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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:27 pm on 21st February 2017.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Warner Lord Warner Labour 6:27 pm, 21st February 2017

My Lords, my involvement in the Bill stems from a deep concern about the Government’s approach to EU withdrawal. Their excessive optimism is accompanied by a reluctance to accept Parliamentary scrutiny of the EU withdrawal process. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, said yesterday and the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, said today, it is constitutionally clear that it is for Parliament, not the Government, to authorise and give legal effect to the changes in domestic law and existing legal rights that follow from the negotiations after Article 50 is invoked.

It is of course impossible for Parliament to discharge that responsibility until it knows the terms of any proposed changes to the rights of British citizens and businesses and of EU citizens lawfully here. It also needs information and sufficient time to consider whether the proposed changes are in the country’s best interests. Neither the Government’s actions since June nor the Bill show proper recognition or acceptance of this fundamental constitutional position and its consequences.

I suggest that the Government started on the wrong foot with their oft-repeated claim that on 23 June the British people clearly voted to leave the EU. It is a fact that only 17.4 million people of the 46.5 million eligible to vote actually voted to leave the EU—some 38% of the electorate. The other 62% either expressed no opinion by not voting or voted to remain. The Government are claiming a mandate that is based on a voting threshold that did not reach the 40% required for most public sector strikes under their own Trade Union Act 2016.

Since June the Government have tried to use the royal prerogative to exclude Parliament from starting the withdrawal process. As the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, said, this was stopped only by a courageous citizen and the Supreme Court saying that Parliament must authorise the triggering of Article 50. The Government have continued to resist parliamentary scrutiny of the negotiating process and have promised to give Parliament only a take it or leave it choice on a final deal, without scope for amendment.

The Government’s negotiating strategy has been less than reassuring so far. They have ruled out membership of the single market and the customs union. They take an extremely optimistic view of the UK economy’s ability to cope when it no longer has guaranteed tariff-free access to the single market—our nearest neighbours. They have an inflated sense of the strength of their negotiating hand and the weakness of the EU’s, and have shown a touching belief that the rest of the world is just gagging to do better trade deals with us once we have left the EU.

Another flagship claim by the Government is that people voted to control our borders and that that can be done only by leaving the EU. The realities are somewhat different. Only about half the annual net increase of over 300,000 immigrants to the UK actually comes from the EU. Most of these people are needed to cope with staff shortages in many key sectors such as the NHS and care and hospitality, and many of our high-value research and technology sectors. Many others are students who help to keep our universities financially afloat. The Government are also ignoring the fact that the UK needs continuing inward migration because our own workforce will not be able to handle the growth of the UK’s non-working population over the next two decades.

As the start of the Article 50 negotiations approaches, there are myriad other complex and important issues to be resolved for this country, as many noble Lords have said. Not least of them is a classic parliamentary issue: the taxpayer funding an EU exit charge. At present there seems little government willingness to involve Parliament until a deal is done or the negotiations collapse amid massive recriminations. This is both unrealistic and not in the best interests of the country or even the Government. Instead, we are expected to be satisfied with the Government’s rather Panglossian White Paper and to nod through the Bill unamended. I think not. There is a wide range of amendments to be considered that will strengthen parliamentary scrutiny and involvement in our withdrawal from the EU. We should not be deterred from debating and passing some of these, whatever bloodcurdling noises are heard from inside or outside this House.

It is time for the Government to move on to a more mature approach to EU withdrawal and, if I may say so, to look a little less—here I will introduce a little poetry—like Edward Lear’s Jumblies:

“They went to sea in a Sieve, they did,

In a Sieve they went to sea:

In spite of all their friends could say,

On a winter’s morn, on a stormy day,

In a Sieve they went to sea!

The water it soon came in, it did,

The water it soon came in;

So to keep them dry, they wrapped their feet

In a pinky paper all folded neat,

And they fastened it down with a pin”.

I do not think we should end up like the Jumblies. I think we should amend the Bill to best meet the needs of the British people.