My Lords, in the two and a half years since the referendum, debate has continued on the relative merits of possible withdrawal options. That we are still debating these derives from the huge complexity of Brexit, driven in part by the triggering of Article 50 too early, and the Prime Minister’s decision to define unhelpful red lines equally early.
People did not vote in the referendum to become poorer. Nor can it be concluded that because a majority voted to leave the EU, those voting to do so wanted a hard Brexit or no deal. They were repeatedly told that they could have a soft Brexit, and many voted for just that. The result of that referendum was that advice was given to Parliament to negotiate a withdrawal. That advice was for Parliament, not just the Executive. It is, therefore, within the right of MPs to take greater control of the process. They were, after all, elected in 2017, a year after the referendum was held—so they do have that right.
Just before the Christmas Recess, the Government published their immigration White Paper. This is the much-delayed White Paper which was supposedly going to explain how the Government plan to bring down net immigration to the low levels promised by the Prime Minister in response to the referendum result. Yet, as the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, pointed out in this Chamber at the time,
“far from reducing immigration, it is very likely that it will actually increase net migration, and might increase it considerably”.—[
It seems that reality has dawned on the Government. The need for immigration to this country simply reflects the economic reality of the world we live in. Immigration has driven much of UK growth in recent years, and through that, growth in tax revenues for public spending. We cannot have a strong, entrepreneurial economy, should Brexit go ahead, without immigration and large numbers of international students in our universities.
Then there is the construction industry. The Federation of Master Builders has said that the Government will fail to deliver their commitment to building 300,000 homes per year unless the White Paper is substantially rewritten. While I am at one with those who say that we must invest far more in the training of British workers, rather than simply relying on a labour force from outside the UK, I also acknowledge the economic reality that retirements within the construction industry are significantly outstripping the number of new apprenticeships. If we are to build the homes the country so urgently needs we have to have the labour force to do it.
I will comment briefly on the impact of a no-deal Brexit on the north-east of England, where I live. At the end of November, the Government admitted that the north-east of England will be poorer because of Brexit. With no deal, the economy would be 10% smaller than it would have been. With the deal proposed, growth would be 2% lower. But, for me, the critical issue remains as it was in 2016, relating to the future willingness of overseas investors to invest their money in regions of England—or, indeed, across the whole of the UK—when we are outside the single market. When overseas investors can invest outside the UK to stay inside the single market, why would they choose to be inside the United Kingdom? I have come to the conclusion that a no-deal Brexit would be catastrophic. We know what the Japanese Government’s advice has been in recent days. We know of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders’ warnings in recent weeks.
Then there are the universities. Universities in the north-east of England attract large numbers of EU students, yet the number of EU students registering now seems to be declining across the United Kingdom. Then there is the impact on world-leading research in our universities, often the result of collaboration and partnership across the EU. We must not lose access to this funding. It helps regional economies, as does the £400 million that the north-east of England is receiving in the current period from EU structural funding, for which there are no guarantees of continuation after 2020. Given that 57% of north-east trade goes to the EU compared with only 40% nationally, and given that 140,000 north-east jobs are reliant on EU trade, it matters to the region that we stay in the single market and the customs union—the frictionless trading structure we were promised and need.
The World Bank has warned that no deal would be a risk to economies across the world. The Bank of England has warned that no deal would lead to the worst crash in the UK since the 1930s. Should we believe gung-ho Brexiters who believe that leaving the EU will be easy, or should we listen to the director-general of the CBI, who said in Bristol last week:
“Make no mistake, no-deal cannot be ‘managed’”?
I choose the advice of the CBI.
We might find this week that the House of Commons has no majority for any of the options in front of it. I conclude that that means we should seek to extend Article 50 as a matter of urgency and that we will need a people’s vote, because parliamentary gridlock will have to be overcome.