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My Lords, I congratulate the Prime Minister and his negotiating team on concluding a revised deal that many said he never wanted and many said he could never achieve.
The deal presents the House of Commons with a difficult decision. In its favour is the powerful point that to approve it would complete at least the first stage of Brexit, satisfy the public that Parliament is capable of deciding the central issue and present business with a degree of confidence as to what the future will look like. Against it is a range of arguments too familiar to bear repetition but with some new additions specific to this text: the aspiration for a merely standard free trade agreement with the EU, underlined by the downgrading of the level playing field from “binding treaty commitment” to “political declaration”, will cause other, less benign impediments to arise; the forms, permits, authorisations, licences, approvals, certificates and local representatives that will be required by exporters, transport operators and manufacturers; the revival of discriminatory and non-discriminatory host state barriers to cross-border service providers such as myself; and local requirements for migrants abroad, ranging from healthcare eligibility to driving tests and the transport of pets.
It would, in short, take us back to the days before my former boss, Commissioner Lord Cockfield, set fire to a thicket of precisely such red tape when he planned the completion of the internal market; a fine example of British influence in Europe, as the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, has just said.
The noble Lord, Lord Baker, in his elegant speech, said that Northern Ireland will have a unique opportunity to participate in the single markets of both the UK and the EU. At the moment, we all have that opportunity, and there will be a cost in losing it.
Other imponderables arise from the new text. In relation to Northern Ireland, there is the practicability, or otherwise, of the new and highly complex customs arrangements that are envisaged, perhaps permanently. More profoundly still are the possible consequences, to which several noble Lords have averted, for particular industrial sectors, not all of which, so far as I can see, have yet produced their own assessments of this deal. There are consequences for the economy as a whole, and most significantly of all, for the place of both Northern Ireland and Scotland in our union.
Nor do I find it as easy as some have done to say that the obvious answer is a people’s vote. That may yet turn out to be the only possible answer, but some will continue to see it as illegitimate. The political road that would have to be followed to achieve it will not be to everyone’s taste, and the public, as a number of noble Lords have said, are not in the mood for further delay. But it is precisely when others are impatient that it is most important for us to do our job methodically and well.
We in this House pride ourselves on our careful scrutiny of even quite small things. We expect the proposals that come before us to be costed and accompanied by impact assessments. Even inconsequential Bills are subject to careful assessment in Committee. Treaties are normally laid before Parliament for 21 days under the CRAG Act. We even have 14 days to decide whether we want to keep a dishwasher. Yet no impact assessments or technical explanations have been provided of this agreement, notwithstanding its extraordinary significance for our economy, our rights and even the continued existence of our union. The House of Commons has been given one day to review the withdrawal agreement, and nor has there been any proper time for our committees to scrutinise the withdrawal agreement Bill, which will surely be a substantial document with profound constitutional consequences.
As the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, said, we are here on a Saturday not because of a real emergency but because of a manufactured one. Let the letter be sent as a sensible precaution, one that is also required by law, and the necessary consideration be given—speedily, but without cutting corners—to the agreement and the Bill.
I have a final point. If the withdrawal agreement is approved on this or some future date, let us all, whatever our views, resolve to accept it and make the best of it.