European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill - Commons Reasons

– in the House of Lords at 8:15 pm on 13th March 2017.

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Motion A

Moved by Lord Bridges of Headley

That this House do not insist on its Amendment 1, to which the Commons have disagreed for their Reason 1A.

Commons Reason

1A: Because it is not a matter that needs to be dealt with in the Bill.

Photo of Lord Bridges of Headley Lord Bridges of Headley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union

My Lords, now we are past the 70th hour of parliamentary debate on this 170 words, I begin by saying this. The United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union is obviously one of the most momentous steps that our nation will take in our lifetimes. I believe that significant opportunities lie before us but, as someone who voted to remain, I am not deaf to people’s concerns and I do not dismiss them as somehow portraying a lack of patriotism. However, that decision to leave the European Union has been made, and this very simple Bill delivers on that decision.

The debate has been one of conviction and passion, and displayed some of the very best qualities of your Lordships’ House but, despite my best efforts to convince your Lordships otherwise, this little Bill was amended twice. We all agree that this House is perfectly entitled to ask the other place to think again. The other place has now done that and debated this again. Once again, it has decided to pass the Bill without amendment.

The issue at stake in the amendment is very simple. We all agree that we want to give certainty to those EU nationals who made the United Kingdom their home and to those UK nationals who live in the EU. The disagreement is over how we do that. The Government’s position has been clear from June. We have always said that we want to secure the status of EU citizens here in the UK, as long as we get a similar guarantee for UK citizens in the EU. We believe that this approach is fair, and reflects the duty of care that we have as a Government to the 900,000 UK citizens in the EU.

We need an agreement on this issue quickly, and we have tried to get one. However, a number of EU member states are not willing to discuss it until we have begun formal negotiations. That is why my right honourable friend the Secretary of State confirmed over the weekend that we intend this issue to be one of the first that is dealt with. That is why we want to pass this Bill as soon as possible, so we can start negotiating and set about reaching that agreement.

Given that the other place has done as we asked and thought again, and decided to reject the amendment by a majority of 48, I argue with respect that this evening is not the time nor the place to return to the fray and insert terms and conditions to our negotiating position, still less to force the Government to make a unilateral move on the status of EU nationals in the UK.

The Bill has only one purpose: to implement the outcome of the referendum result in June and respect the judgment of the Supreme Court, nothing more, nothing less. I urge the House to pass the Bill unamended, and I beg to move.

Motion A1 (as an amendment to Motion A)

Moved by

Leave out from “House” to end and insert “do insist on its Amendment 1”.

Photo of Lord Oates Lord Oates Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I move this Motion for the following reasons. First, despite the large majority that voted for the amendment to the Bill in this House, the Government have failed to make any concessions and not even attempted to address the many issues raised by noble Lords in Committee. Secondly, the profound nature of the issue at stake should make us think very carefully before we concede. This debate is not over some arcane technicality or some petty, partisan disagreement; it is about people’s lives. It is about whether people will be allowed to live in the country that they have made their home with the people for whom they care, whether they can stay in a job or plan a career, and whether their children can remain in the school they know and study with the friends they have made. It is about their futures, their homes and their families, and it is about the fear and misery being caused by every further day of uncertainty.

Thirdly, we should weigh our decision very carefully, because this debate is also about the integrity of our country. It is about whether we will honour the unequivocal commitment made by the official Vote Leave campaign that, if the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, the rights of all EU citizens in the UK would be guaranteed. Unlike most other issues arising from the referendum, there is absolutely no dispute about what was promised to EU citizens. The Vote Leave campaign, which was supported by a number of noble Lords, made the following categorical statement:

“There will be no change for EU citizens already lawfully resident in the UK. These EU citizens will automatically be granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK and will be treated no less favourably than they are at present”.

There were no caveats; there was no issue of reciprocity or talk of negotiations—just a categorical commitment unilaterally given.

Finally, this debate is about the role of this House. Precedent indicates that, when the rights of individuals have been threatened, this House has always been robust in its defence of them. I hope that we will live up to that precedent today. The facts are clear: a firm and explicit commitment was made by the Vote Leave campaign that the rights of EU citizens in the UK would be protected. Parliamentary committees of both Houses agree that a unilateral guarantee should be provided now, and all the bodies representing British citizens in the EU who have contacted me and many other Members of this House have supported that position.

It is clear that, if we do not insist on our amendment, there is a real possibility that EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU may not have clarity as to their status for another two years. The House of Commons Exiting the EU Committee rightly described such a situation as unconscionable. I understand the nervousness of some noble Lords about challenging the elected House on this matter, but to those who argue that it is not the right time for us to insist on our amendment, that this Bill is the wrong place for us to insist or that precedent tells us that we should not insist, I respectfully argue the contrary. Your Lordships’ EU Justice Sub-Committee and the House of Commons Exiting the EU Committee unanimously agreed that the UK should act unilaterally and that the time to act was now. This Bill is the only place to act if we are to end the debilitating uncertainty that is causing so much distress.

The Minister says that we have the right to amend the Bill; we also have a right to insist on our amendments, and precedent tells us that we should—that when issues of important principle or individual rights are at stake, your Lordships’ House can and does insist on its position and, if necessary, repeatedly pushes the issue back to the Commons. It did so on the 2014 Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, and on the 2012 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. It did so no fewer than three times over the 2007 Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill, no fewer than four times over the 2006 Identity Cards Bill and no fewer than five time over the 2005 Prevention of Terrorism Bill. It has regularly insisted on amendments to Bills when far less was at stake than today: on the powers of the Learning and Skills Council; or the means by which the chairman of the Legal Services Board is appointed; or even on the fitting of retro-reflective tape—whatever that is—on heavy goods vehicles.

How then, when the rights of millions of people are on the line, could this House give up at the first attempt? How, when clear and unequivocal commitments were made to EU citizens in our country, could this House fail to insist that they are upheld? How, when the integrity of our country is at stake, could this House fail to insist that it is upheld? Many people will be watching us tonight: we cannot please them all, but we can show them that no matter what the pressures from the media or the threats from the Government may be, we are prepared to do what we know to be the right thing. I have no doubt that the right thing is to insist on this amendment to protect the rights of EU citizens in the UK and, in doing so, to uphold the honour and integrity of this country. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Davies of Stamford Lord Davies of Stamford Labour

My Lords, it is not in any way my intention to repeat the arguments I have used about Brexit in the various debates in this House over the last few weeks. But there is a question I must ask the Minister, the answer to which is very important to all of us. It goes to the heart of the earnest intention of the Government to be quite transparent with the House and the public as the Brexit negotiations, which will presumably start in a few days, continue—as they will for a long time.

