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House of Lords: Sittings

Volume 792: debated on Tuesday 24 July 2018

Motion to Resolve

Moved by

To move to resolve that, notwithstanding the announcement by Lord Taylor of Holbeach on 17 April (HL Deb, cols 1074–5), following the adjournment on this day the House do next sit on Monday 6 August.

My Lords, if the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, does not mind my saying so, he is attired in an extremely elegant summer suit. I am told that this betokens his imminent departure to France. Indeed, I am told that he has already made exploratory forays to France and caused preparations to be made and supplies to be procured for a lengthy sojourn in that wonderful country. Indeed, large parts of the Government, however much they hate Brussels, love the vineyards of France and Tuscany, and are departing there en masse in the manner of the Indian viceroy and his court moving from Calcutta to Simla for the duration of the summer. The Prime Minister—a workaholic—is apparently urging Ministers to do some no-deal diplomacy on the side, but I venture that the no deal that the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, really fears is failing to get a table at a famous Michelin-starred restaurant in Nice, rather than negotiating with the Government of France.

With the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, having already booked his easyJet flights—sorry, it is Ryanair; I hope that he is not paying too many extras because of the delays that have been caused in the debate this afternoon—I very much doubt that your Lordships will entertain this Motion positively. I am not even sure that my own Front Bench and my Liberal Democrat friends are that supportive, although it is good to see that a few of them have managed to turn up to conduct the business of the Opposition this afternoon.

However, I do not begrudge noble Lords a holiday—I even take them myself as my duties in opposing Brexit permit. My Motion today proposes that we take nearly two weeks off until Monday 6 August, which, after all, is about the length of holiday that most people get on whose behalf we legislate and deliberate. However, I absolutely think that we should return to do our job in mid-August and not adjourn thereafter. I can tell your Lordships from my highly scientific poll of meetings on Brexit up and down the country in recent weeks that this is the view of most of the British people, too, who do not think that we should adjourn for the summer in the way that we are, and certainly not for 10 of the next 11 weeks.

We should be here in August and September for two reasons. The first is the national crisis which is continuing on Brexit. The negotiations on Brexit are only just beginning seriously because the Government have only just established a negotiating position. Those negotiations will start and there will be, in the way of European negotiations, constant press conferences and reports from the Commission on their progress. I imagine, given the energy which he has displayed in briefing in the past week, that Mr Dominic Raab will also frequently brief the media on his appearances in Brussels and his tussles with the Prime Minister on who is in charge of the negotiations as this issue is played out over the next few weeks. The only people who will be absent from this constant reporting-back and media attention on the progress of negotiations will be Parliament, on whose behalf all this activity is conducted. Of course, the majority of the period between now and the end of October, which the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, told us is the period within which this treaty is supposed to be negotiated, Parliament will be in recess, which is a deplorable dereliction of duty on the part of this House and the House of Commons.

We had a debate yesterday on the current state of preparation in respect of Brexit. It was a nine-hour debate with a 15-minute response at 11.36 pm from the Minister which he began by saying:

“I apologise if it is not possible to respond to every point raised by noble Lords, but I am conscious of the late hour”.—[Official Report, 23/7/18; col. 1588.]

Even in our last debate on Brexit, which will be our last debate for the best part of two months, we have a Minister who does not reply to most of the points raised and excuses himself for not replying on the grounds that there is no time to reply because of the time allocated for the debate and the fact that it was being concluded at 11.30 at night. Even then, a vital statement of policy on what the Government will do in respect of the next phase of Brexit negotiations and arrangements is made in a White Paper published after that debate within minutes of the rising of this House in which a lot of significant questions are raised which neither this House nor the House of Commons will have an opportunity to debate.

We were told that Brexit was about taking back control, but there has been a constant rearguard action by the Government to see that this House and the House of Commons have neither control nor oversight whatever of the Brexit process. The fact that the White Paper on vital matters to do with the entire future of the country has been smuggled out within minutes of the rising of Parliament for the Summer Recess is just a testament to the disgraceful way in which Parliament has been treated by the Government throughout this Brexit process.

The House should come back after a reasonable break of two weeks so that it can monitor and debate these vital issues to do with Brexit and the future of the country. It and the other House should be in session, too, because, as a result of Brexit, almost all the other pressing issues facing the country which we should be debating and legislating on have gone by default. There is virtually no legislative programme worth the name on anything besides Brexit: on the public services, on the state of the economy, on housing or on infrastructure—one goes down the list of these vital issues facing the country on which Parliament has been largely AWOL over the past two years because of this constant requirement to engage in Brexit legislation, including, of course, the 157 hours which I and many others of your Lordships spent debating the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill.

