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I beg to move,
That this House
has considered e-petitions 241584, 235138 and 243319 relating to leaving the European Union.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and to lead this incredibly important debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee. As hon. Members will be aware, the Committee decided to schedule a single debate on all three Brexit-related petitions because we wanted to ensure that all three, having reached the 100,000 signature threshold, were debated as soon as possible, so that they would not be overtaken by events.
It is entirely coincidental that the date is
Of course, as is now inevitable for anything related to Brexit, one of the e-petitions has already been overtaken by events:
My hon. Friend has been utterly fantastic on Brexit from start to finish. I am sure she will mention this later, but our constituents have been signing up to the big petition to revoke article 50, including 32% of my electorate in south Edinburgh. She will be as disappointed as I am that the Prime Minister and the Government, given that they are in such a mess, have simply dismissed those people and will not action anything they say.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. That is why this debate is so important: to get these issues aired and make sure that we get answers from the Minister. I will make sure that he is clear on the questions and issues that we need answers for.
As I said, we are discussing three petitions. Despite being overtaken by events, e-petition 243319, calling for the UK to leave the EU on
It clear that, for some, leaving the EU as quickly as possible has become of paramount importance in order to deliver on the narrow outcome of a referendum held almost three years ago, regardless of whether there remains any coherent, cogent arguments for pursuing that course of irrevocable action and regardless of the circumstances in which that might take place or the potential consequences for our country. There are some who suggest that every one of the 17.4 million people who voted in good faith back in June 2016 to leave the European Union did so safe in the knowledge that it could well mean exiting the world’s largest trading bloc after 46 years without a deal. Indeed, the wording of the e-petition suggests that both main parties pledged that in the 2017 general election.
However, I only need point them in the direction the Vote Leave campaign, which quite clearly stated:
“Taking back control is a careful change, not a sudden stop—we will negotiate the terms of a new deal before we start any legal process to leave.”
Or the pledge made in the 2017 Labour party manifesto:
“Labour recognises that leaving the EU with ‘no deal’ is the worst possible deal for Britain and that it would do damage to our economy and trade. We will reject ‘no deal’ as a viable option”.
Or, indeed, the 2017 Conservative party manifesto, which said that the Prime Minister would deliver:
“The best possible deal for Britain as we leave the European Union delivered by a smooth, orderly Brexit.”
There were many other occasions when those playing leading roles in the campaign for our departure from the EU suggested what doing so would or would not involve. Perhaps the most notable example is Daniel Hannan MEP, who declared:
“Absolutely nobody is talking about threatening our place in the single market.”
Regardless of what each person voted for at that time—I have spoken to many leave voters who voted for a variety of legitimate reasons and have completely different visions of what Brexit means—I know with absolutely certainty that nobody was discussing the need to set aside £4.2 billion to prepare for the ramifications of no deal, whether that means awarding a £108 million ferry contract to a firm that has no ships or our becoming the largest buyer of fridges in the world, in order to stockpile medicines, vaccines and blood products.
To reinforce my hon. Friend’s point, according to the Bank of England, two thirds of warehouses have already been filled; we actually do not have the capacity to stockpile, because our system does not work like that. In the context of no deal, the economy will shrink by 8% and inflation will go up—[Interruption.]
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I wanted to highlight the fact that, according to the Bank of England, warehouses are already running out of space—two-thirds are full. We do not have the capacity to cope with the kind of system that a no-deal Brexit would pose. If we have a no-deal Brexit, the worst-case scenario is an 8% reduction in our economy, with unemployment and inflation rising. Some 6 million people have signed the e-petition on revoking article 50, including 24,000 in my constituency. People are adamant that if we cannot settle this in the House in a way that protects their interests, jobs and livelihoods, then revocation should be on the table. I support my hon. Friend’s speech.
My hon. Friend speaks from the experience that we have shared as members of the Treasury Committee, scrutinising in agonising and often frustrating and concerning detail the economic impact of the Brexit proposals, and in particular the potential ramifications of a no-deal Brexit.
If anyone had told me when I was first elected to Parliament in 2010 that less than a decade later the Government of this country would be pursuing a policy that necessitates the stockpiling of body bags, I would have questioned my own sanity. Yet this is the appalling position that we now find ourselves in, because the Prime Minister has remained resolutely of the belief that refusing to rule out the prospect of a no-deal Brexit, thereby threatening to drive her own country off a cliff, somehow represents a bargaining chip when conducting an international negotiation. That is precisely what she would be doing to so many businesses in my region, with around 60% of our exports currently going to EU countries, leading the North East England Chamber of Commerce to state that its 3,000 members
“have been clear, North East businesses do not want a messy and disorderly exit from the EU.”
They are perplexed that, despite all the evidence, the Government have allowed a no-deal scenario to be seen as a credible Brexit outcome.
Many people will have wanted the UK to leave the EU last Friday, or just as soon as possible, and not because of an arbitrary date set by the Prime Minister, having triggered article 50 when she did, but because they are frankly sick to the back teeth of hearing about this issue, day in, day out. They have had enough of Brexit dominating every single news bulletin, newspaper headline or radio discussion. Understandably, they just want what has turned into a national nightmare to be finally over.
I, too, am angry. I am angry that we have spent three years not properly focusing on the myriad issues that we know desperately require our attention: climate change, the NHS, public transport, child poverty, food bank use, social care and universal credit. To provide just one example of how all-consuming this exercise in futility has become, it was reported over the weekend that two-thirds of staff at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are now working on Brexit, instead of focusing on other crucial issues, such as tackling poor air quality or rising food poverty.
I am equally furious that billions of pounds can be found by the Treasury to prepare for a Brexit scenario that can never happen, while schools in my constituency are making teachers redundant and women across the country born in the 1950s are facing dire financial circumstances.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right that those are the other important issues that we should be directing our energy and focus on. Of course, Brexit will make them all more difficult to solve, because we will be poorer as a country and have less influence in the world. Does she think that that is one reason why 49 of the 65 polls taken on Brexit since the referendum have found a majority for remain? We have to go as far back as June 2017 to find the last poll that had more people supporting leave. Is it not entirely possible that the will of the people has changed?
The hon. Lady makes some excellent and important points. It is good that they are now on the record.
The reason I say all this, and why I have spent so much time holding the Government to account on this issue since 2016, is that I know that if we get Brexit wrong, it will significantly diminish our capacity as a country to fund our public services—to tackle the “burning injustices” that the Prime Minister once pledged to fight. I say to those who, quite understandably, just want Brexit to be over that if the UK leaves in the coming weeks, it is not over—Brexit and all of its ramifications has not even begun.
Turning to the second e-petition that we are debating, in the week after we were due to leave the European Union, and following two and a half meaningful votes on the Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement, the only thing that is clear is that Parliament remains in Brexit gridlock, although today’s further indicative votes may help to provide some much needed clarity on a potential way forward. However, as things stand, we still face this cliff edge on
I have long believed the answer to this seemingly never-ending and hugely damaging parliamentary gridlock lies in what is advocated by the second e-petition that we are considering. Signed by 185,542 people as of 3.30 pm, it calls for a second referendum to be held to enable the British public to choose whether to accept the Prime Minister’s deal—the one that she and the EU have repeatedly told us is the only and best Brexit deal available—or to remain in the EU with the deal that we already have.
My hon. Friend succinctly says what I will say in more words.
I agree, and hon. Members are aware that I have campaigned for that outcome for the best part of a year. I have pressed for whatever deal the Prime Minister negotiated to be put back to the British public, given the enormity of the implications for our country’s future for decades to come. I have subsequently voted three times against the withdrawal agreement, because I simply cannot support something that I and the Government know will make constituents in Newcastle North and the wider north-east poorer. Indeed, as the Government’s analysis shows, the north-east will be hardest hit by any form of Brexit.
My hon. Friend is making an eloquent speech about the petitions and the need for us to remain part of the European Union. My constituents voted 78% remain, and thousands have signed petitions to revoke article 50 or call for a second referendum. Does she agree that if the Prime Minister can keep bringing her deal back to the House for us to vote it down, it is about time that she put her deal back to the public with the option to remain?
It is a strong point. I have been clear about the potential ramifications of the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal and my concerns about exiting with no deal, but I am prepared to accept that many people in my constituency voted to leave and want to leave the European Union. That is why, if this Brexit deal is the best deal available—the only deal available, as the Prime Minister and the EU have told us—the Government should have the courage of their convictions and put it back to the people for them to have the final say.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent point about people who still want to leave the European Union. Is it not the case that, given all the water that has gone under the bridge, if we do not put it back to the people, the deadlock that we in Parliament are trapped in will continue through the next stage of the negotiations? It will never be over unless we give it democratic legitimacy. Even if people want to leave, at least they can confirm it.
Absolutely. So much has become evident since the referendum vote in 2016 and we all, including the public, those in Parliament and those in the European Union, know more about what Brexit means. If the Prime Minister is confident that her deal is the best deal available for the country, we must surely go back to the public to ask if it is what they want for their families and communities, and for our country.
Hearing her speech makes me believe that she is trying to give the public the option of Brexit in name only, with the Prime Minister’s deal, or no Brexit. Is that fair to the 17.4 million people who voted to leave? She says that she is prepared to accept that her constituency voted to leave, but is she prepared to accept that the country overall voted to leave?
Absolutely. We had a referendum in 2016 that put the basic question, “Do you want to leave the European Union?”, and 17.4 million people voted to leave. I have said clearly that I respect all the different reasons on which those people based their vote to leave. I have spoken to many people who have given many different reasons why they wanted to leave the European Union and why they voted in that way.
We are three years on, however, and the hon. Lady’s Government have spent two years negotiating an agreement with the European Union. That is the only Brexit agreement that exists for us to leave with a deal. Given that we in this House have voted three times to rule out the catastrophic prospect of a no-deal exit from the European Union, I have made it clear, and many hon. Members share the view, that we must find a deal that Parliament can agree to.
In my view, if we are confident—as the Government say they are—that the Government’s deal is the best available, we should put it back to the public and let them have the final say. That is why I was proud to join many hon. Members and more than 1 million people to demonstrate in London on
In contrast with the ugly, angry, threatening and sinister behaviour outside Parliament on Friday by people who have clearly hijacked the Brexit campaign for more dangerous ends, the People’s Vote march was fantastic. It was a positive advert for Britain and full of people who care deeply about the future of our country and its place in the world. As I have since made clear to my constituents, and to the Prime Minister directly, however, I recognise that we all now need to compromise in the national interest if we are to get out of this crisis.
My hon. Friend mentions what happened last Friday afternoon. It is extraordinary that Parliament was closed down in the middle of the afternoon and our staff were sent home. I was with a party of schoolchildren who, ironically, were the chief debaters who had won a competition in the London boroughs, and were looking forward to their tour of Parliament. They were mainly black, Asian, and minority ethnic youngsters, including identifiably Muslim and Jewish children, who were then asked to leave the estate and filter out into the crowd. Is it not extraordinary that we can be brought to such lengths by a few extremists and thugs?
Yes; many hon. Members were disturbed by the scenes they witnessed on Friday directly and on the news. As many have made clear, those people do not reflect the people who voted leave, but they professed to be the spokespeople for the leave campaign on the streets of London.
Here in Parliament, we have run out of road. We cannot keep going round in ever-decreasing circles while the international standing of our country diminishes further by the day. For me, compromise means allowing the passage of a deal through Parliament that I know will make my constituents poorer. I will allow that, however, to get past the gridlock, on the condition that we put it back to the people to make the final decision in a confirmatory, binding public vote.
Some people feel that the Beckett or Kyle-Wilson proposal somehow undermines the outcome of the 2016 referendum, the conduct of which has become increasingly suspect, and which was in some aspects downright illegal, or that it undermines the integrity of our democracy as a whole. It does not. Democracy cannot be undermined by trying to resolve an issue democratically or by holding a vote in which every single person in the country can participate. Democracy is surely an ongoing process, not one moment frozen in time to which our entire country’s future must for ever be held to ransom, regardless of the consequences that emerge.
People talk about the divisiveness of a second referendum, which seems to be the biggest reason not to have one. To follow on from the hon. Lady’s point, however, I would argue that nothing could be more healing than involving the entire country in the decision about what to do next. Everybody’s voice is equal—nobody loses and nobody wins—because that is democracy. Fortunately, we do not live in a country where some voices are more important or more valid than others.
