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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:32 pm on 20th February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Newby Lord Newby Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 3:32 pm, 20th February 2017

No, my Lords. There are 190 other speakers; the noble Lord will have his chance.

Thirdly, we have now had the White Paper setting out the Government’s negotiating stance. With the stark exception of its rejection of the single market and the European Court, the White Paper is a rather horrifying mixture of pious aspiration and complacent illusion. The Prime Minister’s preface sets the tone. British exceptionalism abounds. We have,

“the finest intelligence services, the bravest armed forces, the most effective hard and soft power”.

What is more, according to the White Paper,

“the country is coming together”,

with,

“65 million people willing us to make it happen”.

The whole tone portrays the UK as a sort of a fettered giant, a national equivalent of Clark Kent which, having entered the Brexit telephone booth, can emerge as a Superman ready to take on the world and win. Either the Prime Minister believes this, which is deeply worrying; or she hopes that by whistling a happy tune, all will work out well, which is scarcely more reassuring.

In view of these developments, how should this House approach the Bill before us? Can we and should we seek simply to send it on its way, or can we and should we seek to amend it? On the first question, the answer is crystal clear. We have the power to ask the Commons to think again on any piece of legislation, large or small. I hope the Government will accept that. When we had the Statement in response to the Supreme Court ruling on 24 January, the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, said that,

“we in this House, as an unelected Chamber, need to tread with considerable care on this issue as we proceed”.

The clear implication was that we should not be pressing amendments. In response, however, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, replied:

“It would be very useful if, when we debate this Bill and there are opposing views and we ask the other place to think again, we do not have Ministers, or anybody else, talking about constitutional crises. This place cannot have the last word. A Government defeat in your Lordships’ House is simply a request to the Commons to look at the issue again—that is all it is”.—[Official Report, 12/1/17; cols. 561 and 567.]

That sums up the position perfectly.

I therefore hope that Ministers in this House will not mimic the attitude of some of their colleagues in another place by dismissing concerns or queries raised by Members of your Lordships’ House as merely opposing the will of the people or by saying that we are trying to obstruct the process. No significant body of opinion in this House is seeking to prevent the passage of the Bill, but there is a world of difference between blocking the Bill and seeking to amend it.

So, if we clearly have the power to amend the Bill, should we positively seek to do so? I believe that we should. Brexit is the most important single issue which has faced the country for decades. For many of us, the approach being adopted by the Government is little short of disastrous. For those of us—and there are many in your Lordships’ House—for whom Europe has been a central theme of our entire political lives, to sit on our hands in the circumstances is both unthinkable and unconscionable.

Many of us throughout the House have always been proud internationalists. We have a profound and deep-rooted commitment to partnership with our European neighbours, a partnership which has resulted in a peaceful Europe where we work in co-operation with one another to overcome common adversaries—climate change, disease, organised crime, terrorism—and to share in the benefits of close relations with our neighbours. How could we possibly justify supine acceptance of what the Government are proposing to ourselves, let alone to others who are watching?

How then should be seek to amend the Bill? There are several sorts of amendments that were debated in the Commons. These amendments related to parliamentary scrutiny, to the role of the devolved Administrations, to impact assessments and to negotiating priorities, from the relationship to the single market to the rights of EU citizens in the UK. All of these are extremely important areas. We on these Benches will want to work across the House with others who seek to pursue them, but for us the key question as we begin the negotiations is: what happens at the end of the process? The Government were not given a blank cheque by the electorate. Voting for departure is not the same as voting for a destination.

If and when the Prime Minister reaches a Brexit deal, who will ratify it on behalf of the nation? Only three bodies could do so: the Government, Parliament, or the people as a whole. The Government have already said that they will give Parliament a vote on the deal, although at present they seem to be willing to offer a vote on only one option—to accept the deal or crash out of the EU. We will of course seek in your Lordships’ House to give Parliament a more meaningful role at the end of the process, but even if we succeed, Parliament, having decided to ask the people to express a view on whether they wished to leave the EU, should not have the final say. If only parliamentarians had had a vote in the referendum, our future EU membership would be secure. Both MPs and Peers overwhelmingly thought that our better interests were served by staying in the EU, including, of course, many members of the current Administration—not least those in your Lordships’ House.

At the end of the process initiated by the people, only the people should have the final say. I realise that many in your Lordships’ House are strongly opposed to referenda and shrink from the prospect of having any more, but we now have a country more deeply divided on Brexit than ever. The anger of those who wanted to leave is now matched by the growing anger of those who wish to remain—particularly our young people. If at the end of this process we are to come together as a country, we need to dissipate this anger, and we believe that giving the people the final say will help to do so.

I must also challenge those many Members of your Lordships’ House who have approached me and my colleagues in recent weeks to say that they believe Brexit is a catastrophe for the country and fervently wish to avert it. How, other than a referendum, do noble Lords think this could be seen to be done legitimately? Having remitted power over our membership of the EU to the people, who but the people could ultimately exercise the power to think again? Of course, the idea of such a referendum should not be alien to the Government. David Davis has argued over a number of years for what he calls a “decision” referendum at the end of the negotiating process. He has not said much about that in recent months but he did let his guard slip in concluding his Second Reading speech on the Article 50 Bill in the Commons when he quoted Gladstone, who said: “Trust the people”. Trust the people. My Lords, we agree.