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Volume 800: debated on Monday 21 October 2019


My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given in the other place earlier today by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, notice of the withdrawal agreement Bill was given to the House on Saturday. The Bill was handed to the House yesterday, as agreed with the House authorities. It will be introduced for First Reading at the start of main business today.

The publication of the withdrawal agreement Bill is therefore now being delayed by the leader of the Opposition because he has tabled an Urgent Question requesting the publication of the withdrawal agreement Bill—genius. The withdrawal agreement Bill could not be finalised until the European Council on Thursday 17 October. Then followed a historic meeting of this House on Saturday 19 October. It has then been introduced on the following sitting day; as you said just a moment ago, Mr Speaker, in response to a point of order, ‘What could be shorter than the next sitting day?’ The sooner this Urgent Question and the next are concluded, the sooner the Bill will be available to Members.

In respect of the Prime Minister’s letter of 19 October to President Tusk, this was sent in compliance with Section 1 of the Benn Act. The President of the European Council has accepted the request as valid, and indicated that he is considering it and consulting with member states”.

Well, my Lords, what an extraordinary response.

On Saturday, MPs from all parties voted to seek an extension to ensure that the necessary legislation will be passed prior to Brexit day. The Prime Minister maintains that his deal, and its enabling legislation, must be delivered by 31 October, yet your Lordships’ House has always said that such a self-imposed deadline runs the risk of either not completing the legislation and crashing out or making serious errors in haste.

The Letwin amendment provides insurance against “no deal by default” as the legislation must be in place first—a perfectly reasonable approach. The new Bill is likely to run to around 100 pages or more, about the size of the document I am holding, and will include arrangements for the new border down the Irish Sea, a range of vital protections for EU citizens and a range of broad delegated powers. It will probably include Henry VIII powers; perhaps the Minister can confirm whether that is the case. It will also amend or repeal parts of the original withdrawal Act, to which your Lordships’ House devoted something like 150 hours of consideration. This is significant and complex legislation, which will need proportionate scrutiny. To seek to force a Bill of this complexity through both Houses of Parliament in a little over a week is irresponsible.

Mr Johnson’s response on Saturday was like the tantrum of a naughty child. Yes, he sent the letter, but he did so in the most contemptuous way possible. He has shown no respect for the second withdrawal Act, so perhaps we should not be surprised that he shows such disdain for the normal scrutiny processes of Parliament. I have two questions for the Minister on top of my question about Henry VIII powers. Can he confirm that this House and its committees will have an appropriate amount of time to scrutinise the legislation? Secondly, will all supporting documentation, including impact assessments, be published alongside the Bill?

I thank the noble Baroness for her questions. On her first point, the deadline is not self-imposed; 31 October is the legal default. I must say, I am delighted to hear her new-found enthusiasm for parliamentary scrutiny; it seemed a little absent when we were told that we had to push the Benn Act through all its stages in this House in less than a day. Of course, the usual channels will discuss the appropriate scrutiny provisions for the Bill with third parties and others.

We have been talking about these issues for three years. I have lost track of the countless hours that I have stood at this Dispatch Box and answered questions on a range of such issues. If the House is willing and able, we need to give the Bill proper scrutiny but we need to pass it so that we can get this done by 31 October.

My Lords, the lack of dignity displayed by the Prime Minister in writing to the European Council on Saturday perhaps underlines why he attracts such little trust in Parliament. The Prime Minister described his deal as a great deal but few of its benefits have been set out since it was announced, apart from the fact that it implements the will of the people and gets things done. When the Government publish their Bill, will they publish an impact study on the deal’s economic benefits? Or can we assume from their not publishing it that people will be poorer that they would have been under Mrs May’s deal—and certainly poorer than under the deal we currently have?

We will publish an impact assessment on the Bill. It is hard to do so because so much depends on the future relationship and the details of the future trade agreement that will be negotiated.

I think my noble friend is getting somewhat ahead of himself. We will wait to see what happens in the other place, but until those provisions are changed or altered by statute, the provisions for the meaningful vote under both Section 13 of the EU withdrawal Act and the Benn Act remain in place.

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that while we have debated Brexit for many hours in this House, what was agreed at the European Council last week is a fundamental change from anything we have considered up to now in two crucial respects? The first is the constitutional implications for Northern Ireland. No one ever contemplated that we would go for some version of the Northern Ireland backstop that would be permanent and have serious constitutional implications for the whole of the country. Secondly, I believe that in the political declaration, the economic policy and the ambition for the trading relationship are fundamentally different from what Mrs May suggested and would be terribly damaging, particularly to workers and companies in the manufacturing sector, as virtually all the trade associations in the sector have said. Is it not time that we made sure that these proposals, which could have profound impacts for decades to come, are properly considered, rather than the Government attempting to rush them through before we know what they actually mean?

It is always important that we in this House scrutinise these matters carefully, and that the House of Commons does so as well. However, I have to say to the noble Lord that I remember sitting here when Members were solemnly telling us how vital it was to rush through all the various stages of the Benn Bill. I recall thinking, “I’ll remind them of this when it comes to future legislation”.

My Lords, will my noble friend clarify that the withdrawal agreement Bill will take out the provisions of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act and override them?

I cannot say that that would be definite but it is important that we abide by the provisions of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act. Of course, the House passing a statute provides the appropriate coverage for doing that.

My Lords, in view of the Minister’s reference to the fact that the border in the Irish Sea will have implications, can he give an assurance that the contents of this Bill have been discussed with the Government of Wales?

How will it be possible for Select Committees of the House, such as those dealing with the constitution and statutory instruments, to examine the Bill to ensure that broad powers are not being given to Ministers which may extend even beyond Brexit?

We await the publication of the Bill later this evening. I am sure that the various organs of the House that wish to do so will have the opportunity to look at the provisions.

My Lords, I think the noble Lord said that the Government will publish an economic assessment alongside the Bill. Why has the Chancellor refused to give the economic assessment that the Government have produced to the Treasury Select Committee?

I said that we will publish an impact assessment. As I said in response to an earlier question, it is difficult to model the precise economic impact, bearing in mind how difficult it has been to model economic impacts over a number of years anyway. That is because so much of this depends on the future relationship in the political declaration. The withdrawal agreement Bill itself discusses those areas we have talked about previously, including citizens’ rights, money, the implementation period and the Northern Ireland protocol. The big economic impacts will of course be in the details of the free trade arrangements.

My Lords, on the question of business management, is it true that we will be asked to sit on Saturday and Sunday?

My Lords, I am confused by the answer given by the noble Lord to my noble friend on the Bench in front of me. I think the Minister said that the Government would publish an impact assessment, but I think he also said that it was very difficult to publish such an impact assessment. Can he tell the House whether there is an impact assessment, will it be published and when? Could he also respond to the question of why it was not made available to the Treasury Select Committee?

I said that we will publish an impact assessment but that the economic impact of the Bill is very difficult to assess because it depends on the negotiations for a future free trade arrangement. I am sure that when it comes to the discussion, noble Lords will wish to look at that in detail. I would have thought that there will almost certainly be differences of opinion over what that future arrangement should consist of. One of the commitments we are giving is that we will involve Parliament fully in the discussions about that future economic relationship.