My Lords, this House knows what is expected of it. I trust that we will not cower at the lurid threats of tumbrils at the gate voiced by my noble novelist friend Lord Dobbs. We have a duty to perform, summarised on Parliament’s own website, which declares our role to be:
“Checking and shaping draft laws and challenging the work of Government”.
As many noble Lords have already said today, in this instance the work of government really needs challenging.
The Bill is not merely the “cut and paste” of EU law that it has been portrayed as. It changes the balance of power between the UK Parliament and the devolved Administrations; it confers sweeping, wildly undemocratic, power on Ministers; and, in Clause 9, it makes provision for “implementing the withdrawal agreement”. Given its implications, we would be failing the country if we did not challenge the Bill’s imperfections. To let fear for our own future prevent us would be self-interested cowardice, not constitutional propriety. My noble friend Lord Dobbs quoted Sir Winston Churchill; two can play at that game. I remind the House that it was Churchill who said that our task was,
“to re-create the European Family, or as much of it as we can, and provide it with a structure under which it can dwell in peace, in safety and in freedom”.
We risk throwing away his legacy.
We are told that the Bill brings business the certainty it craves. It does not. It gives no clarity on where the country is headed after Brexit. Business is clear that it wants to remain in the single market and the customs union. Here I declare my interests as listed in the register. Business knows what the Government are failing to tell the country but BuzzFeed helpfully did this morning: under any scenario other than staying in the single market and the customs union, coming out of the EU will make Britain significantly poorer. As others have said today, Britain did not vote for that.
By the Government’s own reckoning, there are 132,000 companies in the UK that export only to the EU. Far from being the bureaucratic nightmare we keep hearing about, the single market actually works. We will pay a high price for leaving. The Government could assure business now that they are intent on preserving the benign trading environment we enjoy for goods and the all-important services—the arrangement that has produced such prosperity. Instead, all we are promised is a transition deal—but to what? We leave the EU to enter limbo land, while we try to hammer out a deal with no negotiating power. We stride out on to what my noble friend Lord Bridges called,
“a gangplank into thin air”.
Parliament needs to be told, and soon, just what the Government are aiming to achieve, and in terms much more specific than the “deep and special relationship” we hear so much about. That is what we have now. Hope does not equate to policy. To extend the Article 50 process while we negotiate a deal, rather than walking off that gangplank, might be a great deal more sensible.
Ministers must also scrape away the fudge that was so liberally ladled over the issue of Ireland. My noble friend Lord Empey accepts that the issue is “difficult”, albeit he thinks those difficulties minor. But I can see no way of providing Ireland with the borderless, frictionless trade that has been promised other than the UK remaining in the single market and the customs union. If the Minister has found one, perhaps he could spell it out. To a simple soul like me, trade between an EU member state and the independent UK cannot continue post-Brexit without a border. Again, hope does not equate to a policy. We need details.
Finally, I join with those who believe that before this country takes the momentous step of leaving the EU, it may be that the people will need to have their say on the terms that are on offer. Opinion polls already show that a significant majority favour such a vote. While I share the view of my noble friend Lord Patten of Barnes that referenda should be avoided, I suspect that if a referendum got you into this mess, the only way out may be another referendum. This may not be the Bill which mandates such a vote, but the time may well come when it is inevitable. The government position seems to be that we have made our bed and we will jolly well lie in it; no matter how uncomfortable this turns out to be, we must get on with it. I find that somewhat perverse, and I suspect the majority of voters would too: let us find a better bed.