transmitted. She is genuinely worried about what she is supposed to do when she tries to get access to her data, or when Border Force try to get access, as in some trials nothing has happened. I pose that question, unfairly, in the hope of an answer, because once we are prorogued later tonight, I will not be able to lodge a question. I will not be able to find out what my constituent is supposed to do.
That brings me to the length of Prorogation. We have heard that there were Ministers who disagreed with Prorogation and those who agreed with it. The fact remains that the Government have said in their many charts that, taking out conference recess, the number of days that we are being prorogued is not much greater than in the past. That is not true; it is much longer. The Government did not present the motion for conference recess and I genuinely believe that they had no intention of doing so because they are using that period to hide from being questioned. That is why they want us to go away—so they do not have to answer questions about data, medicines, transport, EU citizens, the missing Bills, the state of the environment and the state of the negotiations.
I have heard, “We have to keep this private. We can’t take no deal off the table. We have to keep our hand secret.” It is strange that the European Union seems to have taken entirely the opposite view. Right from the beginning of the negotiation, it set out the evidence and its asks; it debated them and it put all that in the public realm. We are unable to do that because, we are told, “that is not how you negotiate.” With the greatest of respect, I do not think the way we intend to negotiate—by holding our cards close to our chests and telling nobody anything, with four people left to do the negotiation—is respecting the United Kingdom.
The Government are attacking an element of our constitution. Prorogation is a relatively small backwater of our constitution. To use it to stop Parliament, so the Government do not have to answer questions posed by representatives of constituents around the United Kingdom, is an extremely dangerous precedent to make. With all due respect, if we were sitting on the other side and we tried to defend sending Members of Parliament away for five weeks so that something could happen, those opposite would not be silent.
I am delighted to speak with you in the Chair, Ms Ryan. I thank the thousands of people in my constituency who signed the petition.
I am angry. I am a mild-mannered person, as most hon. Members would agree, but I never thought I would see this in this mother of Parliaments. We created parliamentary democracy, which works because the Government run Parliament—sometimes that is not as clear as it should be—and there is a degree of fair play between Government and Opposition. That has completely broken down, to the extent that there have been a series of guns to our head for a general election and for no deal, as if that is what Parliament should accept. If this were a banana republic, we would understand that a president might manipulate us, but this is the British Parliament. Today is a hard day for Parliament.
I am reminded of an episode of “Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?” I apologise to all those who are too young to remember that. There is a wonderful episode where they are trying to avoid the result of the England football game. They spend the whole day in and out of pubs because they do not want to know the score and want to watch it on the highlights as if it were a live game. They get to the very end, and they find the result of the game written on a beer mat. That proves to me that, with Prorogation, the Government can hide and they can run, but they will always be held to account somewhere. Prorogation is about trying to avoid being called to account over some of the most important things.
I bear a grudge, because I spent 37 hours of my time debating the Agriculture Bill as the Opposition spokesperson, along with other hon. Members. No matter how badly I did, I tried my best, and I will never get back those 37 hours. I might be fortunate enough to have another 37 hours, because hopefully the Bill will come back in some form. Why does that matter? If I am trying to plan my farm policy—trying to work out what I will grow next year and what animals I will keep—I need to know the system of agriculture, yet that is in abeyance. Yes, we can carry on with the existing common agricultural policy, but I thought we were trying to get out of it—that was one of the drivers for leaving the EU. That is bad enough, but I also spent a lot of hours debating statutory instruments, some of which will be out of date by now.
It was not our decision to have a two-year Session—that happened at the behest of the Government. Some of us feel it was a mistake, and that Parliament should have an annual programme, but this Government decided they would have a two-year programme. It has come back to haunt us. The Agriculture Bill left this place well before Christmas last year. Therefore, we have been waiting for it to come back for the best part of nine months. I understand through the usual channels that we were offered a deal—let it through and we will not say anything else about it. With the best will in the world, we had arguments against the Bill in its current form.
That is bad enough, but as two of my hon. Friends have said, the situation of fisheries is even more drastic. If we drop out with no deal, the scallop wars over the Christmas period will be just a foretaste. People will start taking the law—whatever that may be at this moment in time—into their own hands.
