European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 6) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:03 pm on 5th September 2019.

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Photo of Lord Lea of Crondall Lord Lea of Crondall Labour 4:03 pm, 5th September 2019

My Lords, just over a week ago, Ministers started to backtrack on an important announcement made by the Prime Minister two weeks previously that he would respond to Angela Merkel on his alternative way of dealing with matters raised by the necessity of the backstop. That necessity is that there needs to be some way of continuing the internal market and customs union in the context of the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. A week today, when we will not be here, will be the red-letter day for the reply that the Prime Minister has promised to give Angela Merkel. Does the Minister still expect such a reply to be given, or is this another of those commitments that disappears into thin air after a few days of media?

What could the Prime Minister have said, or could still say? It is logical, and in line with the provisions of the Bill, which I think will undoubtedly be enacted, that another way of looking at the backstop question should be seriously considered. It is as follows: that in order that we have no border on the island of Ireland, therefore, on both sides of that border, there is common membership of the single market and the customs union. Some people in Northern Ireland then say, “But there could be a dotted-line boundary in the Irish Sea”, to which the answer is that the whole of the British Isles needs to stay in the internal market and the customs union. By the way, that was very near to being adopted by the House of Commons, but at the time there was competition between two or three similar alternatives. People say with a degree of vehemence, “Of course, there is no consensus in the House of Commons for anything remotely like that”, but that has not actually been tested in the House of Commons recently.

That would also deal with the key question posed on many doorsteps in this country along the lines of, “What have the Romans ever done for us?”. We in the trade union movement—I was heavily involved in this in the TUC—know that with an internal market, it is essential that you have a way to deal with undercutting by anyone competing with us who is a member of the internal market. The answer to that, given by Jacques Delors in 1988, was collective bargaining at a higher level, so there is an understanding, an undertaking, by qualified majority voting if necessary, on the baker’s dozen of important rights for part-time workers, and so on—I will not enumerate them now. None of that will be possible without the guarantees which can alone be given by staying in the internal market.

That is one of the things that the Romans have done for us, and I ask the Minister to confirm what he has said previously in a slightly different context: “Yes, we will give those guarantees”, but how can we believe government guarantees? Therefore, we need the whole of the British Isles to stay in the customs union and the internal market.