Consideration of Lords amendments
I support Lords amendment 1, which very sensibly provides for when the reports required under the Bill should be made to the House and provides an opportunity for the House to debate them. In other words, it provides a context in which we can discuss what is contained in those reports by requiring them to be made and requiring a motion to be presented to the House.
Given that other matters, which we debated at some length last week, have been added to the Bill since it was originally published—and have widened the scope of the Bill considerably beyond the original purpose solely relating to elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly—it seems to me even more important that we have the provisions in Lords amendment 1 in the Bill. But there is a problem that my amendment seeks to fix if the House is not sitting—for example, because it has been prorogued —on the dates by which the reports have to be made, and the crucial dates are 4 September and 9 October. My amendment simply seeks to make provision for the House to be recalled in those circumstances to allow the opportunity for us to consider the reports and debate the motions that arise from the Bill if Lords amendment 1 is accepted by the House.
I should say at this stage that probably not every Member of the House is entirely familiar with the provisions of the Meeting of Parliament Act 1797, but the most important thing to recall is that section 1 is still on the statute book. It has been used, most recently in section 68(10) of the Reserve Forces Act 1996 and in section 28(1) of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004—indeed, the Civil Contingencies Act makes specific reference to the Meeting of Parliament Act 1797.
In other words, this amendment does not—I emphasise this—seek to establish a new constitutional principle. It simply seeks to use previous practice to make sure that Parliament is sitting when it needs to be sitting to debate these matters. As I hope the amendment makes clear, it would do so by requiring that Parliament be recalled on a specified day within the period in which compliance with subsection (2B) of Lords amendment 1 is required. In other words, the Minister would have to lay the report and the motion in neutral terms would have to be moved within the period of five calendar days, beginning with the end of the day on which the report was made. If my amendment is carried, we would be sitting in order to ensure that we had the chance both to consider the report and, crucially, to debate the motion that has been presented. That is the single purpose of my amendment. It would be rather odd—would it not?—for the House to legislate to provide for these reports and motions on specified dates, only to find itself not being here to consider the reports and to debate the motions because of some other action, namely the fact that we might not be sitting.
My final point is this: everyone in the House is well aware that Brexit has significant implications for the country as a whole, but it will have particular implications for Northern Ireland, which the Exiting the European Union Committee has reported on and many Members on both sides of the House have spoken of. I suppose that this amendment has a secondary effect: to ensure that the House would be sitting at a crucial time for our country, as I believe the country would expect us to be. I do not think that we could accept circumstances, if I may coin the phrase, in which we were sent missing in action, and I hope that the House will support the amendment.
I rise simply to support the remarks made by the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) and to explain why I added my name to amendment (a).
As the right hon. Gentleman concluded on the position of Northern Ireland—the springboard for the amendment—the implications of every decision taken by the United Kingdom in relation to Brexit are highly significant both for Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. For us to be in the run-up to 31 October without those considerations being before the House seems genuinely very difficult, as it does when we go beyond that and consider that the House might not be sitting during the run-up to the date itself to consider all the other things. If we have felt under the weight of any pressure up to now, I venture to suggest to the House that that will be as nothing compared with the days leading up to 31 October if it is not clear where the country is going, either because a deal has been agreed or because the consequences of no deal have been sufficiently spelt out that everybody has been able to take a view. The idea that we might not be here to reflect those concerns and to take our own view on what the circumstances might be seems to me not only highly unlikely, but undesirable and preventable.
I have added my support for amendment (a), which strengthens the Anderson amendment agreed to in the other place and makes sure that we will be here to reflect the views of our constituents. Amendment (a) does not suggest how the House would vote when presented with a choice between a deal and no deal; it makes absolutely certain, in the absence of assurances, that we will be here then.
I commend to the House the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central.
I rise to support the extremely sensible cross-party amendment so ably moved by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn). It looks like a technical measure, and in many respects it is. We are dealing with circumstances that I thought I would never face as a Member of this House; the unwritten constitutional norms that we have all accepted in our time in this place are being openly played and challenged by two people, one of whom will be an occupant of Downing Street by the end of next week, having been elected Prime Minister in an extremely mini poll of an extremely narrow number of people.
