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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:30 pm on 5th July 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Labour 6:30 pm, 5th July 2016

My Lords, the Welsh soccer team is certainly an inspiration, and I am sure we all wish them luck tomorrow evening. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, that we need a much more inclusive society, but unlike the noble Lord, I believe we are in the midst of a political earthquake whose tremors are being felt not only in the United Kingdom but throughout the European Union and the wider world. Whereas once we were a stabilising influence, the result of the referendum has destabilised our economy, our politics and our partners. We are in what some might call a brave new world—but no one has a map and no one has properly considered the options or implications for our country, for our citizens or for the constitution. Throughout the campaign, people were warned not to take a leap into the dark, but it is even darker than I had anticipated. I am still stunned by the lack of any preparations and, at a time when we are in desperate need of strong leadership, there is a vacuum in the Government and the Opposition, as many have said.

The idea of member states co-operating for the greater good to be a stronger voice in the world and to maintain peace and stability is a noble idea, and one whose importance for me has grown in an increasingly fractured and fractious world. This was brought home for me, as it was for many others, on Friday as I watched the moving ceremonies to mark the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme and on Saturday when I laid a wreath at an event to commemorate those who bravely went to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War, which began 80 years ago. There is more that unites us than divides us—or perhaps not any more.

However, the decision to leave the EU has been taken. I respect most of those who voted to leave, but I have absolutely no respect for Mr Johnson or Mr Gove, backstabbers who have wrought havoc in the country and their party and who exacerbated people’s fears and insecurities by disingenuous propaganda and sometimes downright lies. They threw liberal and humane values to the wind and built on fears of difference. They fanned the flames of division in this country between rich and poor, young and old, and cities and towns. They did nothing to prevent the crack in what the most reverend Primate called the “thin crust” of tolerance.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Tugendhat, and others, I believe that many of those who voted to leave were using the referendum to express dissatisfaction and to vent their anger about a system which does not respond any more to their needs and concerns. Their lives are difficult: they are insecure and constantly worried about their jobs, the roof over their head, problems getting their kids into school, and the long wait to see the GP. They feel that they have no control over their lives, so when simple solutions were proffered for complex problems, and when told that the only to get back control was to vote leave, of course that is what they did—that is normal and natural. Many people simply believed that their lives could not get any worse. That is an indictment of not just of this Government’s policies but government policies as a whole. My fear is that those people who have given up on the political system and given up on experts will now be let down because the promises made by the leave campaign are undeliverable even by the most assiduous and shrewd negotiators.

Many of the promises cannot be reconciled with reality, including the political reality that Governments in other member states are confronting populist and nationalist forces whose leaders, such as Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders, have been strengthened by Brexit. The people with whom we will be negotiating are concerned about contagion and are naturally looking to their own electorate as well as considering the changes necessary to make the EU more responsive to the 21st-century challenges on security, climate change, migration and the economy. What, I wonder, will be the impact of Brexit on the rerun of the Austrian presidential election, where the far right was beaten by a whisker? It is a dangerous moment for the EU as well as for the UK.

Can the Minister say who our negotiators will be and who will determine the positions that they will take? At a time of national crisis—which this is—we need national unity and that must mean that the Government cannot act alone. I agree with my noble friend Lady Mallalieu that the public like and want us to work together. As many have said, there must be parliamentary, cross-party engagement. There also needs to be direct access for the Opposition—when we have one—to civil servants. There must be deep involvement of local government, for in many instances it will bear the brunt of change and is best placed to understand the impact in those areas where people already feel left behind. I endorse the call made by Sadiq Khan yesterday that London should be guaranteed a seat at the table throughout the negotiations alongside Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and his call and that of many noble Lords for us to remain in the single market.

How will the Government ensure that the voices of all stakeholders are heard and reflected? As a pro-chancellor of the University of Bath, and someone who is proud of the university’s reputation as a truly international centre of excellence for teaching and research, I express concern on behalf of the university sector, like the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar. What assurance can the Minister give that staff and students from EU countries will be able to continue to work and study at British universities in the long term? The intake for this year will be fine, but what will the impact be on applications for 2017? I understand that eight British universities have already had their credit status downgraded as a result of the Brexit vote, amid concerns that curbs to free movement will hit recruitment of academics and students and that EU research funding will be cut. This is more tangible proof of the damage of the uncertainty caused by Brexit.

Many noble Lords have spoken, and will speak, of Article 50, and how and when it will be invoked. But I wonder how it will be possible to reconcile the tensions between the economic need for speed, to provide certainty, and the political desirability for time. Concern about insecurity for EU nationals has, properly, been emphasised this afternoon. These people are human beings, not pawns on a chess-board; likewise our own citizens living and working in other parts of the EU, including those who serve us so well in the institutions.

However long negotiations may take, it is clear that a huge number of our civil servants will be engaged in disentangling us from laws passed during 40 years of membership and in working on new agreements. The usual work of government will be paralysed, at a time when the country is crying out for action that will deal with the blight of inequality. Who, for example, will work on the policies that will improve the lives and life chances of young people? Already shafted by this Government, they have now been so let down by the referendum result.

The deep divisions in our country are sadly not new, but the depth of the divisions was not taken seriously by any political party. If we are to remain a tolerant, united and inclusive country, the first priority of the Government and the Opposition must be to develop and implement policies that will heal that divide.