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European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill - Second Reading (1st Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:37 pm on 20th February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Mackay of Clashfern Lord Mackay of Clashfern Conservative 7:37 pm, 20th February 2017

My Lords, being number 40 on the list reminds me that I was some 45 years outside the European Union, and I remember well some of the service that was done, as has been mentioned, in bringing us into the European Union and the difficulties involved.

I voted for remain and was fairly enthusiastic about the referendum on the basis that the people were entitled to say whether or not they wished to be in the European Union. We know the answer and, so far as I am concerned, the Government and Parliament are bound to give effect to that answer. Perhaps the most obvious and dramatic indication of that was Mr Cameron’s resignation the morning after, when he said that having led the argument to stay, he could not lead the country out of the European Union.

So here we are, and now the question has arisen of whether the Government can initiate negotiations under the royal prerogative. The royal prerogative is well recognised as completely free in the negotiation of treaties and diplomacy generally. It is generally accepted that that is the right way to do it—Ministers should be responsible for that. There is a quotation from the 18th century that was quoted in the judgment in the Miller case. Blackstone, the great exponent of English law, explained the practical reasons for the prerogative managing international relations. He said:

“This is wisely placed in a single hand by the British constitution, for the sake of unanimity, strength and despatch. Were it placed in many hands, it would be subject to many wills: many wills, if disunited and drawing different ways, create weakness in a government; and to unite those several wills, and to reduce them to one, is a work of more time and delay than the exigencies of state will afford”.

The only reason that the prerogative was not operated to start the negotiations in connection with the European Union was because of the effect of the European Act in 1972. The fundamental rule is that the prerogative cannot affect individual parliamentary rights and therefore, to the extent necessary to open the negotiations, that authority needed to be given by an Act of Parliament. That is what the Supreme Court decided. It did not decide, and gave no countenance to the idea, that thereafter Parliament should control the negotiations. It is certainly true that ultimately the negotiations, whatever they are, will require examination. There is a distinct possibility that the implementation of what has been negotiated will, in the end, require an Act of Parliament. If that is the case, of course, Parliament will be fully involved. In the meantime, it seems much better that Ministers should have the responsibility to negotiate, because negotiation is primarily the issue here, until a final issue is reached. As I said, the judgment of the Supreme Court supports that very strongly.

Issues have been mentioned in the debate that will certainly occupy Ministers. I should like to believe that Ministers will be looking for the best possible agreement they can achieve in the interests of all the people, young and old, living in the United Kingdom—England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. I do not want to forget Gibraltar either, where the problems must be quite severe but different, in a way, from Northern Ireland. Those of us who have visited Gibraltar realise how tenuous the system there is and how this may affect it. Ministers have a responsibility to deal with all that and it is best for us to leave it to them to do so without trying to interfere, or put our finger in the pie, until they have finished the negotiations.

Therefore, I am all in favour of Second Reading and of the Bill being confirmed as it is. I hope that will be the outcome from this House, not because I am an unelected person—indeed, I am not the only unelected person in the British constitution. No member of the Government is elected to his or her position. Most of them are, of course, elected to the House of Commons but not to their position in government. I want to vote for the Bill not because I am unelected but because the decision is right.