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EU Withdrawal Bill Third Reading - My Speech

Moved by Lord Adonis

At end insert “and, in the light of the vital importance of the issues raised to the future of the United Kingdom, this House urges the Leader of the House to make representations to government colleagues to ensure amendments made by the House of Lords to the Bill are considered as soon as possible”.

"My Lords, I do not think that the House of Lords has spent longer considering any piece of legislation in its 800-year history. I join the Minister in paying tribute to the hundreds of noble Lords who have contributed over four months of ​debate. In Iolanthe, the House of Lords does nothing in particular but does it very well. This time, I think we have done rather better. Nevertheless, Parliament and the country are in a critical situation on Brexit, and a few comments might be in order as the Bill leaves us.

Wisely, the House of Lords has not been bullied by the Daily Mail and the right wing of the Conservative Party into becoming a rubber stamp for extreme Brexit. On no reading of party manifestos in the last election—let alone the present composition of the House of Commons, where no party has a majority—can extreme Brexit be called the “will of the people”. We are doing our constitutional duty in asking the House of Commons and the Government to think again on certain elements of the Bill as it came to us, in particular the extensive Henry VIII powers, the failure to provide for a customs union, the failure to entrench the Good Friday agreement, the failure to respect the devolution settlements and the failure to seek continued membership of the EEA.

Negotiations are ongoing on all these issues between Her Majesty’s Government and the European Commission. We are a parliamentary democracy, and it is essential that the will of Parliament becomes the voice of the Government. That can only happen if Parliament is allowed to express its will, which is why I am moving this Motion to request the Government to allow early and full consideration by the House of Commons of our amendments.

When this Bill first started, four months ago, the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, whom the House has grown to admire for his persistence and his emerging good humour, told us that it was needed urgently so that the statute book would be in good shape on 29 March next year, when European law no longer applies. Suddenly, that imperative appears to be less urgent. As noble Lords may know, there are all kinds of rumours going round about the Government delaying—perhaps for months, perhaps even for ever—consideration by the Commons of your Lordships’ amendments, because the Prime Minister fears a rebellion among Conservative MPs against extreme Brexit. To deny the House of Commons the right to express itself on our amendments in a timely manner is obviously undemocratic, and I therefore look forward to the Minister telling us when the Government intend that our amendments will be considered by the House of Commons.

If and when our amendments are considered by the Commons, what should happen then? The Commons may of course be persuaded of the wisdom of your Lordships in all 15 of our amendments carried against the Government, so we have no further role to play. Looking at the statements of Mr Dominic Grieve, the de facto leader of the sensible Conservatives, and those of my party leader, who of course is always open to good arguments, it is possible that that might happen. If it does not, then we as a House will have to exercise our judgment as to our response.

Noble Lords on all sides of the House have shown a commendable unwillingness to be dragooned into voting for the short-term expediency of party leaders against the national interest, and I am sure that will continue. Speaking for myself, my view of the situation is this. First, the so-called Salisbury convention, which affords ​a protected status to the manifesto commitments of a party that has won a general election, clearly does not apply in the case of our amendments to the Bill. Most of our amendments concern issues that did not feature in the Conservative manifesto in the last election at all. Even on the contested issues raised in some of our amendments, the Conservative Party did not win the last election and therefore has no mandate for anything.

Obviously, if the House of Commons expresses itself strongly, we take serious note, irrespective of the Salisbury convention; but if the Commons expresses itself with small and declining majorities, which might vanish if pressed to consider further, we take serious note of that too. Furthermore, on fundamental constitutional issues, we have a responsibility to the country to defend essential rights and interests, which is precisely why the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 give us, as an unelected House, a delaying power over Bills such as this one. If the Government do not give the House of Commons an adequate and timely opportunity to consider our amendments, that fact would be bound to have a significant bearing on our future assessment of the public interest."

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean

"Does the noble Lord not think that he should be rather more honest about his motives? For example, in January he tweeted this to Donald Tusk:

“We will probably hold a referendum on Mrs May’s Brexit terms before next March, so please work on the assumption that we will continue to play a central role in the future of the European Union”. Is that not his real agenda? Is this all not just flim-flam?"

Lord Adonis

"I very much hope that happens, and I hope that the noble Lord, being a democrat, will support the holding of a referendum on the Prime Minister’s final treaty. However, that motivation does not guide us in our consideration of these amendments. Our role is to perform our duty as a revising assembly.

Finally, I want to say a word about the right wing of the Conservative Party, which is calling for our abolition because we are not acting as the unquestioning registry office of the views of Mr Paul Dacre, Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg, Mr Nigel Farage and, indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth. I am strongly in favour of House of Lords reform. I have consistently voted in favour of an elected second Chamber; if the present crisis leads to that, it would be a great gain for the country. An elected Chamber would be much more powerful than the present House and therefore much more able to stand up to Governments such as this one, with weak and non-existent mandates but big and damaging policies.

Whatever happens hereafter, I am totally unafraid of being abolished for acting according to our conscience and the constitution. Indeed, if we do not act according to them, we deserve to be abolished. Our Writ of Summons requires us to be here at Westminster,

“waiving all excuses … to treat and give your counsel upon the affairs … the safety and defence of the … Kingdom”.

I cannot think of any legislation since the Second World War that more seriously concerns the affairs, safety and defence of the United Kingdom. We should do our duty."

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