Consideration of Lords amendments
A message has been received from the Lords with Lords amendments relating to the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 5) Bill. The Clerks at the Table advise me that copies of the Lords amendments are available in the Vote Office, online and at the Bills before Parliament website. Also online and in the Vote Office are motions and amendments relating to the Lords amendments, with a selection paper. I should inform the House that none of the Lords amendments engages financial privilege.
Duties in connection with Article 50 extension
I beg to move, That this House agrees with Lords amendment 1.
I should be clear at the beginning that I support all five amendments from the Lords, but I oppose the further Commons amendments that have been tabled. I thank the Lords for proceeding so swiftly in these unprecedented circumstances, with only four days to go until the country could end up leaving without a deal—with all the serious implications for manufacturing, small businesses, medicine supplies, food prices, farming and transport—and with only two days before the important European Council, which needs to consider an extension to article 50.
Did the right hon. Lady notice—I watched the proceedings in the House of Lords—the continuous criticisms of this appalling Bill? They said it was a “bad Bill”, “a very bad Bill”—[Interruption.] Also, by the way, it is not going to prevent no deal and furthermore, there is nothing that requires, as a matter of law, the avoidance of no deal.
Some people criticised the Bill, but the vast majority of the Lords supported the Bill, which is why we have it back before us now. Parliament has shown in both the Commons and the Lords that it is capable of responding to the gravity and the urgency of the challenge that our country faces and the very immediate risks to jobs, public services and families across the country if we drift. None of us could have imagined that we would be in this situation in the first place. These are unprecedented circumstances, but they should also serve as no precedent for the future when, as we all hope, normality might be restored.
I particularly thank Lord Robertson and Lord Rooker, who sponsored the Bill in the Lords, the Government and Opposition Front Benchers and Cross Benchers, who engaged in thoughtful discussion about these amendments, and the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin), who did considerable work to ensure that the amendments would be effective. I said to the Minister, when we were discussing this in Committee, that we were keen to ensure that there was legal clarity for the Prime Minister as she went into the negotiations in the EU Council, and that she would be able to take sensible decisions in the national interest without having to come back to this House in the middle of negotiations—clearly, that would not be in the national interest. I welcome the work that has been done together to ensure that that clarity applies and that the Prime Minister can take those discussions forward.
Will the right hon. Lady give way?
The Bill makes it clear that the Prime Minister will be mandated to seek the extension in accordance with the motion that we hope will be tabled tomorrow. As a result of the amendment that has been tabled, it also allows the Prime Minister to seek further extensions and to accept extensions, subject to their not ending earlier than 22 May.
Lords amendments 1 and 2 ensure that a delay past midnight tonight will not prevent debate on the motion tomorrow. Lords amendment 3 allows Ministers other than the Prime Minister to table the motion. I think it sensible to ensure that the debate does not disrupt any negotiations with other Governments in which the Prime Minister will need to engage tomorrow. Lords amendments 4 and 5 ensure that the Prime Minister has that flexibility in the negotiations.
I will not. I have given way already, and there is very little time. [Interruption.] I will not. I have given way many times.
As I was saying, Lords amendments 4 and 5 enable the Prime Minister to make decisions in the European Council subject to the date not being earlier than 22 May, to ensure that there is no legal uncertainty about the Council’s negotiations and decisions, and to ensure that we do not inadvertently end up with no deal as a result of confusion about the legal process.
I think that, taken together, the Lords amendments improve the Bill. I believe that the House should accept them and resist the Commons amendments, which would have a limiting effect and which would, in fact, conflict with the letter that the Prime Minister has already sent to the European Council. That would not be sensible.
Let me seek one further reassurance from the Minister, which has already been given in the other place. Given that Lords amendments 4 and 5 have been accepted in that place, there is some uncertainty about what might happen should the Prime Minister not achieve any agreement in the European Council deliberations. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure us that in those unusual and exceptional circumstances, which we hope will not arise, the Government would come back to the House immediately with a motion for debate, because obviously we would face the urgent possibility of leaving without a deal. As Ministers know, that has been comprehensively rejected by a huge majority in the House, and it would clearly be unacceptable for the Government simply to allow us to drift into no deal without tabling a further motion before we reach exit day.
These are, of course, unusual and unprecedented circumstances, and I know that there are strong feelings. However, I hope that we have been able to engage in our debates in a thoughtful and considered way. We have just an hour in which to discuss the amendments, and I want to ensure that all Members can express their views.
