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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:31 am on 31st January 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Humphreys Baroness Humphreys Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Wales) 11:31 am, 31st January 2018

My Lords, like many other noble Lords I am disappointed that the EU withdrawal Bill has come to this House almost unamended by the House of Commons and that the legislative attempts to retain and even increase the power of the Executive, which will affect Wales so significantly, have shamefully failed to be successfully challenged by Members in the other place.

The inclusion of Clause 11 in this Bill by the Government was surely a case of imperial arrogance—or incompetence. Having listened to the Minister say at the end of last Thursday’s devolution debate that the Government were working on, but struggling to find, the correct wording for their amendments, I suspect the latter is nearer the mark. I look forward to seeing these amendments in Committee and taking part in the debates that will follow.

The Prime Minister’s decision to announce, so soon after the referendum and so early in the withdrawal process, that we would also be leaving the single market and customs union was, in my view, a mistake—a red line that will have a real impact on Wales. The rejection in the other place of the amendments to include them in the Bill is disappointing. If a similar amendment is proposed in Committee, I will support it.

Noble Lords already understand the advantages of the single market and customs union to Wales. We trade with our nearest neighbours. We have access to a market of 500 million people. That trade is tariff free and the market accepts over two-thirds of our exports. Its importance to the Welsh economy has been recognised by the Welsh Labour Government, who have called for “free and unfettered access” to both the single market and customs union, a call that unfortunately seems to be unheeded by the Labour leadership in Westminster. I wish the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, every bit of luck in trying to persuade his colleagues.

The much maligned—by those who support Brexit—free movement of people and goods has been a boon to companies such as Airbus, which employs 7,000 people in Broughton in north-east Wales. A new customs bureaucracy and reduced employee mobility could damage long-term investment there and accelerate a shift to Asia where China, according to representatives of the company, is already,

“knocking at the door as a result of the situation that we’re in in this country”.

Our situation is characterised by a deep uncertainty about the future direction of the UK which is fuelled almost daily by the contradictory and confusing messages coming from around the Cabinet table. Farmers seek certainty that they will not be priced out of their European markets and that the funding that they need to plan for their farms’ future will be available. Manufacturers need confidence to invest to grow their businesses, and communities are beginning to understand and lament the end of structural funding.

Workers in Holyhead on Anglesey would be grateful for certainty on the question of the Irish border. The fact that talks with Michel Barnier have moved onto the second phase has fooled none of us; the fudge over the border seems to have been a charitable device by Mr Barnier’s team to give the Prime Minister some credibility. This most difficult question seems to have been placed in the “too mind-blowing for now” box and shelved.

Our place in Europe and our place within the single market and customs union have led to Holyhead developing into the large port that it is today. However, the recent announcement that from April, Brittany Ferries will be running a ferry service for cars and freight from Cork directly to the north of Spain, so “avoiding the land bridge” between Ireland and Europe, rings alarms in North Wales. Potential job losses in one of the poorest areas of the UK will be devastating.

Finally, on a personal note, I want to say a few words about the referendum result and introduce some facts and figures about the influence of identity on people’s voting choices in that referendum. It has been claimed, in one national newspaper in particular, that the vote to leave the EU was an English national revolt achieved with the acquiescence of the Welsh. Research carried out by the British electoral survey points to another possible scenario.

To begin with, an important factor to note is that about one-third of the population of Wales were born in England. The survey data shows that 60% of those living in Wales who identified as both strongly English and strongly British voted to leave. On the other hand, of those who felt strongly Welsh but not strongly British 71% voted to remain. Of those fluent Welsh speakers who strongly identified as Welsh, not British, a massive 84% voted to remain. So as a Welsh-speaking, strongly Welsh-identifying Member of your Lordships’ House, I make the gentle request that in future these factors are taken into consideration when apportioning blame or even credit for Brexit. The Leave vote may have been won with the help of the majority of those who live in Wales, but certainly not with the aid or acquiescence of the majority of the Welsh.