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Brexit: Invocation of Article 50

Volume 777: debated on Monday 19 December 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they expect to announce the exact date in 2017 when Article 50 will be invoked.

My Lords, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have set out the clear timetable for triggering Article 50 by the end of March 2017. This is giving us the time to develop our negotiating strategy and avoid setting the clock ticking until our objectives are clear and agreed.

My Lords, does not the Minister agree that for millions of Britons, patriotism and Europeanism go side by side? What on earth does a,

“red, white and blue Brexit”

actually mean? Is red for the millions of dead in two world wars followed by six decades of peace in the European Community? Does white indicate the slide into xenophobia, particularly in England? Is blue just for the Tory interest, nowadays with a very small membership base supported by less than a quarter of voters in the last election?

It is important to remember the genesis of why we are where we are: the expression of a democratic view, in a referendum, that the Government are instructed to leave the European Union. That is not straightforward—it is challenging, as this House is well aware—but the Government are committed, in discharging that obligation, to doing whatever is necessary to protect the best interests of the whole of the United Kingdom.

My Lords, do the Government accept that Article 50 is only a clause in an international treaty and so, if the Eurocrats try to use it to our disadvantage, it should not be allowed to compromise the will of the British people as expressed in a referendum and an Act of Parliament?

The noble Lord will be aware that I have on numerous occasions in this House reiterated my respect for the electoral will of the voters of this country in their referendum declaration, and I think that it has to be honoured by the Government. Article 50 is part of our European relationship. That is why the matter is currently litigious: the High Court took a view with which the Government disagreed and the matter now rests with the Supreme Court.

It is indeed the case that the result of the referendum places an obligation on Her Majesty’s Government to initiate these negotiations, and that any attempt to use the triggering of Article 50 to delay or frustrate that process would be mistaken. However, that said, is it not also clear that the outcome of these negotiations is totally unknown and the Government cannot expect Parliament to say that we will agree to whatever that outcome might be? When we know that outcome, does my noble friend agree that it must be put to Parliament for approval?

Both the Prime Minister and the Government have been clear that of course there is a role for Parliament in the process of exiting the EU. We are committed to extensive involvement by Parliament, which is already happening both in the other place and in this Chamber. It is important to underline that the Government will be mindful of all their legal and constitutional obligations in the process and will honour them in any future agreement with the EU.

My Lords, would it not have been a good idea for the British people to have understood the decision they were making before the referendum took place?

My Lords, I have often wondered, particularly coming from Scotland as a Conservative, what motivated voters in their electoral instincts when casting votes at elections. In a democracy, we have to recognise and respect the right of individual voters to look at the issues, make their decision and come to a view. That collective view as expressed in the referendum places an obligation upon the Government to discharge that result.

My Lords, the glaring lack of clarity on a Brexit plan six months after the referendum means, in the words of the Financial Times on Saturday, that the Government are,

“giving businesses that rely on single market access little choice other than to act on their worst-case scenarios”,

that there will be a crashing out of the single market. What does the Minister say to those whose jobs will be lost due to her Government’s dithering?

I think the noble Baroness is displaying a degree of uncharacteristic impatience, which I do not associate with her, and being unduly pessimistic. In fact, there are some very encouraging signs that we can make a success of Brexit. She will be aware that the Japanese technology firm SoftBank has announced a record £24 billion investment in the UK as it moves to buy microprocessor manufacturer ARM, and GlaxoSmithKline has announced a massive investment of £275 million. There are very encouraging signs and we should be heartened by that.

My Lords, would my noble friend agree with me in regretting certain aspects of behaviour by the Commission, such as deliberately cold-shouldering the Prime Minister and not inviting her to dinner and then claiming £50 billion in expenses? This sort of behaviour is not constructive to arranging a sensible deal with Europe going forward.

Any negotiation, whether commercial, domestic or under international treaty law, such as this one, is never going to be easy and there will be various emotions prevailing at any one time. As far as I can detect, the important fact to recognise is that the Government of this country are determined to negotiate the best deal they can for this country and the EU is cognisant of the enormity of that decision and wishes also to co-operate in trying to make these negotiations as constructive as possible and recognise the mutual interest, not just to the United Kingdom but for the remaining states in the EU.

My Lords, perhaps I may return to the original Question about the date that Article 50 will be announced. It is a crucial decision, and I do not think that the noble Baroness answered the Question. That date sets the countdown clock to our exit from the EU. Twenty-seven other countries will have to agree the negotiations, so it will not be two years that we have but significantly less—it could be 15 or 17 months. Given that timescale, it is normal government and business practice to have a plan. When will the Government share their plan on both how they will conduct the negotiations and the basis of those negotiations?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question. The Government will set out their broad plans before triggering Article 50 by the end of next March. Indeed, she will be aware that in the other place, following a debate on 12 October, there was an important caveat, which the House agreed without Division, that nothing we do or say should undermine the UK’s negotiating position. We must acknowledge that and await details of the plan.