My Lords, this has been an extraordinary debate, in the best sense of the word, and one that befits one of the most significant democratic exercises in our history. It is the first occasion on which this House has had the opportunity to reflect at length on the implications of the decision by the electorate that the UK should leave the European Union. The tenor of the speeches around the House has displayed a range of emotions, from anger at the result from many, to delight at the result from some. We have heard passionate advocacy for particular future policies, thoughtfulness and some degree of optimism for the future.
This will not be the last opportunity for all of us to contribute our expertise to the consideration of the terms on which the United Kingdom will leave the European Union. I anticipate that we will benefit from the reports of our Select Committees, and that the usual channels will consider the matter of making time available for debates. But it does not stop there. Indeed, my noble friend the Leader of the House is already engaging actively with the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, to consider how best the EU committees of this House can play their part throughout. I welcome the fact that our European Union Select Committee hopes to publish its initial views before the Summer Recess, and has already taken evidence from my right honourable friends Oliver Letwin and David Lidington.
Hearing the opinions of all noble Lords and benefiting from their expertise are of great value to the Government. Over the past two days we have heard from 114 noble Lords. Unusually for me—I hope noble Lords will understand this—I will not do what I usually do. I do like to refer to every noble Lord by name—I am known for it—but I will not do that this time. I apologise, but I tried this out on my husband the other night. I read out the list of names, and I realised that, even without names as long as mine, it would take me nearly nine minutes just to say the names once, even without referring to the issues. So I offer my apologies. I might just break that rule at the very end of my speech, though, because I would like to refer to one particular matter that I heard about yesterday.
As the Leader said in opening the debate, she and I are here primarily to listen. That has been a tremendous privilege throughout these two days; thank you. I will seek to reflect on the key issues raised by noble Lords.
It is clear that the majority of the British people did vote to leave the European Union. Noble Lords from around the House have made the point, however, that we should never forget that just over 48% of people who cast their vote wanted us to remain a member. The priority must indeed be to make the decision work for everybody in the United Kingdom, whichever way they voted. The implementation of this decision will not be straightforward: we have already seen that there will be adjustments within our economy, and they have continued overnight. There are complex constitutional issues to consider, and there will be a challenging negotiation to undertake with Europe. However, our guiding principle throughout will be to ensure the best possible outcome for all British people.
With this in mind, I shall address first the process of implementing the decision. That is, of course, the matter of Article 50 and what it entails. There has been much debate over the last two days about the route by which the UK will leave the European Union. Several noble Lords expressed reservations about whether, indeed, we should leave. The Article 50 procedure is the only lawful route by which the UK can leave the EU. Our own European Union Committee’s report on the process of withdrawing from the EU, published on
“If a Member State decides to withdraw from the EU, the process described in Article 50 is the only way of doing so consistent with EU and international law”.
My right honourable friend David Cameron has made it clear that it is for the next Prime Minister to decide when to trigger Article 50 and start the formal and legal process of leaving the EU. This was clearly understood and respected by the most recent European Council. A considerable part of this debate has understandably focused on the role of Parliament in the Article 50 process, and I was pleased to hear all contributions on this matter.
In law, Article 50 explicitly recognises that a member state may decide to withdraw in accordance with its own constitutional requirements, so it is for the member state concerned to determine what those constitutional requirements are. In the UK there is no legal obligation to consult Parliament. In law—I emphasise that—the Government alone can trigger the Article 50 process under their inherent prerogative power to conduct foreign affairs, which includes the power to withdraw from a treaty or international organisations. But, as the Prime Minister said, we now have to look at all the detailed arrangements and Parliament will clearly have a role in that, making sure that we find the best way forward. I realise that Parliament will have a variety of views, just as we have heard a variety of views over these two days. It is that richness from noble Lords that we need to hear.
Some have argued that there should be an Order in Council or an Act of Parliament before withdrawal from the EU takes place. Noble Lords have indicated that there may be legal challenges on these matters. If that does happen and there are legal challenges, I will not be able to comment on those specific events but we can talk later in other debates about the general range of powers that are around. It is important to note that the Prime Minister has recognised that Parliament will have—does have—a role. The views expressed by Members of both Houses provide important advice to the Government, and the Government listen.
Further debate is focused on the timing of an application to trigger the Article 50 process. Some noble Lords wish to hurry; others have followed the advice of one of my noble friends who said, “Bad certainty now doesn’t trump good certainty later”. This is indeed a time for calm reflection and preparation of a cogent application for an exit which benefits us all. By “us all”, of course, I include all those who live within the United Kingdom, whatever their nationality. I will come to that later, but it always occurs to me that if we do not treat those who live here well, they cannot contribute to our economy, so it is in our interests to consider that they are a benefit, too.
There has been debate about the timing of the repeal of the European Communities Act. I would say that that is the end of the process, not the beginning, but I note an interesting suggestion that the Bill of repeal should be introduced early, with what I would call a sunrise clause to deliver a delayed implementation date, which I believe my noble friend mentioned.
Considerable reference has been made to the issue of a second referendum. I will say that tomorrow we have a Question for Short Debate on this matter, too. In theory there could be a second referendum. However, from the word go the Prime Minister made it absolutely clear that there should not be a second referendum because that would break faith with a decision made by the public on
So what happens to European Union business and the UK over the next two years, or however long it takes to negotiate our exit from the EU? Once Article 50 is invoked, we will remain bound by EU law until the withdrawal agreement itself comes into force. The period between the invocation of Article 50 and our eventual exit from the EU is indeed up to two years—unless, of course, other member states agree to extend it.
