House of Lords
Thursday 4 April 2019
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Peterborough.
My Lords, I declare my own farming interests as set out in the register. Upland farmers have been looking after exceptional landscapes, including national parks, for generations. They are responsible for a distinct farming and cultural heritage and the production of high-quality food. We will work with farmers to improve animal health, agricultural productivity and the environment, and support enhanced rural connectivity, to ensure an economically viable future for this and future generations of upland farmers.
With their vulnerability of terrain, sparsity and remoteness, the upland areas need a range of measures underpinned by good delivery systems that keep farmers farming in a wider rural economy including forestry and environmental landscape management. Has the Minister’s department considered establishing a specialist high-value unit as a successor to SDA to champion strategic development, with a clear vision for the uplands?
My Lords, as a Government, we entirely accept that the uplands have an important connection to us all. After all, they provide 70% of our water. They have an enormous environmental benefit. Through the environmental land management system, which will replace the CAP, we are looking for ways to support and encourage the next generations to do this vital work on our behalf.
My Lords, will my noble friend confirm the need for the 6,500 upland farmers to continue to receive public financial support? Without that, they will not succeed. Some 70 million people visit the uplands each year and that sort of payment is essential. In addition, I note the important role that small and medium-sized enterprises play in those local communities. Without that interaction, those communities will die.
My Lords, my noble friend speaks of the whole uplands economy. Tourism—such an important part of it—is based on the agrarian systems which make us all want to visit those areas. We have said that we will continue direct payments for 2019 and 2020. There will be a transition, but we will also introduce the environmental land management system. I believe that upland farmers will have a very interesting and productive use of that scheme.
My Lords, I am sure we can hear from the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, but it is the turn of the Liberal Democrats.
My Lords, as several Peers have acknowledged, upland farmers make a massive contribution to the care of our hill areas. However, the character and community of those areas will depend on upland farmers being more than merely park-keepers. Does the Minister recognise that if Brexit leads to very high tariffs for lamb exports to Europe, and massive imports from new trade deals with New Zealand, it could spell the end of hill livestock farming? That is really dangerous for the hill areas.
My Lords, that is precisely why I mentioned food in my Answer. Upland farmers provide excellent food for the nation and for abroad. We clearly want that to continue. We want a trade deal. I am sure that all your Lordships wish us to secure a deal for the nation, but the situation is particularly acute for the upland farmers. I referred to animal health and productivity in my reply. We want to work with the farmers to ensure we conquer many of the diseases that are a travail for them, such as sheep scab. There are all sorts of areas of work that industry, the Government and farmers can work together on.
My Lords, it has long been established that hill farmers regularly have incomes in the lowest decile of all farm incomes. That has not changed over many years. If we want our uplands—whether the Scottish borders, Northumberland, the Lake District, the Peak District or elsewhere—to continue to look the way they do, it is absolutely essential that people there are given more and better support if we are to ensure that we can go on enjoying the upland countryside, as the Minister has recognised we all do.
My Lords, 53% of England’s SSSIs are in uplands. These are hugely important areas for our country. I agree with the noble Lord, who comes from an area of great upland rural and cultural tradition. Our objective is to secure that future, because it is important to us all that upland farmers still produce food and look after that wonderful landscape.
My Lords, since the Minister accepts that the upland farmers are the best guardians of the uplands and that there needs to be a reasonable income level, will he therefore accept that there has to be a market equivalent to what they have at the moment in exporting largely to the European market, and a guarantee of income beyond 2020, which is only next year?
My Lords, we have said as a Government that we will commit the same sum of money until the end of this Parliament. No Parliament can bind its successors, but 2022 is the likely end of this Parliament given the cycle we have. If we are to keep people on the land, they need a viable income. They also need to live a contemporary life, which is why I specifically mentioned the work we are undertaking to improve connectivity in the uplands, where we are not as strong as in other rural areas, and where we need to commit money, which we are doing.
My Lords, will the Minister confirm as a matter of fact that remaining in a customs union with the European Union would achieve the objectives that all noble Lords who have asked questions—and the Minister—have agreed must be our objective?
My Lords, in 2016, 2.55 million households in England were in fuel poverty. We can measure progress using the total fuel poverty gap—that is, the reduction in bills required for all fuel-poor households to heat their home at a reasonable cost, which has decreased by £25 million since 2010. The best long-term solution to tackle fuel poverty is to improve energy efficiency, which we have made the primary focus of our energy company obligation.
I thank the Minister for his Answer. I hope he agrees that we have not cracked this problem yet. The official figures are the tip of the iceberg. Since I last asked this Question, things have become worse, with fuel price hikes and a massive rise in the private rented sector, where fuel poverty is at its worst. The Government’s plan for insulating and upgrading homes is 60 to 80 years behind target. What practical steps will the Government take to solve this Victorian problem before we get to the 22nd century?
My Lords, we should treat the figures with some caution. They are based on income below the poverty line, and thus are relative figures. That being the case, there is always the danger that the more one does the worse they get, because you can never actually meet that target.
However, the noble Baroness is right to look at practical measures. I referred to the energy company obligation, which has delivered 2.4 million energy saving measures since 2013. I also refer to the warm home discount scheme and the various measures we announced recently to deal with the private rented sector, providing extra insulation for houses and increasing the obligation on landlords to spend more on bringing their houses up to an appropriate level of insulation. I refer to the Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Act 2018, which made various changes, and the work that Ofgem has done on the safeguard tariff. I could go on.
Does my noble friend agree that one simple, practical measure would be to make the winter fuel payment taxable? It is paid out by the department for social services anyway, so that would be very easy. The tax collected could then be used to increase the payment, so that those who do not pay tax would get a higher sum. That would mean it was self-adjusting. There would be no further expenditure, but it would at least mean that more of the expenditure went to those who need it.
I suspect it is a benefit of which a large number of Members of this House are in receipt—I see one or two indicating that they are not. I note what my noble friend said. It is a very good suggestion, and I will ensure that my right honourable friend the Chancellor is made aware of it.
My Lords, the Minister is absolutely right to mention the private rented sector. One year ago, the minimum energy efficiency standards regulations came into force, which meant that properties could not be rented unless their EPC was E or above. However, properties are still being advertised that do not meet that criterion. What are the Government doing to ensure that local authorities apply those regulations and fuel poverty is reduced in that sector?
The noble Lord is right: it is for local authorities to do that, but he will also remember that we brought forward further regulations this year, which he and I debated in this House, whereby we increased the obligation on landlords in how much they should be expected to spend to raise houses in the private rented sector to, I think, at least band E. I forget the precise level that they have to be at.
My Lords, how many households dependent on universal credit have to choose between sufficient food for their children and sufficient heating to keep the children warm during the winter months? If figures are not available, will he commit the Government to commissioning a study to find out that information?
My Lords, I will see whether those figures are available and if they are, I will make them available to the noble Baroness. In my original Answer, I was trying to address the importance of the aggregate fuel poverty gap. We are seeing that come down over the years; the aggregate fuel poverty gap was of the order of £857 million in 2010 and it has now dropped by £25 million to £832 million.
My Lords, as renewable energy prices become more and more competitive with new technology, would one fairly simple way to ease fuel poverty not be to reduce the subsidy charge on electricity bills that has to be imposed to pay for green subsidies? Does my noble friend not agree that the energy gap Her Majesty’s Government imposed has not been a great success, since fuel bills are rising all round?
On that last point, I assure my noble friend that we estimate that the price cap will save consumers something of the order of £1 billion annually on their bills. On his first point about setting the levels of subsidy for renewables, it is important to provide the appropriate subsidy to see that we get the appropriate developments in renewable energy. As my noble friend will be aware, we have seen a dramatic drop in the cost of producing offshore wind, for example; the same is true of solar and we hope those trends will continue.
One of the key aspects in reducing fuel poverty is giving people the tools to manage themselves, through the infrastructure development of smart meters. On this development curve, can the Minister give the House a measure of success regarding how many households have been drawn out of fuel poverty by their introduction?
My Lords, the noble Lord is right to talk to the importance of smart meters. We hope that by 2020, every household will have been offered a smart meter. Most people are satisfied with them and, if used properly, we expect smart meters to enable consumers to take something of the order of £300 million off their fuel bills.
China: Religious Freedom
My Lords, there are several recognised religions in China, with tens of millions of practising Christians, Muslims and Buddhists, among others. However, we are deeply concerned about developing restrictions on freedom of religion or belief in China, including reports that authorities are tightening control over how certain religions are practised. At the United Nations Human Rights Council last month, I raised directly our concerns about restrictions on freedom of religion or belief in China, including on Muslims and Christians in Xinjiang.
I thank the Minister for his reply. There are deeply worrying reports coming out of China, not least about persecuting the Christian churches there—an ancient Christian church there was founded in the 7th century. Will he comment particularly on the developing situation concerning Uighur Muslims and the development of the network of re-education camps in Xinjiang province? What representations have Her Majesty’s Government made and what are they planning to do?
My Lords, the right reverend Prelate is right to raise the desperate situation facing Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province. I assure him that we have raised this directly, on a bilateral basis, with the Chinese Government. As I indicated in my earlier Answer, I raised the issue directly during the Human Rights Council, with specific reference to the Uighur Muslims, during our statement there. Working with like-minded partners, including the United States, we also hosted a side event during that council to draw further attention to and increase international collaboration on this priority issue.
Has the Minister had a chance to read yesterday’s Spectator and last week’s Westminster Hall debate about forced organ harvesting from China’s religious minorities, including Falun Gong, Uyghur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists and, possibly, Christian dissidents along with prisoners of conscience? Fiona Bruce, Member of Parliament and chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, described it as,
“potentially nothing less than a 21st century genocide”,
and “almost a perfect crime” because “no one survives”.
Will the Government attend this week’s China Tribunal hearings, chaired by Sir Geoffrey Nice QC—who prosecuted Slobodan Milošević—and modelled on the people’s tribunal into the Vietnam War, pioneered by Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre? Their interim findings say that tribunal members are,
“certain—unanimously, and sure beyond reasonable doubt—that in China forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience has been practised for a substantial period of time involving a very substantial number of victims”.
Will the Government ask China for its response to these deeply disturbing findings?
I read the debate that took place, not the article, but I will do so. On a number of occasions, the noble Lord and I have talked about the specific issue of organ harvesting. I assure him that we are watching and working closely on the outcomes of Sir Geoffrey Nice’s review. The detailed report will also be out later this year. Our officials have attended every evidence session and will continue to do so and update accordingly. In raising this issue directly, I am deeply concerned, like the noble Lord, particularly because there is an issue of organ harvesting not just from people elsewhere: I have heard it suggested and was briefed on prisoners in the system being used for this purpose. The situation is deeply concerning and we are raising it at all levels.
