Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty's Government what plans they have to bring regular reports before Parliament on the progress of the negotiations for Brexit.
My Lords, one of the features of my last visit to New York was a snippet of New York traditional humour. I was very impressed that the definition of a real optimist was a 95 year-old man who got married for the eighth time and bought a new house near a school. The Government need even more optimism than that to get through this nightmare of Brexit. The less congenial part of this, for me, is having to sound curmudgeonly to a very distinguished Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay. We thank her for coming today and we look forward to her responses, but it is always a problem to deal with someone who has such an excellent reputation as a very hard-working Minister. So I apologise in advance for everything I say if the Minister—unsurprisingly— disagrees a little with it.
The Government do not realise how impossibly complicated this process will be. That is why the reports now need to accelerate and be much stronger and more regular in the light of all those coming to speak in this debate. I believe that the two representatives of the EU Committee are the noble Lords, Lord Jay and Lord Teverson, and I hope they will quite rightly ask the Government to promise that the EU Committee is kept well informed about what goes on. We hope that the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, will soon be back as the chairman.
The Government have lost their original mandate from the decision of 23 June 2016 because of the 8 June election this year. They cannot proceed legitimately—possibly even legally, particularly if we had a written constitution, which of course we do not have. The Bill being debated today in the Commons and on Monday grants those sinister Henry VIII powers on secondary legislation, which will not be accepted by Parliament. A minority Government, which is what they are, dependent on a peculiar DUP grouping of Protestant hard-liners in Belfast, cannot possibly enforce their decisions against the true democratic majority increasingly revolted—as are the public—by this daft plan to leave the European Union. The prospect of leaving is alarming mainly the representatives of UK industry, farming and commerce, and particularly major exporters to the EU. The idea that this will not grow from now on—it will keep coming back to haunt the Government—is daft, if that is what some Ministers still think.
The immigration issues are even more painful. All the way through, it was extraordinary that the Government, unlike other EU member states, for some bizarre reason avoided using the existing powers in the treaty of Rome—now the TFEU—to limit immigration from other EU countries if they wanted to. Guess who was the Home Office Minister in charge at the time: a lady called Theresa May—so it is even more strange.
On 7 March this year I asked the Home Office Minister in the Lords why the powers, mostly under Clause 45, were not invoked, which would have softened the irrational hostility to migrants in this country. She did not answer but said she could not be responsible for what had happened in the past. So much for Tory government continuity on main policy areas. They failed repeatedly to use the treaty three-month rule, and then in a panic reverted to Cameron’s unachievable tens of thousands formula, which, incredibly, is still being repeated by a lady called Theresa May.
I will quickly refer to Article 50 again. In response to Questions in the Lords on 19 December last year, the Minister used the word “instructed”, a word that is illicit or perhaps even illegal—it would be if we had a written constitution—as the referendum was an advisory opinion only. Of course, anti-EU Tories said they would accept the result and act on it. However, the then Government were elected with a net small majority but only by just under a quarter of the qualified voting public, which excluded the youngest voters—hardly a democratic basis in law. In the same exchanges, the peculiar invocation of a red, white and blue Brexit by Mrs May was described as red for the millions of dead in two world wars followed by six decades of peace thanks to the EU; white for the cowardly slide in this country into irrational xenophobia; and blue, representing just the Tory interest, mostly older people—a party which now has a membership base less than one-fifth of that of the main opposition party in the Commons.
The emotional background is even more striking. With Ministers floundering and dreading the growing public revulsion at this monumental disaster looming over this country, we recall the effects of what the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, described as the continuing “cancer” literally threatening to destroy the Tory party in the future. Ministers have ignored the sensible voices and opted to listen only to the dark voices of reaction, prejudice and ignorance, as well as a few genuine believers in a mystical and old-fashioned independence, which no longer exists in reality for any country, even the United States.
For once—and it surprised me at the time—the Prime Minister expressed it with accuracy in her article of 8 January this year in, of all places, the Sunday Telegraph, saying that people,
“did not simply vote to withdraw from the European Union; they voted to change the way our country works … forever”,
and were disgruntled by economic and social setbacks in their lives. Apart from immigration, this is probably the main reason why people did vote—to give the Government a kick, which is what they tend to do in referendums if they are feeling fed up with lots of things, as people are in this country now. That is fair enough but why should the Government take it out on our membership of the most successful trading system in the world?
