My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in another place. The Statement is as follows:
“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the Government’s work to secure a withdrawal agreement that can command the support of this House. A fortnight ago, I committed to come back before the House today if the Government had not by now secured a majority for a withdrawal agreement and a political declaration.
In the two weeks since, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the Attorney-General and I have been engaging in focused discussions with the EU to find a way forward that will work for both sides. We are making good progress in that work. I had a constructive meeting with President Juncker in Brussels last week, to take stock of the work done by our respective teams. We discussed the legal changes that are required to guarantee that the Northern Ireland backstop cannot endure indefinitely. On the political declaration, we discussed what additions or changes can be made to increase confidence in the focus and ambition of both sides in delivering the future partnership we envisage as soon as possible, and the Secretary of State is following this up with Michel Barnier. I also had a number of positive meetings at the EU-Arab League summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, including with President Donald Tusk. I have now spoken to the leaders of every single EU member state to explain the UK’s position. The UK and EU teams are continuing their work and we agreed to review progress again in the coming days.
As part of these discussions, the UK and EU have agreed to consider a joint workstream to develop alternative arrangements to ensure the absence of a hard border in Northern Ireland. This work will be done in parallel with the future relationship negotiations, and is without prejudice to them. Our aim is to ensure that, even if the full future relationship is not in place by the end of the implementation period, the backstop is not needed because we have a set of alternative arrangements ready to go.
I want to thank my honourable and right honourable friends for their contribution to this work, and reaffirm that we are seized of the need to progress this work as quickly as possible. President Juncker has already agreed that the EU will give priority to this work, and the Government expect that this will be an important strand of the next phase. The Secretary of State for Exiting the EU will be having further discussions with Michel Barnier, and we will announce details ahead of the meaningful vote. We will also be setting up domestic structures to support this work, including ensuring we can take advice from external experts involved in customs processes around the world, from businesses who trade with the EU and beyond, and, of course, from colleagues across the House. This will all be supported by civil service resource, as well as funding for the Government to help develop, test and pilot proposals which can form part of these alternative arrangements.
I know what this House needs in order to support a withdrawal agreement. The EU knows what is needed, and I am working hard to deliver it. As well as changes to the backstop, we are also working across a number of other areas to build support for the withdrawal agreement, and to give the House confidence in the future relationship that the UK and EU will go on to negotiate. This includes ensuring that leaving the EU will not lead to any lowering of standards in relation to workers’ rights, environmental protections or health and safety. Taking back control cannot mean giving up our control of these standards, especially when UK Governments of all parties have proudly pursued policies that exceed the minimums set by the EU—from Labour giving British workers more annual leave, to the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats giving all employees the right to request flexible working. Not only would giving up control go against the spirit of the referendum result; it would also mean accepting new EU laws automatically, even if they were to reduce workers’ rights or change them in a way that was not right for us.
Instead, and in the interests of building support across the House, we are prepared to commit to giving Parliament a vote on whether it wishes to follow suit whenever the EU standards in areas such as workers’ rights and health and safety are judged to have been strengthened. The Government will consult with businesses and trade unions as we look at new EU legislation and decide how the UK should respond. We will legislate to give our commitments on both non-regression and future developments force in UK law. Following further cross-party talks, we will shortly be bringing forward detailed proposals to ensure that as we leave the EU, we not only protect workers’ rights but continue to enhance them.
As the Government committed to the House last week, we are today publishing the paper assessing our readiness for no deal. I believe that if we have to, we will ultimately make a success of no deal, but this paper provides an honest assessment of the very serious challenges it would bring in the short term, and further reinforces why the best way for this House to honour the referendum result is to leave with a deal.
As I committed to the House, the Government will today table an amendable motion for debate tomorrow, but I know Members across the House are genuinely worried that time is running out and that if the Government do not come back with a further meaningful vote or they lose that vote, Parliament will not have time to make its voice heard on the next steps. I know too that Members across the House are deeply concerned about the effect of the current uncertainty on businesses, so today I want to reassure the House by making three further commitments.
