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Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:28 pm on 16th October 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Quin Baroness Quin Labour 5:28 pm, 16th October 2019

My Lords, the Queen’s Speech this year was perhaps the strangest one that I have experienced since I entered the House of Commons in 1987. In some ways, it seemed a very odd occasion, with a Government that do not have a majority bringing forward a programme that does not seem to be implementable and a Government, moreover, which have been at odds with Parliament over the illegal Prorogation as well as over one of the central aspects of their Brexit policy. Indeed, the speech read a bit like an election pitch, and I almost wondered whether the whole occasion should perhaps be charged to the Conservatives’ election campaign.

We have heard a couple of very interesting speeches, which makes me want to apologise, like the noble Lord, Lord Butler, for bringing us back to Brexit. We are all grateful in particular to the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, for bringing in so many important foreign policy issues on which we ought to be concentrating, and I certainly hope we have that opportunity in the future. None the less, I do want to speak about Brexit, partly because it is the crucial issue and partly because I was not able to speak in our most recent debate on the subject, on 2 October, which I felt was a remarkable debate marked by some great speeches and some deep knowledge.

In the debate on the Queen’s Speech on Monday, the Leader of the House said that the views of the House of Lords were very important to the Government and to our political system. I would that this Government and their immediate predecessor had taken much more note of the views of the clear majority of this House on the Brexit issue. At the moment, we are all trying to focus on what is happening, on whether or not there will be a deal in the next few days, and what the nature of the deal will be. Will it be as good as Mrs May’s deal? Will it be as good as the deal that we have now? The signs are not very promising.

There are also a lot of questions about timing. Is a deal practicable by 31 October? What about the translation of texts and all the legal processes that have to be gone through? Yesterday, from the Front Bench, my noble friend Lady Hayter raised the question of the provisions of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act, and I hope the Minister will respond to the point that she raised. If there is a deal, what do the Government envisage as a transition period? Originally, we asked for a two-year transition period and the EU offered us 20 months. What do the Government now envisage? Do they envisage a 20-month transition or, say, just 14 months, which would go on to the end of December 2020? We should be grateful if the Government could clarify this.

I am glad to see that the Minister the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, is in his place, because I would like to refer to some of the points he mentioned yesterday which rather alarmed me. He gave a wildly optimistic picture of striking new trade arrangements, helping UK businesses to expand into new markets and maintaining the UK’s leading position as,

“the number one destination in Europe for foreign direct investment”.—[Official Report, 15/10/19; col.37.]

How easy is that going to be while we are exiting the EU and not being part of its single market or customs union?

As regards trade figures, while I am a great fan of India as a country, none the less we export twice as much to Belgium as we do to India. Great play is often made by the Government of seeking new markets, particularly in China. Germany already exports five times as much to China as we do, and it does not need to have left the European Union in order to do that. Why is the European Union apparently such a barrier to expanding our trade?

I was also concerned about the comments on freedom —that, somehow, we will be able to set our own rules and follow without influence. I do not understand how we will continue to export to the European Union unless we adopt their standards of consumer safety, environmental protection and so forth. Some of the freedom that has been talked about seems entirely illusory and worse than that because we will lose our influence in setting those rules. In recent years, industry has made the point very strongly to me that, within the single market, British industry has been very influential in setting the rules and the agenda. I was particularly impressed by the evidence that the Creative Industries Federation gave to me on that subject.

I am also alarmed about the effect on my own area in the north-east of England. Government figures for the past three years show that that part of the country will be more dramatically affected than anywhere else. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, shares my passion for the north-east of England, but I do not understand how the north-east will flourish if the government figures are anything like accurate for the next few years. That worries me a great deal. When we talk about foreign direct investment, we know that a lot of that investment is linked to the fact that we are part of the European single market. Indeed, Nissan made that position very clear in recent days. That also worries me a great deal.

