With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the Government’s negotiations to leave the European Union.
May I start with an apology to you, Mr Speaker, and to Keir Starmer, Peter Grant and other Front-Bench spokesmen that we have not tonight been able to follow the usual courtesies, which I would have wanted to do, and give them advance notice? The reason for this, as hon. Members who have been following the TV coverage will know, is that negotiations are still taking place in Strasbourg, and anybody who has taken part in EU business on behalf of this or any previous Government will know that it is far from unusual for deadlines to be stretched and for talks to be going on late.
I would emphasise to the House that the intention of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is to secure a deal that works for the national interest of our country, and she will persist in those negotiations until she is satisfied that that is what has been achieved. However, I can provide the House with an update tonight on what has been agreed so far, and clearly the Government will update the House at the earliest opportunity tomorrow should there be an outcome to the continuing talks in Strasbourg that will have an impact on tomorrow’s debate.
This evening in Strasbourg, the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union have secured legally binding changes that strengthen and improve the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration. The House spoke clearly on
Tonight, we will be laying two new documents in the House: a joint legally binding instrument on the withdrawal agreement and the protocol on Northern Ireland; and a joint statement to supplement the political declaration. The first provides confirmation that the EU cannot try to trap the UK in the backstop indefinitely, and that doing so would be an explicit breach of the legally binding commitments that both sides have agreed. If, contrary to all expectations, the EU were to act with that intention, the United Kingdom could use this acceptance of what could constitute an explicit breach as the basis for a formal dispute, through independent arbitration, that such a breach had occurred, ultimately suspending the protocol if the EU continued to breach its obligations.
On top of this, the joint instrument also reflects the United Kingdom’s and the European Union’s commitment to work to replace the backstop with alternative arrangements by December 2020, setting out explicitly that these arrangements do not need to replicate the provisions of the backstop in any respect. By including this commitment in the joint instrument, this provision on alternative arrangements will be legally binding. I hope, too, that that legally binding commitment that the alternative arrangements do not need to replicate the backstop in any respect will go some way to reassuring hon. Members that the backstop does not predetermine what our future relationship with the European Union should be.
The joint instrument also puts the commitments set out by Presidents Juncker and Tusk in January on to a legally binding footing, underlining the meaning of best endeavours, stressing the need for negotiations on the future relationship to be taken forward urgently and confirming the assurances we made to the people of Northern Ireland—for example, providing a United Kingdom lock on any new EU laws being added to the backstop.
The second document is a joint statement that supplements the political declaration and outlines a number of commitments by the United Kingdom and the European Union to enhance and expedite the process of negotiating and bringing into force the future relationship. For example, it refers to the possibility of provisional application of such a future agreement and sets out in detail how the specific negotiating track on alternative arrangements will operate.
As I said, negotiations are continuing and the Government will provide an update to the House at the earliest opportunity should there be further changes. I completely understand that hon. Members of all parties will want to have the opportunity to study the documents in detail and analyse their import. Clearly, there will be an opportunity during the debate scheduled for tomorrow for Members to question the Prime Minister and other Ministers and to seek answers.
During Law Officers’ questions last week, my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General made a commitment from the Dispatch Box to publish his legal assessment, which will be available to all Members in good time before the debate. [Hon. Members: “When?”] Hon. Members ask “When?” Since my right hon. and learned Friend has just seen the outcome of the negotiations in Strasbourg so far, hon. Members would want him to consider carefully the implications of those documents rather than rush out an opinion to meet the deadline for this evening’s statement.
This evening, we shall table the motion that the House will debate tomorrow. We have already published the withdrawal agreement and political declaration and the other papers required of us under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, and they will be supplemented by the documents that I have drawn to the House’s attention. Tomorrow, the House will vote on the improved deal.
I believe that the deal we have already secured represents a good deal for the whole country and delivers on the result of the referendum. When I knocked on doors during the referendum campaign, the clear message I got from people who voted to leave the European Union was that they wanted to take back control, particularly of our borders, but also of our laws. The deal ends free movement and allows us to deliver a skills-based immigration system, and ends the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in the UK. Under the deal, we will also take back control of our money, no longer sending vast sums to the European Union. We will leave the common fisheries policy and the common agricultural policy and take back control of our trade policy.
I also found in 2016 that, whether people voted to leave or to remain, they wanted us to have the deep and special partnership with the European Union that my party’s manifesto committed us to delivering. The political declaration—the framework for the future relationship—allows for that. In the meaningful vote tomorrow, the House will face a fundamental choice. We said that we would negotiate a good deal with the EU and I believe that we have done so. The EU has been clear that, with the improvements that have been announced and continue to be negotiated, this will be the only deal on the table. Tomorrow there will be a fundamental choice: to vote for the improved deal or to plunge this country into a political crisis.
If we vote for the improved deal we will both end the current uncertainty and deliver Brexit. The House was clear on the need for legally binding changes to the backstop. Today, we have secured those changes. Now is the time to come together to back this improved Brexit deal and to deliver on the instruction of the British people. I commend this statement to the House.
I do not complain for not having had advance notice of the Minister’s statement. I am not sure that he has got advance notice of it. [Laughter.]
What an absurd situation the Prime Minister has got herself into. Having lost the meaningful vote on
“What I am talking about is not a further exchange of letters but a significant and legally binding change to the withdrawal agreement.”
Let us see what document is put on the Table tomorrow. I did not hear the words from the Dispatch Box that the withdrawal agreement is being changed. She said:
“It will involve reopening the withdrawal agreement…I can secure such a change in advance of our departure from the EU.”—[Official Report,
“to be replaced with alternative arrangements”.
It sounds as if none of that has happened, nor is likely to happen.
Turning the joint letter from President Tusk and President Juncker of
We will look at the detail. We will look at whether the withdrawal agreement has been changed. [Interruption.] I am looking forward to the reaction tomorrow when the withdrawal agreement, unchanged, will be on the Table. [Interruption.]
Order. I appeal to Members on both sides of the House to calm down. I say to very senior Members who, from a sedentary position, are chuntering really very inanely, do try to grow up.
I will wait to see the detail, but as I understand it the withdrawal agreement is being placed on the Table tonight for a vote tomorrow—this agreement unchanged. If I am wrong about that and the document has been changed, I am sure I will be corrected in just a minute.