I completely repudiate what has been said by the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper). The reality is that this outrage is the equivalent of tossing a hand grenade into our constitutional arrangements, given the vital importance of the vote that was delivered by the British people in the referendum. It constitutes a deliberate attempt to undermine that result, and any attempt to say otherwise is a total misrepresentation of the facts.
The Bill will not compel the Prime Minister to do anything that she does not want to do anyway, which is to ask for an extension until 30 June, if we assume that the resolution of the House on Tuesday retains that date. The Bill does not compel her to agree to an extension to a different date, if offered by the European Council, and nor if one is offered with conditions. By the way, that could raise some very serious legal questions, which have not yet been followed through to their ultimate conclusion. Hence, if there is a longer extension, it will be by the Prime Minister’s own voluntary act, and not as a result of compulsion by a remain-dominated Parliament, which is what this is. I have said repeatedly during these proceedings that we have a system of parliamentary Government, not government by Parliament. This is a complete reversal of that position; it is a constitutional outrage.
Further, with regard to the European elections, which are dealt with in another amendment on the amendment paper, I would just read out the new clause in my name:
“No extension of the period under Article 50(3) of the Treaty on European Union may be agreed by the Prime Minister if as a result the United Kingdom would be required to prepare for or to hold elections to the European Parliament.”
There are many, many people up and down the country who would totally support that proposition. Furthermore, the reality is that, on Thursday last week, I had a similar amendment on the Order Paper. I was informed that, although it had been selected, No. 10 had given instructions to vote against it. The Government were going to vote against that amendment despite the fact that it was meant to be Government policy. All over the country, there is a firestorm about the fact that we could be involved in European elections. People are leaving their own parties over this because they are so completely infuriated by the fact that the arrangements under consideration here could lead to this absolutely insane idea of our being involved in European elections. The turnout in European elections is derisory. The European Parliament itself is derisory. There is absolutely no reason on earth why we should be involved in these elections, and that is why I have tabled this new clause.
I must admit that if I were to, there would be quite a lot of fireworks in the European Parliament—I can assure the hon. Gentleman of that.
I have no doubt whatever that what those involved are doing by creating circumstances in which the European elections could take place is not only to undermine the vote that was taken in June 2016, but, in addition, to humiliate this country by virtue of the fact this is all effectively being created by our subjugation to the European Union and by our Government crawling on their hands and knees to the European Council—this is something imposed upon them. The idea is not only that we should be put in a position of subjugation but, in terms of the letter the Prime Minister wrote on 5 April, which is a begging letter to the European Council, that we are effectively giving ourselves over to the European Union, which is a humiliation of this country. In no circumstances whatever should we have allowed this ever to happen.
They most emphatically are, because, unlike what has been going on in this House, which is a perversion and a distortion of our constitutional arrangements, the very essence of our position is to defend democracy, to defend the vote that was taken by the British people, and to stand up for the repeal of the European Communities Act 1972, which was passed and is the law of the land. That is where we are right now.
Section 1 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 says that European Communities Act 1972 will be repealed on exit day. All that this Bill does is to move exit day. And by the way, exit day will move, if it ever does, in lockstep with the repeal of the 1972 Act unless someone is prepared to get up and tell me that they intend to repeal the repeal of the 1972 Act. We are still going to repeal that Act, and I think that that is completely lost on Opposition Members.
There are many other things that I would like to say about this wretched Bill, this abomination. The manner in which it has been done is a constitutional violation. It is not a technical innovation, as some people have tried to pretend; it is a constitutional revolution. Mr Speaker, I remember you referring to a precedent that was set in 1604. As I said the other day, Oliver Cromwell came to this House in the mid-1650s in circumstances in which the House of Commons had turned itself into a rabble. He was so furious with it that he said:
“You have sat too long for any good you have been doing”.
That was an accusation—[Interruption.]
So he will, Mr Speaker.
“Depart, I say…In the name of God, go!”
As far as I am concerned, that applies to many Members of Parliament who have reversed their votes and who have repudiated the vote of the British people and denied our democracy.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it really in order for a Member of this House to try to delegitimise other Members of this House, all of whom have our own mandates from our constituencies, simply because he does not agree with what we agree with?
It is not procedurally improper. It has offended the sensibilities of a considerable number of colleagues, but my hunch is that the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) will not suffer any loss of sleep as a consequence of that. The hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) has made her point was considerable force, and it is on the record. Had the hon. Gentleman concluded his oration?