During the many hustings and debates in that election, the question has been posed of whether this Parliament should be prorogued—sent away—in an effort to get past the issue of its having three times voted against leaving the EU without a deal. The thought that Britain, a great democracy that helped to forge the post-war international rules-based system, should think of getting out of its treaty commitments by simply ripping them up and walking away, and turning its back on negotiation, would never have occurred to most of our predecessors in this place. Certainly, during the referendum, the idea that there could be no deal was not on the agenda; in fact, it was so off the agenda that it was not talked about at all. Those telling us that we should vote to leave the EU said that the deal would be the easiest in history. Nobody mentioned the phrase “no deal”.
Today, we see what the Office for Budget Responsibility —an independent economic forecasting outfit appointed by the Government—believes the economic consequences of no deal would be. It does not take a genius, or even someone with a degree in economics, to see from a quick look at the report how disastrous that would be: Britain would enter a recession, and our GDP would be 3% smaller, even in the initial phases.
My hon. Friend has a degree in economics and a degree in politics. From her knowledge of political history and the constitution of this country, would she say that it would be an outrage if a Prime Minister sought to thwart the will of the House by proroguing Parliament?
Does the hon. Lady agree that it is an outrage that this debate, which is supposed to be on the Northern Ireland Executive’s formation, is being hijacked and turned into something to do with Brexit, and to do with every issue under the sun except the formation of the Executive, which now looks more unlikely as a result of this legislation?
The hon. Gentleman is right to be somewhat miffed about what he calls a hijack, but what I call a situation in which needs must. This is the longest parliamentary Session since the civil war, because the Government, who effectively have no majority, dare not prorogue Parliament, as they would then have to have a Queen’s Speech, and they do not have one handy because the work has not been done. No Government Front Bencher knows whether they will be on the Front Bench next week. Some know that they definitely will not; I hope that that will free them up when they are in the voting Lobby a bit later. The lack of a chance to use a legislative vehicle to establish Parliament’s rights has led us to this pass, so I understand the hon. Gentleman’s feelings, but when a legislative vehicle passes, and it is the only one in a desert, and we desperately need to clamber aboard, then needs must.
I did not say that it was an abuse; I said that needs must. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s irritation with the situation, but as this is the only legislative vehicle in sight, it is quite legitimate to try to use it to assert Parliament’s rights on this matter.
I commend my hon. Friend’s speech. This is very much the right thing to do, and as she says, needs must. We face a serious crisis in this country, and it is right to bring forward amendment (a), however difficult that might be for some colleagues.
I thank my hon. Friend for agreeing with me. Perhaps this should happen more regularly; perhaps we should try to get more agreement across the House, rather than having some people in one group and others in another, in little newly forming tribes, as hate and division take root in our society. I am one of those who think that compromise is a good idea.
The amendment is trying to put into law, albeit in a clumsy way, the constitutional convention that Parliament should decide matters of great import. It should not be sent away artificially by a Prime Minister with no electoral mandate whatever, and possibly no majority whatever, in order for them to accomplish one of the most far-reaching and controversial things in modern politics—our leaving the EU without a deal. That would entail a huge loss of legitimacy, which would divide the country much further still.
Does the hon. Lady feel, as I do, that when people look back on this debate and on this measure, they will find it quite extraordinary that we needed to have this discussion about whether the Parliament of the United Kingdom should be in session when the events of which she speaks are likely to occur?
I could not agree more with the right hon. Gentleman, and I commend his attempts, and those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), to ensure that Parliament was not in that position, by seeking to prevent a no-deal crash-out.
If we had a future Prime Minister who respected the rules and lines of our unwritten constitution and who did not wish to drive a coach and horses through them in the most controversial way possible, perhaps we would not have had to resort to this. If the future Prime Minister was conservative, and was interested in conserving the traditions and rights of this place, he would, in the first item of his leadership bid, rule out a no-deal Brexit by Prorogation of Parliament. Alas, not only has he not done that, but as the Tory leadership campaign has gone on, his rival has been dragged towards using Prorogation as a tactic to send Parliament home so that it cannot have a view.
Finally, I have already said that this is the longest Session of Parliament since the English civil war, and we are contemplating a new Tory Prime Minister who seems to believe that he can behave like a Stuart king. It did not end well in the century of the civil war, and I warn the next Prime Minister that it will not end well if he tries to do the same thing in the 21st century.
