European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 6) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:37 pm on 5th September 2019.

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Photo of Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Crossbench 2:37 pm, 5th September 2019

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Cashman. There are moments when one is reminded of what a privilege it is to be in this place. This debate is one of them. I think, in particular, of what the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, just said; how the noble Lord, Lord Patten, ended with his warning on Northern Ireland; what the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said; and what the noble Lord, Lord Hain, said. I do not intend to address any of the great themes that they touched on today, but it is a privilege to take part in a debate of such calibre. I did not feel that about yesterday’s debate for some reason.

I want to address two themes: a constitutional theme and a negotiating theme. One concerns our domestic affairs and the other our relationship with the EU 27. Both arise directly from the terms of the Bill we are debating. The noble Lord, Lord Patten, quoted my hero, Kenneth Clarke, who yesterday, in the House of Commons, referred to an element of disingenuousness in the prime ministerial position. I found it shocking that the documents revealed in the court case in Edinburgh show that the Prorogation plan and timing was decided in the middle of August and, for another two weeks, the No. 10 spokesman denied that there was or could be any such plan. I found it very shocking that the Prime Minister, when the plan became clear and the proclamation was issued, maintained that his motives had nothing to do with Brexit. Nobody in the country believed that, but it was still shocking to me to see in these documents from Edinburgh that it was precisely about Brexit. It was knowingly and deliberately about Brexit. Ken Clarke said that it was “disingenuous”. We have an issue of trust here.

The No. 10 spokesman said this morning that, if the Bill we are debating now becomes an Act, the Government and Prime Minister will not abide by it. I assume he misspoke, but we recall Mr Gove discussing this with Andrew Marr last Sunday and refusing to say whether the Government would implement the law of the land. They will wait and see what it says. On the same day, we saw that, among the clever plans that Mr Cummings is cooking up is simply not sending the Bill for Royal Assent. This is not exactly the “good chaps” theory of government. I find it difficult to deal with this issue of trust. I spent a long time in public service, and one did not see one’s political masters being disingenuous or telling lies. One saw them avoiding answering difficult questions. One found ways to help them avoid answering difficult questions. One gave them answers to other questions, which might be suitable, but one never drafted a lie. In 36 years of public service, I do not think I ever told a lie. Telling a lie is a stupid thing to do, because it creates a subsequent problem of trust. So we are legislating against a peculiar background.

I was interested in the discussion of legitimacy by the noble Lord, Lord Howard, and this being an opposition Bill. I found that discussion more interesting than the historical disquisition, where I do not entirely share his views. I do not share his views on the discussion of legitimacy at all. A Bill is a Bill. A Bill has been passed by the House of Commons and comes to us here. It is legitimate and the voice of the House of Commons. If we approve the Bill, it is then the voice of two Houses of Parliament. It does not matter who drafted the original; it is legitimate. It would be wholly illegitimate for the Government to decide to do what Mr Cummings hinted, which was to sit on it and not send it to the Palace, or what the spokesman this morning said they would do, which was to ignore it. That is a major constitutional issue.

When the Government reply to this debate, I hope they confirm that, if the Bill is passed by this House tomorrow, it will be sent for Royal Assent; and that, once it has received Royal Assent, it will be acted on. These are ridiculous questions to ask in our parliamentary democracy, but such is the issue of trust that one has to ask them.

My second theme is our relationship with the European Union.