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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:45 pm on 8th May 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 4:45 pm, 8th May 2018

My Lords, I will restrain myself from entering into a longer debate on this issue. I agree with my noble friend Lord Grocott that this is an important Bill, but it will also affect the negotiations, and part of that will be affected by the timetable.

It is interesting that at various times when we have discussed the promised vote on the final deal—it is not just a matter of leaving but of our future relationship with the EU after we have left—the Minister has said that he hoped that the vote, in both Houses, would take place before the European Parliament has had its say, but that he could not definitely promise that it would, because our parliamentary timetable might not be flexible enough to fit in with that of the European Parliament. I cannot say that I accept that argument, because after all, we control our business and when we have votes—not necessarily how late at night they happen, but effectively we control our timetable. However, if the Minister was correct in the assumption that the European Parliament’s vote might not be at a predictable time—it may be delayed because talks are still going on—it may suddenly be brought forward.

Here, I will answer the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Butler. It seems essential that the deal has to be agreed before April, when the European Parliament will go into recess, because under Article 50 the deal has to be agreed and have the consent of the European Parliament. If the European Parliament is to recess, adjourn or prorogue before its elections, the deal has to get consent before then. Therefore, there is a timetable, and it has to go before the European Parliament. I have had various legal advice about what happens if the European Parliament does not give its consent—it seems quite complicated—but certainly Article 50 says that it has to give consent. Therefore, the negotiations could go on a bit later than everyone wants, and the European Parliament will have to prorogue for its own elections and will have no authority thereafter. The date on which we leave could be fixed by the words in an Act of Parliament which will be passed in August or whenever, some months after those events, and that seems a very unhelpful position for our negotiators to be in.

I am sure that there will be late-night sessions and lots of consultations, with people ringing back for instructions as the negotiations go on—there are people who have been through all this. I hope that we have trained the Minister well in coping with late nights here, because he may well have more of those, but there could be very long nights as the negotiations go on. If one side—our negotiators—were curtailed by a strict date in the Act, that would put us at a disadvantage. The other side is not so constrained. The European Parliament can meet at very short notice when a decision has been taken.

However, I interpret Article 50 slightly differently. It says:

“The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after … notification”.

So, without having to go to the Council for a unanimous decision, the withdrawal agreement could contain a leaving date of a week or two weeks after the two-year period, which would allow the last-minute arrangements to be made. If that is what the withdrawal agreement specifies, if that suits all the parties and if our Government would like to sign up to it, it would seem silly not to be able to do that.

It is important that we enable the negotiators to get the best possible deal, setting out exactly how we leave and exactly what our future terms of trade will be. If the amendment is passed, it will remove the straitjacket that the Government inserted at the behest not of the negotiators but of certain ardent Brexiteers. Let us remove that straitjacket, make the task easier for the negotiators and reflect what our own EU Committee said:

“The rigidity of the Article 50 deadline of 29 March 2019 … makes a no deal outcome more likely … enshrining the same deadline in domestic law would not be … in the national interest”.

I am sure that the Government want to put the national interest first and I certainly believe that this House will want to do so. Therefore, we strongly support the amendment moved by the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, and we urge everyone to go into the Lobby behind him.