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Brexit: Date of Exit

Volume 796: debated on Thursday 14 March 2019

Private Notice Question

Tabled by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the resolutions of the House of Commons to reject both the negotiated withdrawal agreement titled Agreement on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from the European Union and the European Atomic Energy Community and leaving the European Union without a negotiated withdrawal agreement, what steps they will take to amend the date of exit as set out in the EU (Withdrawal) Act 2018.

The Government have today deposited in the Libraries of both Houses a document making clear the necessary steps required to extend Article 50. The position of the House of Commons with regards to an extension of Article 50 will not be clear until the conclusion of the debate this afternoon.

My Lords, we are back to that parallel universe I referred to a few minutes ago. I ask the Minister about a no-deal Brexit and his answer is about the extension of Article 50.

This has been an extraordinary parliamentary week. On Tuesday, the Prime Minister was again defeated on her unchanged agreement with the EU. Last night, MPs rejected leaving the EU without a deal, and the Prime Minister has now to accept that she does not have the full support of her Government, or even her Cabinet. This House has also emphatically rejected no deal. Yet, in an extraordinary, intransigent speech which followed the defeat in the Commons, Mrs May appeared to want to ignore Parliament.

We are spending a great deal of time, energy and money—millions, if not billions of pounds—on preparing for a no-deal failure. One parliamentary recess has already been cancelled, and there is serious talk of longer, later and more sittings—including on Saturdays. There are even reports that the Prime Minister intends to run down the clock further to try and get her twice-rejected deal through. She is acting like the cruel parent who, when the child will not eat its dinner, serves up the same plate of cold food day after day until they are forced to accept the unwanted, the unpalatable and the dangerous.

My question, which I would have expected the noble Baroness the Leader of the House to answer, but which I put to the Minister, is: in order to give effect to what Parliament has now agreed, and to end this dreadful waste of resources and the irresponsibility that goes with it, when will the Government bring forward the necessary legislation to prevent a no-deal exit?

As the noble Baroness is well aware, since I have repeated it many times in this House—noble Lords will groan and roll their eyes—the legal position, until it is changed, is that we leave on 29 March. The Government have said that if the House of Commons wishes to vote for an extension, we will table the necessary affirmative SI, but we cannot do that until it has been agreed by the EU Council. We cannot just unilaterally extend Article 50; it has to be agreed with the Council. We will do that if an extension is agreed by the House of Commons and by the European Council.

My Lords, given the decision by the House of Commons yesterday to rule out no deal, will the Government now withdraw from the Order Paper all the statutory instruments which would implement no-deal provisions, on the basis that they are a complete waste of parliamentary time?

No, we will not. The reason—even I am getting bored of hearing myself repeat it—is that the law of the land, as currently constituted, says that we leave the EU on 29 March. Article 50 says that in European law, which the Liberals want us to continue experiencing, and British domestic legislation says the same.

Is my noble friend aware whether, as I have heard, certain members of the ERG are communicating with individual Governments within the European Union, seeking to persuade them to apply a veto if we request an extension? If that is happening, has he heard of it and what is his view of it?

I thank my noble friend for his questions. I have heard lots of things about lots of people communicating all sorts of things, including members of the Labour Party going to Brussels and talking to the negotiators and ex-Prime Ministers doing the same. I am sure that many Members of Parliament are making their views heard loudly and clearly to all sorts of actors, but I am also sure that member states will take their own view of the situation.

Does the Minister not recognise that there is a good deal of confusion about the state of the statutory instruments being brought forward on 29 March? He has answered that question, but could he perhaps correct the impression that he and his noble and learned friend Lord Keen gave the House? The legislation we have which would enable a European election to take place here on 23 May has not in fact been repealed; that is the position of the Electoral Commission.

The noble Lord is correct, in that the legislation on European elections would have been abolished through statutory instruments laid under the EU withdrawal Act. I do not think those instruments have been tabled yet but if they were then they would not take effect, as many of those SIs do not, until our exit date. So if our exit date is postponed, they would of course take effect at that date.

My Lords, I am surprised that the Leader of the House is not replying to this Question, since it covers a wide variety of things. Can the Minister confirm that he and other Ministers speaking from the Dispatch Box speak on behalf of the whole Government, not just whichever department they are associated with? Is it not clear to him, the Leader of the House, the Chief Whip and everyone concerned that there is absolutely no way that we are going to exit the European Union at the end of this month? Irrespective of what happens in the other place, there is no way that the legislation can get through. Will the Minister at last admit that and accept reality—and accept the financial penalty that he is going to incur?

I am sorry that my answering questions in the House is such a disappointment to the noble Lord but I am sure he will get to hear from the Leader in due course. I can only repeat that the legislation which this House has passed says that we leave on 29 March. That is what Article 50 says. If there are votes in the debate taking place in the other place, that may change but at the moment that is the legal position. The noble Lord may shake his head but those are the facts. It is what we have legislated for, in this House and the other place.

My Lords, speaking for any party at the moment is a bit tricky. But as Her Majesty’s Opposition have ruled out no deal—personally, I agree with them—and the only available deal, and given that we know that there is a requirement that if a delay is to be granted it has to be for a purpose, with a strategy or an aim, would it not be wonderful just to have an inkling of what Her Majesty’s Opposition are proposing for the future, so that we at least know what kind of support we are going to get?

My noble friend makes a very good point with the benefit of his experience. The Labour Party are fond of telling us what they are against. What they have not done is tell us what they are in favour of. Ultimately, the other place will need to decide what it is actually in favour of, rather than what it is against.

My Lords, in view of the chaotic state into which the parliamentary process concerning Brexit has been reduced, will the Government confirm that, in the event of an extension of Article 50 being sought, or indeed in any event, they will belatedly reconsider the red lines which have caused us to be in this position? We have adhered to them stubbornly and with no regard to the disastrous position to which we are heading in these negotiations. It is critical that the Minister indicate that we now have an open mind on our position for the future.

The difficulty with my noble friend’s point—we have set out our position on the terms of negotiations very clearly—is that we have negotiated a withdrawal agreement which, in our opinion, is the best deal available and in the EU’s opinion is the only deal available. Saying that you do not like no deal is not a valid course of action. If you want to leave with a deal then you either need to vote for this deal or tell us what other deal can be negotiated, which will require support. That is what the Opposition and those who are opposed to Brexit have not done.

My Lords, in the light of last night’s events, what importance do Her Majesty’s Government now attach to the doctrine of Cabinet responsibility?

The doctrine of Cabinet responsibility is, of course, extremely important. Those Ministers who voted against the Government last night have resigned. It is personally disappointing that some other Ministers did not support the Government.