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Outcome of the European Union Referendum - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:00 pm on 5th July 2016.

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Photo of Lord Wallace of Tankerness Lord Wallace of Tankerness Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 12:00 pm, 5th July 2016

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for the time set aside today and tomorrow to allow noble Lords to discuss the very profound outcome of the European Union referendum. As I expressed during our exchanges last week, I was devastated by the result of the referendum. Along with many of my noble friends and many Liberal Democrats, I have a profound and deep-rooted commitment to partnership with our European neighbours. Internationalism is in our very DNA. Our commitment is not to an institution in any particular form; rather, it is a commitment to the beliefs and ideals of the wider European undertaking of a peaceful, prosperous and united Europe, kindling a spirit of reconciliation and mutual co-operation among its members and promoting human rights and the rule of law. That is what I and many of my noble friends have striven for over our entire political lives, so the result of the referendum last week is felt very personally on these Benches.

We cannot be expected to give up these core beliefs, nor will we. We believe that Britain should be an outward-looking country that can thrive, innovate and lead in an open global economy, a country that works in partnership with those who share our values to overcome our common adversaries and sees the future benefits of close relations with neighbours and natural partners, investing in each other’s economies and sharing prosperity so that Britain can be even greater than it is now. The cry to “take back our country” is not one to which I can subscribe, because I do not believe that I ever lost my country. Reflecting on the words of my much-missed friend Charles Kennedy, I, too, have multiple identities—Scottish, British and European.

I am also a democrat, so I accept and respect the result of the referendum on 23 June, even if I am saddened by it. I also approach the result with some humility, for I know that I have to accept my share of responsibility not just for the result of the referendum but for the collective failure of politicians, institutions and the media to make the positive case over many years for the European Union and the benefits that it brings to this country. The referendum should give everyone in public life pause for thought. Too often the European Union has been used as a scapegoat or a distraction from failures in government. As my honourable friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, Tim Farron, has said:

“This vote has been a collective howl of frustration—at the political class, at big business, at a global elite”.

My deep concern is that, as we go forward, there is likely to be more dissatisfaction and frustration as people realise that much of what they were promised during the referendum campaign just will not be possible. The sad reality is that the alternatives offered by the Leave campaign will do nothing to help those in England’s poorer regions, not least because the Leave campaign offered very contradictory positions of what life outside the EU would look like.

That poses a fundamental question for liberal democracy and parliamentary democracy, which is based on attention to evidence, reasoned debate, a willingness to compromise and tolerance. Politics involves an endless conversation in which we learn about other people and see things from their point of view, trying to balance their needs against our own. You recognise the existence of different groups with different interests and opinions and try to balance and reconcile them. As Bernard Crick wrote in his book, In Defence of Politics:

“Politics is a way of ruling divided societies without undue violence”.

Yet we have seen some very troubling and violent scenes since 23 June. We have seen anger and frustration being translated into some nasty incidents of racism and xenophobia. Scores of racist encounters have been documented online, while over the weekend following the vote the National Police Chiefs’ Council revealed that hate crimes reported to our police had risen by 57% compared with the corresponding days four weeks previously. The careless and rash language of some Brexit campaigners seems to have legitimised the prejudice of some people to the point where they are targeting those who are visibly different. Of course it is only a small minority who perpetrate such outrages, but to the victims the impact is 100% and, in the communities from which the victims come, the fear is all too real. This is completely unacceptable and it must stop. This is not my Britain.

I believe that there are many layers and facets to why so many people voted to leave the European Union, some of which have already been mentioned. The vote was symbolic of a rejection of British multiculturalism; concerns about pressures on our schools, hospitals and GP surgeries; the housing crisis; the banking crisis; insecurities about employment; and the decline of our traditional industries. For me, the answers to these wider questions are both domestic and international. There is much that can be done in Westminster as well as much that could and should have been done standing shoulder to shoulder with our European neighbours.

If those who led the campaign to leave the EU have answers, we need to hear them now. Do they want to be in the single market or do they not? What level, if any, of freedom of movement do they wish to see? How will they retain the City’s passported access to European financial markets? Which taxes will go up and what spending will go down? How will they secure a bright future for our children and young people? One of the defining features of the reaction to the referendum outcome has been the utter dismay and even anger of young people, who believe that they have been deprived of the opportunities and freedoms that our post-war generation came to take for granted. Whichever side of the referendum divide we were on, we owe it to our young people to keep alive hope and establish co-operative links that will provide opportunity, of which the Erasmus programme is just one example.

