Brexit: Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:37 pm on 9th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Steel of Aikwood Lord Steel of Aikwood Liberal Democrat 5:37 pm, 9th January 2019

My Lords, exactly three weeks ago today as I was leaving the House to go home for the Christmas Recess I passed three people sleeping in our entrance to the Underground station. It was reported next day that one of these had died in the night—on our own doorstep! That typified for me the paralysis of the Government over these last two years, as they have had to concentrate on dealing with the complicated lunacy of Brexit. Homelessness, the delays in the NHS, the chaos on our railways, the shortage of teachers in our schools, even the lack of legislation to deal with drones, and so many other issues, have had to be neglected while every department of government struggles with the consequences and divisions of Brexit.

In one of our debates at the end of last year, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, told us that it was for Parliament to assert itself and get things sorted out. It could, for example, revoke Article 50. He is of course correct, but that is one option over which the Commons should hesitate, because it would mean Parliament contradicting the referendum result. That is why, although like the late Paddy Ashdown I was initially doubtful, I have come around to the view that a people’s vote is necessary to take that decision. I do not for one moment believe the scaremongers about civil unrest, provided that we hand it back to the people to decide whether, in the light of all the realities, they really wish to leave the European Union.

As my noble friend Lord Newby and the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, have pointed out, all the opinion polls suggest not only that the public want that but that they feel they were misled by the meretricious campaign in 2016. As the novelist Robert Harris rather graphically put it, we should,

“hand the screaming, defecating, vomiting baby back to its parents – the electorate”,

because a second referendum is the least bad way of clearing up the current mess.

If there is another referendum, it should be conducted properly by politicians across party on both sides as in 1975, when I was actively involved. It should be accompanied by stricter financial controls. One of the distressing features of our democracy in recent years is the extent to which it is aping America in coming under the improper influence of billionaires.

The Government should also announce the appointment of a Cabinet Minister for Europe to oversee reforms of bureaucracy and to seek more accountability. Is it not ludicrous that over the last two years we have had several Cabinet Ministers for Exiting the EU but never one for staying in and getting on with the job?

In the light of the last referendum result, the Government should also pledge themselves to remedying the real grievances in parts of the country that have felt neglected over many years. Above all we need to realise that, in a world where China, Russia and the USA are all exercising their muscles, now is not the time to be leaving an economic alliance that guarantees our future.