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Brexit: Withdrawal Agreement Scrutiny

Volume 793: debated on Wednesday 31 October 2018

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that select committees are able to consider and report on the final text of any UK-EU withdrawal agreement in time to inform the parliamentary debates required under section 13(1) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018.

My Lords, both Houses of Parliament will need time to scrutinise the content of the withdrawal agreement and the terms for our future relationship once agreed. The exact timings for the debate will be a matter for determination in the usual way. Select Committees in both Houses of course play an important role in that process of scrutiny and the Government are committed to facilitating that scrutiny.

My Lords, while I am grateful to the noble Lord for his response, I hope he understands that the European Union Committee, which I chair, has done extensive work in this crucial area and has a duty to report on the withdrawal agreement and the framework for future relations in good time to inform the debate in this House and indeed the votes in the Commons. We cannot do this in a vacuum. It is the Government’s duty as part of their accountability to Parliament to support our work and not to frustrate it. So does the Minister agree that if Brexit is, at least in part, about restoring the sovereignty of this Parliament, the Government should set an example by engaging in a mature, constructive way with its committees, rather than, as Mr Raab has done, effectively refusing to give evidence? Does he further agree that, given that Mr Raab’s predecessor, David Davis, gave the committee a clear undertaking that Parliament should enjoy at least parity of arms with the European Parliament, it is extraordinary that we find ourselves in the situation where Michel Barnier is briefing MEPs almost daily and sharing draft texts while Select Committees in Westminster are kept in the dark?

We are of course fully committed to facilitating the work of the committees. The Secretary of State has made 10 parliamentary appearances in the nine sitting weeks since his appointment. Deputy Ministers have given evidence on over 40 occasions to a range of committees, and I know that the Secretary of State has appeared once in front of the noble Lord’s committee and has committed to appearing again when we have a deal and something to report back on.

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, has just said, there is acute anger in this House and in the other House about members of Select Committees—I am a member of two of them—getting less information than Members of the European Parliament are getting from Mr Barnier. Why is it that, when we are supposed to be taking back control, there is this affront to the British Parliament, where we get less information than Members of the European Parliament?

I understand the noble Lord’s point, but I am not sure that he is correct. We published extensive details on the withdrawal agreement in March. The chapters on citizens’ rights and on the financial settlement have been published, and the details of the implementation period have been published—so I do not think that the European Parliament has access to any more information than this Parliament does. But obviously nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, and the danger of publishing some aspects, particularly with regard to the implementation period, is that they are already being re-discussed in the negotiations. But we will share as much information as possible, and extensive amounts have already been published. We have appeared in front of numerous committees and we will do so again once we have a final agreement.

My Lords, does my noble friend take the point that the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, could be briefed behind closed doors, as it were? The Cabinet leaks like a sieve but I suggest that members of the noble Lord’s committee would not—and it would help them, if they were so briefed, to advise us properly.

I am sure that the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, does not leak at all. We are committed to providing as much information as possible, but it is important that we protect the sanctity of the negotiations. Many EU member state Governments have also not been briefed on the final detail and compromises that inevitably will be arrived at. But when we are in a position to share as much detail as possible on the final agreement of course we will do so, alongside the appropriate economic analysis.

My Lords, the Minister simply does not understand the situation. Our friends in Europe, from day to day, understand where the negotiations are at, the nuance of the negotiations and the places where advantages may be taken. We are being taken back to documents produced months ago and there is very poor communication. Will he make a total commitment to ensure that the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, is fully briefed before we embark on the debate on the most important decision of our lifetime?

Of course we will make sure that the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, is fully briefed, as we will ensure that all Members of both Houses are fully briefed. When we have a deal, the Secretary of State will appear in front of the noble Lord’s committee, we will publish all the details of the deal and the appropriate economic analysis, and sufficient time will be made for debate in both this House and the other House before the meaningful vote.

