Leaving the European Union - Statement

– in the House of Lords at 5:12 pm on 12th February 2019.

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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 5:12 pm, 12th February 2019

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:

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on the Government’s ongoing work to secure a Brexit deal that honours our commitments to the people of Northern Ireland, commands the support of Parliament and can be negotiated with the EU.

On 29 January, this House gave me a clear mandate and sent an unequivocal message to the European Union. Last week, I took that message to Brussels. I met President Juncker, President Tusk, and the President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, and I told them clearly what Parliament wanted in order to unite behind a withdrawal agreement: namely, legally binding changes to the backstop. I explained to them the three ways in which this can be achieved.

First, the backstop could be replaced with alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. Yesterday, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union met with Michel Barnier to discuss the ideas put forward by the Alternative Arrangements Working Group, comprising a number of my honourable and right honourable friends. I am grateful to that group for its work and we are continuing to explore its ideas.

Secondly, there could be a legally binding time limit to the existing backstop or thirdly, there could be a legally binding unilateral exit clause to that backstop. Given both sides agree that we do not ever want to use the backstop, and that if we did it would be temporary, we believe it is reasonable to ask for legally binding changes to this effect. As expected, President Juncker maintained the EU’s position that it would not reopen the withdrawal agreement, and I set out the UK’s position, strengthened by the mandate that this House gave me, that this House needs to see legally binding changes to the backstop, and that can be achieved by changes to the withdrawal agreement. We agreed that our teams should hold further talks to find a way forward, and he and I will meet again before the end of February to take stock of those discussions.

So our work continues. The Secretary of State and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster are today in Strasbourg, and last week the Attorney-General was in Dublin to meet his Irish counterpart.

Following my visits to Brussels, Northern Ireland and Ireland last week, I welcomed the Prime Minister of Malta to Downing Street yesterday, and I will be speaking to other EU 27 leaders today and throughout the week.

The right honourable gentleman the leader of the Opposition shares the concerns of this House on the backstop. I welcome his willingness to sit down and talk to me and I look forward to continuing our discussions. Indeed, Ministers will be meeting members of his team tomorrow.

I think there are a number of areas where the whole House should be able to come together. In particular, I believe we have a shared determination across this House not to allow the UK leaving the EU to mean any lowering of standards in relation to workers’ rights, environmental protections or health and safety. I have met trade unions and Members from across the House, and my right honourable friend the Business Secretary is leading work to ensure that we fully address all concerns about these vital issues. We have already made legally binding commitments to no regression in these areas if we were to enter the backstop, and we are prepared to consider legislating to give these commitments force in UK law.

In the interests of building support across the House, we are also prepared to commit to asking Parliament whether it wishes to follow suit whenever the EU changes its standards in these areas. Of course, we do not need to automatically follow EU standards in order to lead the way—as we have done in the past under both Conservative and Labour Governments. The UK has a proud tradition of leading the way in workers’ rights, while maintaining a flexible labour market that has helped deliver an employment rate almost six percentage points above the EU average. Successive Governments of all parties have put in place standards that exceed the minimums set by the EU.

A Labour Government gave British workers annual leave and paid maternity leave entitlements well above that required by the European Union. A Conservative-led government went further than the EU by giving all employees the right to request flexible working. I was proud to be the Minister for Women and Equalities to introduce shared parental leave, so that both parents are able to take on caring responsibilities for their child—something that no EU regulation provides for.

When it comes to workers’ rights, this Parliament has set a higher standard before and I believe will do so in future. Indeed, we already have plans to repeal the so-called Swedish derogation, which allows employers to pay their agency workers less, and are committed to enforcing holiday pay for the most vulnerable workers—not just protecting workers’ rights, but extending them.

As I set out in my Statement two weeks ago, the House also agrees that Parliament must have a much stronger and clearer role in the next phase of the negotiations. Because the political declaration cannot be legally binding and in some areas provides for a spectrum of outcomes, some Members are understandably concerned that they cannot be sure precisely what future relationship it would lead to. By following through on our commitments and giving Parliament that bigger say in the mandate for the next phase, we are determined to address those concerns. The Secretary of State has written to all members of the Exiting the EU Committee seeking their view on engaging Parliament in this next phase of negotiations. We are also reaching out beyond this House to engage more deeply with businesses, civil society and trade unions.

