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Amendment to the Motion

Part of European Union: Negotiations (European Union Committee Report) - Motion to Agree – in the House of Lords at 7:17 pm on 16th March 2020.

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Photo of Lord True Lord True Chair, Intergenerational Fairness and Provision Committee, Minister of State (Cabinet Office) 7:17 pm, 16th March 2020

My Lords, it is an unfortunate condition of democratic life that not everybody accepts the contention that is put forward by somebody on the other side. When I hear a plea being made for indefinite open-ended deferment—if I may go that far—that might or might not be a move towards abandonment. Let us not argue about that. My contention is that, in so far as possible, the business of this Government should go on. Until instructed otherwise, my view is that the central promise made by this Government to the electorate at the recent general election was that they would accomplish the completion of this process—and by the date agreed by both the European Union and the British Government: 31 December 2020. As I stand here, the position of the Government is that we should seek to conclude the arrangements on the timetable set out.

Having been diverted by those last few speeches, I should perhaps get back to the central response to the outstanding report put forward by your Lordships’ Select Committee and the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull. I do not agree with all the strictures or necessarily all the rapture that attaches to that report, but I do think that it was outstanding and timely. That he, his committee and their clerks have achieved this report so swiftly and ably is a tribute, as many have said, to the work of your Lordships’ House. To the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, I say that I would certainly be interested to see the report of her sub-committee when it comes out; I am sure that that would be widely shared.

In a tight timeframe, the committee has produced a detailed and informative report. I believe that everyone who has spoken would agree, at least on this: that it has facilitated the debate that we have had today on negotiations. I salute the continued dedication of your Lordships’ committee and I say clearly to the noble Earl that, certainly while I stand at this Dispatch Box, I will wish to have the closest co-operation with him and the committee and that is the position, I think, of all my colleagues on the Front Bench. He asked me some specific questions about engagement and methodologies—these were also put forward in the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter. I will come to those, but in general terms, without setting out a specific structure for engagement, of course the Government wish to engage with and hear the opinions of your Lordships’ committee.

I was struck by the tone at the start of the debate, when, with the greatest respect to her, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, spoke of a mean-spirited tone and of extremism—it is a fact; Hansard will record it—and went on to talk about our hard line. She actually ended her speech saying that the Government’s policy was “demented” in trying to put into effect the central proposal of our manifesto and the central request twice made by the British people. I reject that. I do not accept it and I think it was a tone that luckily we moved away from after the first few speeches, when we moved to the normal tone of your Lordships’ House.

I was asked about the current negotiations—not just about the timeframe, but whether negotiations would actually continue this week. As noble Lords will know, the EU and UK negotiators have today jointly decided not to hold this week’s round of negotiations in London in the form originally decided, but both sides remain fully committed to continuing negotiations and are currently exploring alternative ways to continue discussions. That must be right, and it must and does include the possibility of video conferencing or conference calls and exploring flexibility in the structure over the coming weeks. If we are asking the people of this country to do ever more indirectly —by video, remotely—then surely the Government of this country and the negotiators for the European Union can seek to advance policy in the same way.

Today’s debate also covered the UK’s approach to negotiations with the European Union as set out in our Command Paper. That remains, although I know it does not please everybody, that by the end of this year —I have to repeat it again—we will be fully independent and a sovereign country. The Command Paper is also clear that we are not asking for a special or bespoke relationship with the European Union: in our proposals, which are based on the political declaration, we are looking for a relationship grounded in precedent. Even the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, acknowledged in his speech that the UK proposals were grounded in precedent. The relationship that we are suggesting is aligned with the parameters for our relationship as agreed in the political declaration.

Points have been made, including by your Lordships’ Select Committee, about the political declaration—who has moved away from it, who has not moved away from it and so on. I thought that, in an outstanding speech, my noble friend Lord Barwell set out a point also made in the Select Committee report: that the wording is not aligned in every respect with the wording of the political declaration. Both sides are making new asks—no, that is not the right phrase: both sides have set out their objectives. As was explained in another outstanding speech by the noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, there are differences in the positions, and the British position is as has been set out before your Lordships.

Our view, that our future relationship must be based on sovereignty, and that autonomy of decision-making must be respected as a principle on both sides, is not incompatible with having a close relationship with the EU. Our outline for negotiations, which noble Lords have heard before, builds on precedent and the EU’s offer of a Canada-style agreement. It reflects the type of free trade agreement that should be entirely achievable between sovereign states, as the EU has done previously. We continue to see the EU as our neighbour and friend and want our future relationship to be as wide-ranging as precedent allows. I do not accept that this is a doctrinaire Government who do not want good relations with the European Union; the opposite is true. However, it is a Government who believe that the relationship must be one of sovereign equals. That is what the British people have required and requested of us. We believe that our economic and political independence is a matter of vital national interest.

