EU (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill: Archbishop of York on difficulties of amendment giving parliament the final say on Brexit deal

york-170117On Tuesday 7th March 2017, the House of Lords considered the Government’s EU (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill at Report Stage and Third Reading. A cross-party amendment led by Lord Pannick sought to ensure that Parliament had final approval of any Brexit deal negotiated with the EU by the Prime Minister. The Archbishop of York, Most Revd and Rt Hon John Sentamu, spoke in the debate on the amendment.

The Archbishop of York My Lords, I hope you will permit me to think aloud; these are not yet crystallised thoughts. I heard the exchanges between the noble Lords, Lord Pannick, Lord Hannay and Lord Forsyth, and I still want to work out some of the complications. For me, Amendment 3 provides for the intrusion of Parliament into the negotiation processes—which I do not think should happen—in such a way that it could prevent any deal ever being reached, because we would be involving ourselves in the processes.

There is a question that has not been fully answered. The amendment mentions the approval of Parliament three times. It says,

“without the approval of both Houses of Parliament”,

once, and:

“The prior approval of both Houses of Parliament shall also be required”,

twice. The question that has to be answered is: what happens when this House does not agree with the other House? The amendment says that both must agree, but if we did not agree with the other place, that would give the unelected House almost a veto on the procedure for reaching an agreement with the EU, which in turn would thwart the decision made by the electorate in the 2016 referendum. So that question has to be answered.

I think that the commitment made by the Prime Minister in January 2017 as to the role of Parliament goes above and beyond what is in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. I invite your Lordships to look at that Act, because I think she said more than it allows. I suggest that it is not in Parliament’s gift to make this a condition, as the European Union might well refuse to negotiate, or it might agree not to extend the negotiations. The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said yesterday that,

“we should not commit to any process that would incentivise the EU to offer us a bad deal”,

and that any deal that could be rejected by MPs would,

“give strength to other parties in the negotiation. We believe it should be a simple bill in relation to triggering article 50 and nothing else.”

For me, and I think that the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, was trying to say the same thing, triggering Article 50 is an irreversible act. Two years after triggering Article 50 the UK will leave the EU. It will do so with or without a deal, but either way it will leave. Article 50, paragraph (3) makes it clear that the treaties will cease to apply two years after notification has been made. It is possible that the 27 EU members might unanimously agree to extend the negotiating period beyond the two years, but this cannot be taken for granted, nor should it be assumed that anything but a brief extension would be offered. This amendment shows no awareness as to the realities presented by the Article 50 timeframe. It may sound like rubbish, but an answer has to be given to the questions raised by paragraph (3). The amendment also overlooks the fact that the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill is about the triggering of Article 50 and the formal divorce settlement. Neither the Bill nor Article 50 is about negotiating a new agreement with the EU.

Faith seeking understanding: fides quaerens intellectum. Could somebody explain? If I cannot get a clear answer to the questions I have posed, I may find myself voting no. But if I am helped to understand then I may vote yes.

Baroness Ludford (LibDem):…There is no basis whatever for the assertion, made variously by the noble Lords, Lord Lawson and Lord Forsyth, and the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York that it would give this House a veto. Given that the Prime Minister offered to give approval by both Houses of Parliament, presumably she knows how that would work and has shared it with the Government. It is for the Government to deal with that process, which could, as other noble Lords have mentioned, be avoided if there was primary legislation because then the rules would be clear.