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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:49 pm on 21st February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Bridges of Headley Lord Bridges of Headley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union 10:49 pm, 21st February 2017

My Lords, the Bill before this House is just 137 words long, yet it has been the subject of almost 20 hours of debate and it is, and has been, an historic debate. On my rough calculation, about 1,000 words have been spoken for each word in the Bill and there are more to come. However, with quantity has undoubtedly come quality and I thank everyone who has spoken. Simply to read out the names of all 183 speakers would take me several minutes, so I ask your Lordships to forgive me—and maybe even thank me—for not addressing every point made by every single speaker.

The level of interest in this Bill is hardly surprising. Our nation’s membership of the EU has been part of the mental map, a fixed point, for many people for decades. So when I hear the concerns that have been raised by your Lordships about what the future holds, I do not dismiss them with a complacent flick of the hand. After all, like many in this House, I too voted to remain last year. I believe that significant opportunities lie before us, but any change brings challenges in its wake—challenges which this House has a rightful role to highlight and debate.

If anyone was in any doubt about the value of this Chamber in the legislative process, they should certainly read the debate of the past two days and the work of our excellent committees. Consider the subjects raised by your Lordships: the rights of citizens, immigration, Ireland, universities, our nuclear industry, agriculture—I could go on. These are all important issues but we must not confuse the policies that flow from Brexit with the core purpose of this Bill. This Bill’s core purpose, indeed its only purpose, is to start the process of leaving the European Union. This was noted by a number of noble Lords and they are right. Other noble Lords were right to point to the democratic process that has brought us here.

The electorate voted for a Government who had pledged to hold a referendum, and respect its result. Parliament then voted—by a majority of six to one in the other place—to hold a referendum. The question people were asked, one agreed upon by Parliament, was brutally simple, as the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said: did they want to leave or remain in the European Union? Some 33.5 million people entered the polling booth that day last June. This was not, as the noble Lord, Lord Newby, suggested, just an expression of a point of view. It was a decision. As the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine, said, they knew what they were voting for, and 17.4 million people picked up that stubby little pencil and voted to leave. That was the point of departure.

Parliament attached no conditions, no small print, no caveats. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, said:

“It is simply unacceptable for Parliament—for this House—not to honour its commitments. That is what happened when Parliament enacted the referendum Bill”.—[Official Report, 20/2/17; col. 123.]

As the noble Lord, Lord Darling, said, there is no alternative.

So here we are tonight, debating a Bill that was passed, unamended, by the other place by a majority of 384 to start the negotiations. It is a Bill to deliver on the result of the referendum, so that we can, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, put it, get on with the negotiations so we can get the best deal for the UK. As he said,

“there is no turning back”.—[Official Report, 20/2/17; col. 22.]

At this point it would be somewhat churlish, and the sign of a bad loser, not to compliment the skill of one of our number—I refer, of course, to the noble Lord, Lord Pannick. He is a worthy adversary and I now know whose door I would knock on were I ever to need legal help, although I fear it would have to be pro bono.

Let me now address some of the issues raised by your Lordships over the last two days: first, parliamentary scrutiny. I really do not like to say this after almost 20 hours of debate, but in terms of parliamentary scrutiny, we are just about approaching base camp. As the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, put it, we have a long way to go. As well as this Bill, Parliament will vote on the great repeal Bill to repeal the European Communities Act. Primary legislation such as an immigration Bill and a customs Bill, and secondary legislation, will be required to ensure that our statute book is operable on the day we leave the EU.

The Government have announced that we will bring forward a Motion on the agreement to be approved by both Houses of Parliament before it is concluded. We expect and intend that this will happen before the European Parliament debates and votes on the final agreement. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, asked whether a further Bill might be needed to authorise our withdrawal from the EU. The noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, asked if this vote will be under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act. The Government’s commitment is to bring forward a government Motion, which goes above and beyond the constitutional requirements set out in CRAG, and, of course, any new treaty that we agree with the EU will be subject to the provisions of CRAG before ratification.

