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Brexit minister defies Lords demand for vote on triggering Article 50

Published 13/09/2016

Triggering Article 50 needs an Act of Parliament to be legally watertight, says a Lords committee
Triggering Article 50 needs an Act of Parliament to be legally watertight, says a Lords committee

Brexit Secretary David Davis has ruled out demands for Parliament to be given a vote on triggering the formal negotiations to take out of the European Union.

The House of Lords Constitutional Committee has warned it would be "constitutionally inappropriate" for Theresa May to invoke Article 50 of the EU treaties without first obtaining the approval of both Houses of Parliament.

In a report on Article 50, the committee said MPs and peers must "play a central role" in the decision to launch negotiations, either by passing an Act of Parliament or approving resolutions tabled in both Commons and Lords.

It said MPs and peers should also have a key role in scrutinising the Brexit negotiations - due to take two years - and approving the final deal reached between the UK and the remaining 27 EU states.

But appearing before the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, Mr Davis said the outcome of the EU referendum had been clear and that a vote against invoking Article 50 would set Parliament against the people.

"The Government position is that it is an exercise of Crown Prerogative. The theory of it is the Crown represents the nation," he said.

"This is the only time that I am aware of in British history that the Crown Prerogative has been backed up by a 17.5 million vote mandate.

"A proposal that could put Parliament in opposition to the people over something as simple as this is an extraordinary one."

Mr Davis also issued a sharp warning to peers not to try to block the legislative changes that will be needed for Britain to leave the EU.

"It is a very, very, very clear mandate and I think the House of Lords would be quite unwise not to take that mandate seriously," he said.

"I would be very surprised if they were unwise enough to go down the route of just blocking it full stop."

In its report, the committee warned that it was "unclear" whether the UK could unilaterally halt Article 50 talks once they have been triggered, if it changed its mind about wanting to leave.

It said Parliament should act on the assumption that Article 50 is "irreversible" and should allow it to be invoked only when it is in the UK's best interests to begin negotiations.

Committee chairman Lord Lang of Monkton said: "The referendum result was clear and it is right that the Government are preparing to take Britain out of the EU.

"However, our constitution is built on the principle of parliamentary sovereignty and the decision to act following the referendum should be taken by Parliament."

Mr Davis said that if Britain was unable to reach a new trade agreement with the remaining 27 member states it would have to fall back on World Trade Organisation rules - although these only covered tariffs and not non-tariff barriers.

"I would not want anybody to think that was in my view a likely outcome," he said.

He rejected a suggestion the UK could join the European Free Trade Association - like Norway and Switzerland - as a "transitional" measure in order to speed up the formal process of EU withdrawal while carrying on long-term trade negotiations.

He also dismissed a suggestion by Conservative MP Andrew Rosindell that ministers could demonstrate their commitment to Brexit by immediately dropping the maroon EU passports and returning to the old-style British blue passports for all new issues.

"I am not in the business of symbolism. I'm in the business of delivering on this," he said.

Although he campaigned for Brexit, Mr Davis sharply distanced himself from the controversial claim by the official Vote Leave campaign, led by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, that leaving the EU would release an extra £350 million a week for the NHS.

"I made no such pledge. Some did and if you want them to argue the case you should invite the people here who made that argument. You will find in no speech of mine any reference to that," he said.

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