Moved by Viscount Ridley
Leave out from first “that” to the end and insert “the attempt to accelerate procedures on the European Union (Withdrawal) (No.5) Bill is not in accordance with normal practice in either House of Parliament and the provisions of Standing Order 46 (No two stages of a Bill to be taken on one day) should be dispensed with only to the extent necessary to allow the First and Second Readings of the Bill to be taken on one day, the Committee stage on a subsequent day, and the Report and Third Reading to be taken on the same day subsequently.”
My Lords, I am getting quite used to losing votes today—but then, as a supporter of Newcastle United, losing never discourages me.
Right at the end of the last debate, my noble friend Lord Cormack refused to take an intervention from me; he has explained that he has to leave his place now. I was merely going to ask him, as an acknowledged constitutional expert, if he did not think that the ramming of a Bill through the House in one day would do more damage to the reputation of this House than these procedural debates we are having, which he said would damage the reputation of the House.
My amendment says that instead of trying to rush this constitutional enormity through in one go, in one day, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, would like to do—and I do not think a cogent answer has been given to the question of why that should be necessary—and to do so based on a flimsy, one-vote majority in the House of Commons of 313 to 312, which is 50.08%, we should take two stages today, two on another day and the final two on a third day. That seems a reasonable way for this House to go about discussing important matters.
I wonder if the noble Viscount has thought about the kind of image he is projecting as the fifth Viscount, a hereditary Peer, trying to subvert the elected Chamber of this Parliament.
I was coming to that. If I recall rightly, earlier today the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, referred to me, from a sedentary position, as a “constitutional monstrosity”. I am in this place because my great-great-grandfather was put here by Queen Victoria on the advice of Lord Salisbury. The noble Lord is here because Queen Elizabeth II put him here on the advice of Tony Blair. There is not all that much difference.
As I say, I believe it vital that we should debate this hugely important measure as freely as possible with as many attempts to get it right as we need. I express my astonishment that so many Members opposite, who normally take the view that the purpose of this House is to scrutinise legislation properly, suddenly want to abandon their principles and shove through a measure that would create a dangerous precedent for the future. This is precisely the sort of case where we need to tread with care.
We have taken three years trying to reach agreement on how to leave the European Union. We have been told again and again, both in this House and elsewhere, that we must get this right, yet now we are being asked to take a whole Bill through in a few hours—a Bill that defies everything the people asked us to do. As my noble friend Lord Forsyth said, this could lead to a slippery slope to tyranny.
Noble Lords opposite may laugh but that is exactly the point my noble friend made. Bit by bit, we are disentangling a very delicate constitution. If ever there was a time to ask the Commons to think again about shoving legislation through in this unprecedented and dangerous fashion, it is now. The people of this country are watching us and, as the polling evidence makes clear, they are not in favour of this kind of manoeuvre. Given the choice between a bad Brexit and a Brexit with no withdrawal deal, they have clearly expressed a view for the latter, yet this Bill would deny them that.
Moreover, I am astonished that so many Members opposite, who normally do all they can to prolong and encourage debate, and to revise and amend Bills, have suddenly discovered a love of closure Motions—of shutting down debate before it has hardly even started. What an extraordinary volte face. How many times have I come into this Chamber over the past few years to hear the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and others arguing that the Government have not given them enough time to debate an issue? Now, suddenly, they want to shut down debate.
My Lords, I have not once taken four hours and 31 minutes of the time of the House. If the noble Viscount would compromise between the time I normally take, which is 10 or 15 minutes, and the four hours and 31 minutes taken today, we would have finished about two and a half hours ago.
I have taken five minutes so I do not quite understand his point, but there we are.
I am always conscious that the House of Lords should not exceed its powers. It is not an elected Chamber and it does not have the democratic legitimacy of the Commons. That applies to life Peers as well as to hereditary Peers. Our job is not to force through legislation but to tidy up, revise, gently question, and sometimes to ask the Commons to think again. This is surely a case where we should be doing that. We should ask the Commons to think again about shoving legislation through in this unprecedented fashion. I am equally clear that if there is ever a time when the House of Lords suddenly needs to discover its constitutional teeth, it is when the Commons is doing something unconstitutional, egregious, hurried and potentially worrying. This is not an argument about Brexit but about doing things properly.