In the brilliant four-page “Why we are still angry” special in the New European newspaper on 10 to 16 February this year, the second of the four whys reminded us that,
“every one of the reasons given to persuade Leavers to vote for Brexit is a lie”.
Let us note the voices of good old British common sense, of people who are beginning to wake up to what is happening in this country with this daft policy of Brexit, such as John Cole, a citizen from Shipley, West Yorkshire, who stated in the Guardian in January this year that the referendum,
“was only ever advisory. The government had no obligation to act on the outcome, especially when it was so close. Any golf club or musical society requires a super-majority for significant constitutional change … the government has grossly overinterpreted the result”.
He must have been thinking about the fateful utterance of the infamous words after the previous election that “Brexit means Brexit” by an inexperienced and maladroit Prime Minister in the heat of the moment.
There are now very difficult questions facing the Government and they have to be faced up to from now on, with regular reports to Parliament, both the Lords and the Commons. We know that in both places the majority against Brexit is growing. In the Lords I believe the majority against leaving Europe is very large indeed, among all groups and parties.
How do we avoid hard Brexit? As the negotiations have now started at last, some eight weeks later than if there had been no election, the earlier strong fears that Theresa May would be happy to opt for a hard Brexit—a no deal at all kind of outcome—have happily receded somewhat, only because of the gradual evolution of some common sense among some Ministers. I will avoid naming names. It does not apply to all who are involved in this exercise.
As early as 21 February this year, in the debate on the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill in the Lords, the highly respected Cross-Bench Peer, the noble Lord, Lord Low of Dalston, said that there was “no question” of just ignoring the referendum. However, he rejected absolutely the concept of the hard exit, or Brexit, which had not been mandated. He added,
“there is no way that I am going to vote for triggering a negotiation designed to achieve a hard Brexit, which is likely to be so damaging for our country”,—[Official Report, 21/2/17; col. 222.]
for reasons he went on to explain in some detail. He also went on to attack the approach as a cavalier disregard of the 48% of voters, then and now a figure that is growing, who are against this daft policy.
On 6 July I argued that the original Brexit mandate had lapsed long since the 8 June outcome. Indeed, the results of that election are striking. Even Sky News in its analysis said that there was a built-in majority against Brexit in the overall result of all the electors voting for the political groups. Of course, we had new younger voters coming in for the first time as well, who signalled a very significant change. The Tories are now down to just above the Member numbers for the Liberal Democrat party with their absurd and childish psychodrama which we have all been locked into. When I met senior officials and MPs in Berlin recently, they asked me one of those psychological questions: “Why are they being so childish?”. I was unable to reply so I said that I would refer the question to Ministers here and ask them. I did so, but I never got an answer from the then Lords Minister about it.
In the Financial Times on 18 July, the writer Gideon Rachman put into chilling context that when people say that the vote which occurred on 23 June must be followed they mean,
“the Leavers’ view of democracy is similar to that of a third-world dictator—‘one man, one vote, one time’”.
Thus it can never be revisited. That of course was not the case in the 1975 referendum, which was reversed by the second in 2016. There is now less than a 50/50 chance of a comprehensive agreement being reached by March 2019. My noble friend Lord Kerr wrote on 26 January this year that, “The UK might withdraw its Article 50 notice, as it legally could”. Meanwhile the rest of the EU is paying close attention to the neurotic antics here which shame the reputation of UK politics. All the 27 sovereign member states, who incidentally are proud of the links between their own national sovereignty and the collective sovereignty afforded by EU membership, see more and more people here beginning to back away from the Brexit disaster movie, filmed in black and white.
If anti-Brexit is thwarting the will of the people, by 2019 some 2 million people from the Brexit electorate will have passed away and have been replaced by a similar number of voters aged 18-plus, on top of the 1 million extra young voters in the election held in June this year. Hence we conclude that staying in the single market and the customs union is a legitimate compromise. The Opposition should repeat this all the time and I do hope that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and others will persuade Jeremy Corbyn to sound a little more enthusiastic about matters European, not only to please members of the Labour Party but others in this country, and indeed many trade union members who are increasingly keen on Europe.
The inexorably looming and increasingly obvious solution is to study the sage words of one of our most brilliant authors, Ian McEwan. Early in June this year he said,
“I am a denialist. Almost a year on, I am still shaking my head in disbelief. I know it’s not helpful, but I don’t accept this near mystical, emotionally charged decision”.
