European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 5) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:17 pm on 4th April 2019.

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Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Labour 7:17 pm, 4th April 2019

Yes, he did. I have kept away from the debate on Northern Ireland. I had one year there as a direct rule Minister dealing with very much domestic issues. I know the sensitivities of the language used when you are there, what you talk about and how you discuss things with the five political parties. It is pretty serious, but the present situation in Northern Ireland is unacceptable to the people of Northern Ireland, because they have no democratic structures other than local government, which is what they had during all the Troubles. The councillors in Northern Ireland have carried the democratic burden alone for all these years.

When I do the half a dozen sessions for the Peers in Schools programme for the year, I always preface them by saying that we have two Houses of Parliament but they are not equal. That is the central message I leave. The role of the Lords is to scrutinise and sometimes to ask the Commons to think again—that is what happens when we have a defeat of the Government; that is just a message to the Commons—but knowing that the Commons always has the last word. But of course, we are not in normal times. The timescale for what we have facing us next week amounts to a national emergency, which is why the Cabinet received the advice it did last week.

We need to treat the Commons with respect. I watched some of the debate yesterday, particularly towards the close of the evening because I was not certain whether I would be speaking on this subject, if the Bill carried, or, if it failed, on the food debate we were due to have. The Commons, like the country, is split and divided. We should therefore treat it with a degree of respect, not criticise just because it was one vote—a personal comment was made today about one of the individuals who took part in the voting. The nation is divided and the elected House of Parliament is divided; we should take that on board. That is why people welcomed the attempt last Tuesday by the Prime Minister to try to get some kind of consensus. The Commons alone has the legal responsibility on the meaningful vote. Some of them have woken up to the fact that, besides the meaningful vote, every other procedure has to come through this Chamber so that it can be scrutinised and checked. That is why we are doing this Bill today.

It is a simple Bill; I know there is criticism about that. Things that are simple are usually unfair—the poll tax is the example I use—but it is a simple, clear Bill. If Ministers’ words in Hansard could be fully trusted, this Bill would not be needed. I disagreed entirely with the thrust of most of the speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, but her amendment was the one that was actually true in the sense that the Bill is not needed—but it is needed because people do not trust the words of Ministers, even when they are in Hansard. Enough have said repeatedly, “We will not leave without a deal”, but that lack of trust forced the Commons to produce this Bill, which in effect—I am not a lawyer—gives a legal force to that promise. I realise that it is not easy. I was aware early this morning that there were problems with the Bill; there were lots of discussions going on. I was grateful to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee and its chair, because I had its report in my hands and read it 20 minutes before the chairman made his speech. It is very helpful but makes it quite clear that there are problems over Clause 2. Along with other matters, these have to be dealt with.

We should debate the Bill—we have a bit more time now—and send it back to the Commons, but it has to be done in line with the timescale it is forced to work to. The European Council is on Wednesday. The Bill requires the Prime Minister, a day after Royal Assent, to make the necessary decisions. It is a bit tight. That is why it must go to the Commons on Monday and get Royal Assent that day, so that on Tuesday the Prime Minister can fulfil the obligation placed on her. It says “must”. I was queried earlier today on what the sanction is if she does not. I spoke to someone who has worked with the Prime Minister for the best part of just over 20 years, day in and day out. He told me she is the most law-abiding person he has ever come across and that even when she is late for a meeting she makes sure the car goes at only 29 miles per hour. She will follow it to the letter. If the Act says she must, she will do it. There is every confidence in that, but it is the timescale that she and we are not fully in control of. We have to do our bit for the UK and the Government so that decisions can be made next Wednesday at the Council about the reason for and the length of an extension to Article 50.

I think the Bill actually helps the Prime Minister at this stage in the process, and we should support it at Second Reading—the House does not throw Bills out at Second Reading, otherwise we could never scrutinise them. I beg to move.