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European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 6) Bill

Volume 799: debated on Friday 6 September 2019

Third Reading


Moved by

My Lords, I thank everyone who has been here for what has been a most extraordinary experience. There are some people not in the Chamber who we should also thank. Those in the Public Bill Office and the Printed Paper Office have enabled us to deal with the Bill in an unusual way. They have worked, along with the doorkeepers, above and beyond the call of duty. On our side, to be personal for a moment, we have had in our office Dan Stevens on the content and Ben Coffman keeping our wits together. I know that it was bad news for noble Lords moving amendments that they are so effective, but for our side it was great, and I use this moment to thank them. The work of my noble friend Lady Smith and my noble and learned friend Lord Goldsmith has been superb over this and I think the whole House will thank them for what they have been able to do. We thank the Minister, of course, and I think we are going to hear from him.

My Lords, I second everything that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, has said and I add my own thanks to all those who have co-operated so well to ensure that the Bill has passed successfully, especially the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. I thank my leader, my noble friend Lord Newby, and my Chief Whip, my noble friend Lord Stoneham. I think we have had an excellent experience in the passage of the Bill.

My Lords, on behalf of these Benches I associate myself with the remarks of both noble Baronesses and pay tribute to the many Cross-Benchers who have been present throughout these proceedings, to whom I am particularly grateful.

My Lords, I first add my thanks to those expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and others to the staff of the House, who have worked incredibly long hours—including quite late last night—to process all the different stages, amendments, et cetera. I also personally pay tribute to my officials, who have also worked extremely late—particularly the legal ones, who have had the impossible job of explaining complicated legal constructs to me, a simple engineer, so that I can, I hope, communicate them to the House. They have done a sterling job and I am incredibly grateful.

The Government cannot support this Bill. I quite agree with the point made by the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, that it brings delay and uncertainty. I would add that it undermines our efforts to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration and aims to tie the Prime Minister’s hands when he is seeking to secure the best possible Brexit deal. However, as I reiterated to the House yesterday, in line with assurances made by the Chief Whips in both Houses, if this Bill completes its remaining stages it is the Government’s intention that it will be ready to be presented for Royal Assent.

I hope it will help the House if I respond directly to some of the points raised by noble Lords throughout the discussion. I recognise that we are now at Third Reading, so I hope noble Lords will forgive me if I take some time to address some of the points—

I think some noble Lords might want answers to some of the questions that have been asked, particularly about the Government’s intentions—

If I might help the noble Lord, the only point of dissent there was that we are not at Third Reading but the Do Now Pass stage.

I apologise—perhaps the legal officials did not explain it to me clearly enough. I thank the noble Baroness for her clarification.

My noble friends Lady McIntosh of Pickering and Lord Hailsham raised concerns about whether the Government would request an extension but then vote against it in the European Council. I reiterate, as we have stated many times, that the Government have been clear that we will of course adhere to the law. Noble Lords have the text of Clause 1(4) in front of them and can see what it requires. The noble Baronesses, Lady Deech and Lady Falkner of Margravine, and my noble friends Lord Forsyth of Drumlean and Lord Leigh of Hurley have raised the prospect that the extension could come with conditions. Noble Lords are well aware of my position, which is of course that the Bill hands powers to the European Union, and it is true that the Bill, as drafted—

I am most grateful to my noble friend for answering a slightly different question from the one I put. The answer that I think he wishes to give, as I understand the legal position and as the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, explained earlier, is that the UK Government will not be present in the room. My question was whether the United Kingdom will veto its own application for an extension. Perhaps my noble friend can confirm for the record that the United Kingdom Government will not be in the room when the vote is taken, and therefore the situation I asked him to elucidate on would not arise.

I thank my noble friend for her questions, but she has had the answer that I am going to give her on this subject. The Government will abide by the law. Noble Lords have the text of the relevant clause in front of them and no doubt lots of great legal minds can spend a lot of time advising noble Lords of the legal intent of it.

As I said, the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, my noble friends Lord Forsyth and Lord Leigh of Hurley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, raised the prospect that the extension could come with conditions. Noble Lords know my position, which is that the Bill hands power to the European Union. It is true that the Bill as drafted makes no provision for the event that the EU attaches conditions to that extension. However, during any extension the UK would remain a member state. The noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, noted that Article 50 does not give the EU any special power to impose conditions which would cut across those member states’ rights. The most important point, however, is that an extension is objectionable in itself because it delays the point at which we can satisfy the will of the people as expressed in the referendum.

While the previous extension, which was agreed in April, contained political statements reflecting the EU’s expectations of how the UK might act during the extension period, noble Lords, having no doubt studied the decision of the European Council at some length, will note that these sat outside the central, legally operative provisions of that decision and did not amount to conditions. The phrase which says that this extension,

“excludes any re-opening of the Withdrawal Agreement”,

sits in the preamble, not in the decision itself. That difference is important, because it means that this is not a legally binding condition. Of course, it is precisely because there is a difference that the Government have been able to reopen the negotiations and are seeking, as noble Lords are aware, to remove the undemocratic Northern Ireland backstop.

My noble friend Lord Trenchard and the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, asked what would happen if the EU offered a longer extension at a time when the Commons is not sitting for the next two days. Would it be unable to reject it? As a matter of fact, as drafted, the legislation means that the House of Commons cannot reject a longer extension if it is not sitting. The only way to rule out an unacceptably long extension is to reject the Bill, which is why we have opposed it.

Finally, my noble friend Lord Forsyth raised questions about the Kinnock amendment. The House has taken a decision on this but let me be clear about the Government’s position. The amendment is confusingly drafted and contradictory to the aims of the rest of the Bill. It says that the purpose of any extension is to pass legislation to implement a deal when, under the Bill, the extension is being sought only because there is not an agreement. The Kinnock amendment’s deficiencies are such that its effect is therefore rendered wholly unclear.

I have detained your Lordships long enough.

I thought that would get a cheer.

We have heard many concerns raised about the Bill. However, more fundamentally, the issues at play here are not just technical. This is about seriously undermining negotiations that could achieve a deal before 31 October, frustrating the referendum result and stopping Brexit.

My Lords, I shall genuinely be extremely brief. I just want to say that I object strongly to both the Bill and the way it has been handled. This is a sad day for both the country and for our House.

My Lords, I second everything that was said from the two Front Benches on this side in thanks to everybody. I have just been the messenger from the Commons, intervening occasionally, because these are unusual circumstances. I certainly thank everybody who has been involved.

At about 1 am the other day, I was quite looking forward to the debate, because I had almost got my second wind—it was just like the old days in the Commons. Then, of course, it all went quiet and packed up. Genuinely, I thank everybody who has participated. I have to say that we have rewritten the conventions, not the least through the seven-minute speech we have just heard from the Minister. That should have been made as a Statement or in the wind-up of Second Reading; it was completely inappropriate under the rules of this House to do it under the Motion that the Bill do now pass.

Having got that off my chest, this is not the end, because our procedures will change as a result of the Bill. Things will happen differently. That may be regrettable, it is true, but precedents have been created during the Bill’s passage, some of which we may come to regret, but I thank everybody who has participated.

Bill passed.

House adjourned at 3.36 pm.