One last remark, Mr Speaker. I trust that the hon. Member for Wallasey will reflect on the fact that, as far as I am aware, she voted for the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017 when this House passed it by 499 votes to about 120. That is a fact—[Interruption.] But perhaps she did not, so she can tell me about that.
First, I should like to say to the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) that the reason we are debating this Bill again tonight is that the House of Commons has approved it and the other place has approved it with amendments. If that is a constitutional revolution, it is a constitutional revolution courtesy of the democratic will of this House and the other place. Secondly, on the subject of the European elections, the Government have made it quite clear to the House that if we are still a member of the European Union on 23 May, those elections will take place. Indeed, the Government have moved the order that will start the process and I understand that the Conservative party has started the process of calling for candidates to stand in those elections.
I rise to support my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) and the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) and to thank them, because the Bill has helped us get to the place, subject to the decision of the European Council on Wednesday, where the will of the House to oppose leaving the European Union without an agreement will finally be given effect. The House needs to remember that the Bill has one purpose, and one purpose only: it is a “prevention of a no-deal Brexit” Bill. If the House gives its approval to it shortly, it will become a “prevention of a no-deal Brexit” Act.
The Prime Minister will accept an extension because she has asked for one. It is the existence of this Bill that has led her, in advance of the Bill being approved by the House, to write to the President of the European Council seeking an extension, because twice, much to the unhappiness of certain Members on the Government side of the House, she has been faced with this choice: either to take the country over the edge of a no-deal cliff, or to apply for an extension.
The reason I think some Members are very cross about that—I accept that they are cross—is that on both occasions the Prime Minister, facing both this Bill and a revolt by her Ministers, decided to act in the national interest by making that application. I hope very much that on Wednesday the European Council will grant more time, because whatever one thinks about the Prime Minister’s deal, one thing is clear: a no-deal Brexit would be disastrous for our country. That is why I hope the House will vote for the Bill tonight.
May I begin by saying how pleased I was to learn, when my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) mentioned the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017, that so many Opposition Members voted for that Act on the basis that they took on trust the success of a Conservative Prime Minister? I am pleased that they have so much confidence in us. When they voted for that Act, they either did or did not know the terms of article 50. If they did know the terms, then they voted to leave the European Union potentially without a withdrawal agreement; and if they did not, then clearly they were ignorant of one of the most important matters of the moment. Perhaps instead they were just voting for short-term political expediency. In any event, it is not very credible for Members now to be panicking and seeking to overturn what they previously legislated for, with great care and over a considerable period of time.
I turn my attention to Lords amendment 5, which I find rather surprising, because it seeks to restore the prerogative to the Government, provided they seek a long extension. Of course, this House resoundingly defeated the Government on that very point. I am therefore very pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Stone has tabled amendment (a) in lieu of Lords amendment 5, to rule out European elections. It states:
“No extension of the period under Article 50(3) of the Treaty on European Union may be agreed by the Prime Minister if as a result the United Kingdom would be required to prepare for or to hold elections to the European Parliament.”
This House united around what was known as the Brady amendment, to replace the backstop with alternative arrangements. I cannot think how many times I and other Members have tabled the so-called Malthouse compromise, to limit the implementation period, replace the backstop and, in the latest incarnation, get rid of the single customs territory. We have tried and tried to give the Government the way to get a deal.
I am listening carefully to what my hon. Friend says about amendment (a) in lieu of Lords amendment 5. Let us be absolutely clear. Is he saying that anyone who votes against amendment (a) will actually be voting for the United Kingdom to take part in the European elections, despite the fact that nearly every Member of this House voted for us to leave long before that date? It is a big reverse, is it not?
It is a big reverse. Do Opposition Members seriously think that we should participate in the European elections after so long? It is a ridiculous escapade. Members should have known what they were doing when they voted to trigger article 50—[Interruption.] I see the right hon. Gentleman the Chair of the Exiting the European Union Committee looking quizzical and shaking his head, or perhaps nodding along.
I am delighted that he is, but I think he voted to notify the EU of our withdrawal. If he did, he voted to leave without an agreement.
The fundamental point of the amendments to Lords amendment 5 is that the time has come, after every effort that we have made to enable the Government to secure a withdrawal agreement to which this House could give its assent, to say enough is enough. The Government should reject Lords amendment 5, accept the amendment in lieu from my hon. Friend the Member for Stone and move heaven and earth to get out on Friday without a withdrawal agreement.
