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European Union: Final Withdrawal Agreement

Volume 785: debated on Thursday 26 October 2017


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will repeat the Answer to an Urgent Question taken a short while ago in another place.

“We have been very clear, right from the start of this process, that there will be a vote in both Houses of Parliament on the final deal that we agree with the European Union. I will reiterate the commitment that my Minister gave at this Dispatch Box during the Article 50 Bill. He said:

‘I can confirm that the Government will bring forward a motion on the final agreement, to be approved by both Houses of Parliament before it is concluded. We expect and intend that this will happen before the European Parliament debates and votes on the final agreement’.

Furthermore, he added that,

‘we intend that the vote will cover not only the withdrawal arrangements but also the future relationship with the European Union’.—[Official Report, Commons, 7/2/17; col. 264.]

These remain our commitments.

The terms of that vote were also clear. Again, as my Minister said at the time:

‘The choice will be meaningful: whether to accept that deal or to move ahead without a deal’.—[Official Report, Commons, 7/2/17; col. 275.]

Of course, that vote cannot happen until there is a deal to vote on, but we are working to reach an agreement on the final deal in good time before we leave the European Union in March 2019. Clearly, we cannot say for certain at this stage when that will be agreed, but Michel Barnier has said he hopes to get a draft deal agreed by October 2018 and that is our aim as well.

We fully expect that there will be a vote in the UK Parliament on this agreement before the vote in the European Parliament and before we leave the EU. As we have said, this vote will be over and above the requirements of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act. We have also said many times that we want to move to talking about the future relationship as soon as possible. The EU has been clear that any future partnership cannot legally conclude until the UK becomes a third country, as the Prime Minister herself explained in her Florence speech.

As I set out in the committee yesterday, our aim is to have the terms of our future relationship agreed by the time we leave in March 2019. However, we recognise that the ratification of that agreement will take time and that that could run into the implementation period that we seek. There can be no doubt that Parliament will be fully involved throughout this process”.

I thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement. However, just as it took legislation to start the Article 50 process, so the outcome of two years’ negotiation must also be authorised by legislation, as Dominic Grieve and others have stressed, not by a vote in Parliament being mere motion. In the Commons a few minutes ago the Secretary of State referred to “in the event that we do not do the deal”. Let us be clear: should that happen and our Government walk away, that must also be subject to a vote, because no deal is actually a decision. It is a decision that our future trade will be on WTO terms, that we will be outside the customs union and that there will be no transition period. Will the Minister very gently advise her colleagues that in due course your Lordships’ House is likely to be of the view that legislative authority will be needed, deal or no deal?

My Lords, I always listen carefully to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter. I know she reflects carefully on the views of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition. I make it clear that commitments given at the Dispatch Box by a member of the Government are binding. Therefore, the commitment to ensure that this House and another place have a meaningful vote, not only on the terms of the withdrawal agreement but on the implementation period agreement and the future relationship, is binding on the Government and will remain so.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness recall that, during the passage of the notification Bill in March, this House approved an amendment that I moved to impose a statutory requirement on the Government to ensure there is a meaningful vote and parliamentary consideration of any withdrawal agreement? This House backed down because of undertakings given by the Government. In the light of the uncertainty caused by the comments of the Secretary of State yesterday, would it not be better for there to be a binding statutory obligation to remove all doubt about this? Is it not right that there is an appropriate parliamentary vehicle for such a binding statutory obligation: the withdrawal Bill currently before Parliament?

My Lords, I very much remember the contributions of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, to our debates on the Article 50 Act. As I just explained, a commitment given by a Minister at the Dispatch Box is and remains binding. The noble Lord refers to legislation that is currently in another place and will proceed here. Clearly it is a matter for discussions in that House to proceed, as they may do in Committee and beyond, but the position is clear: there is no confusion about the meaningful votes being offered. When my right honourable friend the Secretary of State answered questions on hypothetical issues of what happens in negotiations in the European Union, he gave an accurate answer. He made it clear that we expect to have an agreement by October next year, because that is what the European Union wants. It is what all of us need, so that not only we but other members of the European Union can properly consider their views on that agreement.