The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill is all about making sure that democracy works for the people of our country whom it serves. That is why I very much support it. However, it goes wider than that in practice. This country finds itself in a time of crisis—we all know that. Many people listening to this debate will be wondering why we are even having a summer recess and going away on holiday when there are so many unresolved issues in relation to Brexit. The simple act of passing the amendment to make sure that we do indeed sit as normal during September and October is, therefore, common sense and the House should get behind it. In no way does it try to curtail decisions that a Government or a Parliament might want to make—quite the reverse: it seeks to ensure that our parliamentary democracy can simply function as normal.
We should all reflect on the fact that this debate is even necessary in our country. What has Britain come to when we have to table amendments to ensure that Parliament can still operate? To those who say that shutting down Parliament is somehow a viable approach, I simply say: you do not win a debate by closing down the main Chamber in which the views of the people of this country are aired, and you do not unite a country by muzzling the people whom those communities have democratically elected to come here to represent them.
There are other practical reasons why we should support this common-sense amendment. We all know that this is a time of global political and economic instability. Are we really saying that this House would not be there to debate issues that might arise, just in case it had its say on the hugely important issue of Brexit or spoke with one voice about the Government’s proposed course of action? It is entirely untenable—indeed, it is dangerous and extremely short-sighted—to shut down this Parliament at a time of so much uncertainty.
I will finish by saying that the amendment has to pass. If it does not, I fear that we will inadvertently cross the Rubicon for our parliamentary democracy. That would mean that if a Government ran up against an issue and were worried that the elected House of MPs might decide to stand up against them, they would just close it down. That is not in Britain’s DNA. The rest of the world looks on and admires our democracy because it is such a fundamental part of how this country has developed. For that reason alone, we should get behind this amendment, which is about protecting the right of ordinary people up and down this country to have their MP come here and do their job of representing them, for good or for bad.
I want to get back to the Bill’s original purpose. Representatives from Northern Ireland and our constituents have forcefully made the point that it is very disconcerting that a Bill that extends two dates to allow for talks, which are already under way, has been, in the words of my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), hijacked for other purposes. Some of the debates are not even on issues that directly affect Northern Ireland, such as the change to the definition of marriage and the massive change on abortion, an issue on which there are strong feelings across the board—cross-party and cross-community—in Northern Ireland. Those views differ from those of the proponents—
No, I do not have time. I only have five minutes, and everyone who wishes to speak will get a chance to do so.
Sadly, when it comes to Northern Ireland debates, the Chamber fills up and people take an interest only when it serves their purposes. I would like to see as many people take an interest in Northern Ireland affairs when we are debating issues that really affect and have a practical impact on the constituents whom we represent. The time devoted to discussing the substantial issues introduced in Committee and in the other place has been woefully short, given their gravity and impact.
Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 has provisions for consultation. If the Government introduced measures that sidestepped that, there would be outrage on the Opposition Benches and, indeed, on the Government Back Benches and on ours. All that has been cast aside, however, because the end justifies the means. Every parliamentary norm and every norm of consultation, consideration and the principle of devolution has been set aside.
People say that this place has a right to act constitutionally and legally. Of course it does, but the reality is that they are being very selective. We are legislating on some of the most contentious and divisive issues, on which there is no consensus, and leaving aside the hundreds of other issues on which there is consensus about the need for a common-sense approach and to take action. Either we have direct rule and legislate on all those areas, or we respect devolution—we cannot have it both ways—and I think we are running very close to the time when that clear choice will have to be made.
Sadly, the issues have been given very little time for discussion—a couple of hours on Monday, a couple of hours in the House of Lords and a few minutes here today. On the fundamental change to the law on abortion in Northern Ireland, Roman Catholics and Protestants, Unionists and nationalists take a very different view from that of many people in this House, but they have been left to one side. Their views have not been, and are not going to be, listened to as a result of the procedures that have been set out.
This House inserted an abortion provision, which has become clause 9, and it is being imposed on Northern Ireland, even though every Member for Northern Ireland who takes their seat in this House voted against it. The Lords has now rewritten the clause, so the 99 Members who voted against it on Monday are now faced with a much more radical provision. It makes abortion legal for absolutely any reason, including gender and disability, until a legal presumption of 28 weeks.