Is the noble Lord prepared to raise this issue with the World Health Organization? Its responses to concerns raised about the use of organs in the appalling way suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, were very weak. I hope that the Government will be as vigorous in dealing with the WHO as they appear to be with the Chinese Government.
My Lords, I am grateful to hear from the Minister that we have made bilateral representations and used our seat at the Human Rights Council, but there are other, often more subtle, ways we can exert influence. The UK Government are an employer of many local staff in our embassies; our soft-power institutions, such as the British Council and perhaps the BBC, also employ a lot of local staff. Can the Minister outline whether the Government have a policy in situations like this to ensure that these persecuted minorities are represented within the local staff we employ?
My noble friend makes an important point. I assure her that, in recruiting for any post throughout the world, the United Kingdom adopts a policy of equality and justice. Her point is to ensure that all communities of a particular country are represented and that there is no discrimination in our recruitment. She makes an important point about soft power in other organisations working in China, which I will take back. I do not have the numbers in front of me on the different communities employed but I will certainly take that back and write to her, as is appropriate.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the abolition of capital punishment. There is evidence that a significant proportion of human organs were removed from executed prisoners. China’s use of the penalty is subject to great concern because there is no transparency on the number of executions it carries out. We now have an American roving ambassador dealing with this matter. What liaison exists between our Minister and the American roving ambassador to make sure that we make the strongest protest possible to China about its lack of transparency in carrying out such executions?
My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that I work very closely with Ambassador Sam Brownback on both this issue and freedom of religion across the world; we are co-ordinated. Another recent example was a visit to Pakistan. As I left Islamabad, Ambassador Brownback was arriving. We have ensured a co-ordinated approach on what the United Kingdom and United States are doing.
To follow up on my noble friend’s question about the WHO, I understand—and completely agree with—the Minister’s commitment to raising these issues with China, but organ harvesting has other implications, not only for universities, which could be co-operating. Can the Minister assure the House that he will raise this issue across Westminster and Whitehall to ensure that all departments take it seriously and that we do not start using organs harvested from prisoners?
The noble Lord is quite right. I am aware, from the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, of World Health Organization’s current, persisting view. I assure the noble Lord once again that this is important to the World Health Organization and Whitehall. For example, some countries are also adopting systems to restrict this. We are working with them to see how those restrictions are applied and we seek to review our own position in that respect.
My Lords, it is for schools to make their own decisions about investing their funding and their staffing. The department publishes pay ranges and all maintained schools must follow these in setting pay. Although there is more money going into our schools than ever before, we recognise that there are some budgeting challenges. That is why we have introduced a wide range of practical support to help schools and local authorities economise on non-staff costs.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, but it is the usual mantra about more funding going into schools. That is, frankly, sophistry, because 91% of schools have suffered real-terms cuts in per-pupil funding since 2015. My question highlights just one example of school budgets being stretched beyond breaking point, leading to situations where parents are asked to buy essential items such as books and stationery. Some schools now close on Friday lunchtimes to save money. Is it not a disgrace that, in one of the richest economies in the world, head teachers are forced to beg for funding in some situations? The very principle of free education is being undermined by Conservative cuts to our schools. The Government’s latest school workforce statistics show that, in 2017, there were 137,000 more pupils in England’s schools, yet there were 5,400 fewer teachers and 2,800 fewer teaching assistants. How can the Minister possibly justify that?
My Lords, I think that the school which has come to the noble Lord’s attention is Furzedown School in Wandsworth. The challenge which that school faces is declining pupil numbers. They have declined every year for five years, which is why it needs to keep an eye on its staffing levels. That is its problem. It is a well-funded school, receiving £4,900 per pupil, which is well above the national average of £4,166. On the bigger point of overall funding, the IFS has said, independently, that per-pupil funding for five to 16 year-olds by 2020 will be 50% higher than it was in 2000.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Watson, said “91%”; it is 91% of schools that have had their per-pupil funding cut across England. To have staff taking cuts in their salaries; to close schools on a Friday; to have so-called cost cutters going into schools and suggesting that school lunch portions are reduced in size; that is no way to run an education service. Does the Minister deny that there has been a reduction in funding in 91% of our schools? Since 2015, my home city of Liverpool has lost £48 million to our schools.
My Lords, as I said in answer to the Question, funding is going up. It does not help the debate to follow scurrilous articles about food portions. That school was throwing away a large quantity of food. No parent wants to see that happen. It is a huge environmental waste. It was highlighted simply as an area of inefficiency. As a Schools Minister, no one wants more funding into the system than me, but I want that system to be well run so that the money goes to the front line. Noble Lords will have seen the story in the press the other day about the Tolworth Girls’ School, where the head teacher claimed that she was so badly funded that she had to clean the lavatories herself. What she did not tell you was that she took an 8% pay rise, taking her to between £125,000 and £130,000, and increased the cleaning budget by nearly 90%.
My Lords, the Government speak a lot about the importance of social mobility for pupils. Does the Minister not think that this is an appalling situation for dedicated professionals to be in, taking salary cuts and doing all they have to do to keep schools running? Are the Government speaking to teachers’ and head teachers’ unions about this situation? If so, what is the response?
My Lords, last year we increased the main scale pay rate for teachers by the largest amount in nearly 10 years. Teachers are well paid, and deservedly so. This year, we are increasing the contribution to their pensions by some 43%, one of the largest increases in any pension contribution in the country.
My Lords, it is very difficult for those of us who are not experts in the subject to gather from the interchanges that have taken place the actual position of per-pupil funding in schools. I would therefore be very grateful if the Minister would tell me whether the assertions that have been made about per-pupil funding in schools are correct or not.
My Lords, the noble Baroness is right: it is complicated, and that is why we introduced the national funding formula, which put another £1.3 billion into the system. Since 2017, we have given every local authority more money for every pupil in every school, while allocating the biggest increases to schools that have historically been the most underfunded. There are 43 local authorities that between 2017-18 and 2019-20 have seen a 4% or greater increase per pupil.
The average per-pupil funding is as I gave in an earlier answer: around £4,100 per pupil. On top of that we add pupil premium, which is some £12 billion we have put into the system for the most disadvantaged children, as mentioned by the noble Baroness earlier. The funding is good; I would like to see more but I want to see it go to the front line where children will benefit.
Business of the House
Motion on Standing Orders
Further to the resolution of the House of 28 January that Her Majesty’s Government should provide sufficient time for this House to ensure the timely passage of legislation necessary to implement any deal or proposition that has commanded the support of the majority of the House of Commons, that:
(1) Standing Order 46 (No two stages of a Bill to be taken on one day) be dispensed with to allow the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 5) Bill to be taken through all its stages this day; and
(2) Standing Order 39 (Order of Business) be dispensed with to enable that Bill to be considered after the motions on Economic Affairs Committee reports in the name of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean.
My Lords, unconventional times call for unconventional measures. What are these times? The country faces the possibility of an exit from the EU without a deal; a disorderly exit that nobody wants. The Prime Minister does not want it, business and the CBI do not want it, the TUC does not want it, the House of Commons does not want it, and your Lordships’ House voted against a no-deal exit by a majority of 169. But the eventuality remains a risk, as we are constantly reminded, because that is the default legal outcome unless something else happens. That legal default—a crash-out no deal—would mean no transition period, the immediate introduction of tariffs, complete uncertainty for British citizens living in the EU 27, no European arrest warrants, security concerns and dire consequences for industry, to say nothing of the implications for Gibraltar or the island of Ireland.
We have received a Bill from the House of Commons that makes something else happen, and we are about to give it a First Reading. It would ensure that there is a legal requirement on the Prime Minister to seek an extension to the Article 50 period to prevent that default legal outcome coming to pass. However, the Bill, passed by the elected House, can have effect only if we deal with it today, so that it can receive Royal Assent in time for the EU Council to consider the application for an extension. To fulfil our duty to deal with a Bill sent by the Commons, we have to handle it today.
This is in compliance with the view of your Lordships’ House on 28 January, when we called on Her Majesty’s Government to take all appropriate steps to ensure that sufficient time be provided for this House to ensure the timely passage of legislation necessary to implement any proposition that had commanded the support of the majority of the House of Commons. That Motion was passed with a majority of 152.
The Commons has passed this Bill. It has expressed a clear view that no deal is unacceptable and that the situation is urgent. Regrettably, the Government failed to honour that Motion published by your Lordships. They should have tabled the Motion I am about to move, to facilitate and expedite the will of the elected House. Today, the Government still will not listen to the Commons—or to this House, which has voted to facilitate any Bill from the Commons. That is not leadership. The Government have lost the support of the Commons, and now refuse to follow your Lordships’ Motion.
I believe the conventions of the House, to which the noble Lord used to adhere, mean that it is my decision whether to give way. I have decided not to.
We, rather than the Government, had to table this Motion, which would allow us to take all stages of the Bill today and add it to today’s agenda. However, it is not just the Government who are failing to respond to the decision of the elected House. We see on the Order Paper seven amendments to my Motion—all, it must be said, from Peers who have been very open and honest about their desire for, or at least their acceptance of, a no-deal departure. However, rather than just voting against my Motion, which is the correct way to halt proceedings if they have support across the House, they have chosen to try to delay the Bill so long that it can have no effect, and so thwart the decision of the elected House.
Some of those Peers have even, at the very last moment, found themselves in absolute need to speak on a really interesting Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, on the report Making Tax Digital for VAT: Treating Small Businesses Fairly—the very small businesses, presumably, that wrote to me saying, “Whatever we want, it is not no deal”. But just before 6 pm last night, once they knew this Motion would be here today, they found themselves suddenly seized of the need to add their names to the speakers’ list. I have a list of those who added their names at the very last moment.
What we are seeing today, in addition to those seven amendments and to more people wanting to speak later to put off the Bill, is a small group of unelected Peers in an unelected House trying first to stop us considering the Bill today, and then trying to talk it out. No doubt they are seeking to go through the night to halt the Commons’ desire to prevent no deal. They cannot win this by the strength of their arguments or through support, but only by those tactics.
I and my friends will be here all night. I have discovered that breakfast starts at 7.30 am, and am taking orders now. If that is what it takes to do what the elected House of Commons has asked us, that is what we will do. For the moment, I urge the House to respond to the cross-party Bill which has arrived here, having been passed with urgency in another place, and, in this time of national uncertainty, do what we are appointed here to do—to consider in a timely fashion any legislation sent to us. We should agree to pass it in time for it to have an effect. I beg to move.
My Lords, I beg to move that this House resolves itself into a Committee on the Motion in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter of Kentish Town, pursuant to Standing Order 62.