Everyone in this House knows that the vote for Brexit was about changing not just our relationship with the EU but how things work at home, especially for those in communities who feel they have been left behind. Addressing this and widening opportunities is the mission of this Government that I set out on my first day as Prime Minister, and I will continue to work with Members across the House to do everything we can to help build a country that works for everyone.

One area where the right honourable gentleman the leader of the Opposition and I do not agree is on his suggestion that the UK should remain a member of the EU customs union. I would gently point out that the House of Commons has already voted against this. In any case, membership of the customs union would be a less desirable outcome than that which is provided for in the political declaration. That would deliver no tariffs, fees, charges or quantitative restrictions across all sectors, and no checks on rules of origin. Crucially, it would also provide for the development of an independent trade policy for the UK that would allow us to strike our own trade deals around the world—something the Labour Party once supported.

On Thursday, as I promised in the House last month, we will bring forward an amendable Motion. This will seek to reaffirm the support of the House for the amended Motion from 29 January—namely, to support the Government in seeking changes to the backstop and to recognise that negotiations are ongoing. Having secured an agreement with the European Union for further talks, we now need some time to complete that process. When we achieve the progress we need, we will bring forward another meaningful vote, but if the Government have not secured a majority in this House in favour of a withdrawal agreement and a political declaration, the Government will on Tuesday 26 February make a Statement and table an amendable Motion relating to the Statement; a Minister will move that Motion on Wednesday 27 February, thereby enabling the House to vote on it, and on any amendments to it, on that day. As well as making clear what needs to change in the withdrawal agreement, the House has also reconfirmed its view that it does not want to leave the EU without a deal. The Government agree but opposing no deal is not enough to stop it. We must agree a deal that this House can support. That is what I am working to achieve.

I have spoken before about the damage that would be done to public faith in our democracy if this House were to ignore the result of the 2016 referendum. In Northern Ireland last week, I heard again the importance of securing a withdrawal agreement that works for all the people of this United Kingdom. In Belfast, I met not just politicians but leaders of civil society and business from across the community. Following this House’s rejection of the withdrawal agreement, many people in Northern Ireland are worried about what the current uncertainty will mean for them. In this House, we often focus on the practical challenges posed by the border in Northern Ireland but for many people in Northern Ireland, what looms larger is the fear that the seamless border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, which helped make the progress that followed the Belfast agreement possible, might be disrupted. We must not let that happen. We shall not let that happen.

The talks are at a crucial stage. We now need to hold our nerve to get the changes this House requires and deliver Brexit on time. By getting the changes we need to the backstop, by protecting and enhancing workers’ rights and environmental protections, and by enhancing the role of Parliament in the next phase of negotiations, I believe we can reach a deal that this House can support. We can deliver for the people and the communities that voted for change two and half years ago, whose voices for too long have not been heard. We can honour the result of the referendum and set this country on course for the bright future that every part of this United Kingdom deserves. That is this Government’s mission. We shall not stint in our efforts to fulfil it. 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) 5:22 pm, 12th February 2019

My Lords, I am grateful to the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement. I listened carefully but I do not think that any of us are any the wiser having heard it for a second time. I am not clear about the purpose of today’s Statement. As we have come to expect, the Government have precious little to report.

Like many noble Lords, I remember the days when Prime Ministers made Statements of substance that genuinely updated Parliament and provided new information—Statements that showed true leadership. In today’s Statement, the Prime Minister has not told us anything that we do not already know. We already know that in opening the negotiations, Mrs May set out a series of unhelpful and unrealistic red lines; for example, in ruling out a new comprehensive and permanent customs union. We already know that she sought legally binding changes to the backstop, replacing it with alternative arrangements to prevent a hard border—but the only reason for the backstop is that the Government were unable to identify any viable alternative arrangements. We already know that the EU emphatically rejected reopening negotiations on the agreement signed by the Prime Minister in November. We already know that Mrs May consistently and irresponsibly refuses to rule out leaving the EU without a deal, even though her own Government’s economic analysis shows that this would be hugely damaging.

Today’s Statement confirms that the Prime Minister has made no progress other than holding a series of further meetings to debate the exact same issues she has been debating for nearly two years. If media reports are accurate, the EU is totally bewildered that she seeks to return to the negotiating table while refusing to budge even one inch from those Lancaster House red lines. How many deadlines has the Prime Minister now missed? The agreement was supposed to have been reached in October; the original vote was pulled in December; and now there is not even a guaranteed vote on the revised deal before the end of the month. Each week MPs are told to expect a meaningful vote the following week, only for it to be delayed again and again.

