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Brexit - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:03 pm on 2nd October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 9:03 pm, 2nd October 2019

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Whitty confessed that he is going to weep on 31 October if we leave then. For myself, I have booked to see “Dracula”, the ballet, that night, which somehow seemed rather appropriate.

I am afraid I have to respond to the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton—and it is not just because I am wearing the Lady Hale tribute brooch. He asked what we have achieved by sitting for the extra days. The first thing is that we are able to be here today to discuss the proposals, which are incredibly important to this country, that were published at 3 o’clock this afternoon. The second outcome of that hearing is that it shows that there is a limit to a Prime Minister’s authority—which is particularly important at the moment, when Cabinet fails to restrain a Prime Minister, knowing nothing either of that application for Prorogation or indeed of the publication of today’s proposals.

I will say one other thing to the noble Lord. When people do not like the outcome of a court case and start challenging the judges, it is a serious and dangerous matter, especially for a parliamentarian. It is we, above everyone else, who should reflect on and respect the separation of powers.

The Minister has some major questions to answer this evening. I urge him not to bluster or blag, because we are at too serious a time. First, to repeat the central question posed by my noble and learned friend Lord Goldsmith, we need to know whether the Government abide by the law—not just in general, but a specific law, the Benn Act. No ifs, no buts, no fingers crossed, he said, no early “please reject our request” or parallel letters. The Benn Act, as we have heard, does not reject no deal but simply says, much as the withdrawal Act requires a deal to be agreed by the Commons, that no deal must be approved by the Commons, or else, if there is no agreed deal, an extension must be sought. As the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, said, that is in the national interest, as well as in accordance with the law.

Can we avoid any nonsense about there being defects in the Act? It was passed through both Houses, which is when Ministers should have engaged to resolve any shortcomings, if they thought there were any, because it was quite obvious at the time that it was going to become the law of the land.

We should heed the wise advice of the noble Lord, Lord Butler, that, even if these new proposals are the basis for an agreement, it will not be possible by 19 or indeed 31 October. To take the Prime Minister at his words, today’s proposals are the “broad landing zone” in which a deal can begin to take shape. They are probably the basis of a deal, but not by 31 October. Anyway, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, suggested, that particular date is hardly sacrosanct, other than in the Prime Minister’s rhetoric. As the noble Baroness, Lady Altman, said, even Brexiteers never dreamed it was going to be 31 October on a no-deal basis.

So we must be clear that we will need the extension allowed for in the law of the land, as Parliament has decided, if it is not possible to have a deal by the end of this month. Will the Government clearly state that they will obey the Benn Act?

Secondly, to help the Commons decide whether to accept no deal, to help Parliament debate the issue, and to help the public understand its implications, the Minister needs to spell out the remaining costs and risks, after all possible mitigation, of a no-deal exit. What do the Government estimate it will cost UK plc, and particularly the UK citizens most immediately affected, either those living elsewhere in the EU or in Gibraltar? Given that either the EU Council or the European Parliament might not agree to these proposals, we have to continue to ensure that we do not leave without a deal. And we need to see the updated Yellowhammer assessment and the Black Swan papers mentioned by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, and by my noble friend Lord Haskel. As my noble and learned friend Lord Goldsmith said, we need full, honest and frank advice about the consequences of no deal.

Thirdly, and crucially, on the “most sensitive land border in Europe”, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Birt, will the Minister explain how the new proposals respect the December 2017 commitment—a commitment made, as my noble friend Lord Liddle reminded us, while Mr Johnson was in the Cabinet, and therefore party to the commitment? It was, as we know, to “no physical infrastructure or related checks or controls” within Ireland—but we now read that Mr Johnson is proposing that there will be checks. Indeed, in some ways it will be an effective double hard border, with checks on both sides of the frontier—albeit a few miles away, presumably to honour his commitment—for any goods travelling between the north and the south.

The paper that we have seen today allows for regulatory alliance between the north and the south of Ireland to avoid a hard border, but that means there will be regulatory divergence between Northern Ireland and Great Britain—“a border up the Irish Sea”, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Empey. It also means that there will be a customs border in regard to tariffs across the Northern Ireland/Irish frontier. There will have to be customs declarations and collections. The noble Lord, Lord Lilley, said that that would be done easily on computers in the exporting factories. That might work for large regular exporters or importers, but not for one-off or irregular traders, nor indeed those having to complete complicated rules-of-origin declarations on what they produce. So the paper, as we have looked at it today—in haste, it is true—appears neither credible nor workable, and nor does it respect the undertaking to all-Ireland economic activity of no new checks and no Northern Ireland/Great Britain border.

Furthermore, there remains the question that the Minister failed to answer when I posed it last Wednesday: what about free movement of people after we leave the single market? Once we have different immigration rules, I assume that the idea is not to allow those who will not have enough points—we have heard that we are going to have a points system—simply to bypass our border checks by flying in to Dublin and then driving across to Belfast or perhaps Holyhead, or indeed direct from Dublin to Swansea. So would there be border checks between Northern and southern Ireland, maybe on trains, at the airports or on the Cork ferry, to enforce the different rules either side of the border?

Perhaps the Government are considering something completely different: compulsory ID, so that effectively checks are in-country rather than at the borders. These are vital questions to which we need answers. We need to know how these rather vague concepts will work, and that should be spelled out to the House. I have to say that, if we trusted the Government rather more, these might be requests for information rather than demands—but that trust has rather gone.

As the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, said, the country is more divided than he has ever seen it; yet, as the noble Lord, Lord Birt, said, there has been no attempt at reconciliation. Instead, the Prime Minister unlawfully prorogued Parliament for five weeks to stop us asking questions; he calls an Act of Parliament, which simply demands Commons approval for no deal or else more negotiating time, a “surrender Act”; and the Attorney-General labels Parliament,

“as dead as dead can be”,—[Official Report, Commons; 25/9/19; col. 666.] with no moral right to sit. Who is this tribune of the people, from the party that introduced the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, to decide that he should decide when we have an election and undo the very Act that he sought, and helped, to pass?

I am afraid it was only this evening that I learned from the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, that the full Cabinet had not even seen or endorsed today’s letter to the European Union. So where has Cabinet government gone now? Meanwhile, hearing the Prime Minister today, and watching him on television, comparing Parliament to a failing school and a reality TV show—the Parliament to which he is accountable and to which he owes his position—made me doubt his attachment to our proud history of parliamentary democracy.

The Prime Minister, who should have the country’s interests at heart, delayed revealing his Brexit plan until just after his party conference—putting internal party management above the right of Parliament to scrutinise, above the need to debate and consider a fundamental issue, vital to the country’s future: the terms on which we leave the European Union and our future trading and security relationship with the EU 27. That is a shameful disregard for the national interest.

It was exactly 34 years ago yesterday that my noble friend Lord Kinnock was brave enough to take on his party and say:

“You can’t play politics with people’s jobs and with people’s services and with their homes”.

It is time for the party opposite to look beyond the ERG, the single-issue Brexiteers and those whose own jobs and services and homes are not threatened by a no-deal exit, and to put the nation first. But for this evening, we simply need clear answers to some straightforward questions that my noble and learned friend, I and other noble Lords have posed. The House deserves nothing less.