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Article 50 (Constitution Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:19 pm on 22nd November 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Suttie Baroness Suttie Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Northern Ireland) 4:19 pm, 22nd November 2016

My Lords, as the previous speakers have shown, there is a great deal of consensus in this House on the need for effective parliamentary scrutiny of the Brexit process. Both reports before us this afternoon are excellent, balanced and measured in their approach. In the EU Select Committee report, I highlight the conclusions contained in paragraph 35, which calls for both Houses to be given an opportunity to debate and approve the negotiating guidelines, and in paragraph 62, which calls on the Government to grant equivalent access to information to this Parliament as will be given to the European Parliament during the negotiations. Not to do so would, I believe, be politically unacceptable.

Sadly, we are living in an age when a balanced, rational and measured approach is viewed with deep suspicion by many of those who believe that we must quickly pursue a hard Brexit no matter what the cost to future generations, including a future generation who mostly did not vote to leave the European Union. As the noble Lord, Lord Lang of Monkton, said so powerfully, it is somewhat ironic that many of the same people who were calling for us to take back control during the referendum campaign and return decision-making to the British Parliament and the British courts are now strangely reluctant to allow the British Parliament to scrutinise the Brexit process effectively and have publicly criticised our valuable independent judiciary.

I will briefly tackle three subjects in my remarks this afternoon: the benefits of parliamentary scrutiny, the role of the devolved Administrations in parliamentary scrutiny, and the impact of our current UK debate on the Brussels side of the negotiations.

The Government regularly state that they will listen closely to the views of Parliament but that they will not give “a running commentary” on the state of the negotiations. However, does the Minister acknowledge that in the negotiations on the Maastricht treaty in 1991 under a Conservative Government, a Motion was brought before the House on the negotiating strategy? Moreover, in 1996, on the Amsterdam treaty, the then Conservative Government published a White Paper clearly setting out their negotiating strategy in considerable detail, which was then followed up in a debate in Parliament.

Brexit is an unprecedented challenge to this country and the impact of the decisions that we take in the next few months will be felt for generations to come. As the report from the Constitution Committee states, it is unfortunate that:

“The triggering of Article 50 has become, in many people’s eyes, a symbol of Government and Parliament’s decision to accept the referendum result”.

Parliamentary debate and scrutiny offers the Government a chance to reframe their position in a much more positive direction. Surely, shining a light into what our future will look like strengthens rather than weakens the decision-making process.

I went to Brussels a couple of weeks ago to gauge the mood post-referendum. Having worked for 10 years in the European Parliament in Brussels, I know that it is a transactional place where deals are done based on a complex mixture of relationships, enlightened self-interest and a genuine belief in the importance of maintaining the rules of the club. In the conversations I had with senior former colleagues they acknowledged that they need British trade but they believe that they can find that trade elsewhere, if necessary, if we insist on going outside the rules. It is also clear that the strident messages coming from this side of the channel are really testing their patience. In such a climate, there is very little appetite to accommodate demands for an à la carte solution.

As a Scot now living in Broadstairs on the Isle of Thanet—where Mr Farage stood at the last election—I believe that I have been exposed to the post-referendum emotions following the very different results in the different parts of the UK. Both now feel equally strongly that their point of view should be respected: Scotland voted 62% to remain and Thanet voted 64% to leave. I am sure that I do not need to stress the strength of feeling in Scotland and in the Scottish Parliament on this matter, but as someone who was firmly against Scottish independence I believe the road ahead needs to be treated with the utmost care.

Northern Ireland also voted to remain and the complexities of maintaining the Good Friday agreement once the UK is no longer in the EU are not to be underestimated. The involvement of the devolved Administrations in the Supreme Court decision early next month makes an already complex situation very much more so, as other noble Lords have said. Can the Minister spell out in more detail how the devolved Administrations will be consulted and involved in drawing up the negotiating framework and what he understands to be the constitutional arrangements should any devolved Parliament or Assembly vote against triggering Article 50?

In conclusion, I believe it is in the country’s as well as the Government’s own best interest to allow Parliament to have its say both on triggering Article 50 and on the negotiating mandate which will have such a profound impact on the future of this country.