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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:26 pm on 21st February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Maude of Horsham Lord Maude of Horsham Conservative 3:26 pm, 21st February 2017

My Lords, I draw attention to my entry in the register of interests. I recognise that at this stage in the debate one struggles to find anything original to say, so I will content myself with a few short points.

On the Bill, it never occurred to me that after the vote happened last year there could be any question but that Parliament should have a voice before the triggering of Article 50. I recollect, possibly rather tragically, as a teenager sitting in the Public Gallery of the House of Commons during the six-day debate it had before the decision was made for Britain to join what was then the Common Market. My noble friend Lord Lamont permitted me to be a signatory to the Maastricht treaty as his deputy—my opportunity, he said, to put my footprints on the sands of history. I recall that, both before and after the agreement of that treaty, there were two-day debates on it in the House of Commons, which undoubtedly informed the way in which the negotiation took place. It is important that on something of this magnitude and gravity Parliament must have a role, a voice and a say.

Having said that, of course a decision has been made, not an expression of preference or view, by the public in the referendum. They were invited to make a decision and they did so. Therefore, it is completely appropriate that there should be a full debate, as is happening in this House, but it is totally inappropriate for the Bill to be significantly amended, and I hope that this House will think again. To me it would be a double affront to democracy to seek to overset both the verdict of the public and of the elected Chamber on this issue.

I remained undeclared during the referendum campaign and took no part in it. I thought the arguments were finely balanced, and that if there was a vote to leave there would be some short-term downside and some medium to long-term upside opportunity. For those who cheerfully say, “Well, we are in the short term and there has been no downside”, I simply say that the short term is not over yet. We are only eight months into this period, and the short term certainly includes the two years we are going into when the negotiations will take place, when businesses looking to invest will have concerns before they do so. With regard to the longer-term upside opportunity, I stress that it is opportunity and not certainty. Whether those opportunities are realised depends very much, obviously, on what happens in the meantime. Of course, as many of your Lordships have said in the course of this debate, the eventual arrangements are not in our sole gift; these are to be negotiated. We hope that collective economic self-interest among us and our 27 current partners will prevail and that there will be sensible arrangements which benefit all, but we know that rationality does not always obtain in politics.

There must of course be control over immigration, although I suspect that the actual number of immigrants is unlikely to fall by much, although its composition may well change. It is also extremely important that this country remains not only open to talent from around the world but that it actively seeks it, because that has been our history and much of our strength.

Will economic self-interest prevail and outweigh the desire that there clearly is in some parts of the EU to hurt the UK and to make sure, as my noble friend Lord Tugendhat said, that the UK cannot be seen to be better off afterwards than it was before? It was clear to me, as Trade Minister, that many of our partners in the EU see this as a zero-sum game. They see a benefit to one country as being a loss to others. We know that they are wrong. I hope that there is a consensus in this House that that is wrong. Economics is not a zero-sum game.

In the context of the excellent EU Financial Services Sub-Committee chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, looking at the clearing of euro-denominated instruments in London, of course it is open to the European Central Bank to ordain that that must happen within the EU. We know that that activity is not just about the euro; it is co-mingled with the clearing of other currencies. There are huge efficiency gains to the whole of the European Union from that continuing to be the case, and there would be a significant efficiency penalty, as well as potentially some systemic risk, if that were to be undermined. There are only two financial centres where this can take place—London and New York—and there is no place in any kind of medium term where that can take place within the rest of the European Union. Certainly, the European Central Bank can ordain that, but it is not what the doctor would order for the eurozone’s fragile financial system.

My last point is this: what is within our unilateral gift is to set the environment for business to take place in this country. It needs to be unequivocally welcoming, and we need to make this, as it has been for much of my lifetime, the go-to destination for people who want to put to work their expertise, their energy, their money and their ideas. That means a proportionate regulatory environment, a simple and low-rate tax regime, and continuing support for the world-leading science and research base. If we do those systematically, the arrangements to be reached with the European Union will matter—they are certainly not marginal—but we can do a huge amount ourselves unilaterally to make sure that the upside opportunities in the medium and long term that I see from Brexit can actually be realised.