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European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018

Volume 794: debated on Tuesday 11 December 2018


My Lords, with the leave of the House I will repeat the Answer to an Urgent Question which was given by my honourable friend Robin Walker, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Department for Exiting the European Union. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, I recognise this was a question which was the subject of much discussion and some speculation yesterday. I hope to be able to put honourable Members’ concerns at ease.

Put simply, in keeping with the clear intention of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, the Government will ensure that the question of whether to accept an agreement is brought back to this House before 21 January. If Parliament accepts that deal, we will introduce the EU withdrawal agreement Bill to implement the withdrawal agreement in domestic legislation. If Parliament chooses to reject the deal, the Government will be required to make a Statement on their proposed next steps and table a Motion in neutral terms on that Statement. Following the passage of the amendment to the Business of the House Motion last week, that Motion will be amendable. So it is our clear intention that this House will consider this matter before 21 January and have the opportunity to decide on the deal.

But let me also say this clearly: in the unlikely and highly undesirable circumstances that as of 21 January there is no deal before the House, the Government would bring a Statement to the House and arrange for a debate, as specified by the law. I am confident that we will have a deal the House can support, but I hope the Statement puts to rest the concerns of honourable Members about the Government’s commitment to meet the spirit, as well as the letter, of the withdrawal Act and to respect the will of the House”.

My Lords, I am genuinely grateful to the Minister for that Answer which clears up the apparent lack of clarity from the Prime Minister yesterday on the legal force of the 21 January deadline and the lack of certainty from the leader of the House of Commons yesterday on the ongoing force of Dominic Grieve’s amendment. However, six weeks is still a very long time for the errand of collecting mere assurances, not least when the Prime Minister openly contemplates,

“the risk of an accidental no deal”.—[Official Report, Commons, 10/12/18; col. 25.]

The clearest thing of all is that yesterday’s House of Commons vote was pulled in pure, blind panic with little regard for the economic and constitutional consequences for our country.

My Lords, I do not accept the allusion to uncertainty that the noble Baroness referred to. We are following a discernible course of action in order to implement a demanding issue in accordance with the will of the people of the United Kingdom. As regards the idea that it will be six weeks, no time limit has been fixed for the period in which this matter will be the subject of further assurance and in which it will be brought back to Parliament. What we have said is that 21 January is a date beyond which we will not go.

My Lords, however well intentioned, the Answer just repeated simply ignores the legal problems. Pulling yesterday’s vote has left us mired in a legislative no man’s land from which the withdrawal Act offers us no escape. Section 13(4) does not apply because the House of Commons did not decide not to pass the Government’s resolution—it decided nothing—so there is no requirement under that subsection for the Government to set out their proposals within 21 days. Subsections (8) and (11) do not apply because they depend on an absence of an agreement in principle, but there is such an agreement, even though not one approved by the Commons. So there is no obligation on the Government under the Act to set out their proposals.

It follows that as matters stand, the country is in a state of limbo. There is no legislative significance to 21 January and the Government are legally unconstrained by time limits, even though the time until March is running out. If the Government will not give us a firm timetable, so long as the text of the withdrawal agreement remains in place but unapproved, the only solution may be for the House of Commons to find a way to force a vote on the Government’s resolution put to it last Tuesday and reject it, so activating the obligation for the Government to make a Statement within 21 days under subsection (4). Does the noble and learned Lord agree with this analysis?

My Lords, I commend the noble Lord upon his exercise in statutory interpretation, which would undoubtedly attract an A-. The position at present is that in keeping with the spirit of the Act the Government will ensure that the matter is brought back to the Commons before 21 January.

My Lords, we are all obliged to the Minister for his explanation. Will he now confirm that what the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, has been saying again and again has now been confirmed by the European Court of Justice, that we can unilaterally agree to withdraw our Article 50 withdrawal and remain part of the European Union now that we know the consequences of leaving? Is that not something that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, has said on a number of occasions would be the sensible thing for Parliament to do and get on with running this country?

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, has said many things with regard to Article 50, but the Court of Justice of the European Union has given its ruling on its interpretation of Article 50, and it speaks for itself.

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord told the House that the Government will act within the spirit of the legislation and propose a vote in the House of Commons by 21 January, although that is rather late. How much credence can be placed in the Government acting in the spirit of something when yesterday morning, Ministers were fanning out around the country promising that the House of Commons would be voting today? Is this not a Government who break their promises and break the undertakings they have given?

My Lords, the House was told some months ago that there was a substantial body of legislation following the withdrawal Act to be carried through before 29 March, including a very substantial number of statutory instruments. The time between 21 January and 29 March is extremely short. Will the Government Front Bench provide a Statement as soon as possible on what legislation will be required to implement any agreement by 29 March, what can be left until later and how the House might manage that between the last week in January and the final week of March?

It will of course be for the Government to determine what legislation is brought forward and when. The Government remain confident that there is sufficient time to bring forward the necessary legislation for our exit from the European Union as at 29 March of next year.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that governance in this country has become an absolute laughing stock, both domestically and internationally? Is it not right that we call a people’s vote to get us out of this mess and give people the opportunity to decide to remain within the European Union?

I gently remind the noble Lord that what he refers to as the people’s vote is actually a second referendum; that the first referendum had on the paper the question of whether or not we remain in the European Union; and that that question has been answered.

Now that the Luxembourg court has agreed with what I have been saying for many months—that we can in fact resile from clauses 2 to 5 of Article 50—does that not present us with an opportunity? Can we not now go through the Council of Ministers to offer European citizens continuing mutual residence and free trade under the WTO, all of which is much more to the advantage of the people of Europe than it is to ours? When that is agreed, we can discuss with Brussels how much money we give them, if any.

My Lords, this Government have no intention to withdraw the Article 50 notice, which has been tendered in accordance with the relevant treaties.

My Lords, given that the Prime Minister has now realised that her deal will not stand up, are the Government looking at a Plan B? Are they looking at the Norway option or other options to get us out of the mess that they have got us into?

My Lords, the matter of the present agreement is still the subject of ongoing discussion with members of the EU 27 and with the institutions of the European Union. Once those discussions are completed, of course the agreement will be brought back to this Parliament.

My Lords, as the meaningful vote is not being held today and may well be held on, say, 20 January, will there be another 21 days after that for the Government to respond?

In the event that the House of Commons resolves not to approve the withdrawal agreement, in accordance with the provisions of Section 13, it will be a requirement that a Minister of the Crown will, within a period of 21 days, make a Statement to the House with regard to our intentions.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that meanwhile there is real urgency about what happens next and that the 21 January strategy should in a sense fade into the background because immediate information and certainty is necessary? I am constantly approached by people in business, the professions, the health service and universities about the uncertainty prevailing in their planning for the future. We are going into the new year with no further indication of certainty on which they can plan.

My Lords, certainty can be embraced in due course by proving the withdrawal agreement that has been laid before Parliament.