The hon. Lady makes the point well. There are people who think that the radical approach of democratically asking the public what they think would unleash an almighty backlash and all sorts of dangerous extremism, but I say to them that such extremism clearly exists already. We saw it on the streets of London on Friday and I am certainly not prepared to roll over and appease it.
However, there is always the prospect that the Prime Minister will refuse to change her approach and that she will lurch ever closer to
As hon. Members will be aware, this petition has been supported by an unprecedented number of people, although that is not surprising, because we live in unprecedented times. Indeed, this is most signed petition ever received on the petitions website of the House of Commons and the Government. As of 3.30 pm today, it had received a staggering 6,034,845 signatures, over 26,000 of which come from my city of Newcastle.
That is indeed an extremely impressive total of petition signatories. Therefore, would the hon. Member like to suggest that instead of having held the referendum in the first place, it would have been sufficient to put an e-petition in and get that particular fraction of the population voting for it, in order to set aside a democratic vote by a much larger number of people?
My hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way, but that was a bit of sophistry that we have just heard. Six million people—an extraordinary number—signed this petition as against some of the leave petitions, just as there was a 1 million-person march as opposed to the pathetic little leave march, showing a change in the zeitgeist, if I am allowed to use European words. Are we not seeing the people speaking up at last and saying, “We are not going to allow some of the people in the House of Commons to ruin the country, economically and politically, for the future”?
My hon. Friend has put that very well.
Before turning to the content and substance of this petition, I will first put on the record my gratitude to the Government Digital Service, which worked hard to keep the petitions website up and running under the strain of the highest usage it has ever experienced, which at its peak saw the petition receiving around 2,000 signatures a minute. I am keen to emphasise that, contrary to some of the rumours that have been put around to try to undermine the integrity of this petition, the Government Digital Service has a number of automated and manual systems in place to detect bots, disposable email addresses and other signs of fraudulent activity.
On this point about the number of signatures—in my constituency, there were more than 9,500 signatures—I understand that General Data Protection Regulation rules mean that I cannot necessarily see who has signed that particular petition. Normally, however, in a petition we get a sense of who has signed. Is it possible that the House authorities would at least be able to email back those people who have signed the petition, to give them some feedback about what has happened to it in Parliament, because, like many others, I would like them to know that, yes, I am prepared to support revoke and remain, rather than have us crash out of the EU?
I am sure that is now on the record and as the Petitions Committee, which is a formal cross-party Committee of the House that processes the petitions tabled by members of the public which reach the threshold for a petition to be debated, it will obviously notify the people who have signed it, to tell them that the issue has been tabled for debate or that there is a response from the Government.
When someone signs a petition, they are directed to their MP, so that they can let them know if they want to. I have been contacted directly by constituents who have signed the petition and who want me to know that they have signed it, and obviously they can then receive feedback from me as a Member of Parliament. I am sure that there are many members of the public who have signed the petition who will be watching the proceedings today with great interest.
The hon. Lady is being terribly courteous and I really appreciate it. Let us just try this new form of democracy a bit more. Let us suppose that her party—the Labour party—gets its wish and there is a general election. Guess what? The Labour party wins and Jeremy Corbyn becomes Prime Minister. Then, some of us who did not like the result set up a petition and get 6 million people to say, “No, we ought to revoke that result and do it again”. Would she be satisfied with that?
May I clarify matters for the right hon. Gentleman, because he does not seem to understand the nature of a petition, which is a very long-established process in Parliament and a way for our constituents to express their view on matters, and for many years—probably since it began—Parliament has processed petitions and tabled them on behalf of MPs’ constituents? The nature of our modern democracy is that the petitions process has gone online and it was indeed the former Prime Minister who created the Government’s online petitions system in 2010. Since then, it has grown in popularity and use.
As a member of the Petitions Committee, I know that it processes a range of petitions on any subject that Members can imagine, but no petition has received the number of signatures that this petition has, and the right hon. Gentleman seems somewhat irked by that. However, a petition does not replace our normal democratic processes. It is simply a reflection of the level of interest in this issue and the strength of feeling among the public, for which, as representatives of our constituents, we ought to be very grateful, as they have the means to make their voices heard—and this petition is a roar.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way and I will just reinforce that point. As someone who was elected here to represent my constituents, I find it extremely useful in the difficult decision-making process that we are going through to have the figures to show that more than 15,000 people in my constituency signed this petition and that they want us to reconsider matters, not blindly go off a cliff and crash out of Europe. It behoves us well to pay attention to what our constituents are telling us.
Indeed, because what this petition —combined with the million-plus people who gave up their Saturday to march here on the streets of London just a week ago—demonstrates is that there is a very large number of people in this country who are extremely concerned about Brexit, the Government’s approach to this process and the implications of all this for the future of our country.
The hon. Lady is generous in giving way. I come back to the suggestion that after each election somebody could launch a petition to reverse the result. The extraordinary thing about the 2016 referendum is that the Government, and many Members in this House, insist that the result of that referendum can never be changed, whereas we have elections every four or five years, so decisions can be reversed. However, in this case it seems that we can never, ever change our mind about the referendum in 2016.
No, I completely disagree with that. I have already set out very clearly my views and my concerns, which I think are shared by a huge number of people. However, I absolutely share the concerns that have been expressed by those calling for a public vote on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, because I did not come into politics to make my constituents poorer and I did not get elected to this place to drive my country and its economy off a cliff.
Perhaps, then, the hon. Lady would like to tell us why the remain Bank of England/Treasury forecast for what would happen in the first two years after a leave vote—it was said that there would be a recession, big job losses, an investment collapse, a share market collapse and a housebuilding problem, and the reverse of all those things happened, with jobs up and no recession, and we now have better growth than Germany or Italy—was so wrong and why we should believe her pessimistic forecast for 15 years’ time, when they could not get the first two years right.
Many of the predictions that were made—for example, that we would see a stall in investment or the economy being affected—have happened, and even when there is an increase in jobs, which the Government often like to talk about, we see more and more people using food banks and struggling to make ends meet. So, if anyone suggests that we are somehow better off now than we were in 2016, they are wrong. All the projections show that we will be only more greatly affected and that investment and economic growth will be further deflated.
John Redwood makes his point, and he makes it regularly. I recognise that the economy was not the driving factor for many people when they voted in 2016, nor was it their determination that we must leave the EU as soon as possible at whatever cost. All the parliamentary sovereignty in the world will not make up for the impact of rising unemployment, reduced living standards and lost opportunities, not least in a region such as the north-east, which has been abandoned to the economic scrapheap too many times.
Does my hon. Friend agree that since this whole affair began there has been no parliamentary sovereignty? It has been sovereignty for the Prime Minister and her Cabinet, trying to ram through a deal that has been rejected three times. It has been an obsession of the Tory party, and a division within that party. The whole country and its future are being roped into the collective breakdown that the Conservative party is having. John Redwood will know, from his own party’s history and his part in it, about the Tory party’s tearing itself apart for the last three decades. And it continues, but this time it is destroying our constituents’ livelihoods.
My hon. Friend speaks with great wisdom and insight.
From speaking to my constituents, I am aware that many deep and entirely unresolved issues underpinned the leave vote back in 2016, including a huge sense of being left behind and not being listened to for far too long, but ploughing ahead with a damaging Brexit will not enable anyone to deliver on the pledges that were made during the referendum campaign. They will not address those issues, not least if the approach taken does not even have a clear democratic mandate, as is the case at the moment.
I have equally serious concerns about what continuing down this path could mean for the integrity of the United Kingdom, as it is currently formed, and I strongly urge others to consider whether that is more important than the outcome of one vote held three years ago, which—my hon. Friend Rushanara Ali put it very well—was to shore up the Conservative vote and Conservative party support in the 2015 general election.
Those concerns are being expressed by many members of the public as they watch the reality of the 2016 referendum campaign and vote unravel. As we get closer and closer to
It is because I am as patriotic, and care as passionately about the future of my city, my region and my country, as anyone that I cannot stand back and watch us crash out of the EU in that way. Allowing such a scenario would be a dereliction of my duty as a Member of Parliament, which is clearly set out as that of acting in the interests of the nation as a whole, with a special duty to my constituents. It would be contrary to the responsibilities of Members of the House as set out by Edmund Burke as far back as 1774:
“Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement;
and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
And, indeed, contrary to the guidance of Sir Winston Churchill:
Those duties weigh heavily on us all, and they are responsibilities that I take very seriously.
There is one slight difference between the hon. Lady’s examples and what happened in 2016, when the MPs, the Government and the Opposition—everyone—agreed that they would take the view of the electorate directly and obey the verdict that they gave them. That did not apply in the scenario she describes relating to Edmund Burke, great constitutionalist though he was.
The right hon. Gentleman seems a bit stuck in the past. What we are talking about today is what we directly face. We could rerun the 2016 referendum campaign. We can debate the rights and wrongs, and the arguments for and against, over and over. I did not vote for the referendum or to invoke article 50, for the very reason that I could see us setting a clock ticking on a negotiation without an agreed strategy or plan. Many Members did not vote to invoke article 50, and many Members who are in the House now were not even elected at the time of the referendum. We had a general election subsequently, and that general election returned a hung Parliament, so we are where we are. The petition considers the immediate possibility that is staring us in the face—a no-deal exit from the EU, which is the legal default position if nothing changes today, or this week, to remove that possibility for
Rather than going over the history, I am interested to know what the right hon. Gentleman thinks. Is he genuinely happy for this economy just to be driven off a cliff, with all the ramifications that flow from that?
I am sorry; I thought the hon. Lady wanted an answer now. I think there are three possibilities: the Government’s deal, leaving on World Trade Organisation terms and revoking the result of the referendum. I, together with 158 of my colleagues, which is more than half the parliamentary Conservative party, voted in the multiple options we were given about a week ago that we should leave on WTO terms, and I think that would be the right solution.
I will congratulate the hon. Lady properly later. She mentioned that things had moved on and that there had been a general election. Will she remind the House what the Labour party’s position was, in that election, on respecting the result of the referendum?
What is so difficult about the debate is that it has wedded itself to events in the past, rather than looking at the reality right in front of us.
Our country remains in a crisis. The situation is completely unacceptable and intolerable, and I am hugely aware of the costly uncertainty and anxiety that it is causing for businesses and people up and down the country, but I am also clear that, despite the Prime Minister’s disgraceful and inflammatory attempts to lay the blame at the feet of democratically elected representatives doing their jobs, this appalling mess is entirely of the Prime Minister’s, and the Government’s, own making.
The time-limited article 50 process was triggered without any plan or agreed strategy for where we wanted to end up—I voted against it at the time for that very reason—and months of valuable negotiating time were wasted on a general election that resulted only in a hung Parliament. After that election, there was a complete failure to listen and to reach out to or engage with MPs—either by party, geographically or according to their views on Brexit—to build that much-needed consensus, with every decision taken by the Prime Minister in her narrow party interest, rather than with the greater good of the country in mind. Yet more time was wasted by repeatedly postponing, or simply ignoring, meaningful votes on the agreement, even though it was clear some four months ago that it would not command Parliament’s support.
I implore the Minister not to respond to this important debate simply by trotting out the same tired old lines that we have heard from those on the Government Benches today, or what we have heard time and again about the Government’s approach to Brexit. I implore him to engage with the fact that this Government’s total failure to steer the country through this historic process has resulted in 6 million people signing a petition in a matter of days, calling for the only policy that this Government have pursued for the past three years to be reversed.
Has this petition not shown clearly what the People’s Vote is about, and made its veil drop? One could argue that the People’s Vote has no grand ambitions such as, “Let’s have democracy,” because this has nothing to do with another vote; it is about revocation. Will the hon. Lady now be honest and say that what she and others have been supporting through the people’s vote is revocation, not some grand democratic rerun of a vote?
I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman has been here for the full debate. [Hon. Members: “He hasn’t.”] He has not, so he was not here when I set out the three petitions that we are debating. This one is about revoking article 50; the previous petition was in relation to a second referendum on the EU debate. I take great exception to his suggesting that, in some way, I am being dishonest in what I am saying.