First, we will hold a second meaningful vote by Tuesday 12 March at the latest. Secondly, if the Government have not won a meaningful vote by Tuesday 12 March, then we will, in addition to our obligations to table a neutral, amendable Motion under Section 13 of the EU (Withdrawal) Act, table a Motion to be voted on by Wednesday 13 March at the latest, asking this House if it supports leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement and a framework for a future relationship on 29 March. The United Kingdom will only leave without a deal on 29 March if there is explicit consent in this House for that outcome.
Thirdly, if the House, having rejected leaving with the deal negotiated with the EU, then rejects leaving on 29 March without a withdrawal agreement and future framework, the Government will, on 14 March, bring forward a motion on whether Parliament wants to seek a short, limited extension to Article 50, and if the House votes for an extension, seek to agree that extension approved by the House with the EU, and bring forward the necessary legislation to change the exit date commensurate with that extension. These commitments all fit the timescale set out in the Private Member’s Bill in the name of the right honourable Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford. They are commitments I am making as Prime Minister and I will stick by them, as I have previous commitments to make Statements and table amendable Motions by specific dates.
Let me be clear: I do not want to see Article 50 extended. Our absolute focus should be on working to get a deal and leaving on 29 March. An extension beyond the end of June would mean the UK taking part in the European Parliament elections. What kind of message would that send to the more than 17 million people who voted to leave the EU nearly three years ago now? The House should be clear that a short extension—not beyond the end of June—would almost certainly have to be a one-off. If we had not taken part in the European Parliament elections, it would be extremely difficult to extend again, so it would create a much sharper cliff edge in a few months’ time.
An extension cannot take no deal off the table. The only way to do that is to revoke Article 50, which I shall not do, or agree a deal. I have been clear throughout this process that my aim is to bring the country back together. This House can only do that by implementing the decision of the British people. The Government are determined to do so in a way that commands the support of this House, but just as government requires the support of this House in delivering the vote of the British people, so the House should respect the proper functions of the Government. Tying the Government’s hands by seeking to commandeer the Order Paper would have far-reaching implications for the way in which the United Kingdom is governed and the balance of powers and responsibilities in our democratic institutions, and it would offer no solution to the challenge of finding a deal which this House can support.
Neither would seeking an extension to Article 50 now make getting a deal any easier. Ultimately, the choices we face would remain unchanged: leave with a deal, leave with no deal, or have no Brexit. When it comes to the Motion tomorrow, the House needs to come together as we did on 29 January and send a clear message that there is a stable majority in favour of leaving the EU with a deal.
A number of honourable and right honourable Members have understandably raised the rights of EU citizens living in the UK. As I set out last September, following the Salzburg summit, even in the event of no deal, the rights of the 3 million EU citizens living in the UK will be protected. That is our guarantee to them. They are our friends, our neighbours and our colleagues. We want them to stay. But a separate agreement for citizens’ rights is something the EU has been clear it does not have the legal authority for. If it is not done in a withdrawal agreement, these issues become a matter for member states, unless the EU were to agree a new mandate to take this forward.
At the very start of the process, the UK sought to separate out this issue, but the EU has been consistent on it. However, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has written to all of his counterparts and we are holding further urgent discussions with member states to seek assurances on the rights of UK citizens. I urge all EU countries to make this guarantee and end the uncertainty for these citizens. I hope that the Government’s efforts can give the House and EU citizens here in the UK the reassurances they need and deserve.
For some honourable and right honourable Members, taking the United Kingdom out of the European Union is the culmination of a long and sincerely fought campaign. For others, leaving the EU goes against much that they have stood for and fought for with equal sincerity for just as long. But Parliament gave the choice to the people. In doing so, we told them that we would honour their decision. That remains the resolve of this side of the House. But last night we learned that it is no longer the commitment of the Leader of the Opposition. He has gone back on his promise to respect the referendum result and now wants to hold a divisive second referendum that would take our country right back to square one. Anyone who voted Labour at the last election because they thought he would deliver Brexit will rightly be appalled. This House voted to trigger Article 50 and this House has a responsibility to deliver on the result. The very credibility of our democracy is at stake. By leaving the EU with a deal, we can move our country forward.
