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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:35 pm on 6th July 2016.

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Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development) 9:35 pm, 6th July 2016

My Lords, I thank all contributors to the debate. It has been an amazing and lengthy debate, and every speaker over the last two days has sought to better understand what happens following the people’s decision. Unfortunately, we heard little detail from the noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal. It is not as though we did not have plenty of time to consider the issues or fair warning about the matters to consider. As the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, said, and as the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, reminded us, we have also had the excellent reports of your Lordships’ EU Committee, which not only focused on key issues arising from the Government’s negotiations but addressed the vital question of plan B in the event of a leave vote. Warnings were also given in the Government’s own paper, The Process for Withdrawing from the European Union, published in February. It stated that a referendum vote for Brexit would,

“begin a period of uncertainty, of unknown length and unpredictable outcome”.

My noble friend the shadow Leader of the House, in her contribution yesterday, expressed shock not only at how few answers the Government have but at how few questions appear to have been asked beforehand. The noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, pointed out:

Whitehall departments were unprepared”,

apart from the Treasury,

“which had plans in place with the Bank of England to stabilise the markets”.—[Official Report, 5/7/16; col. 1963.]

Given all that, perhaps the Minister can explain why Ministries were expressly forbidden to draw up contingency plans for exit. Does she agree with the chair of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, Crispin Blunt, that the Prime Minister was guilty of a “dereliction of duty” for setting up a withdrawal unit only after the vote to leave the EU? Perhaps she will suggest to her colleague Oliver Letwin that reading your Lordships’ EU Committee reports should be his first priority.

The key question for the Minister to answer tonight is what oversight the UK Parliament will have over the negotiations on the withdrawal and the new relationship beyond existing ratification procedures. We have had extremely good contributions on this issue and I do not want to repeat them. There have also been some very pertinent questions, and I hope that we will get some clarity tonight. My noble friend the shadow Leader of the House asked whether the Government have considered new parliamentary structures, such as specialist committees—possibly a Joint Committee working on the detail of the negotiations and seeking advice from experts. These are options that we also need to consider, and I would be extremely interested to hear what consideration has been given to the role to be played by the EU committees in your Lordships’ House.

As many noble Lords have reflected in this debate, the referendum process has inevitably polarised politics in our country, with complex issues appearing to be resolved by one simple answer. Whatever our thoughts on people’s reasons for deciding the way they did, what is not in doubt is the final outcome, which must of course be honoured. The noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal said in her opening speech that the approach to future negotiations should be guided by the,

“principle of ensuring the best possible outcome for the British people”.—[Official Report, 5/7/16; col. 1850.]

I believe the people need to have a better sense of what that means.

The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury rightly focused on the need for a new vision—a “new vision for Britain” that tackles inequality and enables hope and reconciliation. I contrast that vision with that of the noble Lord, Lord Lawson of Blaby, who sees the decision as,

“a historic opportunity to make the United Kingdom the most dynamic and freest country in the whole of Europe—in a word, to finish the job that Margaret Thatcher started”.—[Official Report, 5/7/16; col. 1862.]

I wish the people had heard those remarks during the campaign.

The noble Lord, Lord Hague of Richmond, said in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph that the working time directive should be re-examined to make it more flexible. That directive, for the first time in Britain’s history, gave workers a statutory right to four weeks’ paid holiday, but it is now being brought into question.

A picture is emerging from the Conservative Party of a post-Brexit future that takes us back to the 1980s, when mining communities and steel and manufacturing towns were left devastated. If the people had heard those voices properly, I think we might have had a different result. My noble friend Lord Whitty said:

“The issues that people were really moved by were their employment prospects, their lack of access to public services and inequality in our nation”.—[Official Report, 5/7/16; col. 1880.]

If so, this Tory vision, if it materialises, will cause even more discontent with the political process. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ely called it a “lament” about not having been heard for several generations. Those mining communities were left isolated, and several generations have been ignored by the political class. As he said, this was their opportunity to make us listen, after feeling excluded for so long.

The response to that cannot be to turn the clock back: that cannot be the answer. As the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, said, we need to rebuild trust by taking responsibility, leading with both vision and action to ensure that no one is left behind. I believe in a progressive vision that strengthens workers’ rights, puts jobs and sustainable growth at the heart of economic policy and halts the pressure to privatise public services. As my noble friend Lord Lea of Crondall said in his speech, that vision should protect the going rate for skilled workers, stop the undercutting of wages and direct funding to places where the pressures are greatest, such as the communities we have ignored for so long.

We cannot ignore the fact that, as my noble friend Lord Anderson of Swansea highlighted, the consequences are not just about our economic and social well-being. Whatever final arrangement is concluded, we need to focus on our vision for a continent where co-operation overcomes conflict. As a nation, we have a moral and practical interest in preventing conflict, stopping terrorism, supporting the poorest in the world and halting climate change. How we deliver on those after leaving the EU will be critical. Both my noble friend Lord Anderson and the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, highlighted the issues and the means that must be addressed if we are to remain secure outside the European Union.

As we have heard in this debate, one of the most important aspects of the withdrawal negotiations will determine the acquired rights of the 2 million or so UK citizens living in other member states and, equally, EU citizens living in the United Kingdom. I have declared on many occasions that I am married. My husband is Spanish. As an option, we have always seen ourselves as citizens of the EU for the very good reason that we have family and homes in both countries. That is how we see ourselves. That option will no longer be open to us, not least because Spain does not recognise dual nationality. Friends have rung me recently. One is married to a French citizen living in London. They thought that they would resolve some of these issues by ensuring that they acquire French nationality. Another issue is causing anxiety in the LGBT community. In brief, the French consulate has advised that civil partnerships converted to marriages will not be recognised. It is advising people to dissolve and start again. It is saying that all civil marriage resulting from the conversion of a civil partnership, given its retroactive nature, cannot be transcribed on the French civil registers. Indeed, retroactivity is contrary to the fundamental principles of French law—I suspect a fundamental principle that will also apply in Spain.

That is not a new issue. Stonewall has been pushing the Government Equalities Office for months to answer it. The GEO assured Stonewall that it is in talks with embassies but has not given a formal answer. The reason I am raising this point is that, post-Brexit, we will have fewer grounds for negotiations than we do now. Please will the Minister give an assurance to the LGBT community about its future? I fear, as we have heard many noble Lords say, that putting in doubt the rights of EU citizens here will have the very opposite effect of protecting UK citizens in the EU—the complete opposite effect. There was a debate in the other place today and an overwhelming majority voted in support of recognising those rights. Please will the Minister give us the reassurance we seek, not only to protect the people living and working here who have done so for many years, but to ensure the security of our citizens abroad?

I conclude on one thing that relates to protection. We have heard about borders in Northern Ireland and the effect that they might have on the peace process. But that is not the only land border that British citizens have with the European Union. The other, of course, is with Gibraltar. I am very familiar with Gibraltar, and the Minister knows very well the anxieties of that community. It is all very well saying that we will ensure that its citizens’ rights and sovereignty are protected, but I worked in Gibraltar for many years when that border was closed. Let me assure the noble Baroness that what has kept that border open, and kept those citizens in work, has been membership of the European Union. I think they deserve to know, and this House deserves to know, what contingency plans the Government have made in the event of that border being closed again.