There is a provision, of course, to account for viability under the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945—I accept that—but the fact of the matter is that the amendment tabled in the other place would remove the main provision in our law on 22 October without making any provision for a regulatory framework to replace it until the end of March. We will be in limbo between 22 October and 31 March. We may have guidelines, and I hope the Minister will say something about interim regulations to plug that gap.
This is a very serious situation and it is very difficult for most of our constituents—on all sides of the community—to comprehend it. Many people are outraged and very frustrated that this House has acted in this way. Of course it has the right to do so, but given the lack of time, consideration and consultation, to take such drastic steps on a matter of such import and concern, on which there is cross-community consensus on the need to take a more careful and different approach, is completely wrong.
I rise to oppose the totally new Lords-amended clause 9. If the amendment is agreed to, Northern Ireland will have the most permissive abortion law in the British Isles.
The way in which the issue of abortion and, indeed, the Bill has been handled has been, I believe, unconstitutional, undemocratic, legally incoherent and utterly disrespectful to the people of Northern Ireland, yet the Government are pressing on today with just a derisory one hour’s debate. That is despite the fact that abortion is a devolved policy area and a hugely controversial issue, and despite the shamefully limited scrutiny time we have already had.
The decision to fast-track the Bill was considered contentious even in respect of its limited original purposes. The Lords Constitution Committee recently discouraged the use of fast-tracking in the context of Northern Ireland legislation, except for urgent matters. The amendments to change the substantive law on abortion and, indeed, marriage were outside the scope of the Bill and should never have been debated in this place. What are the constitutional implications for the respect of scope for future parliamentary Bills? It is well known that these matters are of particular sensitivity in Northern Ireland.
The hon. Gentleman is correct. I am exercising some latitude from the Chair. The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) is a very committed parliamentarian and she is opining on these matters, and I am very content that she should do so. I am equally content to take the opportunity to assert that there is nothing disorderly whatsoever about these proceedings. I have exercised my judgment and responsibility in the way that I think fit in order to facilitate the House. There is nothing—I repeat: nothing—unconstitutional or improper about that, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to put my opinion on the record in respect of the way the Bill has been extended beyond what I believe what was its original intention. Indeed, I spoke to that effect when it was discussed in the House only a few days ago.
As I say, the laws in this subject area are of great importance to the people of Northern Ireland, many of whom celebrate the fact that 100,000 people are alive in Northern Ireland today as a result of the abortion laws there being different from those here. There has been no consultation with the people of Northern Ireland or their elected representatives on this issue. The democratically elected representatives in Northern Ireland voted not to change the abortion law there in any way as recently as 2016. As such, Northern Ireland’s primary legislation in this policy area enjoys a more democratic recent sanction than that in any other part of the UK: 100% of the Northern Ireland MPs present voted against attempts to change the abortion law just a few days ago.
Yesterday, I had the privilege to deliver personally a letter to the Prime Minister from Northern Ireland MPs, peers, MLAs and 17,000 other residents of Northern Ireland. I have a copy of it with me, and it asks for the withdrawal of this Bill, which the Northern Ireland Attorney General has said is “unclear and inconsistent” with regard to human rights issues. There is a covering note from Baroness O’Loan—I pay tribute to her and the speech she made in the other place on this issue—in which she says:
“Please do not ignore the concerns of so many, articulated in a couple of days”—
the signatures were gathered in just a few days—
“in response to the fast tracked NI Bill.”
The letter requests that the Bill be reconsidered.
I understand that what has actually happened following the original amendments to the Bill on the issue of abortion is that rather than moving to minimise the constitutional concerns expressed in this place about those changes and the way that Parliament had treated the people of Northern Ireland just a few days ago, Government representatives have met sponsors of the out-of-scope amendments—it is my opinion that they are, Mr Speaker—and worked with them to enhance the efficacy of the provisions.
So much for respecting the human rights of the people of Northern Ireland in terms of their freedom of expression, speech and belief. Let them decide on such sensitive issues. We talk here about the importance of not being colonial, but what is this? Is this what the new colonialism looks like? I will not support clause 9 and I will not support the Bill with clause 9 in it.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to say what the Government should have done, which was to preserve the integrity of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, respect the Sewel convention and uphold the integrity of the Bill in its intended limited format.