Order. I am perfectly certain that the hon. Gentleman was not suggesting that the hon. Lady was being dishonest in any shape, size or form, and therefore I think we need not ask him to—
Thank you, Mr Gray. Craig Mackinlay did suggest that I should be honest. I have been honest, and I am being honest. This petition calls for the option of a revocation of article 50 to avoid us crashing out of the EU without a deal. The campaign that I support, which is for the Brexit deal that Parliament arrives at to be put back to the people in a public vote, is obviously connected to that, but is an entirely different proposition. I hope that has clarified it for the hon. Gentleman.
Instead of more dithering and delay, it is incumbent on us to urgently find ways to put a stop to this crisis. I believe that the only democratic way to move this process on for the country is one that would require an act of true national leadership by the Prime Minister: she must now agree to put her withdrawal agreement back to the public for a final confirmatory vote. If she is not prepared to do that, she—or we—must step back from the precipice and revoke article 50 in the short-term, medium-term and long-term interests of our still-great nation. It is clear that, however this Brexit saga ends, things have to change. As a country, we have an enormous amount of work and listening to do. We must rebuild to put our economy and our society back together and give everybody a stake in, and hope for, the future. The sooner we can all get on with that, the better.
A glance around the Chamber demonstrates that a great many Members wish to take part in this debate. While I do not intend to impose a formal time limit, an informal limit of five minutes would be a courtesy to each other, and would make good sense.
The petition that I particularly wish to address is that signed by over 6 million members of the public, calling on the Government and Members of Parliament to be prepared to revoke article 50 in the face of a Brexit catastrophe and support remaining in the European Union. Over 8.6% of my constituents—some 9,500 people in my constituency—have signed that petition. In December, I and other Members whose constituencies will come back to me—I could name them, but I am trying to think of their constituencies —took a case to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. We took a risk and prosecuted the case that, as the United Kingdom, we had the unilateral right to rescind the notification of article 50 if we needed to do so. We took that case despite many people saying that we should not do it, that it was impossible, or that the decision to trigger article 50 was a one-way street.
We expected that once the mythology of Brexit—the unicorns—was held up to the light, and once Members of Parliament and other people looked at this question, we would find ourselves in the situation that we are in this week. We predicted that the concept of a jobs-first Brexit, or a Brexit that promised all of those wonderful things that were on the side of the big red bus, was a mirage that would prove impossible to deliver. There was a notion that Britain could pull up the drawbridge and everything would be fine: that we did not need to worry about our European alliances, or care particularly about the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, because these things could all be ironed out and it would be sorted out. We now know that is not the case.
Many of my constituents, and many hon. Members present, have looked at some of the options that we are debating in the other Chamber today: a customs union, the Norway option, the Canada option, or a supposed managed no deal. They have looked at the evidence, as they should, and have concluded that every single form of Brexit will make our constituents worse off. Therefore, how can I in good conscience say to my constituents, “That’s fine—no problem at all”, especially as they voted for remain? How can I possibly allow that situation to continue without giving them, at the very least, the right to sign it off through a form of final consent? They should have the final say.
I found myself finally having to leave the Labour party because I could no longer continue with the charade that somehow the Labour party was going to eventually get to the position of offering the public a vote. That option has remained on the ballot paper; it looks as though there has been some movement, and many good Labour MPs have been trying their best to get their Front-Bench team to support it. However, that was one of the reasons why I could no longer stay in the Labour party and had to join the Independent Group. Our view is that the public, if they so choose, should have the right to instruct their Government to revoke the article 50 notice and support remaining in the European Union. We are in a difficult set of circumstances, but if we want to truncate them and bring this situation to a conclusion sooner, a referendum is the best way to do so, rather than entering into four, five, six or seven years of long negotiations about our future relationship with the European Union.
My hon. Friend has been very prescient on this issue. He has been consistent throughout—as have many hon. Members present—and I give him credit for that.
Faced with this petition, which has been signed by 6 million people, it is our duty to ensure that these views are not pigeonholed and sidelined in Westminster Hall, but that they are heard by the Government. It is not just a junior Minister—with respect to Chris Heaton-Harris—who needs to hear the voices of the people, but the Prime Minister and senior Cabinet Ministers. When we come to the end of this debate, I do not believe we should simply nod through the motion that this Chamber, Westminster Hall, has considered this petition. It is important that we fight for those who have signed it, and take this issue to be considered in the main Chamber of the House of Commons. That is the position that I will be taking today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I rise in particular to speak on the petitions on the public vote and revoking article 50. Some 14,824 of my constituents have signed the petition to revoke article 50 to date. I keep watching as the numbers rise. It is a significant number of my constituents, and my constituency voted overwhelmingly to remain in 2016.
It seems that we have reached a real impasse in Parliament at this juncture. For all the political games that we are seeing played today, we need something clear and pure that moves forward. I am witnessing political fixes by the political elite for political survival, and that simply will not do. If Brexit gets through on the margins we are seeing in the votes as they progress—it may be meaningful vote 5 or meaningful vote 6—the country will never forgive Parliament for the economic disaster we see ahead of us. I have met employers in my constituency to discuss the impact that Brexit will have.
No, I will continue. I met a manufacturing employer just over a week ago. We are also due to lose 300 jobs in one of the agencies as a result of leaving Europe. We are in real need of high-skilled jobs in our city. There will also be a real impact on the university, not to mention our public services and our hospital, which is 500 staff short. The hospital recruited a cohort of 43 nurses from Spain. Only a handful remain today, because of what is happening over leaving the European Union. It is putting my local city at risk, so I will stand up for how people in my city voted back in 2016 to ensure that we do not end up in a disastrous Brexit mess.
The reality is that we are not seeing clear, cool, calm heads progressing the debate. We saw that clearly when the Prime Minister came to the podium and started pitching MPs against the people. We have seen it with her decisions, such as her catastrophic miscalculation on Friday. She thought that separating the political declaration from the withdrawal agreement would help to progress her deal, but we could all see that it would be a blind Brexit, with no leadership or certainty. People did not know what future they were voting for or who would be leading the negotiations.
It is absolutely clear that we need to move forward in a calmer way, and that will not be achieved over the next few days. It is clear that the country divided in 2016, but that has not yet been addressed by the Government. In fact, we have seen greater polarisation of our country with the austerity measures that have been brought forward. That has had a real impact. When people call for a different process to be exercised, and when people say, “Do not press this through,” it is Parliament’s duty to listen. It is unprecedented to see more than 6 million people take time out to sign a petition. As a result, it is so important that Parliament listens to the public.
I have questioned the Prime Minister, and I am confused. Why does she think it is okay for MPs to change their mind and vote time and again, yet it is not okay for the people of our country to do that? After all, every five years we expect the country to change its mind in voting in general elections. In fact, the Prime Minister wanted the country to change its mind so that the Government had a stronger majority. Clearly that did not go well for her, but that was after just two years. We are now nearly three years out from the 2016 referendum. My constituents are absolutely right to call for a public vote with the second petition.
Short of real political fixes, it seems inevitable that we will move to a longer extension. That would be the right move, giving us time to put our country back together and to decipher the relationship that we need with Europe as we move forward. Brexit will have a serious impact on our country. In the early stages, an amendment came forward for citizens’ assemblies. That would be a helpful way of proceeding, before then moving to a further public vote to decide how to take things forward. I thank my constituents for signing the petitions, and I trust that Parliament will hear them.
It is a big honour not only to serve under your chairship, Mr Gray, but to speak in this debate. More than 6 million people have signed the petition. Let us reflect on the extraordinary circumstances that have led to this debate and the extraordinary number of people who have expressed their will in this way, combined with the 1 million people who marched peacefully just over a week ago in the streets of London to voice their opinion. They are unashamedly and for good reasons voicing their opinion that they want to stay members of the European Union.
Throughout the past three years, I have campaigned to remain. Within two weeks of the 2016 referendum, we set up Bath for Europe with like-minded people. We understood that democracy is not only about majorities, but about people being represented. I have proudly represented the will of the 48% who wanted to stay in the European Union. I believe that the number of people who want to stay in the European Union is now more than 48%, and it would be wrong not to openly represent that view. It would be wrong to be demonised for that.
It is also true that the referendum happened, so my preferred choice has always been to put the issue back to the people. My view is that revoking article 50 is the last thing we can do, in extremis, if we do not get the people’s vote over the line. I believe very much—I would have to test it with the people—that those who have signed the petition agree with that view. Many millions of people probably hope that we will get to a people’s vote where they can express their opinion.
I will not, because many Members want to speak.
One reason that people have been inspired to sign the petition is the fear of no deal. It exercises a lot of people, and that is why we need to put a people’s vote on the table now, not as our preferred option, but because no deal could happen. If no deal happens, the blame will lie firmly at the Government’s feet, because they have options. They could agree to a people’s vote. If that option was combined with the Government’s deal, it would go through Parliament. Alternatively, they could revoke article 50.
If we crash out in two weeks, the blame will lie with the Government alone. I am proud of all the people who have signed the petition, including 18,000 in my constituency. That is the will of the people in Bath. Anyone who refuses to listen to the will of the people in 2019 is not a true democrat. Saying that the people have spoken once and should never be allowed to speak again is a travesty.
I am proud to hear the will of people and to hear them voice their concerns. I definitely listen to them, and I have not given up on the possibility of us staying in the European Union. I will fight to the end. I hope we get a people’s vote, but in extremis we need to revoke article 50.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. The Brexit negotiations over the past two years have culminated in a constitutional crisis and the inability of our Government to resolve the single biggest issue that our country has faced in a generation. Our Prime Minister has refused to take any responsibility for her role in that crisis, yet it is she who has led us to the current impasse. Faced with a country split down the middle in its opinion on Brexit, the Prime Minister said almost nothing on Brexit between July 2016 and January 2017, except “Brexit means Brexit”. She failed at that early stage to chart a way forward that could bring the country together: a basis for negotiation with the EU that placed the national interest and protecting our economy, employment rights and environmental protections at the heart of the negotiating objectives.
In January 2017, the Prime Minister finally announced her Brexit red lines, which were essentially the red lines of the European Research Group—a hard-line sub-group of the Tory party not in any way representative of a majority of the country and advocating for the most divisive and damaging version of Brexit possible.
I am sure the hon. Lady is as curious as I am about tonight’s documentary with Laura Kuenssberg, in which the Tory party Chief Whip says that his recommendation in the early days after the referendum result and after the 2017 general election result was that the Prime Minister could deliver only a softer Brexit that would reach a cross-party compromise in the House of Commons. It will be interesting to watch.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. It will indeed be interesting to see that documentary.
It was the Prime Minister who took the UK into a snap general election in June 2017 and sought a mandate from the British people for her own explicitly hard interpretation of Brexit. She failed to achieve that mandate, but refused to accept that the will of the British people was not for a hard Brexit. It was the Prime Minister who negotiated with the EU on the basis of hard-Brexit red lines, and secured the only deal that could be secured on the basis of those red lines, when a negotiation genuinely based on the national interest might have yielded a different outcome. It was the Prime Minister who, despite facing the biggest defeat in parliamentary history on her deal, and two subsequent enormous defeats, recklessly and stubbornly failed to acknowledge that her deal cannot command support.
The vast majority of my constituents do not support Brexit—77% voted to remain in the European Union. They believe it will be utterly disastrous for our country and do not wish us to leave the EU. It is therefore no surprise to me that more than 26,000 of my constituents signed the petition calling for article 50 to be revoked, which is around 33% of the electorate. The many people who have been in touch with me about the petition support revocation because they oppose Brexit and because it is an essential protection against a no-deal Brexit, which is entirely within the power of the UK Government to implement. For those reasons, I support motion (G) and will vote for it tonight. Parliament has rejected no deal. If no deal and no extension can be agreed, revocation is the only responsible course of action for the Government to take to protect our country from the calamity of a no-deal Brexit.
My constituents are, however, hugely supportive of the opportunity for the British people to have a final say on Brexit by way of a confirmatory vote. The only democratic way through the terrible impasse in Parliament is to allow the British people to express a view on whether they wish to leave the EU with a deal capable of being agreed by the EU, or whether to remain in the EU. Those who support leaving the EU with a deal have nothing to fear from such a process. They would be free to campaign and vote according to their views. I would, of course, campaign for remain in any such referendum.
