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House of Lords Hansard
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House of Lords: Sittings
20 December 2018
Volume 794

Motion to Resolve

Moved by

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That, notwithstanding the announcement by Lord Taylor of Holbeach on 4 September (HL Deb, col 1707), following the adjournment on this day the House do next sit on Wednesday 2 January.

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My Lords, the practical effect of this resolution would be to bring forward the debate on the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal by a week, because the debate could then start in that week—the first week of January—rather than the current proposal that it start in the second week of January with the vote in the third week. I am sure that if your Lordships were to advance your debate on the Prime Minister’s deal this would encourage the House of Commons to do the same. The House of Commons is currently scheduled to begin its debate in the week of 7 January and to vote on 15 January.

I notify your Lordships that the leader of the House of Commons, speaking in the other place earlier, would not give a categoric commitment that the House of Commons will indeed start the debate on 7 January or conclude it on 15 January. It is quite clear that, just as we had the delay and prevarication from the Prime Minister two weeks ago that led to the current impasse in which we are engaged, that will continue into the new year. That seems all the more reason why your Lordships should give a lead in the crisis that the country faces.

I make no apology whatever for suggesting that the House return in the first week of January. We have 99 days until this country leaves the European Union, 19 of which will be occupied by the Recess, which will leave 80 days, with nobody having any clear idea whatever in that time as to what will happen to all those arrangements that depend on membership of the European Union.

Your Lordships will be aware of the background: we were supposed to vote on 10 December on the meaningful vote on the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal. The House of Commons was supposed to vote on 11 December, having announced until the very moment before the Prime Minister made her announcement, which contradicted it, that the vote would definitely proceed on 11 December. That vote was pulled. No indication was given as to when a further vote would take place. It has emerged only in the last 48 hours that there will be no further proceedings on the Brexit deal before the Recess that has just started in the House of Commons and that the vote was likely to take place on 15 January. That is a delay of more than a month.

This delay is not inconsequential. It has two huge impacts on the life of the country. First, it leaves unresolved the issue of the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal and any further actions that will follow after that vote. Since it is the near universal belief in the political world, which we will all be familiar with, that the Prime Minister does not have a majority for her deal in the House of Commons, crucial decisions will need to be taken after her deal is defeated. The serious debate on those options cannot begin until that vote has taken place. While this is happening—this is the reason why I make no apology whatever for bringing this matter to the attention of the House—businesses and individuals up and down the country will have their lives and affairs thrown into deep uncertainty, not only causing uncertainty as to what will happen to them, but incurring massive costs because they cannot plan effectively until Parliament has taken these key decisions in respect of Brexit.

What reason did the Prime Minister give for delaying the votes on Brexit by more than a month? We all know the real reason, which is that she would not have won the votes and is playing for time and hoping that she can cobble together a new coalition that might vote for her deal in a month’s time. Her ostensible reason was to enable further negotiations to take place to revise the treaty which she agreed with the European Union in the early part of this month, in particular to agree some new arrangement in respect of the backstop, which would effectively keep Northern Ireland within the European Union after the rest of the United Kingdom engages in Brexit. However, that argument was shot down within hours of the Prime Minister making the announcement by the firm declarations of our European partners that there would be no further negotiations. When the European Parliament met three days after the Prime Minister withdrew her vote in the House of Commons, the President of the European Commission, said:

“There is a surprise guest at the European Council, which is Brexit. I am surprised. I am surprised because we had reached an agreement … There is no room whatsoever for renegotiation”.

The day after, the Chancellor of Germany, Mrs Merkel, said to the Bundestag:

“We have no intention of changing the Brexit deal. That’s the common position of the 27 member states. So there’s no reason to expect any changes to come from the discussions”.

The Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Mr Rutte, said on the same day that it would be,

“impossible to break open the … withdrawal agreement … this is the only deal … on the table”.

The pretence that there can be further negotiations is no more than that. There may be some further clarificatory words, although those of your Lordships who have read the 570 pages of the withdrawal agreement and the 30 pages of the political declaration will know that further words will not make any difference whatever to the meaning of the legal text, and there is no desire to open that. There will be nothing of substance that changes the context of our debates over the next month.

