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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:01 pm on 21st February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Harrison Lord Harrison Labour 7:01 pm, 21st February 2017

My Lords, one of the seldom-discussed reasons why Britain voted for Brexit is that we do not speak foreign languages. Our ignorance of continental languages, people, customs, habits and especially markets has made us carelessly complacent. We idly rely on speaking English fortissimo in brokering trade deals. The result? Our shameful balance of trade deficits. The supreme irony is that, when we leave the EU, English will remain the lingua franca binding the EU 27 as they circle the wagons against existential threats. There is slim hope that we will expand our linguistic capabilities as we become buccaneers trading those wider world markets. Does the Minister agree that our ropey language skills have weakened us when it comes to competing within the single market, and will do so again outside of it?

Our domestic failure to ready ourselves for the challenge of the modern world persists: look at the habitual, stumbling response to our poor productivity rates, where we lag behind the rest of the G7. Brexit is not a tailored response to our self-inflicted shortcomings, and that brings me to some practical concerns. Do we have sufficient skilled and experienced civil servants to conduct trade negotiations now and in the future? Have we hired Jonathan Faull, the former right-hand man of Michel Barnier, who will be conducting these conversations?

I know that in my own field of financial services, the Government are begging, borrowing and stealing financial experts from the City of London, at goodness knows what cost, while our civil servants’ negotiating skills in the art of trade have lain dormant for years. How are we to make up this shortfall in trade experts and at what cost? Indeed, what preparations are HMG undertaking to broaden and deepen those trading skills as we look to new markets round the world? Will the Minister say how much we have paid in hiring those financial and trade experts? Why could we not have done all this beforehand? As the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, said, when we were in the single market, why did we not make the effort to make it a proper, working single market?

For some years, I was your Lordships’ representative at the parliamentary conference of the World Trade Organization. Pascal Lamy was its fine director, but even his agile mind could not resolve the contradictions inherent in the bilateral, the plurilateral, or the multilateral paths of advancing world trade. However, the vagaries of WTO trading rules are the very pit into which we will slip if we fail to secure a deal with the remaining 27. Is that what we want? Is that what we really, really want? The WTO rules are a disgrace and a disaster. Parliament must have the final say on securing a deal if we are to be pitched into the WTO rules.

Here is the essence of what I want to say: what decisive advantage does HMG discern in embarking on this hard Brexit for the UK? I ask the Government to please spell it out. The White Paper is shifty, while the three Brexiteers retire daily from the fake advantages they hailed in the run-up to the referendum. The weekly £350 million for the NHS was the most evanescent of the will-o’-the-wisps cited by the leavers. We are buying a pig in a poke.

Financial services is, as they say, my bag. Perhaps the Government might ponder the thoughts of your Lordships’ EU Financial Affairs Sub-Committee, which I had the honour to chair from 2010 to 2015. In its recent Brexit Report, it saw the City of London under threat from New York as well as the continental contenders such as Frankfurt and Paris, to which it was reported this morning that 1,000 employees of HSBC will repair. Why on earth are we imperilling the City of London’s pre-eminence as Europe’s global financial centre? Moreover, what will be the consequence to our domestic services industry of losing the London-based European Banking Authority, chaired by the excellent Andrea Enria? The consequence will be the loss of jobs and influence, but what is the gain?

So I will indeed do my patriotic duty and oppose this reckless, ill-thought-out plunge into the murky waters of illusory UK independence in a world of ever-increasing interdependence, the trading world. I was sent to the Lords to use my block, not to be part of the block vote of blind Brexiteers. I was sent here to think through and test Governments of all persuasions to think about their errors, missteps and policy stumbles, as were we all. Perhaps the Minister can explain how his many companions here and in the other place suddenly found themselves born-again leavers, no longer remainers. Are we not a representative democracy, where MPs think for themselves, as they have done on assisted dying and the bring-back-hanging debate? Referendums are reserved for Prime Ministers to wriggle out of their given responsibility to act in the best interests of the country.

Note, too, the Brexiteers’ lazy assertion that the Anglophone world will embrace us with open arms if we leave, but the Commonwealth is a small corner shop compared to the vibrant shopping mall of the EU single market. Holding hands with a rudderless President Trump will not make up for our wilful self-exclusion from the world’s biggest single market.