Exiting the European Union - Statement

– in the House of Lords at 5:32 pm on 10th December 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal 5:32 pm, 10th December 2018

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in another place. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, with permission, I would like to make a Statement. We have now had three days of debate on the withdrawal agreement setting out the terms of our departure from the EU and the political declaration setting out our future relationship after we have left. I have listened very carefully to what has been said in this Chamber and out of it by Members on all sides.

From listening to those views, it is clear that while there is broad support for many of the key aspects of the deal, on one issue—the Northern Ireland backstop—there remains widespread and deep concern. As a result, if we went ahead and held the vote tomorrow the deal would be rejected by a significant margin. We will therefore defer the vote scheduled for tomorrow and not proceed to divide the House at this time.

I set out in my speech opening the debate last week the reasons why the backstop is a necessary guarantee to the people of Northern Ireland and why—whatever future relationship Members want—there is no deal available that does not include the backstop. Behind all those arguments are some inescapable facts: the fact that Northern Ireland shares a land border with another sovereign state; the fact that the hard-won peace that has been built in Northern Ireland over the last two decades has been built around a seamless border; and the fact that Brexit will create a wholly new situation.

On 30 March the Northern Ireland-Ireland border will for the first time become the external frontier of the European Union’s single market and customs union. The challenge this poses must be met not with rhetoric but with real and workable solutions. Businesses operate across that border. People live their lives crossing and re-crossing it every day. I have been there and spoken to some of those people. They do not want their everyday lives to change as a result of the decision we have taken. They do not want a return to a hard border. If this House cares about preserving our union, it must listen to those people, because our union will endure only with their consent.

We had hoped that the changes we have secured to the backstop would reassure Members that we could never be trapped in it indefinitely. I hope the House will forgive me if I take a moment to remind it of those changes.

The customs element of the backstop is now UK-wide. It no longer splits our country into two customs territories. It also means that the backstop is now an uncomfortable arrangement for the EU, so it will not want it to come into use, or persist for long if it does. Both sides are now legally committed to using best endeavours to have our new relationship in place before the end of the implementation period, ensuring that the backstop is never used.

If our new relationship is not ready, we can now choose to extend the implementation period, further reducing the likelihood of the backstop coming into force. If the backstop ever does come into use, we now do not have to get the new relationship in place to get out of it. Alternative arrangements that make use of technology could be put in place instead. The treaty is now clear that the backstop can only ever be temporary. And there is now a termination clause.

But I am clear from what I have heard in this place, and from my own conversations, that these elements do not offer a sufficient number of colleagues the reassurances that they need. I spoke to a number of EU leaders over the weekend, and in advance of the European Council, I will go to see my counterparts in other member states and the leadership of the Council and the Commission. I will discuss with them the clear concerns that this House has expressed. We are also looking closely at new ways of empowering the House of Commons to ensure that any provision for a backstop has democratic legitimacy and to enable the House to place its own obligations on the Government to ensure that the backstop cannot be in place indefinitely.

Having spent the best part of two years poring over the detail of Brexit, listening to the public’s ambitions, and yes, their fears too, and testing the limits of what the other side is prepared to accept, I am in absolutely no doubt that this deal is the right one. It honours the result of the referendum. It protects jobs, security and our union. But it also represents the very best deal that is actually negotiable with the EU. I believe in it—as do many Members of this House. And I still believe that there is a majority to be won in this House in support of it, if I can secure additional reassurance on the question of the backstop. That is what my focus will be in the days ahead.

But if you take a step back, it is clear that this House faces a much more fundamental question. Does this House want to deliver Brexit? If the House does, does it want to do so through reaching an agreement with the EU? If the answer is yes, and I believe that is the answer of the majority of this House, then we all have to ask ourselves whether we are prepared to make a compromise. There will be no enduring and successful Brexit without some compromise on both sides of the debate.