I have not been very successful in getting answers to questions I have asked the Minister in previous debates. I console myself by thinking that that may be because I have touched on some rather delicate points that are potentially embarrassing for the Government. But it is not a great consolation: I would rather have full and frank answers and I hope that I will have one tonight—not at all in my interest but in the interest of the issues that I have just raised.

The Minister has just told the House, and the Prime Minister and Minister for Brexit have both said on many occasions, that it was their original hope and intention to negotiate a deal on the future residency rights of EU citizens here and of British citizens in the remaining part of the EU in advance even of giving notice under Article 50. That unfortunately proved impossible because some of the continentals were not willing to do it. The Government would now like to negotiate on that matter and resolve it in advance of negotiations on difficult economic and other subjects, so that those negotiations can start very quickly.

My question is: how can that possibly be? A negotiation on the future residency rights of British citizens in the EU or of EU citizens here is nothing whatever to do with the Commission. It is not a negotiation that can be pursued with Monsieur Barnier; it is not a matter for Mr Verhofstadt or Mr Juncker, either. Residency issues, requirements and regimes throughout the European Union concerning persons who are not citizens of a member state or another member state but citizens of a non-EU state are not a matter for the treaty: they are a matter for each individual member state. Every member state has its own different residency rules. What is more, the arguments and forces which will be brought to bear if there is any suggestion of changing those rules will be different in each country. So if you want to negotiate on that—as the Prime Minister says, and the Minister has said this evening—you will have to conduct separate, bilateral negotiations with 27 different countries.

Eventually, the result of that negotiation will have to be ratified by 27 different countries—28, actually, because it will have to be ratified here, I hope. That is not something that can be done in a few weeks, or even, I think, in a short number of months. If it had been attempted before notice was given under Article 50, it would have delayed by many months the issuing of a notice under Article 50, quite contrary to what the Prime Minister said her intention was. That is something which, if it is undertaken immediately we issue notice under Article 50, will itself delay the procedures for a very long time. How can the Government have thought that this was a way of accelerating progress on the Brexit negotiations? I think that is a question which nobody has asked. I tried to ask it the other day but I was not able to capture your Lordships’ attention. I ask it now because it is absolutely essential if the House is to achieve a complete picture of what is going on in this very important area.

Photo of Lord Campbell-Savours Lord Campbell-Savours Labour 8:30 pm, 13th March 2017

My Lords, I shall speak on an issue tangential to that raised by my noble friend and ask a couple of simple questions. They are essentially the subject of an amendment that I tabled to the Bill last week and which I subsequently withdrew when it became clear that the amendment on these matters moved by my noble friends on the Front Bench was likely to be carried by the House.

First, under a mixed agreement negotiation, does a negotiated settlement in the Council remain valid as far as the rights of United Kingdom citizens living in Europe are concerned even if such an agreement was not supported in either the European Parliament or in the parliaments of the nation states? Does it stand alone? Secondly, in the event that we were to take this whole debate on EU and UK citizens’ rights outside the Article 50 process, which is essentially what my noble friend appeared to be alluding to, whereby the hurdles of qualified majority voting, a European Parliament vote and approval by nation states were to be avoided, if they are required; and, if we hit problems, and in the event that a number of European states outside Article 50 were to indicate their support for upholding the indefinite rights of UK citizens living in the EU, would the Government in those circumstances be prepared to concede the rights of EU citizens from those same states living in the United Kingdom? That would mean that some states which did not agree would be excluded. If the Government were to do that, it would remove the hurdles of QMV, the European Parliament vote or votes in national parliaments, if they are needed. That approach would lead to a far earlier closure of the whole debate, which Members are concerned will be dragged out over years.

It is all right for the Prime Minister to say that UK citizens’ rights will be top of the Euro agenda, but what worries some of us is that a victory—or a so-called victory—in the Council of Ministers may be pyrrhic and not provide the assurances that people want; and that, despite assurances given in private to David Davis, some countries may seek to carry their decisions on citizenship into arguments over the contribution that the United Kingdom must make to wind-up costs. At the end of the day, despite all these assurances, Governments and nation states in Europe may say, “We are going to turn this into an argument about the contributions the British make”. In that light, I wonder whether the Minister might be prepared to give me a response this evening.

Photo of Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood Chair, Sub-Committee on Lords' Conduct

My Lords, I have no doubt whatever that Article 50 must be triggered, and triggered sooner rather than later, but equally I have no doubt about the merits of Motion A1. I supported it before, as did 358 Members of this House—a majority of 102.

Most of the decisions that we take in this House are nicely balanced. This one, I suggest, is perfectly clear and the arguments are compelling. No one doubts the need for the EU nationals who are already lawfully here to remain here for the sake of academia, the health services, the care services, the building industry—note what my noble friend Lord Kerslake said in Committee—and so forth, and no one doubts that those whom we most need to stay are starting to bleed away. We should remember what the noble Lord, Lord Winston, said in Committee about the medics, and read the letter in today’s Times from the academics at Oxford.

The Government say that this assurance is unnecessary and that in fact there is no possibility of our ever wanting to deny these people their present rights, let alone deport them. Of course, logically that is indeed so but, as the haemorrhaging of this group shows, the perception among those affected is, perhaps unsurprisingly, different. Then it is said—it was said by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, in Committee—that fairness demands that all expatriate EU nationals are treated identically and that no assurance should be given to those here until reciprocal assurances are given to our citizens in the other member states. I would give three answers to that suggestion.

First, as the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, and others pointed out in Committee, those representing UK nationals in other EU states positively support our giving this assurance, and they believe—rightly, I suggest—that their case will be strengthened, not weakened, by our now taking this initiative. As the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, said in Committee,

“a generous gesture, freely given”,—[Official Report, 1/3/17; col. 835.] will assist in creating a good climate for the start of these negotiations with the other 27 nations, difficult though they will be, as the noble Lord, Lord Davies, has again emphasised today.

Secondly, the stronger the Government’s argument that no assurance is necessary because EU nationals here are desperately needed for our economy and health service and so forth, and therefore they face no risk of losing these rights, the weaker the argument that there is an advantage in keeping the future of the EU nationals here in doubt for the purpose of negotiating our nationals’ future abroad. In short, even if other member states chose not to allow our UK nationals to remain there—and we can understand that in some instances the case for that is rather less compelling than our need to keep EU nationals here—we would still want to keep their nationals here.

