My Lords, I find myself having to move the last amendment slightly by accident. I will also speak to the other three amendments in the group. I apologise to the Committee: I had intended to group them with a much earlier group that was debated yesterday morning. Unfortunately, the way in which the Bill has been concertinaed caught me napping and I have ended up having to do this at the last gasp.
Since it is the last gasp, I want to say one thing. I am a little concerned. I have listened to a lot of the debate both in the Chamber and outside it, and I am reading the rest of it. I feel that this has not been a normal Committee in the House of Lords. That is not just because it has been concertinaed into three days; we understand why that is so. It is the first time, I think, that I have not heard or read debate on a single amendment when the Government Front Bench have said, “Yes, there are interesting points to consider here. We’ll take them away and consider them and perhaps have some meetings outside the Chamber before Report.” Again, the concertinaed timetable makes that difficult but that is the way the House of Lords normally works. This is a special and unusual Bill and we are in unusual times, but it is an indication of the way Brexit has divided not only the country—almost down the middle—but this House and every institution in the country. I believe that there is a fundamental lack of trust here.
Perhaps I am being presumptuous, but I will have been here for 20 years come May, so I have a right to be slightly so. I say this to the Government Front Bench: at times, I have seen the House of Lords descend into a certain amount of chaos, but most of the time it does a very good job of scrutinising and revising Bills. We now have a majority Government in the Commons. I have been here when there have been big majority Governments. There have been periods of Labour government during which we in the Liberal Democrats worked closely with the Conservatives, as the two opposition parties, and sent things back to the Commons time and again.
We have also negotiated with the Government; indeed, there were Lords Ministers in a majority Government during the 2000s who took it upon themselves to go back to the Commons and the Government to try to get a deal. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, who was here earlier, was excellent at that. On a number of occasions, he got deals on agriculture Bills and then came back here and satisfied—or at least half-satisfied—the Liberal and Conservative groups. I hope we will move back to that sort of thing once we get over the traumas of Brexit.
I sense a feeling on the Government’s side that everybody who is against Brexit—who voted to remain and tried to stop Brexit—is trying to stop the exit day on
I believe that, now the decision has been made, to quote whoever it was:
“If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well
It were done quickly”.
The quicker it can now happen—and everything can be sorted out in the meantime—the better. Then there is certainty and we can all move forward into the future. If some of us want to start long-terms campaigns to go back in, we can do that; but let us have the certainty of the end of this year, if at all possible. Many of us are very doubtful that the Government can do all the necessary negotiating by this summer but, if they can, good luck. They will need the help and assistance of opposition parties in Parliament—including in the Commons, where there is a huge majority—to achieve that. I believe that is what should happen. I do not know if that is the view of my group generally, but it is what I believe.
I have four little amendments, on which I will try to be quick because everybody who is still here wants to go for the trains. Amendment 48 comes back to the relationship with the devolved authorities and other “relevant” authorities, as it says here. We are back to the composition of the independent monitoring authority. Three of the members—or perhaps four, if Gibraltar is included—will have to know about “conditions” in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and perhaps Gibraltar. It is a strange phrase, “knows about conditions in”. That leaves the rest of the UK appointees, who are supposed to know about conditions everywhere.
The appointments of the specific people who will, in a sense, have a duty to represent what is going on in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—and perhaps Gibraltar—are subject to consultation with the relevant authorities in those areas. But if the authorities say they do not like the person put forward, the Government can go ahead anyway and appoint the person; all they have to do is write a few words as to why they have done it. That is a tiny thing, in a sense, but it seems to strike at the heart of the relationship between Whitehall and Westminster and the devolved authorities. I think it is wrong, and this amendment and another say that they have to come to agreement, in effect. It is not difficult to negotiate and come to an agreement in those circumstances.
The other amendments, which are slightly wild, add England to this. The present devolutionary settlement in this country—I am talking particularly about England and Scotland here—is not stable and, I believe, not sustainable for the future. This is just one little example of that. People will be there as UK persons but also representing England. It is not clear whether the people with special knowledge of Scotland and so on will have anything to do with England, but it is an asymmetrical relationship and is falling apart in all sorts of ways. Every time there is a little example of something falling apart, it just stokes up the pressure for Scottish independence.
In my view, Scottish independence as such, just brought about by a referendum, would be pretty disastrous for this island. We must sort out the relationship between Scotland and England. I say “we”, because at the moment it is assumed that the future of Scotland is all to do with people in Scotland. I do not think it is; it is to do with people in Scotland and England, because it is a question of the relationship between us.
Finally, if Scotland and Wales have representatives or people who know about the conditions there, why does not the north of England? These issues of devolution within England are going to come to the fore. I know this is far and away beyond the purview of this Bill and these amendments, but such issues will underline a huge amount that happens in this Parliament and a huge amount of the politics out there during this Parliament. If this constitutional convention can start to get to grips with those things—starting from scratch; not from “Will Scotland be independent or not?” but from “What relationship do we really want in future between Scotland and England?”—then Wales and Northern Ireland can follow along. Having said that—I am totally out of order talking about this under this group of amendments—I beg to move Amendment 48.
