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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:12 pm on 20th February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat 4:12 pm, 20th February 2017

My Lords, the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, makes it quite clear that the country is divided—in some ways more divided now than it was before the referendum—and that this process as it continues could lead to the country and its regions becoming increasingly divided. That gives us a great responsibility in how we contribute to the debate.

This House has an entirely legitimate role to play in scrutinising the Government’s approach to Brexit, both as the process proceeds and when it comes to the final package. Our role as a revising Chamber is not to throw out Bills at Second Reading but to examine the rationale for the proposals they contain. It is our role as a second Chamber to weigh up the Government’s proposals against our understanding of the national interest and to challenge the Government when we consider that their arguments do not make sense.

The Vote Leave campaign made much play before the referendum of the principle of restoring parliamentary sovereignty. Since June it has argued, in contradiction to that principle, that neither Chamber of Parliament can claim a significant role in scrutinising the Government’s changing interpretation of what leaving the European Union means. The will of the people, the Daily Mail insists, requires that we now accept whatever the Government put forward. So we are in danger of slipping from parliamentary democracy to direct democracy in which an authoritarian political leader is allowed to interpret occasional expressions of the popular will without a continuing process of criticism.

Nigel Farage’s French lodger, about whom the press showed much interest recently, is the director of the Institute for Direct Democracy in Europe, an institute supported by a group of hard-right nationalist parties across the EU—direct democracy against the necessary compromises and reasoned arguments of parliamentary democracy, in which popular fears and emotions are exploited by media and populist leaders to bully the opposition and target foreigners and minorities. The Conservative Government should not slip down that road, which would betray the best of the Conservative tradition.

It is not that I think that our current Prime Minister is in any way comparable to Donald Trump or Marine Le Pen, but I do fear that she has been captured by the authoritarian right of her party and the almost anti-democratic hysteria of the Daily Mail. Those of us who still believe in parliamentary democracy, with reasoned debate and with attention to evidence and detail at its core, must therefore insist that this Chamber, as part of Parliament, has an important role to play.

Ministers spent a good deal of time and effort quietly examining the detailed costs and benefits of EU membership under the coalition Government at the insistence of the Conservative side. Thirty-two papers on the balance of competences between the EU and the UK were carefully negotiated over 24 months on the basis of widespread consultation with stakeholders and experts in each sector, and the overwhelming consensus was that in most respects the current balance took UK interests well into account. Sadly, the response from the then Prime Minister in No. 10 was to bury the exercise as deeply as he could for fear of enraging the Europhobe right, so the public were left uninformed. But this Prime Minister cannot afford to bury sectional national interests and the impact of Brexit on them as negotiations move forward. If, at the end of the process, the gap between today’s optimistic promises and the hard compromises of the final package is too wide, the public will blame the Conservatives for the result.

Conservatives should therefore recognise that it is in their own enlightened interest to accept the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Newby and others that requires a resolution of both Houses on the final package and a national referendum on the terms agreed, and it is in the Government’s enlightened interest to inform Parliament and the public of what it is realistically possible to achieve as they move forward, rather than raising illusory hopes now and attracting outrage when they fall short later.

The recent White Paper still suggests that Britain can have its cake and eat it in sector after sector. It states:

“This Government will make no attempt to remain in the EU by the backdoor”.

Nevertheless, it lists a long series of areas where it is confident that the UK can retain close co-operation, from scientific research to aviation, medicines, food safety, chemicals and financial services. That simply will not be possible if we are entirely outside.

The White Paper also pledges to maintain close co-operation on internal security, intelligence and crime, but without accepting judicial oversight of such sensitive issues. That will not be possible either.

On foreign policy, the White Paper repeats the meaningless phrase that we are,

“leaving the EU, not leaving Europe”— a phrase repeated by the Leader of the House yet again today—and suggests that we will continue to participate in EU military and civilian missions “across the globe”, through the EU’s back door, no doubt.

Boris Johnson, meanwhile, is making speeches in India and the Gulf promising that an increasing proportion of our Armed Forces will in future be deployed east of Suez, as far away from Europe as possible, and last week he was in the Gambia proclaiming the revival of the Commonwealth while the Canadian Prime Minister was visiting Brussels and Strasbourg to celebrate Canada’s trade agreement with the European Union. The Prime Minister says that we must be a world power but that none of us must be citizens of that world. I cannot recall a point in my lifetime when British foreign policy has been as incoherent as it is today.

This has the potential for a train crash, so the House should give the Government a qualified and conditional authority to proceed with negotiations to leave, as the amendments we will discuss in Committee propose.