Many of the controversial aspects of this deal—including the backstop—are simply inescapable facts of having a negotiated Brexit. Those Members who continue to disagree need to shoulder the responsibility of advocating an alternative solution that can be delivered—and do so without ducking its implications. So if Members want a second referendum to overturn the result of the first, be honest that this risks dividing the country again, when as a House we should be striving to bring it back together. If you want to remain part of the single market and the customs union, be open that this would require free movement, rule-taking across the economy, and ongoing financial contributions—none of which are in my view compatible with the result of the referendum. If you want to leave without a deal, be up-front that in the short term, this would cause significant economic damage to parts of our country who can least afford to bear the burden.

I do not believe that any of those courses of action command a majority in this House. But notwithstanding that fact, for as long as we fail to agree a deal, the risk of an accidental no deal increases. So the Government will step up their work in preparation for that potential outcome and the Cabinet will hold further discussions on it this week.

The vast majority of us accept the result of the referendum, and want to leave with a deal. We have a responsibility to discharge. If we will the ends, we must also will the means. I know that Members across the House appreciate how important that responsibility is. I am very grateful to all Members—on this side of the House and a few on the other side too—who have backed this deal and spoken up for it.

Many others, I know, have been wrestling with their consciences, particularly over the question of the backstop: seized of the need to face up to the challenge posed by the Irish border, but genuinely concerned about the consequences. I have listened. I have heard those concerns and I will now do everything I possibly can to secure further assurances.

I conclude on a personal note. On the morning after the referendum two and a half years ago, I knew that we had witnessed a defining moment for our democracy. Places that did not get a lot of attention at elections and which did not get much coverage on the news were making their voices heard and saying that they wanted things to change. I knew in that moment that Parliament had to deliver for them. Of course that does not just mean delivering Brexit. It means working across all areas—building a stronger economy, improving public services, tackling social injustices—to make this a country that truly works for everyone; a country where nowhere and nobody is left behind.

These matters are too important to be afterthoughts in our politics; they deserve to be at the centre of our thinking. But that can only happen if we get Brexit done and get it done right. Even though I voted to remain, from the moment I took up the responsibility of being Prime Minister of this great country I have known that my duty is to honour the result of that vote. I have been just as determined to protect the jobs that put food on the tables of working families and the security partnerships that keep each one of us safe.

That is what this deal does. It gives us control of our borders, our money and our laws. It protects jobs, security and our union. It is the right deal for Britain. I am determined to do all I can to secure the reassurances this House requires, to get this deal over the line and deliver for the British people. I commend this Statement to the House”.

Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 5:41 pm, 10th December 2018

My Lords, having had an unexpected opportunity to watch the Prime Minister delivering her Statement earlier today, I listened with great care and have also read it through. I was hoping that there would be some greater clarity about the Prime Minister’s and the Government’s intentions. Yet the Statement provides less clarity rather than more. The only reason the Prime Minister has given for denying Members of Parliament in the other place the opportunity to vote on the deal is that,

“it would be rejected by a significant margin”.

So what happens next? The Statement says that the Cabinet will step up preparations for no deal. Yet to date the so-called no-deal preparations are not going too well. The Government are already behind on legislation and statutory instruments. This is not strong or stable government. Despite the chaos unfolding around her, the Prime Minister appears to be in denial and the Statement says that she has “absolutely no doubt” that this is the right deal.

The Prime Minister seems to be saying to Brexit supporters that, unless they support her deal, they could get another referendum and lose and it would be divisive, as if the country is not divided enough already. Does the Prime Minister not realise that? To those who are against Brexit she says that, unless they support her deal, we will crash out with no deal, which would be catastrophic. It appears that the Prime Minister is trying to alarm and frighten Members of Parliament into backing her. That is hardly a great strategy and not a great endorsement for her deal.

I know that the noble Baroness the Leader of the House understands her responsibilities and duty to this House in answering for the Prime Minister, in such unprecedented circumstances, and I know that she will want to be helpful today. Given that the Cabinet has discussed this issue today, and she has spoken with the Prime Minister, can she give any indication of the timetable of when the meaningful vote will take place in the Commons? My information is that the Prime Minister would only tell Cabinet Ministers—probably because they would leak—that it would have to be before the statutory deadline of 21 January 2019. That is no answer because, if that is the case, the Commons would be unable to conduct any substantial business before such a vote.

