Brexit: European Union-derived Rights - Motion to Resolve

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:30 pm on 4th April 2017.

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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 8:30 pm, 4th April 2017

My Lords, I am grateful to all those who have contributed in what the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, christened this great “Brexit club”, of which we are all part. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and my noble friend Lady Wheatcroft for their kind compliments. They must understand and know me very well to know that flattery gets them everywhere with me. Therefore, I will certainly try to be as reasonable as possible towards these Motions. Both Motions touch on important issues that we have discussed previously in this House and no doubt shall rightly discuss again.

The Motion in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, is on a matter we all want to see resolved as soon as possible: the future status of UK nationals in the EU and of EU nationals in the UK—the noble Lord, Lord Morris, made a passionate speech, as did the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, about the need to do so. We all want to secure the future status of UK nationals in the EU and of EU nationals in the UK.

I shall not detain your Lordships by going over the rationale behind the Government’s approach to this issue—we debated that at length the other day—other than to repeat that we wish to see the status of both UK and EU nationals resolved at the same time and as early as possible in the negotiations. The only circumstances in which this would not be possible would be if the status of UK nationals was not protected.

As your Lordships will know, the Prime Minister again highlighted the Government’s wish for this issue to be an early priority in the negotiations in her letter to trigger Article 50. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, quite rightly said, this sentiment has been shared by many across Europe. She quoted Guy Verhofstadt, who has said that the issue of EU citizens’ rights after exit should be addressed,

“before we talk about anything else”.

The Swedish EU Affairs Minister has suggested much the same thing, saying:

“I am happy to say that the UK side and the EU side agree very much on the need to find a good solution”.

She continued:

“I am convinced that a solution will be found for them”.

As President Donald Tusk said on Friday,

“Our duty is to minimise the uncertainty and disruption caused by the UK decision to withdraw from the EU for our citizens, businesses and Member States”.

The Prime Minister of Malta followed that up by saying:

“The guidelines show that the first priority is settling issues relating to citizens—we need to ensure our citizens in the UK and British citizens in the EU are not used as bargaining chips by any side. There is a wide-ranging commitment to settle this as soon as possible”.

So the omens are good.

We are absolutely clear that we want to reach an agreement on this issue so that we can give people the certainty which so many of your Lordships have spoken about as soon as possible after the negotiations begin and reach a position where we can address the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Oates.

The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, raised an interesting point—the noble Lord, Lord Lea, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, raised it, too—as to whether we might be able to reach an agreement on this before the end of the two years, given the approach of “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”. There are a number of different ways in which such an agreement could be reached. I hope your Lordships will forgive me if I stick to the words used so far by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State, who suggested that this might come in an exchange of letters between ourselves, the member states, the Commission and the Council. I am sorry, but I am not going to go beyond that point at the Dispatch Box now.

As to the point that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, made—another good point—as to whether some form of bilateral relationships might be struck, all I would say, and I hope noble Lords will forgive me if I choose my words very carefully, is that the European Commission has made it very clear that there will be no separate negotiations between individual member states and the UK.

The substance of the Motion, however, is that the Government should make a Statement to this House and the other place before Parliament prorogues at the end of this Session. I am absolutely clear that if there is anything to report to Parliament on this issue, the Government will do so as soon as possible. As my noble friend Lord Hailsham so rightly said, it is everyone’s interests that we do so. Having made seven Statements to Parliament since my department was established—about one every three and a half weeks that the House is sitting—I believe that we have made a clear commitment to report to Parliament.

I also point out gently that the European Commission will only get the guidelines for its negotiating position formally adopted on 29 April. After that, the Commission will need to agree on a mandate for its negotiating position. That too is likely to take some time, so I gently argue that committing to make a Statement before the end of this Session might—and I put it no more strongly—simply raise expectations as to what we might say, as this clearly will be at a time when, at best, we would expect negotiations to be just beginning. I stress that this should not be read as a sign that the Government are doing nothing to prosecute and press our case in this period; for in the next few weeks, while the EU agrees upon its proposed guidelines, Ministers will continue to meet our European colleagues right across Europe to discuss our agenda to create a new partnership.

As I have said, we will stress that agreeing on the future status of EU nationals should and must be a priority for the negotiations. This debate has once again reinforced the concern and focus that Parliament rightly has on this issue, and I assure noble Lords that it is a concern and focus that the Government utterly share. However, in the spirit of reasonableness, I simply question whether it is necessary to pass this Motion, given our clear willingness and commitment to keep this House and the other place updated, and our wish to focus now on making a success of negotiations which will begin shortly. Finally, I point out that the Prime Minister will certainly be updating Parliament in the usual way, with a Statement to be repeated in this House following her attendance at the next European Council on 22 June.

On the second Motion, standing in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, I will be brief. The Government’s position on the issue overall is clear that there will be a vote of both Houses on the final agreement and we expect and intend this to happen before the European Parliament votes on the agreement. This vote will be either to accept the final agreement or to leave the EU with no agreement. As for what would happen if this House were to reject the agreement, as put forward in the Motion by the Government, then of course the Government would respect the Lords’ decision.

The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, raised the issue of what happens if no deal is reached with the European Union. As I have said on many occasions, and as the Prime Minister has made clear, we want to reach an agreement with the European Union and the Government are confident that the UK can do so, but in the event of there being no deal at all, as I have also said before, it is very hard to see what meaningful vote could be given. In the absence of any agreement, I have absolutely no doubt that there would be further Statements to this House. Furthermore, one needs to bear in mind the other means by which we are going to be keeping Parliament informed on the process as it goes along.

As for the view that some have expressed, including the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, that we need further legislative cover for our withdrawal so as to protect the Government from further legal challenge, I simply say that the Government’s position is that the requirements of the Miller judgment are entirely fulfilled by the recent Bill passed by this House and the other place. The Supreme Court ruled that, because withdrawal from the EU involves removing a source of domestic law in the United Kingdom, and because of the far-reaching effects of the European Communities Act, the authority of primary legislation was needed before the Government could decide to give notice under Article 50. The Supreme Court did not rule that anything further was required to satisfy our constitutional requirements.

So bearing in mind the importance of these issues—as my noble friend Lord Hailsham implored me, I am trying to be very reasonable—while the Government do not think there is any compelling reason or need for a Joint Committee to be set up, whether your Lordships wish to do so and whether the other place agrees is a matter for Parliament.