Even with the uncertainty we face today, we have more people in work than ever before, wages growing at their fastest rate for a decade and debt falling as a share of the economy. If we can leave with a deal, end the uncertainty and move on beyond Brexit, we can do so much more to deliver real economic progress to every part of the country. So I hope that tomorrow the House can show that with legally binding changes on the backstop, commitments to protect workers’ rights and the environment, an enhanced role for Parliament in the next phase of negotiations and a determination to address the wider concerns of those who voted to leave, we will have a deal that this House can support. In doing so, we can send a clear message that this House is resolved to honour the result of the referendum and leave the European Union with a deal. I commend this Statement to the House”.
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement on Brexit, which is clearly high on everyone’s agenda. I have sat beside my noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon on previous occasions when she has rightly described the Government as, “living in the moment ... managing to get through another week …providing less clarity rather than more … failing to give any confidence that the PM knows where this is going or, more worryingly, ploughing on towards the cliff edge”. Indeed, as my noble friend has said, it seems that each week MPs are told to expect a meaningful vote the following week, only for it to be delayed again and again. Today, 31 days until our planned departure, this is even more true.
In fact, the most significant of the Prime Minister’s words were those briefed to journalists on her plane to the summit; namely, that there would be no meaningful vote in the Commons tomorrow but that again it would be delayed until 12 March, 17 days before 29 March, and even then with no guarantee that her deal would pass muster there. So, on 27 February, more than a month after the 21 January date in the withdrawal Act by which the Government should respond in the event of a deal not being possible or not being ratified, Mrs May still has not allowed the Commons a meaningful say on the next steps. It is the Prime Minister’s new date, that of 12 March, which changes the dynamic of Parliament and Government. That is because the Government seem to have given up their ability to govern and, as we heard over the weekend and last night, there are Cabinet and other Ministers who are prepared to resign or defy the Whip to end this footsie with a no-deal threat. They are right to insist that Parliament has to put an end to this reckless nonsense of threatening our own economic future—a sudden departure from a massive trading bloc into the unknown territory of WTO terms of trade with new tariffs and formalities as well as costs to industry—simply so that the Prime Minister can try and pull her recalcitrant ERGers into the government Lobby.
It was perhaps the threat from these Ministers and the likely success of the Cooper-Boles-Letwin amendment that forced today’s undertaking to ensure a vote such that we could,
“only leave without a deal on 29 March if there is explicit”,
consent in the Commons. However, the undertaking is only to exclude departure on 29 March without a deal. It does not rule out the continued threat of a no-deal departure altogether. Indeed, the Prime Minister explicitly said that a subsequent Article 50 extension,
“cannot take no deal off the table”.
All she is promising is a temporary parliamentary block on no deal prior to reinstating it as a continuing threat during the months ahead. This will not do. Both this House and the other place have made it clear that this should never be our departure route. It is damaging and madness to contemplate otherwise, as many of her ministerial colleagues in this House and in the Commons know full well.
Moreover, businesses are clear: whatever the end outcome, they need time to plan and adjust. A no-deal outcome with no transition period simply does not allow for that. The cost to our citizens living in the EU could be enormous as their driving licences could be worthless in months, their health cover end, and their residency and employment status change. As the government analysis released at 5 pm this evening makes clear, a significant proportion of critical no-deal projects are not on track. It also says that despite the publication of no-deal guidance, a large proportion of businesses and citizens are not adequately prepared. In particular, food businesses are unprepared, with concerns that consumer panic will exacerbate any shortages. There will be a more severe impact in Northern Ireland than in Great Britain and potential gaps in data flows without an adequacy decision. The report’s conclusion is damning, saying that,
“the short time remaining before 29 March 2019 does not allow Government to unilaterally mitigate the effects of no deal.”
I have to say that the word “irresponsible” is too mild a term for the Prime Minister’s refusal to take no deal completely off the table.
