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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:00 pm on 20th February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Oates Lord Oates Liberal Democrat 7:00 pm, 20th February 2017

My Lords, like many in your Lordships’ House, I deeply regret the circumstances that have brought us to consideration of the Bill. However, after the tirade from the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, against the Liberal Democrats, I am at least reassured that we must be doing something right, and have never been prouder and happier than to be on the opposing side of an argument. Nevertheless, the referendum has happened and I accept that the Government had to carry out its instructions. But they had a choice about how they did so.

The Government could have acted boldly by consulting Parliament immediately and meaningfully, and publishing a Bill six months ago. They could have set out a policy which discharged their duty to negotiate withdrawal, but did so in a manner that took into account the views of the whole nation and gave protection to our economy. They could have acted decisively to reassure EU citizens in the UK, and consequently British citizens in other EU countries, that their rights would be protected. But they did none of that. Instead, they asserted the royal prerogative with the arrogance of a medieval monarch, and fought to prevent Parliament having a role. Instead, they decided to embark on extreme Brexit, exiting not only the EU but the single market and the customs union too—decisions which our current Chancellor warned, just a few short months ago, would be “catastrophic”.

On the crucial issue—the rights of UK citizens in the EU and of EU citizens in the UK—instead of a bold and generous offer, the Government have obfuscated and blustered. They have cast the lives of millions of people as so many chips in a game of poker. In doing so they have squandered good will towards our country, brought fear and uncertainty to millions of our fellow EU citizens and proven—if any further proof were required—how very little the Government understand about the art of negotiation.

I hope we will take the opportunity in Committee and on Report to ask the elected House to think again on some of these matters, including first, on protecting the rights of British citizens resident in other EU countries and EU citizens resident in the UK. The content of the White Paper on the subject is frankly derisory and an insult to the millions of EU and British citizens left uncertain and afraid by Brexit. Secondly, we need to look at how we can protect our economy by keeping the UK in the single market. Finally, we need to look at ensuring that at the end of this process, the British public have the final say on the deal that is brought back.

The Bill we have received from the other place does none of that. Its two short clauses, if passed in their present form, will grant the Executive unqualified and untrammelled power to negotiate an exit deal from the European Union on any terms, however pitiful the deal is for our country, however damaging it is to our economy, however much it strips British and other EU citizens of their existing rights and however much it tears up their lives.

At the end of all this, when the Prime Minister returns with a deal—or perhaps no deal at all—Parliament, if the Bill is passed in its present state, will have no more power in the matter than a meaningless vote on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. As for the public, they will have absolutely no say at all. They will have no say, however ruinous the agreement is for them, however damaging it is to their health services, however devastating it is to their jobs and whatever the cost to them in rising prices and deteriorating living standards. They will not even get the choice of “take it or leave it”—they will just be expected to take it.

So much for all the brave talk of the restoration of parliamentary sovereignty. So much for “take back control”. This is what has come of it. Those Brexiteers who so insistently proclaimed the importance of parliamentary sovereignty would surrender it to the Executive without a whimper. Those who agitated year in, year out for the voice of the people to be heard are determined that it must now be silenced for ever. For the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, and his colleagues, the people have spoken—they must never be allowed to speak again.

Unless this House is prepared to act, the Government will proceed unhindered on a course of extreme Brexit, for which they have no mandate and which will cause the maximum damage to relations with our European partners, to the economy of our country and to the livelihoods of every single person in it. Most noble Lords know this to be the case. What remains to be seen is whether we are prepared to act—not to frustrate the will of the elected House but to discharge our constitutional duty to ask them to think again and, in doing so, to mitigate the huge political and economic damage of the course of extreme Brexit the Government seem determined to embark upon.