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European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:46 pm on 13th January 2020.

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Photo of Lord Robathan Lord Robathan Conservative 7:46 pm, 13th January 2020

My Lords, after three and a half long years, at last we have a withdrawal Bill that has passed through the Commons, and we have it before us now. I am going to speak, briefly of course, about how we came to this position with this huge delay. I will sum it up with one word, although it gives me no pleasure: “disdain”.

I think referendums are a shocking idea. I am broadly opposed to them. But Parliament—this House as well as the other one—voted for one. The matter of Brexit has consumed this place, and indeed Parliament, ever since I was introduced here just over four years ago. First, before the referendum, those who supported leave were laughed at by the majority in this House. I was told that no one heckled in the House of Lords but I was heckled for being so presumptuous as to speak up for leaving.

Then we had the referendum, and there were shocked faces here because the stupid public had not listened to the wise words of people in this House and indeed elsewhere. Then after the 2017 general election, with a Government who were floundering, Parliament looked down its collective nose at the silly people. They were told why they had voted to leave and told how wrong and how stupid they were. But none of us can see inside another individual and determine why that individual voted in a particular way, so please let us not patronise people and tell them what they think.

In my opinion, the last House of Commons behaved in a disgraceful manner. People who I respected, such as Oliver Letwin, and indeed counted as friends reneged on manifesto commitments and set out to thwart the process of leaving the EU, passing, among other things, that dreadful Benn amendment. Parliament showed disdain for the people’s vote and contempt for the people of this country. Members of this House—unelected and unaccountable, where self-awareness is in astonishingly short supply—overwhelmingly opposed the outcome of the referendum, some of your Lordships openly saying that they wanted to stop the process, disdaining the foolish little people. Well, the little people too can show disdain: disdain for a Marxist-led party with no real policy on Brexit. I do not know why the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, is smiling; that is what she had and that is the party to which she belongs.

The election was of course about more than one issue but the people of Sedgefield, Workington and the north showed what they thought: disdain for the party that—and I wish this were my original joke—should be prosecuted under the Trade Descriptions Act but who sit here pontificating, with eight times more Peers than they have Members in the House of Commons, and still want to tell the country what to do. However, there was a general election. I am reminded a little of the Japanese soldiers who emerged from the jungle 20 years after the end of the Second World War believing that the fight was still on. Then there were those who fought for different parties or who fought as independents, some of whom I again respected and liked. Chuka Umunna fought in Westminster and I very much hope there will be an explanation of quite how much the literature that came tumbling through my door cost, because—I tell you what—it was a lot more than most people can afford on £15,000 or whatever.

The disdain the British people showed has led to something much worse: disdain of the people for Parliament and contempt for the democratic process. We need to win back or earn some respect. Noble Lords should know that both in the Commons and in the country we will earn yet further disdain if this House tries to obstruct the will of the people in any way. It is not just Rebecca Long Bailey who is calling for the abolition of the House of Lords but some Conservatives as well. I would oppose that, not just for personal interest but because I think this House has a valuable revising purpose. Those who are still opposed to this process of leaving the EU should accept it with a good grace and let us all work together to restore the reputation of this House, of Parliament as a whole and of our parliamentary democracy.