I start by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) and the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) on bringing us this Bill. I had not intended to speak this evening, but I was slightly shocked by the speech from the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash), who started by saying that everything we were doing was undemocratic and then proceeded to give us four or five clearly democratic examples that he was attempting to make undemocratic.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) wondered how it could be a democratic outrage, in the words of the hon. Member for Stone, to have both this House and the other place vote for a piece of legislation in the democratic fashion that we have used for many hundreds of years.
May I just point out to the hon. Gentleman that the European Union Referendum Act 2015, which this House passed by six to one, deliberately and exclusively gave the people the right, by sovereign Act of Parliament, to make the decision themselves? That was us giving the people the right to make that decision, and the hon. Gentleman and others are now trying to retrieve that decision from the British people, which is totally undemocratic.
If the hon. Gentleman wants to intervene again and tell me about one promise made at the 2016 referendum that still stands today, I will happily accept his argument. We are here only because his Government and his Prime Minister have created the biggest mess in parliamentary history in a hung Parliament—one that was made hung by his Prime Minister gambling with a 33 majority and losing. Everything changed at the 2017 general election, but he forgets that.
The hon. Gentleman went on to talk about it being undemocratic to hold European elections. It is apparently undemocratic to ask the entire country to go to a polling station to vote in a democratic election when it is the right of people across Europe, by treaty, to go to a booth to put their cross in a box. How can that be undemocratic?
How can it be undemocratic to try to prevent a no-deal scenario? This is the worst thing of all. This House has voted on at least three occasions by a vast majority to prevent a no-deal scenario, so it is perfectly democratic for the House to take charge of the business and pass legislation to ensure that no deal does not happen. That is perfectly and utterly democratic.
I hate to quote the leave campaign, but I think Mr Hannan himself said that nobody was considering leaving the single market. Indeed, the whole campaign was predicated on having the easiest trade deal in history, on 40 trade deals rolling over by 29 March, on a Brexit dividend, and on an extra £350 million a week for the NHS, but none of that has come to pass.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a sad indictment of where we have reached that Peter Oborne, who describes himself as a “strong Brexiteer”, said over the weekend:
“Now we must swallow our pride and think again”?
He was one of the 17.4 million who voted for Brexit but he now says:
“I have to admit that the Brexit project has gone sour”
and that it will “make us poorer”. It is not just remainers who support the Bill; leavers are also saying, “This isn’t what we voted for. This isn’t the state of a nation that we recognise.” It is time for us to take a step back and not rush to a decision that we will regret.
The hon. Gentleman has mentioned on a number of occasions the hundreds of years of activity in and decisions taken by this place. Can he give one example of when such an important constitutional Bill has been rammed through this House with fewer than four hours of debate?
Time is of the essence. If the Bill had not been put through this House with four hours of debate, it would not have made it in time for the European Council on Wednesday. In actual fact, my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford should be thanked by the Prime Minister for this Bill.
SNP Members are jumping up and down because I said that a democracy fails to be a democracy if the public are not allowed to change their mind. Actually, the public of Scotland have not changed their mind on independence. Indeed, they are more against it— [Interruption.] I have probably just set the cat among the nationalist pigeons.
I have a lot of respect for the hon. Member for Stone because he has always held his views about the European Union. We have to respect those views, listen to them and agree to disagree—we will definitely do that—but what is undemocratic is for Members to table amendments to trash a Bill that has gone democratically through this House and the other place to put democratically into law the prevention of no deal. That is what is undemocratic, which is why we should support the Lords amendments.
Many people outside this House are losing confidence and trust in us and our proceedings. Tonight is another plunge in how they see us, because we are behaving collectively so badly. My right hon. and hon. Friends who have complained about the lack of time for debating both the Bill and the amendments are quite right. This is a serious constitutional matter. We have not been given time to construct proper amendments and there is no time in this brief hour to do justice to the complex issues raised by the Lords amendments. We had but a short debate on the original consideration of the Bill, when I was able to set out some of the constitutional difficulties involved in groups of MPs seizing the agenda and taking over money resolution and Crown prerogative matters, and we are not allowed proper time tonight to consider exactly how all that fits with this Bill.
What we do know, however, is that the very slim majority who have got the Bill this far through this House intend to go against the clearly expressed wishes of the British people in the referendum. All those who voted to leave, two years and nine months ago, had every reason to suppose that all Labour and Conservative Members elected on their 2017 manifestos would see through our exit in a timely way. They should also have expected that from the promises made by both the leave and the remain campaigns in the referendum, the legislation put through in granting that referendum, and the clear statement of the Government at the time, who said that we would implement the wishes of the British people. The Opposition did not dissent from that particular view when the Government put out their leaflet. Indeed, during the remain campaign many Labour MPs endorsed the Government. That is why tonight is another sad night. This Parliament is breaking its word, breaking its promises and letting down 17.4 million voters, but it is also letting down quite a lot of remain voters.