This has nothing to do with Brexit. It has to do with the procedures of this House and of our constitution. I am very disappointed. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, is held in very high regard in this House, and we have—I will not say “enjoyed” but we have had good-humoured discussion over and over again on issues arising from Brexit. But this is about how the House operates and how our constitution is carried out.
As I listened to the noble Baroness, I had a look at her CV. I see that she contributed to a book entitled Prime Minister Portillo and Other Things That Never Happened. Obviously she is doing one on Brexit at the moment, judging by the contribution she has just made. I am very surprised indeed that she of all people, and the Opposition, should be joining the insurgents in the House of Commons who have sought to undermine the process and procedures of the House of Commons.
If that sounds an exaggerated point, I will quote from what the putative Prime Minister in the House of Commons, my friend and former colleague Oliver Letwin, had to say—I do not know whether he had a word with the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter. He said in response to a colleague in the other place:
“My hon. Friend can rest assured—although this may not be of any comfort to him—that those of us who are promoting this course of action have taken the trouble to identify Members of the House of Lords who are well able to carry the Bill forward in the House of Lords.
My hon. Friend may also wish to know, although I fear that it will also be of no comfort to him, that there is overwhelming support in the House of Lords for this measure, and that we therefore anticipate that it will, in all probability … pass through the House of Lords very rapidly. To that end, the House of Lords has in fact already passed a motion that provides for the expeditious consideration of exactly this form of Bill … My sense, for what it is worth, is that although the House of Lords procedures are arcane and it is impossible to determine from the outside the time that will be taken, there is very substantial support for the Bill there, and it is therefore very unlikely that anything other than technical amendments, which might be wholly welcome, would come back, and they would therefore be accepted. I do not think that is an issue we … face”.—[Official Report, Commons, 3/4/19; cols. 1067-71.]
To describe our role as a House in protecting the constitution and reforming our legislation as “arcane procedures” shows an extraordinary arrogance, which is matched only by the way in which he and others have sought to turn the House of Commons into the Executive and to prevent the House of Commons and indeed the Government carrying out their proper duties.
My Lords, I am sorry for intervening on my noble friend, but I find it utterly extraordinary that we have just listened to a Motion being moved by a leading Member on the Opposition Front Bench who simply would not take an intervention. This debate can be solved so easily. Over the last two or three decades, the House has developed an extremely successful practice for dealing with urgent Bills. We do Second Reading on one day and we take Committee and the remaining stages either the next day or the day after that. I understand that the Bill is urgent, but there is absolutely no reason to have all stages taken on one day.
I am happy to give way to my noble friend if he wishes to finish his point, but I think he made it pretty clearly. The noble Baroness suggests that this has all got to be done today. Why? We could sit tomorrow or we could continue on Monday. There is no reason at all why it should all be done today.
No, I am making an intervention. It is not for me to give way to the noble Lord, much though I am sure we will be happy to hear from him in due course. The point I want to make to the noble Lord is that this House has dealt with emergency legislation in one day. I refer him to the Human Reproductive Cloning Bill, which I took through this House on 26 November 2001, with a Second Reading and Committee in one day. It was to stop a scientist from another country who was coming to the UK to carry out human cloning, and legislation was needed urgently. We took it in one day. This legislation is needed urgently because we do not have a functioning Executive, we have the most critical situation this country has faced in decades and the Commons has had to do what it did. That is why it is urgent. Surely the noble Lord can see that.
I am surprised that the noble Countess did not intervene, given the length of that intervention from the noble Lord. He will recall that the Bill that he referred to was agreed by the usual channels, which is the normal way in which we proceed. I realise that because I was in the House of Commons I may have got used to its procedures, but I have been used to Bills being presented with the name of the sponsor. There is no sponsor on this Bill. The noble Baroness said that it was being presented for its First Reading, but the Bill appears to be an orphan. Who is the sponsor for this Bill?
That is very alarming, because I thought that the noble Lord was a very good House of Commons man. When the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, said that in the House of Commons there was no functioning Executive, that is because, according to Sir Oliver Letwin and some of his friends in the other place, they are now the Executive. His remarks in the Commons were extraordinary. He said that,
“when this House comes to legislate, as I hope it will and fear it must, it will be, so to speak, a Cabinet. We will be making real-life decisions about what happens to our fellow countrymen—not just legislating in the hope that many years later, subject to further jots and tittles, the law, as administered by the system of justice, will work better. We will be making a decision about the future of this country. How can we possibly make those decisions unless we are properly informed? The process of which we are now at the start will require the fundamental realignment of the relationship between the civil service, Government and Parliament. There is no way we can continue to act as though we were merely a body to which the Government were accountable; for a period, for this purpose, we will have to take on the government of our country”.—[Official Report, Commons, 14/2/19; col. 1110.]
This is what is being said at the other end of this building.
I am very grateful to my noble friend for giving way. The point I wanted to make, which addresses the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, addresses the point that my noble friend has just made. It is that, admirable as the Bill that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, brought forward in one day was, it was not on a major constitutional issue.
I am very grateful; I thank the noble Lord very much indeed for giving way. Was not part of the campaign during the referendum about the sovereignty of Parliament, not the sovereignty of the Government? Is not the delay in passing a Bill already through the Commons bringing this House into disrepute?
In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, is it not the case that Parliament delegated its decision on the issue underlying these proceedings to the people of this country? The problem is that far too many people in Parliament do not like the answer they got.
My noble friend is absolutely right, and I thought I might deal with some of these arguments on the next amendment. I am trying to make a case here and am getting lots of interventions. The noble Baroness said we were trying to delay the passage of the Bill, but I am being delayed by interventions from her colleagues; I am anxious to make rapid progress.
On the interventions from the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, while it is true that there have been expedited proceedings in times of emergency or for security measures or measures relating to Northern Ireland, those expedited proceedings have normally taken place when both sides of the House have agreed that it was necessary. This measure is being introduced despite being opposed by the Government.
I absolutely agree, and it is questionable whether it is necessary. My understanding is that the Prime Minister has already indicated that she plans to ask for an extension of our Article 50 period, so we do not need this Bill. I am told that when this point was put to our putative Prime Minister, Sir Oliver Letwin, he said he needed it as an insurance policy. I am sorry, but subverting our constitution for an insurance policy seems a pretty high premium to me.
Is my noble friend aware of the opinion of the excellent and rather consensual chairman of the House of Commons Procedure Committee? He said the following yesterday:
“The House of Commons is about to pass a major piece of legislation without a Report stage or a substantive Third Reading. If the Government did this, the House would rightly be deeply irritated with them, so the House should find no virtue in its actions this evening”.—[Official Report, Commons, 3/4/19; col. 1211.]
Indeed, and perhaps even at this late stage the noble Baroness might be prepared to reconsider her Motion. I would be perfectly happy if we had Second Reading today and took the Committee stage another day; there is no great issue here.
The noble Baroness suggested that the amendments had been tabled by people in favour of no deal; that is what she said. As I said at the beginning, this is not actually about the merits; we will get on to those later. As she sought to imply that one was coming from a biased position, I wonder if she would like to look at the pamphlet produced by Sir Stephen Laws and Professor Richard Ekins, entitled Endangering Constitutional Government: The Risks of the House of Commons Taking Control. They also picked up those words I quoted from Oliver Letwin, and this is what they say:
“By those words, Sir Oliver announced his intention to create a constitutional crisis, and invited MPs to join him in a flagrant and destructive attack on our current constitutional settlement. However, even if many MPs resile from the conclusion that the Commons must become the Cabinet, the course of action MPs have now set in motion, with help from the Speaker, is one which undercuts the Government’s capacity to govern and its freedom to set the agenda—to propose policy which Parliament might then choose to resist, adopt or adapt.
If the Commons continues down this path unopposed, the Government will end up in office but unable to govern. The Commons would nominally have confidence in the Government but would in practice not extend to the Government the freedom that such confidence would otherwise entail to carry out any policy initiative. Again, the constitution does not require that Parliament should accept the Government’s proposals. But unless the Government enjoys the initiative in formulating and proposing policy, the country cannot be effectively governed; and the relationship between the political authorities and the people will break down if MPs act in mutually inconsistent ways in performing their dual role both as an electoral college for government and in exercising oversight over the conduct of public affairs”.
What a mess we are in. Members opposite, in this House, of all places, where we have conducted the debate in a civilised manner—
Yes, indeed, and that is why we do not need this Bill, which is a point that I have already made. The Prime Minister has said that she wants an extension. She has asked—I think somewhat courageously—the leader of the Opposition to talk to see if they can find a common purpose, but we know that that has been received with a certain amount of cynicism on the Benches opposite. Most of them are not great fans of the leader of the Opposition, although today they appear to be united in conspiring with those people in the House of Commons to undermine our constitutional system.
In the House of Commons Standing Order 14 has always given the Government’s business priority. It has existed since the early 19th century. The Government have always had a veto on legislation which involves taxation or expenditure. I am afraid that the combination of some militant people who wish to prevent the will of the 17.4 million people who voted to leave the European Union and a rogue Speaker—
I will say very gently to the noble Lord that he ought to read the excellent speech made in the other place by the Secretary of State, Stephen Barclay, in which he explained in great detail how this Bill actually makes it more difficult for the Prime Minister to achieve her objectives. At the end of the day, with the support of the noble Baroness, we are not in control here; it is the European Union that will decide the length of an extension. This Bill is making the Prime Minister’s task very much more difficult.
Anyway, there will be plenty of time to go into the ins and outs and the merits of the legislation, but I am moving a Motion that we should take consideration of this in Committee. I appreciate that it is an unusual procedure but, as the noble Baroness made clear in her opening remarks, these are unusual times and these are important issues. We need to be in Committee—
In a second. As I say, we need to be in Committee because we need to be able to cross-examine the basis for the Motion tabled by the noble Baroness. We need to be able to speak more than once, which we cannot do unless we are in Committee. We need to consider the implications of this for the future conduct of business in this House. I will not read them out because I do not want to waste time—
I have to say that if the noble Lord had been speaking for 20 minutes, it would have been much less interesting.
I will not read them out, but in the Companion are two pages of very important information about Private Members’ Bills waiting to be discussed. Are we to have it that the Opposition can seize control of this House and accelerate Private Members’ Bills by arguing that they are urgent? There is an opportunity here for the noble Lord, Lord Grocott.
My Lords, the attraction of accelerating Private Members’ Bills to be considered in a day has great merit. For the record, my Private Member’s Bill had its Second Reading in September 2017 and has just reached Report. I hope that anyone considering acceleration of Private Members’ Bills in this way will agree to offer the same facility when I reintroduce my Bill.