My Lords, we are discovering that the assertion of taking back control of parliamentary sovereignty at Westminster was a myth in the mouth of the Brexiteers, but is it not right that the final say must surely rest with the voters? As the real facts about Brexit emerge, the public should have the right to reflect and think again about whether Brexit suits them. That would truly be respecting the will of the people. A refusal to give the voters a final say would be deeply undemocratic. Will the Government now pledge that they will respect the voters and give the final say to the people?

We respect entirely that the democratic process means that in a referendum people express their view. More than 1 million more people voted to leave than to remain. We gave the undertaking that we would respect the result of that referendum and, as I gently reminded the noble Baroness the other week, the fact is that the only major party to stand at the last election on the basis of having a second referendum suffered the penalty of almost total loss.

My Lords, nobody can doubt the good intentions of my noble friend. She has the respect of all parts of the House, but will she accept that intentions and expectations are not guarantees? We need a legislative guarantee that Parliament will indeed take back control.

My Lords, our undertaking is indeed to give a guarantee that Parliament will have a vote on the agreement that is reached; not only on the withdrawal agreement but also, as I have stressed, on any implementation phase and on our future relationship. That is a very broad discussion for Parliament to have and a very definitive decision that they can make.

My Lords, will the Minister clear up something which seems baffling, to me at any rate, from these exchanges, drawing on her experiences as a former Chief Whip? If Parliament, either this House or the other House, wants to have a vote, it is within Parliament’s power to have a vote, whether the Government want it to have one or not. It is very nice to have government reassurances on these matters but as a matter of parliamentary procedure, Governments might love the idea of not having votes, particularly if Governments are not secure in their majority, but the practical truth is that, whatever these exchanges are, if the House of Commons wants to vote on a major issue of constitutional importance, the House of Commons is well within its power and capacity in procedure to be able to do so.

My Lords, when I became Opposition Chief Whip I had the pleasure of working with the noble Lord, who was then the Government Chief Whip. He knew his procedure and rules then and he is right now.

My Lords, will my noble friend please clarify something? In the event of no deal, were Parliament to reject that outcome, what power would Parliament have to force the European Union back to the negotiating table and/or to force the Government to revoke the notice to leave the European Union?

My Lords, we are negotiating to stay in a relationship with the European Union while leaving the institution. The European Union is engaged with us in having very constructive and very technical discussions behind the scenes. Both sides are confident that we will reach a successful agreement and therefore hypothecation and hypothesis are beyond my remit today.

My Lords, will the noble Baroness please answer the question that was put to her by her noble friend concerning the outcome of a vote in Parliament not to accept the terms of any deal negotiated by the Government to withdraw from the European Union? It is a very simple question. She may not have the answer, but if she does not have it, will she please say so?

My Lords, the question has been asked before of Ministers in both Houses, and the answer remains the same. We have committed to give both Houses a meaningful vote on the withdrawal agreement and we have now extended that to cover an implementation period and our future relationship. That is the undertaking: it has been made clear to the public as well that we will honour the decision in the referendum but seek the best agreement we can. That means that as we reach March 2019, we and, I hope, all those in this House will have done our best to reach the right agreement and therefore any discussion about how we then proceed will become irrelevant. The vital thing as we prepare to leave is that if there is no agreement, this Government will have made all due preparation to be able to cope with that. That is what we have been doing, as I have been explaining, over the last two months.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that her answers are a bit too long and do not allow enough people to get in on these occasions, which are very important? Was she impressed two days ago with the interesting comments of Mayor Bloomberg—a very successful international businessman and ex-mayor of New York—that the decision of the Government to leave the European Union was as stupid as Donald Trump, the President of the United States?

Will she now ask her colleagues to think again about these matters, as the Government become more and more of a laughing stock, and decide what to do in the real interests of this country?

My Lords, Governments always listen to views. I am known for never having called anybody’s views stupid. Even if I disagree with them, I listen and reflect. That is what I have always done and I shall always continue to do so.