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Brexit: People’s Vote - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:18 pm on 25th October 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 2:18 pm, 25th October 2018

My Lords, in addition to thanking the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, for the timeliness of this debate and the historical approach he took, may I also pay tribute to the near three-quarters of a million who took to the streets on Saturday, calling for people to play a part in decisions about the future of our country, and asserting their right to have their voices heard? Agree with them or no, it was testament to the importance of this issue, to the demand for proper engagement from every region of the country, and to the energy of young people—and some not so young—in their desire to influence the outcome of the negotiations. It was also a vote of no confidence in the Government, and a reflection of the fear that the Prime Minister is leading us to an outcome that no voter envisaged on 23 June 2016, with a hard exit from nearly 50 years of close co-operation with our continental allies—an outcome that would damage the economy, jobs, our children and grandchildren’s prospects, even our security and policing, let alone the rights of our citizens resident abroad, and EU citizens living here.

As we saw in the Standard poll last night, public confidence in the Prime Minister’s ability to negotiate her way out of a paper bag is at an all-time low. No wonder when she cannot unite her own party and appears to dismiss Whitehall advice, pleading from business, farmers, supermarkets, ports and airports, the International Chamber of Commerce, consumers and haulage firms, and stark warnings of no deal both in the Government’s technical notices and from the NAO, as we heard earlier.

No one envisaged us leaving without a deal. As the CBI shows, 15% of the companies that have prepared no-deal contingency plans intend to shift jobs overseas. Medicines and fresh food would quickly be in short supply. Travel would be hampered and international driving licences and visas needed. We know the list; we have read the documents. Last week in Dover, I heard from port authorities that with 500 lorries passing through every hour, they have no facility to hold them for even two minutes to check contents, tariffs or VAT, or to ensure that the correct person or vehicle is going through. So do not expect fresh food in your shops if we fail to get a deal.

Even in leave areas, no one voted for a catastrophe or to rupture our relationship with the EU, trash our economy and see jobs exported or investment fall. Rather, as we heard, voters were promised a stronger economy, money for the NHS, the exact same benefits and sunny, sunny uplands. The Government getting it wrong in the Brexit negotiations is letting down Brexit voters even more than remainers, who never expected anything good from us leaving.

In addressing the Motion, I start with the possibility of no deal. I would like to think that we do not need to waste our time on this, but we must continue because some people still seem to threaten, or even welcome, it. If the Government fail to secure a deal, a democratic, ethical and constitutional responsibility falls to Parliament, particularly to the Commons. Knowing what we do, it would be unforgivable for Parliament to permit a no-deal exit on 29 March. Due to the Act that went through this House, if there is no deal by 21 January, the Commons has to vote on that absence of a deal—when, I assume, MPs would reject such a course of action. What then? Clearly the Government would be honour-bound to resign, having been overturned on perhaps the most significant post-war failure of any Administration. Then we would have a public vote, but in that case it would be a general election and there would be an extension of Article 50 to allow for it.

The more pertinent question today is, what if we get a deal? The first vote on a deal must lie with Parliament. From the start, your Lordships’ House called for this: making Parliament’s voice statutory rather than the simple, non-binding vote in both Houses originally suggested by the Prime Minister. We in this House helped to achieve this legal requirement of Commons endorsement for ratification of the deal to take place. Nothing in the call for a public vote on the deal should diminish that role for Parliament. If Parliament agrees the deal, we hear no demand for it then to go out for an affirmative plebiscite, although my noble friend Lord Judd suggested that it would take an election at that point.

What would happen should the deal be rejected by the Commons, which looks increasingly likely? The question is whether there should then be a public vote. Our view is that there must be a general election in that case, as my noble friend Lord McKenzie said, because the Prime Minister would have lost the confidence of Parliament on a highly significant national issue. However, should the Government insist on hanging on—I trust that they would not do that—and refuse an election, all options to break the impasse must be on the table. That includes the possibility of a public vote, although this time with 16 and 17 year-olds taking part; here I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Tyler.

I acknowledge the difficulties of arranging that. The UCL paper showed how challenging it would be in terms of needing a Bill, Electoral Commission approval of the question and a 10-week campaign. However, that could be overcome with cross-party consensus and political will, although it still leaves open what question should be on the ballot paper and whether there should be two or three options between deal, no deal or remain.

The Government have got themselves and the country into a serious mess. They adopted red lines before they understood the task. They failed to heed the advice of civil servants, industry or their allies, who also have skin in the game. They are in hock to the ERG and DUP and weakened by their foolish 2017 election. They failed to engage the Opposition to find a deal which we and the country could support.

I finish with some advice to the Minister. He should resist his normal dismissal of those whose views differ from his, acknowledge the size, legitimacy, validity and passion of Saturday’s marchers and heed advice more widely than from just his political friends. I suggest that he should listen to his noble friend Lord Finkelstein especially. He should dismiss Tory MEP Daniel Hannan’s call for a “mass boycott” of any second referendum. Hannan told Al Jazeera—not a particularly democratic channel—that a second referendum would be “utterly illegitimate”, even if it was legislated for in Parliament. That does not respect this House at all. I hope that even at this late stage the Minister will also engage more constructively with this House, its committees and its experienced Members, who we have heard from today, to respond more positively than hitherto on the major questions facing UK plc.