My Lords, we had an impromptu exchange on Thursday last week after Questions, during which I was asked to return to the House today to set out the Government’s position on the business of the House during the next fortnight. Following further constructive discussions in the usual channels, for which I am very grateful as always to the noble Lords, Lord McAvoy and Lord Stoneham, I am delighted to do so.
In the context of Brexit and the imminence of 29 March, I fully understand why noble Lords want to consider our business with greater attention than normal. I have always been willing to speak to noble Lords about the business of the House when invited to do so, and I am here today.
One of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, was to express concern at the scheduling of the debate on the Spring Statement in Grand Committee this Wednesday, rather than in the Chamber. I am sure that I do not need to tell noble Lords that there are precedents for taking this business on the Floor of the House or in Grand Committee, but I listened to the argument.
The reason for putting the debate in Grand Committee, with the agreement of the usual channels, was to provide some certainty about the slot. At this notice, I am now clear enough about the demands of business this week to move the business from the Chamber to the Grand Committee, and therefore provide time on the Floor of the House on Wednesday for the debate on the Spring Statement. The timings of that Grand Committee and the debate on the Floor of the House should be similar, so I hope that in making this late change I am not risking serious inconvenience to those who have signed up to speak. The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, presented a reasonable argument, and I am happy to act on it.
The wider point made by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and others, was to ask that we cease our debates on the scrutiny of secondary legislation necessary for the UK’s exit from the EU, particularly any legislation necessary if the UK leaves the EU without a deal. To be crystal clear, this is not legislation to enable a no-deal exit. The House passed that legislation in the form of the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017 and the withdrawal Act. This is legislation which mitigates the impact of a no-deal exit and is about ensuring that we have a functioning statute book. The majority of the statutory instruments would be needed at the end of any implementation period.
As my noble friend Lord Finkelstein said on Thursday, nobody, whether they want to leave without a deal or not, can be entirely certain that it will not happen. This Government do not want it to happen and the House of Commons does not want it to happen, but perhaps it will be helpful if I explain to the House why, even so, I cannot be complacent about that outcome.
Whatever the Commons decides, the next meeting of the EU Council is on Thursday. It does not meet again before 29 March. Any extension will need to be agreed later this week and would have to have legislated for next week, in the form of a statutory instrument under the withdrawal Act. In the period between now and having secured a satisfactory agreement to an extension and thereafter legislating to change the date of exit day, we have to operate on the basis that it is possible, whether or not anybody wants it, that one of the necessary steps to prevent our leaving the European Union on 29 March has not been taken. Because that is possible, I believe this House has only two possible approaches to scheduling its business. I am being entirely frank when I say this.
One approach is the one that we have been taking and that I want to continue to take. We have brought forward the secondary legislation to a timescale which has meant that the scrutiny committees have been able to consider it properly and that we as a House, whether in this Chamber or in Grand Committee—sometimes both—have had time to debate each instrument with our normal thoroughness and rigour. Government Ministers in this House have, quite rightly, been put through their paces. I can assure the House that all remaining SIs necessary for day one after exit day have been scheduled for debate. I have every confidence that we will be able to debate them in an orderly way, without significant departure from our normal sitting patterns. I think this is the responsible and consistent approach and serves the public interest.
The only alternative approach would be for me to do what the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, asked me to do: to remove all debates on Brexit SIs from the Order Paper in the next fortnight. If anything goes wrong that means that we do not agree an extension with the EU, we would likely have one day—Thursday 28 March—in which I would have to table effectively two weeks’ business. The House would then be asked to consider and approve all necessary legislation in that day. I do not regard that as a respectable or sensible thing to ask the House to do. I will not be making that request, and that is why I will not be un-scheduling any of those debates. As I said on Thursday, the House of Commons will continue to consider the same instruments over the next fortnight.
I have taken a little longer at the Dispatch Box than is customary for a Chief Whip, but given the legitimate questions that I was asked on Thursday and their importance, I hope that the House will forgive me for having detained it today. The Spring Statement debate has today been tabled for the Chamber on Wednesday, and the statutory instruments tabled for the Chamber on that day have been moved to the Moses Room. Otherwise, the business will be as advertised in Forthcoming Business. In the normal way on Wednesday following our usual channels meeting, we will publish further details for the next week.