If we had not been debating this petition today, I would have been summing up for the Opposition in a debate about cages, animal sentience and so on. Again, all that is in abeyance. We do not have a clear statement of the law. The law does not exist anymore. We chose not to put it in the Trade Bill. We have an animal sentience Bill, but I do not know whether that will be carried over. Does that matter? Of course it does. If someone is trying to prosecute a person who has mistreated an animal, what law do they use? Do they use the law that used to exist or the law that could have existed if we had allowed it to go through? Those issues really matter. This is not Opposition Members just kicking off; it is about the way we are being prevented from doing our job.
I would have raised this as a point of order, but I have been told by various Departments—the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which I shadow; the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport; and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—that parliamentary questions I tabled over the recess cannot be answered because of the Prorogation of Parliament. We could all go on about how wonderful Speaker Bercow has been, but one of the great things he has put in place is the ability to ask questions for answer during recess. That was a dramatic improvement on our not being able to do our job of holding the Government to account.
I now have three Departments telling me, in advance of Prorogation, while anything could still happen—we could choose not to prorogue tonight—that they will not answer questions. That does not mean they will answer them in the future; it means they will not answer them. The questions will fall. That is wrong—particularly for me, because I will have to table them all again. However, other Departments have answered questions, so will the Minister put on the record, on behalf of the Government, the process for determining whether Departments should answer a question when we are about to prorogue? Dare I say it, some civil servants seem to work very hard to get us an answer, but others just say, “Here’s a two-line thing. We’re not going to answer it.”
To me, a lot of this demonstrates how Parliament is not really running by the rules any more. The idea is that Parliament should hold the Government to account, but at the moment it seems that Parliament is being held to account by the Government, who say, “Well, we’ll answer when we want to, we’ll let you take part in debates if you have to, but really, this is subject to our whims.” My friend Graham Allen, as Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee—when we had one—looked at whether we should have a written constitution. I feel strongly, on the basis of the past couple of weeks, that we must. It is wrong that Parliament cannot hold the Government to account. We should have rules on when Prorogation should take place and on whether Departments should answer questions.
This really matters. As parliamentarians, whatever party we come from and whether we are in government or opposition, we must have the security and knowledge that our job cannot be undermined; otherwise, the people will increasingly lose confidence in Parliament, because they will think the Government just use it to rubber-stamp whatever they want. In a time of a hung Parliament—and of a very hung Government, for all sorts of reasons—it is important that we have a justification for what is going on and that that is put into some form of arrangement so the rules are much more transparent, open and fair.
What is going on is undemocratic; it is unconstitutional, given that we do not have a written constitution; and it is a mess. It is not easy trying to explain to our constituents what we are all up to at the moment. Sometimes, when I write an email, I think, “Do I understand what I’m writing?” It changes from minute to minute, and whether we are in government, opposition or whatever, it is very unclear what our stance is. Deep down, I think this is a shameful period for our Parliament. We should do something about it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Ryan. I thank the thousands of people in my constituency who signed the petition to defend democracy against this Prorogation, which certainly is not in the spirit of our values as an open, free and transparent parliamentary democracy—although it is not hard for anyone to see the motive behind the Prime Minister’s actions. This is a blatant act of trickery by the Prime Minister and those around him in No. 10, designed only to shield a weak and divided Government from the wave of dissatisfaction among Members across the House and people across the country. It is a disingenuous act.
The Prime Minister makes much fanfare about our parliamentary democracy and lauds historical figures who led our country through past emergencies. Although he might try to compare himself to those who held the highest office before him and draw similarities between their strife and his own, the situation we find ourselves in is entirely of his making. His attempt to subvert democracy in this way is not at all fitting of comparison to the actions of any of the figures he holds in such high esteem, and it is not fitting of the office of Prime Minister.
The events of the past days and weeks have stretched the capacity of our constitutional norms, but what have they taught us? We have a Prime Minister who is prepared to stretch the limits of democracy and abuse the parliamentary system. I agree with my colleagues that urgent reform is needed, although perhaps that is a debate for another day.
In kicking MPs out and suspending Parliament—in dismissing them and locking the door—the Prime Minister is denying my constituents the right to have their voices heard. In silencing the voices of MPs, he is silencing a nation. People and businesses in Cardiff North all tell me that. People came up to me at the weekend wanting to know what is going on. They asked, “Why is the Prime Minister doing this to our country? Why are the Government doing this?” They are worried about their future and about how this will affect them. They are worried that we are on the path to a devastating no deal that will have an impact on their livelihoods and their families.