The reason why this issue is so urgent is that, while Parliament is in a position of paralysis and is being kept in recess for the next 19 days, there is deep and growing alarm and frustration in the country about what is happening. It is not simply that no further decisions can be taken until after Parliament has voted on the Prime Minister’s deal but, incredibly, the Prime Minister has herself raised the prospect of a no-deal Brexit as the principal alternative to her deal. She explicitly ruled out in the House of Commons this week any move towards either a different negotiated agreement, which I agree with her would be almost impossible given the statements made by our European partners, or a referendum, which many of us believe is the only way that this issue will ultimately be resolved.

Having ruled out a referendum and any further negotiations, there is indeed by process of elimination only one option remaining, which is the one that she is now running against her deal. That is no deal and leaving the European Union at the end of March with no treaty whatever, which would have a calamitous impact on the economic life of this country.

Your Lordships do not need to take any of this from me. The five key business organisations of the country, the CBI, the Institute of Directors, the British Chambers of Commerce, the Federation of Small Businesses and the manufacturing body, the EEF—which always used to be closely allied to the Conservative Party, but at the moment are looking in a state of horror at what the party is doing with the affairs of the country—put out a joint statement yesterday on the current situation. This is what they said:

“Businesses have been watching in horror as politicians have focused on factional disputes rather than practical steps that business needs to move forward. The lack of progress in Westminster means that the risk of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit is rising. Businesses of all sizes are reaching the point of no return, with many now putting in place contingency plans that are a significant drain of time and money. Firms are pausing or diverting investment that should be boosting productivity, innovation, jobs and pay, into stockpiling goods or materials, diverting cross border trade and moving offices, factories and therefore jobs and tax revenues out of the UK… With just 100 days to go, the suggestion that ‘no-deal’ can be ‘managed’ is not a credible proposition”.

That is the voice of the business community of this country on the eve of this House and Parliament going into recess for 19 days and refusing to engage with any of these issues, which are of such paramount concern to those who are responsible for our business affairs. What have the Government done in response? They have not met business, not engaged with the CBI and not sought—as they should have done if the Prime Minister were acting responsibly—to accelerate our deliberations on these issues. What the Government have done, even more incredibly, is to further intensify their planning for no deal.

In the House of Commons yesterday, in a debate on the Government’s intentions in respect of no deal, the Minister for the Brexit department, Mr Chris Heaton-Harris, said:

“Let me be clear”—

I have noticed that most of the Prime Minister’s statements begin “Let me be clear” and the more they begin with them, the less clear she is. However, he was in fact very clear and very explicit—

“a no-deal outcome and move to WTO terms … would lead to disruption and potential harm to critical industries”.—[Official Report, Commons, 19/12/18; col. 877.]

That is the Government speaking in the House of Commons yesterday.

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The noble Lord has explained that he does not like no deal; nor do any of us—it is obviously a horrific prospect. Then he went on to explain, very eloquently, that there is no further give from Brussels or from the EU. However, as I understand it, his own party’s position is that, yes, there will indeed be more give from Brussels and a new deal will be secured. I do not quite understand how all this adds up.

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My Lords, until Parliament has taken decisions on the Prime Minister’s deal, it is not going to be possible to consider other options. Those other options, which we will all have to consider, including my party, will include the possibility of further negotiations —though, given the statements by the European Council and other member states, I think that unlikely—or, crucially, the option of moving towards a referendum with the option within it of staying in the European Union. The reason it is so urgent that we do not go into recess for 19 days is precisely to meet the point of the noble Lord: until we have debated and reached the point of resolution on the Prime Minister’s treaty, it is not going to be possible to debate and decide on other options which could resolve the crisis we are now in.

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The noble Lord says it is 19 days: what we are actually debating is whether the House should come back three working days earlier. Although I have great sympathy for the substance of the noble Lord’s observations, I cannot understand why it will make any difference whatever whether we come back on the Wednesday or the following Monday.

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My Lords, I have huge respect for the noble Lord, but we are talking about parliamentary weeks: it is the difference between our coming back in the first week of January or the second. If we come back in the first week of January and hold our debate and our votes in that week, which is what I believe should happen, we will accelerate by two weeks the Government’s current proposal, which is that we do not debate our resolution on the Prime Minister’s treaty until the second week of January, and vote in the third week. That, to my mind, is deeply irresponsible and it is our duty to seek to accelerate it. Given that we are talking about 80 remaining parliamentary days after we come back, every week that we can gain as a result of accelerating proceedings would be deeply valuable.

