European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 6) Bill DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Lord Wallace of SaltaireMain Page: Lord Wallace of Saltaire (Liberal Democrat - Life peer)
My Lords, I have listened to, I think, nine hours of debate, yesterday and today. I was not going to speak but I somehow think I have to. There are so many things I could say, but I want to make just three points. First, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and those in the other place who have put together this Bill. It may be a very important example of cross-party working. It is 50 years since I sat in the official Box in this House, and I have been observing its proceedings regularly for that period. I have a sense at the moment that we are in a watershed. Things will never be the same after these Brexit years, not least because Brexit will be with us for 10, 15 or 20 years. It will divide the country, whether we leave or stay, and we have a huge problem dealing with it. Part of that problem is that our political institutions are not keeping up with the world, which is changing around us. At some point we will have to look at ourselves quite radically to ensure that we can keep up with what is expected of us. We are not helping ourselves in the way we are carrying on business at the moment.
Within that, the position of political parties is becoming a problem. I should never talk about political parties; I lack the gene that gives people passion for them. I have for a long time been very privileged to observe politicians closely and I have never, ever understood them. I just accept that I am not “one of you”. Equally, I know the importance of parties. At the moment, both in government and in political and party affairs, there are too many moving parts and too many fixed structures in my life are no longer stable or reliable. That is an unnerving feeling. If I am honest, the dismissal of 21 members of the Conservative Party appals me—I am not a politician but it appals me. It is over 50 years since I observed a number of leading Conservative politicians—the now noble Lords, Lord Howard, Lord Gummer and Lord Lamont, and Mr Kenneth Clarke—in the Cambridge Union. I remember Kenneth Clarke as a blonde, tall, slim chap with a northern accent, and I am utterly dismayed to find his contribution treated so cavalierly.
Listening to the debate and watching what is going on, I feel that I am living in a world that is going mad. Too many things are happening. I cannot be alone in feeling that—it is not just my age; it is true. We need sanity. There is sanity in this House and within the parties, and we will be rescued only if sane people can overcome their differences, act in the national interest and work together. This Bill is an example of that. Maybe it will lead to a referendum because I cannot see how a general election will get us out of our difficulty; what will happen if we again have a hung Parliament? So perhaps there will be a referendum. That is my first point: be true to your parties but also look at the national interest before your party interest when needed.
My second concern is that there is a need for a view about the future of this country in the world. The world around us is changing fast. We are in the middle of a technological revolution that I think is greater than the Industrial Revolution. Just 15 years ago we did not have smart phones and apps but now they are an indispensable part of everybody’s lives. Social media is changing the whole political context not just in this country but in other countries. I have recently chaired conferences and have learned that I can chair meetings without understanding a word of what is said. I chaired a meeting in Cambridge on quantum computing and another on blockchain, which is even worse. I also chaired one on DNA—on CRISPR-Cas 9 for those who are interested.
The things that are being brought to fruition in the world of research at the moment will alter the world more in the next 10, 15 or 20 years than has been the case in the last 10 or 15 years, and that has been fast enough. We in the political world and in political institutions have to keep up with and understand those things. Brexit is important but it is not the only change that is happening, and we need to have a view of the world, as the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, said earlier. We need to have a view of our place in the world and of how we will cope with it and be equipped to deal with it. It is not my field but the tectonic plates of world politics are changing. America and China will dominate the scene. Europe will not be the centre of the world, as we have thought of ourselves. The need to have a position in which we can choose between America and China, when each of them puts pressure on us, will be important. We will lack company if we isolate ourselves from the rest of Europe by behaving badly towards it and having no deal. The context of all this will be fundamental for the future of this country in a way that goes deeper than just politics and economics; it will be cultural too.
I am hugely bothered by the way in which the word “trust” has been used. I am used to people trusting government institutions. Part of my career has involved trying to uphold trust and ensure that people know where the boundaries are in a pragmatic way. One of those boundaries, as my noble friend and successor said just now, concerns special advisers. A lot of my time was taken up with special advisers and I have a detailed question for the Minister when he replies. There were, and I think there still are, rules governing special advisers, one of which was that they are temporary civil servants and do not have Executive powers. Can the Minister assure us that present special advisers are not exercising Executive powers? For instance, sacking another special adviser is the exercise of an Executive power. Special advisers do not have such powers. If someone purports to sack someone and they do not have the power to do it, is that sacking valid? I assume that this has been looked into and that the Government know what is going on, but I raise it because it is a small example of a more general principle. We need to ensure that the codes of conduct—not just gentlemen or good chaps behaving well but the basic rules of government—are being observed. I feel that, at the moment, when people feel able to be careless and cavalier with conventions, we ought to ask whether basic principles are being observed and challenging when they are not.
