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European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:08 pm on 13th January 2020.

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Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative 4:08 pm, 13th January 2020

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Earl. He made some extremely important points, underlining the fact that there is a continuing role for Parliament. Like other noble Lords, I look forward to the maiden speeches of the noble Lord, Lord Mann, and my noble friend Lord Barwell. It would be entirely right to pay tribute to my noble friend for all he did to produce what we now refer to as the Theresa May agreement, which many in this House would have accepted—with some reluctance—to move forward. However, the electorate have now told us to move forward.

I refer to the time in 1945 when the Labour Party had had a massive victory at the general election and the House of Lords was dominated by hereditary Conservative Peers. Two men with vision, judgment and an ability to compromise—the great Lord Addison, a great Lincolnshire man, leader of the tiny Labour Party in your Lordships’ House, and the Marquis of Salisbury—drew up what became known as the Addison/Salisbury or Salisbury/Addison convention: no Bill that was in a manifesto should be denied a Second Reading in your Lordships’ House. Of course, that obviously applies here, but I would argue that more applies here.

There are many aspects of this Bill that I think make it inferior to the previous one, but there will be ample opportunity during this parliamentary year to look at many aspects of the Bills in the Queen’s Speech, a number of which impinge upon our relationship with Europe. That is the time for us to apply our forensic powers of examining and scrutinising legislation. I very much hope—and it is because I have the future of your Lordships’ House very much at heart—that the Bill will not be subject to a great number of amendments and that there will be no votes on it in this House. It is, however much some of us may regret it, the manifest will of the people. The Prime Minister has a large majority, to which the noble Lord, Lord Newby, referred—very generously. It is the will of the people that we leave, and that we leave by the end of this month. That was explicitly stated throughout the election campaign.

Again, I am not saying that I was enthusiastic about that, but I recognise, as a democrat who believes that the ultimate power must always rest at the other end of the Corridor, that we would be foolish in the extreme to hold up this Bill in any way. There are other opportunities. We have our European Committee. We have a whole range of options for calling people to give evidence and for holding Ministers to account, but this Bill, imperfect as it is, is what the Government are determined to get through. We have to be realistic and recognise that the Prime Minister has two things at his command: a large majority and a large measure of euphoria in the other House, sustaining and impelling that majority. Whatever happens in your Lordships’ House, this Bill will go on to the statute book without amendment. Therefore, I implore colleagues in all parts of the House, if they have a real regard for our important powers of scrutiny and examination, to exercise them throughout this parliamentary Session and throughout this Parliament when there is not a time constraint, as there is on this Bill.

Let us flex our muscles, by all means. Let us have a vote, from time to time, by all means. As one who voted quite frequently against the Government in the last Parliament in your Lordships’ House and who also voted many times against his party in another place, I know that that can be done and sometimes should be done, but there are times when it should not be done, and this is one of them.