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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:27 pm on 21st February 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Quin Baroness Quin Labour 4:27 pm, 21st February 2017

My Lords, I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Dixon, whose death the Lord Speaker announced earlier today. Don Dixon was my constituency neighbour for many years. Throughout a long and distinguished parliamentary career in both Houses he was utterly rooted in and devoted to his own constituency.

About six months ago, before the referendum, I was involved in a debate at the Cambridge Union Society on the motion that this house believes that the European project has been a failure. Given that the EU, formerly the EEC, had existed for 60 years, that it had grown from 6 to 28 members, that it had underpinned democracy and economic transformations in many countries, had stood up for employment rights and had stood for better environmental regulations, the question seemed to be a no-brainer. There was no way that it could be considered a failure, particularly given the contrast with the first 50 years of the 20th century when the countries of Europe had twice been torn apart by war. During that debate I said that if the EU did not exist, given the conditions of trade in the modern world and the many international challenges that we face, we would need to invent something like it. To a certain extent, the Government seem to have accepted this logic in their talk of a new partnership with the EU and how close we are going to be to the EU in future, despite not being members.

I welcome talk of partnership but I find the Government’s approach so far unconvincing. Their approach, particularly as seen in the White Paper that they were forced into producing at the last minute, is vacuous. As many people have said, it seems to be a case of the Government wanting to have their cake and eat it, served up with a huge helping of wishful thinking.

I also find the timing of this Bill troubling. At the Conservative Party conference, the Prime Minister announced that Article 50 would be triggered by the end of March. I am not sure why she chose that particular date, and certainly the world has changed considerably in the meantime. I understand—many people made this point in the debate yesterday—that people want to get on with it so that we can conclude the divorce and make progress with the newly negotiated relationship. However, Article 50 states that,

“the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with”,

the state concerned,

“setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union”.

That seems to indicate that it is a question not of doing the one thing followed by the other but of these things happening concurrently. However, I am very conscious that in a few minutes there will be a contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, so perhaps I had better not say anything further about Article 50, as the undisputed authority on the subject is present in the Chamber.

There are huge gaps in the information that the Government have given us so far. I am amazed that in the 12 principles outlined in the White Paper there is absolutely no mention of environment policy, even though I and others have questioned the Government on it many times. There is nothing on foreign policy and nothing on defence. On trade, there is little realism about the difficulties involved. The Government talk blithely about creating new trading arrangements, yet the countries with which we want to forge trade deals will doubtless want to know first what our future trading relationship with the EU will be. The trading and investment issues are very important to all of us, and they are particularly important in regions such as mine—the north-east—where 58% of our exports are to the EU and inward investment relating to access to the European market is vital.

I hope that we press the Government hard on better involvement by Parliament in this process. The way in which they have tried to bypass Parliament so far means that their current assurances ring hollow. Such parliamentary involvement will also be important in allowing Members of the House of Commons, in particular, to explain to their constituents what is happening. People out in the country will have a right to some accurate information about the negotiations as they proceed.

The previous speaker said a lot about referendums. I am wrestling with the idea of having another referendum because I have always disliked them for all sorts of reasons. I have never supported any of the EU referendums that my party has proposed—for example, on joining the single currency or on the ill-fated European constitution. However, I can see the logic that, if a vote of the people began this process of withdrawal, there is a case for people having a vote on the final deal. They ought to be able to compare the deal against the promises made by those who advocated to leave during the campaign—particularly the promise on the National Health Service, which I know was very tempting to people in my part of the world. It also strikes me as quite ridiculous that those who were so keen to have a referendum on this issue now seem to be saying that there should never be another. Their view seems to be that the people have spoken but, having spoken once, they should never be allowed to speak again.

Finally, I want to say a word about the role of this House in this process. I respect those who are so keen to trigger Article 50 that they do not want to see amendments tabled debated or passed, but I reject the view that we are not entitled to make amendments or to ask the Government to think again. We have our established revising and questioning role, which we should carry out in relation to this legislation as we do with other legislation