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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:14 pm on 4th April 2019.

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Photo of Lord Goldsmith Lord Goldsmith Labour 10:14 pm, 4th April 2019

My Lords, I am happy to support the Bill from these Benches, and I thank my noble friend Lord Rooker for bringing it to this House. I share the view that has been expressed that it would have been better if the Government had brought it, but we are where we are. I look forward to seeing it pass.

The purpose of the Bill was expressed quite shortly by my right honourable friend Yvette Cooper in the other place. I will quote what she said, which seems so right:

“The Bill simply provides for a simple, practical and transparent process to underpin the Prime Minister’s plan. It ensures that the extension has the support of the House of Commons, but also that we keep the parliamentary safeguard in place… She has recognised that she cannot implement anything in only nine days, which is why the extension is needed. This is a hugely important Bill”.—[Official Report, Commons, 3/4/19; col. 1135.]

I agree with that. It was described by the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Ipswich, as a modest Bill. Modest it may be and, in certain respects, that is much to its credit, but it is an important Bill because of the issues that so many noble Lords have spoken about this evening. As the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said:

“It was created in a vacuum, and the vacuum was created by a lack of leadership”,

because of uncertain times.

In listening to this debate, three points came across to me. The first was objection to the Bill from those who either view a no-deal Brexit with insouciance or actually welcome it. A number of noble Lords spoke in that way, such as the noble Lord, Lord Howard, who knows the high respect in which I hold him, the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, and my noble friend Lord Howarth of Newport, for whom I also have great respect. I profoundly disagree with their view that a no-deal Brexit is not a great problem.

This evening we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Stern of Brentford, important evidence-based concerns about what a no-deal Brexit would do. Other noble Lords have spoken about that in detail, and I want to add the reference that has already been made, although belatedly, to what Sir Mark Sedwill has said about the risks. It is not, as the noble Lord, Lord Fairfax of Cameron, described it, “a little short-term inconvenience”. Those are the merits of the principal point that has been debated.

The noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, rightly described the problem not so much as not trusting the Prime Minister, but not trusting the circumstances in which she finds herself and the people she finds around her. It is therefore an insurance policy. It may well be that, without this, the Prime Minister is able to achieve what she now wants, but it is important to have an insurance policy, as my noble friend Lord Liddle described it.

That took up most of the debate this evening. The second main point was the question of constitutionality. The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, referred to that. I was privileged to sit on the Constitution Committee when he chaired it, so I always listen to what he says with great respect. The problem is that we are in, as my noble friend Lord Liddle said, perhaps the gravest crisis since the Second World War and exceptional circumstances require exceptional measures. They are exceptional in a number of respects, not just because of the gravity of the situation with which we are faced but because of the apparent lack of ability of the present Government to solve it. That has led to the other place taking the view that it must step in to help resolve the problem.

There is a need for the Bill. It is important that we respect the other place, which has sent it to us. We will be giving it scrutiny, and I am glad that we will now continue this debate in Committee next week, although I have something to say about the critical need to get it done on Monday.

I am also glad, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said, that we have been able to have this Second Reading debate in a much better atmosphere than we had earlier in the day. It was an unpleasant afternoon for all of us. The comments made about Sir Oliver Letwin were uncalled for. He did not deserve them, given what he has been trying to do in the interests of the country, having been a loyal servant of the public. Although he did not come up so much in this debate, I also mention Dominic Grieve, who was my shadow when I was Attorney-General. A more honourable and honest man I do not know. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, that it was a pleasure to see the noble Lord, Lord Spicer, back in his place.

A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Howell of Guildford and Lord Cormack, and the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, referred to the importance of compromise. The Bill at least provides an opportunity for that to take place. Whether it happens is another matter.

I am very conscious that the House has been debating this, one way or another, for a number of hours, so I will wind up quite quickly. On the detail of the Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, raised the most important point about the royal prerogative. Following on what the Leader of the House said, the noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, raised the danger of the Prime Minister finding herself in a situation where something is offered which she would want to accept but which is not actually covered by the Motion that has been passed by the House. Does she have to come back? That ought to be looked at and, for our part, we will look at it before this matter comes back next week.

I want to underline, and end on, the importance of getting this done. Noble Lords will be aware, because they will all have read the Bill carefully, of the way it works. The day after Royal Assent is given, a Motion needs to be presented to the House of Commons—which it might or might not accept—setting out the time for the extension. That gives rise to two issues. One is that it is proposed by the Government—I would anticipate, by the Prime Minister—for the other place to consider. It is not the European Union setting out the timetable, but the Prime Minister must be given the date in time to pass it to the members of the European Council so that they can consider it before they meet on Wednesday. They will not thank anybody, I understand, if they are given it with very short notice. It is obviously an important decision for them and they will want to discuss it among themselves. That is why we must reach the position on Monday where we have dealt with all amendments in time for the other place to also deal with them that day and Royal Assent be given, so that the following day, Tuesday—only one day before the Council meeting—a decision can be reached on the timing.

A number of noble Lords have expressed happiness that we have been able to reach an agreement so that this does not go through the night tonight, but that was on the basis that we will conclude this on Monday—the Chief Whip talked about 8 pm. I hope all noble Lords will be able to co-operate on that. We have our work cut out, but not if we do it efficiently. At the end of the day it remains quite a straightforward and simple Bill, which we will be supporting.