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European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:13 pm on 13th January 2020.

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Photo of The Bishop of Leeds The Bishop of Leeds Bishop 4:13 pm, 13th January 2020

My Lords, I look forward to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Barwell, for whom I had great respect when we served together in Croydon some years ago. I think it is important that old arguments are not rerun in this debate: wherever one stands in relation to the 2016 referendum and subsequent debates, we are now where we are. I suspect, however, that it remains important for certain matters of principle to be rearticulated even at this stage, as the record will need to be clear when the history comes to be written, not least regarding the wisdom of writing into law hard deadlines for an implementation period. Do we not have anything to learn from recent history?

I believe it is essential to refute the charge that Parliament stopped Brexit happening. It did not. Parliament did its job and performed its democratic role, fulfilling its responsibility to question, scrutinise and hold the Executive to account. That might be inconvenient to “getting the job done”, but that phrase, widely propagated by people who know very well what they are doing, adds a lie to a lie. Countries where parliament simply nods to the executive’s will are not generally respected as paragons of democratic virtue or freedom. This is the basic reason why amendments will be tabled this week to the Bill as received by this House. The other place might well have the numbers to ignore this House, but it remains this House’s responsibility to make the points, raise the arguments and urge improvement to the text. I will therefore attend to a couple of matters of principle rather than detail.

If the point of Brexit was to restore parliamentary sovereignty, recalling that opponents were seen to be democratically suspect, it seems odd at this stage to seek to limit parliamentary scrutiny of the process after 31 January. Asking the Government to treat Parliament with respect—that is, informing, listening and consulting—must surely lie at the heart of any successful Brexit process, and making Brexit succeed for the good of all in this country must surely be the aim and commitment of all of us, regardless of whether we think Brexit was a wise or good move in the first place.

This in turn means that the Government must assume the best of those who question and not simply write them off as saboteurs; I would be grateful if the Minister, in response, would give this assurance. Failure to do so would risk feeding and fostering the sort of rhetoric and attitude that Brexit was supposed to protect us from as a sovereign nation. Making Brexit work best for everyone and mitigating its negative impacts will require the Government to see questioning and debate as constructive, a means to strengthen parliamentary support. Brexit will not be done by 31 January 2020, and the process beyond then will demand more than just compliance or acquiescence.

Furthermore, it is regrettable that the Bill now seeks to remove what would be universally seen as a touchstone of civilised society. How many children now live in poverty in this affluent country, whose magic money tree has mysteriously started blossoming since the last general election campaign was launched? How many children, surely the most vulnerable people on the planet, find themselves separated from their families through no fault of their own? How many exposed refugee children are now to be kept isolated from familial care and protection because this Parliament appears to deem them incidental to how we do our politics? Their alienation will come at a price later.

I guess noble Lords will hear their own maxims resonating in their consciences. Mine echoes to the sounds of the prophets of the Hebrew scriptures, such as Amos, who, despite economic flourishing, religious revival and military security, warned those who

“trample on the heads of the poor” that this would not be the end of the story. Our integrity and honour will not be judged by whether we rule the world as global Britain, but rather by how we order our society to ensure justice and the dignity of the most vulnerable. Restoring the Dubs provisions would go a long way to restoring that honour.

The Bill will go through. How it goes through matters. It will say something powerful about who we think we are.