Amendment 2

Part of Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill - Report – in the House of Lords at 3:56 pm on 17th July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Anderson of Ipswich Lord Anderson of Ipswich Crossbench 3:56 pm, 17th July 2019

My Lords, I shall speak to Amendments 2 and 3 but I do not intend to press Amendment 2, which on reflection adds nothing of substance to Amendment 3. These amendments, which are identical to those moved with cross-party support in Committee, provide that Parliament is to sit at specified intervals between September and, at the latest, December to consider the progress reports already provided for by Clause 3.

Amendment 3 serves a useful purpose in the context of this important Bill. As pressure is exerted to reconvene the Executive, there is every reason for both Houses of this Parliament to review and interrogate such progress as is made. The strong interest of this House in the content of those reports is demonstrated by the amendments agreed on Monday and by those which are yet to be considered today. But the greater significance of Amendment 3 lies less in the subject matter of the debates for which it provides than in the more fundamental fact that Parliament must be in session for such debates to take place.

If enacted, these amendments will express Parliament’s expectation of being consulted on not just these reports but an even more pressing political issue: the future of our relationship with the European Union. If Parliament were to endorse a no-deal Brexit, as it has not done to date, then from my point of view there could be no democratic argument against it. But for that decision to be left to our next Prime Minister, elevated to that office by members of his own party and freed of any requirement to obtain the consent of Parliament, would be another matter altogether. Before the beginning of the current leadership campaign, the notion that Prorogation might be used for the express purpose of silencing Parliament on Brexit could safely have been dismissed as fantasy but, extraordinary though it may seem, that prospect has not been disavowed by the leading candidate and, if reports are to be believed, cannot even now be ruled out.

The situation is uniquely grave because if we are driven over the cliff on 31 October, there is no way back up. An event that occurs while Parliament is prorogued cannot simply be reversed once Parliament is sitting again. So even a short Prorogation, if suitably timed, would permanently deprive Parliament of its voice on this most significant of political issues. Advice to Her Majesty to prorogue Parliament in such circumstances would subvert the principle that the Government are accountable to Parliament and present the monarchy with a highly unwelcome dilemma: no one could safely predict the possible consequences. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Attorney-General is reported to have told Cabinet last month that Prorogation would be unconstitutional and improper. My noble friend Lord Pannick, who cannot be in his place today, described it on Monday as “unlawful” and “a constitutional outrage”.

The legal effects of Amendment 3 will no doubt depend on the circumstances. It would be a matter for any court that may be called on to consider the matter. Others of your Lordships are better placed to judge their political force, but that too would surely be substantial. The Minister helpfully accepted on Monday that it was right and proper for this House to find a means to hold the future leader of this country to account, but when challenged on his statement that,

“there are other means by which it can be done”,—[Official Report, 15/7/19; col. 38.] explanation came there none. That put me in mind of Iris Murdoch, who wrote, in a rather different context, that we can pass,

“in a second from the time when it was too early to struggle to the time when it was too late to struggle”.

Your Lordships now have an opportunity to assert the necessary role of Parliament in these strange and alarming times. I invite your Lordships to do so by supporting Amendment 3.