That cannot be described as legally binding changes to the backstop. Nor could the steps outlined—we will have to see what they are in full—allow the Attorney General to change his opinion that under international law the backstop would endure indefinitely until a superseding agreement took its place in whole or in part. Members of the House will recall that in the Attorney General’s advice last time, he focused on the fact that the only remedy under the withdrawal agreement for breach of the good faith or best endeavours obligations is a temporary suspension of obligations unless and until the parties return to the negotiating table in good faith. That was announced just now as part of the breakthrough new agreement. It is there in article 178(5) on page 292, and has been since the document was signed off on
It sounds again as if nothing has changed, and if that is right, the Prime Minister is left with a pile of broken promises. It is as much a matter of trust as of substance. I am sure that many tomorrow on the Government Benches will be disappointed when they look at the detail. They should be disappointed, but not surprised. We have repeatedly raised questions about the Prime Minister raising expectations that she could not meet. The whole approach has been misguided and the fault lies squarely at the Prime Minister’s door, so can the Minister now please confirm: does the whole Cabinet support the position as it now is? When will the House receive the Attorney General’s updated legal advice? And I ask for a straightforward answer to the question: is a single word of the withdrawal agreement different now from the document that was agreed on
This has been a wholly unsatisfactory 24 hours, but symptomatic of the last two years. Tomorrow, the House will express its view. These Benches will reject it. We expect the House to reject it and then we can move on and break the impasse.
When the right hon. and learned Gentleman got to his phrase about how the Opposition Front Bench was going to reject it, I thought that was the one that had been prepared a very long time in advance. I completely understand that he—like other Members of the House on all sides—is going to want to study the detail of the texts, but I want to make a number of things clear in response to his questions.
First, the joint instrument has equal status in law to the withdrawal agreement itself. Therefore, the withdrawal agreement and the joint instrument that has been negotiated today have to be read alongside each other; they have equal legal force. Secondly, the Government were chided over the question of alternative arrangements. Actually, it is a significant advance to have written into a legal text now a date of the end of 2020, because working actively to achieve that now becomes a legal obligation on both the United Kingdom and the European Union.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman also questioned the point of putting the promises made by Presidents Juncker and Tusk in January into law, and yet the thrust of his critique had been that we needed to put things into law rather than rely upon promises, so I think, again, there is a definite advance in line with what this House had wanted.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked me specific questions on the Attorney General. I did say in my opening statement that he is obviously reflecting urgently, but also with due consideration by proper analysis, on the documents that have been negotiated today, and he will provide his assessment to the House, as he has promised to do, as early as he can tomorrow and ahead of the debate.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked me about the Cabinet. The entire Cabinet endorsed and voted for the deal when it last came before the House. What we have today are improvements upon the deal which the Cabinet has supported, so the whole Cabinet is supporting these improvements.
I welcome my right hon. Friend to the Dispatch Box at this late hour. His statement is of the greatest interest to many of us who want to know whether this is a genuine improvement to the problems that existed, and my vote will be based on what I interpret from this. Given the number of issues here—the joint legally binding instrument, the interplay with the UK’s unilateral ability to revoke the backstop and then refer it to an independent tribunal—would it not be better to have a statement from the Attorney General? Would it not be better for him to appear in the House to explain his findings and be questioned and then, if that takes longer, for us to push back the vote to the following day? It would be better to know what we are voting on than to rush the vote and repent.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his comments and for the work that he and others have done in developing ideas for alternative arrangements and for trying to make sure that they really are built into the mainstream of the work we do and embodied in legally binding and enforceable commitments. I will ensure that the Attorney General is aware of the request for him to appear tomorrow. On the timing of the debates, obviously the business for tomorrow has already been announced in the normal way, and I emphasise that the Prime Minister made a clear commitment from this Dispatch Box last week to the timetable for this week. She was pressed by right hon. and hon. Members from different parts of the House to provide clarity, and it is her clear intention to stick to the timetable she announced.
I am grateful to the Minister for his statement. I can understand why the BBC was the best source of information—we could not have it in advance—but it is disappointing that no arrangements appear to have been made for the statement to be circulated to Members. I hope he will confirm that before we finish tonight it will be available to all Members.
The Minister has given us bold words about changing the peace process guarantee. That is what the backstop is—a peace process guarantee—and we should not let it be called anything else. Despite the spin, that guarantee remains in place, and must remain in place, so can he confirm that the Government are still bound by exactly the same political guarantee that they entered into in December 2017 and that it is the UK Government’s responsibility to come up with a way of managing the Irish border that complies with their red lines and with the Belfast agreement in its entirety?
For those of us for whom the peace process guarantee was an advantage, not a problem, nothing has changed: we still have the same rotten deal taking Scotland out of the European Union against the express wish of 62% of our sovereign national citizens; we still have the same sell-out of Scotland’s fishing fleet—exactly the kind of sell-out that the Secretary of State for Scotland promised to resign over and still has not; and no doubt in tomorrow’s debate and possibly later in the week, we will get the same condescending answers to questions about the impact on Scotland. The answer is simply: “Scotland, get back in your box”, “Scotland, this is the price you have to pay to be part of the United Kingdom”. [Interruption.] I hear hisses from the Conservative Benches. I have lost count of the number of times Cabinet Ministers have responded to questions about the impact on Scotland by saying, “Can I remind the hon. Gentleman that Scotland is part of the United Kingdom?”. Tonight, we are seeing more clearly than ever the price of being part of this increasingly dis-United Kingdom.
There have been intensive briefing sessions for the European Research Group—taxpayer-funded but representing themselves—and a briefing for Arlene Foster, First Minister of nowhere, so can the Minister confirm at what time tonight the First Ministers of the national Governments of Scotland and Wales will be briefed, or will they be left to hear it on the news while others who hold no national Government positions are given preferential treatment? Will he not accept that the mood of Parliament and the four nations is that this deal cannot go through and that the only legitimate choice to give Parliament and the people is not between this deal and no deal but between this Brexit and no Brexit? May I ask him to ensure that the Prime Minister and her Cabinet colleagues are fully aware that if the Government continue to insist on dragging the people of Scotland out of the European Union against their will, on these or any other terms, the people of Scotland should be given the chance to decide which of the two Unions matters more to us? The answer to that question will not be the answer that the smiling right hon. Gentleman on the Government Front Bench expects or wants.
The Prime Minister is still engaged in the talks in Strasbourg, but it is certainly her intention to speak personally to the First Ministers of both Scotland and Wales at the earliest opportunity once those talks have concluded.
I must say to the hon. Gentleman that I take exception to his insinuation that the Government are in some way resiling from their support for the difficult and challenging process of peace-building and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, which ought to unite members of all parties in the House. As has been said repeatedly by the Prime Minister and others, our commitment to all the undertakings that were given in, and flow from, the Belfast/Good Friday agreement continue undiminished, and will always do so while this Government are in office.
Finally, let me say that I thought the hon. Gentleman painted a caricature of the Government’s attitude to Scotland and the Scottish people. I will not go into the political knockabout, although I am sorely tempted to do so, but I will say this: it is a bit rich for him to give lectures about respecting the results of referendums, given that when what his then party leader—now airbrushed out of history—described as a
“once in a generation opportunity” to vote for Scottish independence was put to the people of Scotland, it was rejected decisively. I only wish that the hon. Gentleman would accept that mandate from the Scottish people.
