European Union (Withdrawal) Bill - Second Reading (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:52 pm on 30th January 2018.

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Photo of Lord Triesman Lord Triesman Labour 8:52 pm, 30th January 2018

My Lords, despite what has just been said, it was inevitable that this Bill would arrive here with such obvious defects. Because of the ideological drive to leave at any cost and a Prime Minister who is obviously unable to contain the excesses of her Eurosceptic colleagues, we now have no declared detailed objectives other than that we do not want a fight among them. We have a Bill which is constitutionally deficient, and a Constitution Committee report, introduced by my noble friend Lady Taylor, that is clear and precise, and justifiably tough.

The Bill is deficient on the constitutional issues of granting Ministers untrammelled powers that sideline Parliament, deficient in the neglect of devolved interests and deficient on the human rights implications—and it is all tied to a timetable that is almost certainly incapable of being accomplished. The Bill will need significant amendment if it is to be made simpler and clarified, and it had better be accurate. I thank my noble friend Lady Taylor and also the noble Lord, Lord Norton, for his clarity on this point.

I cannot square the difficulty posed by the problems outlined in the debate with the complacency of Ministers in saying that they have all the aspects covered. This House will expect and welcome a positive attitude to amendments aimed at improving the Bill. Ministers ask us to trust in a bargaining process in Europe where it is plain that the two sides are not even on the same page. These are the same Ministers who will ask us to allow them Henry VIII powers at a later stage, and it is the same Ministers who conducted the referendum campaign on the basis of what I can describe only as deliberate deceit.

I complained about the overstatements on the remain side, unashamedly, and I say to your Lordships that the straightforward lies on the other side have brought our politics to a miserable low, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds said earlier today. We have surrendered our largest constitutional issue in modern times to hucksters and snake oil salesmen. To take these steps on the basis of a referendum conducted in that way will, I suspect, be seen historically as a form of certifiable insanity—a malady comprising crude populism and a sense of profound fantasy.

I do not really want to focus on the economic prospects post Brexit, other than to agree with my noble friend Lord Mandelson, who emphasised a possible route through the miasma: by staying in the single market and customs union while leaving the EU. It is sub-optimal but it is at least an intelligible route. I remind the House that my noble friend was also a former Northern Ireland Secretary and, like the noble Lord, Lord Patten, has grasped the profound danger of dismantling the customs union.

I mean to focus on the subject of defence, if I may, and the alliances which keep our country safe. It is fundamental; if Governments do nothing else they must do this. When we leave the EU, I have little doubt that our erstwhile partners will rate our exceptional forces very highly. They will know that they are capable and do not shrink from tasks that they are set. Even with our capacity sharply reduced by government cuts, our partners will no doubt welcome our contribution to military activity. But we will not be at the meetings or councils where the strategic decisions are discussed and decided. We will be asked to contribute without having helped to decide the objectives. We may try to find ways to take part in discussions—and we should—but, as the noble Lord, Lord Hague, told the European Union External Affairs Sub-Committee, we will have no rights in those forums.

I know with certainty that the United Kingdom will not commit its forces if it cannot share in shaping their objectives. That would be an absurd position for any state to take. When I am told that NATO will fill the gaps—I am completely committed to that alliance—I am not confident. American commitment is at best half-hearted. It is not only what President Trump says, which is bad enough, but the septic pool of populism from which his policies have emerged and which will greatly outlast him. The United States is more isolationist and nationalistic than for a long time, and there is small reason to feel that we have compensating alliances and doctrines. Indeed, the things he has said suggest to me that the underpinning values of NATO are themselves at risk.

At the level of military leadership, we seem ready to give up the positions we have traditionally held, including Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe, which was ably filled for many years by General Sir Adrian Bradshaw. My noble friend Lord Robertson, the former Secretary-General of NATO, has asked how a non-EU country can hold that position. It is a good question. We have elected to be marginal and, inevitably, weaker. I hope that the deepening relationship with France and some other countries may partly compensate, but our decline seems obvious and unacceptable. We have not thought it through.

Finally, in starting this process David Cameron turned our country inward. I doubt that I will be reconciled to the noble Lord, Lord Framlingham, for example, or to any other zealots for leave, because they want a very different country from the one that I want—and I doubt that they will ever be reconciled to views such as mine. In short, our differences may be resolved if some middle way is found but it is entirely possible that they will never be resolved, at least in a generation. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds put this eloquently today. The ugliness of the debate, the name calling and the lies have all demeaned the United Kingdom. I am afraid that I see a country with deeper xenophobia and more unashamed hate crime than I have ever seen in my lifetime, and with a view of people from other countries which should shame us—and it is getting worse.

Two generations ago, two ladies in my family left Paris, where my family had lived for generations. That was in 1932. Their letters showed that they thought that the French would never resist the Germans when they inevitably advanced on France and that French anti-Semitism would find a terrifying ally. Other members of the family thought that they were mad. Paris? Amazing city. What could possibly go wrong? Well, they left in 1933, and the two of them—and two others who spent the war hiding in Paris’s sewers—survived. The rest of the family went to the extermination camps. For the first time in my life, I know a number of people who are asking the question: when the economy goes pear-shaped and the bogus promises are seen to be the frauds that they have always been, what will happen then, and who will be blamed? How will we avoid repeating some of the mistakes of European history that occur in these circumstances? Their bet will be that the same people historically will be blamed in Europe. Like the Paris relatives, sadly they are beginning to make their plans to leave when it becomes sensible, and in advance of a catastrophe. They are not the familiar lot who plan to leave because a tax increase is rumoured, and do not tell them it cannot happen to them, because it has happened—in our lifetimes and to our families.

If there is a serious solutions to taking on crimes and attitudes of prejudice, let us see them, not just hear words about them. Nothing about this outcome is inevitable. But there is a requirement for confidence that people take it seriously and are prepared to confront it and deal with it. If they are not, I fear that the consequences will be as I have rehearsed.

The noble Lord, Lord Newby, in a fine speech at the beginning of these proceedings said that it was not a reform Bill but a dreadfully incoherent transfer Bill. I remind noble Lords that the football transfer window closes at 11 pm tomorrow—about the same time as we will close. Let us hope that Ministers can tell us how Team UK can answer the problems set out in this debate rather better than the authorities in football clubs. No bland assurances—