If there ever was a justification for the constitutional monstrosities of hereditary Peers being still here, it is that we can occasionally cry foul when a despotic majority tries to ride roughshod over the carefully balanced but fragile device that is the British constitution and—if noble Lords will excuse the mixed metaphor—to stand against the sudden and dangerous enthusiasm of a temporary, 50.08%, majority that does not want to do things in the proper way. What is more temporary than the majority exercised by Sir Oliver Letwin? In this case, the despotic majority is the Motion passed by a single vote in the other place at something like the third attempt. A majority is no less despotic for being small if it is allowed to be unconstitutional.
The purpose of the Commons passing that measure was to take control of the House of Commons and force a Bill on to the Order Paper to defy the clear wishes of a huge popular vote of 17.4 million people and deny them what they have voted for—namely, Brexit, if necessary without a deal, on the date they had been repeatedly promised. You can be in favour of that or against it—
Respectfully, can the noble Viscount supply the evidence to show that the 17.4 million British people who voted to leave voted to leave without a deal? They were given many options, and many promises were made to the effect that that would not happen. What evidence does he have that they would prefer no deal to any other outcome?
Can the noble Viscount explain why—when we have been telling ourselves for a long time that Parliament and the people no longer speak with the same voice—Parliament having made that decision and said those things is the same as the people having done so?
We are here because there is a difference between a remainer Parliament and a leaver majority in the country. That is why we are here; that is the problem we are trying to resolve. My argument is that this Bill does not resolve it because it denies them the clearest form of Brexit, which all the polls suggest an awful lot of people want.
Does my noble friend agree that a large number of people who voted remain in the referendum, including myself, have frequently said that they accept the result of the referendum and support the Prime Minister’s deal, and have sought to facilitate our departure? The reason the Prime Minister’s deal has failed is because his friends—the extreme Brexiteers—have put a block on it?
I do not agree. What has happened is that we were presented with a deal last summer that the British public, much of the House of Commons and even many remainers did not like. There has been a huge amount of opposition to that deal, and it should have been abundantly clear to the Government that it would not fly.
I said that I wanted to talk about—
In a minute—I have not even finished a sentence at this point. I said that I wanted to talk about the procedural points, and I have, but I have been diverted by these interventions on Brexit. I would be quite happy to save these points for the Second Reading later today, if noble Lords would prefer.
It is not the interventions which are distracting the House; it is the fact that the noble Viscount himself introduced the Brexit argument. He has made yet another unsubstantiated assertion; this time that the British public rejected Mrs May’s deal. Where does he get that information?
From opinion polls, and that is the best evidence we have.
As I said, one can be in favour or against the proposition that we should leave the European Union, or that we should leave it with or without a deal. I am acutely aware that, as we have seen in the past five minutes, most in this echo chamber of remain are wholly against it and are absolutely out of touch with people all over the country. However, we cannot deny that it is a matter of solemn importance, and, if the Bill goes through in the fashion proposed today, without proper debate and scrutiny, a lot of people out there may be very angry. They will be angry with us not because we spent a lot of time talking about procedure; they will be angry because we rammed through something without proper scrutiny and debate. I say again that the integrity of the constitution is the key point.
I am no historian, but I know that, for good reasons, we have arrived over the centuries at the delicate balance of powers we have in this complicated democracy. One of the key points is that all government Ministers are answerable in Parliament. Who is accountable in Parliament for the Bill that we will be asked to pass today? Will it be Sir Oliver Letwin, Yvette Cooper, Hilary Benn or Mr Bercow himself? They cannot be dragged to the Dispatch Box in the same way that a Minister can be, and they are not represented in this House by a junior Minister—unless the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, is now Sir Oliver Letwin’s junior Minister; I am sure she would be very good at it.