All this is taking place in the eye of a storm, amid a growing emergency—a national crisis—during which people expect us to be present here. They want us to be here, standing up for them and working hard to resolve the crisis. As has been said, suspending Parliament means that important Bills, which we all worked hard on, will fall by the wayside. We heard about the environment Bill and the Agriculture Bill. I have my own Bill on plastics and packaging, which will fall by the wayside too. It would have extended producers’ responsibilities to ensure that the packaging they produce is far more environmentally friendly—it would have made them stand up and take notice—but it will fall by the wayside. What will happen then?
I have just come from a meeting with tens, if not hundreds of climate protesters, who are here to meet their Members of Parliament. What message does suspending Parliament send to the country and the world? That we do not care about the climate emergency? I am afraid the climate emergency will not stop just because Boris Johnson wants to massage his ego and get on with crashing us out with no deal.
If the hon. Lady is referring to the event in the Churchill Room, it is organised by the Extinction Rebellion Sutton group and hosted by me. It is perfectly possible to meet those people in our constituencies, as I did in organising the event, and bring the issue back over a period. We can still do our work when we are not here.
Thank you, Ms Ryan. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Absolutely, my job all summer and whenever this place is in recess is to work on all those issues in my constituency, as we all do. However, stopping Parliament from sitting stops vital legislation. It means that we stop scrutinising the Government on the action they are taking on this climate emergency. It is all very well to have words, but we need action, and that needs to be taken at the highest level.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I do not really understand it, because Parliament was not sitting. During the summer recess, I met protesters and held various events in my constituency.
I will not stand idly by while a Prime Minister in freefall runs roughshod over our country; a Prime Minister who will use this time to roam the country, electioneering on public money. Prorogation or not, his attempts to silence us will not work. I am here to protect the livelihoods, futures and businesses of my constituents.
With a threat as big as no deal looming large and with the Government choosing ruin over delay, I will continue to do whatever I can, by joining forces with my colleagues to protect vital jobs, services, communities and livelihoods. I will continue to campaign and fight for what I believe is the best solution to the crisis we find ourselves in: to put the decision on the future of Brexit back to the people for a final say. I will campaign firmly and loudly to remain as a full member of the European Union.
I apologise for not being here at the beginning of the debate; I was giving evidence to the review panel on High Speed 2. That issue is one reason why I am very concerned about the length of this Prorogation. HS2 phase 2a, which is being considered by Parliament and approaching the House of Lords, has a huge impact on my constituents, so it was important to be able to give evidence to the panel. I will come to the other things we will be prevented from doing in the coming weeks by this excessive Prorogation. It is right that we should have a Prorogation—I am fully in favour of a new Queen’s Speech—but it should not last until 14 October.
My plea to the Government is that we should come back at the latest on 7 October, if not on 3 October, once all party conferences have concluded. That is plenty of time. We are in the midst of a crisis in Parliament and in the country. We need to respect the result of the 2016 referendum and leave the European Union but do so with a deal in an orderly way, as set out by the manifesto on which I stood in 2017. The problem with coming back from Prorogation on 14 October is that that leaves little time for Parliament to consider the new deal or revised deal that I firmly hope the Prime Minister will bring back—even perhaps in draft, if it is in advance of the European Council on 17 October. It is our responsibility to look at that. Indeed, as a member of the newly formed grouping of MPs for a deal, I will work with Members of Parliament from across the House to ensure that there is an opportunity to arrive at a deal that achieves a majority in this House.
Like the hon. Gentleman, I was giving evidence to the HS2 panel, as well as meeting Extinction Rebellion and indeed Dignity in Dying, and Shelter. I wonder why it can be said that we have little to do here if we have to try to be in five places at once. I admire what he said on Prorogation. Will he go a stage further and say that we should at least remain Members of Parliament so that we can still lobby and come back some time in October? Were an election to go ahead, we would have no control over that whatsoever. As the Prime Minister has said he may be equivocal about obeying the law, an election is to be avoided at all costs.
[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair.]
The hon. Gentleman and I were together at the HS2 panel and I listened carefully to the important points he made about Old Oak Common and the surrounding area that is affected by HS2. I am in a quandary about an election. On the one hand, it would be decisive. I suspect it would be run on the lines of remain, leave or leave with a deal, and it would be a chance for the people to decide, in a manner of speaking. On the other hand, I see what he says: if we have an election, we will not be able to make these points. Prorogation leaves us in a halfway house where we cannot raise points in Parliament and we do not have the decisiveness of an election; it is neither fish nor fowl.