Having seen off most of the amendments that she considered unhelpful last time, the Prime Minister’s request for another two weeks might just about give her Whips something to work with. But that all too familiar mantra that the only way to avoid leaving the EU without a deal is to support her deal points to a strategy to just run down the clock until the only options are her deal or no deal. As I and other noble Lords have said countless times, that is grossly irresponsible. The Prime Minister tells others to hold their nerve while she engages in her favourite pastime—it used to be played in the playground when I was 12—of kicking the can down the road. While she tells business and industry to hold their nerve, they are losing patience and being forced to make decisions factoring in the worst possible scenario—as we have seen from the Nissan decision on investment in Sunderland.

Part of me really wants to believe that the Prime Minister, a former Home Secretary, is simply too smart and too patriotic to be responsible for a catastrophic crash out of the EU, but we all know—though it is not in the Statement—that intense and expensive preparations are now being made for a crash-landing no deal. Can the Leader remind us of the Government’s budget for no deal? Can she tell us how many meetings she has personally attended with other Ministers and/or officials where no-deal preparations have been discussed? Can she confirm that, despite there being just 45 days to Brexit, with firms hired for no-deal contingencies being stripped of their contracts and police forces hiring personnel for crisis centres, this topic was not even discussed in any detail at today’s Cabinet meeting? Can she tell us why the legislation that the Government tell us is so necessary, deal or no deal, is being held up by the Government? The Report stages of the Agriculture and Fisheries Bills have not even been scheduled in the House of Commons, despite the Government cancelling the February Recess.

The Opposition have provided a clear alternative that we believe could gain the support of a majority of MPs and find favour with the EU. It is all very well the Minister laughing, but his alternative proposals—the proposals from his Government—have been soundly rejected by the House of Commons, and nothing further has come back from the Commons that can gain the confidence of Parliament. This is far too serious to be laughing about the situation.

Let me repeat that. We have provided an alternative that we think could gain the support of a majority of MPs and find favour with the EU—despite the Minister’s smirks. The Prime Minister has ruled out that alternative in favour of her rejected deal and the hopeless aim of reopening a closed legal agreement. This is my final question to the Leader of the House: if the EU 27 refuse to shift and the Prime Minister is unable to get agreement from Parliament for her deal, what will she do then? Will she accept the need to extend the Article 50 period, or will she simply march the country off the cliff edge?

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

My Lords, given that we are now only six weeks from the date on which we are due to leave the EU, this is a most remarkable Statement. It basically says that, despite her trips to Brussels and Ireland, her hard stare at Juncker and dinner with Varadkar, the Prime Minister has made no progress whatsoever in offering—far less negotiating—credible new terms on which we might leave the EU.

The Prime Minister’s cricketing hero is Geoffrey Boycott, who had a test average of 47.7. By comparison, I am afraid, the Prime Minister’s Brexit negotiations average is close to negligible. It seems that, rather than the somewhat pedestrian Boycott, her real hero comes from Dickens. I wonder when she first read about Mr Micawber and his optimistic but desperate philosophy that disaster would be averted simply by something turning up. This has clearly been adopted by the Prime Minister as her guiding principle. Of a more positive agenda there is no sign, and in two areas in particular this calamitous lack of leadership is seriously irresponsible.

First, it is now clear that it is impossible to get through all the necessary Brexit-related legislation by 29 March. Even if a deal were eventually agreed by the Commons, an extension of the Article 50 period would be necessary, if only to get this legislation through. By all accounts, the Prime Minister realises this. But instead of being open and asking for an extension herself, she is waiting to be defeated on this in the Commons, at which point she will go to Brussels, blame the Commons, and ask for one then. She is adopting the example of the French revolutionary leader, who, pursuing the mob, exclaimed, “I am their leader. I must follow them”. It is a complete and abject abrogation of leadership.

Secondly, there is the impact that lack of any certainty is having on the business community. Noble Lords may have read in the Sunday Times of the Wiltshire-based cheesemaker who sells a third of her product to Canada, and who is now having to suspend further shipments because she simply does not know on what basis they might be allowed into Canada after 29 March. Hers is one of thousands of businesses in the same boat. Talking of boats, there are ships ready to sail to and from the Far East which are not due to reach their destination until after 29 March. What advice on tariffs, labelling and standards are the Government giving those contemplating putting their goods on these ships?