A lot of remain voters are good democrats who fully accept the verdict of the British people. Quite a lot of people in our country were only just remain voters or only just leave voters and are prepared to live with the judgment of the majority, and they now, too, are scandalised that this Parliament is insisting on a second needless delay when we have had two years and nine months to prepare for exit and when our Government assure us that they are fully prepared for exiting without signing the withdrawal agreement.
I find it very odd that Members of this House think that the withdrawal agreement is, in itself, Brexit or in any way helps Brexit because, of course, the withdrawal agreement is a massively long delay to our exit, with the added problem, which the Opposition have rightly identified, that it entails signing up to a solemn and binding international treaty to undermine our bargaining position in the second part of the negotiations envisaged by the EU’s process.
My right hon. Friend is making an extremely good speech. Is he aware that, as I have been informed today, the withdrawal agreement and implementation Bill, which is supposed to put this appalling withdrawal agreement into domestic law, is around 120 pages long? That is what we are heading for in the next couple of weeks.
My hon. Friend is right. The nature of that solemn and binding treaty will be to lock us in, for 21 or 45 months, to every feature of the European Union without representation, vote or voice, and it might mean that we end up in large sections of it—the customs union and single market alignment—in perpetuity, thanks to the Irish backstop.
It is a massive delay, and I say to my hon. and right hon. Friends on the Front Bench that, if they are offering the public either a guaranteed delay under the withdrawal agreement or a shorter delay that they wish to negotiate, a lot of leave voters would rather have the shorter delay but, of course, all of us leave voters do not want any delay at all. That is why people will be scandalised by what this House is rushing through again this evening.
The shortage of time is completely scandalous. This is a massive issue that has gripped the nation for many months. It dominates the news media, it sucks the life out of this House on every other issue and now, when we come to this big crunch event and when leave had been led to believe that we would be leaving the European Union without an agreement if necessary, they are told at the last minute, for the second time, that all their hopes for their democratic outcome will be dashed again. This Parliament does that with grave danger to its reputation.
I urge all those who wish to get this lightning legislation through again to ask themselves what they are going to say to all their leave voters, and what they are going to say to their remain voters who are also democrats and who join leave voters in saying, “Get on with it. Get it over with. Why do we have to sit through month after month of the same people making the same points that they put to a referendum and lost?”
This Parliament needs to wake up and get real. It needs to move on, it needs to rise to the nation’s requirements and deal with the nation’s other business, and it needs to accept that this was decided by the public. It is our duty to implement it. Leaving without this agreement is going to be just fine. We are prepared for it. Business is ready for it. Business has spent money. Business has done whatever it needed to do and, in many cases, feels very let down that it is not able to use all its contingencies, on which it has spent good money.
I would say this to all Labour MPs, particularly those with a majority of leave voters in their constituency: understand the damage you are doing, understand the damage you are doing to this institution, understand the damage you are doing to our democracy and vote for us to leave the European Union.
It really is no good Government Members complaining about the lack of time—the lack of time to debate this Bill or the fact that we are days away from crashing out of the European Union with no deal. In fact, we would have done that already, were it not for the interventions of people from all parts of this House and in the other place.
Why are we in this position? There is some serious revisionist history going on tonight. It is because after the referendum, a Parliament in which a majority of Members voted to remain none the less said, “We accept that people have voted to leave the European Union.” When the Prime Minister—after she had been dragged through the courts, incidentally—was eventually forced to ask for permission to trigger article 50 and begin the process of negotiations, as has been said, the vast majority of MPs, myself included, voted to give the Prime Minister that permission. That was Parliament’s sole role in the matter: being asked for permission and giving the Prime Minister permission.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware from our time together on the Treasury Committee that we knew what the timeline was for the negotiations. What we could not have foreseen was that the Prime Minister would be so irresponsible, when given the authority to trigger article 50, to send that letter without first having agreement within her Cabinet, within her party and across the House. We also could not have foreseen—not least because she promised repeatedly that she would not do it—that she would have wasted a significant proportion of that two years on a general election.
