Progress reports

Part of Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill – in the House of Commons at 12:22 pm on 18th July 2019.

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Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Chair, Committee on Exiting the European Union 12:22 pm, 18th July 2019

I support Lords amendment 1, which very sensibly provides for when the reports required under the Bill should be made to the House and provides an opportunity for the House to debate them. In other words, it provides a context in which we can discuss what is contained in those reports by requiring them to be made and requiring a motion to be presented to the House.

Given that other matters, which we debated at some length last week, have been added to the Bill since it was originally published—and have widened the scope of the Bill considerably beyond the original purpose solely relating to elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly—it seems to me even more important that we have the provisions in Lords amendment 1 in the Bill. But there is a problem that my amendment seeks to fix if the House is not sitting—for example, because it has been prorogued —on the dates by which the reports have to be made, and the crucial dates are 4 September and 9 October. My amendment simply seeks to make provision for the House to be recalled in those circumstances to allow the opportunity for us to consider the reports and debate the motions that arise from the Bill if Lords amendment 1 is accepted by the House.

I should say at this stage that probably not every Member of the House is entirely familiar with the provisions of the Meeting of Parliament Act 1797, but the most important thing to recall is that section 1 is still on the statute book. It has been used, most recently in section 68(10) of the Reserve Forces Act 1996 and in section 28(1) of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004—indeed, the Civil Contingencies Act makes specific reference to the Meeting of Parliament Act 1797.

In other words, this amendment does not—I emphasise this—seek to establish a new constitutional principle. It simply seeks to use previous practice to make sure that Parliament is sitting when it needs to be sitting to debate these matters. As I hope the amendment makes clear, it would do so by requiring that Parliament be recalled on a specified day within the period in which compliance with subsection (2B) of Lords amendment 1 is required. In other words, the Minister would have to lay the report and the motion in neutral terms would have to be moved within the period of five calendar days, beginning with the end of the day on which the report was made. If my amendment is carried, we would be sitting in order to ensure that we had the chance both to consider the report and, crucially, to debate the motion that has been presented. That is the single purpose of my amendment. It would be rather odd, would it not, for the House to legislate to provide for these reports and motions on specified dates, only to find itself not being here to consider the reports and to debate the motions because of some other action, namely the fact that we might not be sitting.

My final point is this: everyone in the House is well aware that Brexit has significant implications for the country as a whole, but it will have particular implications for Northern Ireland, which the Exiting the European Union Committee has reported on and many Members on both sides of the House have spoken of. I suppose that this amendment has a secondary effect: to ensure that the House would be sitting at a crucial time for our country, as I believe the country would expect us to be. I do not think that we could accept circumstances, if I may coin the phrase, in which we were sent missing in action, and I hope that the House will support the amendment.