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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:13 pm on 21st February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Dobbs Lord Dobbs Conservative 10:13 pm, 21st February 2017

My Lords, it is a great pleasure—humbling, in fact—to follow that fine speech by the noble Lord, Lord O’Neill of Clackmannan, and indeed so many others during these two days. It has been a great debate for the reputation of this House, and we need it.

It is a funny old world. When I stood up in this House three years ago and introduced the Private Member’s Bill the European Union (Referendum) Bill, I expected it—dare I be honest?—to be a “snowball in hell” moment, and I was not disappointed. I remember that, during a crucial Division, one noble Lord climbed on to the leather Bench, pointed to the Not-Content Lobby and cried, “This way to kill the Bill!”. I thought that was a rather strange thing for a Liberal Democrat to do, given the party’s previous, passionate commitment to a referendum, but consistency, I suppose, is no more than the sign of a closed mind.

Yet there has been consistency of a sort. Let us put our EU referendum in the context of others: for instance, the earlier referendums on the proposed EU constitution. Noble Lords will remember that voters in France, then voters in Holland, rejected that proposal with huge majorities. But the EU did not simply throw in the towel. It “rose up”. It ignored those referendums. It just carried on and brought the constitution back, with every clause, every comma, and called it the Lisbon treaty. That treaty, too, was rejected by the voters in Ireland. So they were cajoled and threatened and forced to hold another referendum until eventually they gave the right answer.

There has, indeed, been a consistency in approach, and that has been repeatedly, over many years, to ignore the people in the name of some higher ideal—like preventing German domination in Europe. Well, that worked well. Now our own little referendum has got out of hand and delivered the wrong result. The response is precisely the same: change it, delay it, get rid of it, hold another one in the hope that they will change their minds. In the other place, 293 amendments were proposed, and already the amendments are piling up here like a snowdrift. Some, of course, are entirely genuine, but for too many of them, I am reminded of the words of that noble, if nameless, Lord: “This way to kill the Bill!”.

This is a time of considerable passions. The noble Lord, Lord Newby, was passionate yesterday, and last week, when he said that we have to amend this Bill because—I hope I am quoting him accurately—“We don’t trust Theresa May”. Well, that is a point of view. But it is possible that the noble Lord has forgotten that, according to every opinion poll, Theresa May is trusted by many, many more people than either Mr Corbyn or Mr—I almost said Mr Farage, but he is the well-known one—Mr Farron. But let us be fair. Personally, I find it uplifting that those who wanted to abolish this unelected House in the name of the people now want to use this unelected House to defy the people. That takes courage.

This House has a right—more than a right, a duty —to examine every Bill. But alongside that right stands our overwhelming responsibility, which is to the people. I am not suggesting we should wash our hands of the details of withdrawal, but the appropriate vehicle for that serious and maybe searing examination, described so eloquently this afternoon by the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, will be the great repeal Bill and other associated Bills. I might even join in. Brexit may be a simple word, but it ain’t going to be a simple process.

I hope that the next two years of debate and discussion will mark a renaissance in the reputation of this House. We are parliamentary worms, but we may yet become glow-worms. But if we amend this Bill—today’s Bill—we know that it will come straight back. We will have achieved nothing but delay, and we will, I fear, have undermined our credibility at a time when almost everything we do is being mocked in the media.

We are a constitutional anomaly. We have no rights other than those that are tolerated by the people. It is not our role to second-guess the people, to wish that they were wiser, to treat them as children or to refer to them as a mob, as I thought I heard suggested earlier. Least of all, it is not our role to insist that we know better than they do. That is just the sort of arrogance that dragged us into the tragedy of Iraq. We have been given that awesome but utterly unambiguous instruction to start the process of withdrawal in the name of the people, by the will of the people. It is our responsibility to respect their instruction to allow that process to begin, and to do so without delay.