That view will be echoed by others as we see what happens from now on. I wait with interest to hear the response of the Minister.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for initiating this debate. I do not think that any of his speech touched on the subject of the debate, which is about information being given to the House. What we are facing, of course, are very different traditions in Brussels and London. When I held office in the European Parliament, I had a good system for getting documents read: stamp “Confidential” on the top of them and they would be read by every office in the European Parliament within a day.
We have to look at the dissemination of information because this is incredibly complex. I want to stick to the subject of the debate. I do not think that there is any central body in Britain that is actually running what I would called a Brexit website. There are such things in Brussels; in fact, Brussels is overflowing with information. Every day I get two briefings from an excellent outfit called Politico, which tells you everything that is going on. It is thorough. It tells you every bit of news that you need to know, including the fact that today is the birthday of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, which I got from that website. Also, at midday I got a thing about Barnier’s statement on Ireland. In other words, the information flow is better co-ordinated, and the Government need to look at how they can co-ordinate ours better.
The Government need to have a contact system for the Lords. When the Minister was at the FCO, she had regular meetings of interested groups. I am always reluctant to put forward solutions that work elsewhere, because generally in this place the reaction is, “British democracy is best and Brussels is rubbish”. I will just mention that the system being used in Brussels, which is working very well, is that the Parliament has a rapporteur—that is aside from M Barnier: it has Guy Verhofstadt. He has what is called a contact group. Every week he meets with a group of parliamentarians representing virtually all of Parliament, although, demonstrating the skill for which it is famous, the Conservative group has managed not to be a member of that particular group—the only group in Parliament that has achieved this. There are two Labour members on it, incidentally. The group meets and Verhofstadt brings it up to date.
The purpose of the contact group, because there are 750 MEPs, is for them to then go away to their political groups and committees and brief them. It is a two-stage process and it happens every week. The second stage is open to anyone who wants to follow what is going on. I would like the Minister to look at that, because making Statements to the House, where you get the usual people jumping up and down with no order and no organisation, is not going to do what we want. We need a structured briefing system for this House. In other words, we need the Minister to look at the system she had when she was a Minister in the FCO, and adapt it to make it work in this way.
My final point is that there is a tendency to rubbish the European Parliament. We should not fall for that. It is following these negotiations very carefully. Ultimately, it has a veto. If it feels that it is not even being considered or taken seriously, it is not going to be as friendly as it might be if it felt that we were fully engaging with it. I have never heard the Minister associated with this negativity, so this is not a criticism, but I ask her to tell her friends in Government to pay proper respect to the elected European Parliament, which contains elected representatives of this country, who, frankly, the Government need to keep on side.
My Lords, as day follows day, I get increasingly astonished that people who I know to be intelligent, grown-up politicians accept the result and narrow majority in an advisory referendum on a flawed franchise, with lies and disinformation on the leave side, as an instruction to Parliament and the Government in a parliamentary democracy. They get up and say it on the radio and on television. Do they really believe it? Are they really serious or are they just part of this “Brexit means Brexit” determination, because it is good from a party-political point of view? Even some people on my own side are saying it, which is even more disappointing.
Looking at what is ahead of us, the withdrawal Bill is starting in the House of Commons only today—it has another day next week—and it is the first Bill we are going to consider. Perhaps in her reply, the Minister can tell us how many other Bills there are going to be. We are told there will be a number of them. Forget about the statutory instruments in the meantime; how many other Bills are we going to consider, all of which we have to get done well before 29 March 2019?
I asked the House of Lords Library to look at how many sittings we had when we passed the Single European Act and Maastricht. I remember it well, as does the noble Lord, Lord Dykes. I was in the House of Commons at the time and on the Opposition Front Bench, opposing it. We had 11 sittings on the Single European Act, six of which went well beyond the time of the House, and on Maastricht we had 41 sittings, 18 of which went well beyond that. I understand that they have not even decided yet in the House of Commons whether to have a timetable Motion, but to think that the Government are going to get the first Bill through by—when is it supposed to be?—early 2018 is really astonishing. Perhaps the Minister can tell us from her wisdom how she thinks that is to be done. I really find it astonishing that we are to face this plethora of legislation and information in such a short time.
I also find deeply disappointing the way in which the House of Lords, and the European Union Select Committee in particular, is being treated. On the day I read that my noble friend Lord Jay had expressed concern that David Davis could not come to report to the European Union Select Committee, that same David Davis was appearing at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in a comedy show with Alex Salmond. I am told that when my noble friend raised it in the House earlier today, she did not get a reply. Perhaps the Minister can give us an indication as to why the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is more important to the Secretary of State than the European Union Select Committee, given what he is paid, and supposed, to do.
