European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 5) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:53 pm on 3rd April 2019.

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Photo of Stephen Barclay Stephen Barclay The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union 6:53 pm, 3rd April 2019

We will oppose this Bill. It is being passed in haste, and the fact that we have a time limit of two minutes for a number of speeches this evening is an indication of the fact that the Bill is being passed in haste. It is constitutionally irregular and, frankly, it fails to understand the decision-making process by which any discussion of an extension or agreement of an extension at the European Council will be reached. I will come to that in the limited time I have in which to speak.

It is not just me who has concerns about the Bill on behalf of the Government. Objections to the Bill have been raised by the Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee, my hon. Friend Sir William Cash; the Chair of the Procedure Committee, my hon. Friend Mr Walker; and the Chair of the Select Committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs, my hon. Friend Sir Bernard Jenkin. All have raised concerns about the Bill—particularly the fact that it is being rushed through in such short order—and indeed about the precedent it sets for this and successive Governments.

The Bill also calls into question the royal prerogative. It has been a long-standing practice that Heads of Government can enter into international agreements without preconditions set by the House that would constrain their ability to negotiate in the national interest. Let me give an example of how such constraints could have adverse effects and, in particular, given that the House has voted against no deal, how the Bill could increase the risk of an accidental no-deal exit. On Wednesday 10 April the European Council could propose an extension of an alternative length, yet under the Bill the Prime Minister would then have to return on Thursday 11 April to put that proposal to the House. However, by 11 April the European Council will have concluded and the leaders will have returned to their member states. We would then need to confirm the UK’s agreement to the European Council’s decision and get its approval for that by 11 pm on 12 April.

At the heart of this is the fact that last Friday the House voted against the withdrawal agreement, which was the only legal right the House had to an extension to 22 May, which, as I understand it, Mr Speaker, was at the heart of your decision to grant that vote, because, as the Attorney General set out, that was an additional right bestowed on the House as a result of the previous European Council. We have no automatic right to a legal extension. That right was forgone as a result of the House’s decision last Friday. Yet the Bill would put the House in the position of having to agree after the European Council has concluded and the leaders have returned to their member states.