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Speaker’s Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 21st October 2019.

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Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion Committee 3:31 pm, 21st October 2019

On Saturday last, as reported at column 658 of Hansard, the Leader of the House rose on a point of order to announce the Government’s intention to bring forward a motion today under Section 13(1)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. Unfortunately, the point of order did not prove to be a prelude to an emergency business statement on which colleagues could question, probe and scrutinise the Leader of the House.

Rather, for approximately an hour, 30 points of order were raised with me by no fewer than 24 colleagues expressing disquiet and consternation that the Government intended to require the House to consider again on Monday the same matter which it had decided 48 hours earlier, on the immediately preceding sitting day. It was my privilege to listen and respond to the views of colleagues. I then undertook to reflect further on what Members had said and to give a ruling this afternoon, which I shall now do.

There are two issues, one of substance and the other of circumstances, to consider, and I shall address each in turn.

First, I have to judge whether the motion tabled under section 13(1)(b) of the 2018 Act for debate today is the same in substance as that which was decided on Saturday. Page 397 of “Erskine May” is clear that such a motion

“may not be brought forward again during that same session.”

It is equally clear that adjudication of cases is a matter for the Chair.

I invoked “Erskine May” and ruled on this issue as recently as 18 March 2019. Saturday’s motion sought approval for the withdrawal agreement, the political declaration on the future relationship between the EU and the UK and the declaration concerning the operation of the democratic consent in Northern Ireland provision. Today’s motion seeks approval for the withdrawal agreement, the political declaration on the future relationship between the EU and the UK and the declaration concerning the operation of the democratic consent in Northern Ireland provision. It is clear that the motions are in substance the same. However, this matter was decided fewer than 49 hours ago. After more than three hours of debate, the House voted, by 322 to 306, for Sir Oliver Letwin’s amendment, which stated that

“this House has considered the matter but withholds approval unless and until implementing legislation is passed.”

The second matter for me to consider was whether there had been any change of circumstances that would justify asking the House to reconsider on Monday what it had decided on Saturday. On the face of it, unless an event or development external to the House had interceded, it is hard to see a significant change of circumstances that would warrant a reconsideration on the next sitting day—in this case, a reconsideration pre-announced by the Leader of the House just under 21 minutes after the result of the Division was announced. However, the Government might argue—though, to date, they have not put forward any argument or explanation at all—that the change of circumstances is the Prime Minister’s application on Saturday night for an extension of article 50. This is not persuasive. The application is part of a process, rather than a significant event in itself.

In summary, today’s motion is—[Interruption.] I am extraordinarily grateful to James Cartlidge. If he would bear stoically and with fortitude, I shall complete my statement. In summary, today’s motion is in substance the same as Saturday’s motion, and the House has decided the matter. Today’s circumstances are in substance the same as Saturday’s circumstances. My ruling is therefore that the motion will not be debated today, as it would be repetitive and disorderly to do so. For the benefit of colleagues not closely familiar with the so-called “same Question” convention, which is very strong and dates back to 1604, I will summarise the rationale for it in a sentence: it is a necessary rule to ensure the sensible use of the House’s time and proper respect for the decisions that it takes.

If it is not legitimate for the motion to be taken today, what is it legitimate for the Government to do? The answer is that, as the Prime Minister signalled in his point of order on Saturday, as reported at column 653 of Hansard, and in his letter to Members that evening, the Government can introduce their EU withdrawal and implementation Bill. Indeed, they have done just that, presenting the Bill for its First Reading today. I have no doubt that the Leader of the House will offer further details of the intended timetable for the Bill when he makes a business statement later today. Meanwhile, I hope that this ruling and explanation are helpful to the House.