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Brexit - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:46 pm on 25th March 2019.

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Photo of Lord Goldsmith Lord Goldsmith Labour 9:46 pm, 25th March 2019

My Lords, nothing makes me prouder of being a Member of your Lordships’ House than sitting through a debate like this. Although we are, as the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, said, spectators at the moment, the wisdom, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said, strength of opinion and experience shown in a debate like this is extraordinary and something to be proud of. We also learned one or two things. I am not sure that I will get used to thinking of the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, as a national treasure. I still think of Dame Vera Lynn as the original national treasure. I can think hard about that, and I did not know that the middle name of the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, was Wolfgang, so one learns a lot in these debates.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, knows how much I admire him, even though I do not agree with the conclusion of his speech. I was particularly struck by the speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Newcastle. She reminded us of the risks to which Members of Parliament, particularly female Members, have been exposed—and not just by this issue but by another that is taking place at the moment, about which nobody can be the slightest bit proud. I wish her well with her three candles project, which sounds a tremendous way of trying to heal some of these divisions, as the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury told us would be necessary on a previous occasion.

I will come to what I take from the debate so far, but I first want to deal with the legal issues that have arisen. Noble Lords know that I turn up at these debates for that reason. We have not had many but I want to refer to a couple. We have had no change, which we had all been expecting, in the legal issues relating to the backstop. We have had no further opinion from the Attorney-General. We have had no change, as we know, to the withdrawal agreement. It is clear that there will be no change to the part of the withdrawal agreement that says that the backstop will continue unless and until there is a new agreement. That has not changed at all. Maybe we will come back to that at a later stage.

There has been a suggestion—I think the only person who mentioned it in this debate was the noble Baroness, Lady Deech—that Article 62 of the Vienna convention on the interpretation of treaties is a way out of the problem. I fundamentally, seriously and critically disagree with that. From a letter in the Times, I know—rather to my surprise, because I admire him very much—that it has the support of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick. I am sorry that he is not in his place, because he could jump up and tell me why I am wrong. He will have to do that on a later occasion. However, I have been back to the treaty and I do think he is wrong. The treaty says clearly that a fundamental change in the circumstances existing at the time of a treaty’s conclusion, and which was not foreseen by the parties, can lead to its termination. I do not see how one can possibly say that a failure to agree a deal is something that is not foreseen; obviously, that is what we have been debating for some time. That does not seem to be an answer to the conundrum that has been put forward.

One question that was raised, and which might be relevant, was whether international law trumps national law. Several noble Lords raised it, and it is referred to in the Prime Minister’s Statement. I notice that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen of Elie, in his place, so he can at least whisper the correct answer to the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, who is winding up this debate. My understanding is this. It is rather as though one is a member of a club. If the club’s rules say that you are no longer a member, or it decides that you are no longer a member, you can say as much as you like that you continue to be a member, but you are not. I think that that is what is going on. Whether it is right to describe that as international law trumping national law, I am not sure, but I am clear in my own mind that because the European Union has now said that the leaving date has changed, it has changed. Until that date we will continue to be a member and after that date, we will not be. The fact that there is little legal discussion in this debate probably indicates how peripheral these issues have been, compared with what your Lordships have really been considering today, with the wisdom, insight and perception that your Lordships show on these occasions.