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European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill - Second Reading (1st Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:00 pm on 20th February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Shipley Lord Shipley Liberal Democrat 9:00 pm, 20th February 2017

My Lords, I follow two speakers, the noble Baronesses, Lady Wheatcroft and Lady Crawley, who have explained extremely effectively the problems that Brexit will bring.

Our country voted by 52% to 48% to leave the European Union and in one sense, that is a clear result. However, of the 52% who voted to leave, a number did so in the expectation that we would revert to a Norway-style arrangement, or something similar to it, which would continue to give access to the single market. Indeed, the Conservative Party encouraged that view. In its general election manifesto in 2015, it said that there should be “an in-out referendum” and promised to honour the result. It also said that a Conservative Government would,

“safeguard British interests in the Single Market”.

The manifesto suggested that we could stay in it with the words:

“We say: yes to the Single Market”.

So why do the Government now interpret the result as a vote for a hard Brexit in which we leave the single market and the customs union, with all the dangers that will inevitably lead to? I submit that there is no majority in our country for a hard Brexit. The referendum result was a decision to leave the EU, but it was not a decision on exactly what should happen next.

In opening this Second Reading debate the Leader of the House said that,

“a good deal will be one that works for all parts of”,

the United Kingdom. I agree with that aim, but I wonder how this will be done when the Prime Minister has put issues of immigration and justice ahead of protecting our economy and jobs, which need access to the single market and the customs union to maximise both our exports and our inward investment.

My name is attached to an amendment tabled for Committee in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, that asks for an assessment to be undertaken of the impact of Brexit on the economy of the north-east of England before Article 50 is triggered. The same principle could of course apply to all parts of the UK because it is vital that the Government understand that different parts of the UK are not the same in their dependency on the EU for manufacturing exports and jobs. The north-east of England needs access to overseas markets for its products: 58% of the north-east’s exports go to the European Union. Leaving the single market and the customs union will put that huge success at risk. What do the Government plan to do to secure continued private sector inward investment in the north-east of England, and across the whole of the UK, once we have left and given up the free trade agreement we already have with the other 27 countries of the European Union?

Just one generation ago, some 6 million people worked in manufacturing in this country. There are under half that number today, with many people forced instead to work in low-productivity jobs with low pay and insecure terms and conditions of service. How will Brexit help the poorer parts of the UK to improve productivity and drive growth when investment in higher value jobs will be put at risk? I have come to the conclusion that the Government are not in control of events. They seem to think their role now is just to administer a hard Brexit when most people in this country want them to show leadership by negotiating a soft Brexit.

Probably the most vacuous political slogan I have heard in recent times is that “Brexit means Brexit”. If that means we have to fall back on World Trade Organization rules, it is very bad news for regions with manufacturing exports that benefit from zero tariffs to the EU. The Prime Minister is on record as wanting a frictionless system of exporting. That is not what the Government are actually doing as they remove us from the single market and the customs union. Huge friction will result from our departure from the European Union.

For all these reasons, I have concluded that a final decision on whether to accept the terms negotiated for exiting the EU in two years’ time must be taken by the people, in full knowledge of all the implications, on the advice of Parliament. That is not about reopening the result of the referendum last year but about asking people to confirm that the actual terms of Brexit are satisfactory to them.

Voters gave the Government a sense of direction last year by voting to leave the EU, but they did not say what they wanted the Government to negotiate in its place—so they should have the right to confirm, or not to confirm, what the Government achieve from their forthcoming negotiation. The EU is not a perfect institution, as the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport, reminded us, not least in its democratic accountability; it needs major reform. But the problems of today’s world require international solutions. The European Union is a very successful example of close international working and it will not be in our best interests to turn aside from all the advantages that membership has given us. We do not want to promote narrow nationalisms.