My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford. At number 82 on the speakers list, I fear that there is little new ground for me to cover. However, like many noble Lords, I want to take the opportunity to express my dismay at the outcome of the referendum, my anger at much of the tone and content of the campaigns —mostly, but not limited to, the leave campaign—and my incredulity that the Government have undertaken no contingency planning for this eventuality. I am clear that the primary responsibility for much of the turmoil that is now engulfing us —economic, social and political—rests with our current Prime Minister, who has gambled on the future of our country for party-political reasons.
As for our economy, it was already in choppy waters, exacerbated by the uncertainty created by the referendum—an uncertainty that looks likely to continue for another two years and possibly beyond, with the contagion spreading beyond our shores and those of Europe.
But we are where we are and we have to get the best out of the current position. We need to make it work in terms of the practical and legal negotiations that we have to undertake, as well as restoring some social cohesion to our country. I leave it to better brains than mine to opine on the legality of the courses of action available to us, especially concerning Article 50 and the European Communities Act 1972, but I believe it is incumbent on government, as quickly as possible, to set down the process it considers should operate to remove at least one layer of the uncertainty which is damaging our economy. Surely this does not have to await a new Prime Minster. In any event, there will be only two contenders by the end of the week. If today’s Times is correct and this matter is heading for the courts, what impact does the Minister consider this will have on the timetable and process?
There are formidable issues to address and, as my noble friend Lady Smith instanced from our Front Bench yesterday, that will put a strain on the capacity of government and Parliament, as well as business, trade unions and many others, to deliver, with all the lost opportunities that that entails. It is not only the big issues of the single market and freedom of movement that have to be addressed, but the multiplicity of matters that are part of our interlinked history with the European Union. I would instance just one area—health and safety—where the EU has established the general system of safety in health management under the framework directive, with a whole range of supporting directives. It is vital that this system, which has helped save hundreds of lives over the years, can be retained. Can the Minister say what approach, including the parliamentary approach, is to be adopted in securing this and a raft of other vital secondary legislation implementing EU law and directly applicable EU regulation?
We are told that the referendum was advisory. If this is the case, I do not think that that was made particularly clear during the campaign. It would nevertheless be foolish to ignore the outcome of the referendum and second-guess what voters did. We do not know why people voted the way they did, how they weighed up the factors that were important to them, what information they took into account, and the extent to which they ignored or accepted the assertions of one campaign or another. They may have gained some insights from the various public debates, or perhaps from the pollsters and, indeed, our own discussions and campaigning.
I spent most of the run-up to the vote engaged in traditional canvassing, working in areas of Luton that have typically voted Labour—with some deprivation, but emerging prosperity—where Pakistani, Kashmiri and Bangladeshi communities predominate, but Polish and Romanian communities are beginning to settle. This can only be anecdotal, but I found voters genuinely trying to get to grips with the issues, even on polling day itself; households not slavishly following their traditional party line; and households that would typically vote together not all voting the same way. One might say that was a healthy democratic process, if uncomfortable for a political activist.
If there was a common theme, it was immigration. That was sometimes a peg for a wider range of issues or shorthand for problems involving housing and the state of the NHS in particular, notwithstanding the fact that members of those communities, their parents and sometimes their grandparents are living proof of the success that can flow from immigration. Some expressed the belief that controlling migration from the EU would enable the Government to take a more relaxed stance on immigration from Commonwealth countries, despite the severe restrictions in recent years. Can the Minister say whether this is or is likely to be government policy?
The voters told us that as far as Europe is concerned they do not want the status quo, but as my noble friend Lord Hain said, they have not told us what they do want. It is not their fault: they were not offered a clear proposition even on the big issues of membership such as access to the single market and freedom of movement. This argues for a return to them on some basis for their endorsement of the outcome of the negotiation. It is not easy because until we start the two-year clock ticking we may not get meaningful negotiations. Once we invoke Article 50, the process will largely be out of our control and may not provide time for a meaningful return to voters, rather than just a parliamentary process. What happens if, whatever process is involved, they reject the proposed agreement? We should urge the Government to seek a timetable that will enable any agreement eventually reached to be endorsed by or on behalf of the electorate in the broadest possible manner.
As important as this all is, however, a more fundamental matter should engage us now. As the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury told us yesterday, the referendum has shown in the starkest terms that we are a divided country. Mending it should be our highest priority.