More generally, the impact of the Government’s indecision is crippling the economy. Yesterday’s GDP figures, the fall in manufacturing output, the collapse in investment and the inevitable worsening of the public finances mean that you can forget windy rhetoric about the end of austerity. The public finances will inevitably weaken now, whatever Brexit path is chosen.

The only suggestions which the Prime Minister took to Brussels were either non-negotiable, such as a legally binding time limit or exit clause to the backstop, or non-specific: the so-called alternative arrangements. There was zero chance of these being acceptable to the EU. At one level, therefore, it is no surprise that she is putting off meaningful votes for another fortnight—there is nothing new to vote on. It is, however, somewhat depressing that it looks as though the Commons will not seek to force any of the issues on Thursday of this week. The clock will simply continue ticking, ever louder, for another fortnight. With 29 March so close, this brinkmanship is damaging and dangerous.

The Prime Minister, and I am sure the noble Baroness the Leader of the House, will be well aware that Geoffrey Boycott had a reputation for running out his batting partner in order to save himself. It seems that the Prime Minister is willing to leave the country stranded in order to save the Tory party. It is a demeaning strategy and one which deserves to fail.

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. The noble Baroness asked about no-deal preparations. I stress again that this is not what the Government want to do, but any responsible Government must prepare for it. Since 2016, the Government have spent around £4 billion preparing to leave the EU. I have attended numerous meetings—she asked about this—at which preparations for no deal were discussed. That is the responsible thing to do. I have also spent many hours in this Chamber talking about the benefits of the deal that the Prime Minister has negotiated, a deal we continue to work on.

The noble Lord and the noble Baroness asked about legislation. I remind the House that we should not underestimate the amount of legislation we have already scrutinised this Session; in the past fortnight alone, we have considered three Brexit Bills. However, I accept that there is still a significant amount of legislation to be passed. We will continue to work with the House to ensure that it has the time to do that. We will work constructively across the House on both primary and secondary legislation to ensure that that happens.

Once again, the noble Lord asked about extending Article 50. I can only reiterate what I have said on numerous occasions: Article 50 cannot be extended by the UK alone; it has to be done in consultation and agreement with the EU. It is unlikely simply to agree to extend it without a plan for how we are going to prove a deal that it knows can get through the House of Commons. That is the reason the Prime Minister is working so hard to achieve that.

The noble Lord and the noble Baroness mentioned uncertainty for business. Again, that is why we are committed to getting a deal and why we have negotiated an implementation period. The noble Baroness specifically mentioned Nissan. She is right that it is deeply disappointing that the extra jobs that would have come from building the X-Trail will no longer be created. However, it is important to remember that Nissan has confirmed that none of the current 7,000 jobs at the plant will be lost and that it remains committed to the United Kingdom. I remind the noble Lord, Lord Newby, that the UK is currently enjoying the longest unbroken quarterly growth streak of any G7 nation and has outperformed the OBR forecast of 1.3% growth in 2018.

The noble Baroness talked about the Labour Party’s position. As the Statement made clear, we believe that membership of the customs union is a less desirable outcome than that provided for in the political declaration. The political declaration explicitly provides for the benefits of a customs union but recognises that we can develop our own independent trade policy, which we are committed to doing.

Finally, the Prime Minister is committed to getting this deal through the House of Commons. She is totally focused on getting support. We want a deal. That is what we are working for.

Photo of Viscount Hailsham Viscount Hailsham Conservative 5:37 pm, 12th February 2019

My Lords, if I may, I say to my noble friend that this is a deeply disappointing Statement. Instead of asking Parliament to hold its nerve, which is an exercise only in procrastination or party management, surely the Prime Minister should say to Parliament that staying in the European Union on existing terms is far better than any deal she can negotiate. Surely that should be her recommendation to Parliament and to the country in a further referendum. She may fail and she may fall, but if she does that, she would be doing right by her country and would earn a great deal of respect.

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

The Prime Minister is committed to implementing the result of the 2016 referendum. She has negotiated a deal and we are now seeking legally binding changes to the withdrawal agreement to deal with the concerns on the backstop, while guaranteeing no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, in order that we can get the House of Commons to agree a deal that is in the best interests of both the UK and the EU.

Photo of Baroness Quin Baroness Quin Labour

My Lords, I support strongly the point made by the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham. The Statement makes a great deal about a guarantee of social, environmental and other rights. That sounds very good but is it not true that in reality, constitutionally, no Parliament can bind its successor? Further, those of us with longish memories recall how the Government fought tooth and nail against the so-called job-destroying Social Chapter—but when the Labour Government brought it in, we saw a rise in employment and a rise in prosperity.