In the election, the Prime Minister asked the country in explicit and personal terms to give her the mandate that she needed for a hard Brexit of the kind that many Government Members now demand. What did the public say? They said no. They did not give the Prime Minister the majority she asked for. The Conservative party lost seats and the country decided that no one party could be trusted with a majority to govern. That should bring humility on all of us. It also required a degree of contrition and compromise, but we have not seen any of that from the Prime Minister until the 11th hour.
I absolutely do. Let me also say, as a Member of Parliament whose constituency split virtually down the middle, that there is a range of reasons why people voted in the way they did in the general election, because general elections are not single-issue democratic events. However, I can say that people in Ilford North were very worried about what a Conservative Government would bring to the country, not least because of the position that the Prime Minister staked out on Europe.
I made it very clear to my constituents that I believed that any deal should be put back to the people. That has been a consistent democratic principle. I did not know at the general election that we would be in the position we are now in: not just in the last chance saloon but on last orders. It seems that the Prime Minister is literally on last orders, as she is there just before they boot her out.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the one thing the election pointed out was that there was not a majority for a hard Brexit, and that if the Prime Minister had recognised that and reached out at that moment, we would all be in a much better position than we find ourselves in?
The Prime Minister has never sought to compromise. What she has found difficult—and what any Prime Minister would find difficult—is trying to reconcile the broad range of promises that were made to people in 2016 and the inability to deliver them all. That is entirely due to the fact that the leave campaign was never honest about the tension at the heart of its offer, which was that there is a trade-off between national sovereignty and economic trade and partnership, economic security and national security. We have been great beneficiaries of pooled sovereignty, but if we try to unpool sovereignty there are trade-offs and sacrifices. The leave campaign has never been honest about that.
The final thing I want to say is about the European elections. The idea that we would decide our country’s future, not just for the next year or two but for generations, around the inconvenience of organising European elections is nonsensical. There has never been a clamour for European elections. In fact, lots of the country is currently with Brenda from Bristol on the idea of any election: “Not another one!” I find this idea that holding elections or a confirmatory vote is undemocratic to be laughable. How can involving all our country in decisions about our future possibly be anti-democratic? The idea that we would rush to judgment, crash out with no deal and make decisions that will hurt this country for generations to come because we cannot be bothered to go out and knock on a few doors is no basis on which to make a decision. We should vote against the amendment.
I am grateful for the chance to make a few comments on tonight’s debate. Like the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) who sponsored the Bill, we will support the Lords amendments. From our point of view, they have tidied up some of the wording in the main subsections, and they have put the original drafting into more effective and tighter wording.
I want to pick up on some of the questions that have been asked across the Chamber. Has such a major constitutional change ever been rushed through in such a hurry? English votes for English laws is the most significant constitutional change in the past 30 years, and that did not even have an Act of Parliament before being put through. The Westminster power grab, driving a coach and horses through the devolution settlement, had 19 minutes of debate. The entire Scottish contingent of 59 MPs were allowed one word during that debate. We were allowed to say, “No”, and then we were outvoted. So the ERG should not talk to anyone on our Benches about the lack of democratic process.
Thanks to the hon. Gentleman’s friends, I have little time to speak and I do not want to take up time that the Minister will want towards the end.
The hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash), whom I have a great deal of respect for, for the length of service that he has given to this House, simply got his facts wrong. He spoke about when Oliver Cromwell addressed this Parliament. Oliver Cromwell had been dead for 50 years before this Parliament existed. That is even if “this Parliament” means the Parliament of Great Britain, because the Parliament of the United Kingdom did not come along for another 100 years after that. Even with the protection of the Almighty, Oliver Cromwell would not have smelt too nice if he had come here 150 years later.
As for the nonsense that because an Act of Parliament was passed in a previous Parliament, this Parliament does not like to do anything about it, what happened to the sacred principle that no Parliament can bind a successor? If that principle did not exist, we would not need elections at all, but some people on the Conservative Benches think that having elections is some kind of democratic outrage—“They shouldn’t be allowed”, or, “People don’t need the chance to change their minds.”
The same people also say that in the 2017 election, over 80% of people voted for the two major UK parties whose manifestos said they would respect the result of the referendum—I think that was a mistake by Labour, but it cannot be changed now. In 2015, however, 85% of people voted for parties that said they wanted to stay in the European Union. How can it be that between 2015 and 2017, 80% of the people were allowed to change their minds, but between 2016 and 2019, 3% are not allowed to change their minds?
As for that idea that everyone knew what they were doing in 2016, no less a person than the Attorney General admitted this weekend that he had misunderstood and that the Government had underestimated just how complicated it was going to be. If the Government’s chief legal adviser did not realise how complicated it was going to be, what chance did 33 million other people have in casting their votes?