The noble Baroness, Lady Symons, raised the issue of revocability of the notice to withdraw. There is obviously no precedent for a country triggering Article 50, let alone seeking to reverse such a decision. As a matter of firm policy our notification will not be withdrawn. A clear majority of the electorate voted to leave the European Union and we will respect the will of the British people. There can be no attempt to remain inside the EU, and no attempt to rejoin it. Further, extending the negotiating period cannot be guaranteed by an amendment in this Bill; extending the negotiating period requires unanimity of all 27 members. It is not within the Government’s gift or Parliament’s.

To those who argue that Parliament should be able to amend a treaty put before it, I would echo the words of my noble friend Lord Hill of Oareford: how would this be taken by our European partners? We have said we will approach these negotiations in good faith. We, like them, want to have a smooth and orderly Brexit. So if Parliament was given the power to unravel the agreement after months of painstaking negotiations, how could our European partners know that the agreement would be honoured? They could not. Consequently, this approach would inject more uncertainty into the whole process. I do not say this just because I believe Britain needs certainty, although I certainly do believe that, but because I firmly believe that Europe needs certainty too. If Parliament could amend one treaty and send it back because it did not like some terms, what is to stop it amending the revised treaty and the one after that?

This House and the other place will have the opportunity to scrutinise and debate the Government’s approach as the negotiations proceed. My noble friend Lord Boswell suggested that Parliament be involved as much as possible, and I totally agree. We have promised to give this Parliament at least as much information as the European Parliament, while protecting our national interest. The key point, as the noble Lord, Lord Empey, said, is that we need to be realistic. These are going to be tough negotiations. So parliamentary scrutiny, yes; giving away our negotiating position, no.

Other noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, raised the issue of publishing our assessment of the impact—the costs and benefits. At this point, all I would say is that such an assessment would surely undermine our position, and be exactly what those on the other side of the table want.

Let me now turn to the issue of a second referendum. The noble Lord, Lord Butler, asked if the views of the people on the final deal are irrelevant. The Government clearly do not think the views of the public are irrelevant, as we are honouring the views they expressed in the referendum. We are engaging with the public, and will continue to do so as the negotiations are scrutinised and the agreement is voted on in Parliament. As my noble friend Lord Hague said, we cannot go round in circles. We need certainty and clarity—certainty and clarity that would be dashed by a second referendum. As the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, argued, we could descend into a world of “neverendums”.

As to the point of the noble Lord, Lord Newby, that such a referendum would bring the country together, let me ask this: given that the Liberal Democrats argue the first referendum has created so much division, why would a second one bring the country together? To insert a second referendum now would backslide on this Parliament’s and this Government’s commitment to honour the result. As a number of noble Lords have said, it would undermine our negotiating position and, as the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, put it, that way lies peril.

The noble Lords, Lord Campbell of Pittenweem, and Lord Morris of Handsworth, turned to the issue of EU nationals. They spoke of the valuable contribution that EU nationals make to the UK and I agree. A number of noble Lords, including the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, raised the issue of the rights of EU nationals in the UK and UK nationals in the EU. Many noble Lords commented that both groups have felt unsettled by the result of the referendum last summer. The Government share their wish for a fair and speedy resolution to this issue. They hoped this issue could be sorted out before we triggered Article 50. I was delighted when last year the Prime Minister suggested to EU leaders that they should come to an agreement covering both EU nationals in the UK and UK nationals in the EU as soon as possible. Many favoured such an approach but others did not, saying they wanted to wait until formal negotiations begin. Therefore, we cannot begin formal discussions on this pressing issue until we have triggered Article 50. That is why we need to pass this Bill as soon as possible.

I note the strong views expressed about the wish for the Government to move unilaterally on this issue. As my noble friend Lord Lamont said, a unilateral move by the Government to address the issues facing EU nationals in the UK, however well intentioned, will not help the situation of the hundreds of thousands of our own citizens in the EU. They could end up facing two years of uncertainty if any urgency to resolve their status were removed by the UK making a one-sided guarantee. We need to act fairly and provide certainty for both groups of people as quickly as possible, and that will remain the Government’s position.

