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House of Lords Hansard
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Brexit: Article 50 Period Extension Procedure
18 March 2019
Volume 796

Statement

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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 the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the Member for Spelthorne. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, as set out in a Written Ministerial Statement and in accordance with the Motion approved by this House on 14 March, the Government will now seek to agree an extension with the European Union. The extension process has been set out in a government paper, published last Thursday. While Article 50 does not set out how either party should request an extension, the Government believe that it would be appropriate for the Prime Minister to write to the President of the European Council.

It is highly likely, and expected, that the European Council will require clear purpose for any extension, not least to determine its length. The European Council also has to approve an extension by unanimity. With this in mind, we will look to request any extension in advance of the March European Council. It is the Government’s expectation that the European Council will decide whether to agree to any UK request at this meeting.

As soon as possible, following agreement at the EU level, we will bring forward the necessary domestic legislation to amend the definition of “exit day”. That legislation will take the form of a statutory instrument. If agreement is reached at the European Council, the statutory instrument will be laid in Parliament next week. It will be subject to the draft affirmative procedure and will need to be approved by each House. I hope that this reassures honourable and right honourable Members about the procedure that will be followed this week and next”.

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Well, I think we all feel rather sorry for the Minister, who has, after all, said again and again that we will leave on 29 March and now knows that we will not—and that is because of the Prime Minister’s failed strategy of running down the clock to get her own way.

We are told that, if the Government are allowed to table the existing deal yet again in the Commons and it wins approval—the Speaker has just suggested that he is not minded to permit a third meaningful vote without a substantial change to the deal; we hear that perhaps we will have to prorogue and then come back—they will apply for an extension to 30 June.

The more likely eventuality is that the Government will fail to get their deal agreed and thus request a longer extension, such that we will need to participate in the European Parliament elections. Given that returning officers must publish notice of the poll by 12 April, with the Government announcing the date beforehand, can the Minister inform the House which date is planned for these elections, whether the Electoral Commission is geared up for this and when purdah will commence?

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My Lords, I think the Speaker in the other place will tonight be a national hero for—

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This is an Urgent Question; the Minister must respond.

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The noble Baroness stated that we will not leave on 29 March. Of course, she cannot say that definitely. UK law still requires that we do, and any extension—which we have said we will apply for—has to be agreed unanimously by the European Council. She asked about the European elections; I will give her a detailed answer. EU law requires European parliamentary elections to be held between 23 and 26 May, and the new European Parliament will meet on 2 July. For the UK to participate in the elections, notice of the poll must be published by 12 April. This is set out in Schedule 1 of the European Parliamentary Elections Regulations 2004. In advance of this date—in other words, by 11 April—the Government would have to set the date of the poll by making an order under the European Parliamentary Elections Act 2002.

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My Lords, as I was saying, I think that the Speaker in the other place will tonight be a national hero for stopping this Government prolonging their manipulative games playing and making a mockery of parliamentary sovereignty. Over the weekend we heard attempts by the Attorney-General to claim that Article 62 of the Vienna convention could be invoked to get out of the backstop early and that this was a substantive change. That has been shot down by all good legal opinion.

MPs have already had two votes on Mrs May’s deal, having been permitted to reassess the information on Brexit and update their views. If the Prime Minister had had her way, it would have been three or four votes. Meanwhile, the voters are denied even one opportunity for a rethink. So is it not finally time to allow the people to have the same opportunity for review and reassessment that MPs and the Government are permitting themselves? This weekend a poll showed that almost six in 10—57% of voters—wanted that opportunity.

Any extension sought under Article 50 must be for a democratic purpose, which does not mean only the European Parliament elections. It is as clear as day that the most legitimate purpose must be for a people’s vote, and that the extension sought must be long enough to facilitate the holding of such a vote, with an option to stay in the EU on the ballot paper. It is rumoured that the Government will seek a nine-month extension. Can the Minister confirm whether that is true?

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No, I cannot confirm that. I can also reassure the noble Baroness that we will not be seeking permission to hold another people’s vote. We have already had a people’s vote, and the people voted to leave. We are still committed to implementing the results of that decision.

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My Lords, what happens if the European Union turns down an application by the United Kingdom for an extended period of time for Article 50 and it comes back here? Will we not then need primary legislation to avoid a cliff edge on 29 March? Do the Government have a Bill ready for that eventuality?

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We will then have the choice of either passing the meaningful vote or we will leave by the normal operation of the law that this House has voted for.

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My Lords, what purpose will the British Government tell the European Union that a long extension would fulfil? What is the precise purpose that the Prime Minister will say she needs this period for?

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This will be something the Prime Minister will want to address in her discussions with the European Council. The reason we are requesting this is the request by the House of Commons in the vote it had last week.

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My Lords, I assume that the Government were aware that the other place had a convention dating back to 1604 that you could not bring a proposition substantially the same as one that had already been decided in the same Session of Parliament. If that is the case, why is the Solicitor-General going about today saying that the House of Commons Speaker’s restatement of that convention—that is all he did—has generated a “constitutional crisis”? Is it not the Government’s intention to get the House of Commons to breach its own convention repeatedly until they got their preferred deal through the House of Commons that generated the constitutional crisis, not the restatement of the convention?

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I am not aware of the Solicitor-General making those comments. I have not seen them; I have been briefing for this session and listening to the debate in the House of Commons. The procedures of the House of Commons are a matter for the Speaker and the property of the House, and nobody is in any doubt about that.

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Can the Minister confirm whether any extension of Article 50 could be rescinded on the same terms as the original Article 50 was applied for?

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If the noble Lord is asking whether it can be withdrawn once it has been agreed, I do not think so. We are allowed to apply for an extension, and it has to be agreed unanimously. Once that is done, we will need to amend the appropriate legislation in this country, which is the EU withdrawal Act.

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My Lords, perhaps I might ask my noble friend the Minister—and he is a friend—a gentle but serious question. How can he expect noble Lords from these Benches to support the policy that is now being advocated, which the Government themselves have consistently opposed and repeatedly promised to never bring before this House?

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My noble friend makes a very good point and he knows I have some sympathy with his view. However, the will of the House of Commons was clear; it refused to pass the withdrawal agreement that would have resulted in us leaving in a satisfactory manner, and it has requested the Government to seek an extension to Article 50. That is what we will do.

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My Lords, the Government have had two and a half years to resolve this matter. They have spectacularly failed to do so, in such a way that we have now become a byword throughout the world for incompetence at the highest level of government. Parliament has now been trying to solve the problem for a few weeks, and has so far failed to do so. Is it not time to go to the final stage—the one that will produce the highest degree of legitimacy for a final decision—and ask the British people, knowing all that we now know about the conditions that would apply if we had an arrangement with the European Union, and so much more than any of us knew in 2016? Is it not time to let the British public take a considered and final decision?

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I refer the noble Lord to the answer I gave earlier to the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford. I do not agree that there should be a further people’s vote; we have already had a people’s vote and we should implement that one first.

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My Lords, the Minister is of course quite right to say that a majority of people voted to leave the European Union. Does he not therefore think it rather ironic that it is, by and large, Members of Parliament who are strongly in favour of leave who are doing so much to undermine the Prime Minister’s plans to get us out of the European Union on the date that the Government promised and now look as though they cannot deliver?

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There are indeed many ironies in this process, and that is one of the largest.