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Brexit: Article 50

Volume 776: debated on Wednesday 2 November 2016

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how their plan to trigger Article 50 relates to the Conservative Party’s 2010 manifesto pledge to make “the use of the Royal Prerogative subject to greater democratic control so that Parliament is properly involved in all big national decisions.”

My Lords, the Government’s position is clear. Triggering Article 50 is a prerogative power and one that can be exercised by the Government. Parliament had its say in legislating for the EU referendum, which it did in both Houses and with cross-party support. Parliament was clear that it was for the people to decide whether to remain in the EU or to leave it.

My Lords, I personally regret that this issue has got into the hands of lawyers because I think that it is a matter of political integrity and constitutional principle. Has the Prime Minister now gone back on her decision to endorse this particular statement in the manifesto; or does she now suggest that this is no longer a big national decision; or does she no longer believe that we should take back control in the Westminster Parliament, because we keep being told that Parliament is sovereign; or is it all three of those reasons?

I need hardly tell the noble Lord that the manifesto to which he refers was succeeded by something called the coalition agreement to which his party was privy. In terms of that agreement and the ensuing coalition Government, the only provision that was made in relation to the royal prerogative was to provide for a fixed-term Parliament. I am sure that if the noble Lord was as exercised as he seems to be about this issue, his party would have had other things to say about it during the period of the coalition, but it was mute.

My Lords, a personal prime ministerial letter to Brussels triggering Article 50 is a one-way missive with no turning back. Is the noble and Scottish Baroness content that this should be done with no involvement of the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly or the London Assembly and with no vote in the Commons? If, as we have heard, we are given the outcome of the court hearing tomorrow, will she agree to come back and report to the House should the judgment be that there should be a vote in the Commons?

Let me try to deal with one or two of the points raised by the noble Baroness. It is the case that the parliament with sovereign authority in relation to the matter of negotiating our withdrawal from the EU is the Westminster Parliament, and it is also the case that the Prime Minister and her ministerial colleagues have been engaging closely with the devolved authorities, which is an entirely proper and welcome thing to do. It does not mean that the devolved Administrations either have a say in triggering Article 50, which they do not, or that they have a veto on the process because, as I say, the responsibility in terms of competence rests with the Westminster Parliament. On her final point, I can clarify for the House that my understanding is that the court judgment will be put up on the court listings tomorrow at 10 am. Until that point, there is little in the way of a commitment that I can give to the House about my future or intended movements.

My Lords, could my noble friend gently explain to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, that the object of Brexit is for Parliament to regain control of our affairs? The policy of the remainers, of which he is one, is that Parliament should not have control of our affairs but rather that it should be vested in Brussels.

Not for the first time my noble friend has made a very eloquent and pithy point upon which I cannot improve.

My Lords, can the noble Baroness cite to the House an instance of the exercise of the royal prerogative over the past 50 years in any grave and weighty context? Is it the case that the Government do not regard this issue as being grave and weighty, or is it a possibility that there is a flicker of doubt as to whether they might or might not be able to carry the matter in both Houses of Parliament?

Let me try to cut to the chase for the benefit of the noble Lord. What happened as a result of the EU referendum was that the people of the United Kingdom delivered an instruction, and that instruction was to leave the EU. Quite simply, the first part of the process, the necessary key that needs to be put into the ignition to start that journey, is triggering Article 50. That is what the Government propose to do.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, has been attempting to get in. He will have a short question, then we will try to get a couple more questions in.

My Lords, I am most grateful. Is not the founding idea behind the European Union precisely that it should have to deal not with unreliable national democracies and parliaments, but with only their Governments? Why should this change now for Brexit, upon which our sovereign people have spoken?

My Lords, I can only reiterate what I have already said. The most important and overriding feature about all this is the voice of the electorate. The electorate has spoken and the Government have an obligation to attend to the will of the electorate.

My Lords, please, this is not helping. We know that this is an important issue but we get Questions on it nearly every day. It does not look good for the House. It is the turn of the Liberal Democrats.

Will the Minister please clarify whether the Conservatives still believe in parliamentary sovereignty, or in the radical left notion of popular sovereignty? The terms that the noble Baroness has just used about the instruction from the vote in the referendum, and statement from the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, that both Houses should respect the will of the people, speak of popular, not parliamentary, sovereignty. Do the Conservatives still believe in parliamentary sovereignty?

My party believes implicitly in parliamentary sovereignty and my party believes in holding Parliament with due respect. I do not see any conflict in holding that position and in the actions already taken by the United Kingdom Government. I might observe to the noble Baroness that the intervening events from the manifesto, to which her colleague the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, referred, are that the Conservatives published another manifesto to prepare for the 2015 general election. There was no reference in that to the royal prerogative and, interestingly, the Conservatives won a majority to form a Government—not a privilege afforded to the noble Baroness’s party.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, referred to the importance of what he described as “political integrity”. Does the noble Baroness agree that it is clearly a matter of political integrity—when this House and the Commons, both without dissent, voted to have a referendum to determine whether we should remain in the European Union or leave it—that Parliament should abide by and act on that decision?

I thank the noble Lord opposite for, frankly, a very sensible and welcome interjection that gets to the heart of the issue. There is an electoral mandate here. There is an obligation on government to implement that mandate.