Such is the stalemate—and worse, the crisis—in government over Brexit that tomorrow Labour will ask the Commons to vote on our alternative for a deal. We will remind the Government that of the 432 votes cast against the deal, only a minority were Conservative, focusing on the backstop. The Opposition’s 300 votes against the deal were about the political framework’s inadequacies. Yet the Prime Minister has sought only to buy off the Tory rebels, dismissing these other major concerns about our future relationship with the EU. So we will seek to do what the Government have failed to: win cross-party support for a closer relationship with the EU after Brexit. Should that fail, when the Government return to Parliament, be that on 12 March or next week, Labour will support a call for a public vote on Mrs May’s deal since in its unamended form it risks our country’s economic prosperity, internal security and global influence in a way that Parliament by itself must not be given the freedom to allow to happen.
Your Lordships will know that we preferred Parliament to oversee the Article 50 process and for the Government to craft a future relationship with the EU to maintain growth and prosperity which could command support in the Commons and the country. They have spectacularly failed to do so. And if the Government cannot command the confidence of Parliament on this issue, they should go back for a new public mandate.
We face testing times. Whatever the outcome in the Commons—to accept or to block no deal—legislation will, as has been said, be required with great speed, at the very least to change by SI the exit date to allow for an Article 50 extension. But more than that, other legislation is likely which, because of its importance, demands careful unhurried scrutiny. Will the Leader of the House therefore give her support to an extension of Article 50? We know that Cabinet responsibility seems to have broken down, so let her break free and give us that understanding. For the sake of business as well as for our own sake, will she allow that extension, and guarantee that there will be no attempt to fast-track vital Bills to make up for the shameful delay caused by the Government’s own failure in negotiation?
Will the noble Baroness also commit to allowing proper time for scrutiny and debate, and for consultation with relevant stakeholders on the detail of legislation? And will she take back to the Prime Minister our view that until no deal is ruled out, not just for 29 March but permanently, we will have little faith that she is putting our country ahead of her party.
My Lords, I thank the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement. The first interesting thing about it is the insight it gives us into the state of the negotiations between the UK the EU. We are told that they are “focused”, and “making good progress”, that they are “constructive” and “positive”, and finally that they are “continuing”—which is all sort of mildly encouraging. But following the passage of the Brady amendment a couple of weeks ago, the Government went back to Brussels to try to get amendments to the provisions relating to the backstop in one of three ways. The first was a time limit, the second a right for the UK unilaterally to withdraw from it, and the third was the development of so-called “alternative arrangements”, which would render the backstop unnecessary.
Of these, the EU made it clear from the start that Nos. 1 and 2 were non-negotiable, which left only No. 3 —alternative arrangements. The Statement is very clear about where negotiations on alternative arrangements have got to. The Prime Minister says that we have,
“agreed to consider a joint work stream to develop alternative arrangements … This work will be done in parallel with the future relationship negotiations … Our aim is to ensure that, even if the full future relationship is not in place by the end of the implementation period, the backstop is not needed because we have a set of alternative arrangements ready to go”.
The Prime Minister has therefore accepted that no concrete progress whatever will have been made on defining any alternative arrangements before 29 March. This means that, of the three possible ways of dealing with the backstop in a manner that would be acceptable to the Conservative Party and the DUP, none will have been achieved when the next meaningful vote takes place in a couple of weeks’ time. The only logical conclusion, given this failure to achieve anything, is that the Government will again lose a vote on their deal. It is against this background that the remainder of the Prime Minister’s statement needs to be judged.
It is crystal clear that the Prime Minister’s hope was to get to mid-March and, despite having failed to make substantive changes to the backstop, attempt to scare MPs into voting for a deal they do not support, by threatening them with crashing out of the EU a mere fortnight later if they rejected it. Faced with the Cooper-Letwin proposal, which would in those circumstances defer the withdrawal date, and a rebellion of Cabinet and more junior Ministers, she has today bowed to the inevitable and said that if the Commons voted against her deal and against no deal, she would put a further Motion to the House of Commons providing for an extension to Article 50.