I think that is enough for now. I could go on at length about the principles at stake today, but so much has been said that I agree with and I will not repeat it.
I did not realise that we were coming near to winding up. I was asking what the proper time to end was: I wanted to speak near the end so that I would hear the wisdom of others rather than my own.
I want to talk a bit about the history of this matter in the House of Commons and then say a word or two about the Bill. Obviously, the question arose immediately after the referendum of whether the result should be implemented. The referendum itself did not contain, as the Supreme Court pointed out, any mechanism for implementing the result; therefore, it was for Parliament to find a way of implementing the result. The Prime Minister of the day, who took over from David Cameron, undertook to implement the result of the referendum and set about doing so, indicating principles by which she would be guided, sometimes called red lines. I want to mention one aspect of that. The customs union and the single market were particularly important, but as I understand the present rules of the single market and the customs union, they forbid a member state making contracts for trade with others. Therefore, part of the desire in the referendum was to open up trade for the United Kingdom to other jurisdictions. Therefore some modification, but only some, to the customs union and the single market was necessary.
I want to particularly mention Northern Ireland, because I believe that to be fundamental: as far as I am concerned it is the most important problem. As far as I can see, and I have tried to think about it as much as I could, it can be solved properly only by having the same basic rules on both sides of the border. If not, there is bound to be a hard border and I think I am right in saying that the European Union rules require that the boundaries of the European Union are set by hard borders. It therefore seems that if we are to leave without a deal there is bound to be a hard border in Northern Ireland. That would be a disaster, because the arrangements there are extremely tender, very important and vital to securing the peace of Northern Ireland. So far as I am concerned, that is a vital point; it has been from the beginning and remains so.
Eventually Mrs May managed to get an agreement with the European Union, and she put that before Parliament on more than one occasion. I venture to suggest that one way of dealing with that problem was that if somebody wanted to change any detail, any part or indeed the whole of that, they should put forward an amendment to the Motion to approve it. That would seem to be the reasonable way in which such a thing could be done, but so far as I know that has never happened and the only amendment to the arrangement suggested that an alternative should be found to the Irish backstop. Of itself, that does not change the arrangement. You have to answer that and find the alternative; my noble friend indicated the possibilities, and these are quite difficult to completely understand. I do not think that so far they have been completely accepted by the Government for negotiation. I sincerely hope that these matters will be brought forward if the Government are to proceed with the negotiations.
The result has been a lot of discussion in the House of Commons about various matters. The important thing to remember is that the withdrawal agreement is a legal document and has legal effect. Added to that is the political declaration. That is a document of intention, not legally binding in the same way as the withdrawal agreement, and I understood that the European Union had said it wanted the withdrawal agreement to be fixed before it had substantive discussions on future arrangements. One of the aspects of the present arrangement that Mrs May negotiated was a period of two years’ transition. That is an important safeguard against the sort of cliff edges we have been hearing described in the course of this interesting and in some ways extremely saddening debate.
The result is that nothing has really happened to change that proposal. It has been turned down, but without any explanation of how it could be improved. I honestly think that the House of Commons has lost an opportunity in that respect. Noble Lords will remember that it had some debates and indicative votes about what it wanted. Most of these indicative votes, so far as I remember, were concerned with the political declaration. Indeed, the discussions that took place after the then Prime Minister opened them up with Mr Corbyn were of that kind—that is to say, they dealt mainly with the political declaration. Agreement on that is not essential to the withdrawal. I believe it is important to try to distinguish between the two.
That brings me to this Bill. It asks that the Prime Minister should write to the President of the European Council asking for an extension. I remember pointing out—I hope humbly—when this appeared in the earlier Bill that no reason was given for the extension. Well, this Bill has a reason given for the extension, and a very interesting reason it is. It says the extension is made,
“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”,
in relation to the political projection.
That suggests to me that the proponents of this Bill believe that the agreement that presently exists, and is the only one as far as I know, is to be implemented after it has been further discussed with a supplementary point about the political declaration. If that is correct, this Bill goes a very great distance towards securing what is required in the way of a withdrawal agreement, which is not no deal without an agreement, but an agreement that has already been passed by the European Union and which the House of Commons has dissented from so far. It looks as though this promises that it will be passed. In that sense, if I am right about that, it is quite a considerable Bill. It suggests the possibility of very substantial progress towards a deal for taking us out of the European Union. On that interpretation, I believe that a good deal of the talk that we have had about no deal is set aside by this in a direct and constructive manner.