I see that we have a huge task ahead of us. It will be very difficult, even with the kind of suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Balfe. It really is clutching at straws to think that any such structure can deal with the plethora—the huge volume or flood—of legislation and other matters that we have to consider. There is no way that it will be considered by Parliament, by the European Parliament, by parliaments overseas and finally, in what we are told will be a meaningful vote, by both Houses of this Parliament. That is my only hope. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, I thought that the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, was excellent. It was right on the subject. At the end of this process, if we even achieve getting there—I hope that we do not—we may have a meaningful vote. I hope that that vote will give the British people, and I am right behind the Liberal Democrats on this, the opportunity to consider whether they want the deal that comes out of this—if there is one, which I doubt there will be—or whether they would prefer, as I would, to stay and get the benefits of the European Union.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, particularly with that endorsement of the Liberal Democrats, which I have never heard him make previously. I probably never will again.
There is a mixture of former MPs and MEPs here, as the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, said. When I first became a Member of the European Parliament, some time ago now, I was wet behind the ears as a parliamentarian. I remember an instance of the plenary session, which I think was in Brussels, when a commissioner failed to turn up at the beginning of a debate which he had been called to. My Dutch colleague said, “This is utterly outrageous”. He said that in the lower chamber of Parliament in Holland, if ever a Minister did not arrive in time for a debate, it would effectively be a matter of resignation because of the predominance of parliament. In the European Parliament, I never came across that happening again because of the respect that there was for the Parliament and the parliamentary process. Since I have been privileged to be a Member of this House, for 11 years, I have not found that to be the case in Westminster generally. In my four minutes, some of my criticism will be as much of Parliament as of the Government during this process.
The Government have form on listening to Parliament. I still cannot understand why they decided to fight the Article 50 issue through the courts to the Supreme Court. It wasted time. It was obvious that Parliament was not going to stand in the way of Article 50—partly because of where the Labour Party stood at the time—and it made it look as if the Government were trying to take back control from the British Parliament, when the referendum was about so much else. That court case should not have been necessary because Parliament, particularly the House of Commons, should have insisted. It could have voted to resolve that issue but decided not to. That is a weakness in our parliamentary system.
As a member of the EU Committee, I particularly want to raise—I expect that the noble Lord, Lord Jay, will as well—the fact that it was our duty as parliamentarians and as members of the committee, having been appointed by the whole House, to bring the Government to account. That was one of our core roles. Because of that, the committee decided that it would come back during August to hear about the latest round of negotiations from the Secretary of State. I was astounded by the letter that came back from him telling us why he was not doing that. One reason that he gave was because of the parliamentary recess. Yet Parliament—this House, that committee that had been given that responsibility—was willing and eager to come back to keep that dialogue going. The Government are not in recess during August. Ministers do not give up their duties and go on holiday. The process of government does not stop. Yes, Parliament does, but we were prepared to come back and the Government decided not to.
The arrangements that we have in this House and in the Commons are not good enough for what we need for this great change to the constitution of this country. I have said this in EU Committee sittings when the Secretary of State has been there: the more that Government involve Parliament, the more credibility they will have and, I suspect, the more wisdom they will have in their negotiation as they find their way to the end of this process. By keeping things to themselves, by not consulting, by getting into groupthink, the outcome for them, as well as the country, will be far from good.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for initiating this debate and for introducing it so robustly. I am also grateful to the Government for arranging a debate on the implications of Brexit for Ireland, north and south, earlier this week and for scheduling the debate next week on the EU position papers.
As acting chair of your Lordships’ EU Committee, I will speak today about accountability on Brexit to committees of the House. The points that I shall make reflect a letter that I sent yesterday on behalf of the EU Committee to David Davis, with a copy to the Minister. Parliamentary committees, including the EU Committee, are an essential part of parliamentary scrutiny. They meet regularly, they work across party lines, they have experienced support and they build up substantial knowledge of and expertise on their subject matter. Certainly in the Lords, they look at things objectively. If Parliament is to scrutinise effectively something as complex and important as the Brexit negotiations—as it must—committee engagement is essential.