Of course, the reason the Government do not want to do that, as the noble Lord will be aware, having participated so fully in our debates on the EU (Withdrawal) Act, is that the backstop date is 21 January, by which, under the Act, the Government must come back with a further statement of policy after they do or do not secure their treaty. It is surely in the interest of Parliament and the people that there is a significant gap between Parliament reaching its decision on the Prime Minister’s deal and that backstop of 21 January, so that proper consideration can be given to the options before the country.

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My Lords, I want to correct myself. I said three days. In fact, it is two days, because we do not sit on a Friday.

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That does not affect the point that it is a parliamentary week. Of course, there is no reason whatever why we could not sit on a Friday. I am perfectly happy to sit on a Friday if the Government make time available and I am sure that other noble Lords would be too. Of course, we all put our duty to the country before our personal convenience. It would accelerate significantly our consideration of these important matters.

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Might I ask the noble Lord to return to the subject of his Motion? Given the empty Benches behind him, and given his inability to persuade his own Front Bench to support his Motion, what does he think the prospects are of the House of Commons taking any notice at all of his intervention today?

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My Lords, I have argued that the noble Lord and some of his colleagues might support me so I would not require the support of my Benches to carry this. Indeed, I rather suppose that is why the noble Lord is present this afternoon. I know that his own views on the Prime Minister’s deal are such—I assume, unless he has changed his mind in the past few weeks—that he would wish to see it defeated. Therefore, he will be anxious, along with other noble Lords, to give the House the opportunity to move on to considering what the other options will be after we have concluded our vote on the Prime Minister’s deal.

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Can the noble Lord clarify whether he has consulted any Scottish Peers or Scottish Members of Parliament, given that 2 January is a Scottish holiday?

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My Lords, we are all prepared to give up our holidays for the urgent affairs of state. I am sure that our Scottish colleagues would be more than willing to do that. My noble friend the Opposition Chief Whip always puts the country before his personal convenience. I know he will be one of the first on the plane down to London after the holidays.

I return to the no-deal preparations that are being made, because they are extremely serious.

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I do not wish to give the noble Lord reason to extend his oration but I would like an explanation of how he feels that this House will have any effect on the executive decisions of the House of Commons, who have never listened to our arguments about this before and are unlikely to do so in the future. It seems to me that we would just be beating the earth to no purpose.

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I have a very high opinion of your Lordships and their ability to persuade the House of Commons to do the right thing. There is not much point in our meeting—ever—if we take the view that the opinions we express are going to be rejected by the House of Commons. We are here in this House because we believe we do make a difference, not because we are irrelevant, although if the noble Lord and others think they are irrelevant there are options for them to avoid being a burden on the taxpayer. But that is not the view that I take.

I come back to the serious issue that we are discussing. This is what Mr Heaton-Harris said yesterday is involved in the no-deal preparations which the Cabinet yesterday agreed to intensify because of the likelihood of there being no resolution to the Brexit crisis before us. He said that,

“we have taken further steps to ensure that people and businesses are ready. That has included publishing more than 100 pages of guidance for businesses on processes and procedures at the border in a no-deal scenario; contacting 145,000 businesses that trade with the EU, telling them to start getting ready for no-deal customs procedures; advising hundreds of ports of entry, traders, pharmaceutical firms and other organisations that use the border about the disruption that they might experience so that they can get their supply chains ready; and producing a paper on citizens’ rights”.

It is hard to exaggerate how serious those preparations are outside wartime. The legal arrangements for a no-deal Brexit are still not fully in place. The preparations are a huge expense to the taxpayer and a massive drain on the resources of Whitehall. Mr Heaton-Harris said:

“More than 10,000 civil servants are working on Brexit with a further 5,000 in the pipeline, which will allow us to accelerate our preparation”.—[Official Report, Commons, 20/12/18; cols. 879-80.]

I am not sure what it means to be a civil servant in the pipeline of Brexit; none the less, more than 5,000 are in that happy condition. As I say, short of being in a war situation, it is hard to conceive of a more alarming position in which the Government could place the country.

Surely our duty in Parliament is to see that this crisis is resolved as soon as possible. We have an opportunity to do so by meeting earlier rather than later in January. I believe we have a duty to do so. Therefore, I beg to move.

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My Lords, I shall not answer the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, point by point. I think politicians delude themselves when they believe their own rhetoric, and I am afraid he is a perfect example of such a delusion. I propose to deal with the practicalities of how this House can deal with the fact that it wants to give time to deal with this most important topic.

