Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:07 pm on 31st January 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Altmann Baroness Altmann Conservative 1:07 pm, 31st January 2018

It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, and so many other colleagues across the House in this monumentally important debate. I have always been proud to be British and believe the UK’s amazing achievements have been magnified by being a gateway to the rest of Europe. Free markets across the Channel and our integrated industrial operations have enhanced our performance on the global stage. One-fifth of the UK supply chain is located inside the EU. I firmly believe our multicultural diversity has made Britain a vibrant beacon of tolerance, decency and mutual respect, harnessing home-grown and overseas expertise to the benefit of ourselves and the wider world. We must not throw this away.

Churchill spoke in his 1951 speech of the disadvantages and even dangers to us in standing aloof. He understood the perils of obsession with national sovereignty. It is a troubling sign of our times that anyone suggesting amending this Bill may be accused of wanting to frustrate the will of the people. That is nonsense. Parliament has respected the result of the referendum. It has triggered Article 50—albeit perhaps before we were ready—and is now trying to negotiate a good outcome for the whole United Kingdom from a new UK-EU relationship.

This Bill is supposed to be about providing certainty for the future and, most particularly, about our constitutional arrangements and legal framework after we transfer all EU-derived law into UK law as a result of Parliament’s respect for the 2016 referendum vote to leave the EU.

Some key issues of concern with the Bill have already been brilliantly exposed by previous speakers. It is our duty to scrutinise the legislation before us, which raises fundamental issues that go to the heart of our constitutional framework and parliamentary sovereignty. I do hope that my noble friend will listen carefully and relay these concerns back to his department, so that they can be addressed in government amendments.

First, on the Henry VIII powers, this House cannot rubber stamp giving authority to the Executive that would normally be the role of Parliament as a whole. The amendments to Clause 7 introduced in the other place are insufficient to prevent parliamentary democracy being subverted by Ministers. As my noble friend Lord Balfe rightly said, how would we on these Benches—or indeed many on the Benches opposite—feel about handing such sweeping powers to Jeremy Corbyn? We must not allow the Bill to water down hard-won rights, for women, workers, the disabled and minorities that people in this country have relied on.

I share the concerns expressed by so many noble Lords about Northern Ireland. The Government have promised a frictionless border, but have not actually come up with concrete proposals on how this will work. Paragraph 49 of the 8 December agreement promises regulatory alignment if no other way of protecting existing border freedoms can be found. That must mean staying in the customs union, single market and the EEA, with EFTA-style arrangements. There is no other way. Yet the Government, apart perhaps from my right honourable friend the Chancellor, have tried to skirt over such fundamental issues with soundbites.

Ideological fixations or fantasies must not undermine the Good Friday agreement that has brought peace to Northern Ireland. The British people did not vote to break up the United Kingdom. In the words of Abraham Lincoln:

“You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today”.

That brings me to one of the Bill’s most serious flaws. Parliament, not Ministers, must have a meaningful vote on the terms of our withdrawal. The Government have offered a vote on a potentially very damaging deal, and the potentially even more damaging no deal. That is a meaningless, not meaningful vote. Why is it so important? Because we need to respect the will of the people. This is not about undermining our democracy; it is about upholding it.

Many noble Lords have insisted that democracy requires that the 2016 vote is sacrosanct. They say that this is the will of the British people. They insist that those who voted to leave knew what they were voting for. Indeed they did. They voted to be better off; to have the exact same benefits as we have in the EU single market and customs union; for an extra £350 million a week that could go to the NHS; for easily agreed new free trade deals; for no change to the Northern Ireland border—and for having our cake and eating it. I could go on, but which of these elements promoted to the British people by the Leave campaign is being achieved? So far, it seems, not one.

If these promises cannot be delivered, what should a democracy do? Triggering Article 50 has respected the democratic vote of 2016. But we are now in 2018 and things may have changed. Democracy does not happen at only one moment in time. This is about the ordinary people of this country who are trusting us to look after their future. The Bill needs to allow flexibility to cater for alternative scenarios that reflect new realities.

That brings me, finally, to the Bill’s provisions for a so-called transition or implementation period. How has Parliament allowed itself to be enticed into this trap? We keep hearing about wanting to “take back control”. I say to noble Lords on all sides of the House who are sanguine about the direction of travel so far: please, open your eyes. Transition is the opposite of taking back control. It is about losing control. Once we are in a transition, we are trapped, with no way back. Our only ammunition may be a suicide bomb. We have surrendered our future and entered the unknown.

If what the British people were promised turns out to be fantasy—nearly one year on from triggering Article 50, we are still unsure what lies ahead—we cannot rely on meaningless slogans such as “Brexit means Brexit”, and referring to “deep and special” partnerships. We cannot hand the Executive a form with plenty of headings and no detail, and just leave them to fill in the blanks. We must have a better idea of where we are heading. Without a realistic vision of the future we want—one that is achievable—we must not continue on the current path without any alternatives. Perhaps an extension, as suggested by my honourable friend Mr Rees-Mogg, would be more honest, rather than a transition with no say over the rules. There are signs that the EU might agree to this. My honourable friend has also pointed out that entering such a transition would be the first time since 1066 that our laws could be made without our having a say. Does that not mean that Europe has not been a dictatorship? We have had, and still have, the freedom to make our own rules and laws inside the EU.

The necessary changes to the Bill need to be passed. That is not about undermining the will of the people; it is about upholding democracy.