Thirdly, it is hardly surprising that the other states are refusing to discuss this issue until we trigger Article 50. However, it is the UK’s decision to pursue Brexit—sensible or not, and there are obviously different views on that—that has precipitated this crisis and created the uncertainty and insecurity felt by this group. I suggest that we can and should allay their fears at the same time as we trigger Article 50. This clause would not delay it—

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

The noble and learned Lord knows that I agree with much of what he is saying but that is not the issue tonight. The issue tonight is whether we recognise our constitutional limitations and whether we fly in the face of what the Commons, having been given the opportunity to reconsider, has now decided emphatically. As a great constitutionalist, which the noble and learned Lord is, I hope he will agree with that.

Photo of Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood Chair, Sub-Committee on Lords' Conduct

In broad terms of course I agree. I have never previously voted against a Government on ping-pong. I do not know how often my noble friend plays ping-pong but is it really so very exceptional to keep a rally going beyond two strokes? I suggest not, and I suggest that we do it here.

Photo of Lord Wigley Lord Wigley Plaid Cymru

My Lords, I support Motion A1. The amendment that was carried in this House a few days ago was passed by a huge majority on a near-record turnout of noble Lords in that Division. It appears to me that very little attempt has been made, if any, to meet the points that were made in this Chamber. It seems that the Government have relied totally on their power to get a whipped vote through and to steamroller this through.

The Government could have accepted that amendment or they could have come to meet us, but they have not done so. In view of what the Minister said about the Government seeking other countries in the European Union to agree the status of UK citizens first, what if they do not? Do we then kick out the European citizens who are here? Is that the logic of the argument? If it is, is that acceptable to this House?

The noble Lord, Lord Bridges, said that this was a debate of conviction and passion. Yes, it is a debate of conviction, and convictions do not change just because they have been beaten by a whipped vote in another place. They do not get kicked into touch. My convictions still stand, and whatever others will do tonight, mine will stand in the Division lobby.

Photo of Lord Bowness Lord Bowness Conservative

My Lords, I added my name to, spoke in favour of, and voted for the original amendment, and I believe that the arguments advanced in support of that amendment were correct and remain so today. The fact that the Government have chosen to force through the Bill in its unamended form does not change my view on that. It is perhaps worthy of noting, as it was noted by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, that although one of the arguments put forward by the Government was concern about the status of UK citizens living in the rest of the European Union, much of the support for the amendment has come from those UK nationals living in the European Union who felt that it was in their interests.

I only speak now because I feel that I cannot keep silent tonight in view of all of the communications one has received from people asking one to insist on this amendment. I have to say openly and publicly that I cannot support continued insistence which, in different circumstances, I would have been tempted so to do. To do so is possibly to delay the process of invoking Article 50, which would not be in the interests of the European Union or the United Kingdom. If I accept—and, of course I accept—the advice from the Minister, it could delay the start of negotiations to safeguard the interests of EU citizens here and UK citizens in the European Union.

I will, however, make one further comment, which is applicable to the amendment to the second Motion that is to be moved tonight. I hope that the Government and those within it who favour a quick, hard Brexit, appreciate that the referendum, while expressing the will of the people, did not give the Government a blank cheque as to how to implement it. They should also accept that the answer to any question or criticism cannot be an allegation that the questioner is trying to thwart the will of the people and is somehow acting undemocratically. It is neither an answer to the question, nor is it true.

Many of us who, this time at least, will have to accept the inevitability of the referendum and Brexit, want to maintain the closest possible links to the European Union. There are many ways to exit the Palace of Westminster: all take you out into the street. It is perfectly possible to want to be nearer to Millbank or to Westminster Underground. There are valid reasons for choosing either, but there is not much wisdom in choosing to leap out of the nearest first-floor window. Those of us who believe that we were correct in passing this amendment and asking the other place to think again will not be pressured into acquiescence by continued allegations that our actions are undemocratic, ignore the people or are disloyal. From these Benches and from my point of view on the European Union, we do not need lessons in loyalty from some—not all, I accept—whose history on the issues of Europe makes them experts in disloyalty.

Photo of Lord Hannay of Chiswick Lord Hannay of Chiswick Crossbench 8:45 pm, 13th March 2017

My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, I put my name to the amendment that has been rejected by the Commons and which we are now debating another amendment on. My position is identical to that of the noble Lord, Lord Bowness. I have not resiled in any way from my belief that a unilateral statement by the British Government would be best for the United Kingdom and our citizens in the rest of Europe. However, like the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, I am not sure that this is the moment to return the ball.

However, I say to the Minister, if I may, that I had many dealings over the years with the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, mainly on budgetary issues which were quite stressful. On one occasion when I persuaded her to follow a tactic that I suggested would be best and she was doubtful about, she looked up and said, “Okay, but you better be right”. That is what I say to the Government. Their choice for a transactional approach could end in tears and then, we will be back here.

Photo of Viscount Hailsham Viscount Hailsham Conservative

My Lords, may I very briefly intervene? As your Lordships know, I voted for the amendments in Committee. However, for the reasons advanced by my noble friends Lord Bowness and Lord Cormack, and indeed by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, I shall not be supporting this Motion. I think that the time has come to accept the view of the House of Commons.

Photo of Lord Cromwell Lord Cromwell Crossbench

My Lords, there has been a great deal of weeping and gnashing of gums on these issues in recent weeks and months. I do not like the government policy on this either. It appears to be: if we cannot help everyone, we will not help anyone. Nevertheless, we have asked the other place to think again. They have thought again and have not taken our advice, and our role now, I believe, is not to insist.

Photo of The Archbishop of York The Archbishop of York Bishop

My Lords, I have been listening to what people have said and do not want to repeat anything. However, some of us objected to the amendments not because we lacked sympathy, understanding or compassion. We did it simply because we thought there was a confusion of process with substance. The second reason some of us objected, in particular myself, is point 6.2 of the government paper, which says:

“While we are a member of the EU, the rights of EU nationals living in the UK and UK nationals living in the EU remain unchanged. As provided for in both the EU Free Movement Directive (Article 16 of 2004/38/EC) and in UK law, those who have lived continuously and lawfully in a country for at least five years automatically have a permanent right to reside”.

If Brexit happens, and I am sure that it will, EU law will be incorporated into British law. It would be quite tough for the Government to then argue that those who have lived here for more than five years do not have a right to reside, and your Lordships’ House and the other place would have to argue the case again.

