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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 hear the point that the noble Lord makes with his considerable experience. All I would say is that the Government’s position is clear and, as I said, the Prime Minister wishes to have an early agreement on this issue. I cannot go further than that right now.

I would like to go on to refer to a couple of points that the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, and the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, made about the involvement of the devolved Administrations in the process of establishing our negotiating position. As has been said before, we will give every opportunity for the devolved Administrations to have their say as we form our strategy and we will look at suggestions that they put forward. As regards mechanism, the joint ministerial committee has been set up to enable discussions with devolved Administrations and government and has started to meet.

I turn to parliamentary scrutiny once Article 50 has been triggered. There are three strands of activity that I am sure Parliament will wish to scrutinise: the process of the negotiations themselves, the outcome of those negotiations and the passage of the great repeal Bill.

I start with the scrutiny of the negotiations. I welcome the fact that your Lordships, especially the Select Committees, are thinking hard about how your Lordships can co-ordinate scrutiny of my department’s work and the negotiations overall. Clearly, the Commons Select Committee for Exiting the EU as well as your Lordships’ EU Committee and its sub-committees will play crucial roles. But as the EU Select Committee report highlights, the issue of what information should be made available, and when, is a matter that we clearly need to agree upon. We have committed as a Government—and I commit again here—that Parliament will have access to at least as much information as members of the European Parliament. That is a point that my noble friend Lord Higgins referred to, as did the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, and the noble Lord, Lord Beith.

The EU Select Committee’s report goes into helpful detail in exploring what information the European Parliament will receive. I am very grateful for that. I assure your Lordships that my ministerial colleagues and I are considering the mechanisms for transmitting this information in such a way as to ensure that there can be timely debate and scrutiny on the negotiations, while at the same time ensuring that complete confidentiality can be maintained. For example, we are closely watching the recently opened TTIP reading rooms to see what the advantages and disadvantages of this approach are. Of course, we do not yet know the extent to which the previous and most relevant precedents will be followed by the institutions of the EU, not least because there is no direct precedent for an exit negotiation of the kind that we are about to enter into, so we do not yet know precisely what level of information the European Parliament will receive. However, your Lordships should be in no doubt that we will honour the commitment that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State gave to the committee.

The noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, referred to the role of Select Committees in this House and the co-operation between them. I am aware that the Senior Deputy Speaker—the noble Lord, Lord McFall—and the Liaison Committee, which he chairs, have been on the front foot in seeking to ensure that the work of your Lordships’ committees benefits from closer than normal communication and co-operation between committees. He has established an informal forum in which the chairmen of the relevant investigative and legislative Select Committees will share notes to try to avoid unnecessary duplication of effort. The Government stand ready to lend their assistance to this forum, as well as to continue to talk directly to the committees themselves, when called upon to do so. I will certainly reflect on the noble Earl’s points about the media and communications.

As regards the end of the negotiations, as I have said before, the Government will observe in full all relevant legal and constitutional obligations that apply. The precise timing, terms and means by which we leave the EU will be determined by the negotiations that follow the triggering of Article 50. The Government, though, are very clear about the obligations of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. That Act is clear that both Houses of Parliament have a role in approving treaties as set out in the Act, which is a point my noble friend Lord Inglewood raised.

The noble Lord, Lord Beith, referred to the great repeal Bill. This will be a significant piece of legislation. As with any legislation, parliamentary scrutiny is invaluable, and it will certainly be invaluable on this. We are indeed considering the very best approach to ensure that Parliament, including the various committees, has the appropriate opportunities to scrutinise the Bill. We will set out the content of the Bill in due course and the best approach to involving Parliament in a meaningful way in what will be a very important piece of legislation.

There are a number of other excellent points in these reports which bear close consideration. My noble friend Lord Balfe and others talked about the role of this Parliament and others in creating close links with the European Parliament. I should mention that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State was in Brussels today talking to MEPs. I entirely endorse the points that were made in the committee’s report about the role that Parliament can play in this process.

The electorate’s decision to leave the European Union was indeed a pivotal moment in our nation’s history. As the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, said last week, the role of Parliament is clearly not to block Britain’s departure but to scrutinise the steps that the Government now take in delivering upon it. The issue at hand is the balance we strike between, on the one hand, transparency and accountability, and, on the other, protecting the national interest and not binding the Government’s hands. Getting this balance right is something that the Government are completely focused on. From this debate, I know that your Lordships are very mindful of that. Each of us knows the responsibilities that we have in this House to kick the tyres of government policy, which may be uncomfortable for those of us standing at this Dispatch Box. But each of us also knows that, as Members of an unelected Chamber, there are limits to what we might do. In the weeks and months ahead, I am sure that your Lordships will reflect carefully on getting this balance right, as the Government most certainly will do.

I remain committed to working with your Lordships and involving this House as much as we can in the months ahead. I once again thank all those who have spoken tonight, and I thank above all those who have contributed to the work of the committees for their contributions to the debate. I am sure that there will be more to come.