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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:20 pm on 21st February 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Deputy Chairman of Committees 10:20 pm, 21st February 2017

My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, even while I disagree with so much of what he said. It is also a great privilege to have the last speech of the evening in such an historic debate, one in which the issues have been so well argued and so passionately felt. One of the reasons why I am very pleased to have the opportunity, even at this hour, is to keep faith with so many people who feel, as I do, that the country has embarked on a major gamble with the future of this country, a gamble that could isolate and impoverish the next generation, which has no voice now other than the one that they will find in this House.

Most do not expect us to try to stop this Bill—they are wiser than that—but they do expect us to try to mitigate the damage and to be clear about the huge risks that we are now wilfully taking. They expect us to inject some principle into the negotiating process. I hope that we can do that, because so many people already doubt the parliamentary and political process so far, which has led to an even further loss of trust. I understand why this has happened, but I am not reconciled to it. There has already been, to my mind, a massive failure of political leadership at every stage of this process. The referendum was conducted in the half-light. It was conducted on the basis of half-truths. In so many ways, it was a vote against the past, a past which had failed many people. It was not a confident vote for the future.

The Prime Minister’s objectives are largely declaratory but we do know that, out of weakness rather than conviction, we will be leaving the single market and the customs union to cut back immigration. We are, in short, prioritising a political goal which may in fact be unattainable, but which is likely to inflict further damage on our country and its public services. It is very hard to imagine a more perverse outcome. Likewise, the White Paper has no answers as to how the Government will manage the hugely complex task of reconstructing our new relationships, whether that is a new customs union, the future of Euratom or the future of Erasmus. There is nothing about the impacts, the costs, the consequences or the choices that already have been made. There is little clarity, and there is less certainty.

Of course we respect the decision of the referendum, but I say to the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, that the real challenge is to take the next step and trust the people with what, on best evidence, we know to be the likely consequences of the referendum as they are now emerging and how we can remove avoidable risks. Many of the amendments proposed to this Bill are about facing that reality. In fact, they will enable Parliament and the people to take back control throughout the process ahead. To those who try—and will no doubt go on trying—to bully this House out of its duty of scrutiny, I simply say that in this respect, your Lordships’ House has never been more solidly or more visibly on the side of the people of this country and their right to know what all this is going to cost us in every sense.

Of course the European Union needed reform. We should have been in there leading that process, being part of it, advocating for it. I have always believed that belonging to the European Union expressed the best of our values, whether that was peaceful co-operation or the working principle of equality—which means that richer communities support poorer communities—or the movement of labour and skills, which benefits us all. The 3 million Europeans who have made this country their future in good faith in recent years have brought huge energy and skill, as have our citizens who live in other parts of Europe. The idea that they should be trafficked as part of some bigger deal is repugnant to people on both sides of the Brexit debate. If the Prime Minister is serious about uniting the country, this is where she will start: with a principled guarantee of their legal rights. I shall be supporting amendments to secure that.

I will also support amendments that mitigate the economic and social risks to this country, particularly to the marginalised communities. This will include amendments to give the devolved countries real purchase on the negotiations and real accountability from government, which will affect not only the disproportionate losses they will suffer from Brexit but all the risks that it now poses to a United Kingdom.

One of the most abject sights in recent months has been to watch the Government twist and turn in the courts to exclude Parliament from the decision. I shall support every amendment that seeks to give Parliament its right and proper constitutional role to check and challenge what the Prime Minister comes back with, particularly if that is a no-deal. I think our European friends and neighbours will understand clearly why we are intent on doing that. One of the reasons for asserting the role of Parliament at this stage is that there are no precedents to lean on in this process. There is still an active legal debate over many parts of the process. Nothing is settled and, frankly, nothing is ruled out, including revocation. Parliament must be fully engaged and we must also be vigilant against the excessive use of executive power and secondary legislation in the course of the so-called great repeal Bill.

Last June is long gone and with it, the illusions that were peddled of a quick fix and lashings of new money. The European Union Committee’s report on the options for trade made it clear, for example, that having swept out of the single market, none of the off-the-shelf alternative models will work for us and none will be modified to suit us. Whatever options are open, they will certainly take more than two years. They will come with costs; some will even require some additional movement of people. To manage this safely, we will need maximum flexibility and a transitional arrangement, negotiated as soon as possible.

The world is indeed turned upside down and Mr Trump is now a part of that. We have a genius in this country when we face crises for muddling through. I do not think we can muddle through this time. I hope we can bring to bear, not just through debate on the Bill but throughout the whole process, the wisdom and experience we have already heard in the past two days. In doing so, I hope we will help to achieve a safer and smarter Brexit. This will require more humility than has been shown to date by the Government, and it will need a greater commitment on behalf of the people to both truth and transparency.