It is right that Labour supported article 50 at the time, but Labour made a lot of mistakes at the start of the process—serious tactical mistakes—and I am pleased that a lot of them are coming around to understand and to make good those mistakes. I am a bit worried that their leader might be about to make the biggest tactical mistake on Brexit of the whole lot, but I hope he can be pulled back from that.
The single biggest difficulty, as has been said, is that the Prime Minister has made a mess of the negotiations from day one. Conservative Members complain about the number of times that she promised, “We’re leaving on 29 March”, as if that was some kind of day handed down on tablets of stone from Mount Sinai, but it is just another example of the Prime Minister creating utterly impossible expectations. I am sorry, but if the Prime Minister’s impossible expectations cause problems for the Conservative party, that is not my problem, and I want to see the day when it is no longer Scotland’s problem.
Far too much of the debate about Brexit has not been about what is in the best interests of this generation; it has paid no regard at all to the interests of future generations—it has been all about what is in the best interests of the Conservative party. It might be best for us all if the Conservative party’s existential crisis came to its natural conclusion and the rest of us could get on with building a better nation, a better set of nations and a better society for us and our descendants.
I thought I would inject a new tone into the debate and focus on the amendments. I will be brief.
I thank the peers for their work on the Bill in an exceptionally short time, reflecting the exceptional circumstances in which we find ourselves. Since we last debated it, the Prime Minister has—later than we would have liked—reached out to the Opposition, and we are engaging fully in that process. In that spirit, we are pleased to join the Government in accepting all the amendments. Amendments 1 to 3 tidy up the Bill to ensure that the motion is put to the House tomorrow. Amendment 5 makes a significant but helpful change to the Bill. Events have overtaken us since it was presented last week, and the Prime Minister has already written to the President of the European Council indicating her intention to seek an extension to the article 50 process until 30 June.
Will the hon. Gentleman tell the House what there is in the Bill that the Prime Minister has not already said she will do in relation to an article 50 extension? Given that she has already said that she will seek an article 50 extension, is it not the case that this entire Bill is nothing more than an extended vanity exercise?
I assume that, in that case, the hon. Gentleman has no objection to the Bill.
The other important development since last week is that the Prime Minister has made clear her opposition to leaving the European Union without a deal. Amendment 5 enables her to agree to a different extension provided that it is a date after 22 May.
Amendment 4 deletes clause 1(6) and (7). Like other Members, I am conscious that last week this House voted against an identical amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice). However, that deletion must now be read alongside amendment 5. These amendments, taken together in the Lords, were tabled in recognition that time is of the essence if we are to avoid leaving the European Union without a deal on Friday. We therefore now support amendment 4. We oppose the amendments tabled by Conservative Members that repeat attempts made last week and seek to frustrate the objectives of the Bill.
Finally, I commend my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) and the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) for their work on the Bill. I thank the staff of both Houses for everything they have done to enable speedy consideration of it.
I regret that we are debating this Bill, as it is unnecessary and has been progressed through Parliament without due and necessary time for debate or scrutiny. I share the view of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House that it is a matter of deep regret that we are considering the Bill this evening. Given that the other place has given it a great deal more consideration than this House, we should reflect on its amendments.
As the House is aware, the Government have already set in train the process to achieve a short extension. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) pointed out, the Bill is not necessary to do that. When this House approved the Bill, I pointed out that it was being passed in haste. We had a heavily truncated Second Reading, a short Committee stage and no debate on Report or Third Reading. That was followed by an unusually expedited process in the other place, where there was an unprecedented use, much remarked on by the noble Lords, of closure motions during the debate on the business motion. No Government or Parliament should welcome this unhealthy state of affairs.
The Prime Minister has been very clear that she is seeking the shortest possible extension to make sure that we leave in an orderly fashion with a deal.
My Secretary of State suggested on Second Reading that the House of Lords—the other place—might wish to correct the flaws in the Bill. The combined effect of the Lords amendments is to correct deficiencies in the drafting and to mitigate some of the severe impacts that the Bill could otherwise have triggered. Like the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), I will address each of the amendments in turn.
The amendments tabled to clause 1 in the name of the noble Lord Robertson—Lords amendments 1 to 3 —reduce the chance of an inadvertent no deal. As I pointed out in Committee, the Bill as originally drafted
“creates a real risk that we could be timed out and be unable to agree an extension with our European partners and implement it in domestic law.”—[Official Report, 3 April 2019; Vol. 657, c. 1189.]