There are two main reasons why I do not want to see Parliament prorogued for as long as proposed—and the Government could still request for Prorogation to be for less time. First, we need more time to consider really important matters such as the prospective deal, which I very much hope the Prime Minister is committed to bringing before this House, and which, in some form or other, will be passed by this House so that we can fulfil the referendum result and leave in an orderly fashion.
It is also extremely important to bring up constituency matters. With your permission, Mrs Main, I will give a few examples, because I will not be able to do so at business questions or other times. First, a constituent of mine, Staff Sergeant Proverbs, who has just left the Army after 20 years of active service to this country in a number of theatres, was injured on duty at NATO headquarters in this country, yet because of the intricacies of the rules around pensions and disability, he is being deprived of a proper disability payment and disability pension. I have taken up his case with the Minister for the Armed Forces and the Minister for Defence People and Veterans and had a sympathetic hearing, but the Ministry of Defence is not dealing with my constituent in a proper manner. As a result, he faces a much lower level of income, despite his disability, which was incurred in the course of serving our country.
I also raise the case again—I have done so before in the House of Commons—of my constituent, Mr Gray, on whose behalf on a serious matter I have written to Barclays a number of times to request a meeting, but Barclays has still not replied to me.
I also want to raise the fact that not long ago I had a debate on the manipulation of precious metal prices, which is a serious matter that is fundamental to the financial system of this country and the whole world. We had a good response from the Minister but there are serious outstanding matters that need to be raised in Parliament and discussed here.
I could go on, and I am sure other Members could do the same, but it is clear to me that we need the time in Parliament. Clearly, the Government need time to prepare the Queen’s Speech. I understand that, but a couple of weeks is more than enough. It is not as if they are starting on it ab initio or that as from tomorrow they will start thinking about the Queen’s Speech. They have been thinking about it for a long time, and rightly so. Two or three weeks maximum is more than enough time. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to communicate to his colleagues in Government and to the Prime Minister that if we could resume on 3 October or, at the very latest, 7 October, it would be welcomed across the House.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Main.
I begin with a couple of points about the procedure we are engaged in here. Before members of the Petitions Committee leap up, I should say I do not intend any criticism of them. I have been at a number of these debates on matters on which the public have petitioned us, and I wonder if our procedures are effective and robust enough to deliver on the expectations of those who petition Parliament.
First, we are dealing with two petitions. I am not sure of the need to lump petitions together just because they cover the same topic, particularly in this instance, where they represent diametrically opposed views. One petition, which I presume has been organised by pro-Brexit campaigners because they believe this Parliament is made up of remoaners who are antipathetic to their case, has taken five months to get to the requisite threshold of 100,000 signatures. The other petition collected 1.7 million signatures in a matter of hours and reflects serious public outrage at a decision taken by the Government. To give parity of consideration to those two petitions is simply not fair.
I wonder how many people who sign such petitions understand that this is the place where their hopes and aspirations come to die on a wet Monday afternoon, in a Committee Room off the House of Commons Chamber, with 10 Members assembled who have no ability to advocate on behalf of the petitioners, or to influence, nevermind change, Government policy. It is too late for this Parliament, but if I come back to this place in the future, I will seek changes to our procedures and how we deal with those who petition this Parliament. I do not think we treat them fairly enough.
My concerns about how we deal with petitions are as nothing to my concerns about the inadequacy of our constitution when it comes to Parliament sitting. Is it not astonishing that our Parliament can be suspended for five weeks in the middle of a major political crisis, the ramifications of which are profound, legion, and no way near being concluded? Most people would find that astounding; I find it astounding myself that this can happen perfectly legally and normally.
The role of Parliament is to scrutinise and hold to account the Executive. It cannot be right that the Executive can relieve itself of that scrutiny by the simple expedient of suspending Parliament. It seems a bizarre situation, yet it is the one we are confronted by. By the time we get to 14 October, the Prime Minister will have held the most powerful executive office in the land for 82 days, and on only four of those days will Parliament have been able to hold him and his Government to account. That is frankly a shocking state of affairs. I do not buy the argument that that is because Government Ministers and their advisers need time to prepare a new legislative programme.
The hon. Gentleman just outlined that the Prime Minister will have been in office for 82 days, and that Parliament will have sat for only four of them. That means that there will have been only one Prime Minister’s Question Time. Members of this House will not be able to question the Prime Minister until after the Queen’s Speech, even though by then he will have been in office for over three months.
I know; it is staggering.