I approach this issue with deep compassion. I came here while running away from Amin’s torture. For almost 15 years, I was living and travelling on a UK travel document. As a student, I was prevented from working. I know the difficulties. But when I sit in your Lordships’ House and hear Members say that the other side is not the only one that thinks it is right, I think that we should all find a language that talks about people as people. They are being used as a bargaining chip, which is very hurtful to me and others. That cannot be right because it casts aspersions on those who argue the other way.

The time has come for us to decide. If we want a quick resolution for the EU citizens who live in this country, I will find it difficult to continue further delaying the triggering of the article. It should be done as quickly as possible.

Photo of Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union)

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his rather unfortunate task of having to bring us the regrettable decision of the Commons on the rights of EU nationals living here. Many of them, of course, are married to Brits and have British-born children but possibly will have no right to remain after Brexit day.

This House by a majority of 102 asked the Commons to do two very easy things. It asked for both pragmatic and ethical reasons. One thing was to make it clear that EU citizens, whether Brits abroad or Europeans here, should not be treated as bargaining chips to be traded against each other. The House felt strongly that these families, who had as a result of our forthcoming exit suddenly found their own lives on hold given the uncertainty over their future, should have their rights secured as soon as possible but without holding one group’s interests hostage to those of another group.

Secondly, we called on the Prime Minister to act unilaterally in the one area under her control and to say to EEA nationals, “We will ensure you continue to have the rights you expected when you arrived, even after we withdraw from the EU”. We did it because of the calls of those affected, and of their employers who fear the loss of valuable colleagues—some 25,000 workers in the health service alone are now thinking of leaving. The Government and the Commons have rejected our call. However, I absolve the Brexit committee, which unanimously felt that the Government should act unilaterally on this. The only reason for the rejection is that it is not a matter that needs to be dealt with in the Bill. Presumably the Government have no other rationale for saying to those here, “You must wait to know about your future until the 27 have agreed how they will treat UK nationals”. That could take months, if not years.

We hear from Brussels that although citizens’ rights will be high on the negotiators’ agenda, it could take years for the final deal, as I believe Liam Fox and David Davis confirmed yesterday, reflecting on the normal practice of “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”. We regret this delay and lay the blame for this hiatus fairly and squarely at the door of No. 10. We will also campaign for an early resolution to the plight of those caught up in a legal Neverland not of their making. We will continue to press the Government to move on this and provide the certainty our amendment sought, albeit maybe by other—perhaps I should say imaginative—parliamentary routes, a number of which are already under consideration. The people concerned cannot wait until March 2019 to hear their fate.

I turn now to the Liberal Democrats’ Motion. We do not think this is a responsible move. It is not one we could support. This House’s view by a majority of 102 is clear. The Government should act unilaterally on the position of people already among us. As the mover of the original Motion, no one in this House will doubt my support for that. However, our view has been rejected in the elected House of Commons and it is clear that the Government are not for turning. On behalf of the Opposition I say to the people concerned, we are not giving up on you. We will pursue your interests in other ways.

Oh!

Photo of Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union)

I will take no lessons from the Liberal Democrats, who confessed to me outside the Chamber that this appeals to their core vote and they are piling on members because of it. So we are here to move a Motion to help them gain members. That may be suitable for them but it is not taking this House as a legislative body seriously. More than that, they are falsely raising people’s hopes, when they know that this Government in the Commons, despite my best endeavours and wants, will not change their mind. They should think hard about what they are doing to those people whose expectations they are raising, which will not be fulfilled.

I worry that they are also making a bit of a mockery of the House if they think that we will vote on this, as we did last week, in the safe knowledge that others will vote the other way and it will not be carried. I also wonder what it does to the decision that we took. The Lords majority of 102 is bound to shrink. As we have heard already, we know that the House does not have the appetite to send this matter back given the majority in the Commons, which was higher than before. Instead of our being able to go out from this on the high level of saying, “By 102, we think that the Government are wrong”, we would have either a lower vote or a lower vote an hour later if it ping-ponged. By the way, I say to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, that the way I play ping-pong I never get it back even once. Instead of saying that we ended up with a majority of 102 on the side of those EU nationals here, we will have a lower vote either now or later on.

On behalf not so much of this side of the Chamber as of the 3 million people who are looking to us for some help, the Government’s position is a matter or enormous regret to me. I do not think that it is correct; I do not think that it is moral or ethical; I do not even think that it is clever negotiations. However, we accept the view of the elected House. We will not rest after tonight. We will be back, urging the Government to allay the fears of people caught in this limbo.

Photo of Lord Bridges of Headley Lord Bridges of Headley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union

My Lords, I thank those who have contributed to this short debate. Once again, many of your Lordships have spoken with great passion. After so many hours of debate, I fear that there is very little that I can say without repeating myself and travelling over well-worn ground, so I will be quick and brief.

I reiterate the point that the Government’s position on this issue is very clear: we want to secure the status of EU citizens in the UK, just so long as we can do so while guaranteeing the position of UK citizens to whom we have a responsibility across the European Union. We cannot and should not seek to do one without the other. All 4 million people matter.

As to assurances given to EU nationals here today, let me repeat what I said previously: nothing changes in their status until we have left the EU. Nothing can change without the approval of Parliament, and the Government will continue to respect their obligations under the ECHR. This position is held by the Government and now by the other place. I remind your Lordships of what our European partners are saying. Many of them have made it clear that they, too, want a speedy agreement, but once we have started the negotiations. Indeed, the Polish Prime Minister has said:

“Of course, these guarantees would need to be reciprocal. It is also important what guarantees the British citizens living and working in other member states of the European Union will have”.

We need an agreement on this issue as soon as possible and I believe that we are in a good position to do just that. Just last Friday, Guy Verhofstadt, the lead negotiator for the European Parliament, told the BBC that the issue of EU citizens’ rights post exit should be addressed,

“before we talk about anything else”.

On the matters raised by the noble Lords, Lord Davies and Lord Campbell-Savours, I want to highlight the words of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State, who said on this subject earlier today in the other place that the Government would aim to get all member states, the Commission and the Council in an exchange of letters to explain what the rights of EU citizens are and will be once the UK has left the EU and once an agreement has been reached in negotiations. As regards the process of ratification of such an agreement, this is a matter for negotiation, but it is the Government’s intention to have this agreement concluded by the end of the two years.

Our commitment to seeking an agreement is clear, but the Government will not be able to set about securing this reciprocal guarantee until we have passed this Bill and triggered Article 50. I urge your Lordships to let this Bill go through unamended and not to prolong its passing, so that the Prime Minister can trigger Article 50 and seek the certainty that we all want to offer both European and UK citizens.

