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European Union (Withdrawal) Bill - Second Reading (2nd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:01 am on 31st January 2018.

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Photo of Lord Browne of Ladyton Lord Browne of Ladyton Labour 11:01 am, 31st January 2018

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. When I saw where I was placed in the order, I was confident that I would be following a speech that contained a robust defence of parliamentary democracy. My noble friend Lord Foulkes reminded me that he once described the noble Lord as being a man who was made for this place. Having watched the noble Lord here and in the other place and having been privileged to hear him speak, my observation is that he thinks that this place was made for him.

Only yesterday, we witnessed another indefensible and probably ultimately futile attempt by the Government to deny Parliament access to the information that it needs to hold them properly to account and simply to do its job. We all already know what the economic analyses of the consequences of the only feasible Brexit deals say and few of us are at all surprised. The Government will not be able to defend their position against the will of the majority in the other place for long. Eventually these documents will be published—although they already are.

For months now, every time that they have been faced with a reasonable request for explanation or clarification of the Government’s Brexit objectives, Ministers or government spokespeople have refused to give an answer, because apparently that would somehow undermine the Government’s negotiating position. I have been bemused and questioning of my own substantial negotiating experience and instinctive belief that there is no such negotiating advantage to be had. I feared that I might be alone in thinking this, because it never seemed to be challenged. That was until yesterday, when the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, in a few sentences exposed that the emperor has no clothes—the fallacy of that argument—to the amusement of many Members.

Throughout the negotiations, the EU 27 have clearly shown their collective hand—we are told that a decision was made in two minutes the other day—and because of that have maintained a position of dominance over the UK in the negotiations. As has become obvious, the truth is—there are many ways of explaining this—that a deeply divided party in government simply cannot answer these important questions because they have been unable to formulate a clear, common position. If you want specific evidence of that, Mrs Merkel revealed in a recent informal press conference, to the amusement of everyone, that every time she meets the Prime Minister, the Prime Minister asks her to formulate that position for us, saying, “Make me an offer”. No wonder we are in such a desperate state.

I am content to adopt the opening words of many noble Lords that this Bill is necessary. While it is complex, difficult to interpret and lacking in clarity, it is necessary that we have a Bill of this nature for exactly the reasons set out in the opening speech from the noble Baroness the Leader of the House. The Bill should never have come to this House in this state, but it is clear from the debate so far that the problems with it cannot be addressed other than by the most detailed and robust scrutiny and significant amendment and, to get to that point, the Bill requires a Second Reading.

I also agree that, when we see the terms of the final agreement, a concluding democratic process is required. My noble friend Lord Adonis argues that that should be a further referendum. I, too, should like to see a further referendum but, for reasons others have expanded on, I am able, and I thank the noble Lord for this, to adopt the position of the noble Lord, Lord Butler, who, in agreeing with my noble friends Lady Smith and Lord Mandelson, accepted that this Bill is not the appropriate vehicle to require a further referendum—by the way, I fear the interpretation of any failed vote that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, described—while undertaking to support any amendments that propose a further referendum among the options if Parliament is given a meaningful vote after the conclusion of the negotiations.

As a relevant aside, what is “a meaningful vote”? The proposed withdrawal agreement and implementation Bill may provide a vote on the agreement but, given Article 50, can it be meaningful? If Parliament likes the deal and votes for it, the deal is implemented and the UK leaves. If Parliament does not like the deal and votes against it, Article 50 operates and on 29 March, two years after the notification of our intention to leave, unless there is an agreed extension, the treaties cease to apply and the UK leaves. Does a meaningful vote depend on the flexibility or the reversibility of Article 50? Perhaps the Minister will address that point in winding up. If that is the Government’s position, we should know.

I am sure that by now the Minister is clear about the issues that will be demanding his attention in the later stages of our deliberations. Paramount among them is the imperative that there must never, ever be a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. To achieve that, Northern Ireland and the Republic must be in the same customs union. The stakes could not be higher. I trust that the Minister will address this issue and make clear that that will never happen.

In the limited time available, I want to engage just one aspect of an issue that has already been discussed at some length, the devolution provisions. The political deficiencies of these provisions were accurately highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, who said that they would be a recruiting sergeant for those in Scotland who seek to advance their independence agenda by blaming London for everything. At a time when the Scottish electorate are minded to make the nationalists accountable for their failures, this is an unnecessary and self-inflicted wound. The constitutional and legal deficiencies were exposed forensically in an important contribution by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope. In her opening speech, the Leader of the House promised that the Government would publish an analysis shortly to show the specific policy areas where EU law intersects with devolved competence and where the Government will require a UK-wide legislative framework. In addition, she reiterated the Government’s commitment to bring forward amendments to Clause 11.

In an earlier debate in this House on these issues, my noble friend Lord McConnell proposed a practical solution to this problem based on good faith negotiations. Negotiations are apparently ongoing, but the poker game continues. Yesterday, in a meeting with Michael Clancy, the Law Society of Scotland’s law reform director, he told me that he had analysed, over three months, the 111 powers in the list prepared by the Government to inform discussion between the Scottish and UK Governments about where it may be necessary to agree common frameworks. This list must exist. If it does, will the Minister undertake to let us see it before we debate these issues? It is the secret to a practical solution to this problem.