As the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, said, the EU Committee has found the Secretary of State’s response to its requests for reports back after each round of the negotiations to be disappointing and unlikely to lead, if I may say so, to the deep and special relationship that we all want to establish with him. He has offered to appear quarterly, which is helpful as far as it goes, but the negotiations are fast-moving and regular reports back really are needed. We understand that the Secretary of State has a heavily charged schedule—in Edinburgh and elsewhere—and may not be able to attend as often as the committee would like, but the committee finds it hard to understand his apparent reluctance to allow his Ministers to appear before it. From my own experience, that would surely be the natural thing to do. That is why I wrote to Mr Davis yesterday, on behalf of the committee, welcoming his commitment to appear before us at least quarterly and formally inviting the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay—for whom we all have very great respect—to appear before us after the intervening negotiating rounds. I hope that she will be able to respond positively to the committee’s invitation in her reply to today’s debate.
The Brexit negotiations are the most important and complex negotiations that any British Government have carried out since the Second World War. Proper parliamentary accountability for and scrutiny of them is an essential part of our constitutional arrangements—even if unwritten. It really does matter.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for asking the Question and I also thank my noble friend the Minister for being here in person to answer. It is typical of her, in fact, and we should not be surprised at that. From her previous roles, we have come to know her willingness to listen to our concerns. Some Members may think that the Question asked is irrelevant in the light of the Secretary of State for Brexit’s letter to Members of 9 August promising a Statement after each stage of the negotiations.
However, the Question really is wider than post-event Statements. Many of us were concerned that so many position papers were issued when Parliament was not sitting. While the granting of a debate upon those papers is welcome, I suspect it will be just that: a debate. What we should have is the opportunity to question the relevant Ministers on the detail of each paper—proper parliamentary scrutiny. I therefore put to my noble friend that, before further papers are issued, consideration should be given to having a procedure similar to that which takes place after the making of an Oral Statement, when Ministers can be questioned on that particular topic and that topic alone.
We were told that negotiations would be prejudiced if the Government were put in the position of disclosing its hand. But we have position papers from both sides, press conferences, statements from Cabinet Ministers—to say nothing of leaks—and pending legislation on immigration, fishing and other subjects, setting out what we are going to do immediately post our leaving. How does that not disclose our hand? What is there left to negotiate if we have already published to the world where we are going? My noble friend Lord Balfe has told us about the European Parliament arrangements and I think we could all be rather jealous of those. It seems to me, with the greatest respect, that our Parliament is reduced to the status of a spectator—a noisy one perhaps, but a spectator nevertheless.
The position papers have only increased the need for more parliamentary scrutiny. The papers themselves reveal little, except that we want most, if not all, of what we already have as members of the European Union, save that we just do not want to be members. They are short on how we will achieve this desirable state. We are told by Ministers that imaginative solutions are needed from the European Union. Where is our imagination taking us, I wonder.
The scene is changing, I suggest, if for no other reason than the papers have exposed to the public gaze issues that had no or little serious discussion in the disastrous referendum campaign. I refer not only to the less than frank claims by the leave campaign but to the misjudged campaign to remain. We have seen this over the UK-Irish border—when is a border not a border—a virtual border? The rights of EU citizens have become wrapped up in the ideologues’ loathing of the European Court of Justice; likewise, membership of the single market, the customs union and who knows what else—never mind trying to have your cake and eat it. There must be an increasing number of reasonable people who were on the side of leave, as well as those of us who were on the side of remain, who are beginning to wonder whether this game we were induced into playing is really worth the candle.
All this leads me to the conclusion that Parliament, and the House of Commons in particular as the elected representatives of the people, must be given the opportunity of a meaningful vote at the end of the process, if not, on some key issues, before the end. The choice cannot be just that this is the cake we have baked and we must eat it—half-baked or soggy it may be—or do without any cake at all.
My Lords, like other Members, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for tabling this Question for Short Debate and for opening it in such a lively and engaging way. It may have been slightly more hyperbolic and with rather more adjectives than some Members would use, but there was a very clear sense of the passion with which he wanted to make his case.
It is commonplace to say that this is a timely debate. In some ways this week feels the least timely time to have this debate, because after months of famine, when we have had no reporting and there has been no opportunity to scrutinise, we have had a Statement from the Secretary of State finally reporting back on rounds two and three of the negotiations—kindly repeated by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay—and a whole set of position papers. All of a sudden there seems to be a little bit of activity and a debate next week on the position papers. But then we have another recess and finally only in October do we begin to get down to the serious business of scrutinising what is going on.
