Outcome of the European Union Referendum - Motion to Take Note (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:29 pm on 6th July 2016.

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Photo of Lord Morris of Aberavon Lord Morris of Aberavon Labour 6:29 pm, 6th July 2016

My Lords, much was said in the referendum campaign about the sovereignty of Parliament. Yesterday the Lord Privy Seal said, if I may paraphrase her, that the House will play a part and that the legal position is being looked at—but only now. It was thin gruel and the statement reflected the lack of preparation for Brexit. I am astonished. I expect the Minister replying to deal specifically with the role of Parliament in invoking Article 50. There are many other aspects that Parliament will be involved in, such as repealing legislation, but it is invoking Article 50 that demands clarification. Do we need a decision of Parliament for this?

The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, in his invaluable article in the Times, for which I am grateful, came down firmly that an Act of Parliament would be required. I agree. The contrary argument is that it can be done by royal prerogative. The preponderance of at least academic legal opinion is that the royal prerogative is an inappropriate mechanism, as the subject matter of membership of the EU is already addressed by an Act of Parliament, the 1972 Act. We have a constitutional requirement that legislation can only be altered by another Act of Parliament. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Millett, who in substance dissents, concedes that it would be impossible to implement Article 50 without the consent of the House of Commons. This is good law and good politics as well.

Let me underline the political dimension, the realpolitik. The late noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew of Twysden, and I, as former Attorneys-General, were invited some years ago to give evidence to the legal and constitutional committee of this House about whether it was for Parliament to decide before we went to war, rather than the Government relying on the royal prerogative, as in the past. The view of both of us was that the royal prerogative—called “the people’s prerogative” by Churchill—was outdated for this purpose and that, today, the case for the House of Commons to decide, as the provider of supply, was overwhelming. The Select Committee of this House agreed. Since then, the convention has been established in the case of both Iraq and Syria. If Parliament—in this case, the House of Commons—has by convention to approve an issue of this magnitude, is not the decision to invoke Article 50 on the same scale, following what the Lord Privy Seal yesterday called “a momentous democratic exercise”? Therefore, both on legal grounds and grounds of political reality, parliamentary consent would be necessary.

There are two industries that I want to mention briefly. In the debate on the Queen’s Speech, I raised the problems faced by the steel industry. I compared the actions of the United States and Brussels in tackling the dumping of Chinese steel. I questioned whether the problem was the lack of vigour by the Government in their representations or the hidebound processes of the Brussels bureaucracy. Be that as it may, what is the position now after the regrettable result? There are real people, real pensioners in the Port Talbot area, my former constituency, who want to know whether Brexit makes the position better or worse.

The second industry I want to mention is agriculture, about which little has been said in this debate. My first job when I came out of the Army was as legal adviser to the Farmers Union of Wales. That was more than 50 years ago. Last December I spoke at a dinner in Carmarthen to celebrate its formation and longevity. All I could tell them was that, if they lost the Brussels subventions that they had become particularly dependent upon, then we should return to the principles of the agricultural system before we joined the EU: the Treasury would have to take over. I quoted the Agriculture Act 1947, piloted by that great Labour Minister of Agriculture, Tom Williams. Section 1 promised guaranteed prices and assured markets. Section 2 provided the machinery of an annual price review. The Act was rescinded as late as 1993. If the referendum were lost, my advice to the farmers was that they should lobby their political representatives to have their place in the queue for machinery to ensure proper returns for the industry.

I fear that there is, again, no plan B, but there is an urgency in providing assurance to a much wider circle than farmers: those who love and use the countryside will want to ensure that the countryside flourishes. I think that it was irresponsible of the Government not to have a contingency plan at all.