I make one other remark in respect of the other issues to which we should be paying attention. I spent a large part of last week in Northern Ireland, a vital part—an integral part, of course—of the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland at the moment has no devolved Executive, no Assembly sitting and no democratic institutions operating. That has been the state of affairs for more than a year. In this Parliament there are no representatives of the nationalist community in the other House of Parliament; indeed, there are not many in this House either; and, of course, Sinn Féin do not take their seats. The Democratic Unionist Party, which has all the seats in the other House of Parliament, represents only one part of the unionist community and takes a line on this massive issue of Brexit which is opposed not only by the overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland but by a majority of the unionist population too. What came through very forcibly in my conversations in Stormont, at Queen’s University Belfast, and elsewhere in Northern Ireland is the growing and really serious sense, to my mind, of alienation and deep concern about the failure of our institutions to take any account whatever of opinion in Northern Ireland and the vital necessity of legislation and debate on the state of Northern Ireland at the moment.

I should add that over the last three weeks there has been serious, semi-terrorist violence in Londonderry, the second city in Northern Ireland, which has barely been debated in this House or in the other place, and which is of immense seriousness. That is another reason why Parliament should stay in session to consider these issues. There are also basic issues to do with civil rights in Northern Ireland, which I believe Parliament should be addressing. With events that have taken place in recent months in the Republic of Ireland, with the legalisation of abortion, the fact that basic human rights are not being observed in Northern Ireland at the moment in respect of abortion and rights to equal marriage is a deplorable stain on this Parliament. The idea that we should be adjourning for 10 weeks of recess while there are no democratic institutions operating in Northern Ireland and taking account of these grave affairs is, I think, unacceptable.

We are in a state of very great crisis as a country. We are engaged in negotiations that will determine our whole future. We are proposing, ourselves, to leave the scene, to pay no attention to the needs of the country for 10 of the next 11 weeks, which will be 10 of the most vital weeks in the modern history of this country. The legislation and the concerns of the country outside Brexit are largely going by default. The people of this country look on with something between concern and horror at the state of Parliament and our national affairs at the present time and I really do not think, in this context, we should be adjourning for such a long period. That is why I make the modest proposal that we should do our job, we should do what the public expect of us, and after two weeks we should come back and pay close attention to Brexit and legislate on vital matters to do with the future of the country, which have been entirely ignored over the last two years since the Brexit referendum. I beg to move.

My Lords, perhaps I can address at least the basic elements of the Motion that the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, has proposed. In some ways it is a Chief Whip’s dream—Parliament constantly in session, there to pass government legislation —and I understand that the noble Lord has proposed that we could pass 10 Bills during this time, although there is very little demonstration as to what they might be.

No, I do not read the Guardian: I read the Spalding Guardian but what used to be called the Manchester Guardian has passed me by.

I suggest to the noble Lord that this is all good fun, but the truth of the matter is that government continues, and government continues to negotiate, as indeed it is charged by Parliament to do. We all know that that is the element which the noble Lord chooses to ignore. As I say, there are occasions when the House has to sit in August because it cannot agree to pass legislation, but that is not the case here. We have had an extremely good period of getting through Bills, even though there is widespread debate on all sides of the House about them. We spent 157 hours, as the noble Lord said, considering the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, and so far in this Session we have passed 28 Bills. Twenty-eight Bills have received Royal Assent on a whole range of sundry matters; it is not just Brexit-related legislation, although there will indeed be other Brexit legislation on the House’s forthcoming agenda, because that is what this Government are about. They are about providing good government and dealing with issues as they arrive.

As I say, beyond the narrow self-interest that a Government Chief Whip might always have in Parliament being available to pass and to scrutinise legislation, I cannot accept the noble Lord’s Motion. We must bear in mind that it is not only Members who wear themselves out in the interests of Parliament; it is also the staff, who are always here. We are served by excellent staff, and they too are entitled to leave. They can take their leave only when the House is not sitting, and to suggest to them that they have to come back and look after the affairs of the House during recess is a little selfish and, frankly, not in the interests of Parliament in the longer run.

I see the noble Lord, Lord Laming, who is chairman of the Services Committee, on which I serve, in his place. I hope he will be able to elucidate some of the detailed work that is required in this place. Of course, the House can be here at any time, if necessary, to serve the public interest, but certain works are programmed for this period which I think noble Lords would not wish to see abandoned or postponed.

