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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:03 pm on 20th February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Campbell of Pittenweem Lord Campbell of Pittenweem Liberal Democrat 5:03 pm, 20th February 2017

My Lords, I am the 16th speaker in this debate, and I am already reminded of the explanation why the conventions of the Republican and Democrat parties in the United States last for four days, when two would be sufficient. The answer is that because usually, after two days, everything has been said but not everyone has said it. By the time we come to close of play tomorrow evening, that may be even more obvious.

In a moment or two, I shall talk about the role of your Lordships in this most serious matter, but before I do that, I support the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Patel, about the position of EU nationals living in the United Kingdom. It is extraordinary that the Government have not yet made any concession in respect of their future. It is extraordinary that they have not recognised that those citizens are an essential part of our economy and, indeed, of our academic life. It is extraordinary that they have not accepted that they are husbands and wives, mothers and fathers of United Kingdom citizens. Are we really and truly contemplating even the remote possibility that we will be prepared to start knocking on their doors, whether at midnight or midday, expelling them from the United Kingdom? The fact is—in a debate in which we have referred to public opinion—all tests of public opinion say that these individuals are entitled to the protection that so many of your Lordships argued for in this House.

The central question for me and for others is: what is our role in this most difficult and complicated issue? Is it to accept without demur the Bill before us, and indeed to put aside the very idea of amendment? Some have exhorted and encouraged us, and even attempted to bully us into doing so. But I rather thought, when I had the privilege of being introduced to your Lordships’ House, that I was expected to use my judgment and experience and to exercise responsibility. In the circumstances in which we meet today, are not these qualities as important now as they have ever been?

I do not argue for a return of the campaign, but it would be wise to take account—to be entitled or even required to take account—of the changes in circumstances since 23 June. So far, no one has mentioned that the value of the pound has depreciated by 20%. Those who wanted us to leave the European Union did not argue that from the platform of the bus they chartered. It will not be long before that depreciation is followed by inflation and then, of course, by an increase in interest rates, at a time when personal debt in the United Kingdom is as great as it was on the eve of the credit crunch of 2008.

We should look at some of the trade deals that have been talked about in theory, if not so far in practice. We have not heard much about Australia recently but the Australians said yesterday that they were open to a trade deal with the United Kingdom. They pointed out that they wanted to increase access to the United Kingdom for their citizens. When India said that they were concerned to have a trade deal with the United Kingdom, they said exactly the same. I do not think that anyone ever thought about that in the course of the campaign.

Now, of course, we are committed to the President of the United States who, to put it at its most charitable, can only be described as mercurial. We have no idea—and perhaps neither has he—what sort of concessions the great deal-maker will demand of us before a successful agreement is entered into between the United Kingdom and the United States. It is even possible that we will have to deal with chickens treated with chlorine and cattle raised on hormones. No one discussed that, and no one had discussed it in any detail as a possible consequence of tying ourselves to an Administration who, if I may say so, are more eccentric so far than any I can ever remember.

Now we know the answer to the riddle: Brexit means Brexit. It is summed up in the expression, “Better no deal than a deal thought to be poor”. We do not yet know what a red, white and blue Brexit will mean, but I hope it is not an excuse for the kind of jingoism from time to time exhibited by the Foreign Secretary. My point is this: what if, at the critical moment of departure, the world has changed and public opinion in the United Kingdom has also changed, when it appears that the consequences of leaving will be adverse to our prosperity, trade and future? Is it not to be permitted that the public change their mind? Is it not be permitted that there can be any turning back? Someone used the expression, “No turning back”. It is worth reminding the House of its origin—an expression used by the pro-Thatcherite group formed in the Conservative Party in the 1970s. I have striven and failed to find any such political position in recent history, and there is good reason: Parliament is sovereign and Parliament can change its mind; it frequently does so. The great repeal Bill bears to be a change of mind, yet the public are not to be allowed the same opportunity. Remember, if it goes wrong, who believes that the public will hold up their hands and say, “It was all our fault because we voted for it”? They will say it was the fault of the politicians, and they will be right to do so.