Brexit: European Union-derived Rights - Motion to Resolve

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:15 pm on 4th April 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Smith of Basildon Baroness Smith of Basildon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords 8:15 pm, 4th April 2017

My Lords, this has been an interesting and somewhat unusual debate. By my reckoning, I am the 21st speaker in the proceedings this evening and I am the 21st Peer to speak in favour of both of the Motions before the House. I do not know why the Government Benches are so empty of supporters who might have opposed them, but I am delighted to have such overwhelming support from noble Lords. Perhaps I should be grateful that all those who support these Motions are not here to speak in favour of them, because perhaps then Brexit really would mean breakfast.

When we debated the Brexit Bill previously, these were the two key issues that your Lordships’ House voted on with significant majorities in favour, in one case with a majority of 98 and in the other a majority of 102. I take issue with some of the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, who has said that the Liberal Democrats wanted them in statute. The entire House wanted that, and that is why we voted with such large majorities: to put them in statute. It remains our view that they would have been better in statute, but I have to say to the noble Baroness—noble Lords will understand this—that once the House of Commons had rejected the proposals for the second time, all we could have done was send them back and perhaps delayed the Bill by a few hours. A few people might have missed their train home, but what would that have achieved? In fact, before the dust had settled, as my noble friend Lady Hayter said at this Dispatch Box, we said that we would look at other ways to return to these issues. That is the correct way to proceed. If you lose a vote, you do not give up and walk away. You look for other routes because these matters are far too important to be decided in a debating society or on who can win the last vote. We knew that we were not going to win the vote, but we also knew that we would return to these issues, and we will never give up on them.

When we last debated these matters, the Government were insistent that they wanted what they called a clean Bill—as if these two amendments, with their overwhelming support in your Lordships’ House, would have made it a dirty Bill. They would not, and I think that that was a mistake on the Government’s part. But we move on, and I think the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, was important. He said that it is not just about principles, but about putting principles into practice. The only reason I got involved in politics and the only reason I accepted a place in your Lordships’ House—I am sure that I speak for many others—is that I want to make a difference. If we cannot make a difference, there is little point in just talking about issues. That is why we are bringing these two amendments back to the House tonight.

As my noble friend Lady Hayter said, we are not asking for anything from the Government that they have not already committed to doing. They have said already that they will give priority to EU nationals, and by extension to UK nationals living in other countries in the EU. That is an important priority. They have also said that they want a final vote on this issue in both Houses. What we are seeking to do tonight is bring some clarity to that, so let us look at the two issues.

On EU nationals, I am grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, for making the point that we are talking about a reciprocal arrangement for our nationals as well. The Government have said that it is a top priority. It had a large majority in your Lordships’ House and the Government have been clear about the importance of the matter. Concern is gathering pace. My noble friend Lord Morris described some of the issues in the construction industry, which will mean that the Government cannot meet their housing targets. We have already heard about the issues developing in the National Health Service and how the number of nurses coming to this country is falling dramatically. These Motions would provide a mechanism, an opportunity, for the Government to report back to your Lordships’ House. We are not expecting an immediate resolution. We are not asking the Government to come back before the House rises with absolute plans about how this can be achieved, but we need an assurance that when they say this is a priority, they are putting it into practice and are already in discussions about the way forward.

I still think that the Government have made a mistake by putting this issue into the negotiations. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, quoted my noble friend Lady Symons of Vernham Dean who spoke from her own experience of international negotiations. She said that when you put things on the table for negotiation, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. That clearly cannot be allowed to continue in the case of EU nationals. I loved hearing the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, quote Boris Johnson; rarely can there have been so much agreement among noble Lords with his comments, to the effect that this is a moral, economic and practical obligation. I hope the Government understand that we are bringing this forward now because it is a matter of urgency and because damage can follow if their plans are not clear.

On the second Motion, tabled in my name, we have had a useful and interesting debate. We had a similar debate when we voted in favour of the amendments to the Bill. Again, a large majority was rejected by the Government and by the House of Commons. The White Paper, reinforced by Statements from the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State, said that there should be a final vote in Parliament, but, as has been outlined by the noble Lords, Lord Pannick and Lord Kerr, and others, the questions remain: when and how?

There are three issues here. Concerns were expressed in your Lordships’ House that the Prime Minister’s own words, which were used in the resolution we brought before your Lordships’ House before, lack clarity on how this is to be achieved. As they stand, they brought into question whether your Lordships’ House will have a veto. It was quite clear that nobody in this place or the other place thought that was appropriate. Clarification is needed in the wording to ensure the primacy of the Commons.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, both tonight and in his Second Reading speech, made it clear that there needs to be some legislative authority to conclude the deal. That has to be put in statute. Why should the European Parliament have it in statute and not the UK Parliament? That seems a somewhat strange position for a Government who say that they want to leave the EU to retain sovereignty for the British Parliament, yet do not give it the same rights as the European Parliament.

My third point is crucial. As the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, reminded us, whether it is deal or no deal, Parliament should have a say. There are different ways of looking at this. The way I look at it is to say that we should be helpful to and co-operate with the Government. There is a way forward here. We can employ, on a completely cross-party basis across both Houses of Parliament, the best of the skills and experience of this Parliament to focus on providing advice to the Prime Minister and to Parliament on how this can be achieved in a practical, workable manner.

The Prime Minister obviously has to focus on the negotiations. Surely it makes sense for Parliament to do the heavy lifting in looking at this and getting it right. If we do not, we will not, as my noble friend Lady Hayter made clear, have robust legal certainty around the process and the vote at the end. The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State speak of parliamentary engagement. This is an opportunity to use that engagement to make good use of Parliament’s time and expertise. Also, support for this approach will show that the Government take Parliament seriously, will do so throughout the process and will make use of its skills and experience in the national interest.

The Government cannot be seen to swerve this, because it goes to the heart of what Parliament is about and of the national interest. When we debated the Statement earlier this week and we talked about the six tests Kier Starmer and the Labour Party have set for the Government, I set out a seventh test, which we called honesty. That test is that if the Prime Minister can do a good deal for this country she should say so, but equally, if she has concerns or is less than satisfied with the arrangements on offer, she must also say so.

Both Motions are proposed in the true spirit of parliamentary engagement and involvement in the national interest on two crucial issues. The timing of these issues is different because there is an immediate urgency on EU nationals. We have to recognise that the problems are here now and the concerns are being raised now. If we fail to act, the damage to our economy will be huge, in addition to the moral issues and the concerns being raised for individuals. It would be helpful as we progress to have regular updates. The Government reporting back soon to say, “This is the approach we intend to take”, would show that they are upholding their promise to make this a key priority. It would be a move towards certainty, showing that the intention is to achieve that certainty, and that the making of arrangements will not be left until the end of the two-year period.

On a meaningful vote, we understand the concerns and issues that have been raised. We have time to work this out and the best way to use it is through the expertise and experience of Parliament. As my noble friend Lady Hayter made clear, we are not asking for the Government to take a new position on this; we are asking that they live up to their words and say that they believe in genuine parliamentary engagement. That is the process by which, over the next two years, Parliament will be involved.

I see the empty Benches behind the Minister, apart from a few notable and welcome exceptions. The Government should not oppose these Motions tonight but embrace both their spirit and intent. If they are passed, we look forward to early discussions with the Government on their implementation.