This attitude is in danger of deepening the constitutional crisis that we are hurtling towards. Is there likely to be a vote before Christmas? What are the Prime Minister’s intentions at the European Council meeting later this week regarding the Northern Ireland backstop? Is she seeking changes—and if so, what—which would risk opening up other issues, or merely clarification? If it is the latter, why could she not have sought that already without delaying the parliamentary process?

Finally, as the noble Baroness has spoken to the Prime Minister today, does she have confidence in her to be able to squeeze concessions out of the EU 27, given that they consider the matter closed and she says that she will not shift from her red lines, or does she think that is stretching the season of good will just a little too far?

Photo of Lord Newby Lord Newby Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement.

This is a curiously insubstantial Statement. It appears to be a demonstration of one of the Prime Minister’s most tried and tested political tactics: kicking the can down the road for another week. Why? She is open and straightforward about that; she has been listening to what has been said and has formed the understandable view that the deal will be,

“rejected by a significant margin”, in the Commons. What is her response to this imminent rejection? She says:

“I spoke to a number of EU leaders over the weekend, and in advance of the European Council I will go to see my counterparts in other member states and the leadership of the Council and the Commission. I will discuss with them the clear concerns that this House has expressed”.

I am sure that she will explain that she cannot get the current deal through in its current form, but what happens next? She says that she will seek to ensure,

“additional reassurance on the question of the backstop”.

What does “reassurance” mean in this context? What specific reassurances is the Prime Minister looking for, particularly given that she knows that the reopening of the whole withdrawal agreement is simply not on offer? I think Leo Varadkar speaks for everyone who has given an opinion from the EU side today when he says:

“It is not possible to reopen any aspect of that agreement without reopening all aspects of it”.

Obviously, the Prime Minister is not in the market for reopening all aspects of the agreement, therefore she accepts that the backstop is not negotiable. Indeed she does, because she says:

“Many of the most controversial aspects of this deal—including the backstop—are simply inescapable facts of having a negotiated Brexit”.

She then challenges her opponents in her own party:

“Those members who … disagree need to shoulder the responsibility of advocating an alternative solution that can be delivered”.

It is quite clear, from everything the Prime Minister has said in recent weeks, that she does not believe that such an alternative solution exists.

Having in effect accepted that she will not secure significant changes this weekend on the backstop, the Prime Minister has reverted to one of her other most common tactics: the Government’s own Project Fear with regard to no-deal Brexit. She says that,

“the Government will step up their work in preparation for that potential outcome and the Cabinet will hold further discussions on it this week”.

I wonder how many weeks and how many Statements have contained that statement that the Cabinet will have further discussions on something and step up preparations for a no-deal Brexit. Can the noble Baroness the Leader tell us how much money has already been spent on a no-deal Brexit, and what the Government’s plans are with regard to expenditure between now and the end of March?

The Prime Minister then says that there is a real danger that if,

“we fail to agree a deal, the risk of an accidental no deal increases”.

But the possibility of an accidental no deal has disappeared with the Grieve amendment. You will have an accidental no deal only if the Commons, by some means, is denied the opportunity to vote on something else. The Grieve amendment now means that the Commons will have the opportunity to vote on something else in any circumstance. The noble Lord, Lord Callanan, shakes his head; perhaps he can advise the Leader what to say in response to that, because I thought that is what the Grieve amendment meant. If it does not mean that, perhaps she will tell us what it means.

Not only is there a whiff of decay around the Government in general, but there is an overwhelming sense that the Prime Minister is going through the motions before bringing the same deal back to Parliament either next week or early in the new year. It is now clearer than ever that the Government’s deal—the best possible deal, according to the Prime Minister—is an extremely unappetising dog’s breakfast. The Commons has already, in effect, rejected it; its last rites should now be given by the people.

