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European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:26 pm on 13th January 2020.

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Photo of Lord Boswell of Aynho Lord Boswell of Aynho Non-affiliated 5:26 pm, 13th January 2020

My Lords, this is the first speech that I have made in a personal capacity since I was appointed by this House to chair the EU Committee, now nearly eight eventful years ago. Perhaps I may begin therefore by expressing sincere thanks for the opportunity that I have had to serve the House and echoing my entire confidence in my successor. I have also recognised the good sense of colleagues from all sides of the House engaged in our work and, equally, the excellent contribution of our expert, enthusiastic and dedicated staff. I might add that I am anxious that all those British officials and others involved in European affairs over now half a century deserve suitable public recognition.

This Bill is a complex and necessary mechanism giving effect to the Government’s electoral mandate, but I hope that it will also be the time for releasing some of the political tension. It is high time now to de-dramatise the process and begin to move on.

That is in no sense to minimise the important details of the Bill. One minor gain is that there are additions in Clause 29 which restore parity of scrutiny process between this House and the other House, but, as noble Lords have already said in relation to the work of the Joint Committees and specialist committees, although Ministers will be involved, there is to be apparently no role for parliamentary scrutiny. I emphasise from the work that we have done as a Select Committee that specialist committees will often touch on the niceties bequeathed to us by history. The Select Committee has rightly focused its attention on them, with particular reference to the Crown dependencies and Gibraltar as well as the Irish problem.

In relation to future scrutiny, the Bill represents some backward steps. To judge by my experience in dealing with Ministers over the negotiations leading to the withdrawal agreement, there is, frankly, a long way to go and much still to learn from our European Commission and European parliamentary counterparts. Ministers have to realise that scrutiny is not an optional extra. Properly handled, it can be a force for good. Frankly, that is the exact point of the more than 40 reports which the EU Select Committee has produced since the referendum.

All this comes to a head in the most salient change in the current Bill, which would in effect prohibit any extension of the transitional period beyond the current year. This is high-wire stuff, particularly as it is only now that we are appreciating the trade-offs. On the other hand, I appreciate that Ministers feel the need to break out of three years of uncertainty and parliamentary stasis. I have no final view on the tactics. I can see the argument for concentrating minds, but not at the expense of our long-term interests. So there might be a case for getting on with a basic free trade agreement, supplemented by essential work on security and police co-operation. That might even fit in with some of the Government’s wish to be seen to take an interest in traditional manufacturing regions where they have gained new political support, provided that they do not lose on the overall infrastructure by losing EU funding.

However, this will simply not be enough in the long term. Our economic life now centres on services, and our future productivity depends on access to research and skills. Geographically, economically and culturally, though perhaps not politically, we shall remain in Europe, though not run by it. We shall need to adapt our institutions to new and subtle challenges and seek to maximise our influence. Alongside efforts to build global Britain, we will need to build a new relationship with our European neighbours, not just over technical and withdrawal issues, but looking beyond to a continuing involvement with agencies and activities, including facing new challenges together. We need to look at this not so much through leverage or bluster, but rather looking to common interests and mutual benefit, in the positive aspects of the political declaration. In two concluding phrases, we leave but we do not stalk off; and in leaving we simply have to try harder to maintain the relationship.