The Prime Minister has said that the key votes will be on the 12 and 13 March at the latest. Why “at the latest”? Does the Prime Minister think there is any chance whatever of having an agreement with the EU that she would be able to bring back to the Commons next week? Whatever the exact timing, and whatever our concerns about the somewhat convoluted approach being proposed by the Prime Minister, that is a welcome recognition by her that the Cooper-Letwin Bill would otherwise pass, and that there is a majority in the Commons to extend Article 50. The challenge with which our colleagues in another place have to grapple is whether they trust the Prime Minister’s word or whether they want the assurance that the Bill would have provided. I believe that Oliver Letwin is happy to accept the Prime Minister’s assurance, but I am a bit unclear as to where Yvette Cooper has got to on that. We will just have to see how events pan out.
In any event, the Prime Minister’s principal argument —indeed, her only argument—against such a Bill is that it would tie the Government’s hands and have far-reaching constitutional implications. By this she means that the Commons would take back some control of the way in which it organises its business. Will the Leader of the House accept that for many of us, this seems a positive development, not a constitutional outrage?
If there is no Cooper Bill, it is highly likely that the Prime Minister’s Motion to defer Article 50 will pass on 13 March, but this is only phase 1 of getting out of the mess we are in. As Sarah Wollaston put it earlier today in responding to the Statement, we are only talking about:
“a short gangplank added to the cliff edge”.
Phase 2, and the only way of breaking the deadlock, is to put the Government’s deal to the people for their final decision, with an option to remain in the EU if they believe that that would be better for our economy, security and influence. Today the Prime Minister did a U-turn on extending Article 50. We now wait with eager anticipation for her next U-turn: to give the people a vote.
I thank the noble Baroness, who I welcome to this joyous occasion; we have many such occasions and I hope to see her again soon. I also thank the noble Lord for his comments. First, I have said consistently over the last few months that I want to leave the European Union with a deal. I am part of a Government who are working hard to deliver it, and we will continue to do that in the coming weeks.
Both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness touched on legislation. My noble friend the Chief Whip and I have been able to work constructively through the usual channels, and we will continue to do so. We have not sought, and will not start seeking, to railroad Bills through this House. I think that all noble Lords would agree that we must balance the need to ensure that vital legislation sent to us from the other place is passed within a reasonable time, and the need to ensure that this House has adequate time to scrutinise it in the usual manner.
We are as aware as anybody else of the constraints of the parliamentary timetable, and we will not be unrealistic or unreasonable in what we ask the House to do. We will continue to work with the usual channels to try to ensure the greatest possible degree of cross-party consensus as we move forward. As we have shown with the Trade Bill, where my right honourable friend the Trade Secretary yesterday announced safeguards in the event that the Bill has not received Royal Assent in March, the Government are both responsible in putting in temporary arrangements if necessary, and reasonable about allowing this House the scrutiny of legislation that it deserves.
I am afraid that I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Newby, who said that no progress had been made on alternative arrangements. That is simply not true. President Juncker has agreed that the EU will give priority to this work. We have agreed joint work streams together to go forward. However, implementing alternative arrangements will require, for instance, a number of derogations from EU law. These are issues that we have to work through with the EU. That is why joint work will be going forward in parallel to the further discussions on the political declaration.
The Prime Minister has spoken to the leaders of every member state since I last made a Statement on this issue. She has discussed with them the guarantees that could be given to underline the backstop’s temporary nature—something about which the House of Commons made clear that it was concerned—and to give the appropriate legal assurances to both sides. She has discussed the role that alternative arrangements could play, and changes to the political declaration. We are moving forward. The Prime Minister has said that if she can come forward with a deal that addresses the concerns of the House of Commons before 12 March, she will do so.
This is the mother of all shambles. The message is clear: the Government are limping towards an extension, contrary to all the promises that have been made—and, crabwise, the Government are surely moving towards a people’s vote.
I am sorry to disappoint the noble Lord, but that is not the case. The Government are working towards a deal. We are working towards getting the changes to the backstop that the House of Commons desires and we will bring back a deal that we believe will command the support of the House.
My Lords, my noble friend knows that I sincerely hope that there will be a deal. However, does she accept that if, as is quite likely, there has to be an extension, it must be a sensible extension that gives proper time for the extraordinary events—I choose my words carefully—of the past two years to be put right? We therefore do not wish to have an extension that is merely to the end of June, even if there are implications for the composition of the European Parliament. But I repeat that I hope we have a deal—as does my noble friend—in time for that not to happen.