My right hon. Friend said that the documents would be available and on the table tonight. When will they be laid, and can we see them this evening? May I also ask whether the whole set of documents is at treaty level? The documents will be examined extremely carefully by many Members throughout the House and by my European Scrutiny Committee, and we shall need as much notice as possible. Will the Minister tell me at what time the Attorney General’s opinion will be available tomorrow, having regard to the timing of the debate, and whether the Attorney General will come to the House to explain his opinion on the documents before the debate and in good time?
It is certainly our intention to lay the documents as early as possible this evening. They must be laid before the House concludes its business tonight if they are to be formally taken into account during tomorrow’s debate and votes. I would expect nothing other than that my hon. Friend and his Committee would want to consider them very carefully, The Attorney General will make his assessment available as soon as possible, in line with the commitment that he gave the House from the Dispatch Box last week.
The Minister referred in his statement to the possible suspension of our obligations in respect of the backstop. As he will know, however, under article 178 of the withdrawal agreement that can happen only after the arbitration panel has ruled on the question referred to it, and after a whole process has been followed if one party has failed to comply with the ruling of the arbitration panel.
If consideration of the issues raised by the arbitration panel in relation to the backstop involves questions about the interpretation or application of EU law, can the Minister confirm for the House that any such questions would have to be referred by the arbitration panel to the Court of Justice of the European Union, and that any ruling of the Court—despite what he has said tonight—would be binding on the arbitration panel, on the European Union and, crucially, on the United Kingdom?
I will say a couple of things in response to the right hon. Gentleman. First, he is right in this respect: the treaties themselves, as he knows, make it clear that the European Court is the final arbiter of the meaning of European law. We have seen that affect, for example, the ratification of the trade agreement with Canada and the agreement with Singapore. The withdrawal agreement is not part of European law, however; the withdrawal agreement and the joint instrument that is now associated with it have the status of treaties under international law, not European law.
Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman referred to the question of arbitration. Frankly, we would not want the EU to have the right to act arbitrarily against us without regard to some due process, so I do not think it is unreasonable for there to be a process.
There have been, certainly, meaningful changes that affect, in the way that the House required, the operation of the backstop. I believe that what has been agreed in the joint instrument tonight delivers on what the House requested in January.
I commiserate with the Minister on the latest stages of his retreat from his happy days as Europe Minister, when he managed to make my then party leader, Nick Clegg, sound positively Eurosceptic. Is not the fundamental problem that this agreement, with or without a legal codicil, does not reduce uncertainty, but merely postpones the whole question of what kind of long-term relationship we have with the European Union?
The only way in which we can get certainty about the long-term relationship is to get on with negotiating it. We can only do that once a withdrawal agreement has been implemented and we have formally left the European Union. If the right hon. Gentleman wanted to join those Government Members who are anxious to get on with the negotiations as rapidly as possible, I would welcome that.
As the Attorney General rushes out his advice early tomorrow on this latest development, will he also share with the House his views on other very worrying features of the withdrawal agreement, including the open-ended financial provisions determined by the EU against us; the EU’s ability to legislate against our interests without our being able to stop them; and the continued very large role of the ECJ, an aspect of which was mentioned in a recent question?
It will be for the Attorney General to decide what he puts in his assessment. I am sure that not just he but many other legal authorities will want to comment on the documents. The matters contained in the new documents that I have described to the House, as well as the other matters to which my right hon. Friend referred, are likely to fall within the scope of the withdrawal implementation Bill when it comes before the House.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has clearly come to the House tonight with a partial statement. He has outlined two documents that the Government are going to publish but, as he has told the House, the negotiations are still under way. Can he give us an indication of when that element of these extremely important negotiations is likely to be concluded, and when the House is likely to be updated on this? Clearly, all of this will need to be taken together and analysed carefully, because at the moment we are speaking without having had sight of the precise texts. We will certainly analyse them very carefully.
I completely understand the right hon. Gentleman’s wish for detailed analysis. He asked about the other matters that are still under negotiation. I hope that those talks will conclude before the end of our exchanges on my statement, but if not, I would expect there to be a conclusion overnight.
If the alternative arrangements are now effectively going to be written into the treaty in a legally binding manner and with a legally binding date, that is good news. However, should the negotiations not go well, or should we not meet the date of the end of December 2020, would this sovereign country be able unilaterally to leave the arrangements in the withdrawal agreement in a legally binding manner?
My right hon. Friend is tempting me to go beyond the subject matter of the statement that I have been able to give the House this evening. I have said that the talks are ongoing, and I am sure that the Prime Minister will personally want to address the points that he has raised tomorrow.
If this is a fig leaf, it does not cover very much. It certainly does not cover the Government’s desperation to give the European Research Group and the Democratic Unionist party an excuse to come in off the ledge. So when it comes to arbitration, can the Minister confirm that article 174 of the withdrawal agreement will still stand? It states:
“Where a dispute submitted to arbitration…raises a question of interpretation of a concept of Union law…the arbitration panel shall not decide on any such question. In such case, it shall request the Court of Justice of the European Union to give a ruling on the question. The Court of Justice of the European Union shall have jurisdiction to give such a ruling which shall be binding on the arbitration panel.”
Does that still stand?
I think I answered that question earlier—[Hon. Members: “No, you didn’t!”] The key point is that the withdrawal agreement, and the obligations that are incorporated within it and within the joint instrument, are obligations binding on both parties in international law.
In my memory, all-nighters in EU negotiations were perfectly normal. I was in the one on the future of the eurozone and the one on the banking crisis, and I think we had an all-nighter on mobile roaming. We even had one on loft insulation. I congratulate the negotiating team on getting so much agreed. If this House approves the withdrawal agreement tomorrow, how soon can the negotiations on the future partnership start?
The preparatory work on those substantive negotiations can start immediately after agreement has been given to the withdrawal agreement and the associated documents. The legal negotiations proper can commence only once we have become a third country, but what is included in the documents that I have described to the House this evening is more detail on the early programme of work, so those substantive legal negotiations can progress at an accelerated pace once we get to them.
I am a little concerned, because I have to say that I agree with the concerns of Sir William Cash. It may be a first, but I think we would all agree that he made an important point.
Mr Speaker, this may be a question more for your good self than for the Minister, who as ever does a good job in difficult circumstances. A press conference is about to be held by the Prime Minister and Mr Juncker, and the BBC’s Brussels reporter says that the EU is adamant that there has been no change at all to the backstop position. Most importantly, we will need the advice of the Attorney General—[Hon. Members: “Question!”] There will be a question. This is meant—[Hon. Members: “Get on with it.”] The more you interrupt, the more I will continue.
Order. The right hon. Lady has rather a good point. I suggest that people show some patience and some manners. The right hon. Lady will be heard, and if there are people who have not the basic tolerance to hear her, perhaps they can repair somewhere else.