I rise simply to support the amendment; however, like others, I regret the need for it. It is needed because of the position adopted by one person—the person who will be our next Prime Minister, who, if I recall correctly, did in fact campaign for parliamentary sovereignty but is now dangling the threat of abolishing Parliament over our heads. Even dictators in banana republics are reluctant to deploy that threat. It is shameful.
I have considerable sympathy with the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds) and, indeed, with my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who both expressed their concern that the House is legislating on Northern Ireland matters. As we have set up a devolved Assembly and Executive, many of the matters with which we are concerned today now are, or should be, the province of that Assembly and that Executive, but good governance cannot exist in the condition of paralysis. Indeed, what we have seen with the passage of this Bill is that this House—very properly, because it is our duty—is paying some attention to the vacuum that exists in the Northern Ireland context, not only in wanting to see an Executive set up but in looking in the meantime at areas where there are concerns about, for example, the law as it currently exists. It is an imperfect way of doing it, but it is not an illegitimate one now.
Before I give way, let me just add that the House should be perfectly aware that I abstained on the amendments concerning abortion and same-sex marriage precisely for that reason, but I do not think that it is illegitimate of Members of this House to feel that the time has come to express a view in the absence of an Administration.
Let me turn to the issues relating to Lords amendment 1, which I support, and the amendment to it proposed by the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn). We face an extraordinary situation. To do its business, the House has to sit. It is perfectly normal for the House to assert that it wants, at various times, to be able to consider issues, particularly in the Northern Ireland context, in which the situation changes rapidly. Yet we have been confronted with a most unusual situation: there is a suggestion that there would be periods when, for other reasons, we would be prevented from sitting. We are responsible for ensuring, or trying to ensure, good governance. I think that is why we have the portcullis as our symbol: we are supposed to be the protectors of the nation.
I hope my right hon. and learned Friend might be willing, particularly as he is a former Attorney General, to join me in stating specifically, for Pepper v. Hart purposes, that the intention of those who have been involved in the preparation of the amendment is uniformly to ensure that it absolutely and explicitly blocks the use of the prerogative power to prorogue our Parliament.
Yes, I am entirely happy to make that assertion, because when I realised that it was an issue, I also realised that it was a threat to the good governance of this country and, indeed, to the good governance of Northern Ireland in the run-up to setting up the Executive, which I very much hope will come into being very quickly. That is precisely why we have endeavoured to do it in a manner that is wholly compatible with the Meeting of Parliament Act 1797, as was pointed out, while making it clear that, in the particular context of this legislation, this House wishes to emphasise that Prorogation is not a reason why it should not be meeting to consider these matters on the day appointed.
For those reasons, I commend this amendment to the House, and I shall be supporting it. I also agree with what has been said by others that, if we do not make such an assertion in the light of the extraordinary statements that have been made about how our business might be conducted, our role as that protector of our democracy will be seen to be shot to pieces.
This Bill is an outrage. It is an outrage to common decency in Northern Ireland; it is an outrage because, so far today, with the exception of my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds) and the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), no one has actually debated its clauses with regard to Northern Ireland. Instead, the Bill has been hijacked and used as a vehicle for every other subject under the sun and every other fancy that Members have with regard to their own pet subjects, important though they are. It is wrong that Northern Ireland will now be subjected to serious and perverse changes to its laws without proper scrutiny, without proper negotiation and without proper regulation.
Some 66% of the people of Northern Ireland have rejected the fact that Parliament should have a say on the matters that are under discussion in clause 9. In fact, they have said that they should be left to the Northern Ireland Assembly. The fact of the matter is that the Bill makes it less likely that a Northern Ireland Assembly will actually be put in place to negotiate, to debate and to legislate on these matters. As has already been said, 17,000 people have signed a letter opposing what is being done today. If we read that across to the British mainland, that is the equivalent of 500,000 signing a petition in a matter of four days.
Does my hon. Friend share my view that those who say that we must have some governance for Northern Ireland have interfered not only in the devolution settlement, but in a way that makes the law on abortion in Northern Ireland even more draconian than that in the United Kingdom? That is the one part of the United Kingdom where people do not want to see changes in the law on abortion.
The changes that are being proposed and that will affect Northern Ireland are the most extreme laws that will ever affect anyone in the whole United Kingdom with regards to abortion. Those laws will allow the termination of life at the point of birth—[Interruption.] Yes, they do. Those laws will allow the termination of life on a point of disability; and those laws will allow the termination of life based on the sex of the child—laws that are prohibited in this part of the United Kingdom, but that Members will inflict in our part of the United Kingdom to make a cheap political point. How cheap do they hold life? They appear to hold it very low indeed.
