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Brexit - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:31 pm on 2nd October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence) 4:31 pm, 2nd October 2019

My Lords, I too planned to talk about democracy, but I thought I would start by referring to a brief encounter I had with a policeman at the bottom of my staircase this morning. I arrived and said, “Good morning”, and he said, “Brexit today, ma’am”. I paused, and momentarily thought, “I wish”. Then I remembered that, as a Liberal Democrat, I clearly do not wish that it were Brexit today. But I suspect that I am not alone in wishing that we were not four years from the day when this House started to debate the European Union Referendum Act 2015, because for the past four years, we seem to have been debating the same issues day after day in a stultifying Chamber, in a stultifying parliamentary system, which seems not to be getting us very far.

The Minister suggested this afternoon that we are finally making progress—indeed, this debate is to note our withdrawal from the European Union—but it is not clear how close we are to withdrawal. There are questions about the nature of our withdrawal, what it will mean and where the United Kingdom ends up. Much of the rhetoric during the referendum was about voting leave, taking back control. Taking back control could mean whatever the voter wanted it to mean about borders. The Home Secretary yesterday seemed to get very excited about the opportunity to take back control of borders.

Another issue appeared to be taking back control to Parliament—bringing decisions back to the United Kingdom—because the leave campaign told us that the European Union is not democratic. Yet the European Union has free and fair periodic elections once every five years to elect the European Parliament. This year, that included the United Kingdom. We were not supposed to have European elections this year, but so glacial is the process of our departure that we did. The United Kingdom, like the other 27 members, has the opportunity to elect Members of the European Parliament. That is a type of democracy. The House of Commons is also democratically elected. The House of Commons and your Lordships’ House are supposed to take part in the legislative process, but also in scrutinising the Government.

As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, made clear in his opening remarks, one of the points that the Supreme Court made last week is that it is also up to this House to scrutinise the Government—yet we seem to have a Government who wish to ignore Parliament. We heard earlier in Questions about the role of special advisers and of one Mr Dominic Cummings, a special adviser to the Prime Minister who is in contempt of Parliament. What does it say about the Government’s approach to Parliament that such an important special adviser is in contempt of Parliament?

The attempt to prorogue Parliament for five weeks, if not a contempt of your Lordships’ House and the other place, suggests that Nikki da Costa, the director of legislative affairs, perhaps does not fully understand the role of Parliament. In the advice given to the Prime Minister, there was a suggestion that while 34 days might be lost through Prorogation, that was actually only five sitting days—as if sitting in plenary session is the only thing that Parliament does. Had that Prorogation taken effect, we would not be able to ask questions, the Government could not be held to account and committees could not sit—and that is what the Government seem to want.