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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:25 pm on 6th July 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Deputy Chairman of Committees 7:25 pm, 6th July 2016

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Cavendish of Furness, will understand that I cannot agree with most of what he says, but I appreciate that he feels the sense of loss among those who voted remain—that is a good sign. It hardly seems possible that just over a week ago our world was turned upside down by a gamble that was never meant to come off. I have believed in the European Union all my life as a force for progress. I join the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, in what he said: the case was hardly heard during the referendum.

It is shaming to think that this week, when we remember the Somme—the war that was intended to end all wars but led to the threshold of another war—we have to acknowledge that we failed to remind people what inspired the European Union: not trade, not profit, but the hope and reality of lasting peace and greater tolerance along with greater prosperity. Nor did we show—the noble Lord was quite right in what he said—how Europe has helped our country to become smarter, more innovative, cleaner and safer. It is a home for the brightest ideas and the brightest Europeans, who are such an asset to the country. I join all noble Lords who insist that they should now be given immediate assurance that their status is secure, irrespective of future negotiations.

The referendum campaign failed the national interest. In particular, the toxicity of the leave campaign came as a genuine shock. The degree of mendacity and sheer flippancy was breath-taking, but not as shameful as the sight of the same shabby leaders fleeing the battlefield away from the fears that they had stoked up and the chaos that they had created. If by what we have done we have energised the fascist right across Europe, we will indeed have a great deal to answer for in the future. The self-inflicted risks that we are taking are, in a quiet but crystalline way, beginning to emerge. We are already a nation on the defensive, shoring up the pound. Today, for example, we were seeking reassurance from Europe that our scientists will have access to collaborative projects.

One change we can welcome is the Chancellor’s swerve to end austerity, but it comes too late to help the poorest communities such as the ones I know best in post-industrial South Wales which have borne the cuts and closures of austerity. They are not impressed or frightened by the talk of risks to the money markets or risks to the London property market. They live with risk every day, but it is the risk of not being able to pay their bills. Of course they lost trust in the political class, but they still believed what they were told about immigration, in particular, by mendacious national newspapers. Our popular press is an enemy to the truth—the people deserve better in every way.

I was told in places such as Merthyr Tydfil that this was not about money and it was not about Europe. If anything, it was a demand, however inchoate, for change. The utter tragedy is that these are the communities that will now be worse off. In due course there will be no more European investment for the new colleges and the new roads. The things that have happened in the past decades which have made the most significant differences have been funded by European money.

All these risks have been taken for the most opportunistic reasons—narrow personal reasons and narrow party-political reasons. History may well conclude that the battle for our place in Europe was lost on the playing fields of Eton.

Some humility may now be in order as we step back and try to think collectively about how we secure our national interest. First, let us have an end to slippery language. No matter what the Leader of the House says, the referendum was not an instruction to Parliament; it was advisory. My argument is that faced with a national crisis of this magnitude we have to take the wisest and the safest course. We must fall back on what identifies us and gives us strength: the sovereignty of Parliament. Only Parliament can act now on behalf of citizens—those who voted to remain as well as those who voted to leave, and those who did not vote at all. This is not an event where the winner takes all. There is a great debate to be had about the role of Parliament.

I could not decide whether to be pleased or alarmed that I am speaking after the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane—it would not have been a good position in either event. However, I was relieved that after his dissection of the legalities, he has come to the same conclusion as me. In his quite brilliant and clarifying speech yesterday, the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, confirmed my instinct that in voting to leave Europe we have volunteered for an experiment where there are no templates and no precedents. That suggests to me that there is an opportunity to act creatively if we are given some space and time to act with care, and constitutionally. We must not be rushed into triggering Article 50.

The emerging debate over whether there needs to be a vote in Parliament on Article 50 is clearly contestable, and I wish that the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, were in his place this evening to take issue—as I think he would—with the analysis the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, has given us. I am not a lawyer but it seems to me that the argument turns on what has been clear for 400 years: that rights which are protected by statute—which now include, for example, all the rights conferred under the ECA and countless other Acts—can only be removed by another Act of Parliament. However, I will leave that debate to the House and to the Government for another time.

Whatever the technicalities of the legal argument, it seems to me that the essential principle is the bedrock of parliamentary sovereignty, which suggests that we have to secure some parliamentary process at whatever stages we can as we go through the process of achieving a new settlement outside the European Union. This is not to challenge the result of the referendum but to give legitimacy and consensus to the massive changes which will follow from negotiation. That is where the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, and I agree.

We are extremely fortunate to have the expertise and wisdom of the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, to hand. From what he has already said about Article 50, it seems that even if it is not legally required, Parliament could still have a role in determining it. This is the crucial question—it would be very good if we knew the Government’s view. I echo the questions put by my noble friend yesterday to the Leader of the House.

Since in this perfect storm of change we have no compass, the same question surely applies to both the framework and the negotiation itself: what will be the role for Parliament? The framework will set out the future principles and the national interests. Surely there must be some parliamentary procedure to reassure the country that we have secured what we need to go into the detailed negotiations. When we come to the negotiations themselves, no matter whether the process of Article 50 is irrevocable or not—and we have two opinions in this House about that—I stand with the noble Lord, Lord Butler, in his argument that there should be democratic assent to the details, once they are known, and the final agreement, either by way of another referendum, an election, or parliamentary process. No doubt the Constitution Committee will look at some of these questions.

I make this case, as other noble Lords have done, because we are on the tide of history, and the risks around us—not just to individuals and communities but to the very shape and integrity of our country—cannot be underestimated. We have got so much wrong and we have failed so many people, especially our young people. Let us try now, for the sake of our children and our neighbours at home and abroad, to find the right, constitutional and democratic way forward.