I think of the life of a young girl called Grace in Northern Ireland whose parents were told several weeks before her birth that, because of a chromosome disorder, her life should be terminated. That child is 15 years of age. She is a remarkable young woman, one of the highest achievers in her school—indeed, beyond that, she is a high achiever in life itself—yet today this House wants to destroy her life and would like to destroy the lives of hundreds of thousands of other unborn lives.
I am one of the signatories to amendment (a) and am therefore rising to support it and the Lords amendments. This is, in fact, the first time that I have spoken on Northern Ireland matters in 14 years in this House, but let me put on record my huge affection for Northern Ireland. I have many friends who live in Northern Ireland and I regularly visit. In fact, let me put it on the record that I bought my first ever lottery ticket on the day of the lottery launch in Ballymena. As Culture Minister, I have visited Derry/Londonderry, which I am pleased to say was the first UK capital of culture, and of course I have visited Belfast many times, not least the Titanic Quarter which has become a fantastic creative hub for Northern Ireland and is where “Game of Thrones” was filmed.
I should also put it on record that it is a matter of profound regret to me that in the past eight weeks of leadership hustings, the two leadership candidates have not visited a single museum, art centre, theatre, architecture firm, design company or film studio, or indeed barely mentioned the fantastic success of the creative industries not only in Northern Ireland, but in the whole of the UK.
One reason why this is the first time I have spoken on Northern Ireland matters is that of course Northern Ireland matters are meant to be devolved. I therefore have enormous sympathy with the points that have been made by the members of the Democratic Unionist party and, indeed, by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), but the fact remains that there is no Executive in residence in Northern Ireland, and there has not been for some considerable time, which is why we are debating Northern Ireland matters—[Interruption.] I wonder whether I have got something wrong, given Mr Speaker’s expression. On the issues of abortion and, indeed, of equal marriage, I have to say to my friends in the DUP that if these matters do come up for debate in this House—and they were conscience votes and free votes—they should not be surprised at all if English Members and Members from other parts of the Union express a view. We also know that those amendments have been put down in such a way that no legislation, no change to the law, will happen if a devolved Executive return to Government.
Although the right hon. Gentleman references that there is no devolved Assembly currently in Northern Ireland, what we do know is the will of that Northern Ireland Assembly. Up until this point, the Northern Ireland Assembly has never voted, across all the parties, to liberalise abortion laws in Northern Ireland.
Mr Speaker is exactly right. Having just dealt with the points about abortion and equal marriage in about 30 seconds, let me use the final 30 seconds of my remarks on amendment (a).
I am sure that my friends in the DUP will welcome the fact that we are amending this legislation to ensure that, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) mentioned, in the fast-moving environment of Northern Irish politics, where we stand as friends to good governance in Northern Ireland, we want to ensure that this House is ready and able to sit to debate these matters. That is why it is vital that we support this amendment. Those who say that this Bill has been hijacked by Brexit have, in fact, missed the point of the amendment, which is to ensure that we continue to debate these important matters in the months ahead.
I rise to offer the SNP’s support for both Lords amendment 1 and the amendment tabled to it by the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn).
President Tusk asked the UK not to waste its time. Instead, this Government have been self-indulgent, focusing on internal machinations and the leadership election, all while this zombie Parliament is left cooling its heels instead of getting on with the job of dealing with Brexit.
The UK Government’s own analysis shows the catastrophic impact that a no-deal outcome would have, yet some on the Government Benches are still quoting no deal. The default should be to revoke article 50, not to impose a no-deal Brexit. There would be a democratic constitutional crisis were the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) to prorogue Parliament. Last week, I said that, given the fact that a clear majority of MPs are opposed to the UK leaving without a deal, the Prorogation of Parliament to facilitate a no-deal would be unconstitutional, undemocratic and entirely untenable. The fact that the Prime Minister in waiting, only elevated to office by Conservative party members, refuses to rule this out tells me that he is unfit for high office.
