6M petition debate 'should not have been sidelined'

The debate on the petition was held in Westminster Hall

An Independent Group MP yesterday spoke against the side-lining of a debate on a petition to cancel Brexit, signed by more than six million people – saying it should have been heard by the Prime Minister and cabinet.

The debate was held from 16.30 to 19.44 in Westminster Hall, a side chamber to the main House of Commons chamber, with around two dozen Opposition MPs as well as a junior Brexit minister plus half a dozen other Conservatives – whose limited engagement with the topic and departure half-way through was remarked upon by the Opposition MPs. Debate on ‘indicative vote’ Brexit options was ongoing in the main chamber at the same time and continued afterwards with votes held later in the evening.

The debate on the proposal to revoke article 50 – cancel Brexit – was combined with discussion of two others petitions, on holding a referendum and on leaving with or without a deal by March 29, and it concluded after three hours without a vote (the latter petition received little time because it had been 'overtaken by events' and its supporters had left).

Strong speeches were made on the Opposition side, with an overall preference for a referendum, or revocation if that is not possible. The MPs said people feared leaving with no deal and it was not what was promised by the Cameron government, 2017 Conservative manifesto or the Leave campaign.

Only brief interventions were made by the back-bench Conservatives.

As had already been stated before the debate by the Department for Exiting the EU (Dexeu) in a written answer to the petition junior Brexit minister Chris Heaton-Harris said at the end of the debate that while acknowledging the “substantial number of signatures amassed”, and “the hundreds of thousands who marched”, that “the government’s position remains clear: we will not revoke article 50 and we will not hold a second referendum. We remain committed to leaving the European Union and implementing the result of the 2016 referendum.”

He said that to either hold a referendum or to revoke article 50 would “be failing to deliver on the commitments we have made”.

“Second-guessing or otherwise reversing the outcome of the 2016 vote damages the trust that British people place in their Government. It gives cause for British people to lose faith in politics.”

However the minister said it was “utterly unacceptable” that the woman who started the petition had received threats of violence for it and the government was “disgusted” to hear it.

Chris Leslie (Independent Group) said during the debate that faced with six million signatures “it is our duty to ensure these views are not pigeonholed and sidelined… but that they are heard by the government."

“I do not believe we should simply nod through the motion that this chamber, Westminster Hall, has considered this petition. It is important that we fight for those who have signed it, and take this issue to be considered in the main chamber of the House of Commons,” he said.

Mr Heaton-Harris said he had no disagreement with Mr Leslie’s point that the debate should have been in the main chamber and in the future perhaps there should be a new threshold set, for example a million, after which this is considered. At present the rules only allow for these debates in Westminster Hall.

The Speaker of the House of Commons might wish to look into how this could change, he said.

Rachel Maskell (Labour) called the size of the revoke petition “unprecedented” and added: “Why does the Prime Minister think it is okay for MPs to change their mind and vote time and again, yet it is not okay for the people of our country to do that?”

Wera Hobhouse (Lib-Dem) said that fear of no-deal was a key reason people signed the revoke petition and if it happened the blame would lie with the government “because they have options”. She said that they could agree to a referendum and if they combined this with the deal “it would go through Parliament”. Alternatively they could opt to revoke, she said.

Labour’s Catherine McKinnel, who opened the debate and made several speeches, said: “Anyone who stands there and says, ‘I have no fear of a no-deal Brexit; it’ll be absolutely fine,’ clearly has nothing to lose and is completely insulated, but I know that my constituents are not.”

Quoting the Leave campaign she said the British were promised “a careful change, not a sudden stop” and, by the 2017 Conservative manifesto “a smooth, orderly Brexit”. Meanwhile Labour’s manifesto had said “Labour recognises that leaving with no deal is the worst possible deal for Britain”.

Vote Leave founder Daniel Hannan had even stated that “absolutely nobody is talking about threatening our place in the single market”, she said.

She added: “Here in Parliament, we have run out of road. We cannot keep going round in ever-decreasing circles while the international standing of our country diminishes further by the day…

“Democracy cannot be undermined by trying to resolve an issue democratically or by holding a vote in which every single person in the country can participate.”

She said the Prime Minister should now put her withdrawal agreement to a “final confirmatory vote”, or if unwilling to do so, “we must step back from the precipice and revoke”.

Ms McKinnel, who sits on the House of Commons’ petitions committee, also stated that “contrary to some of the rumours that have been put around to try to undermine the integrity of this petition, the Government Digital Service has a number of automated and manual systems in place to detect bots, disposable email addresses and other signs of fraudulent activity.”

She added: “A petition does not replace our normal democratic processes. It is simply a reflection of the level of interest in this issue and the strength of feeling among the public, for which, as representatives of our constituents, we ought to be very grateful, as they have the means to make their voices heard—and this petition is a roar.”

Several MPs urged those present to consider the young, whose futures would be impacted by no-deal. The Independent Group’s Dr Sarah Wollaston said no-deal was like operating on someone three years after they had signed a “vague consent form for an operation of some sort”.

“This is particularly true for young people,” she said. “We are taking people into the operating theatre kicking and screaming with a consent form signed by their grandparents.”

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