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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:15 pm on 31st January 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Crawley Baroness Crawley Labour 1:15 pm, 31st January 2018

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, who has always been a steadfast pro-European. I refer noble Lords to my entry in the register of interests as a former MEP.

So, Brexit—how do we think it is going? No unparliamentary language, please, from my noble friend Lord Foulkes of Cumnock in answering that question. According to the Government’s own economic impact report this week, we have to hold up our hands as the political establishment in this country and admit that we have probably scuppered people’s economic prospects for the next 15 to 20 years. This Bill, which our own Constitution Committee described as “constitutionally unacceptable”, comes to us at a time of unique instability in modern British politics. Half of Ministers and Conservative MPs want what my noble friend Lady Smith, the Leader of the Opposition, called a “buccaneering Brexit” that hauls us out into the mid-Atlantic, as far away from Europe as possible, and they want it to happen now, today, and with no transition. The other half, the Hammond half, want to shadow the economic and trade benefits of the European Union as closely as possible. My own party is not exactly free from criticism either. How can we answer Mr Barnier’s question—what does Britain want?—when we do not know ourselves?

The Trade Secretary, meanwhile, fresh from the Derek Trotter school of international trade negotiations —its strapline being, “This time next year we’ll all be millionaires”—is touring the globe to drum up trade with deals that “could”, “might”, “possibly”, “maybe”, “sometime in the future”, come to fruition. On top of that we hear the business chorus, the cacophony coming from Davos, demanding certainty—a certainty, of course, that an embattled Prime Minister just cannot give.

Meanwhile, the money men and women in the City of London are packing their bags and will probably head for Frankfurt, as the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, suggested yesterday in his quite powerful speech. They have promises to keep, and miles to go before we sleepwalk out of the European Union—with apologies to Robert Frost. British businesses and their workforces cannot wait for the Government to decide what they want: equivalence or passporting; customs union-lite or not at all; regulatory alignment or compatibility; transition or implementation or maybe both; transition or implementation or maybe both. Then, of course, we have what 19th-century Peers in your Lordships’ House used to call “the Irish question”. Here I declare my Irish nationality. The new Irish question is of course: “How can you have virtually no border with the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state, and not be in the customs union and the single market?”. Paragraph 49 of the 8 December agreement, which supposedly answers this question, is written so ambiguously that Malcolm Tucker from “The Thick of It” would have been proud.

The purpose of the Bill before us is, as we know, to provide a functioning statute book on the day after we leave the European Union. But this Bill is not just a procedural device: it is not a cut-and-paste, drag-and-drop, pull-across-and-slap-it-down technical exercise to convert EU law as it stands at the moment of exit into domestic law. It is, in the words of our own House of Lords Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, a Bill that,

“contains unacceptably wide Henry VIII powers”,

or, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, said in his excellent speech yesterday, “Oliver Cromwell” powers.

Chris Bryant MP suggested at Second Reading in another place that in the history of the 20th century, and I understand that he looked into this, no Bill has ever attempted to do this, even in times of war or civil emergency. The Fawcett Society said in its briefing to us that, notwithstanding the gains from the equality Bill in the other place, it fears Ministers’ excessive powers to be able to amend and repeal all manner of employment and equalities legislation through this Bill. It should never be forgotten that our EU membership has brought enormous protection to the women of this country—their working rights, family rights and equal rights—much of it to do with the legal underpinning from the European Union.

Our EU membership has brought great protections that now seem to be at risk, because those rights do not continue under the Bill with the enhanced status that the legal underpinning from the European Union has given them for the last 40-odd years. They survive in the Bill only in delegated form, as do the equally important environmental and consumer rights that the British people take for granted as part of a safe, civilised life. The Government can expect no let-up in our efforts to make this Bill somehow, against all odds, work in the interests of the British people as we leave Europe, but leaving Europe is an act of extraordinary political self-harm for which our grandchildren and their children will not forgive us.