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for their comments. It seems to be my weekly treat: responding to their responses to a prime ministerial Statement. I believe we shall have another next week so I look forward to that as well. Both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord asked about no deal. Of course, we do not want no deal but we continue to prepare for one. Extensive work has been under way for over two years. We have successfully passed critical legislation, signed international agreements, recruited additional staff and guaranteed certain EU funding for a no-deal scenario.

The noble Lord asked about money. As he will be aware, the Chancellor previously announced that £2 billion has been put aside for no-deal planning, and we have published 106 technical notices to help businesses and citizens to prepare for a no-deal event; we will continue to do that. The noble Baroness asked about a future date. She will be aware that no date has yet been set; the Prime Minister is now focused on securing the assurances for Parliament that she believes are necessary. The EU and Irish Governments have been clear that without a backstop there is no deal but, both in this House and in the other place, significant concern has been expressed, specifically about the perceived indefinite nature of the backstop.

As the Statement made clear, we had hoped that the changes we have secured would have been sufficient to reassure noble Lords and Members of the other place that we could not be trapped in a backstop indefinitely, but they have not done so. Therefore the Prime Minister will go back to the EU to try to get further reassurances and she is exploring a number of ways in which this may be achieved. Over the weekend, the Prime Minister spoke to Presidents Juncker and Tusk, Chancellor Merkel, Prime Minister Rutte and Taoiseach Varadkar. In those conversations, the leaders indicated that they are open to discussions to find a way to provide reassurance to Members on this point. These will be very important discussions. Over the next few days, in advance of the Council, the Prime Minister will speak and meet with leaders, the Council and the Commission. Discussions will happen at both official and political levels.

Photo of Lord Howard of Lympne Lord Howard of Lympne Conservative 5:52 pm, 10th December 2018

My noble friend the Leader of the House and the Prime Minister have spoken about the Prime Minister’s quest for reassurance, but the withdrawal agreement, including the backstop, is legally binding. Does my noble friend therefore accept that, to be convincing, any reassurance that the Prime Minister seeks and obtains will need to be equally legally binding?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

As I said in my response to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, and the noble Lord, Lord Newby, we will explore a number of ways in which this reassurance might be achieved. The Prime Minister has been clear that she has heard the voices of both Houses and will do what she can to achieve those reassurances.

Photo of Lord Soley Lord Soley Labour

There is a section in the Statement that implies that the two Houses will have more influence than they had before. Many of us think that is long overdue; had Parliament been involved earlier, it might have got us to a better place than we are in now. The Prime Minister talks in the Statement about being more in contact with the House of Commons in particular, but presumably also with this House. If the Government can expand on that, we might get an approach from Parliament that helps the Government in what is by any standard a major crisis.

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

In the debate last week, the Prime Minister said in her opening speech—and I repeated it here in my opening speech—that we are looking at ways in which Parliament can be more involved. Specifically, in the Statement today, she said and I repeated that:

“We are also looking closely at new ways of empowering the House of Commons to ensure that any provision for a backstop has democratic legitimacy and to enable the House to place its own obligations on the Government to ensure that the backstop cannot be in place indefinitely”.

The Prime Minister will continue to hold discussions with Members to think about how best to do that.

Photo of Lord Boswell of Aynho Lord Boswell of Aynho Chair, European Union Committee, Principal Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords), Chair, European Union Committee

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement and I assure her that it is not part of the role of the EU Committee of this House to take a partisan stance on these matters, particularly when feelings are running very high. However, will she reflect on two things which both arise from the context of what we might call renewed parliamentary interest in the management of the Brexit process? The first, not least because a number of our colleagues have been frustrated in making their contributions this evening, is to ask whether she will take back to her colleagues the possibility of this House’s involvement, at least on an advisory basis, in giving a view on whatever additional assurances the Prime Minister might achieve in relation to the backstop. The second goes rather wider in relation to no-deal contingency planning. It would be fair to say that the Government have been reticent in providing information to parliamentarians of all kinds about how this is going. Can we take it as part of the package that the Government will be more forthcoming on whatever basis is appropriate so that we can be alerted to the continuing process?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I echo the apologies that my noble friend the Chief Whip made to noble Lords who were hoping to contribute today. I am sorry that they will not be able to do so but, as the noble Baroness said, we look forward to hearing those contributions at a future stage. The Government have been very open about their no-deal preparations. As I said, we have published 106 technical notices, and many Ministers have appeared on many occasions in your Lordships’ House and in our committees to set out our plans, and we will continue to do so.

