My Lords, I have it in my command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill, has consented to place her prerogative, so far as it is affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.
My Lords, sometimes statistics say more than words. Here is a simple fact. We have spent 44 or so hours debating a Bill that started off as 137 words. That works out at about 20 minutes per word, but that amount of time and scrutiny is hardly surprising, given the importance of the issues that swirl around those words. In the debate, we have seen the very best of what this House is here to do. As I said at Second Reading a fortnight ago—although I have to say that it feels a lot longer than that—scrutinising legislation is not an unpatriotic act. Whatever our differences, we all share a basic wish: to see our country prosper in future. Everything that has been said has been motivated by that basic wish.
I am sure that the House will be grateful that I shall not name everyone who has spoken, as that in itself might take some time, but I thank each and every one of your Lordships who has spoken, even where we have disagreed, and I apologise if I deprived anyone of the chance to speak, although I have a sneaking suspicion that we will meet again very soon, and on numerous occasions after that. For we are, as I have said before, just approaching base camp in terms of the parliamentary process of our withdrawal from the European Union. So while I thank my excellent Bill team and my noble friends Lady Goldie and Lord Dunlop, and my noble and learned friend Lord Keen, for all their help in getting me this far, I add only: please keep going.
I am of course obliged to the noble Baronesses, Lady Hayter and Lady Ludford, for their diligence in sitting on the Front Bench through the long hours of these debates. I must admit that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, somewhat set back my efforts to build a national consensus on our withdrawal from the EU when she mentioned my youngest daughter in her Second Reading speech, but failed to mention my twins. As you can imagine, this caused some consternation at the Bridges breakfast table the next morning. My twins expressed loud demands for a meaningful mention. They wanted reciprocity now, not at some unknown point in future. They were not prepared to take it or leave it: Bridges means Bridges, I was told. I am very grateful that she has since addressed this imbalance.
The Bill simply seeks to honour the commitment that the Government gave to respect the outcome of the referendum held on 23 June last year. During the course of our debates on this issue, a number of noble Lords have questioned the formulation of the Bill or sought to expand it beyond its straightforward aim. While I have disagreed with them on a number of occasions, the one point on which I thought we had all agreed was that we must respect the outcome of the referendum and that neither the Labour Party nor the Liberal Democrats would block the Bill. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Newby, is indeed a very honourable man, so I look forward with great interest to hearing why he has tabled the amendment to the Motion, which appears to contradict everything he has said, and why his party will now block the UK’s exit from the European Union. I beg to move.
Amendment to the Motion
Leave out from “that” to the end and insert “this House declines to allow the bill to pass, because the bill does not provide a mechanism for the people of the United Kingdom to have a vote, prior to the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union, on the terms of the new relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union.”
My Lords, I thank the Minister and all who have spoken in debates on this Bill to date. It has been a great privilege to take part in such debates, which have been conducted with grace, erudition and great passion in equal measure.
The Companion enjoins those who move amendments at this stage to speak briefly to them, so I shall be brief. Amendments to the Motion that the Bill do now pass are rare, and on these Benches we have not initiated such an amendment in recent times. We do so only because of the importance of the issue before us and the strength of our opposition to the way in which the Government have approached this Bill and the Brexit process.
We on these Benches have argued, as we did in the Commons, that while it is perfectly proper for the Government to be triggering the Article 50 negotiations, they should do so only if the process to be followed throughout respects the principles of both parliamentary sovereignty and democratic accountability. In reality, the Government have shown disdain for both. Parliament must clearly play a full part in the entire process, but we also believe it is essential that the people take the final decision, for reasons which we fully debated in recent days.
The Government’s view is that they not only oppose giving the people the final say, but oppose in principle any amendments to the Bill. The noble Lord’s enthusiasm for scrutiny is rather tempered by the idea that such scrutiny might actually lead to amendment. Why is this the case? It is not in reality that it is somehow inappropriate, far less improper, to amend this Bill; it is simply that it is inconvenient for the Government. Their whole attitude is one of lofty disdain for Parliament and the people alike.
In moving this amendment, and voting on it, I do so in the certain knowledge that this Bill will now pass this evening back to the Commons. We on these Benches could not allow this to happen without registering our opposition to the brutal Brexit that the Government are now pursuing, whether in making the country poorer by leaving the single market, or by using more than 3 million EU nationals living in the UK as bargaining chips. These decisions will exacerbate our long-term economic problems—fiscal imbalances, balance of payments deficits and low productivity, as well as our reputation as a welcoming and tolerant country.
However, the Government now seem set on this course towards this brutal Brexit. This is a deliberate distortion of the mandate they received from the British people, and we on these Benches cannot in all conscience support it. At this historic moment, we wish to record again our opposition to the damaging course on which the Government are set, and our opposition to the Government’s refusal to allow the British people, who will feel the consequences of Brexit for generations to come, the right to decide their own future. I beg to move.