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

We have been very clear that we are committed to improving workers’ rights. Indeed, as the Statement makes clear, we are prepared to commit to asking Parliament whether it wishes to follow suit whenever the EU changes its standards in relation to workers’ rights and environmental standards, which will of course be going forward.

Photo of Lord Hannay of Chiswick Lord Hannay of Chiswick Crossbench

My Lords, does the Leader of the House not recognise that it is a bit rich to tell us all to keep our nerve when we are strapped in the back of a car which the Prime Minister is driving towards a cliff? I wonder if she would like to comment on, and perhaps take some remedial action on, the fact that in the whole of this Statement there is not one word about the role of your Lordships’ House—not one word. The Prime Minister says she is reaching out to business, to trade unions and to civil society. She is not reaching out to this House, apparently. She notes that the other place has voted to reject leaving without a deal. She does not seem to have noticed that this House rejected that twice. Could the noble Baroness perhaps exert her efforts to persuading the Prime Minister that we do still exist?

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

I am happy to reassure the noble Lord that the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU is indeed writing to members of the EU committee in the same way that he has written to members of the House of Commons committee to seek views on engaging Parliament in the next phase of the negotiations. I can assure the noble Lord that the voice of your Lordships’ House will be heard. Of course, Ministers regularly attend and give evidence to our committees, which are considered very important. Certainly the views of your Lordships’ House are well heard.

Photo of Lord Wigley Lord Wigley Plaid Cymru

Can the noble Baroness confirm that if, on 27 February, another meaningful Motion is before the House of Commons and is amended to rule out a no-deal Brexit, the Government at that time would be bound by such a decision?

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

I am obviously not going to prejudge what the House of Commons does, but the Motion that will be brought forward will be an amendable Motion, and obviously amendments can be put down and voted on, and we shall see what the House of Commons decides.

Photo of Baroness Ludford Baroness Ludford Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union)

My Lords, would it not be more honourable for the Conservatives to acknowledge that it was the Liberal Democrats, especially Jo Swinson, MP, who championed rights such as flexible working and shared parental leave as well as equal marriage, and that we had to fight like terriers against the Tory Beecroft review, which wanted to even abolish unfair dismissal rights? As for agency workers, what has stopped the Government from announcing the pay derogation before now? Why should anyone believe that the Tories have seen the light and are to be trusted on employment or environmental regulations?

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

I am sorry about the churlish tone that the noble Baroness has decided to take. We are committed to workers’ rights and environmental standards. We have made that clear regularly. Governments of all hues have done a lot of work in this area, and, as I have said, we have plans to repeal the Swedish derogation, which allows employers to pay their agency workers less. We are committed to enforcing holiday pay for the most vulnerable workers. We will continue to ensure that this Parliament champions workers’ rights, and that is something we are all proud of.

Photo of Lord Lamont of Lerwick Lord Lamont of Lerwick Conservative

My Lords, I welcome what the Statement says about the Good Friday agreement. Of course, this is not the first time that the Government have emphasised this point—they have done so many times. But is it not all the more regrettable that Mr Juncker and the Taoiseach saw fit to parade a poster in public saying that Britain did not care about peace in Northern Ireland? Will she join with me in hoping that in future the negotiations will be conducted in a much more constructive spirit?

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

I am happy to reiterate our commitment to the Belfast agreement and indeed the commitment of the Irish Government and the EU. What we need now is to work constructively together. We are at a critical time of the negotiations and have some difficult discussions ahead. I think that we all want to move forward in a constructive manner and make sure that we can get a withdrawal agreement and the changes we are seeking that mean that the House of Commons will approve this deal and we can all move forward to talk about our bright relationship.

Photo of Lord Pearson of Rannoch Lord Pearson of Rannoch UKIP

My Lords, I hope I detect a chink of light in this Statement where it says:

“Given both sides agree we do not ever want to use the backstop, and that if we did it would be temporary, we believe it is reasonable to ask for legally binding changes to this effect”.

Does the Leader of the House agree that if the EU refuses to agree such legally binding changes, that would confirm that it remains in bad faith, and it regards the backstop as a device to stop us ever getting our sovereignty back, even eventually?