My Lords, I thank the Chief Whip for his statement. It is rare that we hear him speak for so long; perhaps we shall hear more from him in due course.
I am grateful for the statement. My noble friend Lord McAvoy and I welcome the rescheduling of the important economic debate for the Chamber rather than the Moses Room, as my noble friend Lord Foulkes raised last week. However, it is a sign of how this Government’s handling of Brexit has dominated the political landscape and crowded out everything else.
I am sure that I am not the only Member of this House who finds it quite incredible that here we are, just eight sitting days from the Government’s self-imposed deadline for exit day, and the Prime Minister is still clinging on to her discredited deal as the best the UK can get. She appears determined to batter MPs into submission to agree it. At least the Government are now seeking an extension to Article 50. If the Prime Minister’s deal is not agreed by MPs, any extension must be used to produce a different outcome and not just to rehash the same rejected deal.
To return to the point I made a few months ago in Questions, the Prime Minister’s latest wheeze is apparently to offer a “Stormont lock”, in effect giving her friends in the DUP a veto on UK-wide future regulation if they vote with her on the deal. Yet again, it is a short-term fix with no thought for the wider impact, including the constitutional implications for the other devolved Administrations. We know that there are special circumstances relating to the Irish border, but this seems like political expediency designed to suit the Conservative Party and the DUP, especially given the Government’s failure to get the Northern Ireland Executive up and running again.
I asked last week when the Government would give legislative effect to the decision by the House of Commons to reject no deal. The Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, declined to answer. The problem is that the only reason that we are still dealing with no-deal Sis—there are relatively few left to deal with—is the Government’s incompetence. The Prime Minister clings to her belief that to threaten us with a crash-out disaster is an ingenious strategy.
I take the point made by the Chief Whip that he must prepare for all outcomes. Should Mrs May’s belligerence mean that we still crash out, these regulations will be needed. It is to the Government’s shame that we will not know until Thursday whether there will be an extension to Article 50. Many of us find it ludicrous that, with all that we could be doing, with all the issues that this country needs to address and resolve, Parliament has had to spend time rushing through contingency arrangements when even the impartial Civil Service has been clear with Ministers that 29 March is unachievable. On a point of clarification, I thought that the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, was that he did not trust the Government not to crash out without a deal.
There were questions that were not answered in the Chief Whip’s statement. I would be grateful if he could address them, because your Lordships’ House has struggled to get an answer to them. First, we have been told that the Government will table all necessary legislation for a no-deal Brexit. What are those Bills and where are they? Can the Chief Whip list them today for the convenience of the House?
Secondly, should an extension to Article 50 be granted, what legislation will be required to give effect to it? My understanding is that there will need to be an SI to change the exit day. Will that be it or is anything else required?
Thirdly, as I asked last week and did not get an answer, when will the Government bring forward legislation, whether by SI or in another form, to give effect to the House of Commons’ rejection of no deal as an option?
The Minister will recall that I asked last week whether the Government were considering Saturday sittings. The noble Lord, Lord Callanan, was unable to answer then; can the Chief Whip do so today?
My Lords, the truth is that the Government Chief Whip has put a brave face on a farce. The position is that the Commons decided last week that it would press for a rejection of no deal and an extension of Article 50. It has been perfectly clear all along that any such reasonable request would be accepted by the European Council at the end of this week, so the only basis on which the Government are pursuing these no-deal SIs is that they simply have no faith in their own ability to enact what the Commons has asked them to do and what the EU has said it is prepared to do.
I want to ask about the disappearing primary legislation relating to Brexit. Even if the Government were to get their deal through, there are a number of pieces of primary legislation that they say will be necessary at the point we leave the EU, particularly the immigration, Agriculture and Fisheries Bills. None yet has a scheduled date for Report in the House of Commons, which I assume means that they cannot come to this House on the planned schedule until after Easter. There will then be about eight weeks until 30 June, which is the point at which the Government say they wish their extension to come to an end and, presumably, leave the EU. May I have an assurance from the noble Lord that these pieces of primary legislation, which are deemed necessary—indeed, essential—by the Government, will be brought to your Lordships’ House, if the Government succeed in getting their deal through, in a timely manner, so that we do not have the same kind of farcical rush we have been expected to endure on other matters?