We are sighted on the future of UK nationals working in EU institutions, about which my noble friend Lord Balfe spoke. We should indeed thank them for their work and we intend to do all we can for them in the months ahead.

Let me now turn to issues regarding our approach to the negotiations. We must do all we can to create the right conditions for a grown-up negotiation with our European partners, which is why, as I have said, we need to show that we are negotiating in good faith. However, it goes further than that. As the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, said, this country will continue to face challenges that European nations face, such as terrorism and human trafficking. We will continue to share a thirst for knowledge and research and we must never forget that it remains overwhelmingly and compellingly in our national interest that the EU should succeed. Our approach will be to seek to collaborate and co-operate on issues wherever it is in our national interest to do so.

Some have characterised the Government’s approach to the negotiations as extreme Brexit. I would argue that it is nothing of the kind. It sets out an approach for a new partnership, to work together and trade together to our mutual benefit. It reflects a world where digital technology is turbocharging the forces of globalisation, as my noble friend Lord Howell remarked. To repeat, it reflects the fact that people voted to leave the EU.

The noble Lords, Lord Mandelson and Lord Hain, spoke passionately of their wish to protect jobs and investment, and I applaud their sincerity and the consistency of their views. Where I part company with them and others such as the noble Baroness, Lady Jowell, is that this means we must remain in the single market or in the customs union. Staying in the single market would mean not controlling our borders; it would mean remaining under the EU’s rules without having any say over them. Maintaining our current status in the customs union would mean not having the ability to strike our own trade deals. These are issues on which the British people made their views quite clear, and doing as the noble Lords suggest would mean not leaving the EU.

Secondly, our European partners made it perfectly clear, before and after the referendum, that the four freedoms are indivisible—a point my noble friend Lord Tugendhat made. We respect that, which is another reason why the Government are taking the approach set out in the White Paper.

However, this Bill is about the process of our leaving the EU. It is not about the shape of the negotiations to come, nor the Government’s approach. I will happily debate these matters with your Lordships, and I am sure that there will be other occasions on which to do so over the coming months and years. But as the other place has shown, and as my noble friend Lord Hunt said, the Bill is not the place to put constraints on the Government’s negotiating position.

A number of your Lordships—the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, the noble Lords, Lord Empey and Lord Murphy, and the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, to name just four—raised the matter of the island of Ireland and Brexit. They are entirely right to highlight the challenges we face. I can assure your Lordships that the Government are fully committed to the Belfast agreement and its successors. Nobody wants to return to the borders of the past, so we will make it a priority to deliver a practical solution as soon as we can. I can also assure the House that we are consulting closely with Ministers in the Republic and Executive Ministers in Northern Ireland.

I further assure the noble Lord, Lord Empey, that the comments he raised about the border have been clearly heard in government. As he knows, the open border for people and businesses has served us well. We had a common travel area between the UK and Ireland long before either country was a member of the European Union. We will work to deliver a practical solution that allows the maintenance of the common travel area with the Republic while protecting the integrity of the United Kingdom’s immigration system.

Over the last two days, inevitably attention has focused on what divides us, so finally I will focus on what brings us together. First, we agree that in this debate everyone in this House, no matter what their view, should be heard and respected. We are all here because we want to help our country prosper and thrive in the future. To question and scrutinise is certainly not a sign of being unpatriotic. We can all agree that this House has a clear and proper role in scrutinising the Bill. It is equally clear that, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Hannay,

“it would not be proper or correct for this House to frustrate the triggering of Article 50”.—[Official Report, 20/2/17; col. 102.]

Furthermore, at the end of the negotiations, we all agree that the United Kingdom will still wish to co-operate with the European Union and work with our European partners to tackle the challenges we all face.

Finally, whether one voted to leave or remain, we can all agree that, after 20 hours of debate, it is time not to remain but to leave this House and to go to bed.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.