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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:05 pm on 31st January 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Blackstone Baroness Blackstone Labour 12:05 pm, 31st January 2018

My Lords, I greatly regret the fact that we are debating this Bill, as I believe that we should remain as a member of the European Union. I did not think it was right to have a referendum about an issue of such complexity. Indeed, in a parliamentary democracy most referenda are inappropriate.

For many years we sought to be a member of the EEC, as it then was. Having joined, it brought us many benefits, the greatest of which has been our membership of the single market. Our economy has flourished so that we have enjoyed higher growth than before and a strong position relative to other OECD countries. The decision to leave the EU is already jeopardising this, as the Governor of the Bank of England and many others have made clear. Yet a former senior Minister who supports Brexit was heard on the “Today” programme yesterday in denial about Government projections of an economic downturn under each of the three models of possible outcomes. What he said was shockingly misleading. I hope that when the Minister replies he will confirm that impact assessments will be made available to Parliament. I hope too that there will be no more disgraceful attacks on civil servants like the one we heard in another place from the Minister in the Brexit department. If these go on we will have to start a defence league for officials.

It is not only because of the economic consequences of leaving the EU that the UK would be better off inside than outside. There are many advantages in being part of a political bloc whose members share our commitment to the rule of law, democratic institutions, freedom of speech and human rights. In a troubled world where there are powerful countries that respect none of these, there is great benefit in working together in Europe to secure peace and justice in the world. We should not forget the views of young people: they voted overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the EU. They are now puzzled about what constitutes government policy. This is hardly surprising since the Government themselves have no vision or clarity about where they are going. Above all, young people fear a hard Brexit and that we are abandoning the values of tolerance and openness that they hold dear. Old people, who voted in large numbers to leave, have most of their lives behind them. Young people have most of their lives before them: we must not let them down. To pass the Bill unamended would let them down.

We must ensure the sovereignty of Parliament and prevent a constitutional outrage. The House can play a crucial role in protecting our constitution by seeking to prevent an over-powerful Executive bypassing proper parliamentary scrutiny. Legal expertise in amending the Bill’s Henry VIII clauses will be invaluable. The Government’s decision not to convert the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights into UK law means the protection of human rights will be weakened. More than 20 human rights organisations, including the Equality and Human Rights Commission, recently published a letter stating that losing the charter creates a human rights hole. The protection of the charter should be retained. Without it, there are risks to employment rights, consumer protection, the protection of the environment and the rights of children.

I also want to comment on the absurd decision, forced by the hard Brexit faction in the Government and the Conservative Party, to have a precise date for leaving the EU next March. This comes before many of the vital decisions that need to be made about the consequences of Brexit have been properly discussed and negotiated. I hope the Government will think again and consider leaving only after the transitional period, rather than before it.

The calamitous decision to leave the EU has distorted the work of Whitehall and Westminster, leaving insufficient time to address many urgent issues where change and reform are needed, whether in health and social care, education, housing and the environment, or the reduction of poverty. Moreover, this displacement of effort is magnified by the loss of many benefits brought to us in all these policy areas by our membership of the European Union. Leaving will make it exceedingly difficult to retain many—if not any—of these benefits. However, I end by saying that our greatest priority must be to fight against a hard Brexit and the horrors of renegotiating all our trade agreements. We must stay in the single market and the customs union for the sake of the Good Friday agreement, and above all for the sake of the prosperity of our nation.