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Brexit - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:55 am on 19th October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Mackay of Clashfern Lord Mackay of Clashfern Conservative 11:55 am, 19th October 2019

My Lords, I am sorry that my voice is not as I would like it to be today. My intention is simply to talk about the law as it is just now. My understanding is that unless we have a deal approved before 31 October, we will go out of the European Union without a deal. It is said that there is an answer to that in statute. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and I know a good deal about that, and I want to draw attention to a provision in the Benn Act which I think is important. I refer to Section 1(4):

“The Prime Minister must seek to obtain from the European Council an extension of the period under Article 50(3) of the Treaty on European Union ending at 11.00pm on 31 October 2019 by sending to the President of the European Council a letter in the form set out in the Schedule to this Act requesting an extension of that period to 11.00pm on 31 January 2020”.

Why? What is this wanted for? It is,

“in order to debate and pass a Bill to implement the agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union under Article 50(2) of the Treaty on European Union, including provisions reflecting the outcome of inter-party talks”.

That is the purpose for which the extension is being sought. Is there any truth in that as a purpose? I think not. I see no likelihood that the Parliament of the United Kingdom is going to debate and pass a Bill to implement Mrs May’s agreement. Therefore, what the Prime Minister is being asked to do is to send a letter for a purpose which we all know is incorrect. I must say that I am finding it very difficult to understand how we can do that.

This point was fully discussed in this House during the proceedings on the Benn Bill. I did not know anything about the history of this provision and I was amazed, when I read the text of the Bill at Second Reading, that this was in it. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, will remember that; others beside him had the same feeling. I was astonished. Then, on the Friday morning, my noble friend Lord Forsyth of Drumlean sought to get rid of that provision, but by a very large majority this House kept it in. That is the position and I would certainly like to know what we can do in the light of it, because otherwise, the law is in our statute book.

I should like to mention briefly one other point. In the decision of the Supreme Court, the important point was that Parliament has the responsibility, duty and power to call the Executive to account. You cannot easily call yourself to account and therefore, that makes a very important constitutional distinction between the area of operation of Ministers of the Crown and Parliament. That is an important observation in relation to certain of the proceedings which have taken place up until now.