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European Union (Withdrawal) Bill - Report (6th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:20 pm on 8th May 2018.

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Photo of The Duke of Wellington The Duke of Wellington Conservative 4:20 pm, 8th May 2018

My Lords, this amendment, which I have proposed with the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and the noble Lord, Lord Newby, is not the most significant of the various cross-party amendments which this House has passed in recent weeks, but it is nevertheless important. We propose that the wording of the Bill simply reverts to the original drafting. During the debate in Committee on this point, there was near unanimity that the date should be taken out of the Bill.

We have so often been told by Ministers in this House that a certain amendment was unnecessary. Well, it was certainly unnecessary for the Government to amend their Bill during its passage in the other place to fix the date. Article 50 clearly states:

“The Treaties shall cease to apply … two years after the notification referred to in paragraph 2, unless the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned, unanimously decides to extend this period”.

So we know beyond any doubt that for the purposes of this Bill, we leave the EU on 29 March 2019, but this date should not be defined and specified in the Bill, in case it becomes necessary and in the national interest to agree an extension, as provided in Article 50. Any extension sought by the Government could be limited to only a few weeks, as the European Parliament elections are now fixed for 23 May 2019 and the Parliament will be dissolved towards the end of April 2019.

I have reread the speech given in Committee by the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie. She said that the original drafting of the Bill, which did not include the date, was unacceptable to the House of Commons but, as I am sure she is aware, Members on both sides of the House of Commons were highly critical of the Government’s amendment to write the date into the Bill. Indeed, the Committee for Exiting the European Union in the other place stated that the government amendments will remove flexibility and create significant difficulties if, as the Secretary of State suggested in evidence, the negotiations,

“went down to the 59th minute of the 11th hour”.

Catherine Barnard, professor of European Union law at Cambridge, described the amendments as creating “an artificial straitjacket”. She said:

“In other words … it creates a rod for the UK negotiators’ backs, weakens any UK negotiating position and adds unnecessary pressure to those in the executive trying to deliver Brexit in a coherent, measured fashion”.

In the face of this strong opposition to the government amendment, in the end a compromise was proposed in the other place by Sir Oliver Letwin to give Ministers the power to change the date. This was passed in a whipped vote.

The purpose of this amendment is simply to give another opportunity to the other place to think about whether including the date is really expedient. What is the point of putting the date in the Bill when it may have to be changed in circumstances which we cannot foresee? If there is a case for putting the date in primary legislation—which I do not accept—it might be more appropriate to put it in the withdrawal agreement and implementation Bill, which will come to Parliament later in the year.

As I said on Second Reading, this Bill is absolutely necessary for the good government of the country. Although Ministers have said that they have no intention of seeking an extension to the two-year period, nevertheless, in legislating the process of withdrawal, we should give them a bit more flexibility to secure and obtain ratification of the best possible deal which will do the least damage to the economy and to the national interest. Ministers should recognise that, from all sides of this House, we are trying to help the Government in their negotiations and in no way to thwart the process. I beg to move.