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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:52 pm on 20th February 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat 5:52 pm, 20th February 2017

My Lords, it will come as little surprise to Members of your Lordships’ House that, on 23 June last year, I voted to remain. I am speaking today not to advocate reopening the debate on seeking to remain, the decision having been taken; rather, what I want briefly to reflect on—it is a different voice and a different perspective—is that, in the debate being held today and tomorrow, I believe that only five Members of the House who are to speak in it are part of what the noble Lord, Lord O’Shaughnessy, has called “Generation X”, those of us who were born in 1969 or later. So the demographic of the speeches is perhaps a little unbalanced. The average age in the United Kingdom is 40, but I do not believe that any of the speakers in this debate are 40 or younger; five of us fall between 40 and 50. So the demographic is somewhat different from that of the United Kingdom where the majority of people of my age and younger voted to remain. These are people who cannot remember life before the United Kingdom became part of the European Union. They believed that their future was as part of the European Union and their identity is European at least as much as it was British. They felt that our future was as part of a mobile European society.

Over recent days and weeks, many people have emailed me and other noble Lords demanding that we should try to thwart Brexit and amend the Bill, and a lot of those calls are coming from people who were disenfranchised in the referendum: EU nationals resident in the United Kingdom and UK nationals resident in the rest of the European Union who had been abroad for more than 15 years. They are citizens who would not, if there were to be a further referendum or a general election before the UK leaves the European Union, be any more enfranchised then than they were last year. There are many people currently living in the United Kingdom whose rights need to be thought about and secured.

In my remaining minutes I want to touch on two key areas: peace and security, and the rights of EU nationals. The former does not feature at all in the 12 principles outlined in the Prime Minister’s speech or in the White Paper. A reference is made to dealing with crime and terrorism, but there is nothing about the defence of the realm, something that as a sovereign country which has sought to “take back control” one might have expected to be important. While I have no intention of tabling an amendment to raise the issue of the European foreign and security policy, I would be grateful if the Minister could reassure the House that the Government fully intend to do what they have implied by going global, that they are going to work even more closely with other international organisations than they have in the past—the UN, the Commonwealth and NATO and with our erstwhile European partners.

We have an excellent reputation for bilateral and multilateral co-operation. Last week I was in Norway visiting the Royal Marines. Considerable training takes place on a bilateral basis with the Norwegians, the Dutch and the Americans, and that is clearly something we should be doing more of in the future, not less. Yet if inflation and a change in the economy weaken the UK’s economic situation, can the Minister also reassure the House that that it is not going to create a hit on defence? The UK’s global security questions are not going to change because of leaving the European Union, and the situation of Trump and Putin makes European security co-operation more important than it has ever been. Peace was the underlying value of the integration process in the 1950s and 1960s, and for me it was the fundamental reason to vote remain; nothing about the economy changes the importance of that and nothing about voting to leave means that we should do anything to weaken the security of Europe.

One of the things the White Paper does talk about in the first chapter is providing certainty for EU nationals resident in the United Kingdom. That is surely something on which we all agree. For the last six months, Members of your Lordships’ House and Members on the Benches in the other place have been united in their wish that the UK should secure the rights of EU nationals resident in the United Kingdom on the day we voted to leave. However, in recent weeks there seems to have been a shift. The uniting of the country that the Prime Minister has called for really seems to be seen more as a uniting of the Conservative Party. The enthusiasm of those Members on other Benches, who had echoed Members on the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Cross Benches in wanting to secure the rights of EU nationals resident here, seems to have been dimmed in recent weeks. I am sure that the unity of the Conservative Party is important for the Conservative Party, but once this Bill goes through, it would be enormously beneficial to all for certainty to be granted for EU nationals resident in the United Kingdom. That is because our economy relies on them.

We can take the moral leadership. Reciprocity sounds wonderful, but the UK has a bad reputation with our European allies given that we do not always reciprocate. We need to take the lead on this one, because if the idea put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, that no deal is better than a bad deal takes hold, it will mean that at the end of two years the rights of EU nationals will not have been secured in any way. Surely we cannot possibly condone such a situation.