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Motion A

Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc.) Bill - Commons Amendment – in the House of Lords at 3:15 pm on 22nd July 2019.

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Votes in this debate

Lord Duncan of Springbank:

Moved by Lord Duncan of Springbank

That this House do disagree with the Commons in their Amendment 1A.

Commons Amendment 1A to Lords Amendment 1

1A: At end insert— “(2C) If, as a result of Parliament standing prorogued or adjourned, a Minister of the Crown cannot comply with the obligations in subsection (2A) or (2B), a proclamation under the Meeting of Parliament Act 1797 (c. 127) shall require Parliament to meet on a specified day within the period within which compliance with subsection (2B) is required and to meet on the five following days (other than Saturdays, Sundays or a day which is a bank holiday in the United Kingdom or in any part of the United Kingdom) to allow for compliance with subsection (2B).”

Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland

My Lords, the other place has chosen to accept the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, requiring that fortnightly reports under Clause 3 be subject to Motions and debate in both Houses. That amendment has been further amended. The further amendment seeks to require that if Parliament stood prorogued or adjourned at any point when a debate might be expected under the terms of the noble Lord’s amendment, a proclamation would have to be made requiring Parliament to meet within the five-day period and for the following five days.

The Government’s position has been to oppose amendments which amount to procedural gambits in this area. Amendment 1A has little to do with Northern Ireland. This Bill is about enabling an Executive to be reformed and Clause 3 is concerned with ensuring that Parliament can be kept up to date on progress towards that aim. It is disappointing that the other place has chosen to take the issue of restoring devolved government to Northern Ireland and to misuse that as a wedge to manufacture debates around Brexit, drawing on a precedent designed for entirely different circumstances under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004.

This amendment seeks to take this Bill and the vital and sensitive issue of re-establishing an Executive and use it as an opportunity to create highly unusual procedural requirements here at Westminster to address UK-wide Brexit issues. That is not the message our Parliament should send to the people of Northern Ireland about the importance we accord to devolution there. The Government urge the House not to agree with the amendment from the other place. I beg to move the Motion in my name.

Photo of Viscount Hailsham Viscount Hailsham Conservative

I rise briefly to support the amendment passed in the House of Commons last Thursday by a majority of 41 and thus express my strong opposition to the Motion of disagreement moved by my noble friend Lord Duncan. In doing so, I say to your Lordships that I make no personal criticism of my noble friend; he always conducts himself with considerable dignity in this place and I know he is always listened to with great respect.

Last Monday, and on previous occasions, I expressed my strong opposition to Brexit. It is my belief that this is a matter that should be decided by the House of Commons through a meaningful vote and not by Ministers alone. I do not intend to repeat the detail of those arguments today and will confine myself to three points.

First, in the debates last week, some of your Lordships suggested that it was constitutionally improper for this House, an unelected Chamber, to pass the amendment then under consideration and subsequently accepted by the Commons. We were told by one of my noble friends that, by acting in such a way, we were putting the very future of this House in jeopardy; doubtless some of those who held such views will troop through the Government Lobby today. Keeping that in mind, it is truly bizarre that the opponents of the Commons amendment, the Government themselves, are now asking us—the unelected House—to frustrate a decision made by the elected House with a very substantial majority. The positions adopted by the Government last week and this are inconsistent and cannot sensibly be reconciled. To those who are about to do it, I say that to stand on one’s head in such circumstances is not credible, comfortable or dignified.

Secondly, I have said that I believe Brexit was an extraordinary act of national self-harm that was not supported by plausible assumptions or credible evidence. On Thursday last week, the country received the expert opinion of the Office for Budget Responsibility. Its conclusion is that, on any of the credible assumptions, a no-deal Brexit will cause Britain very serious economic damage. This is not Project Fear; it is a professional assessment of the likely outcome of a no-deal Brexit. It must surely be the subject of serious parliamentary consideration before any decision is taken to leave the European Union, whether on 31 October or some other date. Prorogation to prevent that consideration would be unpardonable.

