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Extension of Article 50

Volume 799: debated on Wednesday 25 September 2019

Private Notice Question

Tabled by

My Lords, with the permission of my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness, who is delayed coming in from the airport, and at his express request, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, our focus remains on getting a deal at the October European Council and leaving the EU on 31 October. We have been working enthusiastically to negotiate a deal with the EU. Renegotiations have intensified, with regular sessions taking place over a number of weeks; these have been constructive, and we have been making good progress. The Government are clear that we will not be deterred from getting on and delivering on the will of the people to come out of the EU on 31 October.

I am most impressed by the optimism the Minister expresses on the progress of the negotiations. We all hear reports that the Government have presented three sides of paper in their proposals so far in Brussels; it does not seem that either the pace or the detail has got very far yet. Given that, and given that business and the Civil Service are struggling with uncertainty around how far they should take preparations for no deal at the present—uncertainty which is very damaging for the economy and our society as a whole—and given that Operation Yellowhammer, in so far as we have been allowed to read the reports, suggests that the outcome of no deal would be disastrous, would it not be helpful if the Government were now to say that if the negotiations do not make sufficient progress, they will shortly ask to extend Article 50?

The noble Lord has been reading the wrong newspapers. We are optimistic about the progress of the negotiations: there is an official-level delegation conducting technical discussions in Brussels today; the Prime Minister met with Leo Varadkar yesterday; the Secretary of State in my department met with Michel Barnier last Friday; and intensive discussions took place over a number of days last week. We are optimistic on getting a deal. We will leave the EU on 31 October.

Reading tweets avidly, as I do, I see that somebody is still briefing that while the letter asking for an extension—as required in this Act—will be sent by the Prime Minister, it might be accompanied by another one saying, “But please don’t say yes”. Could the Minister confirm that there will be no attempt to circumvent the Act and that any legal advice from the Attorney-General will be double-checked with the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, for accuracy?

My Lords, I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, would work pro bono. Will my noble friend confirm that in the unhappy event that no deal is reached by 31 October—for me, it would be an unhappy event—the Prime Minister will abide by the law that Parliament has passed?

I am happy to confirm to my noble friend the answer I just gave: the Government will of course abide by the law.

My Lords, I am not sure that the Minister has answered the question asked by my noble friend Lady Hayter. We assume, of course, that the Government will abide by the law, but her question was whether a second letter will be sent to the EU saying, “Please don’t accept our request”. Can he give a categorical assurance that the Government will not do that and that they will not seek to go around the wording of the law which was passed by this House?

I can give the noble Lord a categorical assurance that the Government will abide by the law. We write all sorts of letters, to all sorts of people, all of the time. I am sure that letter writing will continue, even if there is no deal. I can go no further than to repeat what I have said: we are a law-abiding Government and we will abide by the law.

My Lords, my noble friend will confirm, I hope, that it is the Government’s intention to leave the European Union on 31 October with a deal. That being the case, Parliament has probably no more than three weeks to debate such a deal and, in the case of the other place, to approve it. However, at present, we have no details with which to discuss it. Will my noble friend give the House the papers that have been shared with the European Commission so that we might examine what this deal could look like, and if not, why not?

My noble friend is of course correct that it is the Government’s intention to get a deal. However, negotiations are ongoing and I am sure that he will understand, from his time in government, that we are unable to share confidential negotiating papers at the moment. He can rest assured that as soon as we get a deal, we will publish the full documentation.

My Lords, can the Minister say whether the Government think that they would be abiding by the law if they were to send two letters instead of one?

I can see that noble Lords today have a great fondness for the work of the international post office. We will abide by the law.

My Lords, should there be no deal agreed by 31 October, is the Minister aware that there is considerable concern about families on low incomes who may be faced with increased prices on staple foods? Have the Government carefully considered the possible adverse impact on those families and do they have clear plans to ensure that these families are not adversely impacted by a no-deal Brexit?

We have indeed given extensive thought and consideration to all the possible impacts of no deal. If the noble Earl wishes to stick around until later this afternoon, we will be updating the House further.

Does my noble friend agree that in some ways the collapse of Thomas Cook provides a dress rehearsal for what might happen in the event of no deal? A no-deal crash out would certainly be very damaging to this country but, as in the case of the Thomas Cook collapse, it would have reverberations all over Europe, leading to job losses and financial losses in all kinds of unexpected places.

No, I am afraid I would not agree with my noble friend that there is any parallel between the two events. The collapse of Thomas Cook, about which we are to get a Statement, is totally unrelated to Brexit and—

I was in the Department for Transport when Monarch Airlines collapsed two years ago; I assume that noble Lords wish to equate that with Brexit as well. I think that for some noble Lords, if the sun did not rise in the morning it would be the fault of Brexit. I agree with my noble friend that we need to make all the appropriate preparations, but our focus is on getting a deal if we possibly can, and if not then we should leave on 31 October. We will do all that we can to mitigate the effects of no deal and will say more about that later this afternoon.

Does the Minister agree that Parliament has, justifiably or not, seen its reputation sink very low over the last few months and that one of the ways of dealing with that is transparency? Regardless of how many letters there may or may not be, will he therefore undertake that the Government will be completely transparent and honest in the spirit and not merely the letter of the law about the actions they take over the next few weeks in connection with an extension?

We always endeavour to be as transparent as possible with regard to these matters, while of course still preserving the confidentiality of the negotiations.

In the light of the Supreme Court judgment, and in the light of the Minister’s Answer, will he allay the fears that there may be multiple letters or letters signed by officials and not the Prime Minister, or other ways in which the Government may seek not to abide by the spirit or the letter of the law? There is nothing preventing the Government now publishing a statement as to how they would abide by the law and its mechanisms. Will the Government do that?

No matter how many times noble Lords wish to press me on this, I am afraid I have given the answer that I am going to give. We will of course abide by the law of the land; we are a law-abiding Government. Democracy in this country rests on adherence to the rule of law and we will abide by it.

My Lords, on another aspect of this, what is the parliamentary authority for the huge expenditure on the advertising campaign Get Ready for Brexit, when the House of Commons has decided specifically against a no-deal exit on 31 October and has not decided in favour of a deal for exit on 31 October? On what basis is that money being spent?

The noble Lord is an experienced parliamentarian, so he knows very well the answer he is going to get on this matter. Under the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017, this House and the House of Commons voted to invoke Article 50, and the consequence of Article 50 is that we leave two years after the expiration of Article 50 unless there are extensions granted. The legal default remains that we leave on 31 October. The noble Lord can shake his head; I do not know whether he voted for that legislation or not, but the majority in both Houses did so. That is now the law of the land, and therefore we have to assume that that is the legal default in the absence of anything else happening.