I start with the fact that the day suggested in the noble Lord’s Motion is a national bank holiday in Scotland shows, in my view, an appalling ignorance of how important it is for the United Kingdom that we recognise each other’s bank holidays in this respect. I do not take that casually. I also do not take it casually that his proposal would mean that not only Peers but members of staff would have to curtail their holiday arrangements to be here to meet his requirements. I would rather concentrate on what we are planning to do.

Yesterday, we issued a Forthcoming Business in which there were two days of debate scheduled to deal with the take-note Motion on withdrawal. We have had to abandon one and will have to start again. As noble Lords will know, as a result of conversations in the usual channels I have agreed to extend that debate to three days. So we will be discussing these very subjects, which I appreciate that the noble Lord takes very much to heart, on 9, 10 and 14 January. I think that gives everybody proper time to absorb the situations as they exist and I hope noble Lords will appreciate the time that has been given. I cannot accept the noble Lord’s Motion and I hope that the House rejects it.

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My Lords, I regret very much that my long-term and noble friend Lord Adonis did not see fit to consult or inform me on what he was doing because I would have been able to inform him then that, as a result of ongoing negotiations—some of them tense, at times, but nevertheless in the proper way of negotiations—we have the extra day. That is proportionate to the time that the Commons has and, most importantly, it allows the House of Lords to vote and therefore fulfil its constitutional duty and role of informing the House of Commons of our point of view. I very much regret that he did not do so.

During my 23 years in the other place, perennially at the time of a Recess somebody would jump up, irrespective of party, and demand that we cut our allegedly long holiday short and attend to the needs of the nation, because something was in doubt and all the rest of it. This was so that they could get their image in the constituency or in the country as one who did not care about long holidays. I see various former Members agreeing with me on that. I certainly do not think that is my noble friend’s ulterior motive because he has never had the difficulty or problems of being elected to public office.

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It is difficult to imagine them unless you have been. But I gently say to my noble and good friend: perhaps there is an ulterior motive, if he is thinking of pursuing a vote. There have been 119 votes this year and my noble friend has voted on 56 occasions—a 47% turnout. Maybe his ulterior motive is to boost his voting rate. I am not quite sure.

With regard to the bank holiday in Scotland, I say with much regret to the noble Lord, Lord Hayward: you stole my line. I have to say to my noble friend that to move that we meet on 2 January is typical of many of the metropolitan, London-based people who do not seem to care much about Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, or to consider the regions of England. It was thoughtless and that is one reason why I am opposed to this. I will be voting against the Motion. I urge my Labour colleagues—such as are here—to vote with me, and I hope the House will reject the Motion.

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My Lords, I was hoping that the Labour Chief Whip would be able to summon more colleagues to sit behind him to support his comments. It is not a very good illustration of what should be in order today. I shall speak very briefly, although not so much on the question of the date because the staff of this place need to be able to go to their families for Christmas and the new year with their dates secured and not disrupted by a surprise decision to change the sitting dates. I sympathise very much with them, and we should have regard to them. That is important.

However, I very much agree with the substance of what the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, said about the under- lying crisis. I am sorry to sound pompous, but there has been a very frivolous reaction so far from the Government Chief Whip and the Labour Chief Whip. They seem to have no anxiety or feeling of crisis about what is going on in this country. It is an appalling situation.

If I may just reminisce very quickly—

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Even quicker than that. Twenty-seven years in the House of Commons—

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You were a Tory then.

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People change their party.

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Not as often as you.

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Only once, and I am now a Cross-Bencher. The level of party politics in this country is abysmal and appalling now. I never saw such a strong lack of agreement in the House of Commons in that whole period. I have never before seen a Government ride roughshod over everybody with a Prime Minister whose superego is stronger than that of most past Prime Ministers, so what the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, said about the nature of the crisis in this country is quite right. Serried ranks of Tory Peers have been lined up to do the necessary thing if there is a vote, which I hope will not be necessary. I hope they will take on board what has been created by their complacency in going along with the recent very foolish decisions by the Prime Minister and the Government.