If that turns out to be so, why do we not offer the people of Europe continuing reciprocal residence and continuing free trade, but under the WTO, and, if that is not accepted, just go it alone under the WTO anyway, which holds no fears for us?

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

As both we and the EU have made clear, we do not intend to use the backstop. The Prime Minister, as I have said, is looking at three options in which the House of Commons has expressed an interest. These are alternative arrangements, such as technological solutions, a legally binding unilateral exit clause and a legally binding time limit. President Juncker and the Prime Minister had a conversation and have agreed that further talks will begin, and they will take stock later this month. We look forward to that having a successful outcome.

Photo of Lord Butler of Brockwell Lord Butler of Brockwell Crossbench

My Lords, is it not clear, despite what the noble Baroness has said, that it is quite impossible for Parliament to pass the primary and secondary legislation needed to have a comprehensive system of law if we leave the EU on 29 March? What is the Government’s proposal for dealing with that?

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

I say again, we are making good progress. As of today 424 Sis have been laid; we are making good progress. Since we returned in January we have debated more than 50. We have passed numerous pieces of legislation, and, as I said, in the last fortnight alone we have considered three Brexit Bills. Of course, in tabling legislation in this House we discuss it with the usual channels to ensure that we can give this House time to scrutinise legislation as it wishes. We will continue to do that in a constructive manner.

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

My Lords, Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition obviously have a key part to play in this whole business, and I think many of them wish it could be a responsible part. Could we ask, through the Leader of the House, where they stand now? If they are against the withdrawal deal—which they are—and if they are against no deal—which we all are—are they still in favour of bringing the whole thing to a general election, as I think they were earlier on? Could we just find that out?

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

I am not sure that I am the best person to ask, but what I can say is that the Prime Minister in her Statement made it clear that she welcomed conversations with the Leader of the Opposition. I believe that Members on both sides are speaking again tomorrow and will continue to do so. What we want is a deal that has the support of the House of Commons across the House of Commons because we want a future relationship with the European Union that is positive and progressive. That is something that I believe everyone on all sides of both Houses wants to see happen.

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

My Lords, I ask the Minister to explain a phrase which I find rather confusing:

“There could be a legally binding unilateral exit clause”.

I am not a lawyer, but I studied international law and I have worked with a number of international lawyers. My understanding is that it is a form of negotiation leading to contract, and just as you negotiate a contract you also have to negotiate the end of that contract. The idea that something could be legally binding in international law but that one of the parties could withdraw whenever it likes seems utterly contradictory, if not nonsensical. How can a unilateral exit clause be at the same time legally binding? If it is legally binding, does it mean that the EU can withdraw from any parts of the withdrawal agreement that it wishes in return?

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

I am sure that the noble Lord will be delighted to know that the Attorney-General is leading on these matters. He is a great expert, and I have every confidence in him.

Photo of Baroness O'Loan Baroness O'Loan Crossbench

My Lords, the noble Baroness referred to a number of statutory instruments which have been laid—400-plus. I draw the attention of the House, having just come from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, to the fact that only 150 or so have been scrutinised, let alone debated in your Lordships’ House. There is a huge amount of work left to do.

The second thing I want to ask the noble Baroness has to do with whether we crash out on 29 March, and time is so short that I am becoming increasingly fearful of this. The DVSA says on GOV.UK, “If the UK leaves without a deal, you might need ECMT permits to transport goods in the EU and EEA from 11 pm on 29 March 2019”. This is our transport industry trying to transport goods, and the supply chain and so forth across Europe. Social media is now running with the fact that people are applying for these ECMT licences and being refused. That will lead to economic instability of a greater nature in Northern Ireland because lorries transport goods across that border on a daily basis.

We know that economic instability leads to political instability and political instability leads to terrorism. We all have to support a process through which we get a backstop which is workable, which will not lead to a hard border and which is flexible. There is no sign that I have heard of how that will work. Can the Minister explain to us how it might work?

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, the Prime Minister has had conversations with President Juncker and she has seen the Taoiseach to talk about the changes that she believes will be needed to the backstop in order for that withdrawal agreement to get through the House of Commons. Those discussions are ongoing. I am afraid that I have not seen the specific issue that she raises on transport and social media, but I will make sure that the department is aware of it.