Photo of Lord Oates Lord Oates Liberal Democrat 9:00 pm, 13th March 2017

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, for his principled advocacy on this issue, but I must confess I cannot follow the constitutional argument that he and other noble Lords have made that somehow we cannot insist to the elected House. I could understand it if this House never insisted, or if the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, never voted to insist against the will of the elected House, but he knows that is not the case. I wonder why on this issue of such vital importance to so many people we should not.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

Perhaps I can answer the noble Lord. Yes, we agree on the fundamentals of the issue, but this is a constitutional matter. What is the point of prolonging a time-sensitive Bill, on which the fortunes of so many ultimately depend, merely to have the satisfaction of being soundly beaten in the Lobbies?

Photo of Lord Oates Lord Oates Liberal Democrat

Whether we are soundly beaten in the Lobbies is a matter for noble Lords. It is not, with respect, a matter for the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. I seek to put my argument and I hope to convince people. None the less, I pay tribute to the advocacy he has given so far and to all noble Lords who have made this issue crucial.

I am sorry that the Government continue to refuse to do the right things. I am sorry that they failed to make any concessions, or answer any of the questions that were put to them in Committee. I am particularly sorry that, as a result, they intend to allow the fear and uncertainty of millions of EU and UK citizens to continue. But the Minister, to be fair to him, has been given an impossible job defending the indefensible and I respect the skill with which he does it. What I cannot respect are the seven current Cabinet Ministers who backed the Vote Leave campaign which made an unequivocal, unilateral commitment to EU citizens during the referendum campaign—a commitment that has been betrayed. I hope that all noble Lords who supported and were involved in Vote Leave will think about that commitment, which they made without caveats or conditions.

That is the Government’s position. What I do not understand is the position taken by the Labour Front Bench in the House today, but I recognise that it will be as bewildering to many Labour Members as it is to me. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, that if you want to get the ball back across the net, it is very important not to drop the bat before you get there. The Labour Party has a key role in the way things are decided in this House. If it was prepared to stand behind this and insist, there would be a greater chance of success.

Last Tuesday, the Leader of the Labour Peers, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, made great play of attacking the Liberal Democrats, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, has done. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, asked how we could oppose the Bill given how extraordinarily important the amendment on citizens’ rights was. I voted that the Bill should not pass because I firmly believe that we should not begin withdrawal negotiations until there is a mechanism for the people to have a final say on the outcome of those negotiations.

There were two things also on my mind when I went through the Division Lobby: first, the Government were making it crystal clear, even at that stage, that they would concede nothing in regard to the amendments; and secondly, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, had already indicated that if the Bill was returned to this House, she would concede everything.

Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords

The noble Lord is absolutely wrong on that point. If he is going to quote me, he should do so correctly. I have always said that in this House we respect the primacy of the other place. We said that there should be no extended ping-pong but that we would listen to what the Commons had to say. If the noble Lord really believes that by voting for this Motion tonight he will change the mind of the other place, then he can go ahead but do not give false hope to people who rely on this House to make a point to get the other side to think again. It is no good noble Lords opposite cheering me—you got us into this mess.

Oh!

Photo of Lord Oates Lord Oates Liberal Democrat

The noble Baroness’s argument makes no sense at all. She has voted in many Divisions insisting on amendments when she knew they had no chance of success. It turns out that many of the amendments she voted for in the past to insist to the Commons when it was not going to give in were more important than this amendment. I am sorry about that and bewildered by it.

I hope that noble Lords of all parties and none will on this occasion pay attention to their conscience rather than their party Whip and join us in the Division Lobby. In view of the importance of this issue to millions of EU and UK citizens, I would like to test the opinion of the House.

Ayes 135, Noes 274.

Division number 4

See full list of votes (From The Public Whip)

Content

Not-content

Motion A1 disagreed.

Motion A agreed.

Motion B

Moved by Lord Bridges of Headley

That this House do not insist on its Amendment 2, to which the Commons have disagreed for their Reason 2A.

Commons Reason

2A: Because it is not a matter that needs to be dealt with in the Bill.

Photo of Lord Bridges of Headley Lord Bridges of Headley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union

My Lords, last week I set out the three core principles governing the UK’s approach to leaving the European Union, namely: that the Government are determined to honour the result of the referendum; that everything we do will be determined by our national interest; and that parliamentary sovereignty is key. This last principle was reflected in the Government’s commitment to give Parliament a vote on the final agreement. This House believed that this commitment ought to be enshrined in legislation, and your Lordships sought to go further by giving Parliament the power to say whether the Prime Minister can terminate negotiations with the European Union.

The issue of parliamentary approval had been debated by the other place before the Bill came to this House. It disagreed with amending the Bill then and, having considered this specific amendment, it has now disagreed again by a majority of 45. In essence, and to keep it very short, the Government’s position has not changed. This amendment is unnecessary. It would create untold uncertainty and would undermine our negotiating position. This is why the other place considered this issue again—

Photo of Lord Bridges of Headley Lord Bridges of Headley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union

Let me just finish this, and then the noble Lord will able to speak. I am sure that once I have sat down he will be able to speak. This is why the other place considered the issue again and rejected this amendment.

Photo of Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon Liberal Democrat

I am most grateful to the Minister for taking an intervention—enfin. I am genuinely puzzled. If it is the case that John Major could seek parliamentary approval for the Maastricht Bill twice without weakening his bargaining position, how is it that this Government cannot allow Parliament to have a say once without weakening theirs?

Photo of Lord Bridges of Headley Lord Bridges of Headley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union

I am sorry to say to the noble Lord that I am genuinely puzzled by his position. He went on national television and said that he would obey the decision of the British people and now he is trying to get away from those comments. That is what I think will baffle many people. We have made the Government’s position very clear: when an agreement has been reached, we will give this House and the other place the chance to vote on it. That is the Government’s position. I urge noble Lords not to insist on the amendment and I beg to move Motion B.

Motion B1 (as an amendment to Motion B)

Moved by Baroness Ludford

Leave out from “House” to end and insert “do insist on its Amendment 2”.

Photo of Baroness Ludford Baroness Ludford Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union)

My Lords, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, David Davis, told “The Andrew Marr Show” yesterday that he was determined to make sure that Britain does not fall off a cliff edge—in other words, does not leave without an agreement. Meanwhile, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told the rival “Peston on Sunday” that it would be perfectly okay if we were not able to get an agreement; while the last in the trio, Trade Secretary Liam Fox told Sky News that not having a deal would be bad not just for the UK but for Europe as a whole—and I agree with Liam Fox.

