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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:32 am on 31st January 2018.

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Photo of Viscount Astor Viscount Astor Conservative 10:32 am, 31st January 2018

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the powerful speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd. In preparing for this debate, I looked up the Hansard debates on joining the European Union in 1972. Two things stood out. First, how few Members of this House spoke then—19, as opposed to 190 today. Secondly, how the warnings from Lord George-Brown, then dismissed as scaremongering, seem to have come true. I am not entirely sure what lessons we must learn from those debates except, perhaps, one. Whatever one says in this House will probably turn out to be true at some point, even if it takes 45 years.

I spoke in this House and campaigned in the referendum in favour of staying in the European Union. We lost the argument. The British people wanted their sovereignty back. We addressed lots of economic arguments and offered a good deal, with substantial reforms, to stay in. It was difficult, if not almost impossible, to explain. We did not deal with the basic concerns about sovereignty—the control which the British people wanted returned from the unelected in Brussels to their elected representatives here in Westminster.

I want to take issue with those who say that the British people did not understand what they were voting for. I think they did; they had a greater understanding than some of their elected representatives. Some were surprised by the result but, after all, the referendum result just reflected the view of a majority of the British people which has been growing for the last decade.

I have never been elected, but I have campaigned in every general election since 1974. I cannot think of a general election result when we won but did not deserve to win, or when we lost but did not deserve to lose. When it comes to politics, the British people usually get it right. As we know from Ken Clarke, you do not have to have read every detail of the EU treaty to be either for or against.

We have 10 days in Committee, on Report and at Third Reading where there will be plenty of opportunity for this House to act as it should. If necessary it can revise, or ask the Commons to think again, but not wreck nor block this Bill. There are those who want to destroy the Bill and force a constitutional impasse that might result in the Bill being lost. That would be a disaster for this House. Their outcome, of course, is Brexit denied, but the result would be a constitutional uproar, which would lead either to the reform of this House or, probably, to the abolition of a second Chamber.

I want this Government to get the best deal they can for our future relationship with the EU. Our future is not bleak; it may be different, but we will continue to trade with Europe and with the rest of the world. My noble friend Lord Hill of Oareford was absolutely right when he said yesterday that,

“we must surely place a greater priority on being able to shape our own future than on preserving the status quo”.—[Official Report, 30/1/18; col. 1389.]

Staying in the single market and the customs union for ever would be the worst of both worlds: we would be unable to influence the rules of the single market and unable to negotiate our own free trade agreements. Of course, there are still difficult issues to be dealt with, including Northern Ireland and our relationships with the other devolved Administrations, and, not least, the Henry VIII powers in the Bill.

The process of leaving the European Union is one of unprecedented scale and complexity. As well as giving effect to the will of the people to take back control of our laws, the Government must be able to deliver Brexit while ensuring certainty for people and for businesses. As many noble Lords have said during the debate, we need more clarity from the Government on how they see our future outside the European Union. A chaotic Brexit, without a solid legal foundation, would not be in the national interest. The Government need to be able to adapt the laws we are repatriating to the new situation of being outside the European Union.

While I understand the concerns raised about the scope of the Henry VIII powers, I am concerned that Parliament will not have the time it would need to make all those changes before we leave. I agree, however, that Henry VIII powers should, if possible, be brought in by the affirmative rather than the negative procedure. Perhaps we should not be afraid in this House of rejecting affirmative instruments if we feel they are wrong and that we should ask the other place to think again.

The Government have chosen an extraordinary approach, but these are extraordinary times. We all have the right to hold different views, to argue our case and to persuade others to change their mind, but we should not thwart the will of the people as expressed in the referendum and in the recent general election. It is worth reminding those who complain about the referendum that it was a manifesto commitment by the party that won the subsequent general election, and it was then passed in the House of Commons by a vote of 554 for and only 53 against—a majority by all the main parties except the Scots nats.

This Bill is not about the terms of our exit but about the mechanism of how it will happen. We should not be distracted by debates on the merits or detriments of leaving the European Union. The Government themselves have made a commitment to ensure that Parliament will have the opportunity to consider the deal and approve what they have negotiated. We do not need another referendum, and this Bill is not the place for a referendum clause. As my noble friend Lord Hamilton of Epsom pointed out, if there were to be a referendum, no one could agree when it would happen or what the question would be. But we do need parliamentary scrutiny, and that started yesterday in this House. Therefore, I welcome the Bill and look forward to the subsequent stages of Committee, Report and Third Reading.