We need to ask ourselves why this is happening. It is because we have a Prime Minister who has no mandate, no majority in the House and no ability to get legislation through Parliament. Rather than compromise with Parliament or seek a majority, he is determined simply to walk away from it and not have the debate. That is a very bad look for our democracy.
It is also bad that we have a Prime Minister who, in his public pronouncements, is uncertain whether he will deliver on the will of Parliament, and now the law of the land, which is that in the absence of a withdrawal deal with the European Union, we should seek an extension until 31 January to allow further time for an agreement to emerge. That the Prime Minister and his advisers are equivocal on that is a matter for deep concern.
I do not buy the Prime Minister’s suggestion that all we need to do in these circumstances is have a quick cut-and-run election. There is no point having an election if the main point of it—to decide whether or not to crash out of the European Union without a deal—cannot be altered by the outcome. We cannot allow an election simply so that the Prime Minister can escape the obligation that Parliament has placed on him. Parliament has not allowed that to happen, and I am sure that it will not allow it later on tonight.
An election will need to come soon; the delay will be only a matter of weeks. As soon as we are confident that we will not crash out of the European Union without a deal, and have more time to consider options and strategy, it will be frankly impossible to advance the process in the country without going back to the people. It is time for them to have another say.
I sense that an awful lot of Members of Parliament, on both sides of the House, understand very well the consequences of Brexit; they are not attracted to them, but they feel that they do not have a mandate to oppose Brexit because of the nature of the manifesto on which they stood in 2017. Shaking up the political cards and allowing a different Parliament to emerge with fresh mandates may open the possibility for reconsideration of this matter. I hope that an election will allow a new Parliament to consider putting the matter back to the people who started the process.
It is not the role of Parliament to overturn, set aside or ignore the will of the people, but it is the role of Parliament to interpret it. If we have found, three years later, that what the people asked us to do—that is, to leave the European Union and make things better—is simply undoable, and if what they ask cannot be done, and the circle cannot be squared, then we need to go back to the people, explain that, and ask them whether they want to reconsider. It may well be that they do not want to do that, and that they are content to leave the European Union knowing that it will impoverish them and their families, and diminish the character and culture of this country. That choice should be for them, and they should be allowed to make it, but I am confident that if we are given the opportunity to fight that election, we can get an alternative point of view to emerge—one that will look at the benefits of remaining in the European Union, and changing it so that it delivers for people’s aspirations.
When that election comes in Scotland, my party will not just say, “Stop and reconsider the process of Brexit,” and campaign for an alternative Government to the one that we have had for nearly a decade, but demand and assert the right of the people of Scotland to choose an alternative future. It should be their right not to go down the path that they are being led down by the Prime Minister, and to say that they want to consider an alternative, independent future, in which they take political control of their affairs and determine their relationship with the rest of the people in Britain and Europe. That is the manifesto that we shall put before people in the election that I am sure will come in November, and I look forward to returning to this Chamber to argue that case.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I thank all Members who have taken part in the debate for their speeches, which have highlighted the seriousness of the debate. Tonight, Parliament is to suspend for up to five weeks at this most crucial time in our country’s recent history. That slippery manoeuvre by the new Prime Minister is designed to scupper proper accountability and silence scrutiny when it is most needed.
The Government are already operating with even more secrecy than the previous Government, who were certainly not known for their transparency. As we saw last week when the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster came to the House to provide an update on Brexit preparations, the Government are determined to conceal what is really going on. Indeed, what we know about the Government’s preparations for Brexit has come mostly from leaks, and from insight from former Tories, including the former Work and Pensions Secretary, the right hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd), who resigned this weekend in protest at the inaction. According to newspaper reports, the Yellowhammer papers, which outline scenarios in the event of a no-deal Brexit, speak of delays at the channel stretching over two days, food and medical shortages, and potentially even protests on the streets.
Depending on who we listen to, the Government’s negotiations with Brussels are either going well or going nowhere at all. I suspect that the Minister himself does not know which, such is the way the Government are run. They are run by a small ring of unelected advisers who are more concerned with their reputations than the interests of the country. Clearly, then, there are serious questions that Parliament and the public need answers to over the coming weeks, but in closing down Parliament, the Prime Minister has denied the chance for questions to be asked, let alone answered. As my hon. Friends have pointed out, he has shown contempt not only for Parliamentary democracy, but for the British public, who deserve reassurances that the Government have their interests front and centre. It is yet another case of the old Etonian, entitled arrogance that seems to characterise so much of this Government’s policies. What this boils down to is the feeling among the Prime Minister and his allies that they know best. Clearly they do not, and every time the Prime Minister loses yet another vote in the Commons, we are reminded that far from knowing best, they have misjudged Parliament. Labour believes that they have also misjudged the mood of the public.
