Moved by Lord Stevenson of Balmacara
34: After Clause 15, insert the following new Clause—“Conditions of commencementThe provisions in Parts 1 to 3 of this Act may only come into force if—(a) a withdrawal agreement and a framework for the future relationship have been approved by a resolution of the House of Commons on a motion moved by a Minister of the Crown for the purposes of section 13(1)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, or(b) the House of Commons has passed a motion “That this House approves of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union without a withdrawal agreement and a framework for the future relationship”.”
My Lords, when I first joined your Lordships’ House, I was given tutelage in the ways and proceedings of this House. Indeed, I had a watcher who held hands with me, as it were, right through my opening period. One of the first things he said to me was, “When you get a new Bill, look at the commencement clauses, because they tell you how serious the Government are about their intentions”. Hidden in the interstices of the commencement clauses there is often a very good clue about how things happen. Some of the powers in a Bill come into effect immediately the Bill receives Royal Assent. Quite a few do not, and for them usually various elements come forward under regulatory procedures which are sometimes difficult to guess but which are very important to follow through to their logical conclusion. Nine years ago that was seared on my brain as an important thing, and I have never had the opportunity to do anything about it until today. I am therefore delighted to bring forward my first amendment on a commencement clause—and what an amendment it is.
As we speak, Divisions are happening in another place that will bear to some extent on the future of this Bill in its entirety, because consideration is being given to the question of whether there will be no deal. We have anticipated some of the thinking on that by wondering whether it would be sensible to give regard to the question of whether this Bill in its entirety had a commencement at all in relation to whether the other place had actually resolved that measures that would be affected by the legislation contained in this Bill had been given satisfactory agreement by the House of Commons.
There are two parts to this. Either a withdrawal agreement and framework for the future relationship with the EU must have been approved by a resolution of the House of Commons in a move by a Minister under Section 13(1)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, or the House of Commons must have passed a Motion that it approves of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union without a withdrawal agreement or a framework for a future relationship. These are quite tight and narrow constraints on the ability of this Bill to come into force. They are important because, in a sense, they tie the whole of the debates about our future relationship and trade in the widest context to the question of what exactly the Government intend for the future of the country in relation to the withdrawal Act.
The whole process can take effect only on the formal passing of a Motion or Motions by the House of Commons. This may not be the night on which such a Motion takes place. I understand that the amendments selected for discussion today do not fulfil the criterion set out in the withdrawal Act as being binding on the Government, although they will give us a clear view about where things will go. But we have been saying this for ages. Indeed, my credibility is shredded by the number of projections I have given to my family about what I thought was happening, all of which have turned out to be wrong. I am not proposing to go further tonight than simply saying that activity is happening that may have a bearing the future of this amendment. With that, I recommend to your Lordships’ House that we seriously consider this amendment. If necessary, I would like to test the opinion of the House.
My name is on this amendment, which seems to be an extremely sensible one. I support what has just been said. I had no mentor when I came into this House, and I had no one to hold my hand, so, as will be obvious to all, I am lost, particularly on the details of commencement. But it seems to me that one of the virtues of this amendment is that it would rule out proceeding in the event of an accidental no deal. An accidental no deal is still a real possibility. But any form of no deal would be an act of self-harm, which I hope will be rejected very strongly in a very few minutes.
I was very sorry to see that some members of the Government were proposing to vote for self-harm, which is very odd. The doctrine of Cabinet responsibility seems to have fallen by the wayside on an issue as important as this, where it is impossible to have a government line which all the Cabinet would stick to. It seems to me that, since Sir Robert Walpole’s time, the defining characteristic of British Cabinet government is Cabinet responsibility shared by a group of friends who can command a majority in the House of Commons. It seems that both of these conditions are not met. I am not sure how relevant that point is to the amendment in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, so I will say merely that I support it.
My Lords, as we move towards the final stages of Report, it is right that we reflect briefly on why we have this Bill. Primarily it is here in case there is a no-deal Brexit. It includes many of the provisions that the Government told us would have to be in place before exit day for preparedness in case there was a no-deal exit. That was the intention in January 2018, when the Commons first debated this Bill, and we received it in September.
It was still the Government’s intention then that there would be plenty of time to put this legislation on to the statute book in order for there to be a framework for the slew of continuity agreements that we would all be considering. So far we have three, representing 0.3% of UK exports, and we will be debating them later today. If we are going in the direction of putting this Bill on the statute book in order to facilitate a no-deal Brexit, it is right that it is an intentional decision by the House of Commons that that is indeed the path that we should go down.
If the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, presses this amendment, we will support it, because it is unconscionable, to use the Attorney-General’s word, that we will somehow at this stage find ourselves inadvertently in a no-deal scenario. However, we will have to reflect to some extent on what the House of Commons decides. The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, is absolutely right: not only has Cabinet collective responsibility now been ditched but there is not even any kind of collective responsibility within the Treasury. Today, the Chancellor talked about the shock to the economy and the deeply damaging elements of a no-deal Brexit. His deputy disagrees with him and will be in a different Division Lobby in the other place this evening.
Therefore, whatever the House of Commons decides, it is right that we provide a degree of certainty in this legislation, so that we cannot accidentally go down the path of a no-deal Brexit. If this Bill is to be enforced to provide that framework, it will have to be on the basis of a majority in another place specifically asking for it, and that is why this amendment is justified. As I said, if the noble Lord presses it, we will happily support it.