Photo of Lord Hain Lord Hain Labour

My Lords, is not the Statement a space filler rather than a scene shifter? On the Irish border, I urge Parliament to stick by the agreements that the Prime Minister made with the European Union on the question of the backstop. It is the only insurance policy available to keep that border open. The Prime Minister has come up with no practical alternative, I venture to suggest, because there is no practical alternative other than both sides of that border keeping the same customs and single market arrangements. Otherwise, it is actually impossible to keep that border completely invisible and open with all the identity issues at stake in the Good Friday agreement. We should say that we agree the backstop because there is no practical alternative, and then seek to negotiate a future trade policy.

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

I assure the noble Lord that there will be an insurance policy for Northern Ireland. Current discussions are about the form that it takes and how we get an arrangement that gets the support of the other place. It rejected the withdrawal agreement with that backstop in place. But I agree that the backstop that we have negotiated gives the whole of the UK tariff-free access to the EU market without free movement of people, without financial contributions, without having to follow most of the level playing field rules and without giving access to our waters. That is not something that the EU wants to happen. It is a backstop that was negotiated but the House of Commons decided it did not support it, so the Prime Minister is going back to have further conversations to try to get some changes that mean that the House of Commons can support it.

Photo of Lord Dobbs Lord Dobbs Conservative

My Lords, do you not just love the wonderful whooshing sound that deadlines make when they whizz past all the time, as we hear yet again? We have heard a lot today about the use of the term “boycott” from the noble Lord, Lord Newby. Of course, the term takes us back to a much darker time in our relations with Ireland. The seamless border about which the Statement talks is not just a border: it is part of a growing psychological and emotional union that has come about between our two peoples to put those times of boycott behind us. Could the Minister be a little more robust in joining with the point made by my noble friend Lord Lamont of Lerwick about the extraordinary remarks associated with President Juncker during the week about Ireland? I cannot think of anything more unhelpful to reaching an agreement on these matters than those and it raises the question of whether President Juncker actually wants an agreement.

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

I believe that both the EU and the UK want an agreement. We want a good deal and a strong relationship going forward. That is what everyone is working towards. Everyone needs a cool head. We need to negotiate and discuss and bring back a deal that the House of Commons can support so, as I said, we can move on to discussing the strong, future partnership that we all want between the UK and the EU.

Photo of Lord Campbell of Pittenweem Lord Campbell of Pittenweem Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Defence)

My Lords, this Statement is both vacuous in content and indeed in language. The truth is that the only important sentence is the one that reads:

“As expected, President Juncker maintained the EU’s position that they will not reopen the withdrawal agreement”.

Where is the hard evidence that the European Union is willing to depart from that position? If it were persuaded to do so, what concessions will the Government be willing to make in return?

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 made clear, both sides have agreed to hold further talks to find a way through.

Photo of Lord Empey Lord Empey UUP

My Lords, the Prime Minister visited Belfast last week and I must bring her back to the definition of backstop. The Minister has just been trying to sell and drawing attention to the good parts, as she sees them, of the backstop that has just been rejected. But is the Prime Minister talking about replacing the existing backstop with another one—an alternative—or is she talking about inserting something new into the existing backstop? Or is she talking about a completely different proposal altogether? The one thing that is missing in all of this is that there has been no attempt whatever to use the institutions of the Belfast Good Friday agreement as part of the solution —an Irish solution to an Irish problem. I believe that there is huge potential in there if somebody would pay the slightest attention to it.

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

In terms of the three options, one is for alternative arrangements, so something different using technological solutions, for example. The other two are legally binding changes to the backstop, such as a unilateral exit clause or a legally binding time limit. So there are three different options, two of which relate to changing the backstop that exists and one that is looking at alternative arrangements.

Photo of Lord Beith Lord Beith Liberal Democrat

My Lords, the Prime Minister believes that she will get an agreement even if it is at the eleventh hour. There must be a draft withdrawal agreement Bill. Has the Leader of the House seen the Bill? I am sure that she has. How many clauses and schedules does it have and how will this House deal with it if it comes to us within days or even hours of having to implement an agreement?

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

Noble Lords will obviously see the withdrawal agreement as soon it is ready and agreed. Obviously, the agreement will go through the House of Commons first and there will be time for noble Lords to look at it before it comes to us. But as I have said, the Chief Whip and I will work constructively with the usual channels across the House to ensure that noble Lords have sufficient time to scrutinise this important legislation. I have heard very clearly all of your concerns, believe me, and we will work together in order to make sure that we can pass this important legislation. But obviously the timing of that depends on the decision of the House of Commons. It is not in the gift of your Lordships’ House.