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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:05 pm on 20th February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Cashman Lord Cashman Labour 4:05 pm, 20th February 2017

My Lords, I am particularly pleased to follow the noble Lord, Lord Hague of Richmond, because I do not believe that it is a great error to revisit the principles or that doing so will open up a divide. The divide has opened up and I fear we are living in a very dangerous period of this country’s history. It is a time of rising intolerance and intimidation, especially for minorities and minorities’ opinions—even minorities of 48%. Now is not the time to add fuel to the bonfire of vanities and emboldened egos; now is the time to pause and reflect. It is indeed a time for calm.

Now is the time to ask that everyone respects fundamental principles of democracy, not least respect for different views and opinions, no matter how hard that may be for some. If we are truly to resolve the EU issue before us, it must be done by reaching a consensus, by taking account of the views of others and by truly trying to unite this divided country.

Therefore, I ask that the media respect, or at the very least cease attacking personally, those whose opinions are different from theirs and the opinions that they purport to represent on behalf of their readers, listeners and viewers, and to recognise that we too hold opinions in good faith. I ask that they also respect the independence of the judiciary in all its branches, whether the High Court, the Supreme Court or the Bench of magistrates, and that they acknowledge unequivocally that the rule of law and an independent judiciary define a democracy and protect those who seek its justice, especially in a country without a written constitution.

Like other noble Lords, I have been inundated with emails asking me to oppose Brexit, to protect the single market and freedom of movement, and to protect the fundamental rights that arise from the treaties—not least non-discrimination on the grounds of race, ethnicity, religion, belief, age, disability, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as environmental rights and protections. They ask, too, that I protect the rights of EU nationals living, working and studying in this country and, quite rightly, UK nationals living, working and studying in other parts of the EU. Their voices should be heard in the national debate and not be drowned out merely because they are part of a minority—a minority of more than 16 million people who voted.

Indeed, any civilised society and democracy worth its name is judged by how it treats its minorities and the dissenting opinions within. It is our duty to give a voice to the voiceless and to enable those who would otherwise be intimidated and silenced to be heard. Yet I am told that the minority must know its place and accept what the majority have decided. Well, I want to make a couple of points. If that were the case, I would argue that, once we have elected a Government, we should let them govern and there should be no opposition parties or debates during their period of office. I know that that is attractive to some but it is not the route of democracy.

Secondly, I have for my entire adult life fought those who have purported to represent the majority and political parties that have argued and voted against equality. Every step of the way, especially when I lost, I redoubled my efforts in that fight for the right to be heard and the right to equality. I did not give up then, despite the defeats, and I am not going to give up now. I want equality for the 16 million-plus people to be heard—those who voted against leaving the European Union and those who could not vote—because the outcome of this referendum affects us all. I want them to be heard because my voice, too, is amongst them.

At the moment you lose an election, a referendum or a fight for your principles, you do not ditch your principles because they are unfashionable or unpopular. To do so is to pay lip service to principles, values and beliefs. Worlds are changed for the better by people who have the courage to be unpopular and to do what is right, good, just and decent for the long term—not to give in to intimidation, threats or bullying but to fight and fight again, quietly and with dignity, and to pursue the same reasoned and argued principles. That is exactly what the anti-Europeans have been doing for decades and, if it was right for them, it should be right for other opinions now.

I will support amendments to protect the single market or the customs union—the principle of freedom of movement—and it is time the UK enforced the conditionality of the principle of freedom of movement, even if that means introducing national ID cards. I will support amendments to protect the rights of EU and UK nationals to work, live and study in the EU, and I will support amendments so that Parliament or the electorate have the final say on the negotiated agreement between the 27 and the UK.

I believe it is incumbent on your Lordships’ House, regardless of the threats of abolition or blackmail, from wherever they may come, to ask the other place to think again. If the amendments I have mentioned are not carried, I will not vote in favour of triggering Article 50 because I do not believe that hard Brexit is in the long-term interests of this country.