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Brexit: Options

Volume 795: debated on Monday 18 February 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the different options Parliament has in relation to leaving the European Union.

My Lords, the Motion passed on 29 January in the other place seeking legally binding changes to the Northern Ireland protocol is the only way to deliver a sustainable majority. The Government will continue to pursue this to ensure that we leave with a deal on 29 March. If MPs do not vote for the deal, the default legal position is that the UK will leave without a deal at the end of March.

Surely the Government could also do something useful at the moment, such as sending Ministers to urgent anti-self-harm corrective therapy sessions. However, should they not also now promise the House to extend Article 50 and start preparing for a people’s vote as well in case things go wrong on 27 February?

I can tell the noble Lord that, instead of sending Ministers to self-help therapy sessions, we are sending them to Brussels.

It may well be the same thing. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State is in Brussels today; the Attorney-General will be going this week; the Prime Minister will also be going this week; and, just to add to the contingent, I myself will be going to Brussels later this afternoon.

My Lords, I think I heard the Minister say that the default legal position if the Government cannot get a majority is to leave without a deal. That may be the default legal position, but it is clearly not the default moral position. Will the Government start thinking about the country and be more serious about looking for cross-party, cross-Parliament support for a deal that can command a majority in the Commons as well as the support of the country?

I am sorry to tell the noble Baroness that it is the default legal position. It is what Parliament voted for, it is what the legislation says and we are preparing accordingly. However, of course we do not want to leave with no deal; we want to leave with a deal, which is why we are intensively engaged in discussions to try to produce a solution that is acceptable to Parliament as a whole.

My Lords, the Brexit analyses that the Brexit Select Committee in the other place finally forced the Government to publish showed that Brexit in any form whatever, let alone a chaotic no deal, will be very damaging to the British economy, to the extent of an up to 8% hit to GDP. Will the Government now accept the proposal that is being discussed in the other place—that it would approve the Prime Minister’s deal, whatever that turns out to be, subject to it being put to the people to decide between that and remaining in the EU, which is far superior?

It will come as no surprise whatever to the noble Baroness to hear me say that, no, we will not. We do not think that another people’s vote is the correct way forward. We have already had a referendum, and we all know its result. I admire the nerve of the Liberals in continuing to pursue this option. I notice that, in the various debates in the House of Commons, they have not put it forward as a subject for a vote; they know very well that there is no majority for it.

My Lords, did my noble friend study the interesting speech last week by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, in which he suggested that a solution to the border problem would be an all-Ireland solution for trade? This would involve having a border in the Irish Sea—where it would be invisible—but it could be a good idea for Northern Ireland to be in the customs union with the EU, and such a border would in no way limit the extent to which Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom.

I did of course listen carefully last week to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, and I paid tribute to him at the end of the debate. But, as the noble Lord will be aware, we do not think that a customs union border in the Irish Sea is acceptable for the constitutional integrity of our country.

Are any Ministers going to Tokyo to discuss with Honda the announcement it has just made about closing the Swindon factory in 2022? Is this not relevant to parliamentary opinion at all?

That news was just breaking as I came into the Chamber. The noble Lord will accept that it would be wrong for me to comment on something that has not yet been formally announced. However, I am sure that Ministers will want to react in the strongest possible way once we have found out the truth or otherwise of the situation.

My Lords, there are three obvious options between now and 29 March: the Prime Minister’s deal, some other deal or no deal. Would it not be of assistance to us all if, every Monday, the Government were to publish a list of those pieces of primary and secondary legislation that need to be passed by 29 March, so that we can place our thinking in some kind of context?

We are being very open and transparent about the legislation that is required. On secondary legislation, I can update the House that 449 statutory instruments have been laid—that is over 70% of the total—and 210 of them have now completed their passage; there will be further action on this in both Houses this week.

Does the Minister agree with the Prime Minister’s view that, with a deal, the country will be no poorer than it is at the moment? When will she be honest with the country about how poor we will be without a deal?

My Lords, will my noble friend the Minister give some thought to the concept of the “hard border”? The more I push the Government for a clear definition, the more it wobbles like jelly, yet this is fundamental to the ongoing discussions. Rather than try to answer on his feet, can he perhaps go away and get from the Government a clear understanding and definition of a hard border, so that potentially we can have fruitful discussions about it?

My noble friend makes a good point, although the definition of a hard border is of course complicated; it is generally understood as being related to the installation of border infrastructure.

Because we do not believe that an extension would solve our problems; it would only delay the date by which a decision must be made. As I have said before, the legal default in legislation passed by both Houses is that we leave on 29 March, with or without a deal.

My Lords, is it not continuously misleading for the Minister to present the number of secondary legislation instruments that have been tabled as though that were the end of the matter? There is a big difference between the number that have been tabled and the number that have been subject to scrutiny. While I draw attention to that again, let me also say that the Treasury has now developed the habit of tabling instruments without any impact assessment in them at all, which is surely totally unacceptable in respect of the effective scrutiny of instruments.

I totally agree with the noble Lord that I said how many had been tabled, but I also said how many had been completed. If I did not, the number is 210, so I totally accept that there is a long gap in the process in between. The appropriate scrutiny must be provided, and I pay tribute to the work of the noble Lord’s committee and that of my noble friend Lord Trefgarne in the excellent scrutiny work that they are providing on this important legislation.