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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:45 pm on 20th February 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Labour 10:45 pm, 20th February 2017

My Lords, I rise with great sadness to speak in this debate on a Bill which will trigger the implementation of the biggest political decision taken in the past 40 years. The European Union has been a large part of my professional, political and family life. I have never wavered in my view of the crucial role that the EU plays and has played in safeguarding peace and stability among its members. It is certainly not perfect, but it has been extraordinarily successful in bringing people and nations together, in stabilising democracies, as a catalyst for change in countries aspiring to be our partners, and in creating the biggest trading block in the world which respects the rights of workers, consumers and the environment. Since we joined, both Conservative and Labour Governments have been crucial in the development of the EU, and our proud place in the world owes a great deal to our membership.

Notwithstanding this brilliant beacon of hope for the world in these increasingly difficult and dangerous times, when our closest ally is abandoning values that we used to share, we are going to cut ourselves adrift, thanks to Mr Cameron’s political expediency, which backfired and could have potentially catastrophic consequences for our country. I will not rehearse the debate about the toxic rhetoric and intolerance of the deeply flawed referendum campaign, of which I am still ashamed. Of course, alienation towards the EU did not begin last year, and many of us bear a terrible responsibility for not being more robust in its defence over the past 20 years, countering the myths espoused by the press and its owners.

The people have indeed voted, and I would certainly not say that they did not know what they were voting for. They took the decision seriously. However, they were sold a pig in a poke and, rather than taking back control of their lives, they may well now be faced by job insecurity, rising prices, fewer rights as workers and consumers and fewer opportunities. As has been said, leaving the EU will not mend all that is wrong with our society.

While I understand the anger about elitism and inequality that I believe was expressed in the vote, I do not think that people voted to leave the single market or the customs union, so I have to ask why the Prime Minister did not even try to negotiate future membership of the single market with some restriction on freedom of movement. Why does she continue the appalling policy of Mr Cameron of putting politics before the economy?

The Minister in the Commons said that the vote at the end of the negotiations will be either to accept the deal that the Government will have achieved or for there to be no deal. That, for me, is simply not good enough. Parliament should have the opportunity to send the Government back to negotiate further with our European partners if the choice is between a hard Brexit that is not in the national interest and no deal. A recent ICM poll, carried out for Avaaz, showed that only 35% of the public would support crashing out on WTO terms and no deal, while 54% would want either the Prime Minister to continue negotiation or to suspend Brexit pending a second referendum. The EU and the wider world are rapidly changing politically, socially, economically, technologically and environmentally, and I believe it is therefore imperative for us to keep the door open to all options at the end of the process.

With the Bill, the country is embarking on a perilous journey towards an unknown future which, rather than being driven by economic well-being, is being driven by immigration control. Before setting off on the journey, I should like, for example, more information about the implications for our economy. Where is the economic analysis? I should like to know the Government’s views on the important legal issue raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead. Will there be a further Bill at the end of the process? I would also be grateful for clarity about transitional arrangements that the Government will be seeking. The Government appear deluded about the time that negotiations will take on the difficulties ahead, and do not seem to understand that the overriding priority of our 27 partners who will have to ratify the final agreement is to maintain the integrity of the European Union.

How are the Government going to ensure that while reducing immigration they can continue to meet the needs of our farmers, our businesses, our construction and engineering industries, our health and social care sector and our universities? It is not just the hugely important question of EU nationals currently living in the UK; it is our ability to attract skills and talent in the future. Will EU nationals wish to come and work here if they have to pay for health insurance or if their children have to pay fees as foreign students at our universities? There has already been a reduction of more than 90% in the number of nurses from the EU registering with the Nursing & Midwifery Council since the referendum vote.

The referendum result was devastating for the 3 million EU nationals who live in this country but also for the Brits with whom many have relationships. People who contribute to our economy at all levels are already leaving this country because of the uncertainty for them and their families. The Prime Minister says she values the contribution of EU nationals, so now it is time to act. We are talking about human beings, not numbers on a spreadsheet. They need and deserve a guarantee that they can stay and that their rights will be grandfathered. I do not underestimate the complexities but this is a problem of the Government’s own making and they have a huge responsibility to deliver. The situation of our own nationals in other parts of the EU is equally important, but they are in favour of this unilateral action.

While I am passionate about this issue, more importantly, so are all the young people I know. I have spoken to literally hundreds of young people since the referendum, in academies, grammar schools, FE colleges and universities, and all but a handful are despairing of the result of the referendum. They feel that their opportunities have been stunted and that we, the generation who had it all, have sold their future down the river. Those youngsters between the ages of 16 and 18 feel particularly angry that they were not even allowed to vote about their future. Many young people who feel European are looking for jobs elsewhere in the world, my own children included. They are dismayed about the prospect of a future in an inward-looking, insular country, as well as about the deep divisions in our society.

I accept that there is no turning back, so it is our absolute duty to challenge the Government, to scrutinise and amend this Bill. But in doing so, my principles will not change. This is a great and diverse country but it is now fractured. I want my country to prosper, to be stronger, to be tolerant, and I will do everything I can to help it to succeed. However, I firmly believe that this will be much more difficult outside the European Union when our economic power and our voice in the world will be diminished. To mix my metaphors, alone we are merely a player on the global stage whereas the EU is greater than the sum of its parts and enables us to have an enhanced role on that stage.