I also want to ask the Minister to deny the rumours that have been swirling around the House in recent days that the Government plan to curtail the Easter Recess and that, just as in February, noble Lords will be expected to be in Parliament, business or not, when they are currently planning to be away. Finally, given all the uncertainty surrounding the Government at the moment, will the Chief Whip give the House an undertaking that, in the light of what happens at the weekend, he will return to the House next Monday and explain what is going on?
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, for his very considerate response to our discussion last Thursday and I recommend that, if he were to take further advice on the organisation of business from my noble friend Lord Foulkes when he offers it, the House would be in a good place. However, the contents of the Chief Whip’s statement is deeply concerning, because the House of Commons resolved by a decisive majority last week not to proceed with no deal. The Government have effectively said that, in the event of their not being able to reach agreement with the European Council this week, they are still keeping no deal on the table, even though it is open to Her Majesty’s Government to take it off the table at any moment by rescinding the notice under Article 50. If the Government were acting in accordance with the will of Parliament, they should, if they cannot reach a deal with the European Council this Thursday and Friday, rescind the notice under Article 50 and not put the country and Parliament through a no-deal Brexit.
The idea that, because we are considering these statutory instruments for 20 or 30 minutes apiece, the nation is somehow better prepared for the horrors of a no-deal Brexit is straightforward Alice in Wonderland. It will be catastrophic for the country if the Government put us through a no-deal Brexit. Parliament has already told the Government, who are supposed to be the Executive and to execute the will of Parliament, that it does not want to see a no-deal Brexit. It is absolutely within the power of Her Majesty’s Government to prevent a no-deal Brexit by withdrawing the notice under Article 50 and it is a complete mystery to me why the Government utterly refuse to follow the wishes of Parliament, which have been so emphatically expressed.
My Lords, my noble friend the Chief Whip was absolutely right to express a degree of caution over the question of regulations. If the European Council does not agree to an extension, we will leave the European Union on Friday 29 March. We cannot change that other than by revoking Article 50, and the Government have no power to do that—it would have to come before Parliament. To reflect, if my noble friend will forgive me, what the Leader of the Opposition was saying, to amend exit day under Section 20 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act would require an affirmative procedure. We hope and expect that such a regulation will be made next week, and we will therefore need to debate it. It would be perfectly reasonable now to schedule such a debate for next week so that Members of this House can prepare for it.
My Lords, can the Chief Whip assure us that the suggestion from this House, albeit from only one Member—my noble friend Lord Adonis—that Parliament, which includes this unelected House, should, at the recommendation of an unelected Member of Parliament—my noble friend Lord Adonis—rescind at a stroke a decision that is the consequence of a referendum in which 17.4 million people voted—
I hope many people are watching this—I doubt it, but they may well be. They will have just heard a very audible groan at the reference to the 17.4 million electors who cast their votes on the basis of an Act of Parliament that this House supported and whose result the two major parties—we know the rest of the arguments—committed in the general election to respect. The suggestion by my noble friend Lord Adonis that this unelected House should veto all that work and electoral commitment by rescinding Article 50 is something to which this House should give not even a moment’s consideration. It should be a subject of shame.
My Lords, could my noble friend the Chief Whip confirm that the Prime Minister has told the House of Commons on no fewer than 108 occasions that we shall be leaving the European Union on 29 March? Yesterday I listened to the Chancellor on “The Andrew Marr Show” telling Andrew Marr that we were not in a position to be able to leave on 29 March. Whom should I believe? If I believe the Chancellor, what on earth have the Government been doing?
My Lords, I will certainly not engage in the continuing dispute between my noble friends Lord Adonis and Lord Grocott, who seem to have developed an antipathy to each other in recent weeks. I too am grateful to the Chief Whip for making this statement today. What he said has been helpful, but does not go far enough in enabling noble Lords to plan what their commitment will be over the next few weeks.