Three years on from the EU referendum, it is clear that the leave campaign lied, promising many things: additional money for the NHS and multiple trade deals with other large economic powers that have simply not materialised. We now know things that were simply not discussed in 2016, chief among them the risks presented by Brexit to security in Northern Ireland. The official leave campaign has now accepted that it broke the law to win by a very small majority. It simply cannot be claimed in this context that the 2016 referendum result can accurately be read as the will of the people for ever and a day.
I merely point out that the remain campaign heavily outspent the leave campaign and the Government sent a letter—a leaflet—to every household in the country at a cost of £9 million with an entirely one-sided pro-remain argument in it, so the hon. Lady cannot claim that leave got the better of the options in getting propaganda out to the masses.
I simply say to the right hon. Gentleman that only the leave campaign was found by the Electoral Commission to have broken the law. That is the point.
The Government must act to stop the damage that Brexit is doing. The democratic way to do that is to renew the mandate to proceed any further by giving the British people a final say. If they will not do that, and we stand at the edge of the no-deal cliff, the Government must revoke article 50.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray, and also a pleasure to follow my neighbour, Helen Hayes. I agree with every single word she said. I want to speak to e-petition 235138 on holding a people’s vote, but, most of all, I want to talk to e-petition 241584 on revoking article 50 and remaining in the EU, which, as has been said, has been signed by more than 6 million people, including more than 25,000 people in my constituency, which is just under a third of the registered electors in Streatham.
I do not want to speak for long, but I will make these points. There is clearly no mandate whatever for the chaos that we have seen unfold in this country since the vote in 2016. Whether people voted leave or remain, there is simply no majority in the country for the mess that has unfolded, despite the comments that we have heard in this debate. Given that there is not a mandate for this mess in this House, hopefully the indicative vote process will indicate what there is a majority for. I very much hope it will be for a people’s vote. However, if there was no resolution, and on either
First, we are told:
“Despite communications from the Government, there is little evidence that businesses are preparing in earnest for a no deal scenario”, and the evidence indicates that small and medium-sized businesses in particular are unprepared for such a possibility. Secondly,
“individual citizens are also not preparing for the effects” of our leaving the European Union with no deal. According to the evidence that the Government have published—their own economic impact assessments—if we were to leave without a deal on an orderly basis, we would be looking at the economy being 6.3% to 9% smaller than it otherwise would have been, but one of the things missed in the commentary is that that is an assessment of an orderly departure. If we were to leave and crash out on
Look at the practicalities:
“Every consignment would require a customs declaration, and so around 240,000 UK businesses that currently only trade with the EU would need to interact with customs processes for the first time”.
I quote directly from the Government’s own briefing papers. If we read between the lines, we are looking at an increase in food prices, panic buying by consumers and tariffs in the region of
“70% on beef... 45% on lamb... and 10% on finished automotive vehicles.”
And that before we look at the non-tariff barriers and their impact on the majority of the economy, which is service based. Based on the things that I have quoted from the Government’s own document, I do not see how any responsible Government could say that they had a mandate to bring about the disaster that they have published in their own papers.
[Steve McCabe in the Chair]
The hon. Gentleman raises important points from the paper. I am sure he saw the Treasury Monetary Policy Committee minutes last week that said 80% of businesses were ready for a no-deal scenario. He might have misread the number: it is 145,000 businesses that trade solely with the European Union and the Government have contacted them on three occasions so far. So, there has been some progress since the paper that he quotes from was published.
I am just quoting from the Minister’s own document. Technically, he is—dare I say it?—the Minister for no deal. He is responsible for ensuring that we are prepared if we leave in those circumstances. Never mind no responsible Government allowing us to leave without a deal; I cannot see how any Member of this House who held the post that he does as the Minister responsible could stand in the way of article 50 being revoked were we on the cusp of the disaster that he is supposed to be preparing for.
I will finish on this point: above all, the people who will be most angered by us allowing the country to crash out with no deal are the younger generations. For all the impact that this will have on older generations, the younger generations are the ones who will have to live with the results of Brexit for far longer than the rest of us. To my increasing surprise, every time we debate these matters, those people are never discussed. I think I am the first to mention them today; I am sure that they have been in everyone else’s minds. They are the ones who, above all, will never forgive this generation of politicians if we allow this catastrophe to happen.
As I mentioned, on
I stand here on behalf of people in Swansea West who voted to leave. They voted for more money, more trade, more control over migration and our laws, and they are getting none of those things. They see a £40 billion divorce bill and an economy projected to shrink by 10%. It has already shrunk by 2.5%—around £360 million a week, when we were promised £350 million a week for the NHS. Under the Prime Minister’s deal, we will still be controlled by EU laws. Under the absurd and irresponsible idea of no deal, we would be controlled by the WTO, which has 260 members, a massive commission, and an unelected pool of judges who would force various laws on us so that we could not, for example, choose to bring the railways and water into public ownership.
Migration will not be controlled, with an open border in Northern Ireland, and the no-deal scenario is a sort of Evel Knievel irresponsible madness. People who voted to leave did not know that Trump would be elected. They did not know that Trump would undermine trade, whether it is steel or Bombardier, undermine the Paris agreement, or undermine our world security by withdrawing from nuclear deals with Iran and so on. We are in a completely different scenario. They did not know that the Chinese would abolish the limited amount of democracy that they had, and that in any trade deals—
I am sorry that Government Members have decided to leave, after multiple interventions to hear some logic. This is not the will of the people; this is a curse on the people by those such as the Members who have now left the Chamber, who do not really agree with democracy at all. We can see the empty Benches. They do not really care about the 6 million people who have seen that this is a complete shambles. Frankly, the people who vote for this will never be forgiven for what they are pushing on the country.
I appreciate that everybody’s diaries are incredibly busy in Westminster, but I find it extraordinary that there is now literally nobody on the side of the House that is responsible for responding to the petition, given it is of such a size. Does that not tell us how poorly the 6 million people in this country who are terrified by the prospect of Brexit feel? This is supposed to be democracy—I find it absolutely startling.
I completely agree. We have seen 6 million people in a matter of days saying, “Enough is enough—we want revocation.” A million people were on the streets, and for every one of them, there are probably 20 more. I personally could not make it; due to various commitments, I could not come along. We must have a vote of the people. Clearly there is a crying need for us to move forward.
Further to the previous intervention, in the last debate in Westminster Hall we had exactly the same situation; very few Government Members attended. Does my hon. Friend agree that the petition shows a real passion on the side of people who want to remain? They do not want a fudge. For them, remain means remain, and that is what we should do.
People have the right to exercise their views, whether to leave or to remain, and increasingly people want to remain. They can see how awful this is. We have been talking about this matter endlessly, and if we do not revoke or have a public vote, we will spend another 10 years talking about it, with ridiculous deals that will push us down the economic toilet in my view. It is time to put Brexit out of its misery. It is time to let the people decide.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe, in what has been an interesting, highly topical and well-attended debate, although I note that the leavers have now all left, after making a few interventions and, bizarrely, no speeches—something that I am sure that the public will have noticed.
I am very grateful to Catherine McKinnell for opening on behalf of the Petitions Committee, on which we both serve. I echo her thanks to the Committee staff and the digital staff for all their hard work in surviving the petition. The number of signatories and the interest shown have certainly improved our processes. Few people will not have heard about the Petitions Committee as a result of the viral “Revoke Article 50” petition, so the Committee may become a tad busier in future. I also pay tribute to the cross-party and cross-Parliament Scottish parliamentarians whose work has given us legal certainty on the ability to revoke article 50, without which the debate would almost be a moot point.
As of this morning, the “Revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU” petition has been signed by 10,156 of my constituents—a staggering number, although it seems almost paltry compared with some of the numbers that we have heard from other constituencies—the “Hold a second referendum on EU membership” petition has been signed by 229, and the “Parliament must honour the Referendum result. Leave deal or no deal” petition has been signed by 129. I am sure that all Members will have been inundated with emails about Brexit in general of late, and about the petitions and today’s debate in particular over recent days. The overwhelming majority of emails and messages that I have received are from people who wish to remain in the EU, and who would support revoking article 50 and/or going back to the people in a second referendum.
That is no surprise, given the volume of signatures on today’s petitions and the fact that 62% of Scotland voted remain, as did an estimated 58% of my constituents at the time, including me, I might add. I think it would be considerably higher if we had another vote today. During the 2016 referendum, and over the years since, I have seen nothing to shake my belief that staying in the EU is better than any of the possible alternative deals. Access to the EU single market and freedom of movement are vital both to protect jobs and to meet Scotland’s need for key workers in public services such as health and social care.
Much of the problem with the 2016 referendum was the result of its rather hasty nature. It was a relatively short campaign of a very vacuous nature. There were vague mantras and slogans on the side of a bus, the proposal was ill defined, and the reality is that, as other speakers have mentioned, Brexit means different things to different people; the number of emails that I have received from Brexiteers and leavers has proven that. As a consequence, agreement even among leavers is nigh-on impossible, as has been demonstrated through the parliamentary process and the impasse in this building to date.
People who voted to leave in 2016 did not vote to leave on
Quite a number of constituents have been saying that the debate should have taken place in the main Chamber. Although I agree with them, the reality is that the Committee does not have the ability to bring debates to the main Chamber—something that perhaps needs to change. Hopefully the powers that be in Parliament are listening to that. Today we are debating in Westminster Hall, while other crucial Brexit-related business takes place in the main Chamber: the latest round of indicative votes—a process that I look forward to taking part in later tonight. Unless a withdrawal agreement is approved by the Commons, the UK must decide within days whether to ask for a long delay to Brexit that would involve holding elections to the European Parliament. The only remaining alternatives would be to leave without an agreement or to revoke the formal article 50 exit procedure altogether.
Time is not with us. Today is
As I have pointed out, Scotland did not vote for Brexit and we should not be dragged out of the EU against our will. Revoking article 50 would honour the wishes of the majority in Scotland. If this UK truly is a Union of equals and a family of nations, as Scots were promised during our referendum on independence, our different views must be respected. I implore the House to listen to them. If that is not possible, the UK is not fit for purpose and its days are numbered.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. May I put it on record how proud I am that Hornsey and Wood Green currently ranks as the constituency with the second-highest number of signatories to the petition to revoke article 50? That is the main argument that I will make in this debate, because I know that other hon. Members wish to contribute.
I cannot compete with my hon. Friend—Hammersmith has only 22,346 signatories, although that is 30% of my constituents. However, I must observe that even New Forest East, whose hon. Member stormed out earlier, has 7,245 signatories. Is it not shameful that hon. Members cannot represent their constituents, who are desperate for a resolution and for us to take the lead?
My hon. Friend is correct. Even though a very small percentage of my constituents voted to leave the EU, I have tried to engage with them and talk about what happened in the election and why they felt like that. That is the spirit that we need to move towards as a Parliament, but it is difficult to do that when hon. Members leave the Chamber.
On the Saturday after
When 1 million people took to the streets of London on
We know that the Prime Minister intends to make a fourth attempt at bringing her deal back—possibly on Wednesday, although the Minister may enlighten us further—and tonight MPs will take part in a second round of indicative votes. It seems completely nonsensical that the people should be prohibited from speaking again at this moment of intense crisis.
Nearly three years have passed since the narrow result, and we understand from commentators that with every passing week a further £600 million is wiped off the national economy. How can something like new computer systems for our ports—to give one example from my time on the International Trade Committee—be more important than providing free dental care for children in our most deprived areas, free university education for our students or the crucial funds that our local authorities need to fight knife crime? There are so many things that £600 million per week could be used for—it is enough to make one weep.
Each hour, £171,000 is spent on preparing for a no-deal Brexit, which we know would have a devastating effect on the economy and inflict disproportionate harm on deprived communities. To put it into context, that money could be spent on recruiting 85,000 nurses, 50,000 teachers or 49,000 police officers—a move that would begin to repair the damage done by eight-and-a-half years of austerity.
I was proud to support the amendment tabled by Angus Brendan MacNeil, not least because he chairs the International Trade Committee, on which I sat until recently—I am sure that hon. Members will correct my faulty Gaelic pronunciation of his constituency. Many hon. Members present will be giving a lot of thought to a similar motion on the Order Paper this evening, which was tabled by Joanna Cherry and has the same aim. If we are heading towards no deal, revocation seems the most sensible, straightforward and logical course of action. Her amendment would not preclude hon. Members from continuing to pursue a second referendum, as I shall, or from advocating a Norway or Canada-style deal.