Questions have been asked about what will happen to the UK’s participation in EU business in that period. I was asked specifically about the matter of regulation-making, and particular reference was made by two noble Lords to the agri-food sector and the need for transitional provisions. Clearly, the EU will continue to function and make progress with its legislative agenda, but it is important to note, too, that EU directives usually have quite a long time delay before they come into effect. So the question in the mind of noble Lords is, I think, whether the UK can block legislation during our negotiating period. The only way that we could do that with certainty is if we are able to exercise a veto. We could ask for specific legislation to exclude the UK, but this would generally be subject to qualified majority voting in the Council and would require other member states to vote with us.
I was asked that the Government do all in their power to ensure that the voice and expertise of the Civil Aviation Authority should not be wasted when we withdraw from the EU. I think that this is a detailed example of just the kind of important issue that will need to be addressed during our renegotiation. I was asked why there was no plan B and why we did not create a Brexit unit before. I say gently to noble Lords that we have been round that particular house many times before in our debates, particularly when we were debating the passage of the referendum Act through this House. It was made clear by the Prime Minister that, in setting out his view as to why it was right to accept the renegotiated deal that he had with the other 27 states, it was right to put a positive case to the public and not to say, “I think I am going to lose and, therefore, we will arrange the alternative”. We always said that it was for those who wanted to leave the European Union to say what the alternative was.
But we have clearly acted very quickly indeed. A new unit is already being set up in Whitehall, as of last week, bringing together officials and policy expertise not only from across the Cabinet Office, Treasury, Foreign Office and BIS, but—I can confirm to noble Lords who asked about this—from other spheres as well. I also absolutely agree that there is invaluable expertise in this House upon which we will need to call. The unit is based in the Cabinet Office and will report to the Cabinet on delivering the outcome of the referendum. It will advise on transitional issues and objectively explore options for our future relationship with Europe—and with the rest of the world, from our new position outside the EU. Questions were asked, quite rightly, about what legislation will be required to guarantee those rights and responsibilities flowing from EU law which the UK wants to retain—and there will be many. I expect the unit to play a crucial part in assisting government departments to rapidly identify such legislation as is required and how it may be put into practice.
It was absolutely right that a House of this nature should ask detailed questions about what happens to the areas outside London—and indeed in London, too—and I understand the concerns about the devolved Administrations and others. As we prepare for a negotiation on our new relationship with the EU, we need to ensure that we look to preserve—and advance—the interests of all parts of the United Kingdom. I can give assurance that the British Government will fully involve the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Governments, as well as the Government of Gibraltar, in this process. We will also consult the Crown dependencies, the overseas territories and all regional centres of power, including the London Assembly, to ensure that all their interests are taken properly into account. Indeed, the Prime Minister has spoken to the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales, as well as to the First and Deputy First Ministers in Northern Ireland, and to the Taoiseach. Officials will work intensively together during the coming weeks to bring our devolved Administrations into the process for determining the decisions that need to be taken. I have to say again—I know it will irritate noble Lords but I hope not to have to say it too much more—that, while all the key decisions will have to await the arrival of the new Prime Minister, there is a lot of work we can do right now.
Concern has been expressed about the impact on Scotland. I can give the House an assurance that the Prime Minister remains of the view that there should not be a second Scottish referendum. Less than two years ago, the people of Scotland voted clearly to remain part of the UK. That vote was conducted in the context of a clear manifesto commitment by the Prime Minister to hold a UK-wide, in/out referendum on our membership, so it was already known about then. The reasons for Scotland to be in the UK are as strong now as they were 18 months ago.
Proper concern was expressed, of course, about the position of Northern Ireland. All political parties in Northern Ireland and the Irish Government share a vision of peace and prosperity for Northern Ireland. The EU referendum result does not and should not change that. It will not change that. The Taoiseach has been very clear that he wants to minimise any possible disruption to the flow of people, goods and services between Northern Ireland and the Republic. In that context, the British and Irish Governments have already met to discuss the challenges relating to the common border area. Our relationship is special and it will remain so.
I have heard very strong and passionate feelings expressed around the House with regard to the issue of what happens to UK citizens within the EU and to EU citizens here in the UK. I have heard the strong feeling expressed that the Government should give an immediate, absolute assurance that all EU citizens legally in the UK should be allowed to remain indefinitely and work or study here. While I am not quite in the position to be able to create new policy at the Dispatch Box, I can give some helpful indications. The Government value highly the contribution made by EU nationals to our daily lives. As I said earlier this week, I deplore the fact that, during the referendum campaign—and subsequently—there have been reported increases in hate crimes against our EU friends.
I was asked whether the Home Office is going to publish its action plan on tackling hate crime. Although a date has not actually been confirmed yet, it will be published shortly. As my noble friend Lord Ahmad made clear on Monday in a Statement to the House, the position of EU nationals remains unchanged during the process of applying to leave the EU.
Earlier today, there was a debate in another place, to which noble Lords have already referred. During that debate, my right honourable friend James Brokenshire made clear to the House of Commons that the Government,
“want to be able to guarantee the legal status of EU nationals who are living in the UK”.
He said that he was confident—and so, therefore, am I confident—
“that we will be able to do just that. We must also win the same rights for British nationals living in European countries and it will be an early objective for the Government to achieve those things together”.
He then went on to say:
“I am confident that we will be able to work to secure and guarantee the legal status of EU nationals living here in conjunction with the rights of British citizens”.
As has been said, it is important that we consider everybody who believes that they have acquired rights and we need to work from there.