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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:45 pm on 6th July 2016.

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Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Conservative 8:45 pm, 6th July 2016

My Lords, I am Eurosceptic at best. Although I was very pleased to have the opportunity to vote on this matter, I decided to vote remain. This was, first, because we have enough on our international plate now, without having to manage a Brexit. Secondly, it was for our long-term, grand strategic interests. We need to have a locus at the centre of Europe, not just to ensure that we can have curved bananas, but so that, when Europe has some problems—which it will—we can be there to hold it together and stop matters from becoming very much worse. Finally, it was because Mr Putin would dearly love us to leave the EU and thus destabilise it.

While I support the Government’s course of action, it is important to analyse how we got to this position, if only to inform our domestic policy. I always enjoy listening to the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws. Yesterday, she did not disappoint when she explained the benefits of workers’ rights provided by the EU. The problem, though, is that artisan workers simply do not care about them. If their employer is unsatisfactory, they simply leave and find another. By artisan, I mean someone who has reasonable proficiency in a trade or skill, which can be acquired within about 12 months with a bit of effort and only moderate academic qualifications. Worse still, an older and educated Brexiteer will see this as an undemocratic way of putting in place something that the House of Commons would not.

At home, our decorator is a young Brit, an artisan worker with a young wife and child. On 15 June, we told him that we were going to vote remain. He told us that no one he knew was going to do that. I was then sure that the leave campaign would win because, unfortunately, the remain campaign had lost the artisan vote. We know that there are some very unfortunate reasons why that occurred.

Much has been made of the fact that big business very much supports the EU project. They would, wouldn’t they? On things that matter, they have one main point of contact and that is the Commission. The Commission does not put out a manifesto to the electorate which the electorate then convert into a mandate. They do not have to deal with pesky national parliamentarians, some of whom understand the issues at play. One only has to think of the motor industry’s block exemption from the competition policy to understand that. Yes, there are MEPs but, if I do not have the foggiest clue who my MEP is, or what their agenda is, it is hardly surprising when the rest of the population does not either.

The electorate cannot vote against the Commission if they do not like the cut of its jib. They certainly cannot sack the Commission. In other words, the EU is totally undemocratic. This is what concerns so many of the older, well-educated voters. Moreover, in economic terms the EU is wonderful for big business because free movement of labour means that you can increase demand in the economy without running out of labour or its cost increasing. Effectively, there is an inexhaustible supply of good-quality and highly motivated unskilled and artisan labour available.

I accept that EU labour is fiscally neutral and beneficial for the size of the economy. The trouble is that an artisan does not know what fiscally neutral means, while the benefits argument is a red herring because most EU migrants come here to work. Worse still, our larger economy does not mean more GDP per capita and, for the artisan, that translates into being no better off despite the growth. I am no economist but it seems to me that an economy needs knowledge, infrastructure, capital and labour. We provide as much knowledge as possible but the infrastructure can be improved only slowly. We carefully regulate the supply of money but do nothing to regulate the supply of labour under the free movement arrangements. I am sure that all noble Lords recognise the benefits of free movement of labour within the EU and I will not weary your Lordships by rehearsing them.

Yet another problem is growing the economy by increasing the population when the infrastructure is fixed or is only growing slowly. I think in particular of commuter transport systems and housing. Since we cannot increase the capacity of either as fast as the population is increasing, it is not surprising that we have overcrowded trains and unaffordable house prices. So what is to be done?

Our EU partners are still in the phase of being cross and in denial. I am sure that the Government’s policy as laid out by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister is absolutely the right one, with one exception, and in accordance with the mandate from the electorate. The policy of not invoking Article 50 at least until the autumn buys everyone time. However, if we cannot convince our EU staff in your Lordships’ House that they have nothing to worry about regarding their own position, then HMG must be guilty of unnecessary cruelty to all EU citizens working in the UK. This is a perfectly useless so-called bargaining chip. We should start with being generous where we can.

Although a bitter rearguard action in the UK is doomed to failure, there are some grounds for hope for the remain camp. When the EU elites get over being cross and in denial, perhaps they will do some hard thinking with a wet towel wrapped around their head. They might be able to come up with a totally new proposal for regulating the flow of labour from accession states to more fully developed states. They also need to find a way to deal with the democratic deficit, or at least to recognise the problem. I was very interested in the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, on that issue. If that could be done, with a new deal on migration coupled with a new and effective leader of the Labour Party, then something genuinely new could be offered to our electorate in a further referendum with a reasonable chance of it being accepted. But in the absence of this, the Government should carry on with their policy.