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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:04 pm on 22nd November 2016.

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Photo of Lord Bridges of Headley Lord Bridges of Headley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union 7:04 pm, 22nd November 2016

I think I did answer that point. I am sorry to say that some comments in the media can at times be sensationalist, but at the same time, we obviously want to respect the freedom of the press. Above all, in this case, I concur with the thrust of the noble Lord’s point: we absolutely must respect the rulings of the Supreme Court in this case and the independence of the judiciary. Respecting the rule of law and abiding by due process also means respecting our obligations and responsibilities as a member of the EU up until the day we leave, and respecting parliamentary precedent and procedure as regards the legislation that we shall need to pass as we leave the European Union.

With those principles in mind, I shall approach the issues we are debating under two broad headings: first, the process we are following, up to and including the triggering of Article 50; and secondly, the process that will follow. Let me first, very briefly, chart the democratic process that has been followed so far to leave the European Union, which my noble friend Lord Hunt referred to, in an attempt to bring out the interaction between representative and parliamentary democracy on the one hand, and direct democracy on the other.

In 2013, as your Lordships will remember, the then Prime Minister announced that if a Conservative majority Government were to be elected, they would deliver an in/out referendum—a policy which was in the Conservative Party manifesto. The people voted for that Government, and MPs then voted—by a majority of six to one—to hold a referendum. In the referendum campaign, the Government made it clear that they would respect and implement what the people decide. The referendum itself delivered a bigger popular vote for Brexit than that won by any UK Government in history. The people have therefore voted twice: once for a Government to give them a referendum and then in the referendum itself. Parliament voted to give them that referendum without any conditions attached as to the result.

I heard what my noble friend Lord Higgins and the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, said about their being non-believers in referendums in our parliamentary democracy, but that argument was meant for when Parliament and this House were debating the referendum itself. I hear what has been said but think that it is now an argument for another day.

Regarding the role of referendums in our parliamentary democracy, I think that my noble friend Lord Lang quoted that noted jurist and constitutionalist, AV Dicey. I too would like to quote AV Dicey. Back in 1911, he wrote that the referendum is the only institution that could,

“give formal acknowledgement of the doctrine which lies at the basis of English democracy—that a law depends at bottom for its enactment on the consent of the nation as represented by its electors”.

The referendum, he wrote,

“is an emphatic assertion of the principle that nation stands above parties”.

I turn now to the actual process of triggering Article 50. It is the rule of law—the principle that I referred to earlier—that has guided the Government’s approach. I am certainly in agreement with paragraph 9 of the Constitution Committee’s report: Article 50 is the only lawful route through which the United Kingdom can leave the EU under the treaties. As a matter of policy, the Government’s view is that, once given, our notification will not be withdrawn. We are committed to leaving in accordance with any legal and constitutional requirements that may apply. The Government have outlined their case and what we believe is the right and proper process to leave the EU under domestic law following established precedent with regard to international affairs.

As your Lordships will know, we have argued that triggering Article 50 is a prerogative power and one that can be exercised by the Government. It is constitutionally proper to give effect to the referendum in this way. As such, we disagree with the judgment of the High Court in England and Wales and are appealing that decision. The Government therefore await the final decision by the Supreme Court and, as I have said, we will abide by its decision. Let me repeat once again: the Government fully respect the independent role of the judiciary in deciding those cases.

I hope your Lordships will understand if I refrain from entering any further into the specifics of the ongoing legal challenge. There will be a hearing in the Supreme Court beginning on 5 December. It is expected to last four days, and a judgment will be reached in due course after that. But whatever happens in the Supreme Court, there will be further parliamentary scrutiny before Article 50 is triggered. We have been making time available for a series of Brexit-themed debates in the other place and in this place which will allow Parliament to make its views clear on a variety of topics. We welcome this House’s likewise debating this but I also note—how could I not?—the recommendations in the report and the numerous contributions made from all sides of the House today regarding the Government’s approach to the negotiations and the scrutiny of our position before those negotiations —or stage 1, as the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, called it—and furthermore, as he rightly said, the application of the lessons learned from the debates held in this place and the other place and the extensive consultation that the Government are having with business. There were a number of powerful contributions on that point, especially from the noble Lords, Lord Kerr, Lord Teverson, Lord Maclennan and Lord Hannay, and the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, to name just a few. Naturally, when we trigger Article 50, we want people to be aware of our overall approach, not least to give as much certainty and clarity as we can, and to build a national consensus.

I am sorry to disappoint the noble Lord, Lord Kerr —one of his balls is disappearing into a hedge. I am sorry that all I can say at this stage is that we have noted the calls for this and we will consider the best approach, taking into account what has been said in today’s debate and in the Select Committee’s report. The issues around Brexit, as I have said at this Dispatch Box before, are indeed highly complex, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, said. They deserve very careful consideration, including as the Government continue to consider the customs union.

One of the issues raised in a number of noble Lords’ speeches is, for example, a transitional arrangement. I and my ministerial colleagues are fully aware of this issue in discussions that we have had with representatives of the financial services sector and of other industries right across the board. We have said that we wish the process of Brexit to be as orderly and as smooth as possible—a point which my right honourable friend the Prime Minister repeated at the CBI yesterday. We very much hope that our European partners will also see such an approach as in their interest too, as trade is obviously two-way. I assure your Lordships that we are looking at this issue among all the others that have been raised.

I would also like to address the point that a number of your Lordships made, including my noble friend Lord MacGregor—the position of EU nationals in the UK and UK nationals there. I would draw his and your Lordships’ attention to what the Prime Minister said at the CBI yesterday—that she wants an early agreement in the status of UK nationals in Europe and EU nationals here.

As regards the process of drawing up our negotiating position—