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European Union (Withdrawal) Bill - Report (6th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:30 pm on 8th May 2018.

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Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Labour 4:30 pm, 8th May 2018

My Lords, I have to acknowledge that this is not an amendment that thrills me, not least because it seems to me to offend one of the great principles of social and economic thought, enunciated in a wondrous book, of which this year is the 60th anniversary—namely, Parkinson’s Law or the Pursuit of Progress. Noble Lords who are old enough to remember it will know that that law as enunciated was that work expands to fill the time available. I have no doubt, as far as negotiations in relation to the EU are concerned, that, whenever the end date was pronounced to be appropriate, there would be no difficulty in filling the time available, and everything that has happened so far confirms me in that impression.

The other related observation about human behaviour, which sadly has governed a lot of my life—I am not proud of it—but seems to be almost an abiding characteristic of the European Union is that you never do today what you can put off till tomorrow. I think that we have seen enough of negotiations EU-style, with late-night ministerial meetings and early-morning press conferences, to know that lastminute.com is one of the abiding principles by which the European Union reaches its decisions.

What troubles me about the amendment—although I shall lose no sleep about what happens to it—is that, whatever the mover’s intentions, the undoubted interpretation from the world outside will be that this amendment is designed to put further down the track the date on which we shall leave the European Union. That is an observation that I hear time and again in talking to people. After all, in March next year it will be almost three years since the British people made that historic and momentous decision.

I cannot help being vain enough to mention just two points that I made at Second Reading about this House and its treatment of this Bill. I simply said that, in all our discussions, there will be an elephant in the room—the chasm between the spread of opinion on Brexit in this House and the spread of opinion in the country at large. I think that I can be allowed to make special reference to my own region of the West Midlands, which was the strongest voting region in favour of leaving the European Union. Coincidentally, the House’s own research tells us that one of the least represented regions in the United Kingdom in this House is the West Midlands. The other two, by the way, are the north-east and east Midlands. Those three regions amount to the three most strongly Brexit parts of the country. It would be nice to have a lot more people here from the West Midlands—and, should the Government want any advice on people whom they might think of putting in the House in order to address that regional imbalance, I would certainly give it to them. But this mismatch is the elephant in the room.

I repeat what I said then: for all that we may try and decipher the motives of people who voted leave, the most generally accepted one is that people felt there was a chasm. So many people in this country sensed that Westminster, and Members in both Houses, were not listening to what they were saying. At the start of the Bill, I was fearful that this House would make that anxiety even more justified, and I have neither seen nor heard anything at Second Reading, in Committee or on Report that has given me any reason whatever to doubt that judgment. We have passed 11 substantial amendments already. There is no doubt that they were all well presented and for good, rational reasons, although I did not agree with them all. However, they have the compound effect of it appearing to be the case that this House is trying to delay, to block or, in the case of my noble friend Lord Adonis, who has been honest enough to say so throughout, to reverse the decision which the people made two and a half years ago. That has undoubtedly been the impression that we have been presenting.

Of course, people say that that is our duty; it is what the House of Lords is for. I agree that it is a perfectly legitimate objective for this House to make the House of Commons think again on any Bill. However, this is not any old Bill. This Bill has the authority of a referendum, with an unprecedented vote, to back and sustain its objectives. It has been moved inexorably on its way by the votes in both Houses to implement Article 50. This House did it; so did the House of Commons. The Bill is an inevitable and necessary consequence of the referendum and of the votes in these two Houses.