My Lords, this Bill is a direct result of two things: the outcome of the referendum and the decision of the Supreme Court. In all of this, countless behind-the-scenes hands have been at work. Wherever we stood as we voted on 23 June, all of us know that the tasks since then has been unprecedented. Civil servants have had to devise new structures and work teams to prepare Parliament for this. This is just our first Bill; others will come our way.
So it is appropriate to take a moment, as the Minister did, to acknowledge the work that has been done and to thank all those who have contributed, within the Department for Exiting the EU and within your Lordships’ House. As an Opposition we have been well supported by Dan Stevens, Ben Coffman, Ian Parker and their colleagues—and, while I recognise that the work on the Bill is not yet done, if I thank them now it might give them the energy for all the work yet to be done.
Thanks are also due to the Minister, for whom we have considerable sympathy. I apologise to his family. We have probably taken up far too much of his time and we would be very happy for him to spend more time with them in the months to come. We also thank the Minister’s colleagues and the noble Lord the Chief Whip for their help in dealing with the mechanics of the timetabling of the Bill. I concur with the Minister’s comments and thank all noble Lords who have spoken.
The debates we have had at Second Reading, in Committee and on Report have been a great credit to your Lordships’ House, both in the range of expertise we have been able to show and the quality of debate. I also thank my colleagues, my noble friend Lord Lennie and especially my noble friend Lady Hayter. She has worked tirelessly on this Bill and I have to say that she is lot more even-tempered than perhaps I am. It is a pleasure to work for her and I look forward to seeing her continued work on this Bill. She recalled how she was volunteered to wind up at Second Reading. She will be volunteered again in the future. I give sincere thanks to those noble Lords and all my colleagues on different sides of the arguments. I think we have conducted ourselves with great integrity and strong belief.
That is why I am rather puzzled in many ways by the comments today from the noble Lord, Lord Newby. As somebody who, alongside many of my colleagues, campaigned extraordinarily hard to remain in the EU, I regret the decision that has been taken. I think it has to be not just the 52% who are represented but the 48% as well. It has to be recognised by all in your Lordships’ House that we have a duty to perhaps try to heal and unite where there has been division—and the Government must recognise that they have to act in the interests of the whole country.
During this debate we have voted on two extraordinarily important amendments. The first, on EEA and EU nationals in the UK and UK citizens in the EU, aims to remove some of the uncertainty regarding their position. That was one very serious amendment. The second one was debated tonight on the issue of parliamentary sovereignty. In that case there was a majority of 98.
Both amendments fulfil the criteria of the role of your Lordships’ House in asking the other place, the House of Commons, to reconsider. The quality and content of those debates provide considerable material for MPs to do so. We passed those amendments not as some kind of vanity exercise or just to make a point—we are not a debating society where we have our debates and then afterwards shrug off home or off to the pub because we have made our point and have no thought about what happens next.
What happens in this House is really important. We passed those amendments for a very serious reason, as part of our constitutional responsibilities. I want to hear the House of Commons debate those issues. I want elected MPs to reconsider, and I hope that they will accept our amendments and the principles behind them. I would be very happy to see the Government, who have offered co-operation and help on this one, bring forward similar amendments to give effect to them. These amendments matter. That is why I find the Liberal Democrat Motion tonight absolutely incredible.
The noble Lord, Lord Newby, stood in your Lordships’ House today and told us that he accepted the result of the referendum and the vote in the other place—but he failed to convince this House that a second referendum was the right course of action at this time. On the basis of that, as outlined in his Motion—not about anything else, not about all the issues he talked about surrounding a hard Brexit but on the one issue of that vote—Liberal Democrats are now prepared to vote against this whole Bill to stop Members of Parliament considering our amendments. I find that irresponsible.
It may be that he feels okay, as he said, about making a point about Brexit as a whole because they are not going to win the vote. But responsibility is not just about winning—it is about taking responsibility for our actions. As I heard him tonight, he failed to convince me that he is serious about these amendments that we have voted on.
If the Motion from the Liberal Democrats were passed tonight, it would stop the other place considering the amendments on EEA and EU nationals and on parliamentary sovereignty. Your Lordships’ House was never told when voting on these amendments that at the final hurdle the Liberal Democrats would say that they would not support the very amendments that they have asked your Lordships’ House to vote for. I am very much committed to those two amendments, and the Motion shows a lack of commitment to these two amendments and issues which have been voted on in this House.
I can hear some chuntering from the Liberal Democrats. I am not taking heckling—stand up and intervene if you want to, but do not heckle. If we really care about these amendments, we want them to go to the other place and we want the other place to debate them. So how can we possibly ask MPs to vote for these amendments if this House is not prepared to pass the amendments and let the Bill pass and go to the other place?
We believe in the amendments that we supported. We respect the decisions taken by this House, and we respect and thank our colleagues from all parties who supported them. I have no hesitation in asking your Lordships’ House to reject this Motion.