I agree with my noble friend. We are all working hard to achieve a deal, but the Prime Minister has made clear that if, following a series of votes in the House of Commons, as set out in the Statement, there is a vote to ask for an extension to Article 50, she will want it to be for the shortest time possible.
My Lords, it is good that the Prime Minister is now ready, à contrecoeur, to contemplate an extension. It is clear—and has been for some time—that an extension is absolutely necessary. However, she says in her Statement that an extension cannot take no deal off the table—and of course that is perfectly true. But she could and should take no deal off the table. If you listen to the voice of business and the nation at large, it is grossly irresponsible to play this game down into the last days and beyond. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, pointed out, we are looking to maintain the threat of no deal throughout the period of extension, however long that is. This cannot be right in the interests of the country.
What is right and in the interests of the country is what the Prime Minister has been working on for the past two years, which is to get a deal that leads to a strong partnership between the EU and the UK going forward. That is what she is focused on and will continue to focus on. We are having constructive discussions with EU member state leaders, the Commission and the Council in order to get to that point. That is what the Prime Minister is focused on and that is quite right.
My Lords, we are led to believe that the Prime Minister is turning over a new leaf, but the Statement ends by still talking about legally binding changes to the backstop. Given the Brady amendment, that is absolutely untrue, as my noble friend Lord Newby made clear. The wording of the Statement contradicts the idea that the backstop will be changed. Will the Minister convey to the Prime Minister that absolute honesty would be appreciated? Secondly, following on from what the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, said, the Minister talked about the Government being responsible. According to the published analysis on no deal, we are looking at up to a 9% hit to GDP in 15 years and £13 billion of extra red tape costs on businesses that have never had to deal with customs processes before. How can she possibly contemplate inflicting no deal on the country and not taking it off the table?
As I have repeatedly said, the Prime Minister is looking at three options and discussing them with the EU. These are: the alternative arrangements, such as technological solutions; a legally binding time commitment to the existing backstop; and a legally binding unilateral exit clause to that backstop. That is what she has been talking to the EU about. The noble Baroness is right that the paper published this afternoon provides an honest assessment of the real challenges that no deal would bring. That is why we are working so hard to achieve a deal, and it would be great if noble Lords across the House would support us in that endeavour.
My Lords, is it not the case that, when the Prime Minister talks about a working party to discuss alternative arrangements to the Northern Ireland backstop, she is fantasising? How is it possible to agree something and put it in place on the Northern Ireland border within the space of a bit over a year and a half before the end of the implementation period? Are the Government serious? How on earth do they expect this to happen?
As I have said, the alternative arrangements are not a novel concept; they are mentioned and referred to in the political declaration, and discussions have happened. Many of the existing technologies that could be used to avoid a hard border are already developed. However, many of them have not been used together, which is why further work needs to be done. We have to make sure that they are workable and, importantly, operate in the specific circumstances of Northern Ireland. It is doable and we are working together to try to achieve it.
The Statement says clearly:
“What kind of a message would that send to the more than 17 million people who voted to leave the EU nearly three years ago now?”
Is the Prime Minister now sending messages to heaven and to hell? This was three years ago. Sadly, more than 1 million of the 17 million people have passed away and there are 2 million youngsters who were not old enough to vote but now are—and the Prime Minister says that the very credibility of our democracy is at stake. Given that the Labour Party has finally come round to accepting that the best option is a people’s vote, and that the polls show clearly that the majority of the people of the country today—not three years ago—would prefer to remain and want a people’s vote, does the Leader of the House agree that the Government should accept the reality of today?
I am afraid I cannot agree with the noble Lord.
If the House of Commons votes against leaving without a deal, are the Government committed to supporting an extension of Article 50 for as long as is needed to get a deal?
As I have said, a series of votes will need to happen at that point. However, the Prime Minister has made it clear that she does not want to extend Article 50, but if the House of Commons votes to do so she would like the shortest possible extension.