My Lords, given the commitment by the Government to observe the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act and the process it follows—which, I believe, says that there should be 21 sitting days for Parliament to scrutinise the withdrawal agreement, as well as, obviously, the Motion that will need to be passed—what is the final date that the Government have pencilled in as the day by which Parliament must receive the withdrawal agreement if we are to leave, with it being ratified properly, by 29 March?

We have not pencilled in a final date. However, we are well aware—and have made the EU negotiators well aware—of all of the procedures that will need properly to be followed. The withdrawal agreement will be an international treaty but in the withdrawal Act, passed by both Houses, we are committed to the meaningful vote. We cannot ratify that Act without the appropriate say-so of Parliament in the meaningful vote and without the appropriate legislation being passed—and that will require proper scrutiny. The usual channels listen closely and are well aware of the timescales and constraints under which we are operating.

My Lords, will the Minister revisit his answer to an earlier question? He implied that a draft withdrawal agreement had been published by the British Government, whereas in fact it was published by the Commission in March. Can he explain why Michel Barnier is able to give, week by week, detailed descriptions of the negotiations from the perspective of the EU—without, presumably, undermining its negotiating position—but it is impossible for British Ministers to do the same here, despite the assurance that was given in 2016?

The text was published by the Commission, but it was an agreed text. There would have been very little point in us publishing exactly the same text. We are committed to providing as much information as possible and will continue to do so. I am really not sure that it is the case that Michel Barnier is able to share any more details of the negotiations with MEPs or others than is happening in this country.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that a more collaborative approach—we wrote to the Secretary of State on 23 October with a reasonable and short list of information that we needed to help us prepare a timely report for this House—would help the Government promote an atmosphere that would allow a greater percentage probability of them getting the meaningful vote through this House?

Well, we are taking a collaborative approach on this. We have provided as much information as we are able. We cannot provide details of something that has not yet been agreed. As we discussed earlier, sections have been agreed and the “green text”, in the jargon, has been published and made available. There was extensive discussion around that. Ministers have appeared extensively at this Dispatch Box, in the other place and in front of Select Committees. The Secretary of State has appeared once in front of the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, and has committed to do so again when we have a deal. That is the same treatment that committees in the other place are receiving.

My Lords, would my noble friend set out what timetable he has agreed with the usual channels to discuss the 1,000 statutory instruments and the six primary Bills that have to be agreed by 29 March?

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the chief negotiator at the European Commission, Monsieur Barnier, has no intention whatever of coming to any reasonable agreement with this country under the terms of the treaty, and therefore that he is mucking the place about while we are trying to do an honest job?

My Lords, two questions were asked. Perhaps the Chief Whip could indicate which question the Minister should answer.

I am happy to answer as many questions as we have time for. I do not know who the other Member was, but I would be happy to take a question from them afterwards. I do not agree with my noble friend Lord Tebbit. We think that the Commission is negotiating in good faith and we hope to reach an agreement. That is in the interest of both sides and we want to do so.

My Lords, I hate to question the veracity of what the Minister said, but the truth is that the Prime Minister told the House of Commons that 95% of the deal was done. That includes a lot of the areas that were not resolved when the draft agreement was published in March. In addition, we know that work on the political declaration that will accompany the withdrawal treaty is ongoing. There has been no attempt to involve Parliament in the content of that declaration, even though some of it might be in square brackets. Will the Government come clean? Basically, they are trying to bounce the Commons into the argument that there is no alternative to what they have agreed except no deal, and they are trying to bounce us into that position, too.

I am afraid I disagree strongly with the noble Lord. There is no attempt to bounce anybody. Sufficient time will be made available for the debate. The exact process we need to follow was set down in the withdrawal Act. We will publish an economic analysis alongside the deal, and there will be extensive debate in both Houses. As I said, we cannot legally ratify the deal unless agreement is reached in the House of Commons through a meaningful vote and the appropriate legislation is passed. The more time we allow for debate and scrutiny before the meaningful vote, the less time will be available to scrutinise the legislation resulting from it, because we have a hard deadline of 29 March.