I am proud to be voting for the revocation amendment tonight, along with the second referendum amendment that it will enable. I encourage all hon. Members to join me in the Aye Lobby—although I feel that I may be speaking to the converted in this funny debate, in which the Minister, as the only Conservative Member, is looking a little lonely.
Our relationship with Europe continues to divide communities and generations. Many people see the relationship in terms of Europe’s economic value to us; some see it as a way of putting to rest forever the terrible wars that divided Europe for centuries, while for others it is a bulwark against oppressive regimes and it is a protection of citizens’ rights. Yet others see membership of the EU as a threat to national sovereignty and identity.
In the 1975 referendum, the British people voted to stay in Europe, with 62.7% voting yes. The referendum split the country and the then Labour Cabinet, and did not settle the question: almost immediately afterwards, anti-marketeers began their campaign to overturn the result. In the 2016 referendum, the people voted to leave Europe by a smaller margin; in my constituency, 53.2% voted to remain, compared with 46.8% who voted to leave.
I conducted a survey of constituents shortly after that vote, and I have just conducted another poll to see how people feel two years on. I sent out surveys to 4,500 households; 71% replied that they now feel that the people should have the final say on the Brexit deal, while 72% said that remaining in the EU should be an option in another referendum. The young were much more pro-Europe than older people: 83% of 25 to 49-year-olds said that there should be an option to remain, compared with 50% of those aged 64-plus. Of those who voted to leave, approximately a fifth either would now vote to remain or are undecided, with those in the 25-to-49 age bracket being most likely to have changed their mind.
The issue of sovereignty and what it means to be British, which was so important in 1975, continued as a strong thread in the replies to my 2016 and 2018 surveys. The latest survey contained many opposing views. For example, on respondent said:
“As a sovereign nation, I want the UK to remain in a community and work together to share information and provide mutual support”.
Conversely, another respondent said:
“We want our country back, our sovereignty, our laws.”
I voted to stay in Europe in 1975, partly for economic reasons. The economy—as probably no one present will recall—was in a very bad state, but my overriding reason was that as a young person I saw belonging to Europe as a break from the past, with the possibility of a better future. As a child, I was brought up in the shadow of the war because of the traumatic experiences of my parents and grandparents. Peace in Europe was an overwhelming prize for our generation. I wanted us to be a nation that took our place alongside other countries and contributed to the responsibility that the international community has to resolve some very challenging issues, such as climate change and migration.
Clearly, it was always going to be difficult to get support for the deal that the Prime Minister has brought back. Indeed, it is difficult to think of any deal that could win overwhelming support, because we all want very different outcomes. It is not very satisfactory for any option to be the majority view of the House by a handful of votes, which is why I believe that having another vote by the public on whatever option the House supports, together with the option to remain, is the only way forward. I do not think that another public vote will settle the issue of what our relationship with Europe should be; communities and generations will continue to be divided.
I believe that the younger generation will, in time, have a more settled view of what its relationship with Europe should be. It is only when that happens that this issue will be resolved. The only long-term solution to the issue of identity is time. However, in a public vote, people would be voting this time on proper, detailed options for the way forward, with the full knowledge of what a deal with the EU would look like, and with the option of voting to remain in the EU if that appeared a better option. Perhaps that could put back into the debate a space for rational consideration, which would be welcomed by many members of the public.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I thank the Petitions Committee for the debate on the three petitions and my hon. Friend Catherine McKinnell for introducing it. We have heard a lot of very interesting arguments, and I extend my thanks to the 98 people in East Lothian who signed the petition asking to respect the original referendum—they have a right to a voice. I thank the 356 people in East Lothian who signed the petition to hold a second referendum. I thank the 13,099 signatories—nearly 12.5% of my constituents—who signed the petition to revoke article 50.
I offer the same thanks to all three groups, because this is a debate in which we need to listen to all sides. We need to address the concerns. It is not a debate in which time should be wasted with interventions and shouting down to try to silence the other side; that is a problem we have had in previous years, and we are not getting any better at it.
I also thank Ann Coffey, who reminds us that the precursor of the EU was an organisation to keep peace—that was its fundamental purpose. People looked to countries across Europe that were devastated by war and said, “How can we make things better?” We came up with the idea of trying to share, and we liked it; it worked. The UK was instrumental in the creation of that organisation, then we sought to join. We were shunned, but we did not take that as a no; we went back and asked again. We did so because we saw that what was happening there was the right thing for the future. It was the right thing for young people then the way it is the right thing for them now. It was right for industry then, just as it is now.
We live in a world where we have a growing challenge from the west and a challenge in the east. Standing together makes us stronger, which is important. I was going to pick up on a variety of comments such as, “Oh, it’s in your manifesto,” and so forth, but, given the shortage of time, I shall not give them the dignity that they do not deserve.
I shall instead answer my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North, who said that petitions have been used in Parliament for ages; they have, and date back to 1832. The very first petition was drawn up by the suffragettes, who wanted a vote, and presented to the House. I suggest that if we had listened to that petition then, some of what happened subsequently might have played out very differently and been more respectful of the sort of community and society that we want to live in today.
I want to look briefly at what article 50 says and why it should be revoked. It is a very simple clause:
“Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.”
It is those last two words—“constitutional requirements” —that have, as much as anything else, caused us problems. We have a challenging constitution; it is unwritten, but it is also versatile. It allows people to say, “This is what I think it is, and you disagree with me at your peril,” but our constitution works because we all agree on certain elements of it.
One of those elements is democracy. If we revoke article 50 as the petition requests, we will create space in which we can perhaps have a better discussion with people who are involved. Some young people in my constituency —primary schoolchildren—wrote to me, and one of them said, “We really should have another vote. We’ve talked about this; it makes sense.” Another boy wrote to me and said, “Why don’t we give the vote to everyone who didn’t have the vote then, but has the vote now? Let’s ask them.” Those young people are looking at adult problems that they know affect them, and coming up with solutions.
Does my hon. Friend agree that should article 50 be revoked, that needs to be in conjunction with a people’s vote? We need to maintain people’s faith in democracy. If people are to have faith in democracy if we decide against something that was decided, albeit with a very small majority, we need to have another vote to be able to confirm the decision.
I very much agree; we cannot have enough democracy. One of the questions that needs to be answered is what sort of democracy we want going forwards. We have looked at the referendum, and a group of people say, “The original referendum is sacrosanct; we can’t have another.” We have people who say, “We’ve had a general election—it’s sacrosanct, and we’re not going to change it.”
Very serious constitutional questions need to be addressed urgently. One way to do that is to create a space for that discussion to happen. The request to revoke article 50 does not mean that we will never leave the EU; it means that we can start to reconcile the country away from screaming and shouting and towards a situation in which discussion takes place and we can move forward together.
Businesses are affected, and many of them do not know who they will employ in the future, what supply chains they will use and which regulatory regime they will use. Surely we need to have space to allow them to have certainty.
Absolutely; I agree. The handling of the no-deal nightmare cliff edge has not been the greatest moment in parliamentary history. We can have a great moment in that history by opening up the discussion again and trusting our voters—the public—to take it forward.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe.
“If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy.”
Those are not my words, but those of our first Brexit Secretary, Mr Davis, who is one of many. The ability to change one’s mind is a beautiful thing and something that we should particularly value in parliamentarians. As Maynard Keynes said:
“When the facts change, I change my mind.”
Having a sealed mind—the inability to change one’s mind—is something that we should be very careful about. That is where we are at the moment, I am afraid. We are in a situation in which people seem incapable of changing their mind, but the public are not.
It is very difficult to quote a figure for the number of people who have signed the petition to revoke article 50, because it is changing. When we started the debate, it was 6,036,045, but the last time I checked—a couple of minutes ago—it was 6,037,286. Some 10,804 of those signatories are in my constituency, which is almost 16% of the electorate. I pay tribute to the 355 people who signed the petition to leave with or without a deal, because we should recognise their voices in the debate. I also pay tribute to the 496 people who signed the petition for the second referendum.
There are lots of reasons to change one’s mind. A good reason to change one’s mind is that the circumstances have changed. Another is that one has looked at the evidence. I come to this seeing both sides of the debate, because I started out—originally, when the referendum campaign was launched—as a soft-leave Eurosceptic. However, as Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee, I heard the evidence of harm week in, week out, and I came to the view that I was wrong. I was not afraid to say that. In fact, many colleagues said to me, “Don’t tell people that you’ve changed your mind. Just put a cross in a different box. It will be very bad for your political career if you change your mind.” It is astonishing that we have come to that—that parliamentarians are not honest and are not prepared to change their mind when they have looked at the evidence.
We focus on the idea that this is all about a WTO Brexit and trade, but from chairing the Health and Social Care Committee it became obvious to me that there is clear evidence of harm to social care, science and research from unpicking a close relationship that has brought enormous benefits for more than four decades. I looked at the harm that Brexit would cause to science and research. There is no version of Brexit that will benefit science and research, improve the situation for our health and social care workforce, or do anything positive for NHS funding.
Of course, the biggest, most remembered non-fact of all the referendum campaign was the £350 million a week for the NHS that never was. Those who led the leave campaign not only know that that was wrong, but valued the fact that people were quoting that figure and that there was a debate. I was in rooms with people who said to me, “Yes, we know the fact is wrong. It’s not a fact. It’s a gross figure, rather than a net figure,” but they were prepared to keep saying it. Many of those people now sit on the Front Bench. It is quite extraordinary.
We must consider the big picture and the extent to which people were misled knowingly and deliberately during the referendum campaign. We must consider the very real evidence that has emerged in every area of the degree of harm. We must be honest about the fact that there were many different versions of Brexit. I am a former clinician—I have said this before—and it would be ridiculous to take someone into an operating theatre more than 1,000 days after they had signed a vague consent form for an operation of some sort. The surgeon would be struck off. The surgeon in this case, I am afraid, is our Prime Minister. Now that we know all the circumstances of Brexit, she has a duty, once we have settled on a version, to allow people to go back and weigh up the risks and benefits of a known deal. That is what is required to give consent.
That is particularly true for young people. We are taking people into the operating theatre kicking and screaming with a consent form signed by their grandparents. We owe it to the British people to check that we have their valid consent before we carry out this extraordinary act of constitutional, social and economic surgery on the population. We have time to do so. We should take that time, and revocation is one way we could do that. We should revoke and reflect. As Martin Whitfield said, that does not cancel Brexit altogether; it just gives us the chance to pause. This is a significant decision, and we should take the time to ensure we get it right.
There are many good reasons to change one’s mind, but there are some that are less honourable, such as changing one’s mind because it suits one’s leadership ambition or because this has all become about the unity of the Conservative party. The country is looking on in horror; it does not see those as reasons to change one’s mind or to stick rigidly to a point of view when all the evidence to the contrary is compelling. Many of my constituents have said to me over and over again, “Why is it that all of you get to change your mind so many times but none of us does?” They just want the ability to reflect the fact that many of them have changed their mind.
Last weekend, I was with the million people—an extraordinary, positive outpouring from all around the country, walking past the Prime Minister’s door peacefully and asking her to put this to the people. I contrast that with the crowds that were outside the gate when I cycled out last Friday, screaming at me, “Traitor!” and “Bitch!”, and referring to other parts of my anatomy in a disgusting outpouring of hostility.
I hear the Prime Minister and others say that we cannot put this back to the people because it will unleash dark forces and division in our society, but those dark forces and division are already out there. We counter the far right not by appeasing them but by standing firm. Since when did this country not have a democratic process because we were afraid of the far right? I and many colleagues in this House have had to face that blast full on. I will not be quiet; I will keep saying loud and clear that it is time we put this back to the people.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Catherine McKinnell on her brilliant opening speech and on being a brilliant MP for my dad. I want to make four brief points, although there are some sub-points—things that might be a bit short.
It is three years since 37% of the eligible electorate voted to leave, and two years since the Prime Minister triggered article 50. Someone earlier described that as premature, but that is an understatement—it was reckless in the extreme. I voted against triggering article 50 and am proud to have done so. Everything we have seen since justifies the decision that I and all those who voted against took at that time.
