My Lords, I voted to join the European Economic Community in 1975 when I was young, optimistic and had little idea what the longer-term implications were, and what this would mean in practice for the British people. Over the last 42 years I have spent many happy hours under this machinery, at the bottom of the telescope looking upwards, trying to make this labyrinthine and ever-growing institution work in practice in some of the most challenging communities in this country. My colleagues and I have had our fingers burnt on many occasions. In practice, the bureaucracy was horrendous and it always paid its invoices late, often 12 months late.
Over the last 10 years I have been privileged to spend quality time sitting on a number of EU Select Committees in your Lordships’ House, now looking down the telescope, trying to discover more about which levers are connected to what and how in practice partnership working is happening across the 28 countries that make up this institution. If I am honest, the experience has not filled me with confidence. My sense has been at its simplest that there are lots of us sitting above all this machinery reading lots of papers at what feels like 60,000 feet, unsure who is watching all the complex linkages and levers that make all this government work.
The real acid test for the general public of this outdated machinery is: can it deliver for the peoples of Europe in practice when it really counts? Over the last few years this public have watched children drowning in the Mediterranean and witnessed an organisation that seems to have little if no control of its borders. This institution has not filled people with confidence—lots of meetings, lots of politicians slapping each other on the back and billions of euros spent, but can it all deliver when it really counts?
It has been my position in recent years, given the scale and reach of this European project, that the British people should be able to visit again the question of our place within the European Union, fundamentally because I worried that there was a democratic legitimacy problem. If people could not understand and grasp its inner workings and had little control over it, it was right that they should have a say as to whether they should travel further down this road. On this occasion I did not vote. I wanted to hear the British public’s response. I understood that when the British people had decided upon this question, one way or the other, my responsibility as a Member of this House would be to work with others to ensure that this decision was enacted and carried out to the best of our ability—question, yes, but not undermine an imperfect but legitimate democratic process.
Now that the British people have decided, it is not our job, however disappointed some of us may be with the result, to play clever political games with what is now the clear wish of the British people to leave. The decision has been made and our job is to pass this legislation and allow the Prime Minister and her team to initiate the negotiation with our colleagues in the European Union. I fear that those who play games at this time undermine the very democracy we live in and people’s confidence in it. Amid all the noise, I have been impressed by the Prime Minister’s calm and considered approach and sense of purpose. It is time—not unquestioningly—to get behind her and pass this legislation for the sake of the peoples of this country.
The world is changing and increasingly fast moving. The internet is the defining principle of our age. The future will be defined for our children by entrepreneurs and innovators in this new century. In this new environment there are real questions as to whether the Government and the public sector machinery and institutions that we have are fit for purpose, given the global challenges we face. The European project could have renewed this out-of-date infrastructure; I fear that many of our people know from personal experience that instead it is drowning them in treacle and they do not like it.
Big, impersonal institutions—be they in business or the state—are an anathema to this age. People have a deep experience of red tape every time they pick up the phone. In trying to take out a mortgage, for example, they see and experience what is happening in our financial services. They do not know whether the EU, the large, unwieldy banks, or whomever is to blame, but it feels as if no one is in control of the beast any more. They do not like it.
Today, our children are a nation not of shopkeepers but of entrepreneurs. We in this House have experience from the wrong century, and we feel it. If we are honest with ourselves, how deep is our grasp of what is actually going on in the EU machinery that is operating below us? How many of our politicians down the corridor have ever even thought about this? During the referendum campaign, leading up to the vote last June, I suspect that the British people watched and listened to the many wild claims which turned out not to be true from politicians on all sides of our political spectrum. They instinctively worried that this machinery had a life of its own and that no one was in charge of it.
I am an entrepreneur who has spent a great deal of his life trying to take problems and turn them into opportunities. I am optimistic because the present time is laden with new possibilities. Many of the people I work with out in the real world see this. People are beginning to turn their sails into this new wind. We need to get behind them. There are challenges, yes, but there are also new opportunities. This new time requires a very different mindset from us all. Some of our largest institutions with the most to lose will inevitably find this most difficult because so many of their vested interests are tied up in an old order that is now passing away.
One of the opportunities now facing us is to spend far more time and effort using this new digital age to reinvent how our public sector works. The modern world of the internet is about integrated working. Our government silos and processes are profoundly out of date yet we carry on as though nothing is changing around us.
As the noble Lord, Lord Howell, recently suggested in the House Magazine, the great repeal Bill offers us a rare opportunity to transform our bureaucracy and regulatory culture. Let us not miss this opportunity. Our economy depends upon it.