Photo of The Bishop of Leeds The Bishop of Leeds Bishop

My Lords, the Prime Minister says in her Statement that those who continue to disagree need to shoulder the responsibility of advocating an alternative solution that can be delivered. Surely that is everybody’s responsibility. She goes on to ask people to be honest about the implications of what they want. However, it seems to me that people have been honest for the last couple of years but they have not been listened to. Has the time now come for the Prime Minister and the Government to stop playing a zero-sum game and, on a cross-party basis, find a credible way ahead?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I am afraid I do not agree with the right reverend Prelate on that point. The Government have been listening and it is for that very reason that the Prime Minister has now decided to go back to the EU to discuss the further reassurances that people are looking for, as has been made very clear in this House and the other place.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Chair, International Relations and Defence Committee, Chair, International Relations and Defence Committee

My Lords, I will not try to put an aborted speech into a question. The noble Lord, Lord Newby, talks about “something else”. We know what his something else is—he has been very clear about it—but there are 16 or 17 something elses in the other place. Is it not a fact that Parliament is not a Government and that it cannot and never will agree by itself if it tries to take back control of this whole process? Is not the only conclusion a compromise negotiated by a Government with the agreement of the European Union, which we hope will make some small adjustments for that compromise? Does that not remain the only sensible way forward, short of total chaos?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I thank my noble friend. He is absolutely right that the negotiations involve compromise on both sides. We have a deal and EU leaders have been clear that it is the only one available. Having said that, we have recognised the strength of feeling on one particular issue—the indefinite, or perceived indefinite, nature of the backstop. It is something that both sides want to try to resolve because we both want a deal that will benefit the United Kingdom and the EU and ensure that we have a strong partnership going forward. That is in all our interests.

Photo of Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Justice)

My Lords, the CJEU’s judgment this morning gave the UK a simple way of withdrawing from Brexit—by unilaterally revoking our Article 50 notice. Should not the Government now reconsider their argument that a people’s vote would be undemocratic, as it is now two and a half years since the 2016 referendum and the various options for Brexit and their risks are better understood? Why should the people not be given the chance to put an end to this chaos rather than condemn the country to years of future uncertainty?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

The people have already voted: they voted in June 2016 to leave. This judgment may clarify the law but it does not change our position. I remind noble Lords that the people have voted.

Photo of Lord Campbell-Savours Lord Campbell-Savours Labour

My Lords, with the Fixed-term Parliaments Act in mind, is not perhaps the real reason the Prime Minister has backed off the fact that a second Motion of confidence would have to be held within 14 days, which means Christmas Day? Does that not suggest that we might be looking at a deferred resignation?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

No, the Prime Minister has been clear about why we have decided to defer the vote: it is because we want to try to secure the reassurances that will be needed to ensure that a deal that has the best prospects for this country gets through the House of Commons. That is what she will be focusing and working on in the coming days.

Photo of Lord Hannay of Chiswick Lord Hannay of Chiswick Crossbench

My Lords, will the Leader of the House confirm that the processes laid down in the EU withdrawal Act have not been spent and that therefore it is not a question of giving this House a chance to just debate any other reassurances she gets, but that we have to go through the whole business laid down in the EU withdrawal Act? Would she further say whether the Prime Minister, in her consultations with her colleagues in the rest of the European Union, will include in that the possibility of prolonging the period of Article 50 beyond two years?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

The noble Lord is right that specific conditions are set out in the EU withdrawal Act, and we will abide by them. The final two days of debate and subsequent vote in the House of Commons are being deferred to a later date and the amendments that have been tabled will stand when the debate is resumed. As I made clear to the noble Lord, our position on Article 50 has not changed.

Photo of Lord Reid of Cardowan Lord Reid of Cardowan Labour

I give way to the elderly gentleman.