Thank you, Mr Speaker—I cannot think why I left. In any event, the point is that tomorrow is in effect a short day, and there is a lot to be considered and debated, so can the Minister for the Cabinet Office assist us? When will we get the motion, when will we get the Attorney General’s advice, and what opportunities will we have to question the Attorney General and then move to having a proper debate on the matter—the most important since our decision to enter the second world war?
There are many things for which I take responsibility under this Government, but Twitter accounts are not one of them. The Attorney General is preparing his legal assessment as we speak. He is as conscious as anybody of the commitment that he gave to the House last week, and if I know anything about my right hon. and learned Friend, it is that he will do his utmost to provide that assessment at the earliest opportunity, as I am sure will many other legal experts.
If the Government’s motion is on Twitter, could the Minister not just read it out?
With regard to the legal advice, which really is the crux of the whole issue, we are in an extraordinary situation, because the Attorney General has been involved in negotiating the deal, and therefore to some extent he will be marking his own homework when he advises the House—[Hon. Members: “No.”] He will. It is inevitable. Given that, can I ask two questions? First, how early will we get the legal advice? In answer to the urgent question earlier, the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my hon. Friend Mr Walker, implied that we would get the advice by the time the House sat tomorrow, but it sounds as if that has already slipped. After all this, it would be suboptimal to get the advice a few minutes before the actual debate begins, and I am sure that the Government can appreciate that. Secondly, as the advice is so critical, will the Attorney General be speaking in tomorrow’s debate? If not, how can Members of this House ask him questions about the advice that he has provided?
The Attorney General is as keen as anyone to provide that assessment to the House, but clearly he would have been wrong to do it without sight of the final versions of all the documents that have been the subject of negotiations. The House would have had every reason to complain were he and the Government to have come forward with an assessment based on draft documents that subsequently changed. The course of action that the Attorney General is taking is completely reasonable, and I reiterate that it is his intention and the Government’s intention for the documents, and for all the advice on those documents, to be provided as soon as possible.
I have a copy of the Government’s motion here, and paragraph (3) says clearly not that the backstop is removed or that the withdrawal agreement is changed but merely that it
“reduces the risk the UK could be…held in the Northern Ireland backstop”.
That is the Government’s own motion, which they have not bothered to share with the rest of the House, although it was shared on Twitter about half an hour ago. We still do not have the document, which is quite frankly contemptuous.
It is my understanding that there was an agreement with the EU over the weekend but that it was rejected by members of the Cabinet and the Attorney General, which is why we are in this impasse tonight—it is why the Prime Minister’s trip was cancelled. Will the Minister for the Cabinet Office please tell me what has changed since what was being discussed on Saturday, which was rejected by the Attorney General and members of the Cabinet?
What has changed is that there has been a successful outcome to the negotiations. When I came into the Chamber, the talks were still ongoing and I was not in a position to say precisely when the Government’s motion would be tabled. I am now advised by the business managers that the motion is in the process of being tabled, and the documents to which I have referred will be deposited in the House for the information of all Members as rapidly as possible thereafter.
I start by thanking my right hon. Friend for confirming that nothing in this evening’s statement indicates in any way a desire on our part to shirk our obligations under the backstop, which are based on solemn promises to the people of Northern Ireland. Does he agree that tonight underlines again that, if this House is to implement Brexit in a smooth and orderly way in any shape or form, the deal before us remains the only show in town?
This has been a long and hard-fought negotiation, and the EU has made it clear that the deal now on the table is it and that there are no further negotiations. The House—that means every Member of the House, whichever side they are on—has a responsibility to take decisions so we can move forward in the national interest.
What we have learned this evening is that the withdrawal agreement is still intact, the backstop is still in place and, as my hon. Friend Stephen Doughty pointed out, the Government have given themselves little or no real extra powers in this whole process. It is clear that there will be no agreement that satisfies many Conservative Members and that the only way out of this Brexit mess is to find consensus across this House, would the Minister not agree?
I think that the hon. Lady is underrating the content of what I announced earlier. The joint instrument that has been agreed has precisely the same status in law as the withdrawal agreement itself, so it should be read as a protocol to the withdrawal agreement. It is also the case that placing the end of 2020 date for alternative arrangements into legal text takes us a considerable way forward. I am not normally averse to looking for consensus where that can be achieved, but I do think that that means, for one thing, that we need to have clarity from the Labour Front-Bench team about exactly what they are prepared to support.
Notwithstanding the laudable desire of the Government to adhere to their timetabling commitments, does the Minister understand that it is essential that this House has an opportunity to question the Attorney General on his advice before tomorrow’s debate starts? Will the Minister also have a word with the Leader of the House, who is sitting very near him, to make sure that that happens?
May I say to the hon. Gentleman, pursuant to earlier points of order this afternoon, that I entirely understand what motivates him—the matter has been raised with me by other Members, and I listened with courtesy to what the Minister just said—but the resolution of the matter is really quite straightforward: there can either be an oral statement tomorrow or in lieu of that, or in fear of there being no such, an urgent question can be submitted. It is really very simple.
I am not sure that the Minister’s statement is necessarily helping to win over the room this evening. In fact, I have just heard that President Juncker has said that this announcement will complement the withdrawal agreement “without reopening it”. Is the fundamental problem not that the promise to leave the single market and the customs union was never going to be compatible with having a frictionless, open Irish border? I feel embarrassed for the Minister, who is trying to spin this thinnest of gossamer threads for 80 of his European Research Group to try to climb down. Is it not already clear that it is not going to bear their weight?
The joint instrument is an addition to the withdrawal agreement and has equal and equally binding legal force, so I think the hon. Gentleman’s assessment of the legal impact of what I have announced today is simply mistaken.
I can understand the interest in this. The last thing that I can do is comment on either the timing or the content of live legal proceedings. That is entirely a matter for the courts and it is outside the jurisdiction of Ministers.
It might be helpful to the House, as I have just received word from Strasbourg, if I say that in addition to the two documents I outlined in my statement, I can confirm that the Government will also be laying a unilateral declaration that will form part of the package the House will vote on tomorrow. This declaration is focused on the temporary nature of the backstop and we would make it formally, alongside signature of the withdrawal agreement. Once made, the declaration would have legal status in international law, and such declarations are commonly used by states alongside the ratification of treaties. The declaration clarifies what the UK could do if it were not possible to conclude an agreement that superseded the protocol because the EU had acted contrary to its obligations. In these circumstances, the UK’s understanding is that nothing in the withdrawal agreement would prevent it from instigating measures that could ultimately lead to the disapplication of its obligations under the protocol. Were the UK to take such measures, it would remain in full compliance with its obligations to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.
We understand—it is clear that we should be looking at Twitter rather than listening to the Minister—that the Irish Government have said that the unilateral statement is the UK “talking to themselves”. Given that it is a unilateral statement, will the Minister confirm who else would possibly agree to it? Otherwise, it really is just more hot air. This country deserves better.