The noble Lord knows that I have sympathy for his Bill—although there are others here who do not wish to see his Bill proceed—but he needs to have a word with Sir Oliver Letwin, who is able to arrange these things, and get his colleagues lined up.
Is not my noble friend right? I speak as a former Deputy Speaker—I was elected to carry out that role—as well as a former Member of Parliament in the other place. There was no Report stage in the Commons, which in itself is extraordinary—and incredibly extraordinary on a major constitutional Bill—and a truncated Third Reading. It is no good the noble Baroness on the Front Bench opposite saying there had been an exhaustive examination in the other place—there has not been. Why did Members of the other place pack up at half-past 11? Because they got tired. On the Maastricht Bill we went through the night for three nights running. That is how you look at a Bill in depth. My noble friend is right to ask that we should look at this Bill in depth during a Committee stage today.
I am sure there will be time to discuss the way in which the Bill was handled. It was passed by only one vote—and that came from someone who was wearing a tag on release from prison. The noble Lord says, “For goodness’ sake”, but this is a major constitutional matter. It was passed by one vote after speeches were limited to two minutes in the other place because of the guillotine. Does he think that is the way to proceed? He had a go at me the other day because I said that this practice of suspending our Standing Orders will lead to tyranny. He mocked me. He said, “Tyranny? How ridiculous”. All that lies between us and tyranny is that we respect the conventions of both Houses. Why do we do that? Because it is our constitution. I hope the noble Baroness will accept the amendment because she is in danger of tearing up our constitution in order to make a narrow party-political point. I beg to move.
My Lords, I speak at a very difficult time for our whole country. However we see this debate in this Chamber, we have to consider how it will be seen outside of it. For what it is worth, if I had still been a Member of another place, I would have voted in principle against this Bill. It raises serious constitutional implications for another place, and I hope that very soon it will look at its rules of order and conventions and change them, so that this type of legislation can never again be presented either to this House or to the country.
It is true, in strict terms, that this Bill is not related to the real question before us: the withdrawal agreement and a treaty between 27 other EU countries and the United Kingdom. However, we cannot have this debate without recognising that it has wide implications for that consideration. It seems to me, on the balance of argument which has been presented, that if I were going to vote—but I am not—I would agree with the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth. This is a reasonable way of proceeding, although I know it may seem to some to be a blocking measure.
I understand the anger and frustration, and the belief that the procedures of the House of Commons have been changed in a way that was almost impossible to foresee for those of us who spent years there—I was there for 26 years. Nevertheless, it has done it; nevertheless, the Speaker has ruled; and, nevertheless, even by one vote, the Bill has been passed. We in this House have to be very careful about stopping this Bill. We may take a long time on it, and we may raise very serious constitutional questions about the way the House of Commons has behaved and urge it to change its procedures for the future, but if the word were to go out that the House of Lords had blocked the Bill, it would raise a very serious question. I have never made any secret of my view that this House needs very substantial reform, and if noble Lords want to bring on the day that this House is changed in a very substantial way, it will happen. Noble Lords need to be extremely careful.
One thing I urge the House to remember is that, at long last, the Prime Minister of this country and the leader of the Opposition are meeting in what appears to be a climate of compromise with a readiness to try to put the country’s interest first. It may or may not succeed, but it is profoundly to be hoped that it does.
How will this whole thing look, against that atmosphere and that priority, to the 27 countries that will have to consider this Bill, if it were to become an Act? The Prime Minister has already indicated what she wishes to do, but they are in control of the procedure. Many times in this whole debate about Europe, I warned this House about Article 50, which we should never have used. It is deliberately designed to stop the sort of normal compromise and agreement which has proceeded in both Houses over many years. We are not in a so-called negotiation, and people are now seeing it. In front of us, we have a proposal from 27 countries. It may be that the Prime Minister is ready to go along with it, and perhaps the House will eventually, but it is not a negotiated procedure in the normal sense of the word, and those countries have the right to make the decision about whether to allow a postponement.
Furthermore, something we should consider is that it has to be unanimous, so just one country can refuse. We know they are thinking very carefully about whether they will allow this. Even if we get around it procedurally, they are worried about its implications for the whole tone and debate in their countries when electing the new European Parliament. The way we debate here and in the other place will go a long way to deciding whether they will wish to accept a postponement, which I profoundly hope they do. Do not think that we are in a little bubble here which has no implications for anything else.
This country has a long record of accepting international treaties. This country has a long record of sending its Ministers, particularly its Foreign Secretary, out to negotiate under the royal prerogative. It was a great mistake when we changed the royal prerogative and the right of a Minister to go into an international treaty to trade across the table and to come back to Parliament and ask for a yes or no. That is how we have dealt with international treaties. The obligation has been on Ministers—the Foreign Secretary and everyone else—to talk with their opposite numbers throughout a treaty-making process so that there was built-in consideration of the bipartisanship of foreign policy. Do we deny that virtue that we have had over centuries in this House and in another place, whereby international politics was, if possible, conducted under bipartisanship? Are we throwing all that out too?
Time after time during this process we have failed to understand that our own constitution is a check. Parliament—we here and those in the House of Commons—voted for a referendum, yet what does the country see? It sees an elite in both Houses, and in London, blocking the decision democratically made by the electorate in the referendum. Shame on you if you do anything to let that happen.
My Lords, I understand that the European Union has made it clear that, for an extension to be granted, it must know the reason for it. I would have been much happier with a decision in the House of Commons—not necessarily through this sort of procedure—that told the Prime Minister, by agreement, what it wanted to give as the reason. This is a fundamental part of the Bill. It is asking the Prime Minister to go and ask for an extension without specifying the reason to be put forward. Surely if the House of Commons requires the Prime Minister to do that, the minimum it should do is give an instruction as to the basis on which it wants that. However, for reasons I do not completely understand, we are in this position.
It is worth remembering that the European Union said at the beginning of these negotiations, described so eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Owen, that it was determined to agree the withdrawal agreement before any substantial discussion about the future. Therefore, it is now urgent to agree the withdrawal agreement. The Prime Minister’s agreement with the European Union has come before the House of Commons a number of times, yet, as far as I know, no amendment to it has been proposed. Surely if we are dealing with the withdrawal agreement, it is important that what is wrong with the Prime Minister’s one, in the eyes of the House of Commons, is made clear in an amendment to it. Of course, the European Union says that it will not agree to such an amendment, but if the option is a no-deal departure instead of an agreed departure, the European Union might well prefer a revised agreement. I do not know whether that is the case—needless to say, I am not party to these negotiations. I do not intend to be here all night either.
I am trying to understand what is going on. I believe that we need to concentrate on the withdrawal agreement. Nearly all the discussions in the House of Commons, so far as I have been able to follow them—they are quite detailed—have been about the future relationship. One problem is the provision in the present agreement about the future arrangement in the shape of the Irish backstop. It seems to me that that should not strictly be part of the withdrawal agreement, but part of the arrangements for the future. That is a possible amendment to the Prime Minister’s deal that might be of some interest.
I am most grateful to my noble and learned friend. The House of Commons passed a Motion saying that the agreement should be amended to replace the backstop. That is what the House of Commons decided but, unfortunately, the Government do not appear to have asked the European Union to do that.
I understand that. To ask to amend the agreement is one thing, but to tell them the specific alteration is another. I am very familiar with that particular Motion, which passed. The point that I am trying to make is that if you want to change a document, you should propose the amendment you have in mind. The amendment tabled—very wisely, if we wanted to get some agreement—did not do that. All it said was that we must get alternative arrangements. What alternative arrangements are likely to be suitable? This point seems very important.
That is what it says, but why should we accept that? It is supposed to be a negotiation. If we wanted an alternative arrangement, I should have thought that the position should be us saying what that alternative is. I have heard, “We don’t know what the UK wants”, again and again. A specific amendment to the agreement might well be subject to further consideration.
My Lords, the House of Commons sent us a Bill that its Members consider urgent. We should get on and consider its merits and demerits. Forty-nine noble Lords have put their names down for Second Reading, including the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth. There will be ample time during Second Reading for all these points to be explored. I suggest that we get on and do it.
My Lords, I am instructed by the House to say that the Motion “That the Question be now put” is considered a most exceptional procedure, and that the House must not accept it save in circumstances where it is felt to be the only means of ensuring the proper conduct of the business of the House. Further, if the Member who seeks to move it persists in his intention, the practice of the House is that the Motion be put without debate.
My Lords, we must vote on the closure Motion that the noble Lord has moved, stopping a number of people who wish to address an important point in so far as the procedure of this House is concerned. If I can be helpful to the noble Lord, the procedure is that we now vote on that, if he would like to move for closure.
Amendment to the Motion
My Lords, it may be for the convenience of the House if I say that, if any of the amendments in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, the noble Lord, Lord True, the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, or the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, are agreed to, I will not be able to call the amendments in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton of Epsom, and the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, by reason of pre-emption. In addition, if any of the amendments in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, the noble Lord, Lord True, or the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, are agreed to, I will not be able to call the amendment in the name of the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley.
My Lords, before we move to the next speech, I make a plea. Those of us who sit at this end of the Room cannot hear what is being explained from the Woolsack. I ask the authorities of the House, if the human race can send people to the moon and do wonderful things, how is it that we cannot get a sound system by which we can hear very important notifications about what we are supposed to be doing?
My Lords, nor, it seems, can we actually implement what 17.4 million people have voted for.
My amendment is very simple and requires that we reject the proposal from the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, to suspend our Standing Orders, and that we treat this Bill in the same way as we would treat any other Bill. I appreciate the points that have been made about the urgency of the consideration of this matter, but I have already indicated that it would have been perfectly possible for us to consider the Second Reading of this Bill today and have its Committee stage on Monday. That would have given people a chance to absorb the arguments, to treat them properly and to put down amendments. As it is, it will be extremely difficult for people to put down amendments for the Committee and Report stages of what is a vital Bill.
The noble Baroness suggested that this is some kind of partisan exercise by leavers. I have to say that those who are jeering have probably not read the Bill. If they read it, they will find that it makes it much more difficult for the Prime Minister to reach an agreement on her extension, because she has no authority. She has to come back to the House of Commons if something is proposed that is not as she has proposed, and it actually makes the process more difficult for those who wish to avoid no deal and see this carried through speedily and effectively. It passed the House of Commons by one vote without amending that very basic point.
