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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:00 pm on 21st February 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Morris of Bolton Baroness Morris of Bolton Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 10:00 pm, 21st February 2017

My Lords, although it is now many hours since my noble friend the Lord Privy Seal opened this Second Reading debate with her excellent speech, it has been a remarkable two days and a privilege to take part. Both my noble friend and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, whose speech I also enjoyed, paid fulsome tribute to the work undertaken by our EU Committee and sub-committees. I had the pleasure and honour of chairing, for a short time until ill health forced me to stand down, the sub-committee on foreign affairs, aid and defence and I, too, praise the exceptional hard work of these committees, their officers and special advisers, whose role will be crucial in the two years ahead.

Over the years I have been critical of and vocal about plans to join the euro and in the early 1990s caused grief to senior members of my party, many of whom are now my very good noble friends and sitting on the privy counsellors’ Bench, by being somewhat less than enthusiastic about our membership of the ERM. But I voted in June 1975 to stay in the Common Market and on 23 June 2016 I voted to remain in the European Union. While in 1975 I voted for economic reasons, that was not the case last June. Like my noble friend Lord Maude of Horsham, I thought both sides of the referendum argument made valid points about the effects on our economy of a vote to leave, and I certainly did not feel qualified to know where the greater truth resided. I just suspected what I suppose was glaringly obvious: that there were advantages and disadvantages to both and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine, said—in what was a brave speech from the noble Baroness’s Benches—there is an inherent risk in any decision about the future.

As one of the Prime Minister’s trade envoys I have reason to be confident that British companies will adapt to life outside the EU and thrive, although I do not pretend that it will always be easy. What ultimately caused me and I suspect a lot of other people to vote remain was the uncertain state of the world. For all its shortcomings and the visible cracks in its structure, I still felt that in a number of complex areas the EU offered relative stability and I was concerned about rocking that stability. So for me and countless others, it is the kind of relationship we build with our European friends and neighbours that will be the test of a good Brexit. Over the past eight months I have been greatly reassured and encouraged by the language and tone of the Prime Minister and her Ministers in seeking to form that new partnership with Europe.

Like many noble Lords I, too, hope that one of the first issues to be resolved once Article 50 has been triggered will be the status of EU nationals working and living in the UK and UK citizens living and working throughout Europe. It is a concern that has been raised across your Lordships’ House and is of equal importance to those who voted leave as to those who voted remain, although no one expressed it quite so well as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, who blushed rather charmingly and modestly when she sat down to applause from the Gallery. All this and more will be the topic of intense debate and difficult negotiation for months to come. That is where I hope that the knowledge and experience of noble Lords who have expressed their deep concerns in this debate will be brought to bear, because the concerns of noble Lords and the ambitions of the Government cannot be properly debated and settled until Article 50 has been triggered. The Bill simply starts that process.

Although I very much heed the sage words of my noble friend Lord Lothian that we must think carefully how we deploy our feelings as we move forward, this House has a right to debate fully the Bill before it and it is an important part of our scrutiny to seek clarification, raise issues and put comments on the record. However, good scrutiny of a Bill does not necessarily mean amendment of it and I hope we send this one, unamended, back to the Commons, from where it came to us, with a thumping majority in order to allow Ministers the greatest possible flexibility to negotiate on our behalf.

I was struck by the powerful speech of my noble friend Lord Hill of Oareford, who pointed out that this is not just about us. There are 27 other countries affected by the referendum result last June and they too want and deserve clarity and certainty as soon as possible. At the risk of being labelled an incurable optimist—or maybe I am just one of my noble friend Lord Ridley’s rational optimists—the negotiations might not be as bad as some fear. There seems to be a marked difference in attitude between officials of the European institutions and the politicians of the 27 countries with which we have to reach an agreement. The former feel they have to treat us harshly in order to stop anyone else getting any ideas, but there is more realism in the corridors of power of the individual countries. As reported in the papers a couple of days ago, the German Foreign Minister, Sigmar Gabriel, said at a security conference in Munich that:

“We should resist the temptation to treat Britain overly harshly, not out of pity, but in our own interest”.

He went on to say that:

“We need Britain, for example, as a partner in security policy, and I am also convinced that Britain needs us”.

Last week, at a lunch in Abu Dhabi, I had the pleasure of a brief chat with the Finance Minister of Luxembourg. He is on record as saying that:

“I think everybody should remain calm and make sure that we can do this in an orderly way … the British population has given its verdict. It is now up to the British Government to trigger Article 50”.

I hope we are in a position to do that soon, so that we can start the important task of building the post-Brexit Britain, so eloquently wished for by my noble friend Lady Finn, as a Britain which is open, free-market and liberal.