Amendment 6

Part of Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill - Committee – in the House of Lords at 4:30 pm on 15th July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Goldsmith Lord Goldsmith Labour 4:30 pm, 15th July 2019

My Lords, I think it is fair to say that this has been a robust debate. Obviously, I support the amendment to which my name has been added and oppose Amendment 7A, proposed by the noble Lords, Lord True and Lord Forsyth, which would wreck that amendment.

I will deal with the arguments that have been raised against this amendment. I shall start with the first of them, which is that it is inappropriate in the context of Northern Ireland. I would have thought that the question of what parliamentary oversight and intervention are possible in relation to Northern Ireland is of the greatest importance. The Bill as it stands proposes, rightly, that reports will be published about the progress towards the formation of an Executive in Northern Ireland. Should Parliament not be there to receive those reports, to debate them, to consider them and to make recommendations on them, that would be the consequence of stopping Parliament sitting during that period.

I note that David Sterling, the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, said only the other day:

“We have lacked that ministerial voice in Whitehall that has championed the cause of Northern Ireland”.

So to find that Parliament was not sitting just at the time when the issues with which this Bill is concerned were coming up would be a great tragedy. So it is very much an issue which Northern Ireland should be concerned about.

But of course it is broader than that. The debate has made that very clear. The argument that the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Ipswich, started with must be right. If what we are talking about is the possibility that Parliament will be banned from meeting and expressing views during the critical period when we are leaving the European Union—I accept of course that the Bill says what the date is, but it is open to Parliament to do something else if it chooses to do so—to say that Parliament should not be there at that stage is a constitutional impropriety and would be a great assault on our current constitution.

It is said, and it is argued by the opponents of this amendment, that it is there to frustrate the will of the people in relation to leaving. Well, it cannot do that. Nobody suggests that it can do that. As one of those who signed the amendment, I do not suggest that it does that. What it would do is make sure that Parliament was there at the time that decisions were being made so that we did not have a situation where at the time of one of the greatest decisions this country has made in recent times there was simply an Executive and no Parliament to oversee or control them. That would be the greatest assault on the constitutional traditions of which I am so proud, as are so many Members of this House.

As the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, knows, I admire his debating skills and his opinions, but he has not responded to the question put by my noble friend. I hope that when the Minister gets to his feet he may be able to give a clear answer on whether in fact this can all be brought to an end by a statement that there is no risk and that there will be no Prorogation. Unfortunately I expect that that is outside his power—and I see he is nodding. I suspected that was the case, and we all know why that is so. That would be an end to this debate. As it is, with that uncertainty as to whether Parliament will be allowed to sit during that critical period, we have to do something to allow an opinion to be expressed about that. The gambit would not be doing this; the gambit would be making sure that Parliament was not there at a time of crucial national emergency. That would be the constitutional gambit.

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord True, on a speech that succeeded in insulting everybody in this House: the Liberal Democrats for not being the party that supported leaving, obviously my Front Bench and me—I fully expected that—his former leader, Sir John Major, for what he said, and others as well, including his current leader, as I have just been reminded. But be that as it may; he is entitled to do that and to take those views. But what he said in attacking the judiciary and the rule of law was completely off target. I fully agree with the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, on this. The judiciary is indeed unelected. I remember losing an important case in the House of Lords—I think that the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, may have been on the other side; he is nodding both enthusiastically and with a smile on his face, so I would guess that he enjoyed the victory—precisely because the House of Lords said in answer to my arguments, “No, we are not unelected. We are there to carry into effect the law, even though that is something that the Government do not want to happen at this particular time”.

Having had the privilege of serving in that role, I know what the rule of law means. You have to defend things in front of an independent and sometimes critical judiciary. Sometimes you persuade the judges and sometimes you do not. However, it is absolutely critical to our democracy that they remain and are not attacked in any way.

Where does that leave us? I was struck by the remark by the noble Lord, Lord True, that the judiciary were not elected, so should not have a say. Of course, the people who are elected are in the other place. We are talking about making sure that those in the elected place are there to express the views that their constituents—the people of this country—believe are right. That is what should happen. This debate can be put to an end by whoever becomes the leader of the Conservative Party in the coming days making it clear that that will not happen—but until then, I respectfully say that this Committee should take the step of following the House of Commons by saying, “We should pass this amendment to make sure that Parliament is there and doing its job when Brexit comes around”.