The referendum was in June last year; it will be more than 15 months since the referendum before Parliament can properly scrutinise what the Government are doing. It will be more than six months since the Prime Minister triggered Article 50. She then held an unnecessary general election. When the election was called, I asked the then Minister of State, the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, what the Government had done to work out how much time had been lost for parliamentary engagement on Brexit thanks to the election. Needless to say, there was no answer. I suspect that the Prime Minister had not been thinking about that when she triggered the election.
Come October it will be six months since the other place has had any Select Committees. In July the Labour Party nominated members for various committees. The Conservative Party voted only this week. As of last night, the Brexit committee still had not had its membership confirmed. Six months after the triggering of Article 50 there has been no opportunity for the House of Commons to do any proper scrutiny work in committee. Even if the Secretary of State did not have other activities in Edinburgh—perhaps he was going to see Nicola Sturgeon at the same time; maybe he was doing his duty and talking to the devolved Administrations—a key role in Parliament, as the noble Lord, Lord Jay, pointed out, is that of committees. Clearly, your Lordships’ House’s EU Select Committee is crucial, but the Commons committees matter as well. They had all begun to work on particular reports before the election; all that work is gone.
The Secretary of State has said he wants to report back as soon as possible after the negotiations have happened and yet, so far, he has reported back only once, despite the options to come during the Recess, as we have heard from my noble friend Lord Teverson and the noble Lord, Lord Jay of Ewelme. The Government have suggested that they wanted to update Parliament and there will be ample opportunity for both Houses to debate the key issues arising from Brexit.
The White Paper also said Parliament has a “critical role” to play in the process of leaving the European Union. At times it feels that Her Majesty’s Government, and in particular the Prime Minister, do not believe that Parliament should have a critical role at all—critical either in being important or ever challenging anything the Government say. The role of scrutiny, and of Parliament, is surely to hold the Government to account, to ask questions and to raise issues, in order that we can make the right decisions and help the Government make the right decision. Whatever one thinks about the result of last year’s referendum, it is surely part of giving control back to Parliament that Parliament scrutinises the Government. The idea that, somehow, anybody challenging the Government and wanting to amend legislation is going against the will of the people is surely a fundamental misunderstanding of democracy.
My Lords, we heard from my noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon and indeed from the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, and other noble Lords, in Questions this morning and here this afternoon, of dissatisfaction with the Government’s record of reporting back on negotiations. In that light, our Motion on Tuesday will call on the Government to lay before Parliament a Statement of the strategy and principles which underpin the negotiations on withdrawal, transition and future relationships, accompanied by a plan for the full involvement of the devolved Administrations, together with consultation on consumer, employer and trade union organisations.
It must be clear to everyone who reads the papers that Parliament, business and wider society do not feel they are being listened to. We saw the CBI’s statement this week and the London Chamber of Commerce warning that,
“business confidence has been hugely impacted by uncertainty”.
The telecoms industry is dismayed at being classified as a “low priority” for the negotiations. Those sorts of concerns from outside Parliament are legitimate for us to raise with the Government. Beyond us, there is almost anger from the Welsh Government for their exclusion. There is an absence of any forum for consumer representatives to voice their concerns. All of this points, as the noble Baroness has just said, to a Government who seem unwilling to level with the very people whose futures depend on the specifics of the outcome of the talks.
Indeed, as well as wanting engagement with consumer bodies, the Chartered Trading Standards Institute is concerned that the Government’s hierarchy of priorities may fail to pick up detailed areas where maintaining legislative arrangements in day one of Brexit will not deal with the co-operation between agencies and across networks that currently keeps consumers safe and treated fairly. To raise those sorts of questions is not to question the outcome of the referendum; it is to challenge how the Government are proposing to move us out of the European Union. So it is time for the Government’s “no questions please” approach to stop. Indeed, if I could make one recommendation to the Minister it would be to listen to her noble friend Lord Balfe, because some of his proposals for that dialogue would benefit the whole House.
I also feel that the Government have to stop giving more information to the press than they seem willing to give to us. The leak of the immigration paper may simply be a leak. Harold Wilson said, “You leak, I brief”; it may have been a briefing rather than a leak. Aside from that, we heard from Sky News and the Guardian that Cabinet Ministers, speaking directly to them, seem to accept that the EU will not be able to say in October that sufficient progress has been made in phase one to open talks on the substantive issue of Britain’s future relationship. That may not even happen until Christmas. If that is the case, why not tell Parliament, rather than Sky News and the Guardian, and spell out what this means for a transitional period, as well as for the final agreement, rather than pretend that all is going swimmingly well, in the wonderful definition of optimism?