Thirdly and lastly, the amendment in the Commons that we are now discussing is prompted largely by the well-founded anxiety that Mr Johnson—the likely next Prime Minister—might seek to suspend the sitting of Parliament to prevent the Commons challenging and perhaps overriding the decisions of Ministers. Last Thursday, in the debate in the House of Commons, Mr Johnson could have provided the appropriate reassurance. He was in the House. I am sure that the Speaker would have called him. Mr Johnson could have said that upon his honour he would do no such thing. He could have written to my noble friend the Minister, copied to all of us, giving such an assurance. He could indeed have used his well-remunerated pen to craft an article in those terms, though had he done so I would have liked to have inspected his computer to see whether another and quite different version was to be seen on the screen. But he has done none of those things. Quite the contrary: Mr Johnson voted against the cross-party amendment passed and now being discussed, and in his article in today’s Daily Telegraph he ignored the position completely.

Your Lordships are entitled to assume that such a constitutional outrage is indeed within the contemplation of Mr Johnson. Given that, this House—indeed, all of those who respect parliamentary government—must take every proper step to prevent such a disgraceful act happening. The Commons amendment now before the House is one such measure. Your Lordships should affirm it and reject the Motion moved by my noble friend.

Photo of Lord Tebbit Lord Tebbit Conservative

My Lords, last week, after a similar harangue from my noble friend, I described these manoeuvrings as a “dog’s dinner”. A dog’s dinner it was, a dog’s dinner it is, and a dog’s dinner is no better for being served cold a second time. We should, as my noble friend the Minister advised us, reject this.

Photo of Lord Newby Lord Newby Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

My Lords, early on in the Brexit process the right honourable Kenneth Clarke MP said that we were entering an Alice in Wonderland world. This amendment takes us further down the rabbit hole because it invokes an obscure bit of legislation from 1797 that had a completely different purpose in mind. But we need to remind ourselves why the Commons passed this and why we should support the Commons. It did so because it did not trust the incoming Prime Minister to behave in a constitutionally proper manner. It was not just remainiacs such as my colleagues in the Commons who behaved in this way; it was the 17 Conservative Members who voted for this amendment and the slew of Cabinet Ministers who abstained on it. These are the people who know Boris Johnson much better than I do—much better than most of us do—and they had formed a judgment that he was not to be trusted. That is why they voted the way they did and it is why we should support them.

Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Chair, Economic Affairs Committee, Chair, Finance Bill Sub-Committee

My Lords, I rise briefly to respond to at least one of the things that my noble friend Lord Hailsham said. He has talked about constitutional outrage but it seems to me that the purpose of this House is to preserve our constitution and our conventions, and that the purpose of the Cross Benches is not to behave in a political or partisan manner. For a fast-tracked Bill such as this, which has not followed the normal timetable of our procedures, to be used as a Christmas tree in this way to fight the ongoing battle between—to use the term of the noble Lord, Lord Newby—the remainiacs and the British people, who voted overwhelmingly to leave—

Noble Lords:

Oh!

Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Chair, Economic Affairs Committee, Chair, Finance Bill Sub-Committee

I am sorry—17.4 million people is pretty overwhelming when it came in the biggest democratic exercise that we have ever had. It stands in stark contrast to the 8% which the Liberals managed to get in the general election. It is the duty of this House to preserve our constitution, which depends on respecting our conventions. This amendment is quite improper. It is a piece of chicanery, added to a Bill which is being fast-tracked, on a subject which has nothing whatever to do with that Bill. It flies in the face of the speeches that we hear over and again, particularly from the Liberal Benches, about the importance of respecting devolution and the ability of the devolved Assemblies to carry out their purposes. I very much support my noble friend the Minister in asking the House to reject this amendment.

As for the sophistry that came from my noble friend Lord Hailsham, he argued that it would be wrong for us to overturn an amendment which had come from the Commons. That is absolute sophistry because we all know what is going on here: a minority of people in the House of Commons are trying to frustrate the wishes of the British people.

Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Chair, Economic Affairs Committee, Chair, Finance Bill Sub-Committee

The majority was for delivering the result of the referendum, which was passed by both Houses. That is what the British people expect to happen, so I have great pleasure in supporting my noble friend the Minister in asking us to rejectj the amendment.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

My Lords, the British people did not vote for a no-deal exit from the European Union. All I would say to my noble friend Lord Forsyth is that when he talks about sophists, it takes one to recognise one. The truth of the matter—I have tried to be scrupulous in this—is that if the Commons rejects a House of Lords amendment, most of us in this House do not vote again. We accept the will of the elected House. The will of the elected House on this occasion is clear and emphatic. It has given this provision a majority and we should not fly in the face of that.

Photo of Baroness Deech Baroness Deech Crossbench

My Lords, I have two simple questions which I hope can be clarified by those who are in favour of remain. First, how on earth can this amendment from the Commons prevent a Dissolution of Parliament if there is a call for an election? There is no way that Parliament could be re-summoned if an election were called in the early autumn and the period of Dissolution covered October. Secondly, the amendment from the Commons misses the point. We could meet and talk right through August, some have said, and right through September and October, but unless something is done to remove the date of 31 October, the default position is that we leave on 31 October. There is nothing that this Parliament can do about it because any attempt to postpone that date rests in the hands of the European Union. We are not sovereign in that respect. Only if the European Union agreed to an extension could that default position of 31 October be removed; therefore, the amendment coming from the Commons is pretty pointless.

Photo of Baroness Butler-Sloss Baroness Butler-Sloss Crossbench

My Lords, I will make two short points. First, Northern Ireland is as affected as the rest of the United Kingdom if we crash out on 31 October. Secondly, this is not an issue between leavers and remainers; it is an issue of whether we crash out or leave the European Union with a deal. It is important not to muddy the waters over leavers and remainers, when this is a separate and terribly important issue.

Photo of Lord Elton Lord Elton Conservative 3:30 pm, 22nd July 2019

While my noble friend Lord Cormack’s words are fresh in your Lordships’ ears, I remind the House of what happened in 2005, when the then Labour Government sent a Bill providing for the incarceration of suspected terrorists for 90 days without access to the law. This House sat from 2.30 pm on a Thursday until 7.31 pm on Friday night without ceasing to vote down amendments put by the House of Commons.

Photo of Lord Empey Lord Empey UUP

My Lords, it is hard to believe we are discussing the Bill on our agenda, which is the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill. It seems to have been omitted from people’s minds. I am sure noble Lords have read the debate in the House of Commons last Thursday in Hansard. The House of Commons devoted one hour to all the amendments passed in this House and the other clauses in the Bill. Apart from passing references and signals of annoyance from Northern Ireland Members, the amendments and substantive issues dealt with in the Bill and added to it were not even referred to.

I hope I am wrong, but the indications I have are that the unintended consequences from the initial Commons amendments to the Bill will make the formation of an Executive more difficult. That greatly saddens me. I hope I am wrong and that the parties surprise us and produce something that we all welcome. However, on paper, and from looking at social media and other comments, it seems we have created the most ridiculous position we could possibly have imagined. One of the red lines of Sinn Féin, which has been holding back an Executive, is to ensure abortion and same-sex marriage are applied in Northern Ireland. Leaving aside the nitty-gritty of that argument, we have contrived to ensure with the Bill that, should an Executive be formed, those two propositions will not take effect. That is what we have done: we have put an obstacle in the way of agreement. I do not believe for one minute that the proposers of the original amendments in the House of Commons had that as their intention. They were trying to regularise the legislation which, incidentally, they have signally failed to do, because the proposals in the Bill now are not the same as those that apply to the rest of the United Kingdom.

Leaving that to one side, this is the first time I have seen what should have been straightforward legislation completely distorted, in a way that not only makes the objective of the legislation more difficult, but has added matters that will cause us trouble in the future. I do not want to see us leaving the European Union with no deal. I am long enough in the tooth to know the implications of that but, if we as a country are serious about negotiating an agreement with our EU partners, we have no idea how to go about it.