Photo of Lord Tebbit Lord Tebbit Conservative

My Lords, my noble friend spoke of the possibility of not reaching an agreement with our friends in the European Union. In that event, does that also imply that we would not be paying them £39 billion ransom money?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

As I said, other leaders have indicated that they are open to further discussion on this issue and we remain committed to getting a deal. However, my noble friend is right that in the unlikely event that we leave the EU without a deal, the financial settlement as set out in the withdrawal agreement would no longer apply as there would be no withdrawal agreement.

Photo of Lord Reid of Cardowan Lord Reid of Cardowan Labour

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that her two arguments against putting this back to the people—that is, first, that the people have already voted and cannot be reconsulted and, secondly, that somehow any vote would divide the nation—are perfect arguments for abolishing general elections? That is precisely what a general election is: it is a reconsultation—after a period, in the light of experience and further information—by asking the people again. Can she tell us why those principles apply to a second referendum but do not apply to general elections?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

At the last general election both main parties said that they would respect the result of the referendum and deliver Brexit. We are doing that.

Photo of Lord Wigley Lord Wigley Plaid Cymru

My Lords, I welcome the emphasis placed by the Prime Minister and the noble Baroness on the word “compromise. Does she accept that if a compromise is likely to be acceptable, it would not be on the basis of crashing out without a deal? In those circumstances, why will the Government not rule out the option of crashing out without a deal to look for a compromise that can bring people together?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

As I said, because the deal has not yet been approved by the UK Government or the EU, there is still the chance that we will end up in a no-deal situation. It is a situation we do not want to be in but it is only prudent and right that we prepare for every eventuality, and that is what we are doing. The Prime Minister is focused on getting reassurances that will help and enable the House of Commons to feel that it can accept this deal so that we can move on with our relationship with the EU.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, two Cabinet Ministers in the past 24 hours have used the phrase, “managed no deal” as an alternative plan B. That sounds rather like a square circle. Can she explain what she thinks they may have meant by the idea of a “managed no deal”? Since the Prime Minister has also talked about a major shift of policy towards helping those who have been left behind in the deprived regions of this country, can she tell us whether there is going to be a government strategy to help the left behind which might involve a substantial reversal of the politics of austerity?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

As I have said in relation to no deal, that is not what we are working towards, but we have to be prudent and prepare for it, and we will continue to do so. I would say that we are pursuing many government policies in a whole range of areas, from education to our industrial strategy and housing. They will make sure that we deliver a country that works for everyone and that is better for everyone.

Photo of Lord Kilclooney Lord Kilclooney Crossbench

My Lords, the Statement correctly identifies the backstop as one of the main issues. Does the Minister recall the opinion of the Attorney-General that Great Britain is essentially treated as a third country by Northern Ireland for goods passing from GB into NI? This means that regular checks would have to take place between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, normally at airports or ports. Does the Minister recognise that in Northern Ireland people are saying, “They are abolishing the Irish border and instead creating a border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland”? That is dynamite to the unionist community in Northern Ireland. The Government need to tread very carefully. As one of those who negotiated the Belfast agreement, I can assure noble Lords that, living on the ground as I do near the border, the peace process is increasingly coming under challenge.

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I certainly respect the noble Lord’s views, and that is why we have consistently said that there will be no return to a hard border in Ireland. That remains at the forefront and it is a commitment that we will keep. The noble Lord will of course be aware that currently there are at least 30 different agri-food regulatory checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and that the island of Ireland is already a separate entity to Great Britain for the purposes of plant and animal health.

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour

My Lords, let us be honest about this. Is this not increasingly a desperate clutching at straws by the Prime Minister to try to heal divisions on this issue within the Conservative Party? That is why David Cameron led us to this unfortunate referendum in the first place. Why is it that the poor of this country—and it is the poor of this country—should continue to suffer and to be sacrificed on the altar of Tory Party political expediency?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I am afraid that I do not accept the noble Lord’s assertions. As I have said, the Prime Minister has listened to the concerns raised in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords about the perceived indefinite nature of the backstop. She will now focus on trying to address those to make sure that we get a Brexit that works for this country and for the EU.

Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I have just come back from Brussels, where I was talking about the lessons from Brexit. Essentially what I said was, “Don’t do it”. While I was there a friend said, “It feels rather like the days of David Cameron. We never knew what he wanted. We kept asking what the United Kingdom wanted”. The same is true of Theresa May looking for an agreement now. Can the Leader tell us what the Prime Minister expects to get on Thursday that will be clear to the EU 27 or to any of us?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

We have a withdrawal agreement and a political declaration that has been agreed. There is one issue that has been raised—the perceived indefinite nature of the backstop—that is still causing concern. It is that issue that the Prime Minister will be discussing with other leaders over the next few days and it is that issue on which we will hope to provide further reassurances. So I think that is quite clear.

Photo of Lord Anderson of Swansea Lord Anderson of Swansea Labour

My Lords, has the Leader received any assurances from our European colleagues that they are open to further compromises—and, if so, are we prepared to run the risk that opening one part of the deal will allow other countries to run their hobby-horses, be it on fisheries, Gibraltar and so forth?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I can certainly say to the noble Lord that in conversations over the weekend, the leaders that the Prime Minister spoke to indicated that they are open to discussions on a way to provide reassurance on the specific point of the Northern Ireland backstop.

Photo of Baroness O'Loan Baroness O'Loan Crossbench

My Lords, the Leader just told us that over the weekend, European leaders assured the Prime Minister that they are prepared to look at reassurances. Is she aware that the Irish Taoiseach, Mr Varadkar, said recently that,

“no statement of clarification can contradict what’s in”, the withdrawal agreement? That does not look to me like a situation in which there can be further consideration.

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

As I mentioned in an earlier response, the Prime Minister spoke to Mr Varadkar over the weekend. Discussions will continue but we are looking to talk to leaders, the European Commission and the Council to see whether we can provide further reassurance about that particular issue.

Photo of Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe Labour

My Lords, in answer to a Question from one of her Back-Benchers on the economic consequences of the deal, the Prime Minister said that the people will be no poorer than they are today. Is that what the Government believe the people voted for two years ago in the referendum? Now that we face a decline in standards over time, should not the people be given the opportunity to have a second say?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

The people voted to leave the European Union, which we are delivering. We are looking to deliver a Brexit that secures jobs and the economy and allows us to make free trade deals across the world. The future is bright and one that we look forward to.

Photo of The Bishop of Chester The Bishop of Chester Bishop

My Lords, I want to take the House back to the concept of a backstop. Is not the nature of a backstop that it must be a backstop? A backstop that one party can unilaterally abrogate somehow ceases to be a backstop. How can you negotiate away a backstop and it still remain a backstop?

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I have been very clear that there is no deal available that does not include a backstop. Concerns have been expressed about the perceived indefinite nature of the backstop. That is what the Prime Minister will discuss further over the coming days.

Photo of Lord Liddle Lord Liddle Labour

My Lords, would not the Government giving some idea of what they think might replace the backstop in the long run be more helpful? Will the Prime Minister tell the many Brexiteers in the other place that their proposal for a Canada-plus-plus or whatever free trade agreement will not resolve the problem of a hard border in Northern Ireland and so the Government will have to think of something else? Of course, that something else might be staying in the European Union, which is the best way to avoid the Northern Irish problem.

Photo of Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Baroness Evans of Bowes Park Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal

I agreed with the first part of the noble Lord’s questions but I am afraid that he had lost me slightly by the end. He is absolutely right that a Canada-style deal would mean a hard border in Ireland, which we have consistently raised concerns about. He is also right that there are other options; for example, there is potential for a short extension of the implementation period. We have also got agreement to look at facilitative arrangements and how they could be used instead. The backstop is not something that either side wants to use, but it is an insurance policy. The noble Lord is right that there are other options but no other deal on the table will deal with this issue. The Irish Government and the EU have been clear that there will be no deal without a backstop. That is what we have to address now.

House adjourned at 6.14 pm.