My plea, to add to that of the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for regular reporting to Parliament, is for meaningful reporting to Parliament. There will be the meaningful vote at the end, though just as I think the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, said—sorry it may have been the noble Lord, Lord Teverson—if you treat the European Parliament correctly, then it is more likely that it will respect what goes to it. That goes for our Parliament too. We need to be treated with respect so that our meaningful vote at the end is based on the results of good dialogue.
My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, for securing this debate. His exposition of the last year and why he regrets the decision of the British people dominated his speech, but that shows his passion. We understand that. What I want to do, as my respect to Parliament, is to base most of my remarks on the core issue of the Question on the Order Paper. But I will, in doing so, seek to cover many of the issues rightly raised today.
One of those, of course, was from the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, who joined in the reminiscing of what might have been if there had not been the result in the referendum. He asked a question specifically about legislation. The Queen’s Speech gave an outline of that. Since then, we have been giving greater detail about which Bills are published, and they are now beginning to be debated not only in the House of Commons, but in this House. I waited for 13 years in opposition for the Labour Government to tell us what Bills were about to come: answer came there none. We have given more of an answer about how these Bills will develop. It is important—the noble Lord was not asking an improper question—because as we set out White Papers, as we have said we shall, on immigration and trade, those will be a core part of the discussion in this Parliament about how we proceed after we have left the European Union.
Therefore, Parliament will have a scrutiny role and there will be, I am sure, from my colleagues across departments opportunities to participate in meetings, as I shall do, not only when the withdrawal Bill reaches the House, but in advance. For example, next Tuesday I am having a drop-in meeting for all Peers, not only to hear a brief introduction from me about the Bill, but to be able to hear directly from the Bill team. I felt it was essential for this House to hear that shortly after the finalisation of Second Reading on Monday evening. That is really core to the way I like to operate and I shall continue to do so. I shall return to some of those very helpful comments made by my noble friend Lord Balfe later.
We have heard today the lively, informed, rightful interest in this House on the progress of the negotiations. We are reminded by many that the clock is ticking. It ticks for both sides. As it goes faster, it is faster for both sides. It is important for the European Union also to recognise that they need to be more “flexible and imaginative”. Those are words from the European Council, not made up by us. David Davis is simply reminding our colleagues across Europe what our joint enterprise is. We have always undertaken that we would wish to provide for the greatest possible transparency that is consistent with maintaining our ability to negotiate successfully. In that, we are guided by the Motion that was agreed by the House of Commons that the process should be undertaken in a way that does not undermine the negotiating position of the Government, but there is still much that we can do. We are doing that and we can learn from the debate today, and others, about how we can do more.
In looking at the issues today, I try to set out what we have done so far to report to Parliament, our plans to continue to update Parliament in the wake of future negotiating rounds, including, of course, our support for invaluable scrutiny by Select Committees. and our written publications. In reporting to Parliament, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union has committed to update the House after each round of negotiations. Naturally, I will do so in this House, with the leave of the House, as I did earlier this week. Of course, as noble Lords have pointed out, the dates of the negotiation rounds do not always align well with parliamentary sittings. That is a matter for the House to determine but it is a matter of practical fact and I recognise the difficulties it can raise. Of course, it will occur again as the September round takes place, but we have sought to ensure that Parliament was kept properly informed over the summer. That is why the Secretary of State wrote to all colleagues to give details on the progress made during the second round of negotiations. Noble Lords can be assured that they will have an opportunity to scrutinise the Government on the next round of negotiations when we return in October.
Of course, Statements to Parliament are a powerful method of reporting. I appreciate that they are not the only method, although I note in parenthesis, thinking back to the question asked this morning by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, that when we had the Statement on Tuesday, I was astonished that Back-Bench time was not taken up. There was time at least for two, if not three, further questions at the end. That was a little disappointing.
In the European Parliament the position is different. Of course, there is a constitutional relationship with the Commission; it is a unicameral Parliament. As a result, it has a different way of operating. Therefore, when Monsieur Barnier appears before the European Parliament, as he has just twice, he takes no questions. He appears, speaks and goes. Guy Verhofstadt has been nominated the Brexit co-ordinator there. He does report back and has a role in that respect. It is a different hub: Barnier and Verhofstadt. There is the Brexit steering group, which is more or less a self-appointed group and does not represent all the parties there. That is the group to which Monsieur Barnier goes and has some discussions with on a confidential basis and therefore nobody knows what goes on.
