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European Union (Withdrawal) Act

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:21 pm on 25th March 2019.

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Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 8:21 pm, 25th March 2019

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because I was going to say that the benefit of a new system is that it would enable us to find out where the consensus actually lies. It is absolutely obvious that not everyone in this situation will get their first choice, but we need to make a distinction between those things that Members and the public are very worried about and find totally unacceptable, such as no deal, and those things that, while they may not be a person’s first choice, they can live with and can go along with. The process we need to move into needs to institutionalise that.

It is also obvious that building consensus will be painful, because it inevitably involves compromise. That, however, is essential on a major national project such as Brexit. It is much better for us to acknowledge those difficulties and take a calmer approach to reconcile Parliament and the public than to be driven into a high-conflict situation with the rising tone of anger that we see at the moment.

The one thing that the right hon. Member for West Dorset said that surprised me a bit was that the business motion on how we are going to do this will, in his schema, be on the same day as the first round of indicative votes. I had not planned to speak today, but I thought that I had better set out what factors I would like to be taken into account in the drawing up of the process and the design of the system.

The first issue is the status of the votes: are they indicative or definitive? Indicative is good, because it allows people to feel flexible and more open-minded. However, we will move to definitive at some stage, to bind the Government, because we cannot continue with the situation where the Government defy the will of the House.

The second point we need to be clear about is that this vote may be on paper, but it is not a secret ballot. We want transparency. We want to be accountable to the public and to our constituents. And, of course, the Whips need to be able to do their job as well. That, too, requires some transparency.

The third issue is how to get on the ballot. I was slightly concerned in the middle of the day when I was hearing that the Government were planning to draft up for every Member what their view of other Members’ options would be. That seems to me to be completely inappropriate. Groups of hon. Members must be allowed to say for themselves what their options should be. I appeal to Mr Speaker to allow more, rather than less, on to any ballot paper, if we get to that.

The fourth point we need to think about is how to vote: preferences or standard crosses. I think the right hon. Member for West Dorset is considering a traditional cross by the side of the option or options we like, rather than preferences. I am happy for us to embark on that, but, as he acknowledged, we may need to move to preferences as time goes on.

There are two other points that we need to bear in mind. First, how many votes are we going to have? How many preferences can we expect to be allowed to use—two or three? We need to consider explicitly whether people could use the same number of preferences, or whether that could be something that people would want to flex. My feeling is that everybody probably ought to have the same number of votes. Connected to that is how many voting rounds we go through. We know we have to do this in a fairly speedy way, because of the 11 April deadline. We may need more than one, but we cannot have a completely open-ended process going on ad infinitum. We need to bring it to closure at some point.

If people think that this is highly innovative, they should not be quite so alarmed. We vote on paper regularly. We have done indicative voting before. We have given preferences before. What we are proposing to do on this occasion is bring them all together. [Interruption.] The most important thing, as I can hear the Minister saying, is that we have some speed, not just for the political process but to end the uncertainty facing businesses up and down the country. To be three weeks out and still to have no deal, a soft Brexit or a public vote to remain on the table is shameful.

Our international reputation has taken the worst hammering in living memory. The Confederation of British Industry said that it has lost confidence in the political process. The TUC has specifically asked us to look for a new parliamentary mechanism. MPs are always telling other people to change and adapt. Now, perhaps it is time for us to do the same. Confidence in our parliamentary process will be restored only when we show that we can act constructively and creatively.