The Bill requires that motion to be moved on the day after Royal Assent. If we run past midnight, that would mean that we were debating the motion on Wednesday, the same day as the Council.
The noble Lord has identified a further flaw in the drafting whereby—at page 1, line 2—it states that only the Prime Minister can move a motion in the House of Commons in the form set out in this Bill. Members of the House will be familiar with the fact that the usual drafting states a “Minister of the Crown”. In seeking to restrict the moving of this motion to just the Prime Minister, it would mean that the Prime Minister could not travel on Wednesday until after 1 pm, when she would be required to move the motion, disrupting discussions with EU leaders ahead of Council. The House will appreciate the importance of the Prime Minister meeting European leaders before the Council and the need to be ready to make the case for an extension. It is difficult to see how frustrating this process would help the UK to obtain a positive outcome. As such, the Government support these amendments.
Lords amendment 4, tabled in the name of the noble Lord Goldsmith, removed clause 1(6) and (7) of the Bill, requiring the Prime Minister to return to Parliament after the European Council to seek agreement to the length of the extension. We did consider a version of this amendment in this House, moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), but those on the Opposition Benches voted against it. We are now in a situation where Labour peers are once again correcting the errors that were inherent in the original Bill. If subsections (6) and (7) were allowed to stand, we would need to return to the House and seek its approval for an extension on Thursday, even if that extension had already been agreed on Wednesday. That simply does not make sense.
The excellent Minister is right that the amendment was moved in this House and roundly defeated. In fact, the whole point of the Bill originally was that Parliament took control of the date. For some reason I cannot understand, that has now been abandoned, which makes this Bill totally irrelevant. Of course, we can vote how we like today because it will not make any difference, will it, Minister? The Prime Minister now has the authority to do what she likes.
My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. I have already pointed out that I think this Bill is unnecessary. The effect of these amendments is to restore the power of the royal prerogative, so I think I can agree with him on that. Of course—and I say this to the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), who made this point—if an extension were not agreed, the Prime Minister would want to come back to the House at the earliest opportunity to set out the next steps.
Yes, I say to the right hon. Lady that it would have to be.
Lords amendment 5, tabled in the name of Cross-Bench peer the noble Lord Pannick, reinstates the form of a previous amendment that I proposed in this House, and which was opposed by the backers of the Bill. It seeks to retain the royal prerogative, which gives the Prime Minister, as a matter of constitutional principle, the discretion to decide what is the best agreement to reach on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government. It is a pillar of our constitution, and the means to govern this country effectively and unencumbered.
Lords amendment 5 adds a proviso that any extension agreed should not end earlier than 22 May. Of course, the Government have already been clear that we are seeking an extension to 30 June, so that is no threat to the prerogative power. I spoke in support of the prerogative power in Committee, and the noble Lord Howard and the noble Lord Cormack were united in speaking in its support in the other place. As Member for the Faithful City, I am happy to continue to speak in its support.
While I have great sympathy for amendment (a) to Lords amendment 5, tabled by my hon. Friends the Members for Stone (Sir William Cash) and for Wycombe (Mr Baker)—I entirely agree with the sentiment—the Government have already set out our desire for an extension to 30 June to allow the maximum time to secure an orderly exit from the European Union.
I am afraid that I cannot give way because I am going to run out of time. I apologise to my hon. Friend.
We cannot support this amendment (a), but the Government have also been clear that it is our firm desire to secure an agreement and leave the EU by 22 May to ensure that we do not need to hold European elections. In voting for the withdrawal agreement at the last opportunity, I and the vast majority of Government Members voted to do so. Despite our continued opposition to the Bill, its irrelevance and the speed of its passage in haste, we are left with no choice but to improve it, so I support the amendments before the House that were passed in the other place.
One hour having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on consideration of Lords amendments, the proceedings were interrupted (Order, 3 April).
The Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (Standing Order No. 83F), That this House agrees with Lords amendment 1.
Question agreed to.
Lords amendment 1 accordingly agreed to.
The Speaker then put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83F).
Question put, That this House agrees with Lords amendments 2 and 3.
Lords amendments 2 and 3 agreed to.
Lords amendment 4 agreed to.
Amendment (a) proposed to Lords amendment 5. —(Sir William Cash.)
Question put, That the amendment be made.
Question put, That this House agrees with Lords amendment 5.
The House proceeded to a Division.
Lords amendment 5 agreed to.