My Lords, I thank the Minister for enabling this debate and for his careful consideration of all the contributions from both sides of this House. We know that emotions run deep and that, with divisions in every party clearly manifesting themselves, this has ceased to be a party-aligned issue, but I hope to add my voice to those who are conscious of the enormity of this historic moment.
Some have argued that the future holds nothing but economic ruin, some fear an economic flatlining or stagnation, and others still believe in the sunlit uplands of global trade if only we could get to the other side of Brexit. The reality, if we are honest, is that none of us has walked this way before and no one really knows what will happen when we leave the European Union. But most of us know this is a path we need to walk in some way, shape or form and that all our debates are focused on finding the best way possible that delivers continued social and economic prosperity for a nation with such a remarkable history.
The vote to leave the European Union was a bold, surprising and unequivocal statement by millions of people who wanted to change the political, economic, and social status quo. It was a moment in time, as far as they were concerned, a rational choice, when those who had not felt heard by the establishment, or by many of us even in this Chamber, expressed their desire to take back control: control of their wages, public services and borders and of this nation’s sovereignty. I am afraid that I have to disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Wrigglesworth.
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For many, the debates we have here about all that could be lost hold little or no sway. As far as they are concerned, much has already been lost. It is important that we take time to hear and understand these perspectives and that our withdrawal agreement honours their concerns—about their wages, the security of their homes and access to public services. This was not a minority group; it was 52% of those who voted and we have to hear their concerns. The withdrawal agreement needs to be right for the whole country: honouring the concerns of those who voted leave and those who voted remain, and delivering a strong foundation for economic and social prosperity for future generations. The Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement addresses a number of the structural and economic issues raised by the vote. For these reasons it achieves some of the Brexit objectives, so I will support it, although I suspect that a final step may still be needed if it is to pass in the other place.
But there are issues that the withdrawal agreement cannot and does not address; there is a deeper malaise to be treated, deeply linked to job insecurity, and access to housing, education and healthcare. If we are truly to change how people’s lives feel to them at present, while leaving the EU is a critical first step, the vote must also trigger wider reform, a better and clearer vision of social justice and significantly greater social cohesion. These issues should be as strongly and as passionately debated by Members of this House as any withdrawal agreement.
In light of the Brexit vote, we have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to reshape public policy so that it genuinely helps those who feel they have little stake in society, and to respond directly to the concerns that surfaced in the referendum. In years to come the EU referendum will be seen as a turning point in Britain’s long history. Depending on what we do next, it could simply be remembered as the moment we finally agree a withdrawal agreement and progress towards exiting the European Union: a moment of political process, a technical adjustment to the UK’s relationship with Europe. If that is the case, we will have failed. Instead, we must listen with compassion and humility to those who desperately wish for another way. As political leaders, our duty is to provide the wisdom and courage required to move towards a new settlement for Britain, not to keep alive old and current divides; there is then the hope of prosperity and social justice for all, and of a United Kingdom.