Leaving the European Union — [James Gray in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 6:21 pm on 1st April 2019.

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Photo of Martin Whitfield Martin Whitfield Labour, East Lothian 6:21 pm, 1st April 2019

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.