So the three merry Brexiteers seem to be rather at odds about the prospects. One thinks that no deal is perfectly okay, another thinks that it would be bad all round and a third says that it will not happen. Given that the Cabinet is all over the place, it is perfectly self-evident that Parliament needs to stay in the driving seat throughout the process to prevent a disorderly and catastrophic plunge over the cliff edge—although, Liberal Democrats would add, with the people having the last word.

We have been reminded by the press of the Treasury view that an extreme Brexit, crashing out of the EU without a trade deal and relying only on WTO rules, would cause a major economic shock and is the option with the most negative long-term impact on the economy. The Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, chaired by Conservative MP Crispin Blunt, has just now warned of the uncertainty and shock of a hard Brexit, including confusion for EU and British citizens, the sudden return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic and a major hit to the economy.

Government assurances of a vote on a final deal are not enough. First, it is executive arrogance and presumption of the most preposterous kind for the Government to insist that MPs will have to choose only between the deal brokered by the Prime Minister and crashing out of the EU on to WTO terms in a hard Brexit. Secondly, Tory government assurances do not have a good track record. Their broken promises include manifesto commitments on safeguarding the UK’s position in the single market, not raising national insurance contributions and on lifting the 15-year cap on votes for Brits abroad—the very Brits they claim to be looking after, incidentally. This is in addition to unfulfilled assurances in respect of the Dubs amendment on refugee children and pledges on the full implementation of Leveson.

On Report, the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Bridges of Headley, said that of course the Government would honour their promise. But that is five broken promises already, and an assurance now on parliamentary sovereignty may well be destined to go just the same way, given that the track record on the issue of parliamentary sovereignty itself since last June has involved resistance all the way from this Government on any restraint on executive power. So a commitment on a vote wide enough in scope to be meaningful in the event of no deal must be written into the Bill. The Government have given no good reason why that should not be so.

The noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, who sadly I think is not in his place tonight, wrote yesterday about how Members of the House of Lords were called upon to vote on an issue involving a critical principle: the supremacy of Parliament in approving or rejecting the outcome of the Brexit negotiations. He said:

“Some say the involvement of parliament will weaken the prime minister’s hand ... I reject this argument as mere blackmail, much of it peddled by extreme Brexiteers”— some of whom, he added,

“hanker for the hardest Brexit of all, without a deal of any kind with our EU partners”.

So he rejected what he described as,

“the cheap jibes uttered by Brexiteer fanatics, some of them—I regret to say—sitting on the government front bench”.

The noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, last week set the tone for staying the course. She said:

“We passed those amendments not as some kind of vanity exercise or just to make a point—we are not a debating society where we have our debates and then afterwards shrug off home or off to the pub because we have made our point and have no thought about what happens next”.

She issued a rallying cry, saying that,

“responsibility is not just about winning—it is about taking responsibility for our actions”,

and that she was,

“very much committed to those two amendments”.—[Official Report, 7/3/17; cols. 1342-43.]

I very much hope that that commitment will be made evident from the Labour Benches tonight—or at least from many of them. Otherwise, the risk is of facilitating what it is becoming clear is the real agenda of many if not all of this Tory Government, which is to pursue Brexit at any cost, to go over that cliff in what they apparently believe be a winning Tory Party formula for the 2020 election: “We have delivered Brexit”. Maybe—but at what terrible cost? For us in the Liberal Democrats, as well as for the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, last week, this is a matter of principle and conscience.

Oh!

Photo of Baroness Ludford Baroness Ludford Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union)

Not the Government but Parliament must be in charge, for the good of the country. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Pannick Lord Pannick Crossbench 9:30 pm, 13th March 2017

My Lords, I moved the amendment last week that was approved by your Lordships’ House. I very much regret that the House of Commons has not taken the advice of this House and indeed that the Government have made no effort to move in the direction of the views of this House. We won the vote last week because we won the argument. That is why the amendment was carried by a majority of 98, with the largest number of noble Lords voting, so I understand, in any vote since 1831.

However, it is now time for this House to give way to the House of Commons on this matter. Earlier this evening the Government had a majority of 45 in the Commons. There is no reason whatsoever to think that if this House were to stand its ground, the Commons would change its view later this evening. I have to say to the noble Baroness that for the Liberal Democrats to press this matter is in parliamentary terms—I say nothing about any other consideration—a completely pointless gesture, and I for my part cannot support it.

I also bear in mind that this afternoon the Secretary of State gave a clear assurance that any agreement would be put to both Houses for their approval. I would prefer that to be in the Bill, but we do have an assurance. We have no assurance on parliamentary approval if the Prime Minister decides it would be better to leave the EU with no deal, and I regret that. However, I take some comfort from the point that was made last week by a number of noble Lords who were supporting the Government: Parliament has ample means of asserting its sovereignty in those circumstances.

I have two other brief points. The first is that this Bill has demonstrated the value of parliamentary sovereignty at this stage of notifying our intention to withdraw from the EU. It is only because of the determination of my client, Mrs Gina Miller, and the independence of the Divisional Court and the Supreme Court that we have had the Bill at all. I very much hope that during the negotiating process, and at the end of it, the Government will show more wisdom on the question of parliamentary sovereignty than they have done at this notification stage.

My other point is that for my part, I bear very much in mind that this is only the beginning of the process of withdrawal from the EU, a point the Minister has repeatedly emphasised. A much more complex Bill is going to be brought forward in the next Session to repeal the European Communities Act 1972 in order to maintain rights and duties that owe their origin to EU law.

The Government are on notice that this House will be scrutinising that Bill with especial care to ensure that parliamentary sovereignty, the rule of law and other constitutional principles are upheld. Your Lordships’ Constitution Committee, of which I am a member, under the excellent chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Lang, has produced an introduction to some of the issues which will arise.

This is just the start of the debate. This House has made known its views on the importance of parliamentary sovereignty. I very much look forward to continuing the debate with the Minister, but not on this Bill.

Photo of Lord Lea of Crondall Lord Lea of Crondall Labour

My Lords, the best part of 35 years ago, I had a hand in trying to amend what Gerald Kaufman described as the longest suicide note in history. I have played a little part in trying to amend what I think we should now call the shortest suicide note in history.

On the question of how Parliament fits into this, Parliament will be there in two years’ time and there will be plenty of opportunity then—I would have preferred it today—for Parliament to have a decisive say, whatever the small print says, in relation to scenario A, B or any other scenario at the outcome of the negotiations, which I do not think will be a happy occasion.