I can understand that the hon. Lady will want to look at the text when it is available, but as I have just said, such declarations are used frequently by states when they come to ratify international treaties, and they do have legal status in international law.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that those of us who wish to respect the result of the referendum and deliver on Brexit should be comforted by the comments in the statement that my right hon. Friend has made, because they appear to provide the reassurances that we were seeking on the backstop? Not unsurprisingly, some who do not wish to implement Brexit appear to be uncomfortable with the reassurances he has given this evening, for a variety of understandable reasons. Nevertheless, when we vote tomorrow, should we all not remember what we promised the electorate at the general election?
I do agree with my hon. Friend. Many of us in this House and many people outside the House who voted and campaigned to remain in the European Union have said that we accept the majority verdict of the British people but want to deliver that in a way that secures jobs, living standards and investment in the United Kingdom and the integrity of our Union.
Will the Minister confirm whether the unilateral declaration to which he is referring is indeed a so-called conditional interpretive declaration? If it is, what is his response to the fact that in a debate a few weeks ago secured by Sir Edward Leigh, the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, Kwasi Kwarteng, said:
“I must stress that it is not entirely clear…that a conditional interpretive declaration would have the effect that he seeks in allowing the United Kingdom unilaterally to put an end to the backstop”?—[Official Report,
I have to advise the hon. Lady to look at the detailed text as soon as it becomes available. I am sure there will be opportunities for her to seek that kind of detailed answer tomorrow.
I have no legal training whatsoever—apart from, perhaps, a brief passing acquaintance with libel laws as a journalist—so I cannot give any tedious lectures on legal jiggery-pokery, but I do go door knocking, and every weekend people say to me that we need to leave the EU in an orderly fashion. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if what he has announced satisfies Government Members over the backstop, we need to take the leap of faith? Let us get out and forge a new future. We promised that to the British people; let us deliver it.
My hon. Friend is right. I refer again to the fact that our party’s manifesto two years ago said that our aim was to negotiate a new deep and special partnership with the European Union. That sits alongside our commitment to leaving the European Union in line with the verdict in the referendum. The negotiations that have concluded tonight enable us to get on with those twin objectives, which is what I believe the majority of British people now wish us to do.
I refer the Minister to a sentence in his statement, when he said:
“The first provides confirmation that the EU cannot try to trap the UK in the backstop indefinitely”.
There are two interesting words there. First, the word “confirmation” is a simple affirmation that there is not any change—it is confirmation, so there is no change. Secondly, the word “trap” implies unreasonable and deliberate action by the EU, so is the Minister saying that if the EU behaves reasonably and there is simply a genuine failure between the UK and the EU to agree on a way forward, the UK could remain in the backstop indefinitely?
First, of course, all parties agree that the backstop, were it ever to be used, is temporary. Indeed, article 50 is not a legal basis for any sort of permanent relationship between the European Union and a third country of any kind. On the specific points that the hon. Gentleman made, the language that I used in the statement reflected the concerns that have been expressed often inside and outside this House that there would be an effort by some countries within the European Union to keep us in the backstop because, such critics argued, they would see economic advantage or leverage in so doing. What the joint instrument makes very clear is that any such action would be a breach of the EU’s formal international legal obligations.
Caroline Lucas has alluded to the Adjournment debate that I had a few weeks ago on this issue of the conditional interpretative declaration, which I have been pressing the Government to use for some time. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that, under international law, such an interpretative declaration does indeed have the full force of international law, it is legally enforceable, it has exactly the same weight as the withdrawal agreement and the advantage of it is that it allows us to make a statement that the backstop is indeed temporary, or has a time limit, and it is now up to the EU if we have made such an interpretative declaration to refuse to ratify the treaty? A mere protest is not good enough, so this has full legal force. It is a very useful instrument and the House should pay the closest attention to it.
My right hon. Friend has been a consistent advocate of this approach and I have heard him speak and intervene a number of times in this Chamber on that theme. I am happy to confirm that the description that he has given is accurate.
Can the Minister tell us when the history books on this Brexit shambles are written, what will he and his Conservative Government be most proud of: destroying the futures of our young people; decimating the economy of the UK; or, my personal favourite, supercharging the case for Scottish independence?
It is always dangerous for anyone to speculate about what the history books will say, but I hope that, when those come to be written, they will acknowledge that this Government delivered on a clear referendum verdict in 2016, but did so in a way that made it possible successfully to complete the negotiation of a new partnership on trade, security and political co-operation with countries that are our fellow democracies and our closest neighbours and that will remain our friends and allies.
As I understand it, negotiations are ongoing. Indeed, bits have been added by my right hon. Friend as he has been on his feet. The documents, we understand, are yet to be finalised, and the Attorney General has yet to opine. If it is such a great deal, why the rush? Why bounce the House into a vote tomorrow? If it is such a good deal and if this is truly a victory, why do we not take a few days to cogitate, reflect, look at the detail and then come to this House and have the vote when we have gone across the detail and have had that chance for full and frank consideration?
The House has considered these issues on a number of occasions and has passed various amendments. In particular, on
This afternoon, the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, Mr Walker, who came to make a statement in response to the urgent question of the Leader of the Opposition, repeatedly told the House, very clearly and in terms, that the Attorney General’s advice would be available before the start of play tomorrow. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has not repeated that; indeed, I think he has been careful not to repeat that tonight. Can we believe anything that is said from that Dispatch Box anymore?
I had hoped to be able to come to the House and give this statement a lot earlier this evening, but the reality is that the international negotiations went on longer than they had been expected to, which in my experience frequently happens with international—particularly European Union—negotiations. The Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my hon. Friend Mr Walker, made his comments in good faith, as he always does, on the basis of the information available to us at the time. The Attorney General will be deeply conscious of his obligations to the House and will not want to delay.
I am grateful to the Deputy Prime Minister for coming to the House at this very late hour to give us as much information as he has. Both sides of the House have complained that there will not be enough time to consider the motion. We do not actually know what the motion is, but I understand that it will be taken at 7 o’clock tomorrow and there will be no protected time. We will not have had time to have considered the legal advice, so may I make a suggestion to the Deputy Prime Minister? In his previous answer, he said that negotiations have been going on until the last minute. Would it not be better to have a statement from the Attorney General tomorrow, a statement from the Prime Minister tomorrow and the debate the following day? This is one of the biggest votes that we will have, and it is ridiculous that Parliament should be bounced into it.
The texts of both the political declaration and the withdrawal agreement have been available to all right hon. and hon. Members since November last year, so Members of this House have had many weeks to acquaint themselves with the detail of those documents and the arguments that surround them. The new material comprises the documents that have been negotiated today. This House has to face up to the need to get on and take decisions. We cannot just have a further delay in making the decision about whether or not we accept this package. The EU has been clear that this is the deal on the table, and it is asking us to make our choice.