My Lords, I profoundly believe that we should not leave the European Union without a deal in place, but making this amendment to the Bill would not prevent that. Such an outcome would have to be stopped in another place with legislation or through the revocation of Article 50, and this amendment does not bear on that. Unfortunately, in that unhappy event, the amendment would remove from us the power to implement, for example, the agreement that has been reached with Switzerland. It is not ideal, but it is there. It has been entered into in good faith by us and by the Swiss on the basis that, in the event of no deal, we have to have that measure available.
I am afraid that it is also not true, as the noble Lord, Lord Purvis of Tweed, suggests it is, that the Bill is entirely occasioned for the eventuality of no deal. It enables us, for example, to establish the Trade Remedies Authority—we have just heard about the valuable work that it is doing—and it implements the Agreement on Government Procurement, which is a very large-scale issue for British services companies and others which want to be able to bid internationally under the WTO for such contracts. The amendment would stop this Bill coming into force, and we would therefore be unable to ratify the international Agreement on Government Procurement in the way that we were intending, and it would deprive businesses of the opportunities that that would provide. Much as I heartily concur with the intention behind the amendment, it would not have the effect that is sought.
I just want to make a point about the ability to have the regulations on the Swiss agreement. The Government are not using the likely regulatory powers under this Bill to ratify the Swiss agreement, so I do not think that the noble Lord is accurate on that point. They are using the CRaG process, not this Bill.
My noble friend the Minister may know what their intentions are but, as I understand it, in a number of instances—and I think the Swiss are among them—they will use what are effectively not just bilateral agreements with the Swiss but the opportunity to roll over the EU-Swiss agreements into UK-Swiss agreements, and the power here is available for that purpose.
I thank the noble Lords, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara and Lord Kerr of Kinlochard. I am particularly delighted to be at the Dispatch Box to answer the inaugural commencement amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson.
We have had extensive debates on the Trade Bill, during which I believe all sides have acknowledged the importance of its provisions. I do not believe that this House disagrees with the underlying principles of the Bill. As my noble friend Lord Lansley pointed out, it is not just for a no-deal situation; it is to cover whatever the outcome of the negotiations with the EU might be. I hope and trust that your Lordships will acknowledge the need for any responsible Government to bring forward these provisions.
The Trade Bill covers four important areas for consumers and businesses. This House has debated them and is well rehearsed in them, and I do not propose to repeat the key ones in detail here today. The fundamental point which I hope your Lordships will consider carefully is that, if we do not enact this Bill in a timely fashion, that will have a direct and adverse impact not just on consumers but on businesses.
I am very aware that there are activities elsewhere at this hour that might have a bearing on this debate, but I remind noble Lords of the comment of my noble friend Lord Lansley that, if passed, this amendment could have very serious consequences for the UK. If a vote is passed in the other place ruling out no deal but no Motion is approved in favour of a withdrawal agreement, the default position at law is that the UK will leave the EU at 11 pm on
The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, commented that the amendment would rule out an accidental no deal. We do not believe that it would; it would merely have the unintended consequence that, if there were to be an accidental no deal, the provisions would be prevented from coming into force. If the other place voted tonight in favour of no deal, the requirements in paragraph (b) proposed in the amendment would have been met. This would mean that the precondition for commencement would be satisfied, so the amendment would be rendered redundant by events.
Furthermore, as far as I am aware, no business groups or other representative organisations have indicated support for the amendment. In fact, many support the need to enact these provisions. For example, the CBI has stated that it remains,
“strongly supportive of the initiative to set up a Trade Remedies Authority”.
Similarly, the British Ceramic Confederation has stated:
“It is clear that we need a TRA, and it is certainly welcome that the Bill establishes one”.
We have heard cross-party support for continuity in both Houses of Parliament, and the International Trade Select Committee also confirmed that it struggled to find a witness who would speak against it.
I acknowledge, and understand, that passions and views are strongly held about whether this country should remain a member of the EU or leave. However, this should not distract from the core role of Parliament and of your Lordships’ House to ensure the best for this country’s people and businesses. No matter how strongly your Lordships feel about these issues, ultimately it must be a matter for the elected representatives in the other place to make a decision about the steps this country takes at this important moment in our nation’s history. This should not distract us from this Bill’s content, the importance of these provisions and the desire of consumers and businesses to see these vital provisions enacted.
During scrutiny of this Bill, the House has shown itself at its best, holding the Government to account and working with the Government to improve the legislation. However, for the reasons I have stated, we do not feel that there is a call for this amendment. I would therefore hope that the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, feels able to withdraw instead of pressing to a vote.
I am grateful to the Minister for responding as she has done. I pay tribute to her and her team for the considerable work they have done in trying to make sure that we get through this Bill and try to iron out the differences between us.
I think we will disagree on this. I have received information that the other place has voted 312 to 308 against a no-deal exit. We at least have that information in our hand as we think further about how this amendment might play out.
In response to the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, for whom I have a great respect and whose knowledge and experience have been very useful to the Committee and have informed our debates throughout the process of this Bill, we have already joined the GPA. That has gone through. The regulation-making power in the Bill is to make regulations about future changes in the GPA, not about the GPA itself. I disagree with him that we need this at this time. It may be necessary in future, but there may be other opportunities.
As has already been said, most of the establishing framework for the TRA is in another Bill already in place. As the Minister said, the Government have already introduced the regulations that give effect to the powers necessary for that to operate effectively. They are already through the House. The actual power in this Bill is not necessary. Many of its powers are not. They were appropriate earlier but not so now. I do not think we are talking about the substance of this. In some senses, this is a bit of a wake-up call to the Government, as well as a broader message to the wider community. On that basis, I would like to test the opinion of the House.
Ayes 193, Noes 154.