So I am afraid that I do not agree with the noble Lord. We have had a good debate on the Statement on the withdrawal agreement Bill, and I have promised that there will be a debate on the White Paper when noble Lords have had a chance to read and consider it, so that the House can show yet again that it is interested in Brexit and in advising the Government on Brexit, as quite rightly it should. In the meantime, I hope the noble Lord will consider that it is not sensible to accept his Motion.

My Lords, I understand that my noble friend wishes us to return in 13 days’ time and for your Lordships’ House to get on with scrutinising Brexit legislation. I confess that this confuses me a little, as earlier in the year he appeared to be calling for Brexit legislation to go as slowly as possible, although I readily accept that that may be my misunderstanding. Government can and does continue over the summer, as does opposition. I feel sure that a break will ensure that noble Lords are fully rested and re-energised for the full job of scrutinising the Government’s decisions, or lack of them, on our return. My noble friend has been working long and hard in recent months, and I suggest that he, too, is ready for a break.

Lastly, the staff of the House will have planned breaks months ago and, indeed, deserve a proper break from us. Essential maintenance in the building must also be done. I have to tell my noble friend that we cannot and will not support the Motion before your Lordships’ House.

My Lords, this is the sort of Motion that Oppositions are often keen to support, provided that they are not going to win. A number of considerations arise from it. There is no doubt that we all need a break—and if I may say so to my friend Lord Adonis, he is being a little parsimonious with the break that he intends to give us. That break is needed for reflection.

I am one of those who, like the Government Chief Whip, are heading for France, where I hope to see the revitalised French nation with its message and vision of hope, and leave behind the sorry picture of this country, so divided as we are on our future.

I am somewhat amazed that there is so much interest in this. I should not be, because the Conservatives, in particular, are sensitive to Adjournment votes. I hope your Lordships are all taking with you for your holiday reading the wonderful book by Nicholas Shakespeare, Six Minutes in May, because that book shows that it was an Adjournment Motion on the Whitsun Recess that led to the fall of the Chamberlain Government in 1940.

This is the House of Lords, not the House of Commons. That is why, although we are concerned about the fact that for something like 60% of the time ahead of us until the October Council, Parliament will not be in session, we think that it is not the job of the Lords to demand that we should be sitting in August and September; it is for the Commons to decide. It should be they who decide whether Parliament sits.

The Opposition agree that the recess is needed. We need some weeks for reflection. All political parties need that reflection as we go forward to the vital decisions that we shall be taking in the autumn. The problems will still be there in September, and I certainly hope that we on this side of the House will return with renewed vigour to oppose the disaster currently facing the country.

My Lords, as chairman of the Services Committee, it would be remiss of me not to remind the House of the very great amount of essential work on this building that will begin tonight once the House rises. Of course if the House wished to continue to sit that would be made possible, but Members will, I am sure, recall that the Services Committee and the House of Commons Administration Committee have been working with Strategic Estates on the next critical stages in the programme of fire and life-safety improvements. That work will involve a great deal of disruption to the Palace over the Summer Recess.

As a result of the work the Library suite will be closed, the kitchens will be closed, the dining areas throughout the Palace will be closed, and work will be undertaken on the Committee Rooms in sequence. Some parts of the building, especially at the Commons end, will be inaccessible. Asbestos removal units in the courtyards will restrict parking and traffic access. In addition there will be ongoing work on the stone courtyards conservation project, including on the tunnel between Royal Court and Chancellor’s Court. Further- more, a large crane is to be used to inspect the stonework on the Victoria Tower, which your Lordships will know recently experienced some problems. This will have an impact on vehicle access to Black Rod’s Garden, and the corridor between Central Lobby and Peers’ Lobby will be closed for retiling throughout the period.

Of course, if the House decided to continue sitting, adjustments to those plans would doubtless be considered and made where necessary. But I emphasise that the fire and life-safety work is important to improve the safety of more than 1 million visitors to this building, who either work in or visit Parliament every year. While the House could therefore function, we should recognise that the work would continue around us and be very disruptive. We should also recognise that some of the services to which we are accustomed are unlikely to operate. If these works were deferred, that decision would come with time and cost consequences.

None of this is to say that the House could not sit if it wished to do so or if a recall was required. Of course it could, but I felt I should remind the House that a lot of planning has been undertaken to make the best use of the opportunity of the Recess, which provides for this essential work to be delivered so that we can maintain our ability to work safely in this 19th-century Palace.