As my noble friend Lord Forsyth said, from the way Sir Oliver was talking in the Commons last night, in a shockingly disrespectful way towards this House, it certainly sounds as though this is the way he sees it. I remind noble Lords that he said:
“My hon. Friend may also wish to know, although I fear that it will also be of no comfort to him, that there is overwhelming support in the House of Lords for this measure”.
How dare he say that in advance of us even seeing the Bill? He went on to say that,
“we therefore anticipate that it will, in all probability … pass through the House of Lords very rapidly”.
He took the House for granted, and I hope that irritates noble Lords as much as it irritates me. He went on:
“To that end, the House of Lords has in fact already passed a motion that provides for the expeditious consideration of exactly this form of Bill”.—[Official Report, Commons, 3/4/19; col. 1067.]
Noble Lords will see how precedent works: suddenly, something we did in January comes back to haunt us. He went on:
“My sense, for what it is worth, is that although the House of Lords procedures are arcane and it is impossible to determine from the outside the time that will be taken, there is very substantial support for the Bill there”.—[Official Report, Commons, 3/4/19; col. 1071.]
Thus we are dismissed with a wave of President Letwin’s hand.
My time is nearly up. Let me end by saying that I find it peculiar that so many in this House urgently wish to rule out leaving the European Union without a withdrawal agreement, but show none of the same urgency and determination to rule out not leaving the European Union at all.
My Lords, my anxiety about going into Committee on the Bill today is that we will be doing so without the benefit of political commentators writing in broadsheet newspapers, without watching important television programmes and, most importantly, without taking account of academic constitutional experts. We will be sailing blind.
My Lords, I should like to speak in favour of the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Ridley. I had wanted to speak in favour of the two previous amendments but, because of the closure Motions, I was unable to do so.
I strongly agree with my noble friend that this House will not bring itself into disrepute in the country at large by using all the manoeuvres and powers available to it to prevent this Bill being passed by your Lordships today. The Bill has been passed improperly in another place, which has usurped powers reserved to the Executive in a way that is quite unforgivable when this country faces a difficult situation involving negotiations with the European Union and time is running out.
The Bill is designed to remove from the Prime Minister the ability to exercise the royal prerogative powers remaining to her to resist instructions by the European Union with regard to her request for an extension. She should be entitled to refuse a very bad deal. The European Union is likely to agree to her request for an extension—even for a long extension, God forbid. There is a huge majority in the country for bringing this matter to a conclusion as soon as possible. Any agreement with the European Union that resulted in a delay of another year or two years would be unwelcome, with ensuing costs to business, continuing uncertainty and the inability to make investment decisions that provide jobs for people. That is already happening—this situation is already costing companies more than might have been the case. Companies have got ready for no deal. I did not want no deal; I wanted a sensible, agreed deal—a Canada-plus-type deal.
I shall not, however, speak about Brexit now, as this is a procedural debate. It is quite proper for your Lordships’ House to have a procedural debate in circumstances where the House of Commons has broken its conventions, even on a matter of huge constitutional importance.
Furthermore, I am not sure that the Motion in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, is right. It says,
“further to the resolution of the House of 28 January that Her Majesty’s Government should provide sufficient time for this House”,
but it then goes on to contradict that. As I understand it, Her Majesty’s Government did not provide the time; the time was stolen by the noble Baroness and her associates, just as the time was stolen in the House of Commons.
We are seeing a complete breakdown in the rules by which our parliamentary democracy operates. In those circumstances, it is not correct for noble Lords opposite to suggest that this House will bring itself into disrepute or be regarded as overstepping the mark. This House is defending the majority of the people who want what they voted for to be delivered, and the Bill is designed to prevent that. It is quite improper for proper debate on the Bill to be truncated in the way proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and I strongly support the amendment of my noble friend Lord Ridley. It is a reasonable amendment: it suggests that we debate the Bill over three days, taking one or two stages on each day. That is quite a reasonable compromise, and I very much hope that your Lordships will support it.