Brexit: Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration - Motion to Take Note (1st Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:36 pm on 5th December 2018.

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Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Chair, EU Internal Market Sub-Committee 4:36 pm, 5th December 2018

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine. Not for the first time, I agreed with much of what he said. However, I want to raise a very different point, which was alluded to by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, just now.

There has been reference to the work that this House has done since 2016 on producing its reports in great detail on the various aspects of the unravelling of the relationship between this country and the European Union. As of yesterday, and with the debate going on the House of Commons today, I can assure the House that none of that detailed work has the slightest relevance to the shenanigans in the House of Commons and the votes that are being taken this week. That underlines the fact that the politics operating here in Westminster are in a parallel universe to the expectations of the population outside.

The decisions of this House and its role in this whole period are limited. But let us be frank: the decisions that will be taken next week by the House of Commons are also very limited. To judge by the commentary in the press and the expectations of the public, they assume that the judgment on Mrs May’s deal is the key point at which we decide what our future is, and that all the questions that have arisen since Brexit will be answered one way or another by the acceptance, rejection or amendment of that deal. But that vote will do nothing of the kind. The only substantive element that we have before us is the withdrawal treaty, which is detailed and clear and has been the subject of drafting and redrafting over the past many months. But the political declaration that is determining our future was produced only about a month ago. It is very vague and grew from seven pages to 22 in about 10 days flat. Frankly, as the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, said just now, the way in which it is written is aspirational—there is hardly a “must” or a “will” in it; it all rests on the verbs “may” and “should”. This presents nothing to our people about how our future is going to develop.

The expectations among the electorate are that the vote will give such answers. But our exporters and importers will not know, on the basis of the decision on that document, on what basis they will be trading in future years, what the costs will be and what administrative and bureaucratic delays there will be in what was formerly frictionless trade. Our citizens will not know what rights they or their children will have in relation to movement within and between us and the European Union. Our workers will not know what rights they have over their jobs. As tourists, we will not know whether we will need to revert to international driving licences, change our insurance arrangements or, as tourists, rely on our health cards, as the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, said earlier.

Our farmers will not know on what terms their goods will be accepted within Europe, or Europe’s will be imported here, and therefore what their fortunes will be in the future. Our fishermen will not know whether they are still governed by quotas or have free access. Our police forces will not know what replaces the European arrest warrant. As the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, has just said, our scientists will not know on what basis collaboration and funding will operate for their work over the next few years. More immediately, our hauliers and travel operators by air, land and sea will not know the terms of their access once this decision has been taken. In other words, the issues that are most meaningful to our citizens and businesses will not be answered by this time next week.

The other dimension, which this dichotomy makes worse, is the fact that Brexit has already proved toxic within Britain and, to some extent, within Europe as a whole. It has divided our politicians and our major political parties. It has split families and it has divided north from south, city from countryside. It has revived secessionist tendencies within Scotland and threatens the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland—and dark forces of racism and worse have been released in and after the referendum. We are in dangerous political territory.

Meanwhile, this Parliament appears to the majority of our fellow citizens to be getting itself more and more convoluted and introverted in internal party and interparty matters. The result is growing frustration amongst Brexiteers and remainers alike that we should be getting on with it. As such, we are also seeing a move to support a no-deal exit. That is very dangerous territory indeed. The paradox, regrettably, is that actually we need more time to get this right. We need more time to get to a real deal that will substantially answer those questions and will be the basis for us going forward with our European partners.

To get a real deal that answers those real questions, we need to ask ourselves what happens next. There will be no answer to that, whether Mrs May is defeated or survives next week. We will not know what the basis of trade will be. We will not even know what the basis of our security arrangements will be. We need a few months more. It was folly of this Parliament to insert within British legislation the date of 29 March. Just a few more months would get us a lot further along the road. It would turn what is currently a very vague political declaration into one that my noble friend Lord Mendelsohn described earlier, with at least the heads of agreement so that people can understand the direction in which we are moving. We need that bit more time, yet the Government, the House of Commons and most of public opinion have set their face against finding more time.

I make a plea to Parliament—to the Government and to this House—that if we need more time and we need to reassure our population that we know where we are actually going, let us seek more time. Let us look at the possibility of other arrangements on trade, including the Norway option and others, and look at the implications of the likely judgment in Strasbourg and whether or not we need to put this back to the people. A little more time now would be well worth it, because Brexit may last forever.