My Lords, will my noble friend use her good offices to argue to the Prime Minister that we should be negotiating for observer status for a small group of MEPs to remain if the extension lasts beyond the end of June? It should not be required to last beyond that. We should not use as a barrier to that extension elections to the European Parliament. There is a category in applicant countries for MEPs to have observer status before they join. I would argue that we should have that status as we leave, so that we can keep a small group of MEPs in position, and that should not be used as an excuse not to continue with the extension.
The Prime Minister’s focus over the next couple of weeks will be on achieving a deal that can get the support of MPs across the House of Commons, so that we can move on to focus on our future relationship and develop the strong partnership with the EU that we all want to see.
My Lords, fairly read, this Statement is about process, not progress. The truth is that the Empress still has no clothes. The Prime Minister has nothing of substance to tell either the House of Commons or your Lordships’ House. I want to ask two specific questions. First, what legal changes did the Prime Minister discuss with Mr Juncker last week, as she refers to in the Statement? Secondly, why does she assume in the ninth-to-last line of the Statement that there will be legally binding changes to the backstop? Where is the evidence in support of that assertion?
The Prime Minister has set out the changes that we are looking for. The Attorney-General was out there last week and he is out there again today. He is having discussions on the legal nature of the changes we are looking for.
Does the Minister not agree that it is utterly irresponsible of the Government not to take no deal off the table? All noble Lords need to do is to read the document which was cited earlier. It states:
“Currently, businesses who manufacture or import substances into the EU”—
this is about the chemical sector—
“need to register them with the central European Chemicals Agency ... UK companies would only be able to sell into the EU providing they have transferred their existing registration to an EU-based entity”.
This will cost each company, even small companies, £1,500 excluding admin costs. On top of that they would have to pay EU-WTO tariffs of, on average, 5%.
At the end, this little document, which is full of extraordinary information, says that we are not prepared at all:
“the short time remaining before 29 March 2019 does not allow Government to unilaterally mitigate the effects of no deal. Even where it can take unilateral action, the lack of preparation by businesses and individuals is likely to add to the disruption experienced in a no deal scenario”.
How can a responsible Government who care, one would hope, about the social and economic future of this country not take no deal off the table?
It is exactly because we care about the future of this country that we are working so hard to get a deal, but the legal default position is no deal, so any responsible Government have to prepare for it. We are working towards a deal. If we had the support of Members of both Houses and all parties, we could get there and we could start to move on to the future, which we all want to do.
My Lords, I understand that those who are calling so loudly for no deal are those who are not satisfied with the present deal offered by the Prime Minister but want something better. She therefore needs to be able to negotiate. She needs to have a card. The only available card is the threat of no deal. Why are the people who want to adopt that attitude constantly removing the only card she has in her hand?
I say again that we do not want no deal. The noble Baroness rightly pointed out the severe challenges that it will pose. That is why we are focusing so heavily on getting a deal, trying to address the issues the House of Commons has raised in relation to the backstop and looking more broadly at other issues that have concerned MPs, so that we can bring a package that MPs can support, get a deal, start discussions with the EU about our future relationship and look forward, rather than constantly going round in circles, which is what we have been doing for a while.
My Lords, the Minister said that any responsible Government would prepare for no deal. Is not the trouble that they have not?
We have spent a lot of time preparing for no deal. We have done a lot of work. We have been in touch with business and have been setting up new systems. The fact of the matter is that there are real challenges, and not all no-deal planning is in our gift; it also relies on our European partners. We are doing what we can, but I have repeatedly said that that is not the route we want to go down. We want a deal, and that is what we are trying to achieve.
My Lords, there have been votes in both Houses of Parliament against no deal. Why do the Government not simply accept the will of Parliament on this issue?
As the Statement clearly sets out, if the House of Commons does not pass a meaningful vote, there will then be an opportunity to vote on whether or not it wants to go ahead with no deal.
My Lords, is there now a unified direction of travel of the 27 and the European Parliament? I understand that conflicting messages are coming from within individual Governments about whether or not to support the UK in future on many key matters, including a possible extension of Article 50.