I speak in support of the petitions in favour of a new people’s vote and revoking article 50 on behalf of an inner-London constituency with a more significant economic cushion. Other hon. Members have spoken about the harm, or the potential speed and depth of the harm, to their constituencies that comes from Brexit. I also want to challenge the idea that there is a north-south divide here, or that this debate is more affluent versus more disadvantaged communities, because that is simply not true.
In my constituency, some wards have 43% child poverty, there are hundreds of working people reliant on food banks under this Government, and there is a very significant homeless and rough-sleeping population. We should all be speaking about the additional damage that Brexit will do to our constituencies. No constituency will be better off as a result of any form of Brexit.
We would be doing people a disservice if we ignored the demographics of the 2016 referendum or the change that we have seen since. It should surprise no one that the vast majority of our black and minority ethnic voters chose to vote remain. They are sick of the foul press narrative, emboldened by this Government, on immigration. Immigrants make a positive net contribution to this country, and we should not be ashamed of making that case. More women, a majority of every group of employed people—full time, part time, self-employed, you name it—and overwhelming numbers of young people, where they voted, voted to remain. The two significant groups that voted to leave were older people and unemployed people. The Government ignore the change since 2016 at their own peril. Where will their voters come from in the future? The demographic change helps to explain why they are scared of going back to the people for a new vote.
I want to highlight some of the damage I have seen, even in an inner-London constituency. I have talked to employers and businesses from across my dynamic and vibrant constituency. Hospitality, construction and the public sector are struggling to recruit already, even before we get to any potential deal or crash out with no deal. I have seen two financial sector firms move to Frankfurt, and I have seen investment from different businesses go instead to Amsterdam when it would otherwise have gone to Elephant and Castle.
We have also seen damage in terms of democracy and the rise in hate. I echo the points made by Dr Wollaston, who spoke about events we saw on Friday. I think it deeply shameful that a neo-fascist was allowed to speak anywhere near the Cenotaph in our capital city.
We have also seen hate grow elsewhere. We now know more than we did before about Putin’s influence and about the depth of lawbreaking, overspending and criminality. Although some of us knew that those were lies on the side of that bus, we had no idea of the depth of the lying and criminality that was going on inside the bus just three years ago.
Voters are now being treated as though they are stupid. It fools no one that the person who, as Home Secretary in 2016, told voters that leaving the European Union would damage our national security and our economy is now, as Prime Minister, pretending that her deal, or any other offering, does anything different. Voters are not stupid and should not be treated as such. It is absurd to have made one claim then and to make a complete counter-claim now.
Those are some of the reasons that the revoke petition in particular has grown so fast and so furiously since it was launched. In my constituency of Southwark, 25,000 people have signed the petition and, in the borough as a whole—across two and a half constituencies—some 75,000 people have signed the petition to revoke article 50. That is more than double the number of people in our borough who voted leave back in 2016.
The Prime Minister claims that she has the support of the people for her pitiful offering, but there is no petition for her deal. That petition does not exist, simply because the public support for it does not exist. I would wager that, even were public support for any such petition to increase, it would still have fewer signatories than there were members of the Cabinet, given what we have seen over the past few weeks.
Finally, even in Bermondsey and Old Southwark—a heavily remain constituency—I have spoken to multiple people whose views have shifted since 2016, as well as many more who still support leave but do not support the Prime Minister’s deal and do support a public vote. Voters whose views have shifted include a prison officer, a banker and a teacher. On Friday, I met a man and his best friend, who is Portuguese and is worried about her future rights in the UK. They recognise the crisis that we are in and the damage that we have seen. They want to revoke article 50 and they want a say on whatever course this country chooses to take. For those reasons, I will be voting today with those people in mind.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr McCabe. There have been some terrific contributions in the debate. I particularly appreciated that of Catherine McKinnell, which was wide ranging and covered a great many points that I very much agreed with. Something that really stuck out was what she said about the very different visions of what Brexit meant and how no one was talking to pull those visions together into some sort of whole. I will address that further in my speech.
Mr Leslie spoke of a mirage of Brexit, which I thought was a terrific term. It really describes the nonsense, in some cases, that we were told by those who supported Brexit and which was offered to those who would eventually vote for it. Describing that as a mirage is particularly apt. Rachael Maskell spoke of the country never forgiving and mentioned citizens’ assemblies, which are certainly something that should be considered more closely.
Chuka Umunna quite rightly reminded us of the younger generation, of the importance of these decisions for their lives and of how we, as those who are in power now—and of a certain generation, in my case—must remember and consider them at all times. We in this place are creating their future and, frankly, if we pursue this Brexit, it will be a very poor future—I include my own children in that consideration.
My hon. Friend Martyn Day gave a terrific speech, for which I thank him. It was very measured and considered and I agreed with everything that he said. Martin Whitfield reminded us that, ultimately, Brexit is a political choice. That must be remembered during our votes tonight and in all our consideration of this incredibly important issue.
I must highlight in particular the contribution from Dr Wollaston, which was extremely frank. She, too, spoke of the many different versions of Brexit, and her condemnation of the hostility that has arisen in recent weeks hit the nail right on the head. She spoke of the whole Brexit debate unleashing dark forces and division. We must stand up to the far right rather than appease it.
The call rings out from Brexiters that we must respect the will of the people in the 2016 referendum. The question that keeps occurring to me is, “What was the will that was expressed?” For some, it was perhaps the £350 million a week for the NHS, and they may be very disappointed when that does not arrive. For others, it may have been the higher wages that were promised during the leave campaign, which is a benefit that does not seem to be appearing any time soon. Some may have been wooed by the promise to scrap VAT, about which we have heard almost nothing since, or perhaps by the easy-as-pie trade deals, of which we were supposed to have dozens by now. Alternatively, was it the UK-EU trade deal or the new immigration system that we were supposed to have by May next year?
One thing that we still have is the pledge that there will be no change to the operation of the Irish border, as promised in a Vote Leave news release of
Despite all the fluff and flannel since 2016, it is fairly clear that leave never meant leave and Brexit never meant Brexit. In the blizzard of reasons for voting one way or another, there was never a manifesto; there was never a plan for what happens afterwards; and there was never any vision of the future. No one was selling truth or honesty, but there was plenty of prejudice and imagined slight on offer, and plenty of gung-ho hot-headed invective, but very little sober reflection.
Since then, however, we have all had a chance to take stock. From hearing other hon. Members today, I know that they, like me, have spent time talking to constituents and have received a range of different responses. I have met people who wanted to leave so that our laws would be made at home, but who still wanted to keep freedom of movement. I spoke to one lady who did not like the control that she thought the EU had over our lives, but thought we should have common standards for goods across Europe. There was no settled will of the people, no single movement, and no collective decision-making. There was no plan to vote for, no manifesto to be held to, and no vision of a new constitution. Any politician who says that they are simply respecting the will of the people is actually just hijacking an advisory plebiscite for their own personal or political advantage.
My constituency of Edinburgh North and Leith is decidedly in favour of the EU. More than a quarter of the population signed the online petitions to revoke article 50. That reflects what is said to me across the constituency on a regular basis. People are worried about whether their doctor will be still be here in future. They are concerned about whether their neighbours and friends will face pressure to leave. Concerned constituents have made countless representations to me about how the community will be affected if we no longer have the flow of fresh faces and if we cannot hang on to the new Edinburgh North and Leithers that we have currently.
The wife of the regius keeper of the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh contacted me because she was concerned about her right to stay. She did not work much while she was bringing up their children, but her husband served with distinction in the Marines, and was invalided out at the rank of lieutenant colonel. He is also a member of the Her Majesty’s Body Guard of the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen at Arms, but that cuts no ice. A constituent who does not want to be named because she fears the repercussions came to me in fear of being deported to the EU country that she left as a toddler to come to the UK even before that country joined the Common Market. She raised her family here and looks after her grandchildren while her children work, but her status here is now uncertain.
Absolutely. I completely associate myself with that comment. My constituency is particularly multi-dimensional, with a number of ethnicities across the board. That is something I relish the most about my constituency, and it goes back hundreds of years, because Leith is a dock area. The embracing of new people on our shores is particularly obvious in Edinburgh North and Leith, and I am proud to be associated with that.
The sentiment repeated to me regularly by my constituents, with very few exceptions, is that they want to keep our links with the EU, preferably remaining a full member state. That might be because we understand the benefits of the EU, freedom of movement in particular. As I am about to elaborate, just under 10% of the population are non-UK citizens of the EU—we have more than twice the UK average concentration—and we understand the benefits of immigration and the added cultural and economic value that immigrants bring. We understand how damaging Brexit will be—a chaotic one in particular. Parliament should heed such voices and we in this place have a duty to look out for their best interests.
We know that the deal negotiated by successive, legendary Brexit Secretaries, who all seem to have resigned in disgust at their own failures, has been disowned three times—and the cock has not yet crowed. There will be no rehabilitation and there is yet time for another denial if the deal is brought back a fourth time. I hope that the Prime Minister is willing to listen to the advice of the Lord Chancellor at the weekend and to acknowledge that the deal has no chance of passing and that she should be looking at other options. I certainly recommend heartily to her the revocation of the article 50 notification letter, a judicial inquiry into the conduct of the 2016 referendum and whatever follows from that. We could top it all off, as I said, by copying Ireland’s citizens’ assembly model to determine a way forward.
We should certainly make certain that no future referendum on such an important matter is allowed to proceed on the basis of hearsay, speculation, fevered invention and blatant prejudice. A proper position based on things such as facts and expert testimony should be set out by anyone advocating major change—there are precedents for that. In any case, revoking article 50 seems to be the most sensible course of action. There is no point trying to carry this nonsense any further forward.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe.
I thank all the Members who have contributed and made such excellent speeches with great passion and insight. It is great to be in a debate in which MPs are so at one with their constituents over an issue—but I must correct myself: I called it a “debate”, but clearly we have not had a debate. Our sharing of perspectives has been among people who broadly agree with one another, and the counter-arguments have not been heard because those who came initially to put them decided to leave. I am sad about that.
I am particularly sad for the 175,000 people, I think, who signed another of the petitions that we are also meant to be discussing—the one on leaving with or without a deal—because their champions walked away today. They need to reach their own conclusions about that, but I certainly regret that this has not been the opportunity that it might have been for the kind of discussion that is possible in this space but sometimes not possible in the main Chamber. That can often be the beauty of these events in Westminster Hall, as opposed to those in the main Chamber of the House of Commons. I regret that.
Nevertheless, we have had outstanding speeches. I particularly thank my hon. Friend Catherine McKinnell on introducing the debate so well and comprehensively. Her constituents will be very proud of her for the job that she did today. Many people present have heard her speak on this issue in the past, and she maintained her high standard of contribution this afternoon.
We heard excellent speeches, too, from my hon. Friends the Members for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), for York Central (Rachael Maskell), for Swansea West (Geraint Davies), for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) and for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle), and from the hon. Members for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), for Streatham (Chuka Umunna), for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day), for Stockport (Ann Coffey), for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) and for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock).
Without doubt, the three petitions that we are here to discuss represent a range of views from across the country: from those who want to revoke article 50 immediately and to stay in the EU, to those who want to have left already, last week, with or without a deal. There are also those who want to hold another referendum between the Prime Minister’s deal and remain. I also recognise, of course, that one of those petitions has received astronomical and unprecedented support. We cannot deal with each of the petitions equally in the debate, because of the overwhelming support received by one of them—something that we have never seen before.
I hope that that is a trend that continues. It is great to see so many people take part in a process that, until Brexit came about, was not gaining much traction with the public. But my goodness people seem to know about it now. The strength of feeling shown by so many people about this cannot be dismissed—6 million signatures is an enormous amount. Even if we accepted that not everyone who signed it did so with exactly the same motive as one another, a clear message comes from such a large number of people taking time to sign a petition.
Will the hon. Lady clarify what Labour’s position is tonight on voting in favour of the revoke motion?
Yes. We are treating tonight as the opportunity to vote for something—a way to find whether there is a majority in the House of Commons for a particular deal as a way forward. We do not necessarily disagree with the proposition made by Joanna Cherry, but we will abstain on it this evening, while acknowledging that it is something that we might need to confront in the future.
Gosh, the hon. Lady invites me to make comments way above my station. I am sure she will understand that what happens with whipping is a matter for my Chief Whip. I do not know the exact position on how we will enforce it. But I will abstain on that motion this evening, as a shadow Minister, but I hope that she accepts in good faith what I am explaining: that I recognise—as, I am sure, do my colleagues—that that decision point might be something that we need to confront in future. It is not something that we need to do tonight, because for us tonight is about trying to find a majority for a way forward. I hope we arrive at that this evening.
