Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
My Lords, I shall say a few words as chair of the Constitution Committee and then make a few personal comments on how I see the current situation.
Noble Lords will recall the very positive role that the Constitution Committee played in making the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill more fit for purpose. It was not presented to this House as a good Bill but it left us in a far better state. Indeed, many of our recommendations for improvements to the Bill, on such issues as the status of retained EU law, delegated powers and devolution, were taken on board, through government amendments, and I think the Government accepted in the end that our constructive criticism had been helpful and had changed certain things.
Likewise, we will aim to be constructive in any comments that we make when we look at the withdrawal agreement Bill. To this end, I have written as chair of the Constitution Committee to the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, to ask that all, or as much as possible, of the Bill be presented in draft at an early stage so that everyone in both Houses can have as much sight of it as possible to try to make sure that it is given the proper scrutiny that it will undoubtedly deserve—assuming, of course, that we get that Bill.
The Constitution Committee does not have a view on the withdrawal agreement, nor does it have a view on Brexit, so I will turn to some personal remarks and my thoughts on the present situation.
First, the Leader of the Opposition in this House was right to emphasise that it is for the House of Commons to determine the way forward on this matter. Yes, we can say what we think, but it has the ultimate responsibility—and it is a very big responsibility—of determining the way forward. Secondly, I appreciate the dilemma that my colleagues and, indeed, friends in the Commons are facing at present. I had for many years the privilege of representing seats in the House of Commons, first the constituency in which I grew up and then the consistency next door to where I live now. They were both in the north of England and were both areas that voted leave quite heavily. They are both areas that have been hit hard by losing industry and jobs and by austerity.
Like many colleagues and others who have said this today, I have spoken to many people on both sides of this debate over weeks, months and years. I voted remain, but I do not believe that we can ignore the votes of people who voted leave. I respect the decision of the referendum, even if I do not like it, and I acknowledge that the Government and the Prime Minister have tried to implement the referendum result. Actually, I do not think we can hold the Prime Minister to account for the ridiculous and reckless promises made by many in the leave campaign. Those who suggested that leaving would be easy, quick and painless have done a real injustice to the people they purport to represent.
When I voted remain, I thought that Brexit would make this country poorer and would create many problems, including those discussed today and the very real problem in Northern Ireland. There is no satisfaction for any of us in saying that we have been proved right. I share many of the concerns and complaints made about the way in which the referendum was conducted and the outrageous claims made at that time, but—and this is a big “but”—I must part company with those remainers who want a second referendum with the express purpose of overturning the result of the first. I do not think that is a valid position. At the last election, both of the main political parties said in their manifestos that they accepted and respected the result of the referendum. Parliament triggered the process for withdrawal, despite probably a majority of people in both Houses being worried about the outcome. I am concerned about what might happen if we have a second referendum. What could the result be? If the result were to be 52% to 48% in favour of remain, would the leavers be content? If the result were the same as last time, on what grounds are we remaining—this deal or another deal? If we have three questions on the ballot paper, what happens if all are rejected? The real problem is what happens in the meantime to business, investment and our economy.
My increasing concern at this stage is how we deal with the causes of the Brexit vote. I worry about the loss of confidence among those who have lost jobs, lost communities, face austerity, worry that their children will never afford a home of their own and worry about their care in old age. The referendum vote was not a simple 100% pro or anti-EU vote. It was for some, but for others who voted leave it was an expression of frustration, lack of trust and an “anti the expert” view. They felt that they were detached from decision-makers and excluded from the advances that so many others had made.
The nature of economic and social change over recent years has been dramatic. In the recent Budget debate, the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, gave a brilliant analysis of what is happening at the moment. We heard from the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, and others about the social problems just yesterday in this debate. These are real, and my concern is that any delay will make them worse.
When I read today that the Government are thinking of having cross-party talks, a cross-party committee and cross-party co-operation—the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, touched on this—about the next steps, I just wished that that had happened earlier. If Keir Starmer or someone like him had been involved in these negotiations, not only might we have got a better result, we would have had a different political climate. I hope that, somehow, that becomes the way forward.