Photo of Lord Bruce of Bennachie Lord Bruce of Bennachie Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Scotland)

My Lords, on same-sex marriage and abortion, the reality is that this House was implementing the express will of the Commons and improving the workability of those amendments. This issue has come from the Commons in response to an amendment that we passed back to them. I echo the noble Baroness in saying that to suggest that this has nothing to do with the people of Northern Ireland could not be further from the truth. A no-deal Brexit would be disastrous for Britain and catastrophic for Ireland, so we have every reason to support the amendment and reject the Minister’s amendment to it.

Photo of Lord Green of Deddington Lord Green of Deddington Crossbench

My Lords, what lies behind this issue is whether a future Prime Minister will have a credible threat of no deal. I do not want no deal, but I believe that, unless he has that threat, he will do no better than his predecessor.

Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, this is not about a no-deal Brexit; it is about the Prorogation of Parliament and importance of the issues before us in relation to Northern Ireland. The only issues before us in the amendment proposed by the Minister are constitutional. Despite my disagreement with him today, it is appropriate from the outset to say that he has been a great asset to the House and the Government in how he has dealt with this legislation, which has been complex and difficult at times.

Your Lordships’ House is always concerned with constitutional issues. Two arose in last week’s legislation. It is to his eternal shame and my horror that I often find myself in agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, on constitutional matters. On this issue, I partly agree with him but also part company with him. We are in extraordinary times. It should be quite unnecessary to have in any Bill something that says that a Prime Minister should not prorogue Parliament to get legislation through or to stop something happening. It should be a matter of course that we had sufficient trust in any Prime Minister that such an amendment would not be necessary.

Last week, this House agreed by 272 votes to 169 a cross-party amendment that there should be a clause in this Bill that required Parliament to be sitting to receive and debate the report on Northern Ireland that we had agreed to. We acknowledged also that the secondary purpose behind that amendment was related to the strong opposition that we believe exists in both Houses to the Prorogation of Parliament to force through or enable a no-deal Brexit, or any kind of Brexit, without Parliament sitting. Why was that so important?

Photo of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Lord Forsyth of Drumlean Chair, Economic Affairs Committee, Chair, Finance Bill Sub-Committee

I am most grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way; I am just following her argument, which is that the powers of a Prime Minister to prorogue Parliament should be limited because it might result in a no-deal Brexit. Why would she not extend that to the powers of a Prime Minister to call a general election? If a general election were called which lasted three weeks and 31 October was within it, we would have left the European Union. Is she not on very thin ice here?

Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I do not think that I am; I shall tell the noble Lord why. Patience is a great virtue, because I was about to come on to it.

The die is now cast. At 5 pm today, the ballot on who is to be the next leader of the Conservative Party and therefore the next Prime Minister will close. Neither candidate rules out no deal—that is a slightly separate issue. However, only one of them—the one most likely to win, Boris Johnson—has not ruled out shutting down Parliament in order for it not to take a view on crashing out of the EU. It may be that a no-deal Brexit is exactly what happens; I do not know—I am worried sick about it like most other people, but I do not know whether that will happen. But what I do know and firmly believe is that if any Prime Minister wants to take this country down that road they should stand at the Dispatch Box in front of their Parliament and say so as it happens.

Only Boris Johnson has not ruled out a no-deal Brexit. I find that deeply shocking. He is behaving more like a medieval monarch than a Prime Minister-in-waiting. King Boris might have a good ring to it, but he should remember Charles I.

As always, it is a matter for the House of Commons whether it accepts our amendments or not. Both Houses know that and respect that, yet this Government have always found it easiest, when the House of Lords disagrees with them, to dress it up as a disagreement between the House of Lords and the House of Commons. We saw that on tax credits and the Strathclyde report. Let us be absolutely clear today what we, the House of Lords, did in passing that amendment last week. We gave the House of Commons an opportunity, if it so wished, to insert a no-Prorogation clause into the Bill for the interests of Northern Ireland and on Brexit. The MPs did not just welcome the principle that we put forward, they felt that they should go further, be more explicit, clearer and put it beyond any doubt that, even if in recess, adjourned or prorogued, Parliament must be recalled. I think the public would expect Parliament to be here.