Everybody knows what’s going on.
I have to say, I listened with belief to what my noble friend said on that. I am glad that he said it, not me. We are going to maintain our undertaking to serve Parliament as well as we humanly can.
My noble friend Lord Balfe made a point about the problem with information. Everyone wants it but there is a huge amount of it and how do we get it, particularly in the recesses? I do have an answer. My own department arranges that there is information on its website. It is the go-to place for everything that we do on Brexit. I do not want to put my noble friend off but at GOV.UK/dexeu there are 133 announcements, seven position papers, five future partnership papers and two White Papers. Of course, the European Commission site updates its papers.
The advantage of our website is that after each negotiating round we update the papers. As I mentioned on the Floor of the House this week with regard to the citizenship paper, it means that the joint EU-UK position paper—the annexe that has been published, which shows the red/amber/green system—actually shows how that has been advanced at the latest negotiating stage, not only the further agreement that has been reached but where each of the negotiating groups has agreed that it needs to do more. It is not just us, it is the Commission as well, but we are more forward-leaning. For example, on citizens, after the August round a further 20 lines of detail were added. More than half of those are where we are making more of an offer than the European Commission is.
We all accept on this side—and, I think, on all sides—that the people who can best deal with the detail are those on the European Union Select Committee. They have all the background, they are working on it week in, week out. The Minister has still not explained why David Davis refused to appear before our Select Committee when we offered to meet—as we know, Select Committees can meet even when Parliament is not sitting. Why did he refuse to meet us?
My next page turns to Select Committee appearances. The key to explaining the Secretary of State’s position is in the letter he wrote on 9 August to the noble Lord, Lord Jay. I am delighted he has been able to participate here. I want to address his very careful points in a moment, but first I will refer briefly to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, because I do not want to run out of time and the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Jay, was crucial.
In that letter from 9 August, my right honourable friend said that,
“I want to emphasise that I fully recognise the critical role the Committee plays in scrutinising our withdrawal from the European Union. It is for that reason I am clear that, as the Secretary of State who represents the UK in Brussels, I should personally update the Committee on the progress of negotiations.”
He goes on to talk about how. At the meeting of the committee in July, he made it clear that he would consider how best he could do that and balance that duty against the range of other committees. I would say, very carefully of course, that since my department was created, just 15 months ago, Ministers from my department have given evidence to Select Committees, covering a range of EU exit-related inquiries, on no less than 16 occasions. We will not step back.
I address the noble Lord, Lord Jay, because I feel it is vital to do so in my last two minutes. I thank him for the letter he wrote to the Secretary of State, which he kindly copied to me. I have made it clear that my department and I fully support the work of committees in both Houses in fulfilling their scrutiny responsibilities and that we will continue to value the work of the noble Lord’s committee as it conducts its Brexit-related inquiries.
The Secretary of State has given his commitments to update us after each round and will do so with a Statement, as he said. It is no small commitment to update the House after each negotiation round and, no less importantly, to take questions from Members. I want to give all Members of the House the opportunity to scrutinise progress in the negotiations and the Secretary of State has made it clear that he is happy to give evidence to the committee in the autumn.
I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Jay, will appreciate that the complexity of the negotiations—he was head of the Foreign Office so knows about the difficulties of the issue—demands a level of flexibility to ensure that they are conducted successfully, and that rigid committee appearances at fixed intervals may run counter to that. I appreciate there has been some joshing about what my right honourable friend may or may not do. What he does do is properly respect Parliament and scrutiny. I look forward to seeing the noble Lord, Lord Jay, later today when I am sure I will have the opportunity to explain in more detail why the Government are taking that approach.
Before the noble Baroness finishes that part of her speech, can she confirm that she will be prepared to accept the invitation of the Select Committee to come before it for meetings when the Secretary of State is otherwise engaged?
Although I am out of time, I crave the indulgence of the Committee. I would like to discuss the matter further. I have set out the Government’s position and, because of the interventions from noble Lords, I have not been able to cover the issue of papers. I hope that I have at least given the way in which noble Lords can access those papers and that information. It is disappointing not to be able to conclude in a fuller way but I can certainly say that we will have plenty of further opportunities to discuss these matters.