My Lords, I responded to an amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, on day 1 of Committee, so it seems we have come full circle. I offer a brief response to these further amendments regarding the independent monitoring authority. I understand that these are probing amendments, and I am keen to hear the Minister’s response, so I will not detain the Committee after three consecutive days of debate on this Bill, which I hope will not be a trend in future when debating Bills off the back of Brexit.
I am particularly interested in Amendments 49 and 50, which would prevent the Secretary of State from appointing a person to the IMA against the wishes of the relevant body. This suggestion strikes me as entirely sensible. Given previous ministerial assurances on the issues of devolution, I would be very interested to hear from the Minister in what circumstances the Government would seek to force through an appointment that had been opposed by a devolved Minister. If that were to happen, the current sub-paragraph (7) requires the Secretary of State to make a statement outlining the reasons for proceeding with that appointment. Can the Minister confirm what form this statement would take, and what opportunities, if any, the relevant devolved legislatures would have to hold the Secretary of State to account?
As was the case during Tuesday’s debate on Clause 15, we have noticed the importance of the IMA’s role and functions interacting properly with the devolved settlements. I seek to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and the House, that the IMA has been designed in a way that takes into account the individual interests and circumstances of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, England and indeed Gibraltar.
In addressing the amendments, I begin by showing the Committee that the Government’s approach to establishing the IMA, as set out in Clause 15 and Schedule 2, was reached following detailed and extensive engagement with the devolved Administrations. As a result of this consultation, we have ensured on the face of the Bill that the IMA’s board will contain members with knowledge of relevant matters in relation to citizens right across the United Kingdom. Those relevant matters include not only matters reserved for the United Kingdom Government, but also matters that are devolved to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Administrations. Therefore, we have provided a full and robust role for Ministers of the devolved Administrations in the appointment of candidates to board positions. Of course, parts of the citizens’ rights agreements that the IMA will monitor, such as provisions covering healthcare, welfare and education, are already devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which has been taken into account. That is why there is a requirement for expertise in these areas.
However, I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, that the IMA will also possess the same expertise specifically in relation to England. He refers to Amendment 48 as seeking to achieve expertise in that area, but I draw his attention to paragraph 4(1) of Schedule 2, which states that
“the Secretary of State and the non-executive members must have regard to the desirability of the IMA’s” board possessing relevant expertise in relation to citizens’ rights across the United Kingdom. It should embrace both reserved areas which are pan-UK and those devolved areas specific to the particular devolved Administrations. We can ensure by default that regard is had to the desirability of the IMA possessing expertise in relation to England. It is for that reason that Amendments 48 and 51 are unnecessary and I shall in due course invite the noble Lord not to press them.
I turn now to the role that we have provided for Ministers of the devolved Administrations, a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, in appointing these members following consultation. As I say, there will be a full and robust role for the devolved Administrations. They will be consulted on the skills and expertise required of candidates and the names of shortlisted candidates will be shared with them for comment. In the Bill we have also required the Government to seek the agreement of the devolved Administration before appointing these candidates and the IMA must contain the correct expertise.
We have included the contingency, which ensures that we can make crucial IMA board positions if and when there is ever a situation in which no agreement is forthcoming from the devolved Administration. If we were not able to do that—it is a matter of constitutional propriety—we would potentially be placing the UK Government in breach of their international law obligations under the withdrawal agreement, in terms of which a suitable IMA must be in place to safeguard the rights and interests of the relevant citizens covered by it. It is not only appropriate but necessary that we have such a default mechanism. However, it is not anticipated that we will ever be required to do that but the Bill provides that in such an eventuality the Secretary of State will have to make a published statement in the public domain so that people may comment on it. The Minister may be held to account for the terms of that statement if required.
We are confident that the appointments model will work for the devolved Administrations and that a collaborative approach will result in our being able to maintain a suitably qualified body to discharge the obligations that we are undertaking under the withdrawal agreement. It is for that reason that I invite the noble Lord not to move his Amendments 49 and 50, recognising, as he himself candidly observed, that they are essentially probing amendments.
That is the position that we find ourselves in. I hope noble Lords are reassured that these provisions in the clause are required so that we can have a properly constituted IMA that covers the entirety of the United Kingdom and Gibraltar and that we can, in extremis, ensure that we meet our obligations under international law. I invite the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.
I am grateful. I thank the Minister for his reply and his usual diligence. My mischievous gene says that I should now call a Division but I do not think that would make me popular with anyone and it is not necessary. I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 48 and, in so doing, wish everyone a relaxing weekend before we start again on Monday.
Amendment 48 withdrawn.
Amendments 49 to 57 not moved.
If Amendment 58 is agreed, I cannot call Amendments 59 and 60 by reason of pre-emption.
Amendment 58 to 61 not moved.
Schedule 2 agreed.
Schedule 3 agreed.
Amendment 62 not moved.
Schedule 4: Regulations under this Act
Amendments 63 to 68 not moved.
Schedule 4 agreed.
Schedule 5 agreed.
Bill reported without amendment.
House adjourned at 5.35 pm.