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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:08 pm on 20th February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Anderson of Swansea Lord Anderson of Swansea Labour 8:08 pm, 20th February 2017

My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the much respected noble Lord, Lord Howell, as some 20 years ago I followed him in chairing the Foreign Affairs Committee in the other place.

We live in strange times. This is a very short Bill but with momentous consequences. Consensual habits built over 45 years are to be set aside. Brexiteers argued for restoring national and parliamentary sovereignty. Therefore, it is puzzling that the Government did not wish this debate to take place, and relied instead on the royal prerogative, like some 17th-century monarch. We had the amazing spectacle of the other place approving this Bill with a vast majority when the majority of Members of Parliament believe it not to be in our national interest.

I make three brief points. The first concerns the nature of the decision on 23 June. Much of the post-referendum analysis has focused on the regional differences between London and Scotland and so on. Perhaps of more interest to us and, indeed, to the Government, if they wish to govern for the country as a whole, is the age difference. Three-quarters of 18 to 24 year-olds voted to remain. The young, whose interests will be most affected, voted strongly to remain; the old, who by definition have a shorter-term interest, voted to leave. Forty-six was the changeover point.

Why was there this age differential? First, of course, there was alienation. However, one explanation is surely nostalgia—a yearning for yesteryear, a reluctance to come to terms with the United Kingdom of today, with its modernity and diversity. To adapt Trump again, it was about “making Britain great again”, and “again” was perhaps the operative word in looking back to some time in the past. Perhaps the nostalgia even includes memories of the Commonwealth as it was. Indeed, a group of Conservative Members apparently want a new entry channel at our ports and airports for the Commonwealth, but, oddly, seem to focus only on the old white dominions. They perhaps forget that Commonwealth Governments, perhaps unanimously, favoured remain, and past attempts to revive Commonwealth trade have not been particularly successful. Indeed, any new deals we reach with the Commonwealth could harm some of our key national interests, including agriculture, lamb, beef, and so on. Surely there is now a danger that the Government will desperately try, after Europe, to create alternative alliances; for example, by cosying up to the Trump Administration in the US—a point already made in relation to pollution by the special rapporteur in the UN Commission on Human Rights. There have already been some hints of shifts in foreign policy.

Secondly, on the referendum itself, we were told, “The people must be consulted, they have spoken, and their view should now be respected”. Technically, this must be right; although the referendum was only advisory, we have to acknowledge political reality and not, like Mr Tony Benn in 1975, who having worked hard for a referendum, continued to campaign against what was the Common Market, even after a 2:1 vote in favour, not the 52:48. How did the referendum come about? Let us not ignore the weakness of Mr Cameron. He obtained his selection as Conservative leader by vowing to leave the European People’s Party group, much against our interests; he promoted the Act to hold a referendum before any transfer of power to Brussels, as if it was some alien, hostile power; and, of course, it was hardly surprising, therefore, that he was not credible when he stood on his head and advised the country to follow his lead.

Thirdly, how do we now respond to the Bill? Do we fold our arms and say, “The people have spoken. Long live the people!”? I make three points. Clearly, we have to concede that the remainers were too gloomy on the effects of a negative vote, at least in the short term. However, the Brexiteers were guilty of patent lies: the additional sums to the National Health Service, the imminent entry of Turkey, and no mention of an exit fee. Yes, we should look with respect, as we have already, at the work of our scrutiny committees, which have been trail-blazers—particularly our EU sub-committees. There are now chances at least to soften the impact of leaving by passing amendments on, for example, EU citizens here, the Irish border, the environment and workers’ rights.

We have to ask: did the referendum give the Government a blank cheque? Are there no constraints on their ambitions on the single market, the customs union, borders and universities? Surely there should at least be a meaningful vote in Parliament at the end of the process, and as the noble Lord, Lord O’Donnell, said clearly, what is now proposed is no concession.

Finally, perhaps we should not rule out the possibility of a second referendum when the final package is clear. David Davis, the Minister, began the debate on 31 January by speaking of,

“a very simple question: do we trust the people or not?”.—[Official Report, Commons, 31/1/17; col. 818.]

On 23 June the people voted negatively, to leave. Do we still have that trust? Should they not now be trusted by the Government to give an answer to the positive question: do you approve of the package the Government have negotiated on your behalf?