If the Government use the suspension of Parliament to ram through a no-deal Brexit, as many believe they will, they will not be delivering on the will of the people, but setting the country up for a period of more stagnation and hardship. We must expose no deal for what it is. It is not a quick fix to solve Brexit, but a path of more chaos, more negotiations, more unrest and no consensus across the country. Far from settling the chaos, it will take us back years, while we build from scratch the economic relationship that we want with our closest and nearest trading partners. It would be a path of more delay, rather than allowing us to forge our future relationship with the EU. We would see years of turmoil that we simply cannot afford. After a decade of Conservative austerity, that is the exact opposite of what our country needs at this key turning point.
That is why Labour is determined to use every possible means to expose and prevent the no-deal Brexit that has only ever been the desired option of a small group of hard-liners in the Conservative party, obsessed with deregulation and mythical free trade deals. Indeed, it is their obsession with a no-deal Brexit and the failure of successive Prime Ministers to show leadership that has stopped us reaching a consensus and getting a deal that works for the whole country. The Chancellor’s repeated refusal to rule out an electoral pact with the Brexit party only confirms that this Government are prepared to hang on to the coat-tails of hard-liners, just like the last one.
Setting aside the question of Brexit for the moment, let us consider the shock with which so much of the public reacted not only to the news that the Prime Minister was closing down Parliament, but to the very fact that he could do that. For many people, the past few weeks have provided a crash course in how the British constitution works. I hear that Parliament overtook “Love Island” in the TV viewing ratings. Viewers are probably unhappy with the characters in both programmes.
People often talk of our unwritten constitution in glowing terms; they say it is flexible, but that flexibility has allowed the Prime Minister to sidestep Parliament completely. Consider for a moment the precedent that that sets—a Prime Minister who does not like the view of Parliament simply shutting it down and silencing elected representatives. In doing so, he has shown contempt for democracy, but he has also revealed how archaic our political system really is. Brexit is about many things, but for many people, it was a chance to express their dissatisfaction with how our political system works— and they are right to be dissatisfied. The Westminster system is over-centralised, and the second Chamber is unelected. Parliament is dominated by those from privileged backgrounds, and our elections are captured by big and dark money.
That the Prime Minister can suspend Parliament so easily is yet another feature of our political system that points towards the urgent need for reform. That is why the Labour party is committed to delivering a constitutional convention when it is in government—a convention that will examine and advise on reforming the way Britain works at a fundamental level. We hope that the convention will provide the impetus for a programme of democratic reform that puts power in the hands of the people. However, in the meantime, it is essential that the Labour party, working with the other Opposition parties, does everything it can to prevent a disastrous no deal. The suspension of Parliament will make that task all the more difficult, but as the last week has shown, the Government’s tricks and attempts to rig the system are collapsing like a house of cards. If they continue to show contempt for Parliament and the British public, they may find themselves leaving No. 10 as quickly as they entered it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) for opening the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee and for speaking to the petitions that are before the House, which more than 1.7 million people have signed.
It has been quite an interesting debate and I have enjoyed sitting here listening to all of it. I have heard many passionate speeches with statements about not wanting to silence voters, about there being no mandate and no majority, about the Government not having a mandate, and about voters being silenced. If Members have those concerns, there is an opportunity to do something about it later this evening—have a general election and ask the country and electorate to make the decision about who they want to govern the country. It is somewhat telling that it is the Opposition who are likely to block that, although I hope, after some of the speeches we have heard today, that Opposition Members will get into the Aye Lobby this evening to vote for a general election. I hope they will vote for their constituents to have the loudest say of all—their vote in a general election.
No. The reasons for the Prorogation have been set out. To the arguments of those who have been shouting “Stop the coup!” and “Defend democracy!” but then do not want to have a general election, it must be said that I cannot think of any example of a coup in history where a free and fair general election was offered immediately afterward. That argument is absolute nonsense.
Coming on to the more serious question that the hon. Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) asked, he decided to raise a bit of a scare story about what would happen for an EU citizen coming to our border on 1 November. Luckily, he can visit the Government website; it is being promoted now and he can have a good read of it afterward. There is a section on crossing the border after Brexit and another section on EU citizens moving to the UK after Brexit, which would have answered his question.
