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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:42 pm on 4th April 2019.

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Photo of Lord Pannick Lord Pannick Crossbench 7:42 pm, 4th April 2019

My Lords, I had planned to be at the National Theatre tonight, on date night with my wife. We had tickets to see “Follies”. The follies that we have all witnessed in this House today sadly lacked the lyrics and the music of Stephen Sondheim that I will be humming to myself throughout the debate.

I support the Bill, but I am concerned about aspects of its drafting. In particular, your Lordships will have seen that the Bill envisages that, if the Prime Minister is mandated to seek an extension to the Article 50 period and given a specified date, as Clause 1 provides, and if the European Council then says no, that it does not agree to that but makes a counter offer of a different date for the extension, under this Bill the Prime Minister would have no power to agree. She would have to return to the House of Commons—presumably the next day, given the urgency of the matter—and meanwhile the European Council will not be sitting in Brussels waiting for the deliberations of the House of Commons; its members will all have gone home because the European Council meeting ends on Wednesday night.

This is all very unfortunate, because the laudable aim of the proposers of this Bill is to reduce the risk of a no-deal exit. However, there is a risk that, by reason of the drafting, that laudable objective may be damaged by the contents of the Bill, and I am concerned about that. Your Lordships will recollect that Aneurin Bevan told the Labour Party conference in 1957 that it should not send a British Foreign Secretary naked into the conference chamber. My concern is that this Bill will send the Prime Minister into the Brussels meeting overdressed with legal requirements.

For that reason, I shall be tabling, together with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, an amendment to the Bill for consideration in Committee on Monday which will address this problem. It will seek to make clear that this legislation does not affect the Prime Minister’s prerogative powers to seek or agree an extension to the Article 50 period to a date not earlier than 22 May of this year. A statutory instrument would still be required to extend exit day under the 2018 Act, as amended by Clause 2 of the Bill.

I very much hope that, over the weekend and when we debate this matter on Monday, the Government, Opposition and Liberal Democrat Front Benches will give careful consideration to the amendment.