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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:33 pm on 21st February 2017.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Triesman Lord Triesman Labour 3:33 pm, 21st February 2017

My Lords, it is a real pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Maude. I was once told by somebody else that he and I were true free marketeers and entrepreneurs, so I had better draw attention to my commercial interests in the register.

I will say a few words about the way in which I want to approach this. I have, sadly, been on the losing side in general elections. I recognise that the Government that were elected are the Government that are elected. But it never once occurred to me that I should be expected to abandon values or not try to do the job of Opposition. It was a fundamental expectation of our democracy that we should review things, hold people to account, amend and sometimes even reject—although in this case I accept the result in the referendum—but we should do so responsibly and respectfully, and without threatening one another or the existence of the political Chambers in which we work. None of that is of any help in trying to get a proper discussion in our democracy.

Indeed, I always thought that the point of being described as the “loyal Opposition” is that there is, of course, loyalty to the Crown and loyalty to the nation, but there is also loyalty to the concept of opposition and doing the job properly in a democracy; that is what people expect. For that reason, if we were to say, on a massive existential issue, that we are just going to wait until somebody thinks that we are more right, and then we will have the freedom to act as we wish and we should pass over any of the other tasks of the Opposition, that would be a woeful neglect and would never be understood by anybody in a democracy such as the United Kingdom.

I say to other noble Lords: be careful what you wish for. In many ways, it is the absence of a serious Opposition at the other end of this building that is the gravest risk to the Conservative Government. Not being able to say to people, “You have sometimes a rather curious view of the world, and there are other things and other voices that need to be considered”, is hugely dangerous, and we can avoid it at least in this House. Keir Starmer has done a fine job—a heroic one in many ways—but nobody could say that opposition has been shown fully. For example, the Prime Minister probably came here yesterday to seek a nostalgic reminder of what opposition was like, on the grounds that she had a very small chance of seeing it in the Chamber in which she operates.

I opposed leaving for lots of reasons, notwithstanding the EU’s irritating characteristics. There are a number of reasons why it is important to consider what we might say in the context of the Bill. When it started out, the decision that “Brexit means Brexit”—a transposition of a line from Alice Through the Looking-Glass: it means whatever you want—morphed, rationally or not, first into leaving the economic area and then into something along the lines of leaving the customs union, or at least substantial parts of it. It has morphed all the time, and the only thing that has finally ended up as consistent is the Prime Minister saying that she would rather have no deal than an unacceptable one. I have never believed that politicians were good negotiators and I will say it candidly in this House. Anyone who went into a negotiation and said, “This is my final point”, can expect the people on the other side to play it for all it is worth. It is an amateur approach and needs to be thought about with a great deal more seriousness.

I believe that we will be worse off on a number of fronts: the economic future; the staffing of the NHS and care homes; the excellence of our universities; in defence, where our key counterpart in the White House is an isolationist and, at least on the question of Sweden, a fantasist; on Europol; on Euratom; on the environment; on employment protection; on Ireland and hardened borders; and on the security of the United Kingdom as a union, which is something I have always supported. I think that we have problems, and the referendum debate on both sides did not throw much useful light on those issues.

I know that others disagree with me: they think I am wrong; I think they are wrong; and that is absolutely fine. However, none of us knows what it will be like in two years’ time. Of course we do not know what the conditions or the final settlement will be. In those circumstances, it is perfectly fair to say that the final terms need to be approved by a future Act of Parliament and we should consider that amendment. I also believe that it should go back to the people, exactly for the reasons described by the noble Lord, Lord Butler. If there is no agreement, it must be open to Parliament and the people of this country to consider whether they want any kind of system to replace the one from which they will be departing. Those are fundamental, existential issues for our country.

We should not play with people’s lives. They have put down roots; their kids go to school; they have families here. They are people about whom we normally express profound values. Let us not play with that. The use of “grandfathering” yesterday was not an accidental choice of word. It is about family and deeper values in the way we deal with people.

My final brief point is that this has been a very divisive period. A number of communities have felt the full force of that, including my own. I do not know how they have done it, but the Portuguese Government have managed to track some of the Sephardic community that left in 1492. I am in the happy position that I may apparently be offered Portuguese nationality, although I will have to take an exam in Portuguese which I am not optimistic about. Real, deep strains are coming out and people are experiencing fear and violence. To all the Brexiteers who said, “That is deplorable, the law should protect people and we always want to do so”, I say, “Stand up and do the things that protect people—do not leave them in this position where their lives seem parlous for no reason at all”.