Brexit: Stability of the Union - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:05 pm on 17th January 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Wales) 2:05 pm, 17th January 2019

My Lords, I rise to speak immediately after a Welshman and sitting directly under the magisterial presence of another one whose speech beguiled us and perhaps raised the level of our thinking to a noble vision of what can be achieved if the will is there.

This time last year, I was cutting my teeth in the brutal world of politics, of which I had no experience whatever, out of my depth, swimming against the tide and trying hard to understand what was happening in what was then the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. What a place to begin to familiarise yourself with due process. It is process that I would like to concentrate upon, picking up on remarks that have been made from around the Chamber about how we go about taking forward a discussion of issues as complex as this. I will not repeat things that have been said in varying ways, although I will want to begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane—a good Welsh place of origin, if I may say so; I can recommend a lovely place for us to eat together some time when I visit there—for raising our sights. We have all been groping around in the dark and plodding along a path whose destination at this stage we have not yet identified, but he has raised our sights and reminded us that, when all this trouble and strife is over, there is going to be a world waiting to be recreated, relationships that have to be mended and an ongoing story that has to be told.

My clear remembrance of some of the discussions a year ago on the withdrawal Bill, Clause 11 in particular, gives me the substance of what I want to share now. When Clause 11 appeared in that proposed legislation, it showed just how out of touch the Government were. Instantly there rose to arms the Law Society, the Hansard Society, the Bar Council and the Constitution Committee of your Lordships’ House—all of them indicating that it simply could not work. For a long time, having promised us a resolution of the contradictions that had been identified, the Government were not forthcoming with a suggested alternative. It was on Report, as many will remember, that eventually things in fact got rewritten.

The changes were so radical that the original now is lost and for the attention of archaeologists in a thousand years’ time—but the basic element within it was there was a spirit of compromise in order to reach the new Clause 11. I remember working with David Lidington, Mark Drakeford and Michael Russell, all of us trying our hardest to give our attention to the document on restructuring Wales, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Wigley. It was the work of Steffan Lewis, whose memory I too want to honour. This remarkable young man gave us a White Paper showing a negotiating position within six months of the referendum. Is that not what the national Government should have been giving us—material to work with?

As the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill said, that negotiating position was formulated before red lines were drawn. We might have had to come to that, but this was open and embracing. We looked at that, recognising that, in the eventual Clause 11, consideration would have to be given to all those areas where commonalities cross borders. We recognised that, out of the 120 or so areas, over 100 could be managed quite easily with existing modalities, mechanisms and arrangements. There were 20 or so that would need special frameworks within which we would have to sort things out—and we pledged to achieve that. We recognised that the Joint Ministerial Council, to which the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, referred, was really down on its uppers. Nobody was happy with it. The splendid briefing paper we received from the Library mentions the need to beef that up. It needs to be beefed up; it does not have to be second-rate people coming along to it in a spirit of boredom and ennui.

So there we were, discussing, negotiating and coming forward with something which the Government were eventually pleased to put into their legislation. That methodology has been missing from the rest of the discussions between—what is it?—London and Brussels, the European Union and the United Kingdom, or a few individuals centred in No. 10, Chequers or wherever. When the agreement was eventually published, with its accompanying policy document, it made no mention of either Wales or Scotland. The die was cast. That document came out of an entirely different set of preconsiderations. Nobody had been consulted. There was no room for compromise. I do not know how you make your way forward when that is the spirit that has produced the working documents that will affect the future of this country well into the years ahead.

We just have to express our confidence in the methodology used by those who worked on that Bill a year ago, showing that it can be done. David Lidington in the Cabinet Office was magnificent and accommodating; he put his officials at our disposal, checked things for us and looked for extra information. It was an exercise in how to negotiate—which, from my reading at a distance of all that has happened on the official front, has been entirely absent. So here we are. What have we learned? We have learned that because the agreement is so at odds with everything that the restructuring Wales document was about, the Welsh Assembly felt obliged to reject absolutely everything that has come forward through the other channel. We are now in a very difficult place indeed. Scotland will have its own stance and so will Northern Ireland.

What do I read while sitting here enjoying this feast of oratory, rhetoric and wisdom that the House of Lords is famous for? Some of us look at our phones now and again to see what is happening in the real world outside, and I see that the spokesperson for the Prime Minister has said that she is entering into discussions with senior politicians from other parties with “no change” in her basic principles. There will be no market that we can all belong to. There will be no bending of those principles that we have heard ad nauseam. In a Statement made in the other place on Monday, the Prime Minister herself promised, as a concessionary point to the people of Ireland, that they would have a place at the negotiating table as this agreement was taken forward after we left the Union. Well, congratulations to Northern Ireland—but what about Scotland and Wales? What about the discussions on which will depend the ethos and timbre of the kind of country we are when the Brexit thing is behind us? We have had a deplorable lack of consultation. This debate has proved, again and again from various parts of the House, just what might have been done differently. The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, paid tribute to the qualities of the Minister, and it is now up to him to live up to those remarks.