All I can say to the noble Viscount is that since the last Statement the Prime Minister has spoken to leaders of every member state. At the summit over the weekend she had further discussions with President Tusk, Chancellor Merkel, Prime Minister Rutte, President Juncker, Prime Minister Conte and the Taoiseach. Conversations are going well. The EU wants a deal, like we do, so there is a willingness to work together. That is what we are doing. That is why work is intensifying and why the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, the Attorney-General and the Prime Minister have all being making regular trips to Brussels to make sure that we can get this deal over the line.
My Lords, this House and the other place have made it clear that they do not support leaving the EU without a deal. Business is crying out for some kind of certainty. We are now saying that we will not take no deal off the table and are just moving the deadline from the end of March to the end of June. That does not take no deal off the table, give reassurance to business or respect the will of Parliament. I implore my noble friend to consider the position this country is in and that the risk to people’s jobs and livelihoods is really serious. By limiting the extension to a very short period, we will not give ourselves the best chance of negotiating that good deal and relationship that we want and need to achieve.
We are extremely clear about the seriousness of the situation, which is why we are continuing to work for a deal that can be passed in a vote on 12 March. The Statement sets out a very clear set of steps that will happen after that in order that the voice of the House of Commons can be heard if we do not win the vote on 12 March, but we are committed to trying to do that, and that is what we are all focused on.
My Lords, it is clear that we need the good will of the other members of the European Union to negotiate any sort of positive deal about the future relationship. The Prime Minister must be using all the good will we have accumulated over the past 50 years in the patience she requires from the other people she spends all her time talking to. Meanwhile, the officers of the European Research Group continue to insult the Germans, the European Commission and others—as do some of the right-wing media—suggesting that we must escape from the European Union and leave the enemies of Britain in Brussels, Berlin, et cetera, behind. The Prime Minister has said nothing to discourage these right-wing Brexiteers from antagonising our future European partners. Surely if the Government want to reunite the country, they should also say that even if we are leaving we need the positive and active co-operation of our neighbours and allies across the channel.
The noble Lord is absolutely right. Of course we need good relationships. In fact, those relationships are bearing fruit in the constructive discussions at the moment. The Prime Minister and all of us are very clear that we want a positive, strong, close relationship with the EU. That is what we want to achieve. That is the work that we want to get on with once we move past the withdrawal phase, and that is what we are all aiming to do.
My Lords, I think the vast majority of Members of this House are of the view that no deal would be a disaster. We hear from some people from the European Research Group that somehow it is doable. This House is discussing not whether no deal would be a minor inconvenience but how we avoid it. Given that—despite what the leader of the Opposition has said—there is no alternative deal on the table, there are only two ways: the Prime Minister’s deal or a second referendum. They are the only two options. The Prime Minister was clear on that. The Government could help by being much clearer about the sheer scale of the issues that would arise from no deal. Saying it is a negotiating card is absurd. It is a bit like threatening to shoot yourself in the foot and saying that it is okay because other people will be spattered with blood. It is not a negotiating card but an act of wilful self-harm. I know the Government are seeking to avoid it and the Prime Minister is trying extremely hard, but we all have to be very clear that, whatever happens, no deal would be extremely harmful for business, the citizens of this country, EU immigrants here and UK citizens in Europe. We need to be clearer about it and to work together to try to avoid it.
We are trying to work together to avoid it, which is why there have been numerous discussions between the parties, both Front-Bench and Back-Bench, in the House of Commons. We are absolutely trying to work together to address the concerns that have been raised by MPs. The noble Lord is right. We do not want no deal. That is why the Prime Minister has been so focused on trying to make the changes that will be required to get the support to get her deal over the line so that we can start to talk about our future relationship—the strong relationship we want with the EU going forward.
Can the Government assure the people of Northern Ireland that the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will continue, and that there will be no new border created between Great Britain and Northern Ireland?
We have been clear that we will do everything in our power to avoid a hard border in all scenarios, but there are clear EU rules that apply to trading goods with third countries, and with the Commission outlining, in its no-deal publication in December, that there will be no exemptions for Ireland on border requirements. We and the Irish Government are very clear that we are doing everything in our power to avoid a hard border. That is why we are both looking for guarantees around the backstop. That is also why we are looking at technological developments to ensure that we do not go back to that because neither side wants it, and I can assure the noble Lord that that is at the top of the Prime Minister’s priority list.