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European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act 2019

Volume 799: debated on Thursday 26 September 2019


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given in the other place earlier today by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union:

“Mr Speaker, the Government will obey the law. This has always been the case. The House has heard this from the Prime Minister; it has heard this from the first Secretary of State, my right honourable friend the Foreign Minister; it has heard it from the Lord Chancellor, who has a constitutional responsibility for upholding the rule of law.

Yesterday, honourable and right honourable Members had the opportunity to put similar questions to the Attorney-General. The Government opposed the Act which was passed earlier this month. Notwithstanding our fervent attempts to resist the passage of the Bill, even its architects must accept that the Act makes provision for a range of potential outcomes, not one. The outcome that this Government want, and have always wanted, is a deal with the European Union. That deal can deliver the mandate from the British people. That deal is possible and is now within reach.

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union and the Prime Minister’s negotiating team have been engaged in constructive negotiations. As the Prime Minister told this place yesterday, we were told that Brussels would never reopen the withdrawal agreement, but we are now discussing reopening the withdrawal agreement in detail. While I appreciate that there are some who may seek to anticipate failure, frustrate from the sidelines or speculate for some type of sport, this Government will not indulge in defeatism. I trust that this House, and the collective wisdom of its honourable Members, will focus its energies today and beyond on the prospects of success in these negotiations and prepare to give any revised agreement its full and unfettered support”.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for repeating that Statement. I have one question to put to him. He used the formula that the Government will obey the law. I think he used exactly the same formula a number of times in answering questions yesterday. Many people would like to know what the Government think the law is. In particular, do the Government think that it will be complied with by sending a letter, as set out in the Act, and then sending another letter or message in some way saying that we do not really want an extension?

I remind the noble Lord of two things. First, saying what the Government believe the law to be is not the same as saying what legal advice they have received. There is no reason not to tell this House what the Government believe the law is. It is long-standing that that position has been taken. Secondly, the Act requires that the Prime Minister must seek to obtain an extension from the European Council under certain circumstances. All noble Lords would like to know whether, if those circumstances arise, the Prime Minister will seek to obtain an extension—and not with his fingers crossed behind his back or by sending another letter or secret messages to his friends saying: “Please don’t give it”. To seek to obtain means to seek to obtain. It needs to be done in a way which complies fully with the spirit of the legislation passed by this House and the other place. Is that the Government’s view and if not, why not?

The noble and learned Lord is a distinguished lawyer. In fact, there are a lot of distinguished lawyers in this House. Some may say that there are too many, but nevertheless we have lots of distinguished lawyers and I am not a lawyer. I repeat yesterday’s statement that the law officers made in another place: we will always comply with the law. There are a lot of potential outcomes, and no doubt the Government will wish to consider them all carefully when it comes to it, but we will comply with the law.

My Lords, the noble Lord has omitted to answer the question put by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, as to the Government’s view of the law. It is a perfectly reasonable question, so perhaps he will answer it.

I believe that I have answered the question. We are a law-abiding Government and we will abide by the law. We will always assess carefully the implications of that law, but we will always comply with it and the legal advice that the Government receive.

My Lords, is this not rather difficult for my noble friend because he has been asked to comment on an Act of Parliament which was originally a Private Member’s Bill? Should not the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, ask the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, what the real meaning of this Act of Parliament is, because he drafted it?

My noble friend makes a good point. This was not government legislation. It was a Private Member’s Bill. We did not support it; we opposed it. I advised this House against passing it. I said at the time that it is flawed and deficient in a number of respects, particularly the Kinnock amendment. However, it is the law of the land and we will comply with the law.

My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord for repeating the Statement and for making and underlining the commitment that the Government will obey the law. May I test that a little further? It seems to me that, in the current very fractious debate, what is needed is to respect the impartiality of those institutions upholding the constitution and the law. Will the Minister counsel his colleagues to use language that is appropriate and not excessive and that reflects respect for our institutions, the taking of personal responsibility and a degree of restraint? When Prayers are said by Bishops in this House, we pray every day for the well-being of all the estates in this realm. We all have a duty to make our own contribution towards that.

