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Brexit - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:34 pm on 25th March 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Ludford Baroness Ludford Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union) 9:34 pm, 25th March 2019

My Lords, I intend to be relatively brief. I hope I will be, not just because it is getting late, or because I have nothing new to say—the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen of Elie, teased me for saying that in our last debate—but because a lot has changed. It would take me a very long time to get out of my system what I really feel about the incompetent and partisan way that this Government have behaved in the last three years—with their red lines, their appeal only to leave voters, and their prioritising of unity within the Tory party, which does not seem to have been a great success. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Ricketts, who said that all of this has brought us to a state of national humiliation. We are in big trouble, as the noble Lord, Lord Trevethin and Oaksey, said.

One reason that I do not want to go on at too much length is because I agree with so many who spoke earlier in this debate, particularly the noble Lords, Lord Kerr, Lord Lord Hannay, Lord Kerslake and Lord Ricketts, and the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, and the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann. I was struck particularly by the mention of patriotism and of the colleagues of the father of the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake. It reminded me of the 97 year-old veteran who was at the march on Saturday. If I recall correctly, one of his tasks in the war was digging people out of the bomb-hit city of Coventry, but his conclusion from his wartime experience and the medals that he was awarded was to say “never again”. We must have the European Union to build peace, security and prosperity.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bridges of Headley, that fear of splitting the Conservative Party has been the guiding force over the last three years. Obviously, not being in the Tory party, I can only empathise, rather than share the pain that must be felt by relatively reasonable people within that party. The complete loss of Cabinet collective responsibility has been the most dismaying. The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, rightly highlighted the existence of a party within a party—the ERG. Obviously, if we had a decent electoral system, those people would have to stand under their own banner and not that of the Conservative Party.

As the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, highlighted, Saturday was a great day. It was good-humoured and well behaved; there was not a single incident that required the attention of the police, just like in October. Those commentators who said the mood was slightly different from that in October were probably right. It was very serious and determined, as well as enjoyable.

I was interested to hear Mark Field MP, who is a Minister, say that he could envisage supporting the revocation of Article 50. Perhaps that has to do with the high level of support in his constituency for the petition. Cleverer people than I have analysed those figures for all the constituencies; no doubt, there will be some very thoughtful MPs looking at those figures. In many cases, the number of those who signed the petition is greater than the majority that MPs enjoy.

The Prime Minister is showing contempt for both people and Parliament. She keeps invoking the will of the people but refuses to check whether, nearly three years on, with 1 million people marching, 5.5 million people petitioning to revoke Article 50, and polls showing a majority support for remain, their views have evolved. She allows herself so many bites at the cherry but she will not allow voters a single reassessment, which is quite arrogant. She also said she will take no notice of indicative votes, which continues her high-handed attitude towards the House of Commons. The noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, and as my noble friend Lady Smith of Newnham both stressed that the 2016 referendum result is not a mandate for what is happening now on Brexit. No one could possibly have wanted to arrive in this situation. It should not be a problem to ask voters whether this still represents their views. Surely the people’s vote has to be between whatever deal MPs agree and remain. To those who say that no deal would need to be on the ballot paper, I ask this: what is no deal? What does it consist of? How do you describe it? I really do not think that that is a runner.

If Brexiters are so sure that leave would still win—and I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Green of Deddington, that if it did, that would be the end of it, perhaps for a generation—they should have no problem holding another referendum. What are they afraid of? We need a long enough extension of Article 50—for four or five months, say—to allow a people’s vote.

I believe that a lot of leave voters were protesting against the system in 2016, and most of that protest had nothing whatever to do with the EU. I do not deny that immigration was a factor, although three years on it has become less of a factor. But I say to the noble Lord, Lord Green, that any consideration of continuing free movement must be looked at in the round, along with the fact that British citizens are being denied free movement and the opportunities they expected to have, particularly young people and those who wanted to retire to, for example, France or Spain. It is a two-way street and we need to look at it entirely in the round, as well as reflecting the huge contribution that EU citizens make to this country, not just economically but socially and culturally.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, that we need to focus on post Brexit, but we might define that term differently. I mean that, even if it is only clinging on to nurse for fear of something worse, we should remain in the EU; I think he means we should exit and then deal with all the other problems. There are so many crucial needs in this country. One of the tragedies of the past three years is how all our energy, capacity and thinking have been taken up by Brexit. I feel that myself. When I left the European Parliament, I was really hoping to do things other than EU affairs—I do have other interests, as it happens—but this has been a straitjacket from which it has been difficult to escape. But of course we will have less money to pursue those other things, whether it is social care, decent housing, better skills training or youth services. Talk to anybody in the area of knife crime and you will learn that it is not just the police but the lack of money for schools and youth services which is totally undermining the ability to deal with that terrible problem. By post Brexit, therefore, I mean once the country has liberated itself from this disastrous exercise.

I apologise that I have not been as brief as I thought I would be. I am grateful that the Prime Minister confirmed that the extension knocks out the 29 March date. She may be right that there would be legal confusion about the UK’s ability to implement EU law, but we would still be in the EU because of the European Council decision on the extension. Can the Minister confirm that in fact the repeal of the European Communities Act under Section 1 of the EU withdrawal Act has not been brought into force yet, the same as the repeal of the European Parliamentary Elections Act? An SI is needed for that, and that SI has not gone through, and so the European Communities Act is still in force.

I am also pleased that the Prime Minister’s announcement today, on 25 March, marks the anniversary of the treaty of Rome. There seems to be something significant about this coincidence. Can the Minister clarify the categorisation of the European Council decision as “international law”? Surely it is EU law, unless I have missed something.

Unfortunately, the Prime Minister has not in fact ruled out no deal. I am afraid that that is an illustration of her tendency to be not entirely straight and somewhat manipulative. On one side, she said that no deal had been ruled out but on the other that it had not. She said, “Let me be clear”, then was nothing of the sort. I agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, that the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, needs to clarify whether she really meant that no deal could be chosen only by an affirmative process.

The noble Lords, Lord Kerslake and Lord Cormack, reminded us that no deal would have a catastrophic effect. One thinks particularly of people with serious medical conditions such as epilepsy or cancer or who are having dialysis, who are terrified. You see this all the time on social media. Some of them are unable to get their supplies now. What will happen is frightening. It is unbelievable that any Government would impose this fear and anxiety on their citizens.