As well as being very concerned about trading issues, I am also deeply concerned about the consequences for the future of our union if we go down the Brexit approach that we have been pursuing. I do not know the details of the latest proposals for a deal. Some people have said that it means re-erecting a border in the Irish Sea. I hope that that is not the case. But the arrangement that we have at the moment suits the economies of both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. To change that situation is something that we do at our peril. I worry about the future of Northern Ireland and the peace process as a result of this. I also worry about some of the other measures that the Government have been proposing. For example, how would the immigration Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech that aims to end freedom of movement affect the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic? I would like an answer to that question from the Government.

I am also very concerned about the situation in Scotland. I say that with some emotion. I feel British rather than English, having both English and Scottish forebears—and indeed some Irish forebears, come to that. I campaigned ardently for Better Together in the referendum campaign and I live in Northumberland, not far from the border. The thought of that becoming an international border in the future fills me with absolute dismay. Again, if there were an independent Scotland with its own immigration policy, I do not see how you could avoid some sort of border control in that circumstance, which would be tragic given the history of our union and the fact that so many people, like me, have mixed heritage and therefore a British loyalty rather than simply a loyalty to a country of the UK.

I would like to see the choice given back to the people. I do not like referendums. As far as I know, I have never actually voted in a referendum during my time in Parliament. None the less, the logic of it seems to me that if people had the vote at the beginning of this process, they ought to have the vote on the final option. I do not think it would be particularly easy for either side to win that referendum, so I certainly do not approach it feeling that there would necessarily be a foregone conclusion, but it makes sense.

However, a lot of nonsense is still being talked about the first referendum. The Government frequently say that it was the biggest democratic exercise in our history. My understanding is that that is not correct. There was a bigger turnout in the 1992 general election, and I think more people actually voted in that election, even though the population of the UK was smaller then than now. If we go back even further in time, the turnout was greater also in the 1945 election, so the claim that it was the biggest democratic exercise does not hold water. Also, the result was very narrow and two parts of our union, Northern Ireland and Scotland, both voted remain. That provides a lot of difficulties for the future.

I also hear the argument being made repeatedly that, “Oh, it was in the parties’ manifestos in the 2017 general election, so we must honour the result of the referendum”, but the Government did not win an overall majority as a result of that election. My own part did not win either, so the electorate hardly gave a ringing endorsement to the manifesto of any party in that election. I think the people should be allowed to think again. The idea that we can just say to them “Well, you’ve thought once, but we will never allow you to think again” does not make any sense to me whatever.

As someone who knocked on a lot of doors during the referendum campaign—I will not be alone in this—some issues, such as the Northern Ireland one, were never mentioned at all on the doorstep, even though that issue has taken up so much of the debating time in this House subsequently, and quite rightly so. For all those reasons, the people should be asked to have a think again about it and give their view. We will have to live with the result, which might be one that I will like, but it might be one that I will not. In the meantime, I wish those marching this weekend on 19 October every success. The previous march was a huge success in calling for a people’s vote and I hope that this one will be equally successful.

My final comment is a plea: if we do exit at the end of October or shortly afterwards, I hope we will not enter some phase whereby those on the leave side will be triumphalist about this situation. I was shocked that Jacob Rees-Mogg should talk about “remainiacs”, as he did this week. I am also shocked by some of the language that is being used. I was shocked, perhaps not surprisingly, by a tweet from Nigel Farage, which showed a photograph of a large number of union jacks flying outside Parliament. It said:

“Share this photo to wind a Remainer up”.

As a remainer, I am not wound up by the sight of the union jack. I am proud of it, it is our flag and it belongs to the whole country. I think the false patriotism that is being expounded by some people in this debate is absolutely contemptible.

We all care about the future of our country and the future of the parts of the country which we come from, so I hope that, whatever the outcome, triumphalism will be avoided. If my side won in another referendum and we stayed in the European Union, I can assure Members of this House that I would not be triumphalist. I might heave a huge sigh of relief, but I hope then I would be able to go on and tackle some of the other great issues of the day along with colleagues in this House—issues which have been raised in this debate—and look all together at the challenges and opportunities for our country as we move forward.