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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:30 pm on 5th December 2018.

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Photo of Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve Crossbench 6:30 pm, 5th December 2018

My Lords, the lights may not be going out all over Europe—not quite—but the doors are closing, and we must be realistic when we look at what is going on. It makes it more bitter if one believes, as I do, that the doors are closing partly because we are pushing them closed, and that we may trap our own fingers in them—and, what is worse, our children’s fingers. That is the background.

Another way in which doors are closing is that the option of a second referendum does not look like a great solution. That is partly because we have moved into a new digital age in which democracy is under severe pressure owing to the corruption of the democratic process by digital technologies. We must be realistic about this. A number of recent books have educated me—and, I am sure, many others—about these realities. For example, there is Martin Moore’s Democracy Hacked, and the book by Jonathan Taplin with the marvellous title drawn from Mr Zuckerberg’s thought, Move Fast and Break Things, whose subtitle is How Google, Facebook and Amazon Have Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy. That is where we are, and anybody who thinks a second referendum can provide a remedy needs to address the corruption of electoral politics by digital technologies that we have so far failed to address.

I shall say no more about that, on which I am not expert, but I want to say a little about—as noble Lords will guess—the Irish border. There, again, we are not looking at the realities of the change going on. We have heard some notable speeches both today and on earlier occasions, including one from my noble friend Lord Bew, about customs and the movement of beasts, which I take to be a serious issue. Questions have been raised not just about which rules, but about who is enforcing the rules. That requires careful thought.

I want to say something about the movement of persons. There is plenty to be found in various documents, including the 24th report of your Lordships’ European Union Committee, which was published this morning, and government documents. There is plenty about the rights of EU citizens, but rather too little is said about the rights of British and Irish citizens, which are not just the generic rights of EU citizens, because they reflect the common travel area settlement of the 1920s. They are much more extensive rights, important to all of us. We have rights in one another’s countries more extensive than the Schengen rights that certain EU countries have agreed for their citizens in other countries—rights not merely to movement but to abode, to work and to vote. Irish citizens vote when they live here and British citizens vote when living in the Republic of Ireland.

It is unclear how well the Government’s proposals would protect those rights. I have repeatedly asked Ministers how those bundles of rights will be protected, and the answer I have typically received is, “People will have to show their passports”. That is all very well if someone possesses a passport, which not everybody does. It is probably a good answer if all we are concerned about is EU citizens who are not UK or Republic of Ireland citizens. They must have passports—that is how they get here. But we must think about people who may lack passports—and, what is more concerning, lack the means to acquire a passport, which will require, for example, knowledge of one’s place of birth, or some prior documentary evidence.

Not every family has the wherewithal to provide that information. People grow up in various circumstances. We do not have a system of ID cards. People live their lives without ID; they have not needed it, because they know they are British, or they know they are Irish, and they know they have the right to go to and fro across the Irish Sea by boat without passports, although planes are a different matter. When people suffer from a lack of clarity about their place of birth or their parentage—I think of the home for unwed mothers in Newry, County Down, where children were, let us say, distributed quite lavishly into various jurisdictions—or are not sure where they were registered, their access to passports is not automatic.

This morning on the BBC, many of your Lordships will have heard the story of a person born in Nigeria of British parents, whose father worked in the oil industry and who was registered as having been born there, but that registration was not accessible. That person spent nine years serving in the Armed Forces, but was denied a passport. This predicament should be familiar to us, because it is the Windrush predicament —the predicament of fellow citizens who are entitled but cannot demonstrate their entitlement.

Of course, this is not general: lots of people have a passport or know where their birth certificate can be found. But there are enough in the other case for that to need to be taken seriously. Denial of rights for lack of documentation is something the Government need to address. The complex family situations in which some people grow up mean that they cannot obtain the documentation, but they are citizens of these islands and they deserve to be protected by the common travel area arrangement, which is referenced but not, I think, thought through in the Government’s current documentation.