The Government’s own assessment shows that no deal could leave the UK economy up to 9% smaller after 15 years and that two of the worst hit areas economically in a no-deal scenario would be Scotland with an 8% hit to GDP and Northern Ireland itself with a hit to GDP of over 9%. Mark Carney, and pretty much everybody else if we are honest, refuted the unsubstantiated suggestion of the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip that the WTO—general agreement on tariffs and trade—arrangements would enable the UK to avoid EU tariffs in the event of a no deal. David Watt, lately of the Institute of Directors, said:
“Frankly, it’s difficult to imagine a policy that inflicts more economic harm on the UK and Scotland. The fact that we’ve inflicted this on ourselves simply beggars belief.”
The chief executive of Make UK, representing British manufacturers, said that
“it would be the height of economic lunacy to take the UK out of the EU with no deal in place.”
Sorry, but I do not have time to give way.
The Chancellor himself said that leaving with no deal would mean
“Higher unemployment, lower wages and higher prices in the shops”—[Official Report, 13 March 2019; Vol. 656, c. 347.]
That is not what the British people voted for in June 2016.
It is clear that neither contender for Conservative leader fully understands the implications of Brexit, or perhaps they simply do not care. Scotland has repeatedly demanded a separate course of action in every vote since the referendum, but this Government have ignored us at every turn. The Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government will not ignore the people of Scotland.
I will begin by making a central point about the Northern Ireland nature of the Bill. The UK Parliament, in the absence of a devolved Assembly, cannot ignore its constitutional duty to act on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland. Let me also say to the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) that to accuse women like Sarah Ewart and Denise Phelan of being part of a cheap political stunt is outrageous and unworthy of this House.
Mr Speaker, I will check the record, and where appropriate I will apologise to the hon. Member for North Antrim. However, he certainly cast aspersions about cheap politics in his remarks. Let me make some progress because we have very little time.
The remedy for all these things lies in the hands of the Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. When that Assembly decides to meet and the Executive are reformed, they can take the power to abrogate the bulk of what lies on the face of the Bill. This House has made that very clear commitment to the system of devolution and to the people of Northern Ireland.
I commend the words of the noble Lord Duncan, the Minister in the other House, who has talked about the need to make progress on the question of historical institutional abuse, saying:
“There is urgency… I will commit, in the absence of a sitting Assembly, to the Government introducing primary legislation on historical institutional abuse before the end of the year”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 July 2019; Vol. 798, c. 138.]
That is a very welcome commitment by the noble Lord on behalf of the Government.
I will confine my last few remarks to Lords amendment 1 and the manuscript amendment in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn). This is a massively important constitutional issue. In a parliamentary democracy, no Parliament can abrogate both the right to sit and to take action, particularly against the constitutional challenge that a no-deal Brexit would pose and especially in the light of the fact that there will be a Prime Minister who will have a mandate not from the public in general but from a very narrow base within one political party. It is simply unconscionable that this House would not sit.
I say very firmly to my friends in this House from Northern Ireland that they have to recognise that there is nowhere in this United Kingdom of ours that will be more affected by a no-deal Brexit than Northern Ireland. I hope the Minister will respond to my next point, which is that if we are moving to no deal as we get towards October, the Government will have to introduce direct rule in the absence of a functioning Northern Ireland Assembly to effect the legislation to allow for that no-deal Brexit to take place. In that sense, this House must be in a position to meet to transform the law to protect the people of Northern Ireland against the possibility of that no-deal Brexit. This is not grafted on to Northern Ireland legislation; it is absolutely fundamental to the future of the people of Northern Ireland. That is why Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition will be supporting the manuscript amendment in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central and any consequential amendments.
I agree with the comments made by a number of colleagues on both sides of the House that this was originally a very simple three-clause Bill to change just two dates, and it is now garlanded with baubles; it is a Christmas tree with tinsel, twinkling lights and a honking great star on top to boot. That said, the Government are willing to accept most of the Lords amendments requiring reports to be laid before Parliament on progress towards a whole host of important issues such as transparency, political donations and loans, gambling, suicide prevention and much else.
I do not propose to go in huge detail through all the various amendments being accepted, other than to respond to the leader of the DUP here, the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds), who specifically asked whether we will end up with some sort of gap in the legal coverage around the abortion amendments—a matter that, as we all know, is an issue of conscience. I reassure him that he is right to say a number of other statutes will persist, notably the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945, which he mentioned. The Government will try to ensure that we bring forward the new regime as quickly as possible to minimise any gaps that might occur, to create a seamless transition and to issue guidelines and advice to medical professionals and others to minimise any problems. We look forward to working on and discussing that with him and other people in Northern Ireland in depth, as necessary, to ensure that we come up with a safe transition from today to the intended outcome.