What this House is very good at is reading legislation, putting down amendments and agreeing sensible conclusions. It was impossible for the other place to do this, given the timetable that was set. When the Secretary of State, Stephen Barclay—who I think has done a magnificent job in very difficult circumstances—complains that he has only a few minutes to address these matters, something has gone very awry. I was struck, and indeed moved, by what he had to say at 7 pm last night in the House of Commons:
“We are passing the Bill in haste and do not have adequate time to debate it in the manner that I would like us to—there is only one minute left on the clock. There are problems with the speed of its passage, the constitutional principle of it and the way it will interact with any decision reached by the Council that differs from the earlier decision taken by the House. I hope that the constitutional experts in the other place will address some of the Bill’s flaws. It is because of those defects that the Government will oppose the Bill, and I urge Members to oppose this defective Bill”.—[Official Report, Commons, 3/4/19; col. 1146.]
If ever there were an invitation from a Secretary of State to ask this House to do its constitutional duty, that is it.
In the most appalling circumstances, when time for debate was very limited, the thing was rammed through the House of Commons in nine hours. All my amendment does is say, “Please can we actually do our duty and carry out the proper scrutiny of this Bill, and reject the suggestion by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, that it all has to be done in haste?”
It is not just the Secretary of State who has expressed concern about this: concerns have been raised about the speed, and the precedent that would be created, undermining our ability to govern this country—that is pretty serious. Concern has been expressed by the chairs of the European Scrutiny Committee, the Procedure Committee and the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee. This House cannot ignore that and just say, “We are not going to have proper debate; it is all a filibuster”. This is what we are here for. If we are not capable of doing that, what is the point of us? What is the point of having 100 people on the Liberal Benches if they are not actually carrying out their constitutional duty, which is to be guardians of the constitution, to scrutinise legislation and to hold the Government—in this case Sir Oliver Letwin and his chums—to account?
I almost made the point earlier that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, is sitting in the wrong place today. She should be sitting on the Government Front Bench, because she is acting as if she is the Government. That is an extraordinary thing to happen in this House. It shows complete contempt for our constitution and the ways in which we operate.
There are other issues we need time to consider. The Speaker of the House of Commons, who has made some interesting rulings, has taken the view that this Bill does not require a money resolution. If the Prime Minister asks for an extension to a particular date and the European Union says, “You can have your extension but you will have to pay us another £30 billion”, would that not involve expenditure? Does this Bill not commit the Prime Minister, as a matter of law, to accept that? And yet, apparently it does not require a money resolution. Why not? Because if it did, the other place would not have been able to send it here. There is chicanery going on here, and it is up to this House to scrutinise that.
People are watching. Time and again they have been promised that we will leave on 29 March—I will not go through the whole litany of things. The pantomime which they have seen in the other place has done huge damage to the standing of Parliament, whatever side of this argument you are on. Please let this House carry out its duty in a way that will be respected by the public. That involves us not setting aside our important Standing Orders, which are the guardians of ensuring this matter be dealt with properly. I beg to move.
The original Question—I hope the noble Lord, Lord Empey, can hear me—was that this Motion be agreed to, since when an amendment has been moved to leave out from “move” to the end and insert the words as set out on the Order Paper. The Question I now therefore have to put is that this amendment be agreed to.
My noble friend Lord Forsyth’s amendment gives me the opportunity to speak both to the amendments tabled to the Business of the House Motion and to the Motion itself.
I regret that we find ourselves in this position today, and I believe that there are concerns around all corners of this House regarding the precedent that the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 5) Bill has set in the House of Commons. I am extremely disappointed that we are now facing a similar attempt to force that approach on this House. This House gets its legitimacy not from its composition but from the performance of its role. As Leader of the House, I have the responsibility within government to ensure that this House’s role is respected in the way that the Government ask it to consider legislation. In these unusual circumstances, where the Commons has passed legislation which is not supported by the Government, today this is the responsibility of those promoting the Bill.
When the Government seek the expedition of a Bill, we include the Explanatory Notes, including notes on the case for it to be expedited. Unfortunately, there appear to be no such Explanatory Notes today, which does not aid our consideration of the Bill. The amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Robathan notes the irregularity of the position we find ourselves in. The amendments in the names of my noble friends Lord Hamilton of Epsom and Lord Blencathra raise the roles of the Constitution Committee and the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, and I have sympathy for all three of these amendments.
However, to avoid any accusations of hypocrisy from these Benches, I must acknowledge that there are situations where this House has to take decisions on legislation without the guarantee that our Select Committees will be able to produce reports. I know that the Government, and past Governments, have not always covered themselves in glory on those points, as noble Lords have regularly pointed out. Therefore, Ministers will not be taking part in Divisions on the amendments in the names of my noble friends Lord Hamilton or Lord Blencathra. The amendments in the names of my noble friends Lord Forsyth, Lord Ridley and Lord True argue that the Standing Orders should apply to the Bill in the normal way. This is the view of the Government, and we will therefore support these amendments.
On Tuesday evening, the Prime Minister set out the Government’s next steps, including her intention to seek a further extension under Article 50. A European Council meeting is scheduled for Wednesday 10 April, at which this request will be discussed. I am therefore in full agreement with the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lady Noakes. The Government see this legislation as unnecessary to achieve such an extension with the European Council.
Because of the speed at which this legislation is being considered, we have genuine concerns that this Bill could tie the hands of government and, in fact, be contrary to its stated objectives, as my noble friend Lord Forsyth rightly pointed out. The Bill creates a process whereby, if the European Council proposes an alternative date on 10 April, we would need to come back to Parliament the following day—Thursday 11 April —to get its agreement to that alternative date. By this point the Council would be over. The leaders of the other member states would have gone home and it would put us in the position of potentially having to try to agree a further extension with the EU through correspondence in the 24 hours leading up to our departure on 12 April. I simply do not believe this is a sensible or desirable process. On that basis, the Government’s position is the same as that stated yesterday by the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. We will be opposing this Bill again today.
Many noble Lords have commented today, and on other occasions, on the lack of scrutiny legislation often receives in the House of Commons. I ask noble Lords to think carefully before they vote in favour of the Motion of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, which would indicate that, although small, this significant piece of legislation should require only two days of parliamentary debate across both Houses. If, after amendments have been disposed of, the noble Baroness presses her original Motion to a vote, the Government will oppose it, as we did in the House of Commons.
My Lords, I think the mood of the House is that we should move as expeditiously as possible through these amendments to the Motion, so that we can consider the substance of the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 5) Bill as quickly as possible. I therefore urge the House that the Question be now put on this particular Motion.
I am instructed by order of the House to say that the Motion “That the Question be now put” is considered a most exceptional procedure and the House will not accept it save in circumstances where it is felt to be the only means of ensuring the proper conduct of the business of the House. Further, if a Member who seeks to move it persists in his intention, the practice of the House is that the Question on the Motion be put without debate. Does the noble Lord still wish to move this closure?
Amendment to the Motion
Leave out from “move” to the end and insert “notwithstanding the non-binding resolution of the House of 28 January that Her Majesty’s Government should provide sufficient time for this House to ensure the timely passage of legislation necessary to implement any deal or proposition that has commanded the support of the majority of the House of Commons, that this House does not consider it is in keeping with the traditions and procedures of the House of Lords, its proper scrutinising role or its function as a safeguard of the constitution to apply unprecedented procedures to this Bill, and therefore declines to dispense with normal Standing Orders.”
My Lords, it is probably worth placing on the record what has happened so far today, because it is germane to the argument I wish to put to your Lordships. It is the same argument that I put to my Front Bench last week: your Lordships would make a grave error if they adopted the habit of not adhering to their Standing Orders. Last week I was rather disobliging to my Front Bench, and I apologise if I was a little sharp to my noble friend the Leader of the House. I submitted to the House—and found some support across the House, although notably it was whipped against by the Front Bench opposite—that it would be wise for your Lordships to wait for a report from the appropriate committee before taking a grave and important decision. The Government declined to do so. What transpired afterwards was that no doubt the Government took advice from wiser people than me, and wiser people outside the House. The Government actually adjourned the House the next day to do precisely what I had asked them to do the previous day and waited to hear the report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. I condemn the Government’s attempt to set aside Standing Orders, but I congratulate them on listening.
Today we have a similar but even graver attempt to set aside our Standing Orders, which comes not from the Front Bench of the Government but from Her Majesty’s Official Opposition. Let us be under no illusion here: that side is whipped and is acting not at the behest of the slightly risible figure of Sir Oliver Letwin. It is the Labour Party that provides all the votes for Sir Oliver Letwin—the bulk of the votes—that is moving this procedure today and that is seeking to abuse the procedures of the House, with the support of the Liberal Democrats. I believe that when the Official Opposition seek to usurp the role of the Government and to set aside the proper procedures in this place, they should submit themselves to the same scrutiny as the Government are required to do, which we glory in every day. Why do we come here every day?
The noble Lord is a great wag, is he not? I have often thought the same about him, but I find him too engaging to have said such a thing.
I return to my argument. One thing I regret about the amendment I have tabled—but it was necessary because of the nature of the Bill before us—is that it mentions the House applying,
“unprecedented procedures to this Bill”.
I believe my amendment would be better if it said “any non-emergency Bill”. I think your Lordships are teetering slightly on the edge of a different dangerous place from that which was put to us earlier in the debate. In this part of our proceedings, the argument is ultimately about procedure. That may be arcane, but later in my remarks I will develop why I think that that is extremely important.
Our first discussion today was when my noble friend asked us to go into Committee. I would like to have spoken on that and I will now develop the points that I would have made then because they are absolutely germane to the point. My noble friend was responding to a situation where the Official Opposition, at the behest of the Labour Party, has come to the House and for the first time is asking your Lordships to accept this unusual procedure: the combination of the Bill before us and what happened in the Commons yesterday. That deserves to be examined. Why did my noble friend suggest that we should go into Committee? The reason was shown to us. When the former Leader of the House, my noble friend Lord Strathclyde, tried to intervene on the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, based on all of his experience—my noble friend Lord Strathclyde enjoys great respect on both sides of the House because he is a great servant to this place—he wanted to ask for an explanation from the noble Baroness, acting for the Official Opposition, about usurping the role of the Government and demanding that this House pass legislation which is not approved by the Government in one day, she declined to take his intervention.
That showed me why my noble friend was right to ask that we should go into Committee. Why should not the Official Opposition or anyone else who might want to use this procedure in the future not be required to make the same response to the House on the whys and wherefores as a Minister of the Crown who comes before noble Lords has to do? What is it about the Official Opposition with this bogus cry—
Well, my Lords, it is for each noble Lord to draw whatever conclusion he or she wishes. I simply draw attention to the fact that this is a device that is being used by the Official Opposition, with the approval of the leader of the Labour Party, against the House of Lords.
My Lords, to support my noble friend Lord Robathan, the point he has not made clearly is that members of the Opposition wish to be sitting on this side of the House, and one day they will. They will then find the dragon’s teeth they sowed cutting away at their feet.