I very much support what my noble friend has just said about the value of the amendments that this House has carried, but does not she agree that her plea to the Members opposite to heal and unite rings pretty false when they are pursuing the hardest of hard Brexits? Does not she also agree that, whereas in June it would have been reasonable to hope that you might have had a national consensus around a soft Brexit, this Government have done nothing of that kind? The policy of the Lancaster House speech is la-la land as far as the possibility of a reasonable negotiation in the national interest. These things are very important, and I hope that the Opposition will continue to fight with vigour this hardest of hard Brexits.
My Lords, I do not think that I have ever been accused of not having vigour. Yes, I agree with my noble friend that the response from the party opposite—not from all noble Lords, I have to say, but from those who particularly want to pursue a hard Brexit—is disappointing. However, not for one moment will I or my colleagues on this side of the House give up trying to get the best deal that we possibly can for the people of this country. Yes, I am very disappointed that before we had even finished voting some Ministers rushed out to tell the cameras, “We’re going to hold back—we’re not going to support this”. We need a responsible, grown-up response—a mature response—and just saying that we are going head-on for a hard Brexit does not do it. But there is a role for this House; when we pass amendments, we do not just put them in the bag and give up—we send them to the other end. I have no hesitation in saying that we should reject this Motion because our responsibility, as my noble friend agrees, is to ensure that the work that we have put into the amendments, the debates that we have had on them and the issues we have raised on them are considered by the other place.
My Lords, to echo the noble Baroness’s remarks, I very much hope that as a House and as a nation we can put the divisions of the referendum behind us, accept the result and turn our minds to how we can together overcome the challenges that we face as a nation. As I said at Second Reading, I voted remain, so I certainly do not dismiss concerns lightly or complacently. However, I genuinely believe that this House must respect the will of the British people and deliver on their wish to leave the European Union.
With that in mind, I am more than a little disappointed by the approach of the Liberal Democrats. It is one thing to vote for an amendment to this Bill, quite another to try and block it entirely. What of the majority of MPs who voted to give the country a referendum? What of the 17.4 million people who voted to leave the European Union? What of the majority of MPs who voted to pass this Bill without amendment? I find it pretty strange that a party that has “Democrat” in its name votes against delivering the will of the people. However the Liberal Democrats dress this amendment up, it would stop the Bill from passing, which means we cannot start the process of negotiating. I find the logic very difficult to grasp. The noble Lord seems to be saying, “Because we are not going to have a second referendum, we should not respect the views which the people expressed in the first”.
The noble Lord made commitments to this House and the nation on 20 February. He said that:
“No significant body of opinion in this House is seeking to prevent the passage of the Bill, but there is a world of difference between blocking the Bill and seeking to amend it”.—[Official Report, 20/2/17; col. 20.]
He went on to say that no one is suggesting they want to stop the Bill, and that they are not saying they want to block the Bill. Furthermore, just this morning, the leader of the Liberal Democrats said on the BBC:
“But, in the end, the majority of people voted to leave the European Union. It would be quite wrong for the Lords, the Commons or the courts to try and frustrate the will of the people. I am against that”.
I therefore find this baffling. I could go on and recite all the steps that Parliament and the Government will take to ensure that Parliament does not merely scrutinise the process of our leaving the European Union but takes major decisions. I have done so several times, but to do so misses a much bigger point on this amendment.
There are two very simple issues here. First is the integrity of a party whose Leader in this House says it will not block this Bill, then tries to do so. Second is the belief in democracy which the party claims to champion. If the noble Lord presses the amendment it will, sadly, show that the Liberal Democrats are willing to do anything to give the kiss of life to their political fortunes. I very much hope that this is not the case and that the Bill will go to the other place without further delay.
It cannot possibly be honourable for the noble Lord to say that he is going to vote against the implementation of—to kill—the Bill, which has been overwhelmingly passed by the Commons and which is, of course, the result of a referendum, in the full, secure knowledge that the Bill will in fact pass. If he is voting on his amendment I hope he can assure the House that it is with the full intention of trying to kill the Bill. Anything else could be interpreted only as complete cynicism.
Like everybody else, I have got to live with my conscience on this Bill, and I am going to sleep easy tonight. I repeat what I said earlier. We are voting now to record our opposition to the damaging course on which the Government are set and their refusal to allow the British people—
I apologise to the noble Lord. He is again coming back to the point that the reason he is voting for his amendment tonight is because of his fears of a hard Brexit, which are shared with many across the House. However, that is not what the amendment says. It says that they want the Bill to not pass because they did not get their way on a second referendum vote.
My Lords, unfortunately, the noble Baroness did not allow me to finish my sentence. Our opposition is to the Government’s refusal to allow the British people, who will feel the consequences—ie, costs—of Brexit for generations to come, the right to decide their own future. I wish to test the opinion of the House.
Bill passed and returned to the Commons with amendments.
House adjourned at 9.44 pm.