However, the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that, as people come across the border on 1 November, which was the example he gave, nothing will change. They will still be able to use e-gates if they are travelling on a biometric passport, and will not face routine intentions testing. The website also goes on to say that those coming here between 31 October this year and 31 December next year will be able to move to the UK and live, study, work and access benefits and services as they do now. Bluntly, a simple Google search would have revealed all that interesting information, and I certainly encourage people who have queries to look on that website.
It has been pointed out in the debate that these petitions are clearly distinct from one another in what they ask of the Government. The first, from March 2019, calls on the Government to advise Her Majesty to prorogue Parliament. The second, launched last month, calls on the Government not to prorogue or dissolve Parliament unless and until the Government either revoke article 50 or seek a further extension. Like so much in Brexit, that makes it a debate where we cannot please everyone. In responding to these petitions, I will begin by setting out the process for proroguing Parliament, before turning to the specifics of the points made in the petitions.
May I gently point out that there might be a way to please everyone, which is to prorogue for a shorter time, as I have suggested? A Prorogation for two or three weeks would be in accordance with previous precedent and allow the Queen’s Speech to be prepared while, at the same time, hon. Members would have more time to discuss all those matters. That is in addition to the international crises that may occur during this time. We are talking about more than five weeks here.
I always have great respect for my hon. Friend, but the Government have set out the period of Prorogation and the reason for it, which is the Queen’s Speech. I can reassure people that we will still be sitting for three weeks before the scheduled exit date and, as we have seen over recent days, it does not take long, if the House is minded, to pass a particular piece of legislation. There will still be ample and adequate time to debate Brexit and, as many would reflect on, we have certainly not been short of opportunities to do so over the past year.
Of course, any discussion of the number of days will be a matter for the usual channels when and if a deal is agreed. Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) likes to shout, “No to no deal!”, but he regularly voted no to a deal earlier this year.
Prorogation is the normal end to a parliamentary Session. It remains a matter for the Prime Minister to advise the sovereign on, as it is a prerogative power. That has not changed since the Labour party was in Government. It is for the Government to determine the length of a parliamentary Session and to advise the Queen on the date for the state opening of Parliament. The state opening is marked by the Queen’s Speech, which sets out the programme of legislation the Government intend to pursue in the forthcoming parliamentary Session.
Normally, each parliamentary Session runs for a period of 12 months before Parliament is prorogued. The current parliamentary Session is an exception to the ordinary 12 months, as was touched on during the debate, with the last state opening of Parliament having taken place more than two years ago, on 21 June 2017. This has been the longest parliamentary Session for almost 400 years, far in excess of any of the others.
The Prime Minister set out in his statement on 2 September 2019 the many reasons why we want to have the Queen’s Speech on the date when we will be having it. The Government have committed to recruiting another 20,000 police officers, improving both national health service and schools funding, and completing 20 new hospital upgrades. It is to progress the Government’s agenda on these and many other fronts that the Prime Minister has sought to commence a new Session of Parliament with a Queen’s Speech on 14 October.
As I have touched on already, if Opposition Members are confident in their argument, they will have the chance tonight to take that debate out to the whole country, to go and face their constituents and explain their position on this subject. If many of them are thinking of voting no this evening, that will be a rather interesting contrast.
I will not give way for now; I will make progress.
Interestingly, senior Opposition MPs have been calling for a Queen’s Speech. The shadow Leader of the House has called for a new Session and a Queen’s Speech five times in five months, while the Shadow Chancellor called for a new session back in May. As I have said, the Government want to bring forward a strong domestic legislative agenda, and ending the parliamentary Session and bringing forward a Queen’s Speech is the legal and necessary way to deliver that.
It is worth pointing out, though, that the larger petition asks that Parliament is not dissolved. Parliament is only dissolved before a general election. The effect of a dissolution is that all business comes to an end and every seat in the House of Commons is vacated until a general election is held. The Prime Minister has been clear that an election should take place ahead of the European Council on 17 to 18 October. That would allow the Prime Minister, elected by the British people—either my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) or the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn)—to go to that European Council and for a newly elected Parliament to be in a position to consider what is agreed, and hopefully to pass the withdrawal agreement Bill.
Colleagues will be aware that, as I have referred to several times, a motion for an early general election will be debated later today. They will have the opportunity to give a voice to their constituents, who they have repeatedly claimed in this debate will be silenced. They can give them the most powerful voice they have in this country—their vote in a general election. I look forward to seeing many of those hon. Members in the Aye Lobby. I hope that nobody will make what are, in some ways, contradictory arguments by shouting about defending democracy and stopping a coup, and then vote no on the biggest exercise of democracy that we can have in this country—a general election.