I assume that somewhere in government is a series of contingency plans. I would be appalled and surprised if the very able people in the Civil Service had not been working through a series of permutations—indeed, I would be very surprised if the clerks to this House and to the other place had not been working through a series of permutations. Something is clearly going on, because one understands from the usual gossip mill, involving the staff who support the Members of this House and the other place, that the first week of the Easter Recess will not be happening and that there may be Saturday sittings. They may be misinformed—I do not know where these ideas come from—but it is incumbent on the Government to give us an indication of those contingency plans for various eventualities.
We are told by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, that if the Government wished to revoke Article 50—which I suspect is not on their agenda—it would require an Act of Parliament. Presumably, somebody has done some work on how much time would be taken in this House and the other place to pass that. We know that something will have to be done if the date of withdrawal is changed. Again, what work has been done on how much time will be taken and when that will occur? We know that if the Government’s deal goes through, there will be a series of pieces of consequential legislation. What work has been done on when those pieces of legislation will be continued, how many days are required, and so on? The list goes on. However, there are some simple contingency plans, and it is incumbent on the Government to tell Members of Parliament of both Houses what is likely to be required of them over the next few weeks, given those various eventualities, so that we can plan accordingly.
My Lords, I had responsibility for taking the whole Maastricht Act through Parliament, and I know that it was virtually impossible to determine more than 48 hours ahead how long the debate would be on any one of the 542 amendments tabled to it. Not a single person, on any side of the House, forecast that it would take 25 days in Committee, with three all-night sittings. Secondly, some noble Lords will have lived through the period of the Falklands War. Who could have forecast that Parliament would have to assemble at less than 24 hours’ notice, on a Saturday morning, to debate the Falklands? My noble friend has a difficulty. He has been generous in what he has offered us this afternoon, and we should trust him. He has said that he is involving noble Lords on the Opposition Benches and that they have responded; I, for one, will trust all three Chief Whips to keep us as informed as they are able.
I rise on that good point and I thank my noble friend for his confidence. In fact, I have gone as far as I am able in committing the Government and this House to their work programme for the next fortnight. I can say a certain specific things: we have tabled all the legislation we need to get through for Brexit. We are dealing with the healthcare Bill and the Trade Bill, both of which we should finish this week.
I was asked how Article 50 could be dealt with; it is a simple matter. It would be done through an SI, which cannot be tabled at the moment but only when there is a deferment of the exit date. That will be next week; I imagine that the Prime Minister will make a Statement on Monday, and there will be a debate in this House on the statutory instrument in the course of next week. Noble Lords may soon see a day this week when we publish Forthcoming Business.
Noble Lords have asked what would happen if we had to exercise the legislation required for a deal. Nothing more complicated than a single Bill would be needed for that purpose. There is primary legislation still to be considered, which will be important, but there will be an implementation period if we have an agreed solution. That is what we are looking for. I think all parties are looking for an agreement—that is certainly true of the Labour Party, too. We are looking for an agreement on Brexit, and if that is the case, the primary legislation in the House of Commons at the moment will come to us in due course. It is important not to forget that there is an implementation period and, indeed, considerable discussion and negotiation, to take place once the withdrawal agreement has been signed.
I have been asked about Saturdays. I do not think I have ever suggested that Saturday sittings are likely, but they could be. I will tell noble Lords now that it is possible we might have to sit on Saturdays. When I was asked about the Easter Recess, I said, emphasising the usual caveats more than usual, that those were dates that had been published in the House of Commons and which I hoped we would be able to keep to. I do not know. The course of the next fortnight or three weeks is very involved and, until that time comes, I cannot tell noble Lords whether we will have to sacrifice all or part of our Easter Recess. Personally, I hope that we shall have some time away from this place. We might all be better for having a break, if I am honest. But we still have a public duty to perform, and if necessary, we will come back to the House again.
I think I have answered pretty well everything. The Leader of the House will be repeating a prime ministerial Statement next Monday, and I am certainly prepared to come back to the House about business when it is clear in my mind what we will have to do. In the meantime, I have great confidence that my colleagues in the usual channels and the Convener of the Cross-Bench Peers can talk together about these things and ensure that the Whip noble Lords receive at the end of this week will give them a clear indication of what is demanded of them as Members of this House.