It has been well over two and a half years since 17.4 million people voted to leave. Has the Minister noticed that we now have a situation where Sir William Cash and Anna Soubry actually agree? I also agree that we should be leaving this for 24 hours; we should have all these statements tomorrow and then the vote on Wednesday. Why are we rushing? Will the Minister also answer one question that someone asked me when I was on my way here today: why on earth do we need an international treaty to leave the European Union?
Mr Speaker, I am informed that the text of the motion and the documents are now available to right hon. and hon. Members. It is only a few days since this House voted by an overwhelming majority for the sequence of debates and contingent debates that have been set down in the business statement and in commitments by the Government, and which should govern business this week. It is the House that has wanted us to stick to this timetable, and I think that the public want us to get on with this and get back to focusing on the national health service, housing, crime and the other subjects that concern them.
While the Minister has indicated tonight that he does not have the full details to give to the House and he is going to put the documents down for further study, does he recognise that it is important that there is the ability to fully consider these important documents, since the most important decision we are going to make will be based on them? He has talked about legal changes throughout his statement, but does he understand that those legal changes will be judged on whether they give the Government control over any backstop, whether they ensure that we have the ability to decide on our future trade, laws and money, and whether they maintain the integrity of the Union—and that that is how this agreement tonight will be judged tomorrow?
I believe that the package of measures does deliver on the changes that this House has sought. I hope that the hon. Gentleman, when he has had the chance to consider the actual text in detail, will agree with that conclusion and will be prepared to support it.
The Minister has said repeatedly tonight and in the statement that is being handed round that these are legally binding changes to the Northern Irish backstop issue. If that is the case, could he tell the House and the country why, then, the Attorney General has been quoted directly tonight as saying that he is “agonising” over his legal advice?
I am not commenting on what might or might not have appeared on social media. I listed in my statement a number of illustrative cases where the legal status of the backstop had been changed by what has now been agreed. I hope that when the hon. Gentleman studies that, he will come round to that point of view as well.
My issue with this withdrawal agreement is that it will leave every country and region of this nation poorer as a result of it than we would be otherwise, and nothing the Minister has said tonight changes anything. But given that he is focused on the backstop, will he not just admit that nothing has changed in respect of that either? There is still no fixed end date to the backstop and there is still no unilateral right of the UK to withdraw from it.
I am not sure whether the hon. Lady was saying that she had objections to the backstop, or not, because there have been mixed messages from her side of the House. The risk with what she said about the economic consequences is that she is seeking to re-fight the referendum campaign of 2016. Whether we liked that result or not, the result of the referendum was as it was. No European leader has questioned the democratic legitimacy of that referendum result, and I do think that there would be some serious damage to what is already fragile public confidence in our democratic institutions were we simply to disregard it.
On a slightly different matter, the Hansard Society says that 485 Brexit statutory instruments have been tabled but only 247—some 52%—have completed their passage through this House. I have here one of the ones for tomorrow. It is ridiculous in its level of detail—and all of this is supposed to be done by Brexit day. How much are the Government hiding in these SIs, and how can we in this House possibly hold them to account?
To judge by the size of that document, it is probably a combined statutory instrument which brings together identical changes in regulatory arrangements that have to be reflected in changes to different secondary legislative instruments. The Committees that deal with statutory instruments in this House and the House of Lords have expressly called on the Government to use combined SIs in that manner.
The normal international legal procedures would have to be followed were either party wanting to challenge whether the other had failed to carry out its obligations. What the Prime Minister was describing in her comments this evening is how the United Kingdom would give effect unilaterally, if it came to it, to a situation in which the backstop had in practice become permanent, which is not supposed to happen either under article 50 or in the terms of the solemn legal commitments that the EU is entering into.
The right hon. Gentleman has made it clear that an arbitration panel will supersede in international law the European Court of Justice and be empowered to rule out the backstop. Who will appoint the arbitration panel—the World Trade Organisation? Will it be a group of independent judges, like those who impose investor-state dispute settlements in commercial trade? Why should we trust the panel? I want to see the backstop continuing with the peace process.
The arbitration panel and the arbitration process will exist to judge whether the parties have delivered on their legally binding obligations under the withdrawal agreement, which will have the status of a treaty in international law.
Is it not the case that, despite this statement, the major problem for many of us is that supporting the British Government’s Brexit policy tomorrow would mean leaving the EU without any detail on the future relationship—a blind Brexit, which would be completely irresponsible?
I would dissent from that. The Government made it very clear in the White Paper published last summer what their objectives in that negotiation would be. The political declaration shows the extent to which there are shared objectives for that deep and special partnership. As the political declaration says, there is a spectrum, and this House and the Government have to choose the degree of alignment that we prefer. There will be opportunities in the withdrawal implementation Bill and subsequent legislation for Parliament to express its views. Of course, if, as I hope, we agree on a new partnership treaty with the European Union 27, it would be an international treaty that would have to go through ratification processes, including consideration by this House in the normal way.
It is ridiculous that we are here at this time of night trying to work out what on earth is going on, based on Twitter rumours and bits of paper that are being passed to the Deputy Prime Minister and read out in dribs and drabs. Can we focus on what will actually happen if the deal is voted down tomorrow, which all the indications are that it will be? When will we get a chance to decide on ruling out no deal? When will we get a chance to decide whether we need to extend article 50, to try to sort out the mess we are in?
The straight answer to the hon. Lady is as set out in the resolution of the House last week about what, under such contingencies, would take place on Wednesday and Thursday of this week. I would say to her that I think she and many in the House would have complained had I or another Minister not come forward with any kind of statement this evening. I did acknowledge at the start of my remarks that I would have preferred to have given a complete and thoroughly prepared statement. I have done my best to update the House, as I thought was right and as the House would expect, on the basis of the state of negotiations as they stood when I came into this Chamber.
Evidently, the UK Government and the parliamentary process is in absolute chaos tonight. It seems, as far as they have got, that the EU will be legally bound to good faith, and the UK Attorney General is agonising. Meanwhile, from Dublin we learn that the withdrawal agreement remains unchanged, and the joint statement is a legal interpretation of what is in the withdrawal agreement. It is all calm in Dublin, in utter contrast to what is happening here. It should be remembered that this is a debate between damaging the UK economy by 6% and by 8%. Given that, and with 18 days to go, we surely must be able to lay amendments tonight, so I hope this motion has now been tabled and that amendments can be laid to save people’s jobs, to save the economy and to save business. That is the damage the right hon. Gentleman’s Government are trying to do by deciding on the two points they are putting forward.
I am advised that the motion has been tabled. It is of course a matter for you, Mr Speaker, to determine which amendments are selected for debate tomorrow.
The arbitration panel will have people appointed by each side—the European Union and the United Kingdom—with an independent chair.
