European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill - Report

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:30 pm on 7th March 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords 12:30 pm, 7th March 2017

My Lords, this has been an interesting and long debate on a short amendment to a short Bill. While I appreciate that the amendment refers to a ratification referendum, in his opening comments the noble Lord, Lord Newby, referred to this being an issue about people being able to change their minds. However, there has been a much broader discussion than just the amendment.

As someone who campaigned strongly to remain, and remains bitterly disappointed at the result, I agree with many of the comments that have been made but I am not sure that they bring much to bear on whether a second referendum is appropriate. The demands for a second referendum started even before the ink was dry on the ballot papers of the first referendum. We know that it is rare for us to have a national referendum. In 1975, the incredible Labour Party leader and Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, held a referendum on whether we should remain in or leave the European Community. I think that I am in a minority in your Lordships’ House, but not alone, in that I was not able to vote in that referendum, being far too young, and the Minister probably could not vote in that referendum either. In 2011, the coalition Government held a referendum on whether to change the voting system where Parliament, via legislation, ceded sovereignty to the public, and in 2016, last year, we had the EU referendum.

There is clearly public interest in the EU because both referenda had high turnouts. It was a little lower in 1975, but no one really thought we were going leave and the margin of difference in favour of retaining EU membership, as the noble Lord, Lord Morgan, reminded us, was significant at 33%. However, last year the polls were so close that it probably encouraged the high turnout of 72%. Yet the referendum on changing the voting system motivated fewer than half of our fellow citizens, just 42%. There was never any real public demand for such a change and to most people it appeared politician led.

When we debated this amendment in Committee, I expressed my natural caution about politicians calling for a referendum on any issue. Usually it is called because we think it will endorse the result that we want. I accept that there have been exceptions today and that some noble Lords have made a case for direct or popular democracy, but the noble Lord, Lord Newby, has made clear what his reasons are for bringing forward this amendment. However, there is clearly a difference in the case of a public demand for a referendum, as we have seen, but politicians have to take care in how we respond to that public demand.

I listened carefully to the noble Lord, Lord Newby, and others, when he opened the debate and I have read his article in the The House Magazine on this issue, in which he was totally honest about his amendment proposing a further referendum. Despite comments from a number of your Lordships that this is merely about giving the public a say on the exit arrangements, he was very clear that he took the view that the public would change their mind. In The House Magazine he said that it would be “implausible” not to grant a second referendum if public opinion shifted in favour of the EU.

However, there is no significant public demand for a second referendum and, at this stage, there is no significant shift in public opinion. This is being seen by many as merely a campaign to challenge the result of the first referendum. That was reinforced last week when the noble Lord spoke about the purpose behind his amendment. That is exactly the point. A second referendum would not be on the deal or the arrangements but yet again on a principle—or, rather, a mood—of how people felt about the EU the last time.

Before the last referendum—indeed, before the last elections—the Liberal Democrats campaigned for what they called a real referendum, an in-out referendum, on principle. They criticised both my party, the Labour Party, and the Conservatives for not going far enough in agreeing with them. I have a copy of their leaflet with me today. It urges people to “Sign our petition today” and says:

“It’s time for a real referendum on Europe”.

However, nowhere in the leaflet calling for this “real referendum” does it say, “But if you do not agree with us we will try and have another one”.

My understanding from those who were there at the time is that the Liberal Democrats considered—this is absolutely crucial—that, although their policy was to have a referendum limited to the Lisbon treaty, their campaign literature should not say it because they felt that it would not be clearly understood and that any referendum would inevitably turn into “Do you like the EU or not?”. I think that is right, because it is what we saw last year. It is also why the noble Lord’s confidence in having a referendum to show that people have changed their minds is flawed, because after two years of what could be very difficult negotiations it could well become a referendum—in effect—on whether we like, or are happy with, our European neighbours.

The coming months of negotiations are going to be complex. We are pressing the Government to ensure that Parliament is kept fully engaged and informed throughout the process and has an opportunity for a final say and meaningful vote on the exit arrangements or the deal. Parliament will have to make a judgment on that. MPs—Members of the other place—are accountable to their constituents, which is why the final say, the responsibility and the authority must always remain with the House of Commons. That is what parliamentary sovereignty means: taking responsibility. It also means that the Government must keep Parliament involved and informed using the committees of Parliament, and particularly your Lordships’ House, for support and advice, ensuring that as we move closer to closing a deal a judgment can be made in an informed, factual way.

I find it hard, having gone through the first referendum, to see circumstances in which a second referendum—involving the press, politicians and campaigners on this issue—can deal with all that is required and all the information gathered over two years, and not just be a referendum on principle, in effect rerunning the first referendum.

The final judgment must be a very measured one that deals with the forensic detail, not an appeal to the emotions without hard accurate facts, with vehicles running around the country saying that you will get £350 million extra for the NHS if you vote to leave the EU. The first referendum was one on which different sides campaigned and lobbied around the principle of staying in or leaving. I am on record as saying that I was unimpressed with the campaigning. I have not yet been convinced that such an approach works. I made a plea, when we were dealing with this issue before the referendum, that it should have been for Parliament as a whole to provide factual, accurate information to the public and not left to campaigners to see who could shout loudest for the longest. I am not convinced that that approach works when dealing with the detail of negotiations that have taken place over the past two years, any more than it worked in the last referendum.

As we have heard today, it is clear that a second referendum is being pushed by some as a way to unite a country that is seriously divided on this issue. I have looked for evidence to support that idea. Why would a second referendum be different in tone, mood or argument from the first? I take comfort from the words of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury in a thoughtful and wise intervention in the debate. He made it clear that whether it is a first referendum, a second referendum, or any other, it will be down to a binary choice: yes or no. That never unites; it only ever divides.

I can hear the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, chuntering away; I ask her to bear with me. The noble Lord, Lord Newby, was asked a question by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, and I remain puzzled by his answer, which I thought was unclear. If this House chooses to recommend a second referendum to the other place, will it be advisory or binding? We have heard from others that unless Parliament specifically says so, all referendums should be advisory. The noble Lord’s party says that it respects the result. However, it voted against the Second Reading of the Bill in the other place. What happens if there is a second referendum and there are those in the noble Lord’s party who do not like the result? I am not sure that takes us any further forward.

To go into a second referendum without that clarity, and to look at it today without such clarity, would not be democratic. It does not seem to have been thought through. But as I have said before, I do not think that the Government can shut the door completely on this issue or on public opinion. Throughout the process, the Government have to take note of the public mood, and keep Parliament and the public informed. They must not allow rumour and misinformation to circulate, and they must be honest.

I do not disagree with many of the comments that have been made today. The previous campaign rarely got down to the details that Parliament has discussed both in your Lordships’ House and in the other place during the passage of this Bill. It does Parliament credit, particularly in our debate last week on EU nationals, that we were able to debate detail in this House that never got an airing during the referendum.

Our priority is Amendment 3, to ensure that Parliament has a meaningful vote and that we maintain parliamentary sovereignty, but also important are other amendments to show that Parliament must be fully engaged in this process and that, as usual, our Members of Parliament are accountable through their constituencies. I cannot support this amendment, and I ask my colleagues not to support it. We will not take part in this vote.