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate makes an important point. We should always be restrained in our use of language. I believe I have always followed that principle, albeit that I enjoy the knockabout sport of politics, as many noble Lords do. However, there must always be a limit to that. I also wholeheartedly endorse his comments about respect for the institutions.

My Lords, is it not clear that once an Act of Parliament is an Act of Parliament, it becomes the responsibility of the Government of the day to make sure that it is implemented properly, effectively and with integrity? That is what Parliament expects. I was part of the usual channels in the other place and worked with people here; I know that even if the Government get a Bill that they do not like, they have a responsibility to implement that Bill. Will the Minister recognise that what we are asking for is straightforward but requires integrity? The Government are in a position where they would do themselves a lot of good to demonstrate some integrity today.

I did not detect a question in the noble Baroness’s statement, but we of course respect the rule of law. We believe that we act with integrity and I believe that I act with integrity as a Minister. I will always seek to ensure that we act within the rule of law.

My Lords, is not the constructive question whether the Opposition will support a withdrawal agreement when it comes before the House later in October?

As always, my noble friend speaks with great wisdom on this matter. This might be a political point, but it seems to me that the Act was designed to undermine our negotiating position. We have seen that in the negotiations that we have pursued, and it makes getting a deal harder. I am sure that that was within the calculations of some of the people who wished to ensure that it was passed. However, we will seek to negotiate in good faith; we still believe that we should respect the result of the referendum. It would do immense damage to our democratic institutions in this country if we do not. We should leave the European Union and we want to leave with a deal.

My Lords, returning to the question that the Opposition Front Bench asked—which was not answered—in the interests of transparency, can the Minister simply confirm that any communication to the European Union that in any way contradicted a request for an extension would be contrary to the spirit of the law?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question. I am not going to get into speculating on hypotheticals or what might happen under various scenarios, but we will always comply with the rule of law.

My Lords, is it not disrespectful to democracy to traduce Parliament in the way that was done in the House of Commons yesterday? To talk about a “dead Parliament” is wholly inappropriate. The House of Commons is the elected Chamber. The Government are not elected directly, as the judgment on Tuesday made absolutely clear; they rest on the consent of Parliament. Does the Minister feel that the Government have that consent and do they respect Parliament?

The noble Baroness knows that I have enormous respect for her, but what is disrespectful to democracy is trying to overturn the referendum result, which is what the Liberal Democrats are trying to do. They are no longer even making any pretence about having a second referendum, which was their original position; now they just want to overturn the referendum completely. What disrespect would that mean to our democratic institutions?

My Lords, this Government are rapidly getting an unenviable reputation for saying that they always respect the law but, when tested, are shown not to have respected the law. It is therefore reasonable, in these circumstances, and given the enormity of what faces us, that the Government tell us what they think the law presently is. This is not an unreasonable question; it is capable of being answered and it should be answered. It will only not be answered if the Government either do not know or intend not to respect the law.

We respect the rule of law. What the law is is what is set out in the statute book. The noble Lord was present at the debates and took part in the discussions on it. That is the rule of law and we will respect it.

My Lords, if we are to try to civilise this debate after the appalling scenes in another place yesterday, would it not be worthwhile to contemplate—I speak as one who has never advocated a second referendum, as my noble friend knows—having a general election and a referendum on the same day? This could help to bring some semblance of peace and unity in our country. People could choose their party and they could choose where they stand on Brexit. Will my noble friend at least pass on that suggestion?

I will certainly pass on my noble friend’s suggestion but I am not sure of the wisdom of that proposal. What we need is a process of reconciliation in this country which could come best, I think, by a general election, with the people making a determination. The Opposition have voted against that, even though they said that they wanted it. My noble friend will know that a further referendum would require legislation to be passed by both Houses. It would be immensely contentious legislation—the Government will certainly not introduce it—and would take a long time to get through. We need to resolve these things quickly and through a general election.