On 8 June last year, when the election took place, the Prime Minister had a unique and special opportunity to say that she had lost the mandate to pursue Brexit, which was the case, and therefore she could not go on doing it and would investigate alternatives to that scenario and report back to the House of Commons and the public in due course. No such deal was done; no such statement was made. Instead, a squalid deal was done with a rather unsavoury bunch of Protestant extremists in Belfast who were against membership of the European Union, although the public in Northern Ireland voted in favour. It is a very sad state of affairs that we have reached that position in this country.

I do not necessarily agree with the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, on the dates and think we should stick to what has been agreed. I acknowledge what the Chief Whip said and the efforts he has made to achieve that. None the less, to ignore the crisis and to treat it as a frivolity is very bad in this House today.

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My Lords, my noble friend used the word “frivolous”, and I think that was an attack on the Chief Whip and the usual channels, of which I am not part. As I understand it, the aim, which I believe he is achieving, is that this House should express its opinion in a vote before the House of Commons expresses its opinion. He has achieved that in the timetable he has set out. Moving the date to a week earlier achieves nothing because the House of Commons will always be voting in the week it has chosen, so I fully support what the Chief Whip said. I also reject any suggestion that he or the other members of the usual channels who are in their place are being frivolous about this in any way.

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My Lords, I risk my relationship with the Labour Chief Whip by saying that I have some sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Adonis. However, I support the usual channels on this because I have a slightly different perspective. The first perspective is that it is the Commons that is the decisive decision-maker, not us—but more important is that Christmas is an important time for families, for reflection and for the renewal of hope for the future.

There are four reasons why we should not be here over Christmas. The first is that we want the younger generation talking to their elders over Christmas. That is not a problem in our family, because my Dutch mother-in-law spent the Second World War in a prisoner-of-war camp and has taught her children about the importance of international co-operation, alliances and the dangers of nationalism.

We also want a period of reflection over Christmas. I think that is very important. We are simply playing into the Government’s hands if we create the notion of panic. The Government want panic because they are trying to drive us away from no deal into their deal—and we want the opportunity to discuss alternatives. There is no parliamentary majority for no deal, and we now know that we can revoke Article 50 if we wish to do so, should we find ourselves drifting into no deal.

As people review their hopes for the new year, I recall the infamous words of the noble Lord, Lord Bridges. “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”, he repeatedly told us—and if public opinion continues to shift, the Commons will find it easier to reverse Brexit. That is why we should be out in the country, not talking to ourselves here.

My final reflection is that next year, in 2019, my home city of Portsmouth will be the centre of the national commemorations of the 75th anniversary of D-day, when our young men went back into France to fight tyranny and start the renewal process that has led to our prosperity, freedom and security since. I say to this House that that is an apt analogy for what we have to do in 2019. It does not need a shortened Recess to do it; we simply need the opportunity for the nation to be consulted again on Brexit. We need to win that argument after the critical decision of 14 January.

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My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, that this debate has been largely frivolous and below the level of events. It is a huge pity that, consistently throughout the crisis we have faced over the last two and a half years, Parliament has been playing catch-up with a Government who, I fear, have not been putting the best interests of the country first.

So I do not resile from anything that I have said. I believe that, if we were doing our duty, we should be here in the first week of January, not the second. From talking to individuals engaged in businesses and the public life of the country outside this House, I know they are, frankly, aghast at the situation in Parliament at the moment and the failure to take decisions in a timely fashion. The noble Lord, Lord Stoneham, said that we do not want to build up a sense of crisis. I assure noble Lords that it does not require us to build up any such sense; it is there at the moment because it is the objective reality.

I think it was right to bring this matter before the House. Although my noble friend Lord McAvoy is not sufficiently content with my voting record—I shall make great efforts to improve it and get it to a position that he regards as satisfactory—I do not think that I have been found wanting in my service to the House over my 13 years as a Member. However, as LBJ famously said, the first requirement of politics is the ability to count. Looking around the House this evening, I suspect that I am not going to win this vote by the thumping majority that I had anticipated when I came in—so I will not proceed with the Division.

Instead, in the season of good will, I will thank the Chief Whip for conceding a third day of debate. We will return to these issues in the second and third weeks of January, and I hope that the new-found spirit of accommodation that he has shown in the House today will be fully reflected in the further debates that we will no doubt need to have after the Prime Minister’s deal has been decided on. Contrary to the views of the noble Lord, Lord Elton, it is my view that this House will have a substantial and important role to play in the affairs of this country, and we should not resile from that simply because people think we might be better staying in a state of perpetual Recess. On that note, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion withdrawn.