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EU Withdrawal Agreement

Volume 794: debated on Monday 7 January 2019


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

“Mr Speaker, as the House will be aware, the Prime Minister has today launched a new 10-year plan for the NHS, allocating an extra £20.5 billion a year in funding. My right honourable friend is unable to make it back to Parliament in time to respond so I am answering the Question in her place. I am sure that colleagues across the House will recognise the importance of this new NHS plan.

As confirmed by the Leader of the House in her business Statement before the Christmas recess, this Wednesday, the House will debate a business Motion relating to Section 13(1)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. This will be followed by the main debate on Section 13(1)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which will continue on Thursday 10 January and, subject to the will of the House, on Friday 11 January. Discussions are taking place through the usual channels as to the proposed length of that debate and the date of the vote, but ultimately it will be a decision for this House through the business Motion, which will be voted on this Wednesday. Debate will also take place in the House of Lords on Wednesday 9, Thursday 10 and Monday 14 January.

The decision to postpone the debate last year was not one that was taken lightly. Over two years of negotiations, we have won hard-fought battles, most importantly to agree a bespoke deal rather that the flawed off-the-shelf options initially offered. However, it was clear from the three days of debate that were held that this House was not going to pass the deal and that further reassurances should be sought, particularly on the issue of the backstop.

Following the European Council in December, a series of conclusions was published which go further than the EU has ever done previously in trying to address the concerns of this House. Over Christmas the Prime Minister was in contact with a number of her European counterparts about the further legal and political assurances that Parliament needs on the backstop. The Prime Minister has been in touch with the Taoiseach, and British and Irish government officials have also been in contact over the past week. Securing the additional reassurance that Parliament needs remains our priority and leaders remain in contact. Leaving the EU with a deal that has been agreed is in the interests of both sides.

When the debate begins on Wednesday, the Government will be clear with the House what has been achieved since the vote was deferred last year. As I said when I spoke in the debate on 4 December, the deal will enable us to deliver a fair skills-based immigration system, control over our fisheries and agricultural policies, and our own trade policy for the first time in decades, along with an end to sending vast sums of money to the EU. It is a good deal and it is the only deal. I believe that it is the right deal in offering certainty for this country”.

My Lords, as the Prime Minister was not able to get back to the House of Commons in time to answer this Question, the Brexit Secretary has deputised. The noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, will know that she is well liked in your Lordships’ House and is highly regarded. However, I consider it a discourtesy that neither the Leader of the House nor the Brexit Minister is at the Dispatch Box in this House to answer on a Question of such importance.

I have listened carefully to the answer, but I did not learn anything or understand why the Prime Minister pulled the vote before Christmas other than knowing that she was going to lose. We are now moving from chaos to crisis. I have just two questions for the noble Baroness. First, what has actually changed since the vote was pulled? Secondly, what can she say to persuade me that the delay is not just a political ploy to try to take the decision right to the wire and attempt to force through an inadequate deal knowing that Parliament will not sanction a no-deal outcome?

I thank the noble Baroness for her contribution. Perhaps I may say, in the festive spirit of good will, that I understand that congratulations are in order. I believe that she is celebrating a significant birthday. I extend my best wishes to her and wish her many happy returns. I know that it is significant because I celebrated such a birthday myself some time ago—so long ago that I cannot remember much about it. I wish the noble Baroness a joyful day.

I should say first that my noble friend Lord Callanan is in transit to Brussels as we speak and that is why he is unable to be present. I am sorry that I am such an inadequate substitute and I shall do my humble best to try to answer the questions posed by the noble Baroness. Her first question was what has actually changed since December. The Prime Minister said yesterday that we will be setting out further detail on the extra assurances on the backstop over the next few days in three areas. The first will be measures that are specific to Northern Ireland while the second is a greater role for Parliament as we take these negotiations over our future relationship on to the next stage. The third, which we are still working on, is further assurances from the EU to address the issues that have been raised.

Perhaps I may say in response to the charge that nothing much has changed that while the rest of us have been disposing of shedloads of turkey, Christmas pudding and mince pies, the Prime Minister has been working assiduously. Over the past couple of weeks she has spoken to her European counterparts about the legal and political assurances that Parliament needs on the backstop. She has spoken with the Spanish Prime Minister, the German Chancellor, the Dutch Prime Minister, President Tusk, President Juncker and the President of France, M. Macron. She has also been in touch with the Taoiseach while British and Irish government officials have been in contact over the past week. This is a very important part of the discussions. I understand the frustrations of the noble Baroness and that she thinks that this may be some sort of conspiratorial ploy to frustrate Parliament, but it is not. It is quite simply the inescapable nitty-gritty of any complicated and tense negotiation as it reaches its final stages.