The noble Lord, Lord Empey, said there was no debate in the House of Commons. I listened to that debate. It was obviously shorter, because it was on ping-pong and just on our amendments, but this was referred to on a number of occasions through the debate. There was strong support, as was evidenced in the vote. So we support the amendment from the House of Commons and we disagree with the Government in disagreeing with it.

Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their brevity today. Last week was quite an odyssey, so I am very grateful for that. I listened with interest to the noble Lord, Lord Newby, who described this situation as being very much like Alice in Wonderland. It is not: it is like Through the Looking-Glass, and we have an interesting point to consider. A quote from Humpty Dumpty springs to mind:

“‘When I use a word’, Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less’. ‘The question is’, said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things’. ‘The question is’, said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all’”.

We now find ourselves in a debate that is no longer about Northern Ireland; we have departed from that considerably. Those who say that Northern Ireland is just as affected are, of course, quite right, but this Bill is about the talks in Northern Ireland: we should not lose sight of that.

What I am most concerned about are the words of the noble Lord, Lord Empey, who says that the very fact we are discussing this in this way may have an impact upon the talks. There may be unintended consequences of words meaning what we choose them to mean here but being heard in Northern Ireland in quite a different way. The real risk we face today is that last week we passed an amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, with some majority, to the House of Commons. What has come back to us is something significantly different: we have now moved beyond the idea of enabling the House of Commons to discuss these matters, to royal proclamations. We have gone beyond the notion of where we stand, to what we think we now ought to be able to control, and all this because we are anticipating what is in the mind of one of the candidates for the leadership of my party: that is all we are doing. Again, I come back to the point that this is about Northern Ireland’s talks process. We are here because we need extra time; because the talks have made progress but not enough progress. What we have done instead is conflate the talks in Northern Ireland, which have been challenging and have not gone at the pace I would have liked, with Brexit in all its manifest glory.

I am reminded of the law we are invoking today, dating back to 1797. The noble Lord, Lord West, is not in his place, but were he here he would remind us that in 1797 Great Britain won a great naval victory. Admiral Lord Duncan, a Member of this place at one time, secured a great victory at the Battle of Camperdown. Camperdown Park in Dundee takes its name from that noble battle. But 1797 is perhaps not a precedent we should be drawing upon just now: this Bill is primarily about restoring the talks in Northern Ireland. Instead we are attaching to it the desire of this place to frustrate the potential ambitions of one of the candidates in a leadership contest. I repeat, not in any way anticipating a call from either of the candidates, that it is important to stress that it would be presumptive of either of them to declare what they would do were they to be Prime Minister, because neither of them is Prime Minister. It is important that we keep focused, as we do today, on what the Bill is about.

Photo of Lord Framlingham Lord Framlingham Conservative

Am I right in thinking that this amendment originally was put down in the Commons, but the Speaker in the Commons did not accept it, as he did not think that it was appropriate? Then your Lordships’ House, in its wisdom, put it down, because we do not have those kinds of rules, so anybody can put amendments down here, and that has allowed the Commons to get at it by a totally different route. If that is not a ruse, I do not know what is.

Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

Would the Minister accept that it was completely within the remit of the House of Commons to vote that down if it had wished to do so?

Photo of Lord Duncan of Springbank Lord Duncan of Springbank Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office), The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland

Absolutely. Yet we find ourselves, once again, returning to where we began the journey—an Executive formation extension Bill, which now has a new bauble dangling upon it.

I have discovered in my two years in Northern Ireland how much I care about that place. This is an unfortunate hijacking of what we need to be able to ensure in Northern Ireland. But the will of this House will determine that. I believe that I have done all I can to suggest why we should indeed reject the amendment from the other place, but it will be for your Lordships to decide upon that matter. I commend this Motion to the House.

Ayes 146, Noes 260.

Division number 1 Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc.) Bill - Commons Amendment — Motion A

Aye: 144 Members of the House of Lords

No: 258 Members of the House of Lords

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Motion A disagreed.

Commons Amendment 1A agreed.