Photo of Lord Taverne Lord Taverne Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I want to discuss a fundamental question. I think that we are absolutely justified on this occasion, for this amendment, in not giving way to the House of Commons, because it has now in effect abandoned the principle of parliamentary democracy and taken the view that the referendum verdict is sacrosanct and cannot be challenged. That is clearly the opinion of the Government. What does that mean? It means that MPs are delegates, not representatives; it means there is no point in parliamentary government considering the argument, and debates considering the evidence; they have to obey the will of the people. That is now the principle.

I was not the greatest admirer of Mrs Thatcher in all her policies, but she was not someone who said to the electorate, “These are my principles, and if you don’t like them, I will change them”. That, in effect, is what some of those who supported the remain cause and felt deeply that Brexit would be disastrous or very damaging to this country have now accepted. It is a very dangerous step towards the doctrine that the people’s will must always prevail. This is the doctrine always favoured by Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin—and by Erdogan at present. It is a denial of the essence of democracy, which we have supported to great effect in this country. Now we are abandoning it.

We are the guardians of parliamentary democracy, and we are right in this. We are the democrats and we are right to support the democratic cause.

Photo of Lord Pearson of Rannoch Lord Pearson of Rannoch UKIP

My Lords, I ask a question of noble Lords who may be thinking of voting against the Commons this evening and in favour of their previous amendments. How do they justify extolling the supremacy of Parliament—the House of Commons and your Lordships’ House—and wanting Parliament to have the last word on the terms of our leaving the EU, when for the past 43 years they have supported our EU membership and still do so?

I ask because perhaps the main achievement of the European Union is precisely that national Parliaments have been emasculated and that much of their former power has been transferred to the institutions of the European Union. Thus, the unelected bureaucrats in the Commission have the monopoly to propose EU laws in secret, which are then negotiated in secret by yet more bureaucrats in COREPER—the Committee of Permanent Representatives—and are then decided in the Council of Ministers from national Governments, not Parliaments, where our Government have about 14% of the vote. EU law, now a large proportion of our law, is then enforced by the Commission and the so-called Court of Justice in Luxembourg.

The point is that our national Parliament, which noble remainers have been praying in aid to keep us in this anti-democratic failure, is excluded from the whole process. We do indeed have EU Select Committees in both Houses of Parliament, which scrutinise very little of the legislation imposed on us by Brussels, but they cannot change any of it and never have—nor can the House of Commons or your Lordships’ House change any of it, nor have we ever. Yet it is this system which those who have tabled this new amendment in truth wish to perpetuate with their newfound faith in parliamentary democracy. The people, with whom ultimate sovereignty resides, voted to leave that system. The House of Commons has this evening again agreed with the Government that the Bill shall become law as originally drafted. I would, of course, be amused to hear the noble remainers’ answer, but I trust that this is the end of the matter.

Photo of The Archbishop of York The Archbishop of York Bishop

I shall not detain noble Lords long, but in response to the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, who always speaks with such clarity and grace, I must say that the problem with the amendment is with subsection (4). If the Prime Minister does not get an agreement, whatever she does she has to have the rule of Parliament. She will bring it to Parliament, but the problem is this, if I understand it right—that triggering Article 50 is an irreversible act. Two years after triggering Article 50, the UK will leave the EU; it will do so with or without a deal but, either way, it will leave, because paragraph 3 of Article 50 makes it clear that the:

“Treaties shall cease to apply … two years after the notification”.

Of course, it is possible that the EU 27 might unanimously agree to extend the negotiation period beyond two years, but that cannot be taken for granted, nor should it be assumed that they will offer anything but a brief extension.

The amendment shows no awareness of the realities represented by the Article 50 timescale. It overlooks the fact that the Bill is about to trigger Article 50 and the formal divorce agreement. Neither this Bill nor Article 50 are about negotiating a new agreement with the EU. So as far as I am concerned, once we trigger it, it is irreversible; leave we will, with an agreement or without. So why put in subsection (4) of the amendment? For that reason, I hope that we follow what the House of Commons has just done.

Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Labour

My Lords, the notes to Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty say that,

“the Council needs to obtain the European Parliament’s consent … voting by a simple majority of the votes cast, before it can conclude the withdrawal agreement”.

That means that all Members of the European Parliament, including of course UK Members, have the legal right to vote on any final agreement, or lack of it, while Members of the British Parliament have no such legal right because the Government refuse to put such a right in the Bill. In that way I am trying to answer the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch—that supporting the European Parliament having legal rights on the withdrawal agreement that our own elected Members of Parliament will not have seems completely inconsistent with why many people voted for Brexit. They voted for Brexit to have better control of our own laws and, by refusing to put this in the Bill, the Government are in effect making our legal rights less than those of the European Parliament. I think that that is a very strong argument on this point, which needs to be aired, and I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, accepts that that is indeed the legal position.

Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green 9:45 pm, 13th March 2017

My Lords, I will also answer the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch. I have not supported the EU for 45 years, but even I think that this amendment has validity. When people voted on taking back power, they did not expect it to be a Prime Minister with a very small mandate and a small coterie of people who would make these decisions. People imagined that they were voting for our Parliament to have some sort of supremacy. I have listened very carefully to the Government on this and have found that their arguments are not arguments at all. They are actually comments, and rather specious ones at that. This is not a time-sensitive issue: we are not triggering Article 50 until much later in the month. It is not true that a promise is as good as having something on the face of the Bill. Quite honestly, I think that it is time that we accepted that this is a mistake and we ought to support the amendment. I very much regret that it will not pass, but I will be voting for it.

Photo of Lord Hannay of Chiswick Lord Hannay of Chiswick Crossbench

I have a very simple question for the Minister before the Opposition Front Bench speech, because it may be relevant to what the noble Baroness says. His colleague in the other place has answered the question about what happens if there is a deal on the Article 50 withdrawal agreement: the matter will be brought to the two Houses for approval. I think he has also answered the questionabout what happens if there is a new partnership agreement: it will be brought to both Houses for their approval. So far, so good. What happens if the Prime Minister decides that no deal is better than a bad deal? Will the Minister please give an answer?

Photo of Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union)

My Lords, I was never someone who enjoyed saying, “I told you so”, because I rather expect my advice to be heeded. Never was this more the case than last week, with the highest ever vote in the House of Lords. Of the 634 Peers who voted, 366 advised that the promised vote on the outcome of the negotiations should be inscribed in law. That would make it very clear to the Government—but also to the EU Commission and Council as well as to the European Parliament—that this Parliament is a player in the process of how we extract ourselves from the EU. As my noble friend Lady Symons has said, without our change, the European Parliament, which has UK Members in it, has the right in law to consent to the deal but this Parliament has no such guaranteed right. Our amendment last week gave legal certainty to the promised vote and the legislative authority for the withdrawal agreement, something which the Government may well have to do another way if not in this Bill. There is currently no legislative way of authorising the withdrawal deal ahead of a treaty.