The Government’s position remains clear: we will not revoke article 50 or seek a further, pointless extension. The UK will leave the European Union on 31 October. I point out to some Opposition Members that there is no automatic right to extensions. An extension is not a solution in itself. After three years, merely kicking the can will not solve the problem.
The 17.4 million who voted to leave the EU represent the largest mandate ever given for any UK Government to deliver. Both main parties pledged to respect that result in the 2017 election, and now we must deliver on that pledge. The Prime Minister believes that Parliament must have time to consider further the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union, and to hold the Government to account. Parliament has sat ahead of the European Council and will sit for three weeks prior to exit day. That means there will be ample time to debate the UK’s leaving the EU in the coming weeks, on both sides of the summit on 17 October—ideally, with a mandate from the British people to resolve this matter.
The Government would prefer to leave the EU with a deal, and we are working in an energetic and determined way to achieve that. The Government are very willing to sit down with the Commission and EU member states to talk about what needs to be done to achieve that. If it is not possible to reach a deal, we will have to leave with no deal. The Government are preparing for that outcome, and further delay will only increase the sense of distrust that many in the public feel and the uncertainty that is so damaging to our economy.
We take note of all of the points that have been raised in the debate today, but the decision to prorogue Parliament is one for the Government, because Prorogation is a prerogative Act of the Crown, exercised on the advice of Ministers. Therefore, in responding to both of these petitions, I must be clear: it is for the Government to determine when is the appropriate time to bring about an end to a parliamentary Session and bring forward a Queen’s Speech.
The Queen’s Speech and the debate that follows form one of the great set-pieces of the parliamentary calendar, where the Government are rightly scrutinised and held to account. The decision to prorogue Parliament is one for the Government of the day to make, as it always has been. We have set out our reasons for doing so—to ensure that a fresh, new domestic legislative agenda is put before Parliament.
There are those who, in recent weeks, have claimed that they wanted to stop a coup, to defend democracy and to give people a say. Tonight, they have the chance to do just that, and to give the electorate the chance to pass its own judgment. If they do not, many voters across the country will conclude that those comments were as hollow as their pledges to respect the people’s vote in the referendum in 2016.
It has been a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the second half of this debate, Mrs Main. I thank colleagues for their contributions.
Earlier today, the Taoiseach, after meeting our Prime Minister, said:
“If it comes to a request for an extension, I think the vast majority of countries around the table would prefer that there not be an extension. We would like to see this dealt with. If the UK is leaving, it should leave on the 31st of October.”
Pretty well every other debate that we have had over the last three years has boiled down to Brexit. We have failed over the last three years. What we are asking for by moving the Benn Bill, not proroguing Parliament and not having a general election continues our failure. Too many people in this place have caused Parliament’s failure, and we continue to fail. We are voting to continue to fail, because there is no clear plan as to what would be achieved by simply kicking this issue into the long grass to 31 January. That is not good enough for the vast majority of people in this country.
We have seen quotes used out of context for why Prorogation would not be a good idea if it were to kick this issue beyond 31 October. We have talked about the lack of ability to debate other issues, but I did not hear Members asking for recesses to be cancelled when it would have affected their holidays, at Easter or other recess periods in which the House was not sitting. There are always unfortunate events around the world that we can discuss and debate. We can raise them in a variety of ways, or we can stock them up, or we can recall the House.
I think I only have two minutes, if my hon. Friend does not mind.
The no deal that people have been talking about is the default option in terms of article 50, but not of the Government, as we have heard. It is really important that we retain that in our minds. There are simple ways to avoid no deal. So far as we are concerned, we could have voted for the withdrawal agreement, which Opposition Members did not do, or we can now vote for an election, to try to unlock the situation ahead of 31 October, so that someone else could go to Brussels to ask for that extension that Opposition Members want.
However, 14 October has been determined as the date for the Queen’s Speech because we want to set out our domestic agenda. We want to set out our ambitions apart from Brexit over the next 12 months. It is so important that we do so; it is what members of the public are crying out for.
That this House has considered e-petitions 269157 and 237487 relating to the prorogation of Parliament.
The Chair’s opinion as to the decision of the Question was challenged.
Question not decided (Standing Order No. 10(13)).