Outcome of the European Union Referendum - Motion to Take Note (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:18 pm on 5th July 2016.

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My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow that speech from the noble Baroness and the excellent speech from the noble Lord, Lord Butler. This is clearly a time of political crisis. So far, two party leaders have gone. My hope is third time lucky and that my own party is able to move forward quickly.

We are also in a constitutional crisis. When I was introduced to this place, I took the oath of allegiance to the Queen and signed up to the Code of Conduct of your Lordships’ House, as do all noble Lords. That code makes clear, in paragraph 7, what our duties are:

“In the conduct of their parliamentary duties, Members of the House shall base their actions on consideration of the public interest, and shall resolve any conflict between their personal interest and the public interest at once, and in favour of the public interest”.

I do not equate public opinion and public interest and think that they are the same thing; they are currently potentially in conflict.

I believe that most of the 52% who voted to leave did so out of a concern for the effect of migration. One of the failings of the remain campaign was to allow it to become a referendum on that issue. Migration is a function of globalisation. The free movement of labour, alongside the free movement of capital and goods, is a founding principle of the EU. I profoundly believe that the migration of capital and, therefore, of jobs away from the UK is now a bigger threat than the migration of workers.

It is not in the public interest for Parliament to ignore the outcome of a referendum, but if the outcome of a negotiated exit is an end to the free movement of labour, and with it free trade, the public interest is not served by supporting that outcome. I like the notion put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Butler. Employers need access to current skills and will migrate to access those skills in an environment free of trade barriers. Perhaps our negotiators will succeed in persuading the EU to act against its founding principles and its own preservation by agreeing to free trade but not the free movement of labour, but I doubt it. Either way, this Parliament needs the assurance from the Government that it has a role in both the negotiating position and in triggering Article 50 so that we can exercise our duties as parliamentarians. What consideration has been given to forming a Select Committee of both Houses to provide detailed scrutiny of this critical process for our nation?

The second huge concern raised by this flawed referendum is the failure of representative democracy. We have seen 75% of the country’s parliamentary representatives who were elected just a year ago ignored in their considered opinion. The two main parties both failed to lead significant parts of their core vote. They were joined by almost every expert on the economy and academia and were still ignored in favour of dishonest populist messages. One of our representatives was murdered in the street and yet this was not enough to cause people to pause for thought. The old model of elected representatives making difficult decisions for us is under strain, but direct democracy is equally flawed. We do not know how to inform the public to enable and empower them to take a considered view. It amuses me when Tory friends campaigning to remain complained that three-quarters of newspapers were against them. For us on this side, the response was, “Welcome to my world”. The echo chamber of social media is distorting and our methods of campaigning are sterile. On-demand TV has moved many away from watching the national news. We depend on an air war fought in the media to drive ideas, mood and education and on a ground war to mobilise people behind the media campaign. That paradigm is redundant.

This House may seem a strange place to talk about democracy. That is partly because we now think that democracy is just about voting. It is not. Voting is just one of the tools of democracy alongside others such as freedom of speech, juries and free access to ideas in libraries and now the internet. We urgently need to review how our democracy works so that we can give everyone a sense that they matter and that their opinion counts and so that we can also be engaged and informed to ensure that decisions are informed decisions.

Finally, we need urgently to address the sense that the majority of electors fear the future and the rapid change storming through society and the economy. We need the proceeds of growth to be more evenly distributed. It is not sustainable for business, politics or society if the rich continue to get richer and the poor get relatively poorer. Employment growth is insufficient if there is no security of income or of housing.

How do we do that? There are no easy answers, but I welcome the Government’s acknowledgment that they have a role in stimulating growth, as represented in the northern powerhouse. Perhaps we need a national powerhouse. I also welcome the ending of the surplus target by the Chancellor and with it, I hope, a loosening of austerity. I would also like to see priority given to skills. I am chair of the digital engagement charity, the Tinder Foundation. We work to get the 10 million-plus adults currently without digital skills confident to use the internet. That work needs accelerating, to give those people a sense of participation in the future. We need to give a much stronger priority to adult skills. If we listen to this referendum, we will have to replace migrant skills with domestic ones to stem the migration of jobs. To respond to that needs urgent redesign of both education and skills in this country.

In summary, we need to respect the outcome of this referendum, but without delivering on it blind to the consequences of the public interest. We need to rejuvenate our democracy and inform and empower electors. We also need active government refreshing the parts of the economy other policies cannot reach.