European Union (Withdrawal) Bill - Report (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:30 pm on 2nd May 2018.

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Photo of Lord Steel of Aikwood Lord Steel of Aikwood Liberal Democrat 8:30 pm, 2nd May 2018

My Lords, as many Scottish colleagues in the House are aware, over the last year or so my attendance in this place has been spasmodic and uncertain. I am sorry that I have not been able to make any contribution to this very important Bill until now, but I want to make two points, even at this late stage. The first is that it is the second time in 50 years that the country has had to ponder whether to remain part of the European entity. My mind goes back to 1975 when I was appointed to the committee of the Britain in Europe campaign, headed by Roy Jenkins and Willie Whitelaw. I was very much the junior member, the statutory Liberal stuck on this committee of the great and the good, but it was an amazing experience. We had huge public meetings. I remember one, in particular, in Edinburgh at the Usher Hall, where we must have had 2,000 people. I was simply the warm-up man for the great people who were going to speak; namely, the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, and Roy Jenkins. The end result was absolutely decisive, unlike this last occasion in 2016. It was two-thirds to one-third in favour of remaining in the then European Economic Community.

Some will argue that we had it easy in those days because there was no Assembly in Wales; Northern Ireland, then as now, was under direct rule; and there was no Parliament in Scotland, so it was a fairly simple, straightforward argument. But I thought then, as I think now, that the whole history of this country in relation to Europe has been one of running after the European bus after it has left the stop. I am very proud of the fact that I belong to a political party that, under the inspiration of my great predecessor, Jo Grimond, in 1955 divided the House of Commons on the issue of whether to take part in the Messina talks. They only got a handful of people in the Lobby on one side against the massed ranks of the Labour and Conservative Parties in the other, but they were right and ever since then we have been running to catch the European bus and we have never got near the driving seat. We were simply passengers going in the direction that it happened to be going.

At least in 1975 we were talking about the future of Europe and the kind of country we wanted to be in Europe, which was not the case in the 2016 referendum, when people were arguing about slogans on the side of a bus, money for the National Health Service, immigration and other issues which were not directly related to the kind of country that we wanted to see. One of the extraordinary results of the 2016 referendum was that the over-65s voted clearly to leave and that is a terrible condemnation of the way that the referendum was run, not just by the Brexiteers but by the remainers. It was not run by professional politicians, unlike in 1975, and the result was that people operated on slogans rather than dealing with the real issues. That is my first point.

Now we are in the reverse position of trying to get off the moving bus. People who try to get off moving buses sometimes have accidents and I think Clause 11 was a major accident, which has now been put right. This is my second point. When the Bill was first published, Clause 11 was greeted in Scotland with total incredulity right across the political spectrum. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, put it very well at the time, that it was as though the drafters of the Bill simply had not realised what had happened in 1998 with the Scotland Act. They assumed that powers from Europe would automatically come to London and that the Government in London would graciously consider whether at some future point they might transfer some of those powers to Edinburgh. That was not just wrong, it was totally the opposite of what the Scotland Act 1998 said: that when powers that were covered for Scotland by the EU were returned, they would go automatically to Edinburgh, not to London. I think the Government got it completely wrong.

I join others in paying tribute to Ministers—the Advocate-General and others—who have seen the error of their ways, if late in the day. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, was much more polite than me in saying it was rather late in the day. In fact, we were promised amendments in the Commons; that never happened. It never happened when the Bill was published here in the Lords. But now at last we have the new amendment which is under discussion.

I think these negotiations have gone well. The Ministers in the UK, Wales and Scotland deserve every credit for having achieved what they have so far. I know we are not supposed to discuss Amendment 91 but I hope that, when we come to that, the Government might have something to say on that issue as well. I attach great importance to what the Minister said right at the beginning, which is that we are not near the end: we still have Third Reading to come and there is still the possibility of further discussions. I hope that the Government will be flexible and that the Scottish Government will be flexible and come round to the view that this is really quite a good deal.