Break in Debate
My Lords, I speak as a remain voter, but one who is convinced that the referendum result must be respected. I want to focus today on the central issue of trust. There have been some really good points made on trust between this place and the Government—particularly those made by the noble Lords, Lord Hayward, Lord O’Donnell and Lord Kerr. I entirely concur with those points, but there is another angle to trust: the trust between Parliament and the people. That is the point I want to focus on today.
It was Confucius, I believe, who said that,
“three things are needed for government: weapons, food and trust. If a ruler can’t hold on to all three, he should give up the weapons first and the food next. Trust should be guarded to the end: ‘without trust we cannot stand’”.
I think that is absolutely right. During the referendum campaign, the people were repeatedly told by the Government that if we voted for leave, that is exactly what would happen. If, for whatever reason, we do not leave, or even continue for many years with the current paralysis—following what was, we must remember, the biggest democratic exercise in British history—it would be fatal for trust in politics, which has already been much damaged by the events of the past three years. Many already feel the gulf between the so-called Westminster elites and the people, which will only be widened by that continuing. The extremist politics we have seen on the rise in the UK in recent years could pale into insignificance against what could be unleashed if the vote is not respected.
So what has that to do with this Bill? It is a Bill that rules out the United Kingdom leaving the EU without a deal. I understand the reasons of those noble Lords who do not wish to leave without a deal. Many excellent points have been raised today about the difficulties of no deal. There would be much hardship, at least in the short term. But I work in business, as do many noble Lords, and, to pick up a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, I believe that it is essential to hold no deal on the table—to keep it as an option—to ensure that we can get and maintain that leverage with the EU in our negotiations that will result in a better deal for the UK.
In the end, this issue will be resolved via an election, but I believe that no deal must be maintained as an option to get the best deal for the UK and ensure that we do indeed leave and get the democratic will of the people seen through that vote.
The noble Lord is referring to me and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, told me off for intervening because I did not get here in time. I had to go and speak at a social care conference and came back at the first opportunity—which I would have thought was perfectly admissible. While I am on my feet, perhaps I may correct the noble Lord. What we were doing was preventing this House from having a guillotine Motion—it had nothing whatever to do with the Bill.
I am very grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. May I apologise for my discourtesy —in his view—in not being able to be here for today’s debate in its entirety? I have attended the debate and have listened to his wise words on the monitor. Sadly, there are other duties which people must attend to. I would be very appreciative if he would apologise for his discourtesy in getting his facts wrong and personalising something that should be about politics, not personalities.
Could the noble Lord give a little moment? This is important. I have been referred to on the Floor of the House. Will the noble Lord simply accept that these matters should be about policy and politics, not personalities? I hope that he will reflect on the fact that referring to personalities actually demeans his case and does not strengthen it.
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, who said that it is a privilege to be a Member of your Lordships’ House and to participate in debates such as this. I would make the point that I have said that before, but I am worried about being accused of dementia by the noble Lord, Lord Patten of Barnes, for repeating my previous speeches. To listen to this debate today and the contributions from such distinguished former civil servants—we have heard from the noble Lords, Lord Wilson, Lord O’Donnell and Lord Butler of Brockwell—has been extraordinary. The quality of contributions has been inordinately high, as has the thoughtfulness of the debate. We have been debating this now for six hours. Over 40 speakers, without any form of compulsion or even a speakers’ list, have been able to make contributions. That is a very adequate way to allow this House to consider the Second Reading of the Bill. In light of what was said yesterday, that is important to note.
The Bill is simple but necessary. It essentially stops no deal, but not altogether. I want to make that clear. I can see the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, shaking his head enthusiastically at this prospect, because it allows no deal if the House of Commons can be persuaded to pass a Motion in support of that. Let me come back to that. The Minister will obviously add what he wants to on it. It is necessary, because there is a real concern, referred to by a number of your Lordships, over a lack of trust in the Government and that, unless they are constrained, the Government will allow us to crash out never having approved a final deal or it not having the approval of the House of Commons.