There are challenges ahead. Withdrawal is not simply about the divorce or even just about the potential shape of new trade deals with the EU 27. It will be about forging a new partnership, or concordat, which will cover so much more than trade, vital though that is. We will need a vision of how we should work together after exit, not just on the hard subjects such as security, terrorism and that, but on the whole swathe of our approach to the economy. We will need to negotiate with the EU in a way that shows our openness and willingness to retain our strong bonds, because that will influence our future relationship with the EU as a bloc and with the 27 members individually. It is for this reason that it is important to recognise Parliament’s role in the process, because we will be part of those negotiations with the EU and the 27 countries. We will be working across Europe with all our contacts—in business, trade unions and consumer groups—to help get the best deal for this country. Parliament should be a part of that.

In so far as we heed the polls, they indicate that by 2:1 people are in favour of Parliament having a meaningful vote at the end of the negotiations. This House spoke very clearly last week. Therefore, I deeply regret that the Government and the Commons did not hear our plea. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, said, their view will not change. We will not make a pointless gesture. I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, is now tweeting that that is shabby of us. However, that is our view. We have heard, regrettably, that the Commons did not heed the overwhelming vote in this House. However, we will hold the Government to their promise of a vote before that in the European Parliament and will work to devise a parliamentary route to establish that more firmly, not least because having the support of Parliament during the negotiations would be a source of strength rather than a weakness. The Government have made the wrong call on this amendment, but we will seek to rectify that another way.

Photo of Lord Bridges of Headley Lord Bridges of Headley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union

My Lords, we spent considerable time debating this issue in Committee, on Report and again today. I fear that once again there is little I can add to this fulsome debate, especially as I am very much aware that my last attempt to convince the House of the merits of my case did not result in an unalloyed success.

As the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, said, we had the largest vote on record in this House, with a turnout of 634 Members. The fact that 366 of your Lordships did not accept my arguments was, I hope, as they say in Sicily, “Nothing personal, just business”. However, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State did a bit better this afternoon. As has been remarked, the other place rejected this amendment by a majority of 45.

I will briefly remind your Lordships of the Government’s case. First, as I have said, this is a simple and straightforward Bill designed to implement the referendum result and respect the Supreme Court’s judgment. It is the culmination of a long, democratic process started by the people at the last election, endorsed by this House in an Act of Parliament and then voted for by the people at the referendum itself. Parliament will continue to play its part through the scrutiny and passing of future legislation, through questions and debates and, most important of all, through a vote on the final agreement. Therefore, despite what the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, said, we are not abandoning parliamentary sovereignty. Our commitment to a vote in both Houses, which we fully expect and intend will take place before the European Parliament votes on any deal, is an absolute commitment and will be honoured.

Furthermore, as my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union said this afternoon in the other place,

“of course, Parliament can, if it wishes, have a vote and debate on any issue. That is a matter for Parliament. It is not for a Minister to try to constrain that”.

Therefore, as I have said on a number of occasions, proposed new subsections (1) to (3) are unnecessary. However, as I said before, this amendment goes further. It seeks to make it impossible for the Prime Minister to walk away without a vote in Parliament. Article 50 does not give the European Parliament that power. The European Commission would not have to go to the European Parliament if it wanted to walk away from the negotiations. So it is incorrect to say that the amendment would simply put on the face of the Bill the same power as that given to the European Parliament.

Also, as I argued before, it is unclear what the effects of this would be in any case. If Parliament votes against the Prime Minister walking away, is she to accept the deal on offer? Is she meant to try to negotiate a better one? Or is she to try to revoke the UK’s notice to withdraw? We do not know and, as I have said, such vagueness on something so critical is unacceptable.

The people voted to leave the EU in a referendum granted to them by this Parliament. We will respect that result. We are confident that the UK and the EU can indeed reach a positive deal on our future partnership, as this would be to the mutual benefit of both this country and the European Union. We will approach the negotiations in that spirit.

As to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, it is very hard to see what meaningful vote there could be if there had been no deal at all. In the absence of an agreement, I have no doubt that there would be further statements to this House. However, we are leaving the European Union, either through the deal we have agreed or without a deal. So we now need to consider whether the other place should be asked to consider this issue yet again, given that it has considered and decided, twice, against amendments that seek to put on the face of the Bill a vote on the final agreement.

I end by saying that this Bill is to trigger the process of our leaving and to fulfil the Supreme Court’s requirements. As I have said many times before, tonight we might just make it to the legislative base camp in terms of parliamentary scrutiny and debate. There is a lot more to come. The other place is clearly satisfied with this approach and satisfied that the Bill does not merit amendment. I therefore ask noble Lords to be mindful of that and to pass the Bill unamended.

Photo of Baroness Ludford Baroness Ludford Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union)

My Lords, the Minister attempts to bamboozle us and produce some of the same Aunt Sallies and red herrings that I mentioned last week. The key point is that, if he pledges that the Government will honour an assurance that there will be a parliamentary vote, why not put that in the legislation? No good reason has been produced why it should not be enshrined in statute. The more he doth protest too much, the more he generates concern that the commitment to honour a parliamentary vote may be somewhat fragile. If there are indeed ample means for Parliament to assert its control, there is no problem in writing them into the Bill.

This issue concerns a fundamental principle. It is the most important decision for this country in over 70 years. The noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, referred to this Bill as the shortest suicide note in history. It would not have needed to be so if the Government had given any indication of pursuing a sensible Brexit, but unfortunately they give every indication of hurtling towards an extreme, brutal Brexit. That makes many people inside and outside this building very nervous.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, said from the Opposition Front Bench that she wanted to show that this Parliament is a player and she wanted recognition of Parliament’s role. The best way to do that is to follow the advice of my noble friend Lord Taverne not to abdicate parliamentary responsibility. There is a huge onus on us to continue to maintain that principle in the face of considerable bluster and insufficient legislative commitments. I therefore believe that it is justified to press this matter and I ask noble Lords to agree Motion B1. I wish to test the opinion of the House.

Ayes 118, Noes 274.

Division number 5

See full list of votes (From The Public Whip)

Content

Not-content

Motion B1 disagreed.

Motion B agreed.

House adjourned at 10.11 pm.