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European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:01 pm on 13th January 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Buscombe Baroness Buscombe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 6:01 pm, 13th January 2020

On 1 February 2016, a cross-party meeting was held in Committee Room 9 in the Commons for any Peers and MPs interested in supporting a campaign to leave the EU. There was a reasonable turnout from both Houses. Part-way through the meeting, an MP rose and said, “If anyone thinks there’s any point in campaigning to leave in the north-east—and probably the north-west—of England, forget it. There is no point; they’re all going to vote out”. On 12 December 2019, the voices of those people were finally heard.

At last I can say, without the constraints of a ministerial role, how pleased I am that those of us who have believed in all the good reasons for leaving the EU have been vindicated by such overwhelming support from the electorate. If ever I had a moment of doubt about our purpose over the past three years, I would recall two private events that I attended in support of the leave campaign. Almost all invited were highly intelligent, intellectually curious and successful men and women, mostly self-made wealth creators, major employers and believers in our nation and our ability to punch above our weight as global Britain.

I also kept thinking, “How come so many parliamentarians are suddenly so pro the EU?” Until 2016, many Members of the House of Commons, regardless of party, hardly gave visiting Members of the European Parliament houseroom at Westminster, and showed little interest in scrutinising EU legislation. For 40 years, our nation’s own broadcaster, the BBC, never made the case for the EU beyond the odd “From Our Own Correspondent”. It failed in its duty to educate and inform as to the EU’s remit and purpose and our role within it. Little wonder that people did not feel in any way connected to our EU partners.

Turning swiftly to the Bill, I will touch on just a few areas that were a focus of debate in another place. It is surely time to, yes, debate its clauses, express our opinions and scrutinise—and then support the elected Chamber. As a lawyer, I firmly believe that less is more; in other words, I urge noble Lords, do not shackle our Government’s ability to do the right thing. We must take care to avoid unintended consequences and thereby narrow our options, and, from all accounts of our negotiations with the EU to date, our Government must be free to be tough. We surely celebrate the fact that we are once again able to make our own laws and regulations—to decide our destiny and not have it decided by others.

Of course there are clear areas where regulatory alignment makes sense, and many of those have already been debated ad nauseam in your Lordships’ House. Through those debates, it has become clear that in some key areas, such as regulations relating to our Health and Safety Executive, alignment makes complete sense, and in others—for example, animal welfare—our standards are often higher and we want to be even better still than our EU neighbours.

Technology is an area where regulatory alignment does not make sense. We must be careful what we wish for. We need to be free to embrace and champion innovation and new ideas. We can be the tech hub of Europe. In contrast with the EU, we must not shackle businesses with, for example, draconian privacy rules and punitive fines, and thereby lose out on our opportunity—and right—to be the best. Let France, for example, continue with its protectionist approach whereby it does not allow the streaming of new films on channels such as Netflix in a bid to protect its film industry from disruptive competition. Let the EU, with its focus upon protectionism, be the slowest ship in the tech convoy.

With regard to rights related to residence, the EU settlement scheme is already up and running, working, and far more generous than those offered by many countries in Europe to UK citizens. What do we really mean by reciprocity of citizens’ rights? For our welfare system to be affordable, given that this year alone we are already spending over £220 billion in the Department for Work and Pensions, and with current calls to end the benefit freeze, the Government must now do more to compare our system with others across Europe, given that others do not, for example, shy away from much tougher conditions for those fit and able to work. It is notable that the EU has never had the courage to tackle fundamental and, in many cases, grossly unfair differences in welfare support across the EU.

There is a great deal to do; let us support the Bill and get on with it.