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European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:50 pm on 13th January 2020.

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Photo of Lord Dubs Lord Dubs Labour 8:50 pm, 13th January 2020

My Lords, before I come to my main points, I will differ very much from the noble Viscount’s comments. I believe that where we are is a threat to our union. I believe it threatens England being separated from Scotland and what is going to happen in Ireland. I would not be as relaxed as the noble Viscount has been.

As somebody who very much supported the remain side of the argument, I am of course disappointed that we are where we are, but we must accept the result of the election. Having spent a lot of the election in London constituencies, however, I am bound to say that it was quite surprising—but then, I suppose London is a bubble and we got a different view of what was happening from that of what was happening elsewhere, judging from my brief forays outside the M25. We have to accept that, but the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, made a comment about people saying the electorate were silly. I would never say the voters were silly. If they came to a conclusion that I do not agree with, it is my fault and that of other politicians that we did not put the case as well as we should have. I would never say the voters were silly, although it is interesting that the voters of London differed somewhat from the voters of other parts of the country.

I will make only two points. I still believe emphatically that we are European, and it is important for us in all sorts of ways that we maintain our international connections even if we have left the formal structures of the European Union. I therefore hope that international structures such as the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe—the parliamentary assembly of which I serve on—the all-party groups and the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly will be given more support by the Government to continue to achieve good international links with the countries that are our former European partners. I believe we are still an international country in outlook. I still believe in the idea of international solidarity and do not want to lose that, even though we will have lost our formal membership of the European Union. The Government can encourage all this, and it is important that they should.

My second and only other point concerns the Salisbury convention and the amendment on child refugees. There will be plenty of chances to debate this amendment later this week in Committee and, I believe, on Report next week. However, I have looked at the Salisbury convention and the very interesting Library note on it and have tried to understand what it is all about. There are different views, but one thing is clear: where there is government legislation based on a clear and unambiguous manifesto commitment, we as an unelected House do not have the right to challenge the principle of that legislation, nor to obstruct or delay it. I think that is clear, whatever other nuances there are about how the Salisbury convention might work. I think we are all agreed on that.

I come now, obviously, to the point about child refugees. I have found nothing in the Government’s election manifesto that suggests they were going to reverse the existing policy on family reunion for child refugees. I shall not argue the details of that, but merely say that we are fully entitled as a House to amend that clause, and maybe one or two others, where there is no manifesto commitment. The idea of a manifesto commitment is a healthy one in a democracy. If the electors of this country have supported a party that won the election on the basis of specific policies, we should respect that. But where the Government simply decide, quite arbitrarily, to impose something, in this or any other Bill, that has nothing to do with the manifesto commitments, I think we are entitled—indeed, I would go so far as to say we have an obligation —to challenge it and vote accordingly, if we so wish. That is fairly clear, and we can argue about the merits or demerits of the Government’s attitude to child refugees in later stages of the Bill.