There is a host of unanswered questions and during this debate a number of my noble friends will want to pose some of them from their particular areas of expertise. I hope that, when she comes to reply, the Minister will take them in the spirit in which they are intended, as some constructive suggestions to feed into the work of the unit being led by the right honourable Member for West Dorset, Mr Letwin.

Perhaps I may pose some further constitutional questions today, some of which have already been aired, in particular on the role of Parliament and of your Lordships’ House. First, last week during our exchanges I asked the Leader of the House about the process for triggering Article 50. I still await an answer. Let us remind ourselves that Article 50 states:

“Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements”.

However, there is currently little clarity as to what the UK’s “constitutional requirements” are in this regard. Will this be done by the Prime Minister acting alone, using the royal prerogative? Will there be consultation with Parliament in the form of a debate and vote in both Houses or just in the House of Commons? Does the Prime Minister need the consent of Parliament to act? Should there be legislation? There has been much legal and academic debate and discussion as to how Article 50 might be triggered, but to date there is no legal certainty. While I can see that there is a case for leaving to the new Prime Minister the issue of when to trigger Article 50, this Administration surely must have a view as to how it should be triggered. After all, in February we were blessed with a paper from this Administration on the process for withdrawing from the European Union. One would imagine that they will have given it some attention and thought. It would be to the benefit of Parliament and the country for the position to be clarified as soon as possible.

Secondly, what will be the role of Parliament and this House in particular in carrying out its scrutiny functions and its important constitutional duty of holding the Government to account during the process of negotiation with the other EU member states? What part can be played by the European Union Select Committee of this House and by the European Scrutiny Committee in the other place? It would be extremely helpful to have some indication from the Government of the principles that will underpin parliamentary scrutiny of this process. How do the Government intend to involve Parliament in deciding which laws and regulations that have derived from Europe we will keep and which we will replace? Once these decisions have been made, it is clear that much legislation will be needed to give effect to the process. Can the Minister confirm that Parliament will retain its important scrutiny function in this regard?

There are of course wider constitutional implications following the result of the referendum, bearing in mind that Scotland and Northern Ireland both voted strongly to remain in the EU. How will the Government consult the devolved institutions, by which I mean the Parliaments and the Assembly as well as the Administrations, to ensure that the needs of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are properly reflected in the negotiations? Will Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland government officials be seconded to work in the special Cabinet Office unit? What role will there be for the London administration and for local and regional authorities in England to ensure that their diverse interests are taken on board? It would be helpful if the noble Baroness answered these questions when she comes to respond tomorrow evening, but I would welcome a commitment from her that, at least, the unit under Mr Letwin will give most thorough consideration to the issues raised in this debate, that she will return to this House periodically to ensure that noble Lords are kept well informed on the progress of negotiations and that the Government will make good use of the expertise in this House.

In the meantime, I am concerned by what already seems to be the abdication of responsibility by the Government in relation to several matters. This is only the sixth sitting day since the referendum, but I suspect that many noble Lords are already tiring of the expression, “The Prime Minister has been clear that decisions on issues relating to the UK’s exit will be for the new Prime Minister. I am therefore not in a position to make new policy statements in this area”. If there is one glimmer of reassurance, it is that at this time of great economic uncertainty and constitutional crisis, at least the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, has been prepared to step up to the plate to address the future of our bus services. How very British.

On one issue in particular, however, this Administration can and should take the lead and state openly and clearly that, come what may, European Union nationals settled in this country will continue to stay. The case for such an unequivocal commitment was eloquently made by the noble lord, Lord Dobbs, yesterday during Questions. What kind of morality would make bargaining chips of the lives and livelihoods of people legally and responsibly settled here—their families, their livelihoods, their hopes and aspirations? It is not even a practical bargaining position. A Government who cannot even manage to deport foreign criminals with no right to remain are not credibly going to be able to deport up to 3 million EU citizens. In the dying days of this Government, surely the Prime Minister and his Ministers can show some moral fibre and pull something honourable, decent and fair out of the wreckage of their Government.