My Lords, the noble Baroness has just described the telephone schedule of the Prime Minister when she wished a happy new year to a series of European leaders. But the truth is that nothing substantive was achieved before Christmas after the vote was pulled and nothing has actually happened since Christmas at all. The Government are to explain their achievements on Wednesday, but is it not the case that their only achievement has been pointlessly and irresponsibly to delay by four weeks this crucial vote which they know they are going to lose?

I think that the noble Lord takes a rather jaundiced view of the proceedings and I do not accept his interpretation. As I have said, the Prime Minister has been working assiduously and there have been plaudits from unexpected quarters for her demonstration of commitment and her industry in endeavouring to take these matters forward. It was very important that the Prime Minister should convey to her counterparts in the EU precisely what the concerns of Parliament are. That is what she has been doing, and as I say, my noble friend Lord Callanan is en route to Brussels as we speak. These are delicate, sensitive and vital negotiations and I am sure that minds will be focused on doing what they can. This deal is good for the UK and it is good for the EU, and I think that there is a desire to take things forward.

Perhaps I may say to my noble friend that the Prime Minister has sought to negotiate the best terms she can pursuant to the referendum, but that the proper course for her to take now is to tell Parliament, and indeed the country, that in her considered opinion the terms she has secured are not as good as remaining in the European Union on the existing terms, and that that will be the recommendation that she will make to Parliament and to the country. That is the statesmanlike thing for her to do.

Of course I respect my noble friend’s position and perspective in commenting on these issues, but I disagree with him. The situation is that this country voted to leave the EU. That has required a period of complex and challenging negotiation and it is exactly what the Prime Minister and the Government have been engaged in. The Prime Minister has been very clear that she does not favour a second referendum or a people’s vote. She feels that the question has been asked and that it has been answered. She senses, and I would agree with her, that there is an overwhelming desire throughout the country to get this process moved on and concluded.

My Lords, when we had the Statement after the European Council on 13 and 14 December, I asked the Leader of the House a simple question, and she said that she would write to me. I am afraid that the horses have been moving slowly between Aix and Ghent, perhaps due to the cooking of Christmas pudding and so on. I have not yet had a reply. The question is as follows, and I would like the noble Baroness to reply to it.

Has anything that was put on the table at the European Council or since then caused the Attorney-General to vary the advice that he gave to the Cabinet and which has now been revealed to the House of Commons and to the public—namely, that under the withdrawal treaty there is no way in which the United Kingdom could exit unilaterally from the Irish backstop? I would be grateful if I could have an answer to that question.

First, I apologise to the noble Lord for the absence of a response from my noble friend the Leader of the House. I will ensure that the matter is addressed. On the specific question he has posed, my understanding is that the backstop is an insurance policy and we do not want it ever to come into effect. My understanding also is that if there is a dispute about the EU’s good faith in relation to the backstop—if we end up with it—that can be resolved by independent arbitration. I am not in a position to comment further. As the noble Lord has indicated, the legal advice of the Attorney-General is public and I am unable to comment further on it. However, if there is any further clarification that I can give, I shall undertake to write to him.

My Lords, in the last few days the Prime Minister has threatened Brexiteers that there could be no Brexit if her deal is not voted through, but she has threatened the rest of us that we will crash out of the EU if her deal is not voted through. Which is it?

It is sometimes difficult to do, but if one climbs up to the top of the tree to get a bird’s-eye perspective on all this, it seems the scenario is fairly simply defined. The Prime Minister and the Government’s view is that a good deal—a solid and workable deal—has been negotiated, and that we should get on with accepting it and make progress. If that deal is not accepted, clearly the implication is that we may leave without a deal, following the process triggered by Article 50. At the end of the day, I emphasise to the noble Lord that it will not be for this House to determine how matters proceed, although the opinions in this House do matter. It will be for the House of Commons, which is sovereign, to come to its own determination on these matters.

Does my noble friend accept that our countrymen and countrywomen are yearning for clarity, certainty and an end to the process? Then we could move on to the next stage of the future relationship or relationships with the EU and other countries.

I thank my noble friend; I think he strikes a chord. There is certainly a sense of frustration throughout the country about the body politic in general, and I think there is a desire to see the process move on to a destination. I have been particularly interested in the response of the business community in Northern Ireland, which seems to think the deal is a positive contribution to that future. I very much hope that, when it comes to be voted on in the other place, there will be recognition that the deal is good for this country and a willingness to accept it.