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Brexit - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:38 pm on 2nd October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Dubs Lord Dubs Labour 7:38 pm, 2nd October 2019

My Lords, I followed many of the speeches in this debate with interest, and I am delighted to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, and to say a few words. Whichever side of the divide you are on, the country is going through enormous pain. The country is suffering. Public discourse has become nasty. We are putting ourselves through a lot of torment. If we are to do that, there has to be good reason for it. I was not present for all the debate but, although many points have been made, I have heard little about why we are going through this pain and what the benefit is. The only argument seems to be that there was a referendum; therefore, we must go along with it. What is the benefit to this country? How will we be better off as a result of the pain we are inflicting on ourselves? During the war there was pain. We knew why; we willingly took the pain because we wanted this country to survive and we wanted to put down the nasty dictators—the Nazis—who were threatening the peace of Europe and this country. That pain was worth while, but today the pain seems to be for no particularly good purpose.

Many of us who support remain will be the first to say that of course the EU is not perfect. We could go through a list of faults, but on balance it is better for us to be in than out. I do not hear many people who advocate leave saying that there is anything good about the EU. They regard it as absolutely the sum of all evil that is possible.

When we passed the European Union (Withdrawal) Act, I moved an amendment, which was passed, to say that family reunion for refugees should remain under the terms of the Dublin treaty even after we have left the EU. At that point we all assumed that we would leave on the basis of a deal and we would therefore protect that family reunion provision. I ask the Minister: if we leave without a deal, will the Government still consider incorporating whatever agreement we have with the EU in the future on a no-deal basis and that family reunion for child refugees will still be possible?

Yesterday evening I attended a function organised by the Multiple Sclerosis Society. There was a lot of discussion about the implications of Brexit. There were some academics doing research into MS and other neurological conditions who were very concerned. I will quote some of the figures I was given. UCL benefits to the extent of £150 million to £200 million-worth of EU grants. Many other leading universities get the same benefit. Some 30% of the academic staff are from the EU and between 20% and 30% of students are from the EU. When they finish their studies they often stay here and make an important contribution to our academic life. All these things are in danger. The Minister shakes his head. I was talking to academics yesterday evening and this is what they said to me. If events prove me wrong, they prove me wrong.

I turn to Northern Ireland. I was privileged to be a junior Minister there at the time of the Good Friday agreement and beyond. I do not think that there is anything in the Government’s proposals that will save the situation. I believed all along that even if one was a leaver, which I was not, there was one argument for voting remain, which is Northern Ireland, because the problem is insoluble in any terms that will protect the peace and well-being of Northern Ireland and the Republic. We are jeopardising something fragile and long argued for, which was achieved as a great success and resulted in thousands of lives being saved between then and now. Yet we are endangering it. It was John Hume, a great Northern Ireland politician and statesman, who said that the European Union was the most successful peace process in world history. He was right.

I went with a Select Committee to Dover about a year ago looking at the traffic from Calais. We were told in Dover that to clear a container from within the EU takes between two and four minutes. To clear a container from outside the EU takes on average one and a quarter hours. When I have put it to leavers and said, “What are you going to do about that?”, I am told, “We can solve it”. That is always the answer: “We can solve it, we can solve Northern Ireland”. When I ask how, we are never given any of the arguments. Dover will come to a halt, which is why the motorways in Kent are all ready for a stacking operation and why there are portaloos being put all over the motorway so that when the lorry drivers are stuck there all night they can use them. Yet we are jeopardising all that. It will take us years to disentangle ourselves from the EU even if we proceed down this particular path.

I believe in a new, further referendum because I trust the people of Britain to have their say. I do not think what was decided three years ago was based upon the facts made available. I believe that a lot of people in this country voted as they did because they felt left out by the political system and by political parties, and they had not been given the chance to have their say. They voted to a large extent for that reason; the other reason was immigration. I believe a new referendum is perfectly justified and a perfectly democratic thing to do. I regret that the people most affected by the decision to leave are the young people—the 16 year-olds—the EU people living here, and British people living in the EU. All three of those groups did not have any chance at all to have their say.

I do not think that take it or leave it is a negotiating position. It is a shabby way of proceeding. People say that Parliament is divided. The country is divided and it is not surprising that Parliament and the Commons are divided. The only way to deal with this is to have a referendum and say to the people, “Tell us again what you think”. I believe that they will have changed their minds between 2016 and now.