Duties in connection with Article 50 extension

Part of European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 5) Bill – in the House of Commons at 9:15 pm on 3rd April 2019.

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Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Chair, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee 9:15 pm, 3rd April 2019

I will be as brief as I can. I want to speak against clause 1 stand part. The clause is the heart and strategic intent of the Bill. It is trying to put this House in a position to stop the United Kingdom leaving the EU on the date on which the Government might want us to leave. There is no question about that.

I very much agree with my hon. Friend George Eustice who made the point that the process of attrition in this House to limit the Government’s negotiating freedom in the end very much undermined their ability to get a better deal and to negotiate from a position of strength. If people cannot walk away from a negotiation they are in, and they have to agree something at the end of it, the other party simply calls the shots. That certainly strengthened the hand of those who want us to have a bad deal. I have made some points in the debate on one of the earlier business motions about the constitutional impropriety of this whole process.

I also invite the Committee to reflect on what this House looks like tonight as we discuss such highly technical issues. The British people expect us to be discussing the big principles of whether we should leave without a deal on WTO terms or sign up to the withdrawal agreement. This particular debate, however, seems particularly obscure and unavailable to voters. It will make this House look particularly out of touch, especially because the Bill is somewhat otiose.

I have argued for some time with colleagues on the Conservative Benches that the Prime Minister has demonstrated little intention of ever leaving without a withdrawal agreement. The fact that the Government have spewed out a whole raft of information basically about why they do not want to leave without a deal underlines that point. I therefore think that the Bill is unnecessary.

In my comments to my hon. Friend Sir William Cash, Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee, I pointed out that the Bill is also unenforceable. Just look at the wording of subsection (4), which is that

“the Prime Minister must seek an extension of the period specified Article 50(3) of the Treaty on European Union”.

What does “seek” mean in the circumstances? What happens if the Prime Minister makes a telephone call asking for an extension, says “Thank you very much” to what is offered, and puts the phone down again? How will that process be scrutinised and made accountable? How do we judge what is a serious seeking in good faith, and what is a mere technical seeking? That underlines the total futility of the House attempting to legislate in this way. Our system of government is not set up for Parliament to legislate for detailed instructions on how Ministers should carry out their duties. We tend to make laws on a much more general basis than that. That is why the system just does not work.