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Brexit: Preparations - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:55 pm on 21st October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence) 6:55 pm, 21st October 2019

My Lords, I will follow on seamlessly from the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter. I have not had the advantage of seeing the Statement before the Minister repeated it, and so I am responding very much on the hoof.

I note that the Secretary of State suggested that it would have just been for the House of Commons to have voted in favour of this deal to honour the will of 17.4 million people. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, pointed out, there were many opportunities: three times, a previous deal was voted down, and one of those who kept voting against the previous deal was the man who is now Prime Minister. The idea that somehow the House of Commons could have, on Saturday, ensured leaving on time is an interesting concept. I understood leaving on time to mean leaving by 29 March 2019. Theresa May, as Prime Minister, said 109 times that we were leaving on 29 March. The idea that, on Saturday, MPs somehow prevented us leaving on time is a little misleading.

If we are to leave the European Union, it ought of course to be done in an orderly way. Preparations for a no-deal scenario make sense. But if preparations for no deal, or to leave at all, were so important, how unfortunate it was that David Cameron prevented the Civil Service even preparing for the eventuality of a vote to leave. How unfortunate that the preparations for a no-deal scenario, which we are led to believe were made in advance of 29 March, were ripped up.

The Minister repeated that freight capacity will be increased from 31 October and that four operators have been contracted for six months to deal with freight. I seem to recall that we spent quite a lot of time earlier in the year asking questions of the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, about the contracts that had been let and subsequently set aside for the previous no-deal arrangements. Will the Minister tell us how much these new contracts cost and what will happen in the event that we do have a deal? Are we contracted to four freight operators for six months whether we need them or not?

It is clearly important to have effective arrangements for a no-deal scenario. Yet it seems that, in the last weeks, the person who has done the most work is Michael Gove. He and his office have been preparing actively for no deal. He is now talking about working seven days a week. How much effort has been put into ensuring that there is sufficient time in the event that a deal is agreed? How much time is being put in place to ensure that Parliament can do its duty? It cannot go forgotten that the Prime Minister tried to prevent Parliament carrying out its scrutiny duty for five weeks by attempting a Prorogation, which was then deemed null and of no validity. That was precisely the time when Members of your Lordships’ House and the other place could have been scrutinising both the prospect of a deal and no deal. That time was wasted.

This afternoon in the other place, quite a lot of time was spent discussing how much time it will have to debate and scrutinise the withdrawal agreement Bill, which, as I understand it, nobody has yet seen. I know that the Minister will throw the Benn Act back at us and say, “Ah! But noble Lords wanted a truncated process”. But the Benn Act was a short and relatively simple piece of legislation. The withdrawal agreement Bill cannot be a short and simple piece of legislation. We are talking about enacting an agreement of over 500 pages. The withdrawal Act of 2018 is extremely detailed legislation. If there is a withdrawal agreement, the Act to bring it into play and to amend the withdrawal Act of 2018 will inevitably be deeply complex. The idea that we can do that within 10 days seems incredible.

Lest the Minister and others on the Government Benches wish to say that this is our own fault, I ask this: how much time are the Government proposing to allow Parliament to sit? Would it not be sensible, as the Father of the House of Commons has suggested, that the Commons sit later into the night and on Friday? It is little use to suggest simply that your Lordships’ House sit on Friday and Saturday. What about ensuring that the democratically elected Chamber has the time to do the job that it is meant to do?

Finally, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, talked about a ruse. I wonder too whether there was not a ruse. Are we being told that we must prepare for no deal to make the hysteria so great that MPs feel the need to adopt this deal—any deal—simply to avoid no deal? Surely that is not good decision-making.