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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:39 pm on 22nd November 2016.

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Photo of Lord Davies of Stamford Lord Davies of Stamford Labour 6:39 pm, 22nd November 2016

My Lords, this has been quite an unusual debate; almost every contribution has been very effective and penetrating, and two or three have been quite memorable. I am grateful to be able to speak in the gap. I do not need more than a few minutes. I just want to ask the Government three simple questions that I think are in the mind of every member of the public who takes an interest in this matter.

The first has already been asked by two of the Minister’s noble friends, the noble Lords, Lord Higgins and Lord Balfe, so I hope if I ask it again towards the end of the proceedings there is a chance it might get an answer: why have the Government been so desperately anxious to cut Parliament out of the loop over Article 50? No one has given an explanation of that, but the proceeding is quite extraordinary and the public are entitled to know why. I hope we will not be told that it is in order to save time, because it really would be the most terrible insult to Parliament to be told that to consult it was a waste of time. Anyway, it would be an untrue explanation because, by appealing the decision of the High Court, the Government have lost more time—at least six or seven weeks—precisely in order to be able to prevent Parliament from getting in on the action. In other words, it is quite clear that time is not the consideration in the Government’s mind. So there is a mystery here, and the mystification of the public on this point ought to be brought to an end. We ought to hear from the Minister tonight exactly what the real motives of the Government have been in this extraordinary matter.

Secondly, why have the Government not clearly and unambiguously disassociated themselves from the shameful attacks on the judges that were made after the High Court’s judgment—attacks that included the phrase “Enemies of the people”, a phrase popular with the most murderous and terrible fascist and communist regimes of the 20th century? That was a quite extraordinary piece of hysterical demagogy, and it is amazing that someone should resort to such terms in any civilised democracy. Yet the best that the Government could do was come out with a statement— drafted, presumably, by some spin doctor at No. 10, because identical statements were produced by the Lord Chancellor and the Prime Minister—that started with just one sentence, a perfunctory acknowledgement of the principle of the independence of the judiciary. That was coupled with another single sentence talking about the freedom of the press—quite gratuitously, because the freedom of the press had never been attacked or raised in that whole context. The effect of the combination of those two sentences, drafted and conveyed in that way, was actually to put forward the idea that maybe the Government had some secret sympathy with what the press had been saying about the judges, which of course would be utterly deplorable. The Minister has an opportunity tonight to put that terrible impression to rest and to disassociate himself unambiguously and clearly from those mischievous, appalling and unforgivable words.

My third question is a fundamental one, to which the public have a right to a clear answer from the Government: what is the Government’s concept of parliamentary sovereignty? If I ask the Government whether they believe in parliamentary sovereignty, I know they will say yes, but what do they mean by it? Specifically, do they accept the definition in the High Court’s judgment, which I think is the most lucid and authoritative definition that I have ever seen? It is not original because, of course, the concept is not original—it has been going on for a long time; I remember reading the words of Sir Edward Coke on the subject as a schoolboy and trying to memorise them for examination purposes—but it is very clearly set out in the judgment, which is likely to become a locus classicus on the subject in future. Do the Government accept that? Do they accept what followed from that, as explicitly stated by the judges, that therefore the referendum, since Parliament did not explicitly decide otherwise, was in fact advisory? I ask the question particularly because, on two or three occasions, I have heard government Ministers from the Front Bench refer to an “instruction” given to Parliament by the electorate. The Minister will accept that instruction is quite incompatible with sovereignty. By definition, you cannot be sovereign and subject to instructions from outside. That is a matter of the logical use of language. Can we hear tonight from the Government what their concept of parliamentary sovereignty is and whether they accept the definition in the High Court’s judgment?