My Lords, given how many noble Lords have already spoken in this debate I aim to be as succinct as the Bill itself. However, some additional comments have crept into my notes in response to the quality of debate I have heard from noble Lords’ earlier contributions. For example, I noticed how frequently Members on all Benches disclosed their own reactions to the outcome of last June’s referendum. To bring some balance, I will mention my own reaction. Frankly, I was chuffed that the people of this country wrested back the ability, in the words of our Prime Minister already quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy,
“to hold their governments to account”.
Collectively we rejected the strong supranational institutions created by the European Union which, as she said,
“sit very uneasily in relation to our political history and way of life”.
My first point is simply that we have already, and unusually, been given the opportunity to vote on this issue. Unlike in parliamentary elections, members of this House were included in the plebiscite that decided to leave the European Union. We have already had our say; hence we should do nothing to resist the majority decision reached through that process which is implemented by the Bill before us.
Secondly, however vital our scrutinising role, the many amendments that have been tabled seem to me to be at odds with the scope and purpose of the Bill, which is simply to notify withdrawal, not to set any kind of terms. As my noble friend Lord Blencathra said with his customary forthrightness:
“There is nothing in this tiny little Bill to scrutinise … The amendments are nothing to do with scrutiny. They are an attempt to build in conditions and tie the Prime Minister’s hands”.—[Official Report, 20/2/17; col. 116.]
Moreover, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, was right to criticise government by referenda. It risks an even more short-term approach to politics than the one already criticised by so many. Cabinet Ministers testify that the progress of government business was grievously hindered almost from the outset of 2016 with a good six months still to go to the referendum.
In relation to the concern many share about amendments, my third point is that venturing into certain territory such as proposals to guarantee EU citizens’ rights to remain flouts the basic rules of trading, of which I have some relevant experience, albeit not always of the successful kind. Stating from the outset that these rights will be granted without obtaining the same rights for our own citizens in the EU breaches the elementary principle that you do not give anything away in advance that will weaken your position if you do not need to, and certainly not in order to communicate what kind of a country we aspire to be.
This is very costly virtue-signalling. Looking good does not belong in hard bargaining. We have already learned this to our cost. It would repeat the same undemocratic error that the Blair Government made when we, unlike most of the old EU 15 countries such as France and Germany, opened the door to citizens of the 10 new accession countries, including Poland and another seven eastern European states, without transitional arrangements. We did this because we wanted to say, “This is the kind of country we are”. Events have shown that the kind of country that the electorate want us to be is pragmatic about the level of population that our services can sustain, not idealistic about opening our arms to all. It is an inescapable fact that we are a small, overcrowded island; research published yesterday reveals that our roads are the most congested in western Europe. Delays cost £31 billion per year, a little under £1,000 per driver. In terms of quality of life, those who drive in peak periods are stationary in traffic jams for about four working days per year.
The public want us to get the best deal for the UK and for UK citizens abroad. To echo a former Chancellor and noble and learned friend in this House, Lord Howe, they do not want our negotiators to go in with broken cricket bats that they would be equipped with if we downgraded the importance of our own interests so unnecessarily from the outset. My noble friend Lord Hunt of Wirral deployed a similar metaphor: we have to keep this simple—it is not just the patience of the elected Government that we will be testing if we do otherwise; it is also the good will of the electorate itself.