I am sure that my noble friend is right but really I am not so interested in the politics of the matter. Of course that is the case, but it is the case of life and of democracy. The cry of democracy is that the people choose and the Government change. That is the glory of freedom. What is going on in the House of Commons, with your Lordships being suborned to assist in it, is that those who the people of this country did not choose are trying to use the procedures of both Houses to deny the people of this country what they actually did choose, which was to leave the European Union.
One of the reasons why the Opposition are using the strange technique that my noble friend has exposed is in search of the word “compromise”. Surely that is something that we are going to have to look at later in the proceedings. That is because in a binary situation, you cannot have a compromise: you are either in the European Union or you are out of it. You particularly cannot reach a compromise with someone who is an extreme socialist and is using that as his red line.
Again, my noble friend makes a strong point that takes us to the substance of the Bill, which we will discuss later. After many years in the usual channels trying to do the best for this House, and 13 years of opposition when we never attempted a procedure of this kind, I am trying to say to noble Lords, particularly our reasonable colleagues on the Cross Benches, that we should be cautious about waving this through so easily.
Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, had a bad day in court because he jumped up and tried to cut off argument. Are lawyers not supposed to listen? I apologise because the noble Lord is not in his place, but he did not allow anyone else to make the case for going into Committee. I turn to the last Motion we had. Let me remind noble Lords of what was before the House.
We know what it was.
Noble Lords may know but they need to be reminded and the world outside needs to understand. The last proposition was that in relation to this Bill, shoved through the House of Commons late at night, which a former Leader of the House has just risen to tell us has flaws which need to be examined and addressed in Committee, we should be prepared not to set aside the Standing Orders but to look at its different stages on different days. Perhaps we could take the Second Reading today and take the remaining stages on another day. Is that such an unexceptionable proposition? Is that not what your Lordships are here for? I repeat the question I put earlier: why do your Lordships come here, if not to scrutinise? What is the purpose of the House if not to scrutinise properly?
I thank my noble friend for giving way. I just make the point that this House has been asked by the other place to consider a Bill that it would like to pass. We are debating issues here that could have been debated on so many other occasions. We have been passing statutory instruments for no deal without impact assessments and without proper consultation. We have overridden, when it has been convenient for those who perhaps want to leave with no deal, but this is about stopping us crashing out with no deal and giving the Prime Minister the support she may need to stand firm and go back to the European Union to ask for a longer extension so that we do not crash out with no deal.
My noble friend is entirely wrong. That is not the point before the House in this Motion. Indeed, the procedure I have suggested would still allow the Bill to be passed. However, since when has it been the function of this House to say “Yes, sir” to any piece of legislation suddenly rushed down the Corridor? That is the proposition being put to us by my noble friend Lady Altmann: “The House of Commons has asked us to pass this, so we must be pass it. Get on with it”. Every time someone comes to this House bearing papers with a green ribbon on them, they are asking us to agree. Of course they want us to agree and they would probably prefer us to do so quickly, but we do not have to. That is called freedom and it is called scrutiny. It is also called consideration, but none of that is allowed for in the procedures that have been put before us today. The Bill comes with no Explanatory Notes and not even a name on it, as the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, admitted, yet we are being asked to pass it in a hurry or we are behaving badly. The day when the House of Lords is behaving badly because it is giving proper due consideration to a proposed Act of Parliament in the time that is sufficient and necessary for it to do so, as the noble Baroness asks in her amendment, is the beginning of the end for the House of Lords. That will be when the House of Lords says, “Yes, sir, we all want to go home”. I am sorry, but we need to be mindful of the importance of proper procedures.
I do not care for tweeting but I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, is a great tweeter. I was sleepless last night, thinking about what I might say today, so I had a look at what she had been tweeting. Your Lordships will be interested to know that on 24 February—you can look it up—she sent out a tweet complaining that the Government might want to get the withdrawal Act through in 10 days. She tweeted that the House of Lords does not have programme Motions; the House of Lords needs time to consider things. That was on 24 February.
It ought to be 1 April today—it is 4 April—because the noble Baroness has come forward with a programme Motion in which she says that the House of Lords cannot have more than one day to consider this matter. I do not eat Devonshire clotted cream, but I find the noble Baroness’s position as rich as that.
While I am talking about the noble Baroness, I feel I must say how discourteous it was to the House to table this Motion so late. We heard from the putative Prime Minister, Sir Oliver Letwin, yesterday morning that he had been discussing matters with his friends down the Corridor—who are here in person—so why could she not have tabled this Motion before that? She tabled it before the Bill had arrived from the House of Commons and knew what was there. She could have given better notice to the House but failed to do so. She tried to bounce the House at the very last minute and then came up with this trumpery that something has to be passed quickly when the Prime Minister has already said that she will do what the Bill asks her to do.
What nonsense is this? Why are noble Lords going along with this nonsense and being prepared to set aside their Standing Orders?
Talking about Standing Orders, the noble Lord, Lord True, will recall from when he was bag carrier for the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, that the Companion to the Standing Orders recommends that speeches should not exceed 15 minutes. He has now been speaking for 17 minutes. Would it not be appropriate for him to draw his remarks to a close?
My Lords, I am introducing an amendment to a Motion, which is a different matter. I ask the noble Lord and others to consider that this is a matter of extreme importance to the House. In this little book—I do not know if the noble Lord has ever read it or knows what it is—are the Standing Orders of your Lordships’ House, which have been established over centuries to protect our procedures and to help secure the liberties of the British people. They should not be lightly set aside. We set them aside frequently when there is an emergency, but on no basis of credible argument can what is going on today be considered an emergency. It is a charade—“chicanery” was the word used earlier—to enlist this great House in the political activities of the Labour Party, with which certain useful people in other parties, such as the Liberal Democrats, may go along.
The Liberal Democrat Leader should have been heard. Why did the noble Lord, Lord Warner, tell the House to choke off debate when the leading member of the Liberal Democrats wanted to follow the important remarks of the Leader of the House? It was wrong. That procedure of closure is also in our Standing Orders but it is not without reason that there is a note saying that it should not be lightly entered into. The noble Lord, Lord Warner, entered into it rather lightly.
What we have here is a pre-cooked plot—the gaff was blown by Sir Oliver Letwin in the other place yesterday—but it is the tip of the iceberg. One of my colleagues said earlier that if your Lordships consent to this kind of procedure being standard, what will happen when another Government are formed and a different person on the Front Bench says, “We set aside these Standing Orders. Your Lordships may consider this to be a scrutinising House but, no, it all has to be done in a day”? That is where we are heading.
That is not my surmise or what I am suggesting; it is what we see from the Official Opposition. As to the person who may be sitting here in a few months’ time if there were an election, what demur or doubt would she have in bringing forward such a Motion to frustrate your Lordships’ ability to consider and scrutinise legislation? Once you begin with a little sin and a little lie, big ones readily follow. We should be extremely cautious in assenting to this setting aside of Standing Orders.
Has my noble friend noticed the internal inconsistency of the Motion of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter? It begins by referring back to the resolution of the House on 28 January that Her Majesty’s Government “should provide sufficient time”. It then goes on to curtail the time available to the House to consider this. How can both halves of the Motion be passed in one breath?
My noble friend is right. He has anticipated the fast-approaching conclusion of what I will say.
It cannot be right not to allow sufficient time to consider a Bill which, as we have heard from my Front Bench, is still flawed; on which committees that have reported raised doubts; and which was being amended on the hoof by its own proponents in the House of Commons last night. There is no argument in logic because the Prime Minister has said that she will ask for a delay. There is no argument in procedure to say that we have to pass the Bill today. It is a political position taken up by the Official Opposition—I repeat, the Official Opposition—and we should not support it.
Everything I have sought to do in politics—and, by the way, I was proud to be the bag carrier, as the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, so kindly put it, to my noble friend Lord Strathclyde—both in administration and local government, and the privilege I have in being a Member of your Lordships’ House, is to speak for freedom. One of things that defines the freedom of this House is its free procedures: the right of us all to put down an amendment and to have it heard, not closed; and the right of us all to put down a Motion and have it closed, not waved away. These things may seem small and arcane to those on the outside but, to me, they are a small part of freedom—and I have always wished to live and conclude my life in that. I beg to move.
Could my noble friend reflect on the fact that it would be a great disappointment if, after he sat down, someone were to move that the following person who wants to speak should not be heard? That would amount to a bigger abuse of procedure altogether. Curtailment of debate in this House is a serious matter. There should not be curtailment and I find it extraordinary that the Liberal Democrats and the Cross Benches go along with it. I remind them what JS Mill wrote in On Liberty. He warned democracy about the tyranny of the majority. He thought that that was the greatest threat to democracy. There is a clear majority on the Benches opposite that this Bill should pass. There is a minority on this side of the House. To silence the minority is very much against the principles of JS Mill, the founder of the Liberal Party. He would not have approved at all. I beg Members not to move the closure Motion too quickly because it is abuse of a basic democratic principle. This is an abuse of majority power. This House should not be sanctioning it.
I would like to move to a conclusion, although I of course respect and acknowledge the noble and learned Lord’s intervention. Indeed, I suspect that the House, because it is pre-cooked, will not want to listen to what I am saying today, but I say to the House that this is the tip of a very deep and dark iceberg if we go on this way. Part of the protection of freedom in this House has been the existence of the Cross Benches. The Cross Benches are sometimes, often and always used to be prepared to listen and be the balance in the argument. Who will be a guardian, that balancing element in this House that guards against the tyranny of either of the great parties, if they survive this crisis, which wish to tip aside our procedures, supress what we normally do and allow proper scrutiny? Who will be the protectors of that if not the Cross Benches?
Following the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, I say that it is perfectly true that the Cross Benches do not take a collective view. It is also true that the two previous closure Motions were moved by Cross-Benchers and quite a large number of them voted for them.
On these things, people have to stand up and be counted. I reflect that having made my speech last week against a strong Whip from my party saying that we should obey Standing Orders, I did not regret it and I asked myself whether I should intervene in this debate—I have intervened only on the Standing Order and the procedural point—and do it again. I felt that I must because not only is the pace so extraordinary but it is so odd that 227 Members of the House of Lords— your Lordships’ House, the revising Chamber—voted to close off, after a few minutes, discussion of whether your Lordships should allow yourselves more than one day to discuss a Bill of such importance and such significance. I think that was a sad reflection on our love of our procedures which I confess are part of our freedom. Our freedoms were won by Parliament. They are held by Parliament and we in this place have a part in that, irrespective of where we stand on the debates on Europe. One thing I agree with my noble friend Lady Evans on is that we have heard a lot, but surely on this business of how we conduct ourselves we can rise above the debates that we are having later and consider whether this House wishes to embark down this road. I submit that when I suggested to my noble friend on the Front Bench last week that the Government should listen and adhere to Standing Orders, they did listen. They adjourned the House and we had the debate the next day. I now submit to the noble Baroness that she should show the same grace and that she should accept the proposition that we hear one stage today and have time to reflect on the later stages of the Bill on another day. That is not an unreasonable provision. I put that submission in conclusion to the noble Baroness.