My Lords, I hope that my noble friend Lord Adonis does not press his Motion, not least for the fact that I am due to go on my holidays on 6 August. However, there is a point in what he is saying which is, essentially, that we are at a very critical point in our nation’s fortunes, as we acknowledged in our debate yesterday. We are possibly moving in the autumn to one of the greatest crises that we have had since the Second World War.

The October European Council will be a critical moment for the future of this country and if we think about the amount of time between now and then, this House and the other place will not be in session for much of it. Yet throughout this period, we are going to see a lot of these no-deal preparedness briefings coming out from the Government, all of which could be quite controversial. We may see statements coming from Brussels; amazingly, Brussels will be working through August with our officials to try to make sense of the Government’s latest proposals. I am particularly concerned about the Conference Recess, from whenever it is in September until October. That gap will come at a point where we will really need, as a House, to focus on what our options are as a country. There are very serious matters raised here and we should all think hard about them.

My Lords, the date of the Recess has been known for over 12 weeks. Why has the noble Lord waited until today for his Motion?

My Lords, it is for the perfectly simple reason that we are adjourning today, so today is the appropriate time to consider this Motion. It is on a Motion for the adjournment.

I of course understand the importance of people taking holidays, but most people in this country manage to arrange their affairs so that they take a few weeks of holiday over the summer. They do not take 10 weeks. In the normal course of events it might be reasonable for Parliament to go into recess for a longer period over the summer, although my own view is that in normal times Parliament spends far too much time in recess and far too little attending to the affairs of the nation. However, given our current position, with the crisis in Brexit negotiations that will continue all the way through the summer in the absence of Parliament, and because of Parliament’s inability due to the overwhelming concern with Brexit affairs to address the other needs of the nation while we have been sitting, it is a perfectly reasonable proposition for us to continue sitting during the summer. Indeed, I think it imperative if there is to be any parliamentary oversight of the Brexit process. The one thing that cannot happen is Parliament exercising oversight while it does not meet, which it will not over the next two months.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Laming, that while I understand that he chairs the Services Committee and has a schedule of work and so on, the services of the House exist to serve the House. The House does not exist to meet timetables for the conduct of work in the House. If it is your Lordships’ will that we should conduct our duties over the summer, I am sure that the staff of the House will continue to perform their duties with the excellence they always show.

I understand the response of the Government because the Government always want Parliament to go into recess. I know from my time in government that the job of the Chief Whip is to see that the House meets as infrequently as possible and creates as little mischief as possible while it is meeting. That is the job of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor. His role is to see that the Government get everything through as quickly as possible and with as little debate and controversy as possible. Our job is to see that we do our duty, which is to see that things are properly debated and that we meet for the time that is needed to conduct those affairs.

I was much more disappointed by my noble friend Lord McAvoy. I think he felt he had my best interests at heart in saying that I would benefit from a holiday. I hugely appreciate his deep, solicitous concern for my welfare. If I may say so, I think that the Opposition have been on one long holiday for the entire period of Brexit, which is part of the reason why the country is in this crisis situation at the moment. A deeply ideological Government are pushing through an extreme policy, but the Opposition have been largely absent from the scene, as we can see this afternoon.

Does my noble friend consider that in the 15 defeats that we inflicted upon the Conservative Government we were not doing our job?

My Lords, I am very glad that we scrutinised the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill in the way that we did, but when my noble friend reads the Guardian—unlike the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, he reads the Guardian—he will see the list of Bills that I am proposing we should debate over the summer. I would be very glad to know which of them my noble friend objects to and whether he objects to us addressing the need for a radical home-building programme or extending rights to abortion and equal marriage in Northern Ireland. I would be very glad to know from him and from my noble friends on the Front Bench whether they believe that those Bills are superfluous and that it is better that we are in recess rather than attending to the needs of the country.

We are in a very deep crisis as a country. It is as well that we put these matters on record because people will look back on our affairs and will observe our affairs from outside. I believe that we have not conducted ourselves in the way that the country would expect. I do not detect huge support for this Motion in the House. Indeed, I am not even sure I have enough support to press the matter to a vote. If some of my noble friends on the Lib Dem Benches will support me and if there is enough support, I will press this to a vote because it is important that noble Lords should have their views recorded on whether we should now go on 10 weeks’ holiday. I beg leave to test the opinion of the House.

House adjourned at 5.14 pm.