European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill - Second Reading (2nd Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:20 pm on 21st February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Butler of Brockwell Lord Butler of Brockwell Crossbench 3:20 pm, 21st February 2017

My Lords, like previous speakers, I believe that the people’s decision in the EU referendum requires the Government to trigger Article 50. The Government should get this Bill and get ahead with their negotiations as soon as possible.

With regard to those negotiations, we must accept the logic of the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech. To regain control over immigration, the EU rules require the UK to leave the single market. If the UK is to make independent trade deals with third countries, we must leave at least parts of the customs union.

On the other side of the account, as the noble Lords, Lord Tugendhat and Lord Darling, said, the UK has much to offer our EU neighbours in terms of access to our markets, our financial services, our security co-operation, our universities and research establishments —and much else. Correspondingly, we have much to gain from our European partners.

Thus far, I go along with the Government. Like the noble Lords, Lord Tugendhat and Lord Darling, I believe that there is a deal to be done in rational negotiations. Press reports today suggest that Germany and some other of our European neighbours are prepared to take such an approach. I hope that those reports are right. But we cannot be sure that the negotiations will be rational. We have to allow for the possibility that, as the noble Lords, Lord Lawson and Lord Birt, said forcefully yesterday, such an agreement may not be available. We may ask our partners for things that they may feel unable to give; and they may ask of us things that we are unwilling to give, such as continuing large subventions to the EU budget.

Is the outcome of last June’s referendum to be interpreted as meaning that a majority of the United Kingdom want to leave the EU whatever the terms? The Government clearly think so. But on a matter of this importance have not the Government a duty to be sure before our departure becomes final? One has to ask why those who base their arguments for Brexit on the will of the people are now opposed to consulting the people on the outcome of the negotiations. One has to suspect that they fear that they will get a different answer, but, if so, we ought to know. I must say that I was surprised by the closing part of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, when he said that establishing the up-to-date view of the British electorate would be undemocratic.

I have a question for the Minister—there have not been many speeches that I have heard that have left questions for the noble Lord who is answering the debate tonight. Do the Government regard the views of the British people on the outcome of the negotiations as irrelevant to our departure?

I said previously in your Lordships’ House that I will support an amendment requiring the Government to consult the people again before our departure becomes final. Having said that I would support such an amendment, I will—but, in truth, I doubt whether such an amendment to the Bill is of much significance. As the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, said, much will happen over the next two years. If there is no agreement, or if the terms of any agreement are unsatisfactory, and if there is evidence that public opinion may have changed, I expect that the Labour Party will not be as co-operative as it is now, rightly, over the passage of the Bill. We know the position of the Liberal Democrats and of the Scottish Nationalists.

The Government may well be defeated in the House of Commons, as well as in this House, at the end of the negotiations. A matter of this importance is certainly an issue of confidence. If I am right that there is the prospect of that happening, by one route or another, the Government or a new one will have to return to seeking the views of the British people—and so they should.