When the Brady amendment was pushed to a vote, I abstained to give the Government the opportunity to seek the changes they were hoping to get in the withdrawal agreement. It seems this evening that those changes will not all apply. However, the Labour party opposed that change. In the letters that were exchanged between my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister, we sought changes to the political declaration. Unless I am mistaken, every amendment that we have tabled so far has sought changes to the political declaration. I find myself confused this evening that we are now talking about changes to the withdrawal agreement, which we opposed, that we have not asked for previously. However, may I ask the Minister about the political declaration? At what point will the political declaration reflect the will of the House in terms of what deal is acceptable, and will he consider legislating to underpin that deal so that any change of Prime Minister does not change the outcome of our Brexit?
If I may, I will deal with some of the points that I know the hon. Gentleman and others—on his side and on my side of the House—have been concerned about. Obviously, the withdrawal agreement Bill will provide an opportunity for the House not just to debate, but to consider amendments and come to a view about how we should approach future negotiations and, in particular, what the role of the House of Commons should be in those negotiations.
On two of the specifics, we have guaranteed protections for workers’ rights and workplace health and safety. There will be a legislative commitment in the EU withdrawal Bill that we will not let our standards fall in these areas, alongside a guarantee that Parliament will have a vote on whether to adopt new EU rules in the future.
On environmental standards, our environment Bill will ensure that, where future laws could affect environmental protections, the Government will explain how they do not weaken them, and we will create a legal duty for the Government to monitor any strengthening of EU laws in this area and to report to Parliament on the Government’s intended course of action in those areas. There will be no reductions in our already high environmental standards. We are committed to maintaining them.
This seems nothing more than smoke and mirrors from a weak Prime Minister, struggling to hold it together after two and a half years of negotiations. With no changes to the withdrawal agreement—just on best endeavours and the protocol—will the deputy Prime Minister tell me how we unilaterally leave the backstop, and where this would leave Northern Ireland?
The hon. Lady should first read the document, which has either been laid before the House or will be laid shortly. It is absolutely clear that, in all the Government do, the document will fulfil the United Kingdom’s obligations in their entirety under the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. At the risk of repeating myself, it is simply not accurate to say that the changes in the joint instrument have no legal force. They have the same legal force as the withdrawal agreement itself.
Ah, Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown has come among our number. [Interruption.] Somebody sneezed. I think it is in excited anticipation of the hon. Gentleman’s contribution.
This is an exciting moment. My right hon. Friend gave an answer to Kerry McCarthy that if the deal is not voted through tomorrow, we will vote on no deal on Wednesday and an extension of article 50 on Thursday, in accordance with the Prime Minister’s statement last week. Will the converse apply? If we vote for the deal tomorrow, will there be sufficient time before
We would do whatever we could to achieve that. In that happy eventuality, discussions will open immediately through the usual channels to seek agreement on the swift passage of the Bill.
Everything has changed but nothing has changed. Will the Minister explain why, of all the information published this evening, the only unilateral declaration was the UK’s opinion about its ability to remove itself from the backstop?
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will know the story of the emperor’s new clothes. We hope that tomorrow morning the emperor’s clothes will not reveal something embarrassing for the right hon. Gentleman and the Prime Minister. The Irish Cabinet met tonight and will meet again after the EU Brussels summit. Have the Republic of Ireland and the EU agreed to a legally binding, time-limited backstop? We need to ask for a definition of “legally binding”. Who has the Prime Minister met who has that power, without ratification?
It is clearly for the Irish Government to make any statement about their view on what has been agreed. However, my understanding is that the documents have been agreed by the Prime Minister and President Juncker, acting as the head of the Commission, the appointed negotiator for the 27 member states.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has asked us to consider the joint instrument, which seeks to replace the backstop by December 2020. Will we know in December 2020 whether the customs border will be on the border of Northern Ireland, in the Irish sea, or whether there will be no border at all? Is it not true that the joint instrument is not worth the paper it is not yet written on?
No. The arrangements on alternative measures are an important element, but not the only element of the joint instrument. The joint instrument supplements and has equal force to the withdrawal agreement. The objective of the work to which not just we but the European Union are committed, and which, if the agreement is approved, we will be legally obliged to undertake, is to replace the backstop or any need for it with other arrangements. I would have thought that the entire House would welcome that.
It is for the European Parliament to take its decision on this, just as it is for the House of Commons to take our decisions on this matter. The Prime Minister is due to meet President Tajani of the European Parliament in Strasbourg this evening, so I am sure she will be wanting to explain to him what has been agreed with the Commission.
This feels like neither democracy being done nor democracy being seen to be done. I cannot imagine that anybody watching thinks it is anything other than a shambles. The statement is taking place incredibly late at night. It is being added to as the Minister stands on his feet. The motion has only just been laid. We are being asked to deliberate on and debate legal advice and documents that we have not yet seen. Worst of all, there is no protected time for the debate tomorrow, so if Members have the ability to question the Attorney General on the legal advice he has provided, that will eat into the time for debate. It is absolutely necessary that the Government change the programme motion before the rise of the House so that tomorrow we have protected time, rather than having to make a choice between questioning the legal advice and having time for debate.
Happily, business management is no longer a matter for me. There was something surreal about the hon. Lady’s description of a plot to come to the House late in the evening, as if I had somehow been in touch with President Juncker to urge him to keep the talks going for as long as possible because I wanted to delay getting to my bed and delay the hon. Lady getting to hers. The reality is that this has been a continuing difficult international negotiation and it was right that I made a statement to the House this evening about the progress that had been achieved insofar as those discussions had been concluded. I think that is better than the alternative, which would have been not to come to the House and leave hon. Members completely in the dark about what had been taking place in Strasbourg.
May I first thank my right hon. Friend and the Prime Minister for the enormous efforts they are going to on behalf of all our constituents? My constituents are particularly frightened of the backstop because it locks us into the European Union in a way they do not want and because it hamstrings negotiations on a trade deal, which is what we all really want. Can he tell me, therefore, if the changes that have been negotiated will make those fears go away?
I certainly hope that the fears of my hon. Friend’s constituents will be thoroughly assuaged when the people of Leominster come to study these documents in detail. What is very clear is that any attempt by the European Union to gain trade leverage by manipulating the backstop or trying to delay were it ever to come into force would amount, under what has been agreed today, to a flagrant breach of the European Union’s solemn legal obligations. We would have a right to redress in the relevant tribunal were that to take place.
If the hon. Lady is referring to a letter that has been issued today, it is not one I have seen, so I cannot easily comment on that. People will pick their own tone to express what has been agreed. That is not unusual in international negotiations. We are clear that the changes that have been negotiated today are significant, and I have described a number of ways in which that is the case.
As I have said repeatedly, it is a legally binding agreement because the joint instrument has precisely the same status and force in international law as the withdrawal agreement.
I think the Minister has comported himself well tonight. I feel sorry for him, because in answers to my right hon. Friends the Members for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) and for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) and my hon. Friends the Members for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) and for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield), he has been unable to say, in the event of a dispute between the UK and the European Union, who in the process would be the arbiter of that dispute. If he does not know that, why on earth should we vote for the Prime Minister’s deal tomorrow?