I would have stopped 30 seconds later if the noble Lord had not risen. He calls it an abuse of Parliament. I call it the right of any Member of Parliament to put the case for proper procedures, freedom and accountability, and accountability lies there just as it must lie here.
My Lords, I shall begin by responding to the noble Lord, Lord Baker, who very helpfully quoted Mill at me. I absolutely agree that democracy requires the exercise of free speech. It also requires the following of rules and the exercise of its powers with responsibility. We have just heard a 30-minute speech. It may have been an excellent speech, and I am sure that if I now speak for 30 minutes it will be an excellent speech as well, but if I speak for 30 minutes, and all my colleagues speak for 30 minutes, we will never get to the substance of today’s debate. Therefore, your Lordships will be pleased to know that I do not intend to speak for 30 minutes—25 should be enough.
The burden of all these amendments is that the House is being expected to follow unprecedented procedures. Is this surprising? We are in extraordinary, unprecedented times. We are in a national crisis the like of which has not occurred in my lifetime. It is a national crisis which consists in no small part of the fact that there has been a collapse of government. The Prime Minister, after seven hours in Cabinet, addressed the nation to say that she would like the leader of the Opposition to tell her what to do and that, if she did not like that, she would go to the House of Commons and ask it to tell her what to do within hours of having to put something to the European Council next week in order to prevent no-deal Brexit. This collapse of government is unprecedented, and it would be slightly surprising if Parliament did not respond to it by taking unprecedented measures to fill the vacuum where normally one finds government. The third unprecedented point, which is unprecedented in human history, is that unless we prevent a no-deal Brexit at the end of next week, this country will be the first democracy ever to have agreed to make itself poorer, less secure and less influential. Therefore, it is unprecedented and needs dealing with in unprecedented ways.
The key element which means that it is necessary to deal with this Bill today is just how little time there is. We are talking about a very few days before the Prime Minister has to write to the European Council, hopefully with some view about why we should have a further extension. As of this minute, the only thing that can be written in that letter about why we are doing it is because we cannot think of what we want. I hope that by close of business on Monday we will be a bit further forward on that, but, if this House blocks this Bill, as the noble Lord, Lord Owen, whom I do not always agree with, said earlier, how would that be perceived? How would it be perceived if we were to agree with the noble Lord, Lord True, that we could not possibly deal with this until a Select Committee had dealt with it? At a time of national crisis, I think that the world would think that your Lordships had lost a sense of proportion.
The other argument that has been made against the Bill, including by the noble Baroness the Leader of the House, is that it is unnecessary because of a commitment made by the Prime Minister. However, it is a sign of the confidence that the Commons has in the Prime Minister that it does not think that that is enough. It thinks—and I agree—that, unless we have something like this Bill, there is absolutely no assurance that the Prime Minister will come forward with the necessary guarantee.
Finally, I have two points to make about the amount of time that we have to debate the Bill. First, we will have longer to debate the Bill, the less time we waste on these procedural Motions. Secondly, I look forward to the debates that we shall have later. I look forward to the Second Reading and to debating amendments in Committee and on Report. I have brought my toothbrush. It will not be the first time that I have spent all night in your Lordships’ House, and many of my colleagues have done the same. We are here at the service—says he very pompously—of the country to debate this issue for as long as the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, and his colleagues want to debate it. No doubt we will hear the same arguments time and time again but, if that is what the noble Lord wants, I shall, as always, look forward to hearing them and will be in my place to listen to them, however long it takes.
My Lords, the noble Lord the leader of the Liberal Democrats will be glad to know that I shall be brief. I will address myself to the main point embedded in what he said. To begin with, this is a most appalling day. I have served in Parliament for 45 years and there has never been an instance of constitutional vandalism of the scale that we are witnessing today and at the present time more generally.
I am on the record as having long been concerned that in this country we do not have a written constitution. The reason that we do not have a written constitution is not that there is anything bad about written constitutions interpreted by the appropriate courts and safeguarded by the courts; it is our history. If one looks across the world, one sees that written constitutions come into being only when there is a historical discontinuity. For example, when a colony of the United Kingdom is given self-government, it equips itself with a written constitution—although ironically, or worse than ironically, it seems that the majority of the Members of this House do not believe that we are capable of self-government. A written constitution also comes into being following a bloody revolution and frequently after defeat in wartime. We have been blessed uniquely in this country in not suffering these historical discontinuities, and that is why, uniquely, we do not have a written constitution and have to rely on respect for the procedures of Parliament. However, we pay a price for not having a written constitution. We pay a price for having had a reasonably trouble-free history, unlike the rest of the world, and that price has become evident today and in recent days.
The main point made by the noble Lord the leader of the Liberal Democrats is that the issues surrounding Brexit are so important that it is necessary and right to tear up the constitution. However, the reverse is the case: the more important the issue, the more important it is that the constitution and the conventions are respected. As there is a really important substantive issue of a constitutional nature lying behind this, the more important it is that we respect the constitution and do not engage in this vandalism. I respect the fact that views differ on the length of this debate but I think that everybody agrees that this is a very important issue, including the noble Lord, who said so himself.
Can my noble friend address this point? The problem that the Bill is trying to address is a disagreement between the Government and Parliament and between Parliament and the country. The idea that you resolve such a thing by ramming something through an unelected House in one day is surely a constitutional monstrosity of an even greater kind.
My noble friend makes a very strong point. I am deeply concerned at the growing rift between Parliament and the people, with the refusal to accept the people’s judgment, whether you agree with it or not. A very clear judgment was made in the referendum. There is a real danger that undesirable but very often understandable insurrectionary forces will feel that they cannot trust the British Parliament or the British constitution, and a very ugly situation could well arise. Therefore, my noble friend is absolutely right.
My Lords, I had not planned to speak, but I am literally moved to tell your Lordships what my feelings are. I have spent 55 years teaching and studying law, including constitutional law. If you want to know how effective I am, I have had in my lectures the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, the former Prime Minister Tony Blair and the noble Lord, Lord Pannick. The point about studying law—and probably many people in this House practise or have practised as lawyers—is that you internalise respect for the rule of law.
The noble Lord, Lord Lawson, explained about us not having a written constitution. Our constitution works only because of trust. Why do we accept the authority of the Lord Speaker, whoever he or she may be? Why do we accept the rulings of the clerks, disguised as they are in their wigs? It is because we trust them and because this has gone on for centuries. It is not a question of personalities; it is a question of the role that people fill. Each Session we take an oath, standing by the Dispatch Box, to be loyal to the Queen and, implicitly, to uphold the law. Why do judges not interfere with the proceedings of Parliament? There is no question of anyone challenging this law if it goes through today because the judges accept that Parliament deserves their trust. We trust the judges and they trust Parliament, and if that breaks down, the whole system breaks down. Not only is the constitution being damaged and trashed today but we have been subjected to gagging orders. I am speaking now because I think that, if I wait another five minutes, there will be another Motion to stop us talking.
I am grateful to my noble friend for giving way. Can she categorise in terms of respect for constitutional convention and order a Government who are defeated in the House of Commons by 230 votes and just carry on, then have another vote on the same thing and are defeated by 180 votes and then carry on? Is that not a little odd in terms of practice?
It is unusual but it is not unconstitutional, because it lies in the power of the House of Commons to put an end to that situation, if it wishes to, by getting rid of the Prime Minister or passing the withdrawal agreement. We are suffering from a lack of trust that is about to come upon us, as I said. The constitutional damage may be irreversible.
I will add that there has been a lot of loose talk about sovereignty and Parliament taking control. We do not have our sovereignty; we gave it up in part when we joined the EU, and we will not recover it until we leave. At the moment we are like prisoners rattling the cage while outside the warders have the keys. We can debate all we like here, but we can see from this Bill that the EU 27 will tell us what to do. What is the point of delay, and of advising this and that, when they have said that they will not alter the withdrawal agreement, and the power lies with them?
I am sorry to say that I blame this breakdown in respect of the constitution in part on the EU. The effect of the EU has been to preside over judicial corruption across Europe; to preside over financial mismanagement and a lack of accountability in Brussels; to allow creeping right-wing extremism across Europe; to allow the appointment of Juncker when we did not want it; and to accept the appointment of Selmayr, apparently breaking all the rules that there are. This disregard for the constitution and for the rules that the EU itself lays down, which are flagrantly disobeyed by Poland, Hungary and others, is now lapping around our ankles.
Unless we uphold the constitution by following every little bit of our rules today—albeit that this might require people to be brief in their remarks, as I will be—the damage will be incredible. People out there who respect us, who respect the law, who do not need to be whipped into submission or coerced and who obey the police and the rule of law will wonder why they too have internalised the legal system if we cannot do so. We have to believe in our own legal system and our own procedure.
My Lords, I have considerable sympathy with the amendments, but the reason why I will not be supporting any of them is precisely that we are in a position where the Government have failed to deal with the Brexit referendum. The constitutional problem started there, and to suggest that we should not deal with procedures today is misguided. We have to deal with the crisis that is developing in this country. We need to get this legislation through and work with the House of Commons in order to try to resolve the constitutional mess that was caused by the referendum in the first place.
My Lords, I will say a few words following on from the speeches of my noble friend Lord Lawson and the noble Baroness, Lady Deech. Both of them referred to the fact that we have—and we have always regarded it as one of our glories—an unwritten constitution. That has its risks. In a set of circumstances where a country has an unwritten constitution, the safeguards of our liberties lie with our conventions, precedents and procedures. An unwritten constitution works only if the institutions of government respect those conventions, procedures and precedents. Under an unwritten constitution, the House of Commons has very great power—but the House of Commons should exercise that power with constraint, circumspection and respect for those conventions, procedures and precedents.
The noble Lord, Lord Newby, the Leader in this House of the Liberal Democrats, says that a breach of those conventions, practices and procedures is justified because we are in a state of national crisis. He will know that that is the pretence that tyrants have used down the ages for abrogating the safeguards that have existed in those countries to safeguard the liberties of their citizens.
That brings me to the role and responsibility in these circumstances of your Lordships’ House. Surely if your Lordships’ House has any role and responsibility, it is to put a brake on the breach of those conventions, precedents and procedures that has undoubtedly taken place in the House of Commons. Be under no illusion: what has happened in the House of Commons will set a precedent that may be followed in circumstances that would have a much more dire effect on our liberties than the issues that we are debating and discussing today. If that precedent is to be tempered, the only body that can do it is your Lordships’ House. That is why your Lordships’ House should today put a brake on the breach of those conventions, precedents and procedures and vote for my noble friend’s amendment.