On Lords amendment 1, I have two narrow but important constitutional criticisms and a broader comment. I will start with the narrow criticisms. I appreciate that constitutional niceties and procedures are not everybody’s cup of tea, but it is worth pointing out that parts of this amendment have already been defeated in the Commons and the rest was ruled out of scope before it even got here. And yet, here we are—being asked to include it because the unelected Lords decided that we should. I urge colleagues on both sides of the House to send a respectful but firm message that we appreciate the Lords views and will have nothing further to do with it on this occasion.
May I just remind the Minister that this amendment has been tabled by those who voted to remain? Speaking as someone who voted to leave and is in a minority in this place, I can assure the Minister that we on our side of the referendum debate would in no way countenance a Prorogation of Parliament, so in many respects these people are tilting at windmills.
I will come to broader comments about the background politics in a second, but my hon. Friend has made his point.
I should also point out that, alone among the various amendments that we are discussing, this one has little to do with Northern Ireland and everything to do with Brexit. All the other amendments deal with important issues specific to Northern Ireland: same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland; abortion in Northern Ireland; suicide prevention in Northern Ireland. But not this one.
I am sorry, but I do not have time.
This amendment attempts to bind the UK Parliament for a UK-wide issue. That breaches a pretty important precedent: that we try, at least, to work on a cross-community consensual basis when it comes to Northern Ireland because the sensitivities and the risks are so great, so significant, that it would be irresponsible and dangerous to play political games in such a charged arena.
Furthermore, in this case the Bill stands a decent chance of never becoming law, if the Stormont Assembly restarts before Royal Assent; I am delighted to report that the talks were ongoing yesterday and I believe that they are continuing today. I am sure that everybody here wishes them every success. If the Stormont Assembly restarts before Royal Assent, not only is the amendment dangerously partisan—weaponising a Northern Ireland Bill for Brexit in a way that we usually, rightly, try to avoid—but it could easily put us through all that grief for no good reason at all if it fails to become law. The change would set a constitutional precedent that could last for centuries whether we intend it to or not. We should not do it like this—not in this Bill, and not in this way.
I have directly opposed the specifics of the amendment; I now come to a broader point about the politics behind it, which should inform all of us as we decide how we will vote in a minute. I am sure that we are all democrats here: first, last and always. Even though I and many others originally voted remain in the EU referendum three years ago, I have since become, like many others, a strong and doughty backer of the democratic decision to leave. Many of us would far prefer to leave with a sensible deal, but if that is not possible and it comes down to a choice between no deal and no Brexit, then, reluctantly but firmly, I choose no deal. [Interruption.] I do not have time to give way; I am down to my last 90 seconds.
Many colleagues on both sides of the House, including a couple of signatories to the amendment, now feel the same way. We have been going at this for three years. The country sent us all a very clear message at the polls in May that they want this done. We have reached a narrowing funnel where our choices are getting fewer and fewer, and we are running out of road. The time, and voters’ tolerance for our failing to address that central issue, is running out. For many of us, the problem with the amendment is not about more or less democracy; it is that it is pretending to be democratic but in reality it is trying to prevent the democratic referendum decision from ever happening at all.
I have a challenge for the backers of this amendment; it will be hugely reassuring to moderate, former remainer Brexiteers such as myself. If it finally comes down, this autumn, to the stark and simple choice between no deal and no Brexit, which will you choose? Will you promise to honour the democratic decision or will you not? If you cannot make that commitment and that pledge, I am afraid that voters will conclude that this is a stitch-up—[Interruption.]
One hour having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on Lords amendments, the debate was interrupted (Programme Order, 8 July).
The Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (Standing Order No. 83F), That amendment (a) to Lords amendment 1 be made.
Amendment (a) made to Lords amendment 1.
The Speaker then put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83F).
Motion made, and Question put, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 1, as amended.—(John Penrose.)
Lords amendment 1, as amended, agreed to.
Motion made, and Question put, That this House agrees with Lords amendments 2 to 18.—(John Penrose.)
Lords amendments 2 to 18 agreed to.