I encourage the hon. Gentleman to re-read the withdrawal agreement, because the process for resolving and arbitrating in cases of an alleged breach are very clearly laid down there. This is the sort of system that exists in most international treaties for dispute resolution and arbitration.
Jean-Claude Juncker has apparently said recently in Strasbourg that there will be “no third chance” and that MPs must back the reworked deal tomorrow or
“there may be no Brexit”.
My question is this: where do I sign up?
Well, that was not a question I expected from the hon. Gentleman. What I say to him is that I believe that the interests of his constituents are best served by our delivering on the outcome of the referendum and then negotiating at pace the ambitious deep and special partnership with the European Union that I think the great majority of people in every part of the United Kingdom want to see.
Among the other documents that the Minister referred to that are going to be published in the next few hours, will he confirm whether the Government’s economic impact assessment on the withdrawal agreement will finally be published, or will Members of this House once again be asked to vote blind on the economic consequences of the Prime Minister’s deal?
The withdrawal agreement does not of itself form part of an economic impact assessment. I think the hon. Gentleman is referring to the political declaration, and there, the Government have published a range of analyses to explain the predicted economic impact of a number of different potential future relationships with the European Union. Because the approach set out in the political declaration is capable of reaching resolution at different points in the spectrum described in that document, we have taken the nearest proxy for it. We have explained our methodology completely, and I think that any reasonable questions that the hon. Gentleman has are answered in the document that the Government have already published.
People flicking through their TV channels will be forgiven for thinking that this is like Sky Sports’ transfer deadline day show given the amount of late-night horse trading that is going on. On a serious point, how many times today have Downing Street or senior officials from the Prime Minister’s office spoken to Arlene Foster, and, if this is a United Kingdom of equals, how many times have the Government spoken to the First Ministers of Wales and Scotland?
The Prime Minister personally has tried to make sure that the First Ministers of both Scotland and Wales have been updated on all significant developments during the negotiations. The negotiations are an ongoing process, and no Prime Minister will give a running commentary on them, but the Belfast agreement itself mandates the United Kingdom Government to keep all the main political parties in Northern Ireland briefed about what they are doing, and we discharge that duty.
Oh, very well. I have some remarks to make in a moment that I hope will be helpful to the House, but pending that, let us hear the hon. Gentleman.
We understand that the media have been in possession of these documents for some time. We have not had the same opportunity, but, as far as I understand, they are in the Table Office now. Could we be assured that they will be put on the internet so that the public at large can be guaranteed an opportunity to see these documents in full?
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. My understanding is that all the documents are in the Table Office now—[Hon. Members: “The Vote Office!”] In the Vote Office, Mr Speaker. The motion has been tabled and I can give a clear assurance that, when I came to the Chamber and for a fair part of my statement and response to questions, the talks between the Prime Minister and President Juncker were continuing in Strasbourg. As far as I am aware, the Government have not given any prior copies to the media, and in fact could not have done so because talks were still taking place. I do not know what was happening at the Strasbourg end, because of course there was a negotiation going on when texts were being circulated between the two sides.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I asked for a guarantee that they would be on the internet, because the public, as well as Parliament and the Vote Office, want to see them.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. If they are not already there, they will be published on gov.uk as rapidly as possible.
I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that confirmation. I have also been advised by the senior Clerk at the Table—aided, abetted and reinforced by another distinguished ornament of Chamber and Committee Services sitting immediately to his left—that the documents are on the website of the Department for Exiting the European Union. That is characteristically up to speed and helpful of the Clerks, and I thank them for that service, as I am sure the House does.
Yes, yes. The hon. Gentleman is not hailing a taxi, but nevertheless I am happy to hear his point of order.
While the Minister was speaking, the journalist Paul Waugh had on his website some of the documents. I went to ask in the Vote Office whether the documents were available. I was told no. They had been received electronically, but they had to be printed by the Journal Office. I seek your clarification, Mr Speaker, as to when in this House copies of those documents were available, given that journalists clearly had been given them and that they were in printed form and put out by Mr Paul Waugh on Twitter.
My understanding—there was some earlier huddled consultation about this matter between me and the Clerks at the Table—is that the documents were laid at 10.58 pm. I say that for the benefit of the hon. Gentleman and the House. I would not want, particularly when engaging with someone of his seniority and distinction, to be imprecise, and I certainly would not want to say 10.57 pm or 10.59 pm, subsequently to be corrected by hon. Gentleman, who is a stickler for precision at all times. I gather they were laid at 10.58 pm and then distributed more widely thereafter. I hope that that is helpful in a factual sense. It may not be as satisfactory as he would like—that is qualitatively a different point—but it is the factual answer.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I do not want to over-egg the point, but it is important for what Ministers say to the Chamber from the Dispatch Box to be accurate, and for there to be a procedure whereby, if there is a change, they can inform the House about that change and the reasons for it. Earlier today, we were given assurances about the timing of the legal advice from the Attorney General in a ministerial statement, and as far as I am aware, no statement was given to the House altering the information that was presented to Members. What is the procedure that Ministers should follow in such circumstances?
The short answer is that if someone inadvertently gives incorrect information to the House, it is a matter of honour for that Member to take the opportunity to correct the record at the earliest possible opportunity. I do not know whether that will prove to be so in this case, for it is as yet uncertain when the legal advice will be published. To be fair to Mr Walker, I think that, in responding to questions, he gave the House his honest assessment, at the point at which he gave it, of when he thought that the material would be provided. I know that the hon. Gentleman is every bit as honourable as his late and distinguished father, and I think that if he were subsequently to discover that he had given incorrect information to the House, he would literally be rushing—“rushing” is not too strong a word—to the Dispatch Box to correct the record.
I trust that Kevin Brennan will be in his place tomorrow to discover what the situation is. I think that there is a premium on early discovery of this advice, but we have already been through the question of how the views of the Attorney General can be established and how he can be probed before the debate if Members are so inclined. [Interruption.] Somebody is muttering something about codpieces from a sedentary position—and not just somebody: no less a figure than the Solicitor General. I am sure that the chuntering is eloquent, of a fashion.
Let me say, before we proceed, that I hope it will be helpful to the House if I indicate an advisory cut-off time of 10.30 on Tuesday morning for manuscript amendments to tomorrow’s motion. Amendments that reach the Table Office before the rise of the House tonight will appear on the Order Paper in the usual way. The Table Office will arrange publication and distribution of a consolidated amendment list as soon as possible after 10.30 am on Tuesday, including all the manuscript amendments. I will announce my selection of amendments in the usual way at the beginning of the debate. I hope that that is helpful to colleagues.
If there are no more points of order, we will proceed with the motions on the Order Paper. [Interruption.] That is very helpful, and I am genuinely grateful, but I was proposing in any case—partly for the reason hinted at by the adviser at the Chair—to take the motions separately.