Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:50 pm on 22nd November 2016.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Bowness Lord Bowness Conservative 5:50 pm, 22nd November 2016

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, who has painted the picture as it is far more graphically than I will be able to do. I thank my noble friend Lord Lang of Monkton and the noble Lord, Lord Boswell of Aynho, for their introduction of, and explanation of, their respective committees’ reports.

I do not believe that, given the magnitude of the matters that are to be decided in this Brexit issue, it could be right that Parliament should have no involvement until the end of the negotiating process or that its role should be reduced to merely debating the situation and asking questions in a vacuum. I say to my noble friend on the Front Bench that, if Ministers maintain their current position that the Government’s negotiating position cannot be disclosed, and no answers are given to questions other than that, “we will seek the best deal for the United Kingdom,” all the debates and questions will become a meaningless exercise and uncertainty will continue. Asking questions is all very fine but, if there are no answers on the most straightforward of points, it becomes fruitless. I ask the Minister to accept that there are certain matters upon which it could not do any harm at all to give a straightforward and positive answer. It need not become a red line in negotiations, but at least we could be assured that the Government would be trying to achieve helpful outcomes in a variety of different areas that are of concern to people.

The European Union Committee’s proposals for the revised remit to meet the current situation must make sense, given the respected role that the committee has played and the authority that it enjoys in other parliaments. In its conclusions and recommendations, the report speaks of a middle ground, where Parliament will respect the Government’s need for room to manoeuvre and at the same time be able to monitor the conduct of negotiations and comment on the negotiating objectives as they develop. Whether one was in favour of remaining or leaving, and whether or not one is a Member of this Parliament, this is a reasonable position to adopt, whatever one’s opinion.

Like other noble Lords, I will not express a view on the implication of Article 50 and how that should be invoked, but I must endorse and adopt the words of my noble friend Lord Lang and other Members regarding the attacks on the High Court judges. I hope that we shall see no more comments of that kind about the judiciary, and that the Government and all Ministers will be robust, and stand in favour of the rule of law whatever is the outcome of their appeal. If the Government were to lose the appeal to the Supreme Court, it had been my personal hope that it would become clear that the matter could be dealt with by way of a resolution rather than by legislation. But I listened to my noble friend Lord Lang of Monkton on the relative benefits of legislation and a resolution, and I am slightly less convinced about my original view than I was.

I hope that the recommendations and conclusions of these two reports will find favour across the House, among those who were originally remainers and those who were originally leavers. There seems to be a view among some leavers that anyone who thinks that any aspect of our leaving should be open to question in Parliament is somehow seeking to subvert the outcome of the referendum.

I thought, and I still think, that the referendum and the campaigns will rank among the greatest political mistakes and disasters of our time. But I accept the result, as do most of the defeated remainers, in a way in which I rather doubt, if the result had gone the other way, the leavers would have done. However, we should not be, and will not be, diverted from trying to seek to influence the kind of Brexit that we have. After all, the leavers did not know—or they did not tell us during the referendum—what they had in mind in any detail, so no particular Brexit deal was endorsed by the vote. None of the questions posed by the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, in his introduction were answered—certainly during that campaign. People voted to leave for a variety of different reasons—as, no doubt, did those who wanted to stay.

I believe the Government when they say that they want the best deal for Britain. I believe that the best deal for Britain is to remain as close to our partners, friends and allies in Europe as possible. It will involve not merely looking after our economic and security interests but having regard to the interests of the European Union which—and I know that this is not a view shared by all—has been a huge force for good on our continent. Perhaps if successive Governments, particularly the last one, had made this clear over the years, we would not be where we are today.

I have the privilege of leading the UK delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and I know from colleagues in countries within the European Union, and from others in countries that are not members of the EU, how much store they set by membership and how much they regret our pending departure. I refer particularly to those in the western Balkans who have seen us as their champions along the road to membership. They wonder what sort of European Union there will be without us and how far away membership has become. This is an area of past instability; an area in which Putin’s Russia is interested. Nothing in our arrangements for our departure or future relationship with the European Union, and its aspiring members, should be allowed to put their European future at stake. The support that we give to these countries in their journey towards the European Union should continue, even if we have decided to head for a different—if today unknown—destination.

As we launch ourselves on to the world stage, these near neighbours should not be forgotten. Our future relations with the European Union are vital and the negotiations will be difficult. Our rhetoric and, in some cases, our misplaced sense of humour, need to be controlled. A column in the Times yesterday stated that,

“Brexiteers’ bar room bravado will backfire”.

I endorse that. The other member states believe in Europe and regret our leaving and the effect it might have on the Union. This must be recognised, especially by members of the Government who go to visit and represent the United Kingdom.

We have said that until we leave we will remain full and participating members of the European Union, so I ask my noble friend—if it is not too difficult a question to answer—how did the Foreign Secretary’s decision to boycott the special meeting following the US election fit with that? Was it worth the potential ill-will that it might have created? In our hurry to accommodate, flatter and—apparently—lay out a red carpet for President-elect Trump, I hope that we will appreciate the need to recognise the sensitivities of our current partners, many of whom feel bruised by our decision to leave. We need their good will and we should not believe all our Brexit propaganda that they need us more than we need them. We need each other.

These two reports are a balanced set of recommendations that respect the referendum result, the role of government and the need for there to be a proper role for Parliament, too. I hope that the Minister will acknowledge this without reservation or equivocation.