I can confirm that my party has a free vote on that, apart from members of the Cabinet, who seem to be abstaining—something I do not quite understand myself, I have to say. Is the hon. Lady saying that her party is abstaining while trying to talk up a petition of 6 million people who wanted something else?
I am admiring and respectful of the petition, and I understand the reasons for it. I also do not discount the proposition put this evening. The Minister should not read too much into the fact that I am not voting for it. I would add that the Labour party will whip its Members this evening, unlike the Government, who dare not whip even their own Cabinet. If I were the Minister, I am not sure I would bob up and down quite as much on this particular issue.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s advice, which I am sure he would have given regardless of advice from his colleagues in the Whips Office.
What I interpret from the fact that 6 million people—thousands of them in my constituency—have signed the petition is how concerned, angry and frustrated people are with how the Brexit process has been mishandled by the Government. I do not think there has been the same amount of public support and cut-through for a petition at any other stage in the Brexit process.
In the last two weeks, figures have come out showing that Brexit is costing £600 million to £800 million a week. Does my hon. Friend think that might have influenced some people to sign the petition?
There is definitely more of a sense of urgency. People feel that if they are to have their voice heard to make their case, they need to do it now, perhaps in a way that they did not feel previously.
My hon. Friend talked about the anger of some of those out there. Does she agree that there is a lot of anger from some people who voted leave as well? If we believe in democracy and we want to ensure that we can deal with the anger on both sides from people who feel they are ignored, the only way to do that is to have another vote, to enable people to vote on fixed propositions rather than simply nebulous concepts.
I agree that there is anger on both sides. We have not always heard it, but in this debate colleagues have been at pains to make sure that when they talk about the far right, or the scenes outside Parliament last Friday, in no way do they characterise all leave supporters in that way. That has happened in the past, and it is a good thing that we have not seen that this afternoon. I credit hon. Members for making sure they have not in any way allowed that perception to be taken away from this debate.
The number of people who have signed this petition and others, and who have gone on marches and protests in recent weeks, shows how many people feel left out or ignored in this process. That has to be because, after the referendum, the Prime Minister was quick to say, “I will stand up for one side of the argument alone. The 52% will get what they want and to hell with everybody else.” That is a dreadful way to attempt to lead a country. In that situation, a Prime Minister ought to have tried to work through a way that is respectful to the outcome but listens to and bears in mind the concerns and anxieties of the 48%. I am elected but I do not represent just the people who voted Labour. I do not check how people voted before I work on their behalf. We are here to serve the whole country, however they vote at elections and in the referendum.
From what people are seeing, they think that Westminster is not working. They see a Prime Minister who, rather than listening to different views, keeps putting the same deal back to Parliament, hoping for a different result. I hope the Minister reflects on that and will set out how the Government plan to go forward. The Minister and I have been in a few of these petition debates, so I will not get my hopes up, but who knows.
On the first petition, to revoke article 50, we recognise the huge amount of public support and why it has touched a nerve with so many people. Any discussion about revoking article 50 would have to be considered in the context of a final choice between that and leaving without a deal. We recognise that, given the Government’s intransigence, we could get to that point, which was almost inconceivable a year ago. In particular, I have in mind the contribution made by Sir Oliver Letwin in a recent debate, when he said that he used to think that the Prime Minister would not take us out without a deal but no longer holds that view. He knows her far better than any hon. Member here does, and his assessment is that she would consider taking us out without a deal. For that reason, as a final choice, revoking article 50 would be preferable to leaving without a deal, but we are not there yet. I am glad we are not, and I hope we never get to that point.
Our clear preference is for Parliament to have the time and the opportunity to debate credible alternatives that can command a majority in Parliament. The next stage of that begins today in the Chamber. I wish it had begun earlier, and I hope progress will be made. I do not think that Back Benchers should have had to initiate it; the Government should have initiated it or a similar process two years ago, to find a mandate on which they could have negotiated, while being obliged to engage with Parliament if the Prime Minister had managed to successfully negotiate. That is not what happened, and unfortunately we have had to take control as parliamentarians. I hope we produce a positive outcome today from this exercise. We will see at about 10 o’clock this evening.
Revoking article 50 at this stage without consulting the public in either a general election or a referendum, which is what the petition asks for, would not bring the country back together. I can understand why people are so frustrated that they reach that conclusion, but without having some kind of democratic process, that would not achieve the reunification that we should all desire. It is not the preferred approach at the moment, but I recognise it is an issue that we might need to return to in future. That will not be enough for some colleagues, but it is the most straightforward explanation of Labour’s position that I can manage.
The second petition calls for a referendum on the Prime Minister’s deal. Labour would support a public vote, which we would call a confirmatory ballot, to prevent a damaging Tory Brexit or no deal. Labour colleagues here will have had several discussions over the months about the desirability or otherwise of another referendum.
I do not see any point in going through another exercise such as that without having remain on the ballot paper. Everybody seems to have their own view on exactly what ought to be on any such ballot paper—whether two or three options, a single stage or multiple stages—but the principle of engaging the public further in that decision is gaining support. I do not know if it has a majority yet—perhaps we will find out later today—but the specifics of what goes on a ballot paper would need to be quickly resolved. There would need to be a process in Parliament to help inform that, but yes, if remain is not on the ballot paper, it is difficult to see the benefit of the exercise.
We have spent two years making the case for a Brexit approach that we believe could have commanded support in the Commons, but I have to recognise that, at this late stage, if the Prime Minister forced through her deal, probably after multiple meaningful votes, that would need further confirmation from the public, as would any deal that came at the 11th hour from the indicative votes process. We have also said that we would include remain as the default option against a credible leave option, so we sympathise with the petition—especially the part that states:
“Whether you voted leave or remain, you didn’t vote for us to leave the EU in disarray, with no deal, putting many peoples livelihoods and living situations at risk.”
That brings me to the final petition, which calls for the UK to leave “deal or no deal”. I represent a seat that voted 56% to leave, and many of my friends and members of my close family voted to leave, so I know how strongly many people feel about that. However, I do not believe that leaving without a deal is what voters were promised in 2016, and I do not think it would be in the best interests of our country, or of my constituents or anyone else’s. It would cause huge damage to jobs, the economy and trade, and create enormous difficulties in Northern Ireland. That is why Labour has always said that we will not countenance no deal, and why we will be putting forward options to prevent it.
I thank everyone again for taking part in the debate, but these debates are always primarily about the people who signed the petitions. We could not have these events if it were not for so many people taking part and putting their names to petitions. It is great to see that people made time to attend the debate as well; I know some people may have travelled a long way to be here today. It is sometimes hard to find an upside of the last two years, but if there has been one, it is that people are more engaged than ever and keener to participate in what happens in this place. I am very pleased that their voices have been heard today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe, which is a first for me. I shall try to be as well behaved as I like to think I normally am. I hope you will pass on my thanks —and I think everyone else’s—to Mr Gray, who chaired the first part of the debate. It is a pleasure to follow Jenny Chapman.
I thank Catherine McKinnell for opening the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee. She did so amazingly courteously and politely, taking into account all the petitions appropriately. I am sure she, like me, is pleased that there have been a number of people in the Public Gallery for the debate. I thank them both for being here and for not stripping off to make a point, as people did in the Gallery of the main Chamber this afternoon. I very much appreciate their attendance and their clothes.
The hon. Lady spoke, as she always does—I admire her for it—in a very honest and brave way. She represents a seat that voted leave in quite some numbers—something like 56.8%, I believe, not that I check these figures.
I always read the paper that my mother reads; it is very important to know where she is going to come at me next time. I apologise if that is not the correct figure, but I maintain that the hon. Lady is an honest and brave parliamentarian.
I know the estimated percentage of my constituents who voted leave. It is 56.7%. However, I have told them that my role is to represent their best interests, and that is what I am trying to do. I am trying to represent the best interests of them all—not just the people who voted for me, but the people who did not vote for me; and not just the people who voted leave, but the people who voted remain.
I think that is a completely honourable position for the hon. Gentleman to take. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North, who has been straightforward throughout this process, is similarly honourable. As she said, she did not vote to activate article 50, and she has sometimes been quite outspoken, in a very polite way, about the process we have gone through in the House.
I hear the hon. Lady has had many conversations with people in her constituency, and many Members who contributed to the debate mentioned the many conversations they have had with leave voters. There are lots of reasons why people voted to leave, so we cannot say that everybody came behind one reason. Actually, there are lots of different reasons to vote to remain as well. People might have voted to leave because they wanted us to set our own laws—to have them set by this place, not by the European Commission—or to make our own choices about how to spend our money, or because they wanted to end freedom of movement. A number of people might vote for the Common Market 2.0 option today, knowing full well that means continuing freedom of movement, which their voters might well have been quite strongly opposed to. A number of people have said over the past couple of years that they voted to leave because they were concerned about how their wages had deflated against overall wage growth. People voted in the way they did for a huge number of reasons, and they are all legitimate. We must not debase the legitimacy of people’s actions.
I am very pleased that the hon. Lady was proud of the people who demonstrated last week, and I am quite sure she was proud to have the full and uncompromising support of her party leader at the front of the march. Oh, he wasn’t there, was he? I think he was in Morecambe. Perhaps she was nearly led from the front by her party leader.
Nineteen Members intervened in the debate, which I think is the most interventions I have experienced. The hon. Member for Darlington talked about the many petitions debates we have had in the Chamber. It is nice to have a full house of people—even on one side—talking about the petition, because these are very important decisions that we are making on people’s behalf.
I thank Mr Leslie for his contribution. As long as he is on the other side from me, I feel—no, he is a very good gentleman, and I entirely understand his view on this subject. He said this debate should have taken place in the main Chamber. I have no disagreement with that whatsoever. Perhaps when so many people—more than a million, or whatever it might be—sign a petition, the Petitions Committee could consider whether the Floor of the House might be the best place for the debate. I am in agreement with him on that, but obviously it is a House matter, so it is up to the Petitions Committee how it goes about that.
On a point of fact, it is not up to the Petitions Committee where the debates are held. The Committee has an allocated slot on a Monday afternoon here in Westminster Hall. This is where we are allowed to hold the debates on petitions that we decide have passed the relevant thresholds. It would be for the House authorities to negotiate how that might be changed, but it is purely a matter of the procedure that the Committee has at its disposal that we have the debates here in Westminster Hall.
I hear what the hon. Lady says. We have a Speaker who believes in the evolution of parliamentary process at a very speedy rate, so I am sure there is a way that very popular petitions could get time on the Floor of the House. I do not think anybody would necessarily disagree with that. The process might be slightly more interesting behind the scenes, but that is one for those who deal with those matters.
I thank the hon. Members for York Central (Rachael Maskell), for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), and for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes). I will spar one day with Chuka Umunna on no-deal preparation. Actually, no-deal preparation has gone well—much better than he might care to make out.
On no-deal preparation, one thing that has been quite frustrating is the use of non-disclosure agreements—gagging clauses. It is very difficult for the Health and Social Care Committee to assess the extent to which no-deal planning for medicines supplies has been a success, as people have had to sign those agreements. Is the Minister prepared to sweep those out of the way so that we can see whether there is adequate planning for supplies of vital medicines and medical equipment in the event of no deal?
Perhaps the hon. Lady missed the email update last week to 19,000 doctors by Professor Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, who said:
“I know that many of you will have been watching the news about Brexit…with feelings of uncertainty and increasing alarm…I have been considerably reassured by governments’ preparations relating to medicines supplies…governments, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency and the NHS have been working hard behind the scenes…and we believe that our medicine supplies are very largely secured”.
His biggest concern was panic buying. As far as I am aware—I will happily take this up with the hon. Lady offline—NDAs have not been a practice of no-deal preparation for quite some time. I will happily correspond or have a conversation with her afterwards about that, because if she has concerns I would like to bring them into the open a tiny bit.
Is the Minister saying that everybody who has been asked not to disclose any issues to do with the supply of medicines is now at liberty to disclose them?
I have said what I have said in public, and I will happily take that up with the hon. Lady after the debate.