My Lords, I have form in speaking on emergency procedures whereby our legislation is put through in one day. It is frequently the case that legislation pertaining to Northern Ireland is shoved through Parliament in a day. The Government Front Bench will know that I objected strongly—I raised the matter in this House—to several Bills coming into the House to be dealt with in one day when it was perfectly clear that they could have been dealt with in a different way. However, the one big difference was that both the Government and the Opposition supported those pieces of legislation.
If I were the promoter of the Bill today, I would have to say to myself: “We are now at 2.26 pm, our proceedings started after Questions at around 11.30 am, we are still on procedure and we are going to be on procedure for quite some time”. I would take the option that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, put forward: get on to Second Reading and finish the business on Monday, when we will have had time over the weekend to consider it. I cannot see any reason why a rational person would not do that.
There is a more important issue. I have not been in this House that long; many noble Lords have been here far longer than me. However, I detect a complete change in the atmosphere in this place. Today has shown me that we are becoming the nasty House, and I do not like it. We have continuous interruptions of speakers from a sedentary position; we have heckling; and we have some nasty comments coming from wherever they happen to come when a certain individual is expressing his or her views.
The irony of it all is this: I represent a party that recommended remain, but the people spoke in a referendum that this House and most of the Members in it put their hands up for, and we accept the result without question. It is over. Leavers and remainers are gone—at least, that is the way it should be. But, if we go on in this way, we are going to leave behind us the bitterness that we found in Northern Ireland after the Belfast Good Friday agreement or the bitterness that was left behind after the miners’ strike. In such circumstances personal relationships get damaged, and that is a great shame.
Technically the usual channels are not functioning, because it is not entirely clear today who is the Government and who is not. However, if I were promoting this Bill I would be working now to get us on to Second Reading and finish the thing off on Monday. There will be no loss of impetus in so far as the EU is concerned because, ironically, I think that the proposal coming forward in the Bill actually does more harm than good. The fact is, sadly, that the European Union will see a Prime Minister going in to meet them on Wednesday virtually on her hands and knees—and that is not something I want to see.
From where I come from, I want to see a deal. That is by far the best outcome for my part of the world—but I know that that view is not expressed everywhere. However, I appeal to the House to prevent this nastiness, and the heckling and the gagging. The procedures could have been dealt with differently if we had been operating across the Chamber through the usual channels as we should. I urge Members to focus on dealing with this matter in a proper way, before we do irreparable damage to our House. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Newby, that there is an emergency of a sort and that we have to try to get our act together by Wednesday. I accept all of that. Leaving the finishing stages of this legislation to Monday will not make an iota of difference to that, but I appeal to noble Lords not to proceed with this nastiness. It will not be repaired quickly if we continue in the way we are going.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Empey, has spoken with a good deal of sense. My understanding is that the usual channels had formally agreed to finish this Bill on Monday, and that that arrangement was withdrawn yesterday. The noble Baroness is shaking her head. I have 19 years’ experience of dealing with process and procedure in this House. One abiding rule is that once you do not involve the usual channels, it all goes wrong. That is exactly what has happened today.
I know the noble Baroness is about to speak. Can she explain why it is so urgent that we sit virtually all night to pass this Bill? We could do what all the precedents set have done, and have the Second Reading today and finish the remaining stages at the beginning of next week, asking the usual channels—the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, and my noble friend the Government Chief Whip—to organise it. That would get rid of the nastiness that the noble Lord, Lord Empey, referred to. It would make for a far more rational debate, and the Bill would be completed—I recognise there is a majority for the Bill in this House—in plenty of time for whatever else happens next week.
My Lords, we are actually dealing with the amendment on whether we should have a committee report. I draw the attention of the House to the speech Mr Steve Baker gave late last night in the Commons. I do not know why I should pick on him at this particular moment—
Oh! I had not noticed. Mr Baker was looking forward to the Bill coming to your Lordships’ House, in the,
“fervent hope that their Lordships will examine this Bill line by line”,—[Official Report, Commons, 3/4/19; col. 1217.]
and give it good attention. The hope was that we would get on and deal with the Bill, and that is what this Motion is about.
However, I speak now to only the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord True. He asked me why I did not take an intervention from the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. I was moving a Motion: normally, you move a Motion, then people stand up and ask questions and points of order, and at the end one comes back with the clarification. That seems to be the correct way to do it.
On the particular issue of whether we should have a committee, we have a committee report on this Bill. Even if we did not, the point of committees is to assist this House, not to stand in the way when something needs doing. Their members are also Members of this House, and can therefore give their very wise—and often learned, in the case of the Constitution Committee —advice directly to the House. We can do it then.
The important thing I want to raise, because I was not able to on the last amendment, is the idea of how awful it was that we were moving this, rather than the Government. As I said at the beginning, it should have been the Government who brought the Bill to the House, because that was what the House had passed before. We are doing it because that was not done. The noble Baroness the Leader of the House said that it is normally the Government who table Private Members’ Bills. Yes, but they failed to do so. We will do it when they do not. The Leader of the House is obviously in a difficult position—
I am sure the noble Lord does, but I would like to answer the point that the noble Baroness the Leader of the House made some time ago, which I have not been able to answer. She is in a difficult position; I understand that. She is a member of the Cabinet and of the governing party, but she is also the Leader of the House. In the absence of a Speaker with authority—although we do have a very authoritative Speaker—she also has to consider the whole House’s interests. It would have been her responsibility in that role to have brought forward this Bill as it was voted for before.
We have talked about a “constitutional monstrosity”, “tearing up the constitution” and “constitutional vandalism”. We are asking that this House considers a Bill sent to us by the other House. Is that “constitutional vandalism”? As the noble Lord, Lord Newby, said, this country faces a national crisis. The people in the Gallery—I am sorry that there are some there, because I am quite embarrassed that they are watching us—must wonder what on earth is happening when, at a time of national crisis, we are debating not the content of the Bill or the issues that have been raised by some speakers, but whether we should even consider the Bill today. This is out of order. In fact, I think it is shameful that this is being done. I find it shameful that the Government are helping on this.
I think the noble Lord has spoken quite enough. We have heard from him; I think we know his views. We should not still be debating the content of the Bill, because we have not got on to it. We want a Second Reading. We can vote against the Bill if we do not like it; that is the democratic way of dealing with a Bill that you do not like. But to try to talk out the ability of us even to take the Bill is an abuse of process. I will not support the amendment to my Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord True.
I always thought that this House was about courtesy, but I have noticed that the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, does not really agree. Never mind. Indeed, if I might digress slightly, the noble Lord rudely accused my predecessor in the seat of Blaby in the House of Commons of being in Parliament too long. I note that the noble Lord first wanted to come into the House of Commons in 1966—that would make it 53 years—so he has not done badly himself, although the electorate kept throwing him out.
The point I would like to make is this. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, asked why the Government had not put down a Motion. It is quite straightforward: the Bill was not passed until 11.30 pm last night. How could the Government possibly have put down a Motion then? The Bill was passed by one vote—I regret to say that it was passed at all. There was never any certainty of it being passed, and it would have been extraordinary if my noble friends on the Government Bench had said, “Oh, we’ll put it down just in case”. That is not the way Parliament works. It has procedures. That is the whole point of the amendment.
I am instructed by order of the House to say that the Motion “That the Question be now put” is considered to be a most exceptional procedure and the House will not accept it save in circumstances where it is felt to be the only means of ensuring the proper conduct of the business of the House. Further, if a Member who seeks to move it persists in his intention, the practice of the House is that the Question on the Motion is put without debate. Does the noble Lord still wish to move the Motion?
Amendment to the Motion
Leave out from “move” to the end and insert “notes that the Prime Minister has already indicated her intention to ask for a delay in the date for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union and considers it unnecessary, as well as undesirable and unprecedented, to apply exceptional procedures to the European Union (Withdrawal) (No.5 Bill) and therefore regrets the proposal by Her Majesty’s Opposition to do so.”
I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, would be looking forward to hearing from me. The amendment standing in my name on the Order Paper gives reasons for not supporting the Motion of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, which are as follows:
“that the Prime Minister has already indicated her intention to ask for a delay”;
and that this House “considers it unnecessary”—as well as “undesirable and unprecedented”—“to apply exceptional procedures”. I shall speak to those elements in a moment.
I wish that the House had committed this Motion to be debated in Committee because we could have had a more natural, free-flowing discussion about some of the issues raised so far—all of which have been brought to an end by the closure Motion, which I believe is undesirable. However, the House chose not to go that way; that leaves a number of unanswered questions, which we still need to explore, about exactly how the procedures will work today. I am quite unclear about how we proceed between Second Reading and Committee, given that there has to be an interval to allow for amendments to be processed and made available to noble Lords, and for noble Lords to consider them.
My Lords, going back to the Bill that I took through in a day, clearly, gaps were put in. There was a gap of an hour or so between Second Reading and Committee to allow people to draft amendments and have them printed. The same could happen between that stage and Report. It is perfectly proper and easy to make this work in one day.
The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, makes a very good point but the Bill he refers to was undertaken with the full co-operation of the usual channels; because they co-operate, they set out how those things will work. That has not happened in this case, as I understand it, and therefore this House is quite unaware of what will happen when we get to the end of Second Reading.
My Lords, the temptation to live past glories is ever-present in your Lordships’ House but the point is that the Bill I am talking about had its contentious points: I remember that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, who is not here in his place, and Baroness Blatch, who I think noble Lords opposite will recall with a great deal of respect, were very much opposed to it. Perhaps the noble Baroness was there when we did it; the point I am making is that we were not unanimous on that Bill.
I completely agree with my noble friend, which is why it is important to understand the implications of this. If, as I suspect, a number of amendments to the Bill will be tabled after Second Reading—of course, they cannot be tabled until then—the Public Bill Office will require considerable time in which to manage them. It will arrange for them to be printed, then noble Lords will obviously need to have sight of and consider them, as well as consider whether there are any appropriate groupings of them. This is not a rapid process, so we then come up against the issue of what time this will all happen. I have absolutely no idea.
Can I answer the question of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack? If noble Lords who have tabled wrecking amendments decided not to move them and if the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, decided that the important reports from his committee should not be debated half way through the night, we could go straight to considering the Bill now. That would show this House in a good light, considering the Bill properly.
I hear the noble Lord, but to put the onus on my noble friend Lord Forsyth to delay the debate on his very important reports issued last year is unfair. We are in this position because of the action taken by the Opposition in tabling the Motion to deal with this in one day.