A number of your Lordships referred to the dangers of crashing out without a deal, and we have talked about this on a number of previous occasions in this House. On the whole, this House has clearly indicated its view that leaving without a deal would be detrimental. Today we heard the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, and the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, on the risk to the economy. On security and the union, we heard powerful and compelling speeches on Northern Ireland from my noble friends Lord Mandelson and Lord Hain and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, and on important aspects from the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and others. On Wales, we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, and others. As to the risk to young people and disadvantaged persons, we heard from the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bull.
These are the risks that we want to see avoided. The criticisms of the Bill from the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Lympne, in particular, are that it distorts our normal process of the separation of powers. I think he has a rosier view of the separation than I do, but let us be clear; this does not prevent the House of Commons, which is the legislature, giving its approval or non-approval to an event, but says that that is necessary before we could leave without a deal—or that an agreement has been reached.
It is also to be noted, given what has been said about hampering the Prime Minister in his negotiations, that the Bill is clear that not until after the European Council meeting on 17 October does the moment come when, if he has not reached a deal or obtained the consent of the House of Commons, he has to ask for an extension. Clause 1(3) does not trigger the need to ask for an extension until 19 October. In those circumstances, that particular element of concern is met.
I return to a point made by a number of noble Lords: the lack of trust in the Government, which has resulted in a Bill which is more constraining than one might have hoped to see. I must say, as many other noble Lords have, that what has happened on Prorogation is deeply concerning. It was deeply concerning when it was said that Prorogation had nothing to do with Brexit when it was plain to all of us that it had everything to with it. We did not need to see the documents that have been revealed in the Scottish case to know that. Now that we have seen them, however, we know that completely.
What is more, we know that the decision was made in the middle of August, at a time when it was not revealed to the House of Commons, this House or the public—or, apparently, to the Cabinet. Maybe I am wrong to see a sinister approach in that, but that sort of concern means that this House is entirely justified. The other place, whose Bill we are following, wants in the light of that lack of trust to make sure that this does not happen without either an agreement or the other House giving its approval.
It has been said that this will not solve the problem a number of noble Lords have raised. That may well be right, but it solves an immediate problem: the risk that we will find ourselves with a clock tick-tocking down to 31 October, not actually having a deal or even seeing any negotiations for a deal going on. That worries a lot of us as well. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, who first raised the point in an intervention that the Prime Minister had said that he needed, or was happy to have, 30 days to come up with alternative arrangements. The clock tick-tocked, and we did not see what those arrangements were. We still have not seen what they are. In those circumstances, to say that Parliament is right to insist on a clear set of rules for what will take place seems absolutely what we should do.
One of my few regrets about the debate concerns what happened yesterday, partly because we spent a lot of time with bitterness and rancour, which we do not want to see in this House. However, particularly due to the efforts of my noble friend Lady Smith and the Government Chief Whip, we came to an agreement that we can all be happy with. That is important.
I was a little saddened because, at the beginning of that debate, there was confusion between me and my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer of Thoroton. Normally, it is extremely flattering to be confused with him—I make that clear—but statements were made in the context of complaining that I had previously said things that I now appear to be disagreeing with by having made strong statements against the kind of Motion that was being put forward. I was cut by that—but not quite as cut as I was by a young French waitress recently when I was on holiday with my family, my children and their friends. They wanted to know, because there was a casino attached, what the age limit for the casino was and the young woman said to me, “There’s no maximum age limit”. Your Lordships may be relieved to know that that reassured me and I can provide the address of this excellent establishment, if noble Lords would like, afterwards.
The fundamental point is that we support the Bill. We are grateful to the other House for having sent it to us and to my noble friend Lord Rooker for putting it forward. We will have Committee, Report and the remaining stages of the Bill tomorrow. It would be good if the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, when he winds up for the Government, could repeat the assurances he gave during the debate that the Government will accept the Bill and make sure that it is in a position to get Royal Assent. As I suggested in an intervention, I hope they will advise Her Majesty to give Royal Assent. I accept that they cannot promise what Her Majesty will do, but they can give advice. We all know that the convention is that if advice is given, the monarch will follow it. I also hope that, as one noble Lord suggested, they will follow the spirit. We do not want to see any tricks, any shifting, any dodging about—whether that comes from Mr Dominic Cummings or anyone else—to get around this. If this House and the other House have said, “This is what should happen; this should be the Bill”, I hope that will be enforced and respected in the letter and in the spirit.
Given the length of the debate—I apologise that I have not referred to the excellent contributions of a number of other noble Lords—I urge my noble friend Lord Rooker to ask the House to give this Bill a Second Reading, and we will support that.