I will now address the specific points raised by the report. From my reading, there were three specific areas that the noble Earl asked the Government to address. The first was on an association agreement. It invited the Government to comment on the structure of the relationship and whether it would take the form of an association agreement. It is not fruitful to parse the political declaration, but my noble friend Lord Barwell quoted from the relevant part of it, which said that it could take the form of an association agreement, but, as the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, said, the parties may also decide that an agreement should sit outside an overarching framework and in a series of linked agreements. We strongly believe that the content of discussions should drive the structure of the agreement, not the other way around. As my Prime Minister set out, we will seek to negotiate a free trade agreement as well as a separate fisheries agreement, an internal security agreement and other more technical agreements, which I hope will include one on aviation, where points have been made about the move in the European Union’s position.

The report also invited the Government to explain the extent to which the general principles and core values in the political declaration should form part of our future relationship with the EU. This has been the theme of a number of opening speeches on the other side. The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, said that there was “blithe disregard” for the political declaration. I certainly do not agree with that. The UK and the European Union signed up to the political declaration. All the areas of policy set out in the political declaration will be relevant to the UK’s future co-operation with the European Union. However, not all need form part of a negotiated treaty. Many can be developed in a spirit of friendly dialogue between the UK and the EU, which is what we seek. This vision is fully compatible with the political declaration and based on the principles of precedent and reciprocity.

The noble Earl also asked whether the Government would publish a comparative analysis of the political declaration and the Government’s Command Paper. There has been a great deal of debate on the political declaration. The document has been on public record since last October. As the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, I think, said, the Select Committee’s own document provides what the Select Committee asked for.

The report notes Parliament’s role. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, has tabled an amendment on this topic, and a number of noble Lords have touched on this point. This House and Parliament as a whole was given a chance to vote on a potential statutory role for the House when they approved the Government’s approach to negotiations and the agreements during the passage of the withdrawal agreement Bill. As noble Lord will recall, and as my noble friend Lady Noakes reminded us, the other place voted decisively against giving a statutory role to Parliament in these matters. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, withdrew her amendments on this matter during the passage of the Bill. Nevertheless, as the Prime Minister said at the Second Reading of the withdrawal agreement Bill:

“Parliament will be kept fully informed of the progress of these negotiations”.—[Official Report, Commons, 20/12/19; col. 150.]

In meeting that commitment, I ask noble Lords to note that the publication of the Government’s approach was supported by Oral Statements in both Houses and it is being debated today. A Written Ministerial Statement was also made on 9 March, and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has appeared before a Select Committee in the other place.

I was asked about the role of the devolved Administrations by the noble Lord, Lord Hain, and others. Throughout the negotiations, the United Kingdom has acted on behalf of the whole of the union. That is the constitutional position and it is consonant with the UK’s constitutional responsibilities—in particular, for the international conduct of the UK’s interests. However, on 28 January in Cardiff there was a ministerial conference on future relationship negotiations, and we stand ready to hold more such meetings. We shared a draft of our approach to the negotiations with the devolved Administrations in advance of publication, and UK government officials and Ministers have been in regular contact with their counterparts throughout this process. That must be the correct position.

I was asked about the Northern Ireland protocol. The Government will hear what has been said in many of the distinguished speeches made today but, as noble Lords will know, a discussion is to take place on this issue at the first meeting of the Joint Committee, and I would not wish to anticipate that.

In conclusion, of course there are areas of divergence between the UK and the EU, and those have been highlighted by many in this debate. However, I like to travel in hope and we must not forget that the Government’s intention is to get a good deal with the European Union. There are many areas where there is convergence. The very act of highlighting the areas where there is divergence draws attention to the silence on the areas where there is not divergence, and that illustrates the fact that both sides want a comprehensive, friendly relationship based on free trade. We will continue to approach these conversations in that way.

We are committed to doing everything we can to ensure that both sides see reasonable progress by June, so there is a clear point in keeping the negotiations going with a view to completing ratification this year. However, under no circumstances will the Government accept an extension. We firmly believe that there is ample time to strike an agreement based on free trade and friendly co-operation.

Again, I thank the committee of your Lordships’ House for its important and insightful work. I look forward to engaging with it in the future and indeed with other Select Committees of this House throughout our negotiations with the EU.