I also thank the hon. Members for Swansea West (Geraint Davies), for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day), for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), for Stockport (Ann Coffey), for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) and for Totnes (Dr Wollaston). The hon. Member for Totnes cited a whole host of reasons why she is allowed to change her mind. I will not go back and quote all the things she said to her electorate in the 2017 general election. I also thank Neil Coyle, and Deidre Brock, who missed the point that wages are rising ahead of inflation at this point in time, and obviously I thank the hon. Member for Darlington, who informed us about Labour’s whipping.
More importantly, I thank the number of people who have expressed themselves to the Government in the three petitions we have debated, which ask us to reverse the 2016 referendum result, whether by revoking article 50 or holding a second referendum, as well as the exact opposite: that the Government ensure that we deliver the outcome of the 2016 referendum no matter what. The Government’s position remains clear: we will not revoke article 50 and we will not hold a second referendum. We remain committed to leaving the European Union and implementing the result of the 2016 referendum.
Parliament’s position is now also clear. In the series of indicative votes on
The Government really do acknowledge the substantial number of signatures that these petitions have amassed. We also recognise the hundreds of thousands of people who marched in London on
I want to take a moment to note that I, the Government and, I am sure, everyone in the Chamber, were disgusted to hear the reports that Ms Georgiadou has received threats and abuse for starting a petition. That is utterly unacceptable. Everyone should feel and be able to express their opinions and participate in political discourse without fear of intimidation or abuse. That is integral to our democracy and it should be at the front and centre of our minds when we debate and discuss all issues, including Brexit. It is those democratic values that underpin the Government’s commitment to uphold the result of the 2016 referendum.
Although I have elaborated on this process before, let me do so again, to reinforce exactly why it is that we must uphold the result. In 2015, Parliament voted overwhelmingly to give the British people a choice on whether to remain in or leave the European Union, allowing them to express a clear view to Government. Before we asked them to vote, the Government wrote to every household, committing to implement whatever decision they made.
Of course, Parliament also made a commitment to uphold the result of the 2016 referendum. In the 2017 general election, the British people cast their votes again, and more than 80% of voters voted for parties who committed in their manifestos to uphold the result of the referendum.
I refrained from raising this in my speech, but the Conservatives also stood on a manifesto saying that they would not separate the withdrawal agreement from the political declaration. How can they keep to one bit of the manifesto but not the other bit further on in the same paragraph?
I thought the Minister might want to reply. The point he continues to ignore is the reason why he and his Government are in the mess they are in. Ultimately, the 2016 referendum gave a view on whether a majority of people participating in that referendum wanted to leave the European Union, but how to leave was reserved to Parliament. His Government put a very hard Brexit to the British people and lost their majority. The clash of those two mandates is why we are going through all this chaos right now, and yet again he is sticking his head in the sand and ignoring that fact. It is all very well asserting the result of the referendum, but it did not tell us how the country wanted to leave the European Union. That has been the essential problem in this process.
Forgive me for not answering the point made by the hon. Member for East Lothian. I was going to take all three interventions first, but let me do what the hon. Member for Streatham would want. Our manifesto was quite clear, and Labour’s manifesto was quite clear. My party wants to deliver on its manifesto commitment.
To respond to the hon. Member for Streatham, absolutely, things did move on between 2016 and 2017, and that is why his party—then—and my party made the commitments they did. People understood that we would be leaving the single market and the customs union.
The Minister is also ignoring what his own Chief Whip will say on BBC 2 later this evening: the Government have refused to alter course and change their red lines in light of the fact that they lost their majority. They cannot get measures and propositions through the House of Commons. That is why they are in the mess they are in.
Forgive me—it is a tiny bit busy at this moment in time. Obviously I will watch and read every word that the Government Chief Whip might say and put that in the context in which it might have been said.
The hon. Member for Streatham might not have enjoyed reading his former party’s manifesto in 2017 at the general election, and I might not have enjoyed reading mine; but as well as spending a lot of time in my own seat, I canvassed across the country, from Bolsover to Coventry South, in Northampton and through swathes of south London, where people whose doors were knocked on rightly thought that Brexit was in the process of being delivered, because everybody agreed they were going to respect the result of the referendum. Yes, I do believe that there has been a bit of a democratic disconnect, but in a slightly different way from the way the hon. Gentleman believes it.
The one thing I struggle with is why, if the Prime Minister says with so much passion and conviction that her deal is what the people voted for in 2016, she is too worried to put it back to the people. If she believes it is what people voted for, she should proudly present her deal and just check that with the people.
The Minister seems to be struggling to split the hypothetical from what happened in the election. Perhaps he has the figures for the number of people who downloaded or bought the Conservative manifesto; however, as to the simplistic suggestion that the vast majority of voters read any party’s manifesto, we all know it to be untrue. The practical reality in constituencies such as mine was that in every leaflet I put out—in every interview and article, and at the hustings—I said I would continue to oppose Brexit, full stop, so it is completely false to pretend that in the election voters only voted in the knowledge that Brexit would be delivered. It is nonsense.
In a way the hon. Gentleman is making the point that I was trying to make to the hon. Member for Streatham, because people did pay attention to what individual MPs were saying in their constituencies —at least, more people than ever before attended hustings in my constituency, and I should like to think that that was reflected elsewhere. The disconnect comes from the fact that in the end lots of people vote, as the hon. Gentleman knows, for a party rather than an individual. If a candidate’s party, nationally, says something loud and clear, they are almost disrespecting their party’s manifesto by saying something different locally.
Surely the point of a manifesto is to let the voters know what the party will do if and when it forms a Government. We wrote our manifesto in the hope and expectation that we would be able to form a Government and carry through the manifesto that we wrote. Unfortunately for the British people, we were not able to form that Government or to take control of the Brexit process. Clearly, over the past two years, the present Government have not been able to take control of it either, but we can hardly be blamed for that, and I do not think that the electorate should be able to blame us for the fact that the Government have not been able to control their own Members or bring forward a feasible, viable Brexit process.
I do not think that I was blaming hon. Members collectively. I was just making a point about what people might well have expected. It is not just the Government but many colleagues who stood on manifestos promising to uphold the result of the referendum who have an obligation and mandate to do so.
The problem is that people sometimes do not like it when politicians say one thing and do another. We all recognise that, and it is a difficulty that we all might have at some point in the future. What if a Member goes round during a general election campaign saying
“this constituency voted by 54% to leave. I think this is one of the things that annoys people, is telling them that they didn’t know what they were voting for. That was the purpose of the referendum, we accept the result…We have to go into this, absolutely understanding that the principle here is that we respect the outcome of the referendum and I think it would be a huge mistake to go into this promising that I’d be prepared to vote to actually overturn the deal and send us back into the Europe”?
That is what the hon. Lady said to her constituency.
I remind the Minister that we are being observed here by members of the public in the Gallery, and also by many people watching at home, because they have a certain level of engagement with this debate, perhaps more than others. What they do not want to see is an attempt to undermine, one by one, Members who have made a case on behalf of the petitioners today. They would like the Minister to address the substance of the petition.
That is what I had started to do. Failing to deliver on the commitments that we, as politicians, have made to the people we serve, would be hugely damaging.
I am afraid I completely disagree.
Let me be clear. To revoke article 50 or to hold a second referendum would be failing to deliver on the commitments we have made. Parliament once again rejected those motions last week. Second-guessing or otherwise reversing the outcome of the 2016 vote damages the trust that British people place in their Government. It gives cause for British people to lose faith in politics and politicians and in the most important democratic practice of all—voting. I recognise, in the midst of the uncertainty, that the petitioners question why the British people should not have a chance to have a second say —a second vote—on Brexit. However, I ask Members what guarantees we could give, if we cannot show that we can uphold and respect the results of one referendum, that we could respect and uphold the results of a second. Would we need a third, or the best of five? What would prevent a third referendum? When would the uncertainty and the back-and-forth asking of the question end? When could we consider ourselves to have settled the question?
The Government believe we have settled the question. It was settled by the British people in the 2016 referendum. To question that vote and try to undermine what was expressed in it is a harmful precedent to set, and one that the Government are firmly unwilling to set. However, people have expressed an important message to us through the petitions. Through them, we recognise the frustrations and concerns caused by the current uncertainty. It is our view, and Parliament’s view as expressed in numerous votes last week in the indicative vote process, that the solution is not to revoke article 50 or hold a second referendum, thereby irreparably damaging the relationship between people and politics, but to try to move forward with certainty as we deliver on the instruction that was given to us. That is what the Government are trying to do.
I thank the Minister for his reply. I was perhaps being a little unfair on him when I picked him up on his reference to Newcastle upon Tyne North being a leave constituency, because, as my hon. Friend Sandy Martin pointed out, there are projected figures for demographic analysis, and I know from the conversations I had on many doorsteps during the referendum campaign that many of my constituents were voting leave.
The discussion and the level of debate from those on the Government Benches have been disappointing throughout this debate, in terms of engagement with the substance of the issue. The point that gets forgotten is a reality check on where we are, rather than going around in ever-decreasing circles, arguing tit for tat about how we got here. We know how we got here. There was a referendum question put to the country that did not specify in any way how it would be delivered, and we had a Government who went ahead and held a general election, and lost their majority. We have a Prime Minister who has completely failed to engage with anyone but those within her own party on this issue, and to reach out and form a consensus.
We know why we are where we are. Like my hon. Friend Jenny Chapman, I was disappointed that the few Conservative Members who initially attended the debate, to whom I gave many opportunities to intervene, got up and left before the end without making any substantive contribution. If I am perfectly honest, their contributions were like those in a school debating club—point scoring rather than engaging with the substance.
I marvel, horrified, when I find Conservative Members of Parliament dismissing out of hand the concerns expressed by the CBI and by chambers of commerce up and down the country that the facts around a no-deal Brexit put so many of our jobs and industries at risk, and that they are not ready, as they have said with absolute clarity. The Conservative party used to pride itself on being the party of business; now it dismisses the concerns of businesses and treats those businesses as though they, and their concerns about a no-deal Brexit, are of no relevance to the Brexit preparations.
That is how we have ended up with this petition. To try to dismiss it as some kind of assault on democracy, which we heard in some hon. Members’ contributions, is not only deeply insulting to every single member of the public who took the trouble to go and sign up on the petitions website, but it ignores the deep, gnawing anxiety of so many people in our country who are terrified of the prospect of a no-deal Brexit and want to know that—as politicians, as Members of Parliament, as a Government—we will not stand by while that happens to our country, with all the consequences it would bring.
Anyone who stands there and says, “I have no fear of a no-deal Brexit; it’ll be absolutely fine,” clearly has nothing to lose and is completely insulated, but I know that my constituents are not. I go back to the point that the Minister made about mine being a leave constituency: the honest answer is we do not know. The vote was calculated as a city, so we know that Newcastle voted remain very marginally. What I do know, as a Member of Parliament who represents, lives in and has children growing up in the constituency, is that I will not take any action if all the evidence, including the Government’s own analysis, points to its damaging my constituency’s prospects.
Even if it means not getting re-elected, the only basis on which I will make this decision is knowing that I have done the right thing in terms of all the evidence I am presented with. That is why this revoke petition has been so popular, but it is also the reason that the call for a confirmatory referendum on whatever Brexit deal the Government arrive at has gained so much support. I recognise, as do my colleagues, that there was a vote to leave the European Union, but how that would happen was not decided upon; that is something Parliament has to decide. We have seen the evidence. We have seen that every single Brexit option will make our constituents poorer, and the impact will be greatest on those in the north-east.
Therefore, my view and the view of many of my colleagues who will support the motion tonight is that we should allow Parliament to have that process, to pass it back through Parliament and give it back to the people to make the final decision. Given that they started the process in 2016, they can now make the final decision on how it ends. That is how I will find out whether this is a Brexit that my constituents support, because they will have the opportunity to vote for it in a referendum—a referendum that every single citizen of this country who can vote can take part in. That is a democratic resolution to the impasse that we find ourselves in here in Parliament.
We know how we got here; we know how to get out of it. It is about time that the Government stopped burying their head in the sand and going around in circles, engaging in a debate that is not taking us forward in any way, but only leaves us stuck in this Brexit chaos. I implore the Minister, rather than engaging in the tit-for-tat that is driving the country to distraction, to compromise and come to an agreement that Parliament cannot take this historic decision without the confidence that it is something the public support.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (