Monday 5 September 2016
[Mr James Gray in the Chair]
EU Referendum Rules
Before commencing this afternoon’s important debate, called by the Petitions Committee of the House of Commons, it might be useful if I lay out a couple of rules of procedure. First, quite a large number of Members have signified their intention to speak. However, we have got a three-hour debate and I do not intend to apply a formal time limit to speeches—at least to begin with. We have the authority to do that later. If Members are sensible and restrict their remarks to five to 10 minutes apiece, we might get most Members who wish to speak into the debate.
Secondly, the motion before us today, namely that we have considered the petition, is very specific, and I intend to be fairly strict in preventing Members from rambling widely into every issue to do with the European Union and Brexit. Those are not matters for debate this afternoon; the debate is simply about whether we should have a second referendum. With that as prologue, I call Mr Ian Blackford to move the motion.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 131215 relating to EU referendum rules.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I appreciate the motivation of those who have called for a second referendum. It is a mark of an irresponsible Government that, more than two months after the EU referendum, we know nothing more than the Prime Minister’s soundbite “Brexit means Brexit”. We are not the only ones confused by the UK Government’s haphazard approach to leaving the EU. Speaking at the G20 summit in China, President Obama said that the UK will not be prioritised in free trade talks. He said that he never meant to say that the US would “punish Great Britain”, but simply that he wanted to challenge the notion that the consequences of Brexit are negligible and that Brexiteers would
“just go ahead and light-up a whole bunch of free trade agreements.”
An official Japanese Government briefing leaked to the summit warned of the repercussions for the thousands of people employed by Japanese car, finance and high-tech firms in the UK, and sought assurances about continued access to the single market, tariff levels and other trade privileges. The notion that the UK can quickly put in place trade deals around the world is fanciful. It is wishful thinking without any basis in experience or likelihood of delivery. It is no more than a policy of “hope for the best”.
The UK Government should follow the Scottish Government’s example and announce an urgent economic stimulus plan. We are clear that the least bad option requires the UK to stay within the single market. The Scottish Government will use their influence to shape the best outcome for Scotland and the UK as a whole, which means the UK continuing to be a member of the single market.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Order. Before the hon. Gentleman intervenes, I said that I was going to do this to begin with, so I hope the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) will forgive me if I point out that we are discussing the question of whether there should be a second referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. It is therefore not in order to discuss anything to do with Scotland or Britain’s role in the wider world. Our sole purpose is to discuss whether there should be a second referendum on our membership of the European Union, so perhaps the hon. Gentleman will restrict himself to that particular topic.
I am mindful of your comments, Mr Gray, so I will try to put my intervention in the correct context. Many of my constituents have written to me arguing for a second referendum, but many have also argued that it must be absolutely clear that it cannot be the case that Parliament does not get to have a say on this issue again, and that it certainly cannot be the case that the devolved Administrations and Governments do not get to have a say. It is my view that they absolutely must. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?
Given the difficulties that the hon. Gentleman is outlining, the call for a second referendum is not only damaging to our democracy, but enormously diversionary from the tasks that he outlined of negotiating our relationship with our European neighbours and the rest of the world, and, equally significantly, getting the British Government machinery working efficiently and effectively so we can make decisions and compete in that new world.
I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s point, but there is the issue of what people voted for. The situation is in contrast with that of Scotland in 2014, when the Scottish Government had a 650-page White Paper that laid out exactly what would happen to Scotland post a vote for independence. The problem with the Brexit campaign is that we did not have a manifesto.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister confirmed that there is no commitment to give additional funds to the NHS as a consequence of Brexit—a pledge that toured the country on the side of a bus, and on the basis of which millions of people voted in good faith to leave the EU. The Prime Minister says that Brexit means Brexit, but when such pledges are broken almost immediately, none of us really knows what Brexit will mean. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that lack of clarity further underlines the case for enabling the British people to see the detail of the actual Brexit deal and vote again on whether they would like to proceed on those specific terms, and that that should take place before article 50 is triggered?
It is fair to say that those on the Brexit side failed to put across exactly what Brexit means. The week after the Brexit result, the Chancellor—then the Foreign Secretary—said that the Government have no plan. That is the difficulty that the hon. Lady is referring to. When the Prime Minister says “Brexit means Brexit”, what does that mean? There has not been an explanation of exactly what it means.
When we talk about a second referendum, it is important to be clear about whether we are talking about simply rerunning the old referendum, which I am sure no one is suggesting—that would absolutely undermine democracy—or about a referendum on the terms of any new deal. That is absolutely crucial. In that context, does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should take into account the conclusions of the Electoral Reform Society, which has done a report on the myths, misinformation and downright lies in the previous referendum, and says that we have got to do things better next time?
I absolutely agree. The Electoral Reform Society talked about many of the good things in the referendum in Scotland in 2014—it is often described as a gold standard—such as the fact that we had a long referendum campaign and that people were able to make a judgment based on the facts. That is a reasonable point.
Let me make some progress, then I will be happy to take more interventions.
The Scottish Government have already announced an additional £100 million of funding in this financial year to stimulate the economy following the uncertainty about the UK’s future relationship with the EU. As a Scottish MP, I fully support the action taken by the Scottish Government and backed by a vote in the Scottish Parliament empowering them to secure Scotland’s place in the EU. That context is important to this debate, Mr Gray. When the vote was taken in the Scottish Parliament, 106 Members voted for the motion, eight voted against and there were three abstentions. Our Scottish Parliament, on a cross-party basis, gave an unequivocal statement that Scotland voted to remain in Europe. Let me put it this way: remain means remain.
The Government in Westminster repeatedly tell us that they respect the authority of the Parliament in Edinburgh. The Government in London should reflect on what respect means when it comes to article 50 and the desire, if that is what they have, to remove the UK from Europe before recognising our desire and our right to remain in Europe. Our position must be given cognisance. As the UK develops its position ahead of triggering article 50, the Scottish Government must be given a central role in the deliberations and negotiations. The Prime Minister must not bypass Scotland in the EU negotiations.
It is deeply worrying that the Prime Minister is ploughing ahead with a hard breakfast—[Laughter.] I mean Brexit; other than the dog’s breakfast that was the Brexit campaign. We wish to remain in Europe, with full access to the single market and full free movement of people.
Order. I am very sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman again, but I made it absolutely plain at the beginning that this debate is on the very narrow and specific question of the wording of the petition, namely:
“We the undersigned call upon HM Government to implement a rule that if the remain or leave vote is less than 60% based a turnout less than 75% there should be another referendum.”
That is the topic of debate. We are not debating whether we should be in the European Union, what happened in the Scottish Parliament, or the benefits of Brexit or of staying in the European Union. We are debating simply whether there should be a repeat of the original EU referendum, and the hon. Gentleman should return to that subject if he does not mind.
The point, however, is that we have been asked about the rules for an EU referendum. My specific argument comes down to the issue of where sovereignty lies. In our opinion, sovereignty in Scotland lies with the people, and the people of Scotland voted 62% to remain within Europe. Those are the arguments that I will outline in the debate, and I believe that in a process of free speech I should be entitled to do so.
The respected Professors Chalmers and Menon, writing for Open Europe, suggested that Scotland could have a different relationship with the European Union from the rest of the UK, including free movement of people, and Scotland continuing to sign up to EU law. Others have pointed to the so-called “reverse Greenland” scenario, in which the rest of the UK leaves the EU, but Scotland retains the existing rights and membership of the EU. It is up to Westminster whether it is willing to recognise Scotland’s position, which requires its own settlement, perhaps with Northern Ireland, another of the family of nations which voted to remain.
As I have said, 62% of Scots who voted expressed a desire to remain. We often hear about the sovereignty of Parliament, but we have our own tradition in Scotland, and it is one in which the people are sovereign. In the case of MacCormick v. Lord Advocate in the Court of Session in 1953—
Order. I must now insist that the hon. Gentleman return to the topic of the debate in hand, namely whether we should have a second referendum on the EU. If he is unable to return to that subject, he will have to resume his seat, because other Members in the Chamber will do so. It is nothing to do with freedom of speech. The topic of the debate is absolutely plain, and it is vital that he address himself to it and to nothing else.
With respect, Mr Gray, that is precisely what I am trying to do. I am putting this in the context of what has happened in Scotland. On the basis of free speech, I ask that I be given the opportunity to present my argument in the way that I feel is appropriate to the people of my country. This is about the people of Scotland being listened to when they have, under the rules of the referendum, voted to remain. I am perfectly entitled to make that argument, which I intend to do.
The principle of the unlimited sovereignty of Parliament is a distinctly English one, which has no counterpart in Scottish constitutional law. The judgment in the case that I cited recognised the sovereignty of the people of Scotland, and that is something the Government in London will have to accept. Scotland voted to remain, so we could remain citizens of Europe, and that must be respected. Those who have signed the petition and pushed for a second referendum would, I hope, recognise that, as a Scottish MP seeking to hold the Government in London to account and standing up for the people of Scotland, who voted to remain, my primary responsibility is to the people of Scotland.
We had a referendum in 2014, and 45% of those who voted in it voted for independence and 55% voted to remain in the UK, but the important point is that in that referendum debate, the Conservative-Liberal coalition Government and their partners in Better Together, the Labour party, told the people of Scotland that if they voted to remain in the UK, their position in Europe would be guaranteed. The people of Scotland were misled. I will come on to the mandate given to the Scottish Government by the Scottish Parliament, on a cross-party basis, which is to protect Scotland’s position in the EU with all measures, up to and including a second independence referendum, that might be necessary.
As I understand the position, in the past two years the hon. Gentleman has taken part in two referendums and lost both of them. As a consequence, I imagine he wants to rerun both. Which comes first? Does he want to rerun the EU referendum or the Scottish independence referendum first?
I will try to stick to the terms of the debate today—I am arguing strongly that my primary interest in this case is to protect Scotland’s position within the EU, which I hope gives some succour to those who have argued for the petition. That is our first priority. If, because the UK Government refuse to recognise our position, the only way to protect Scotland’s position is independence, of course we will say to the Scottish people that that is the path that they should be going down.
Order. I have told the hon. Gentleman on several occasions that the debate is not about any of the things that he is discussing. He is completely and utterly out of order. He is discussing a debate that is not for this Chamber today. If he persists, I will ask him to resume his seat and I will give the Floor to someone else. I insist that the hon. Gentleman return to the motion before us today, namely whether there should be a second referendum on our membership of the European Union. That is the topic of our debate, nothing else. If he cannot do that, he will have to remain seated. I invite him now to return to his feet and to discuss the issue of whether there should be a second referendum.
I have to say that I am surprised by the remarks from the Chair. All that I was doing was responding to an intervention, which I was answering to the fullest extent that I could. I will move on.
It is pertinent to ask how the UK has got itself into this situation. In the recent general election campaign, the then leader of the Conservative party committed his party to holding a referendum on EU membership if elected to government. That commitment was made not from a position of conviction—because he personally wanted out of the EU—but simply to buy off those in his own party who did not want to be part of Europe. There was no leadership and no vision about how to take Europe forward; it was an abrogation of responsibility, and we then had the most unedifying of campaigns.
In Scotland we often refer to the arrangements for our own referendum as the gold standard, although that admittedly did not stop the descent into negativity that characterised “Project Fear”. We can argue, however, that there was strong public engagement and, crucially, young people whose future was to be determined by the vote—those aged 16 and 17—were able to participate. EU citizens living in Scotland also participated, and rightly so.
The EU referendum was different: 16 and 17-year-olds, and EU citizens were excluded. We might have anticipated that the debate would therefore become narrow and inward looking, and that is precisely what happened. The Prime Minister and his Government who wanted to remain in Europe had the opportunity to shape the debate, but rather than painting a vision of the UK in Europe, “Project Fear” went into overdrive—not so much a positive case for Europe as a campaign that failed to inspire. The Prime Minister went into battle with a plan that was flawed, and that became increasingly obvious in the months leading up to the referendum.
In much of the UK, the debate came to be about immigration—not about how migration in and out of the UK can enrich our society and the rest of the world, but about a fear of immigration. There was little appreciation or understanding of the positive impact that migrants have on our economy, or of their contribution to our health service and other public services. There has been much talk of those left behind, those who have not seen improvement in their living standards or quality of life, but immigration has not led to such circumstances; they are the result of a failure of Government policy to invest in our public services to ensure that capacity is sufficient to meet the needs of all our communities.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the referendum campaign was flawed in terms of the information that people had access to, but I also agree with the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) that we should not look to rerun the referendum we have just had. Instead, we should look forward to having a referendum on the Brexit deal, because the big question facing us now is what Brexit means. I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman’s stance on that is: is he talking about a rerun of the vote that we had on 23 June, or about a Brexit vote?
I am not talking about a rerun of the referendum campaign we have just had. I am arguing specifically, as a Scottish MP, that Scotland voted to remain, so, before we go through the article 50 process, the Government in Westminster have the opportunity to reflect on recognising the sovereignty of the people of Scotland, and that to do so would help those who signed the petition we are debating.
This is the debate that we should have been having, rather than the one that we had. Rather than being seen as investing in our future, immigrants have become scapegoated and hate crime has been on the rise. Not only have immigrants been scapegoated, but EU citizens living in the UK are now fearful about whether they will have long-term rights to remain.
On the morning of 24 June, after a failure of leadership by the UK Government, the First Minister of Scotland spoke for many in a message that resonated not only in Scotland, but throughout the UK. Her message was clear: EU citizens living here are our friends, neighbours and colleagues, and they are welcome. Some 173,000 EU citizens are part of our communities in Scotland, and many are fearful about whether they can remain. Uncertainty still exists. The Prime Minister should do the right thing and state that all EU citizens who are here now are welcome to stay. It is about doing the right thing. Those who are here have been welcomed in; why would we not remove any uncertainty? We are talking about people who under no circumstances should be used as bargaining counters in any Brexit talks. Where is the humanity? The Prime Minister will be judged by her actions: show compassion and decency.
We should also have been discussing the very pillar of the argument about the benefits of European membership: peace in the continent, fostered by nations working together for the common good.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that changing the rules of the game ex post facto if we do not like the result, which is precisely what the petition proposes, is not really the way that we do things in this whole United Kingdom? Even among people who voted to remain, myself included, a very large number would not accept a second referendum, despite being disappointed by the result.
There were flaws in the way that the referendum was conducted, but as a democrat and someone who argues very much for the sovereignty of people, I have some sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s view. We must not override democracy by denying those in the UK who voted in the referendum their rights, but we must equally recognise the votes of the people in Scotland who voted to remain.
We must champion the benefits of the single market in trade, services and—yes—people. Much of that positive argument was lost in the deluge of fear and negativity. The costs of our membership were much discussed, but the benefits were not. When it comes to the costs, those who spoke about a bounty for the NHS should hang their heads in shame. Much of the Brexiteers’ argument has been shown to be false. The people who are responsible for this situation are those who engineered the referendum and our departed Prime Minister, who showed a complete lack of leadership in securing the UK’s continued membership of the EU. It is often claimed that all political careers end in failure. The Prime Minister fell on his sword after the referendum. His tenure will be reflected on as one during which he presided over the UK leaving the EU—something that he was personally against. I cannot think of a greater foreign policy disaster for any Conservative Prime Minister since Eden and the Suez crisis.
Not only did the Prime Minister announce that he was going, but one of the primary Vote Leave architects, the ex-Mayor of London, then proclaimed that the Government did not have a plan for Brexit.
Order. The hon. Gentleman has been asked repeatedly to return his remarks to the simple issue of whether we should repeat the referendum. If he wants to continue, I require him to return to that specific topic and no other. If he cannot do that, he will have to resume his seat and I will pass the floor to someone else. I call Mr Ian Blackford to talk specifically about a second referendum.
Order. Nor will the hon. Gentleman enter into discussion with the Chair about what I am ruling. My rule is final, and whatever I say in the Chamber goes. What I am saying is that he is deviating wildly from the topic that we are discussing. I require him to return to that specific topic. If he cannot, I will ask him to resume his seat.
I hope that the people of Scotland are listening to this debate and the conduct of it.
Contrast the omnishambles of the EU referendum with our referendum in Scotland, when those of us arguing for independence had the benefit of a 650-page White Paper that went through every area of Government. The Brexiteers wanted out of Europe, but they had no plan for the day after the referendum or any other day in the future. We were all to be cast adrift from Europe when the Government decided to trigger article 50 and begin the process of disengagement from Europe. There is still no plan to put in place the much heralded new trade agreements. There has been a lack of leadership not only from the Government but from the Labour Opposition, whose campaign to remain in the EU was lukewarm at best. Labour sources have repeatedly suggested that their leader may not even have voted to remain. It is little wonder that we are where we are today: in a UK that has turned its back on the EU. We know who the real separatists are in the UK.
We live in uncertain times. Western economies are still grappling with the fallout from the financial crisis in 2007 and 2008. Brexit has led to the Bank of England—
I am not making a point of order. I am making a speech that is legitimate in the context of the debate. People in Scotland will see exactly what is happening here: the Chair is refusing to allow the elected representatives of the people of Scotland to give a speech. That is the clear judgment of what has been delivered by this Chair.
As Constitutional Reform Minister at the time, I had responsibility for the detailed election rules set out in the European Union Referendum Act 2015. Since those rules would have included any provision for a super-majority of the kind that is suggested in the petition, it might help if I explain why we did not include such a super-majority in that Act, which was passed by Parliament last year.
There was not much discussion of super-majorities when Parliament debated the 2015 Act, but had that subject come up, I suspect that there would have been widespread opposition to it from campaigners on both sides of the debate. No matter what the issue at hand may be, a super-majority gives an in-built advantage to the status quo. It tilts the playing field deliberately in favour of no change. In other words, it would rightly have been seen as a pretty transparent attempt to give the remain campaign an enormous—and in the eyes of many, unfair—advantage. Leave supporters would have denounced it in ringing terms. Equally importantly, more thoughtful remain campaigners would probably have felt uncomfortable too.
The hon. Gentleman has made an interesting start. Does he agree that if both sides of the campaign are supposed to be balanced, it is irresponsible for anyone to deliver literature in the closing days of any referendum campaign strongly advising people, “If in doubt, vote for the status quo”? If people are in doubt, they should not vote.
My point was that had we set up a super-majority as the petition suggests, we would have tilted the rules unfairly in favour of the remain campaign. With a fair and level playing field, both sides are free to make their cases as strongly as they can and to rebut the other side’s case if they feel that it is wrong. The hon. Gentleman clearly feels that some of the points that were made were entirely incorrect, but the correct response was to argue against them and engage in democratic debate at the time, not to try to tilt the playing field towards one side or the other.
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point about super-majorities, but they have been used in British constitutional history—they were used in the devolution referendums at the end of the 1970s—and are used in many other democracies. They are used in the United States, for example, for amendments to the constitution. Therein lies the problem. Does he agree that one of the clashes—it is why we are having this debate—was caused by the fact that the result was narrow? Many of us wish to respect that result, but at the same time my constituency, for example, voted by 60% to 40% to remain. We also have that situation in Scotland. That is why the public feel torn, and that is the difficulty that we are all dealing with.
I completely agree. The outcome, although definitive—there was an overall majority of well more than 1 million votes—was still uncomfortably narrow, and 48% of the population were on one side. Democratically, we therefore need to go through a healing process as an entire country to repair that damage, but wishing that it were otherwise will not change the historical fact of the result and the fact that the rules were as fair as Parliament could make them after extensive debate.
The referendum, with those rules, was intended to put the question of our EU membership to rest once and for all. If it had been an unfair referendum and the rules had been slanted in one direction or the other, it would have completely failed in that central aim. Far from drawing a line under the issue forever, we would have faced a “neverendum,” with both sides banging on about Europe for decades. I doubt that anyone could invent something more divisive, distracting or, frankly, soul-destroyingly boring if they tried.
I will respond merely by saying that I hope that the period of banging on about Europe will be much shorter than it would be if we had more referendums about it in the future. I had thought that the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) wanted to intervene—[Interruption.] Clearly there were two minds with but a single thought.
The danger of requiring a super-majority is that it would be seen as a coded attempt by disappointed pro-Europeans to rerun the original referendum because they did not like the result. I supported the remain campaign, but even I think that a rerun would be a huge mistake. Whichever side we were on at the time, I hope that all of us here are democrats first, last and always.
I campaigned on the remain side, and I must say that I was disappointed with the negativity on both sides. However, negative arguments are made in general election campaigns as well, and I do not believe anyone would think we should challenge a general election result because one side used negative arguments.
I completely agree. Every time either the Lib Dems or the Labour party win a local council by-election, I am convinced that everyone has taken leave of their senses, but as a democrat I respect the result and accept it. I am sure everyone here would do the same, no matter which side of a particular debate they are on.
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman would like to respond—perhaps this is not for this debate but for another—to the emails that we have all had from people who have called for an independent body to assess the claims made during the course of a referendum campaign. Would he support that?
I worry about such proposals, because they could create a vehicle for making vexatious claims during a campaign as a way of trying to smear the opposition, whether they were making legitimate or illegitimate comments. The whole point about democratic campaigning in any election, as we all know well, is that if someone says something that we regard as an egregious slur on us, or our party, or on reality—it does not matter—the answer is not to run to the lawyers but to get out there and explain to the voters why what has been said is entirely wrong.
The country has voted to leave the EU. Whether we in this room individually agree with it or not, the decision has been made. If we now decide that we will not leave after all, and that we will hold another referendum instead, the outrage at an out-of-touch political class, deaf to the desire of the people who elected them, will be absolutely shattering.
That is precisely the assumption that many remainers had, at least at the beginning—that they would somehow win the second referendum. All the evidence I see, certainly in my constituency, suggests that there would be a resounding defeat for the remainers if we were to go down that route.
At a time when, with isolated but notable exceptions in both the Scottish independence referendum and other votes around the country, we as a democracy are suffering from declining turnout and voter registration, we all need to ask ourselves why part of people’s reason for backing the leave campaign was the cry of frustration at our democracy. I can think of nothing more dangerous or corrosive than if we in this place were to say, “We are not listening”, stick our fingers in our ears and refuse to honour the decisive verdict that has been rendered unto us, whatever side we started on in the referendum campaign.
I am not quite sure what the hon. Gentleman’s point is. What I am arguing is that we have a clear democratic decision, regardless of what the lawyers may say, and democratically we owe it to the people who sent us here to listen to what they said. That is a simple point, but I worry that some people who are understandably disappointed—I was on the same side as them—are trying to find ways and reasons to comfort themselves and ignore that decision. I do not think we can. If we try to ignore it, voters will rightly ask, “What part of the word ‘leave’ is so hard for you all to understand?”
We have been given our marching orders. Brexit must mean Brexit, and it is up to every red-blooded democrat, no matter which side they were on before the result was known, to accept the clear electoral verdict and pull together to deliver it as best we can.
Several right hon. and hon. Members of the House have long believed, as we have heard—or not as we have heard, but I know some Members believe this—that Britain’s interests would be best served outside the European Union. Those Members campaigned passionately for Brexit and ardently believe that the result delivered on 23 June means that Brexit should be delivered immediately—no ifs, no buts and, frankly, no questions asked. It would be churlish not to congratulate them on the referendum result and acknowledge, as has been said, that 52% of the country or thereabouts voted to exit the European Union.
I listened to the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union speaking on the Floor of the House just before this debate about what Brexit means, and he said that Brexit means that we will exit the European Union, but we must all concede—I really hope that this Chamber does—that, two and a half months down the line, we do not know what Brexit actually means in reality. We are living in uncertain times and that is why we are considering this petition today. We do not know what form Brexit will take or when it might happen. We do not know whether our future lies within the single market or outside of it.
When we talk about access to the single market after Brexit, what do we mean by that? Of course we will have access—North Korea has access. That is not what we are talking about. The question is on what terms the UK will obtain that access and at what cost? We also do not know what our trading relationships with the rest of the world will look like, and millions of European Union citizens who have made this country their home are living in uncertainty now and do not know what their status is. Many of the 4 million people who signed the petition are understandably very anxious about their future. That is why we are here in this Chamber.
There are many legitimate arguments. Many believe—I will come back to this—that there should be a vote in this House on Brexit when we are much clearer about what the Government plan. Some believe that the best way forward is a general election, where political parties can put their position to the electorate, and others quite rightly say, “No, we need a second referendum on a plan when we have seen it.” That is the nature of the debate we are having, even though some might muddy the waters.
I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman’s generosity. With regard to a second referendum on specifics of a renegotiated position, if the outcome of that was a rejection of the status quo, should the British people then be presented with a different negotiated position for Brexit, the removal of Brexit or another referendum? What would be the proposed question in that referendum?
The hon. Gentleman does not seem to see this as I do. I believe that the country is already in the midst of a constitutional crisis. That is why there is currently a case in the High Court in both this country and Northern Ireland in relation to this topic. All I have outlined is that some people legitimately believe that one way out of the constitutional crisis is to put a plan to the people. The determinants of that plan are not a matter for today, but the principle requires debate. It is concerning that, given the decision we have made, which affects generations of young people, so many people who believe in sovereignty seem to want to limit debate in this House. We have spent minimal hours on Europe since 23 June, given the seriousness of the decision we are about to take.
Many people on both sides of the referendum debate would accept that the public were totally misled and lied to during the referendum. No one would accept that there is a clear plan for where to go from here and what we will do next, so there is a legitimate argument that, whatever the forthcoming Brexit plan looks like, it should be put to the people in a referendum, or it should be debated and voted on in Parliament, or there should be a general election on the issue. All three options have been ruled out by the Government, by the way. Yet there is still a vacuum. There is division and uncertainty, and that is the reason we are discussing the mechanism that we are debating today.
I want to add two points, and to ask my right hon. Friend whether he agrees with them. One is that, whatever one’s view about whether there should be a vote in the House on triggering article 50, there should at least be a debate. The second is that whether to vote on article 50 is in a sense academic, because we will have to repeal the European Communities Act 1972 to give effect to our leaving the European Union. That will involve multiple votes, which will have knock-on impacts on existing legislation, which will need to be changed.
My hon. Friend is right. That is the case, which is why it was breathtaking to hear that Britain will not be discussing Europe for much longer. If we exit the European Union, this House is about to be consumed with legislation that will probably be with us for more than a decade. One Whitehall Department alone, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has 1,200 pieces of legislation that would need to be repealed. The task ahead for the nation is gargantuan. We are perhaps talking about the sort of effort involved in reconstruction after the war, or something comparable to the birth or the loss of empire.
I have said that I should make some progress. Others have got to get in to make important contributions.
The other point is that uncertainty is bad for business and our economy. Last week a survey by Lloyds found that business confidence has dropped to its lowest level since December 2011. Uncertainty in Government is also bad news. If the whole of Whitehall is focused on trying to work out Brexit and then on trying to deliver it, where will the capacity be to tackle many other urgent issues that the country faces—the crisis in the NHS, youth unemployment, infrastructure and the rebalancing of the economy? Last week massive cuts to apprenticeships were announced. We need working-class young people to move into apprenticeships. How are we going to achieve those things when every Department is consumed with the subject of Brexit?
I am here on behalf of my constituents, and that is why I am very clear about the issue. Ordinary working people on low incomes will suffer the most in the man-made recession to come. As always, people who are living pay cheque to pay cheque, just about keeping their heads above water and making ends meet in insecure jobs will bear the brunt of any economic downturn. When unemployment rises tax receipts will fall. NHS spending, wages and investment will fall, and after years of austerity the Government will not have the money for a fiscal stimulus, or to provide a proper welfare safety net. People have been talking about agricultural areas. In counties such as Norfolk, which relied on EU subsidies, some people have been asking “Are we still going to get the EU subsidies?”
You are absolutely right, Mr Gray. I was simply making the case that those EU subsidies will no longer be there. They will have gone and tax receipts will have fallen. It is for that reason that the way we resolve the constitutional crisis we are in is so important. The mechanism in the petition is of course but one way of doing that.
There has recently been a lot of talk about the gap between the rich and the poor, and the growing divide in society between the asset class and the underclass. Indeed, the fact that so many people voted for Brexit related to that. What I am worried about, and my reason for being here on behalf of my constituents, is the fact that the debate about inequality is likely, if funds are less, to turn into the old debate about absolute poverty. Absolute poverty is much worse, in any economy. That is why it is important that we have debates on the Floor of the House, as we are—something that we have not been able to do since 23 June.
I have already said that many British people, and certainly those who signed the petition—there are more out there; they email all the time—are understandably trying to do something on their own, individual, behalf. However, they of course recognise that linked to that democratic exercise another legitimate debate is going on—about sovereignty and the nature of Parliament, and whether Parliament should have a vote on the issue. It seems to me that the most fundamental tenet of our democracy is parliamentary sovereignty, and a decision of such significance must be debated and approved by Parliament. The Prime Minister says she wants to bring the country back together, and the best way to do that is to have its representative democracy look at the issues and debate them. With that conclusion we might begin to bring the country back together. Simply exercising a prerogative power, which is more akin to James II, is very unlikely to bring people back together. It will leave a huge division, not seen for many years, running through the country. It must be up to individual Members of Parliament to decide how they vote when the Government present a plan for what Brexit will look like, and the plan must be fully considered.
It is important to note that it has been said that the referendum
“does not have constitutional provisions which would require the results of a referendum to be implemented”.
Those are not the words of a bitter remain campaigner, but of the House of Commons Library briefing on the European Union Referendum Bill. It is important to think hard about the fact that when we voted on the referendum it was described to the House as advisory and non-binding. It was advice—to hear what the people had to say; but it was not binding. It was not two thirds. It was not a quadruple lock—all nations agreeing, so that we can move forward in a straightforward constitution. It was a non-binding advisory referendum. As such we need further mechanisms to hear that advice and really think about the detail of how we now move forward. What are hon. Members scared of? Why are they so scared of Parliament looking at it? Is it because the Government of the day are divided on the issue? Is that why they are scared about having such debate? I suspect it is.
We must also remember that 63% of the electorate did not vote for Brexit at all; that more than 2 million British expats were denied a vote, and 13 million more decided not even to cast their vote.
I will not give way. There was no two-thirds threshold as is required in other nations to validate a major constitutional change of this nature. There was no quadruple lock to ensure that the majority in each of the constituent nations of the United Kingdom agreed with the change. Our nation is more divided than ever in my lifetime and we are living through an unprecedented period of uncertainty. There is no clarity on what lies ahead and no easy way to heal the divisions. While colleagues may disagree with me when it comes to Brexit, I cannot see a way out of this other than for the Government to present their plan for Brexit to Parliament so Members can approve or reject it on behalf of their constituents, or to present their plan to the people so they can have their say in either a second vote or in a general election. [Interruption.]
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I assume the applause upon my standing was not for me.
I am sorry to start my speech on such a downbeat note, but I feel I must express regret at the levels of intolerance that have crept into the public discourse on Brexit, both before the referendum and even more so since. Intolerance in the form of racism and xenophobia is deplorable, particularly due to its tendency to lead to hate and violence. I condemn examples of it wherever they are found; those responsible must be rooted out and face the full force of the law.
However, a new kind of intolerance has emerged in this country, demonstrated by those who proclaim to be the most progressive, broad-minded and dedicated to supposedly democratic ideals. They show themselves to be the opposite with this petition. They are intolerant of the view of their fellow citizens who happened to vote to leave the European Union. Conscious of your guidance, Mr Gray, I shall not seek to rerun the referendum campaign, but we should not treat the public as fools, which this petition does. We should remember that if we ask a question, the answer might not always be the one we expected or hoped for. Now, more than two months on from the referendum, the clamouring has not ceased. The proposal to rerun the referendum typifies that, as did the weekend’s anti-Brexit rally, at which the pinnacle of interest seemed to be that somebody had their beret stolen. They typify a rather unsettling desire to thwart or overturn the properly exercised democratic will of the country. While I understand the strength of feeling people hold on the issue, the behaviour and impetus behind the petition sadly reminds me of people going through the seven stages of grief.
Indeed, it is five. My hon. Friend is more learned on the matter. People seem to have got stuck somewhere around stage three and now oscillate wildly between denial, anger and bargaining. I could stand here and, perhaps rather churlishly, tell those who want a second referendum or to block article 50, whenever that might come about in the fullness of time, that they should pull themselves together, have confidence in themselves and show a bit of faith in their country. However, I realise that would be far too blunt, so I say gently to hon. Members who may have sympathy with the petition that they should have the good grace to accept the result of the referendum, see the opportunities that lie ahead and cherish the fact that they represent their constituents in this place and can make a difference to their lives here in the mother of all Parliaments.
I end my brief remarks by making mention of the late Peter Shore, a great Eurosceptic Labour politician. During the referendum, an extract of his speech at the Oxford Union on the eve of the ’75 referendum became something of a hit on social media. I, too, was very taken with it. He warned his audience 40 years ago not to despise the chance for their fellow citizens to exercise their democratic right to make a choice at the referendum. He argued passionately that Britain belonged to the world, rather than to the narrow confines of the European Economic Community. He closed by reminding his audience that our parliamentary sovereignty—our democracy—was not just one generation’s to fritter away, but was the inheritance of generations of our fellow countrymen and women. I can think of no finer trio of reasons, and I urge the rejection of the petition before us.
I start by picking up on a couple of points made by the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy). He referred to apprenticeship cuts, and I think issues about apprenticeships and training drove many people in the north, for instance, to vote for Brexit. The fact that the Government are now cutting apprenticeships funding will exacerbate the problem.
The right hon. Gentleman also referred to legislation. I wonder whether he would like to speculate on whether, in practice, when Ministers are presented with the opportunity to delete, I think, 7,000 pieces of EU-related legislation, they will actually want to do that in preference to promoting whatever the key project within their Department is, whether that is reforming the health service or education reforms. I suspect that the legislation is going to sit there for a very long time, because Ministers will have no interest whatsoever in getting rid of it.
To come to the subject—I am sure you will not allow me to deviate for much longer, Mr Gray—I congratulate the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) on focusing exclusively on the subject of the petition. I will do so perhaps slightly more loosely than him, but I will focus on the issue of the second referendum.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is a strong case for a debate about what could happen in future referendums if there is not a strong majority for constitutional change or a significant turnout. We could look at that matter again. The issue before us today, however, is whether there should be a second referendum following the one that has just taken place. My starting point is that there should not be a second referendum simply for the purpose of overturning that referendum, notwithstanding the fact that, I am afraid, I think the leave campaign lied blatantly throughout the campaign. I accept that the remain campaign perhaps also over-egged the pudding with some claims that were made, but the leave campaign lied particularly on the issue of the NHS, with the pledge of £350 million per week for the NHS when we left the European Union. I wrote to the Secretary of State for Health about that and got a response from the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), who said:
“Firstly, neither the Department nor its Ministers were involved in making or endorsing the statement that additional funding would go towards the NHS if the UK were to leave the EU.”
So if anyone was in any doubt, the Department of Health has made it clear that it is not expecting to get any more money as a result of our departure from the EU.
For the sake of fairness, I think we should say that there were outrageous claims from both sides, and I want to spell them out for the record. A punishment Budget—the most restrictive Budget since 1936— did not happen as a consequence of us voting to leave. I am also still waiting for house prices in London to fall by 20% so that I can actually buy a property.
I say to the hon. Gentleman that we are only two months away from the referendum having taken place. Rather than saying everything is hunky-dory, he might want to wait a little bit longer to see whether everything is going according to his plan.
I do not believe that there should be an immediate second referendum, because I do not think we can have a never-ending referendum, as the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare said. However, as the right hon. Member for Tottenham indicated, we must consider what will happen once article 50 has been triggered and the UK Government have spent up to two years identifying what they want to secure from the European Union on trade and other aspects of the negotiations. I imagine that the end of that process will probably be in about three years’ time, because I do not think the Prime Minister will invoke article 50 at the beginning of next year. It will possibly be mid-year, or even towards the end of next year. Two years from then and three years from now, once the Government have identified what they are seeking to secure from the EU, I would be very surprised if the British public did not feel that there was a need for them to have their say on the outcome of those negotiations before the two-year period was exhausted and the UK exited the European Union.
On the subject of article 50, I was surprised that for the people on the Brexit side who campaigned so heavily for sovereignty during the campaign—sovereignty was apparently key to many of their concerns—all of a sudden sovereignty was not such a big issue after all when Parliament asked to be given the sovereign right to debate and vote on triggering article 50. I ask them to check whether they are being entirely consistent in the arguments they are deploying. We should be allowed not only to debate article 50, as has been suggested, but to vote on it. My personal position is that article 50 goes hand in hand with Brexit. Having accepted the vote, I would find it difficult to try to block article 50, because the two things are connected. We cannot vote to leave and then try to block article 50—those things are, in effect, a package.
There will be protracted negotiations. Incidentally, I hoped that we would hear something during the first statement from the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union about what he has been able to negotiate over the summer holidays. I had to leave his statement to get here, but 15 minutes in, we were still at the level of platitudes. There was absolutely no substance whatsoever to the statement that he was delivering. I do not know what he has done for the past two months—maybe he went off and had a long holiday—but certainly he has not been focusing on what Brexit means. We know that Brexit means Brexit, but that is a completely vacuous statement.
I hope that I have kept to the subject, Mr Gray, which is the issue of a second referendum. If the UK Government have secured in their discussions with the EU substantial protection of the rights of EU and UK citizens whose position is completely unclear and who want clarity; if they have secured substantial freedom of movement and the continuation of the UK in the single market; if they have maintained the environmental standards that the EU has, in some cases, enforced in the UK; if law enforcement and judicial co-operation continue as they are currently maintained at an EU level—the Secretary of State said in his statement that the Government wanted to expand on that area, which is welcome; if we have secured the protection of Erasmus; and if the travel and tourism benefits we derive from being in the European Union and the rights of the City are maintained, I am confident that if that package were put to a second referendum about three years from now, the British people would feel it was one of substance and one they would be willing to support.
I apologise to you, Mr Gray, and to the Chamber for not being here at the beginning of the debate. I was in the main Chamber questioning the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union about his statement on this very subject.
I doubt if any Member today has taken or actually will take the words of this petition literally. It would condemn us to go on having referendums so long as neither side gets 60% of the vote or, even if one side does, the turnout is less than 75%. It is a recipe not for a second referendum but for a neverendum. It is essentially an emotional call by an unprecedented number of our fellow citizens to set aside the result of the referendum. They back that up with a number of arguments.
First, they argue—we have heard it argued today—that the leave side won by lying. Accusations of lying are, of course, a feature of all election campaigns, but free elections provide us with an opportunity to rebut contentious points made by the other side. In particular, the remain campaign, with the frequent help of the BBC, repeatedly rubbished the slogan on the leave battle bus that highlighted our gross EU contribution of £350 million a week and implied we could spend it on the NHS. I personally never used that figure. I always referred to Britain’s net contribution of nearly £10 billion—some £200 million a week. I did not meet a single voter who changed their mind and decided not to vote leave on finding that the net contribution was only £200 million, rather than £350 million.
May I assure the right hon. Gentleman, to whom I am grateful for giving way, that an untold number of Labour voters in this country voted for us to leave the European Union on the basis that they believed £350 million extra per week would go into the NHS? There is no getting away from the commitment that was made and no wriggling around—“It was an aspiration,” or, “It was a mistake.” That was the commitment that many, many Labour voters believed would be delivered on if we left the European Union.
In that case, let me say two things. First, the hon. Gentleman and the remain side were singularly ineffective in rubbishing that claim, despite the fact that I heard it being rubbished many times. Secondly, he says that working-class voters—Labour voters—would have voted to stay if they had known it was only £200 million a week, but were prepared to vote to leave for £350 million. He has put a price on their vote of the difference between those two sums, which I do not find true.
I will continue, if I may.
If it was a lie for the leave side to refer to our gross contribution without netting off the money we get back, were not remain campaigners just as dishonest to focus on money we get back without mentioning the contribution we make? Remainers frequently claimed, with no rebuttal from the BBC, that the EU gives millions of pounds to universities, researchers, farmers, regions and so on, with no mention that British taxpayers contribute £2 or £3 for every £1 returned to us. They cannot have it both ways and say it is wrong for one side to mention the gross figure, but not for the other. I doubt if the outcome would have been any different if the leave battle bus had painted £200 million per week on its side, rather than £350 million. I met countless voters who said, “My heart is for leave, but my pocket says stay.” They were convinced by “Project Fear” that they would be worse off if we left the EU.
The Treasury analysis of the immediate economic impact of leaving the EU said that
“a vote to leave would represent an immediate and profound shock to our economy. That shock would push our economy into a recession and lead to an increase in unemployment of around 500,000, GDP would be 3.6% smaller, average real wages would be lower, inflation higher, sterling weaker, house prices would be hit and public borrowing would rise compared with a vote to remain.”
On top of that, we were promised a punishment Budget that would take away benefits from the sick, the disabled and the elderly. None of those things, I am happy to say, have occurred. There has been some hope from one or two Opposition Members that they will occur in due course.
Does not the suggestion of a punishment Budget prove that the former Chancellor was a bluffer? He bluffed; he did not have a punishment Budget. By extension, his threat to Scotland of not sharing a currency was further evidence of yet another bluff.
The Scottish nationalists want to refer to the previous referendum, which they lost, but I will not be tempted down that path.
“Project Fear” could have become a self-fulfilling prophecy: I was rather afraid it might. In fact, in the month or two since the referendum, job listings are up 8% on last year; consumer spending is up 1.4%; manufacturing orders are at the highest they have been for 10 months; house builders have reported strong demand; and Moody’s is confident the UK will avoid a recession. That is clearly a disappointment to one or two Opposition Members, who were hoping for bad news to justify their “Project Fear”.
In one respect, they were right: sterling is, indeed, lower. However, the IMF—whose boss was famously once a member of the French national synchronised swimming team—joined in a synchronised campaign of gloom, saying that a leave vote would be bad to very, very bad. The IMF now welcomes the fact that the exchange rate move has removed some, but not all, of sterling’s previous overvaluation. Had the whole establishment of this country and of international unelected bureaucracies forecast what has occurred rather than what they predicted would occur, I cannot help feeling that the result would have been even more emphatically to leave than was the case.
The second argument for a second referendum is that the leave campaign had no plan for Brexit. That is a bit like saying that countries such as India, Canada, Australia and even the American colonies had no plan for independence. Of course they did, and we are the same. It is to take back control of our laws, our money and our borders. That is what countries do when they become independent. That is the purpose and that is the plan. By definition, that means we will not be part of the EU internal market. The precise trading arrangements we may have with the EU will depend on what it wants to arrange in its interests as well as ours.
There are only two realistic outcomes, both of which are perfectly acceptable to the UK. We could trade with the EU on WTO terms and the same basis as the EU’s three biggest trading partners—the US, China and Russia trade very successfully with the EU—which would mean facing tariffs averaging 4% on our exports, but that would be more than offset by the 12% improvement in competitiveness as a result of the change in sterling; or we could continue to trade on the current tariff-free basis. Neither option should require complex negotiations. To go from zero tariffs to zero tariffs is quite simple. To go from zero tariffs to WTO tariffs is quite simple. We should not be in for a prolonged and unnecessary delay in reaching agreement on one of those two options.
The final argument I want to deal with is that the referendum was only advisory. I debated daily with remainers—sometimes three times a day—but not once did a remain opponent say to the audience, “Oh by the way, this referendum is just advisory. If you give us the wrong advice we will ignore the result and remain in the EU anyway or perhaps call another referendum or vote against application of article 50 and the referendum result until we get the right result.” Did any Opposition Member say that to an audience and can they give me chapter and verse of them saying that they would treat the result as advisory and ignore it if they did not like it? Not one of them did. Now they are pretending that the whole thing was advisory. I forget which hon. Member said that was made clear during the debate.
On the contrary, the then Foreign Secretary, who introduced the Referendum Bill, said that it was giving the decision to the British people. When launching the campaign, the Prime Minister said:
“This is a straight democratic decision—staying in or leaving—and no Government can ignore that. Having a second renegotiation followed by a second referendum is not on the ballot paper. For a Prime Minister to ignore the express will of the British people to leave the EU would be not just wrong, but undemocratic.”—[Official Report, 22 February 2016; Vol. 606, c. 24.]
It was spelled out at the beginning of the referendum debate and again and again during it that this was a decisive choice for the British people. If we ignore that choice now and treat the British people with contempt, we will undermine their respect for democracy and prove how little faith we have in it.
This debate is nominally about the threshold that we should have applied to the EU referendum, the argument being that if the leave or remain vote secured less than 60% support in a turnout of less than 75% there should be a second referendum. For the benefit of the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley), the motion arises from a petition by a leave campaigner who presumably lacked confidence at the time that his side of the argument would be victorious.
Of course, the debate is no longer about thresholds, but the more substantial question of a second referendum. I will quickly dispose of the threshold issue and move to the wider debate that is raging on the main issue.
On thresholds, the aim of the petition is reminiscent for me of the amendment successfully tabled by our Labour colleague, George Cunningham, in 1978 to the Scotland Act 1978, which provided for a referendum on Scottish devolution. He was thoroughly opposed to devolution for Scotland and his amendment would have required at least 40% of registered Scottish electors to support devolution for it to go ahead. The amendment had the effect of killing off devolution then because, although a majority in the poll—51.62%—voted for devolution with 48.38% voting against, the turnout was 64%, so just 32.9% of registered electors had actually voted in favour. As the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) pointed out, the institution of that mechanism had the effect of promoting the status quo.
I do not think it is desirable generally to hold lots of referendums because our constituents send us here to make decisions based on the manifesto and set of values that we put forward. Ideally, we should trouble our constituents with referendums only in the most exceptional circumstances. When major constitutional issues are at stake, it seems to me that there is some justification for that.
When we do have a referendum, as on this issue, I am sceptical about applying the high threshold proposed in the petition. I think there is great difficulty in telling those who have supported the proposition which, on the face of it, they seem to have done by a clear majority, that it cannot be carried because there has been a low turnout. After all, we are all here and a low turnout has not been an obstacle to any of us being elected. A low turnout or lack of support for a particular Government—the present Government has the support of less than 25% of registered electors—does not stop them taking office. People might question whether thresholds and mechanisms that were not applied to us during an election should be applied in a referendum.
I worry that with such thresholds we may end up with people seeking deliberately to depress turnout in what is, whatever side of the argument they are on, a thoroughly active democratic exercise. I am not completely closed to a higher threshold, given the constitutional change, but I am sceptical.
My hon. Friend is making an interesting point, but does he agree that—as I have seen in correspondence—constituents who signed this petition were reflecting not the detail of thresholds and so on, but their feelings about this. The right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) talked about people being emotional and pulling themselves together, but the real issue is how people felt about being lied to, the lack of clarity on the options before them and the clash of mandates when it comes to devolved Administrations, certainly in Wales. Does he agree that there was something more fundamental about how people felt in the aftermath and that we must do a lot to bring people back together?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, in my constituency of Boston and Skegness, the turnout was 77% and the vote to leave was also 77%. His point cuts both ways. If we were to have a second referendum, the sense of disempowerment in a constituency such as mine—and of going against democracy itself—would be palpable.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I was going to mention his constituency, where he kindly hosted a visit for me. For the record, he represents the area that had the highest leave vote. I represent the area that had the highest remain vote. I wanted to go to see whether we could perhaps heal some of the divisions in society. That miraculously takes me to my first point on the substantial issue and whether we should have a second referendum.
My first point is that, yes, the referendum clearly delivered a decisive result, but it was not a landslide for leave. Different generations voted differently and I certainly saw that in the constituency of the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness. Different areas of the UK voted in different ways, as did different ethnicities. It is incumbent on all of us, given all that I have just mentioned, to see how we can stitch together this fragile democracy of ours. It was very much in that spirit that I made the visit to Boston and that I came to this issue.
The second issue that I want to raise is this. I campaigned all over the country for us to stay in the European Union. I led the Labour In for Britain campaign in London. I was one of the main national spokespeople for Britain Stronger In Europe. However, it would be disingenuous to deny what has partly powered this petition: a split has arisen in the remain camp post the referendum result. Half of remainers think that Britain has voted to leave; that is what the polls show, and now the Government have a duty to carry out its wishes and get the best deal in order for us to leave the European Union. Slightly less but about half—I am sure that many of those here who applauded would fit into this category—think that we should ignore the vote to leave or seek to overturn it by way of the second referendum that we are talking about today. So inevitably what I am going to say will disappoint half the people I have been campaigning with over the last few months.
It is true that a lot of overblown claims, misleading promises and the rest were parroted by the leave campaign. The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) said that perhaps there were a few overblown claims on our side as well. However, in the end, the leave campaign won, and it is important that it is held to account now for what follows, because it was the victorious side in the debate. That is why I, the right hon. Gentleman, my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) and the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) have set up Vote Leave Watch—to scrutinise what comes out of the deal and to seek to ensure that people are held to account. Frankly, it is as much to give a voice to the 48% who voted to remain as it is for the 52% who voted to leave to see whether promises have actually been delivered. In so doing, we will hopefully try to forge a national consensus and bring the two together.
I have just a quick question on the point that the hon. Gentleman made with respect to a split in the remain vote. Given that the remain vote, as polls suggest, is split and given that he is a keen observer of the political scene, does he honestly think that a second referendum held, say, within the next year would overturn the result that we saw on 23 June?
Oh, bearing in mind the clock, I was going to come on to that very point, but I just want to say that for remain campaigners to accept the will of the people is not to wave the white flag. It is not to say that the arguments that we have been making over many months are any less valid. But in the end we have somehow got to work out how we move forward and do so together.
One of the main reasons why I rejected the politics of many of those who voted for us to leave was that I felt that they peddled division and tried to set different groups against each other in our society—not all of them, but many. What I worry about in moving straight to the call for a second referendum is that it would further divide our country. Are we really saying that all the leave voters were completely brainwashed by all the misleading claims and myths that were parroted? Are we really saying that they were incapable of taking a step back, taking a view on all the different facts that were presented by either side and making their own judgment? Are we really saying—frankly, I have heard a lot of this—that they were just brainwashed by a bunch of right-wing tabloid newspapers? I am sorry; I just do not accept that argument, and there is a real danger, if we talk like that about people who voted to leave the European Union, that we are simply reinforcing the view that we are some kind of metropolitan elite who know better than other people. There is a real risk that we are seen to be patronising them.
So what are the circumstances in which I would entertain our having a second vote? A very clear set of promises were made. There would be £350 million going to the NHS every week. We would maintain full access to the single market, while not having the free movement that goes with it. EU citizens already here would be given the right to stay. As far as I am concerned, a set of clear pledges were given by all the different vote leave campaigners. I believe that if the deal that is reached at the end of this process is substantially and materially different from that that many of the leave voters believed they were promised, we could legitimately ask for a second referendum, but the fact is that we have not got to that point yet. If we go straight to one now, we will simply further divide our country. I say to people that as hard as it is—I feel emotional talking about it now—that we did not win the referendum, we have to keep this country of ours together and work out how we build those bridges. Regardless of where we sat in that debate, all of us have a duty to do that.
Before I call the next speaker, I point out that if hon. Members restrict themselves to seven or eight minutes, we stand a chance of getting everybody in. If they go on longer than that, there will be people who are disappointed at the end.
I am happy to follow the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) because he made some very powerful points.
The petition that we are discussing has more than 4 million signatures. To me at least, it is an understandable expression of pain and anger in response to a bitterly fought EU referendum campaign that has left this country, as the hon. Gentleman said, deeply divided. Pain and anger is certainly felt in my constituency of Brighton, Pavilion. It had one of the highest rates of people voting to remain—about 69%—and one of the highest numbers of people signing this petition: about 19,500 at the last count. But however much many of us might wish the outcome of the referendum had been different—I certainly do—and however much we might argue that the level of lies and misinformation during the campaign undermines the legitimacy of the outcome, I agree with those who have said clearly that trying to impose a retrospective threshold and in effect rerun the referendum is bad politics and worse democracy. Indeed, what better way would there be to reinforce the perception that the so-called metropolitan elites care nothing for those in more distant and perhaps disconnected communities than simply ignoring everything that they have said?
Instead, the anger and alienation felt by many who voted leave needs urgently to be addressed. For many, it was a howl of rage against exclusion and powerlessness. Their voices have to be heard, not just in the referendum but all year round. A crucial way to ensure that is to crack open the current political system, which encourages the main parties to listen almost exclusively to swing voters in marginal seats at general elections and ignore everybody else. If we are to set about healing the deep divisions in society that the referendum has laid bare, one task must be urgently to build a more representative, inclusive democracy, and that can be brought about only through electoral reform. If the Brexit campaigners were serious about giving people back control, a good place to start would be democratic control. A political system that delivers government on the basis of just 24% of the eligible vote clearly does not give us that.
Brexit means Brexit, so we are told. I believe that we need a second referendum on the terms of any Brexit deal because we have absolutely no idea what is on the other side of the door marked Brexit. We might have chosen to open that door, but even now, two months after the vote, we have no idea—not even the dimmest shape—of what on earth is on the other side.
The Government’s paper on alternatives to EU membership gave four options. The BBC lists five. The Centre for European Reform sets out seven. Which of those was voted for by those voting leave? None of them. How many will we end up with? Well, one of them. What parliamentary or, indeed, public scrutiny have we had of an actual plan to leave the EU? Absolutely none because there was not one and there is not one. That is why I strongly support not just maximum parliamentary scrutiny but calls for a further referendum on the terms of Brexit once they are clear, and on our future relationship with the EU, so that we can all assess what that looks like in the real world. During the campaign, when pressed on the alternative to EU membership, leave campaigners would squeal that they could not possibly be expected to answer those questions because they were not a Government in waiting, but rather they wanted the British people to be in control. What would fulfil that promise more thoroughly than ensuring that the public get the opportunity to cast a positive vote for what a potential Brexit looks like, in addition to their vote against remaining part of the EU?
Before a referendum on the terms of Brexit takes place, lessons must be learned and the Government need to take a long hard look at the Electoral Reform Society report called “Doing referendums differently”. Let me give just a few quotes from it. It says:
“There were glaring democratic deficiencies in the run-up to the vote, with previously unreleased polling showing that far too many people felt they were ill-informed about the issues…the top-down, personality-based nature of the debate failed to address major policies and subjects, leaving the public in the dark…misleading claims could be made with impunity.”
The Electoral Reform Society calls for
“a root and branch review of referendums, learning the lessons of the EU campaign to make sure the mistakes that were made in terms of regulation, tone and conduct are never repeated.”
I echo that call, because it is clear that there was so much misinformation; yes, it was on all sides, but I believe that on the leave side it was particularly egregious. We were told that we could end freedom of movement and keep full access to the single market. We were told that we could continue to benefit from being part of the single market, yet somehow take back control, make all our rules here in the UK and cease having to follow EU rules. Then there was the famous £350 million a week for the NHS; the truth is that we will not have any extra money, let alone an amount anywhere near the lie of all lies that disgraced the side of a perfectly innocent bus for months on end.
[Sir David Amess in the Chair]
Is the hon. Lady aware that the EU has free trade agreements with some 50 countries, only three of which have in return granted free movement of labour and made a contribution to the EU because their Governments were planning to enter the EU? The other 47 have free trade agreements with no free movement and no contribution. Why should we be different?
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is a wealth of difference between free trade and being part of the single market? He has talked at length about tariff barriers. The big issue about membership of the WTO is non-tariff barriers. He really should keep up with where the debate is at. That is where it is at right now. All this focus on tariffs was a very clever red herring for people who do not know about trade agreements, but I have actually studied them, I have worked on them for years, and I can tell him that there is a wealth of difference between trade agreements and membership of the single market. That was yet another lie perpetrated during the referendum campaign.
We need people to be given a say and to have real control over the terms of any Brexit deal. We need maximum public engagement and parliamentary scrutiny. That means that the Government must set out their plan for what they want Brexit to look like. They need to present that to the people in an early general election to secure a mandate that currently they do not have, then they need to ensure full and proper parliamentary debate and scrutiny, and only then allow MPs to vote on whether to invoke article 50 and set in train the formal process of leaving, so that we know what direction that train is going in. In addition, we should argue for wider public engagement, giving opportunities for meaningful input throughout the process, as well as maximising input from civil society organisations, NGOs, charities, businesses, local authorities and other stakeholders. To claim that we want to take back control of the UK’s future, but refuse measures to maximise parliamentary and public scrutiny, is unforgiveable, contradictory and harmful.
The Greens argued during the referendum campaign that outside the EU there is a very real danger that the UK will seek to compete with other countries by weakening social and environmental protections and by becoming, in effect, a tax haven. That is still the case. In the debate running up to a second referendum on the terms of a Brexit, some of the key issues that we will want to keep in mind, in terms of how we might vote in that second referendum, are, for example, whether we can maintain freedom of movement and full rights of EU citizens in the UK, whether we can continue to have full access to single market and, crucially, whether we can have the important environmental protections that we currently enjoy thanks to our EU membership—whether on air, water, or wildlife. It is not just keeping what we have; we should improve that and absolutely lock it down in law. One big concern that people have right now is about what will happen to the habitats directive and the birds directive; those are the gold standards for environmental protection and we need them to be preserved in any new environmental settlement. Perhaps that needs to be in a new environmental Act, but whatever happens, there must not be a race to the bottom on standards. We need to retain EU-derived workers’ rights, social and consumer protections and human rights, again, as a bare minimum that we should seek to build on. We should be putting young people first.
Finally, we should ask the Government right now to give a guarantee to EU nationals who have made this country their home in good faith; the Government should say right now that they are welcome to stay and that they have an absolute right to stay. Anything less is simply using people’s lives cynically as chips in a bargaining negotiation, and that is neither right nor moral.
About a month before the referendum, when the result was widely expected to be successful for the remain campaign, I was asked on “Newsnight” whether I would respect the result of a close remain vote. I said that even if remain won by only by one vote, I would respect the decision. I note the point made by the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) that the petition was actually started by someone campaigning for leave, perhaps in the expectation of a remain win. Had that outcome happened—had remain been victorious in the referendum—and this petition had come before us, I would have stood up and given fundamentally the same speech that I am going to give now, saying that I respect the outcome of the referendum and suggesting that a second referendum is completely inappropriate. That is driven not by the result of the referendum but by what I believe to be a fundamental cornerstone of the democratic process.
The question on the ballot paper was clear and unambiguous, irrespective of what Members have said, or might say, in this debate. The question was whether the UK should leave the EU. Some Members who have spoken in this debate, and who I have spoken to about the issue, have attempted to retrofit a whole series of other implied questions into that referendum question. Questions about the nature of sovereignty, the nature of international trade and the nature of border controls are not unimportant, but they were not the question on the ballot paper. The question on the ballot paper was clear and unambiguous; to suggest that somehow it was other than that is grossly unfair.
A number of Members have said that the Government should be forced to abide by the campaign ideas of Vote Leave. I understand the thinking behind that, but it is worth remembering that Vote Leave was a cross-party, single-issue campaign group. There were Conservative politicians, Labour politicians and UK Independence party politicians in Vote Leave. I believe there may have been Liberal Democrat supporters, if not politicians, and there was a member of the Green party—just one, I know, but they were there none the less. It is ridiculous to demand that a Conservative Government be forced to deliver the agenda of a cross-party campaign group. If the remain campaign had won, no one with any credibility would have demanded that the Prime Minister bring Will Straw into the heart of Government to start dictating Government policy.
The hon. Gentleman and I had many debates during the referendum campaign, but, I am sorry, I do not accept his point about accountability. There is a complete contradiction here: many on the leave side made accountability and transparency the cornerstones of their campaign, but when people legitimately seek to hold members of the Government who voted leave to account for their pledges, they now say that there should be no accountability. To me, that is contradictory and not acceptable.
Order. Before the hon. Member for Braintree (James Cleverly) resumes, may I say that the wind-ups will start at 7 o’clock, and by my maths at least five or six people still wish to speak? I hope that hon. Members will bear that in mind.
The hon. Member for Streatham has pre-empted my next paragraph, so I thank him for that. He may read my speech to prove to him that I am not retrofitting anything.
Although it is not incumbent on the Government to take on board the campaign ideas and slogans of Vote Leave, it would be unwise of any Government to ignore some of the fundamental issues that came to the fore during the referendum campaign, such as the desire for greater domestic sovereignty for this country, for the reprioritisation of Government spending to domestic expenditure—for example, a significant upturn in spending on the national health service—for the control of borders and for greater international trade. Without a doubt, through the negotiation process and in the aftermath of our exit, the Government will need to put to the British people a credible plan on those issues and a whole host of others to have a realistic chance of being returned to government.
That brings me to my fundamental point. The way parliamentary democracy and parliamentary accountability work is that prospective Governments should put forward their ideas. Those ideas should be voted on by the British people, and those Governments should be held to account for the delivery or otherwise of that agenda.
It is helpful to think about the chronology. We are likely to see article 50 invoked relatively soon, I suspect. Then over the next couple of years, as timetabled by article 50, we will see a negotiated position, which I suspect will be in the public domain in the lead-up to the 2020 general election. The Prime Minister will no doubt put forward the Conservative plan for what Brexit will look like in real terms, including on immigration policy, public spending policy, trade policy, defence policy and so on. I am sure the Labour party—I will rephrase that: I hope the Labour party—will be able to put forward an agenda for what its impression of Brexit looks like, including its public spending priorities, immigration plans and international trade plans. The Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National party will do likewise. If one of those parties wishes to say, “Actually, do you know what? None of the deals on the table is good enough. We will rejoin the EU and overturn the explicit mandate from the EU referendum,” good luck to them. They can put that in front of the British people and let us see what they come up with.
The hon. Gentleman is painting quite a tempting scenario. Is it not the case, first of all, that once article 50 is triggered, the United Kingdom will not have any unilateral right, and if we do not have a negotiated deal within two years, Europe will then be entitled to tell us what the deal is? Secondly, is it not the case that deciding to remain in the European Union is relatively straightforward? However, if the United Kingdom were to try to get back in as a new member state after leaving, the UK as it is now would fail the democracy test and would not be eligible for EU membership,
The hon. Gentleman is being very generous. Does he not accept that there is another fundamental problem with issues on which competence is wholly devolved? An example is agriculture, fisheries and environmental policy in Wales and, I am sure, in other devolved Administrations. Those matters are now devolved, which was not the case when we went into the EU originally. There is not even any legislation on Welsh fisheries, for example; it is an England and Wales matter, but it is devolved. We will have to start from scratch on that. Does he not accept that the Welsh Assembly and the Welsh Government should have a full say on any package that is put together? Forget about whether we have a say here in Parliament; at the very least, that has to be the case.
I will wrap up the points made by the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) in my conclusion. They are serious questions, and I do not pretend that I am an expert on regional devolved Government. I have come from London government, and I know that the settlement is different in various parts of the country. I will not try to second-guess how that might play out. There will be a lot of legislation, and we are going to be very busy, there are no two ways about that, but as has been said, the referendum result is not like declaring independence from a colonial power—or not in all respects. In some respects it is, in that the future is by definition unwritten. Political parties go into general elections outlining their visions for the future, and they are tested by the electorate. The nature of devolved government, whether to Scotland, Wales or wherever, will be part of that.
I conclude by saying to those calling for a second referendum, “Be careful what you wish for.” People have to understand the status quo, which is that we are leaving the EU. Ultimately, if the proposal in the petition were to be successful and a second referendum were to be put to the British people with a new set of criteria, that would be the status quo hurdle that people would be seeking to overcome with a turnout threshold of three quarters.
Everyone recognises that uncertainty is bad for business and unsettling for families. If we were to go down the route of a second referendum, we would introduce a whole load of new uncertainty that would be destabilising for families and bad for business. I strongly urge all Members to reject the proposal, move forward and deliver Brexit in a way that is beneficial to the British people. Those who want to put forward their version of what the future might look like should do so at the general election, and it will be tested by the British people at that point.
I congratulate my fellow member of the Petitions Committee, the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), on introducing this debate, and it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David.
In June 2010, I made my maiden speech by choice in a debate on European affairs, because I wanted to highlight the importance of EU funding to the north-east. I said in that speech:
“As a region, we stand stronger…and we will not accept the Government dismantling our strength by withdrawing regional support”.—[Official Report, 3 June 2010; Vol. 510, c. 642.]
Little did I imagine that six years later, Newcastle upon Tyne would be the first in the country to declare, by the narrowest of margins, that it wanted to remain in the EU and that the rest of the north-east would vote to leave.
I fully appreciate that those who voted to leave had many reasons for doing so, and they did not just comprise those
“pushed to the margins of society”,
in the words of the recent report published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. I have many constituents who voted to leave, and they want Brexit to go ahead as soon as possible. Indeed, a relatively small number of them contacted me very much to express that view. However, more than 90% of those who got in touch with me expressed serious concerns about the referendum and its outcome, including some who voted to leave and now regret that decision.
A common cause for concern is the basis on which the referendum was fought. I know that outlandish assertions were made on both sides of the debate, but the leave campaign made several high-profile claims about the benefits of Britain leaving the EU that were either demonstrably untrue or simply impossible to commit to. The most misleading one was given an air of legitimacy by the misuse of the NHS logo by Vote Leave—I wrote to the Health Minister about that during the campaign, and I understand that the NHS has sought legal advice about it. I know of at least one front-line health worker in Newcastle who decided to vote leave on the basis of the additional £350 million a week that would be directed to the NHS. Unlike the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), I agree with the recent conclusion of the Electoral Reform Society that we need to look at “doing referendums differently”. In particular, I agree that an official body should be set up with the task of intervening when misleading claims are made in future campaigns.
Many constituents also contacted me about the highly divisive and unpleasant nature of the referendum campaign. I fully acknowledge that feelings on Britain’s membership of the EU have run very high for many years. However, to exploit those feelings and stir up bigotry against those who appear to be different is unforgivable. A Britain that seeks to divide people is not a Britain that I want my, or anyone else’s, children to grow up in, and I find it incredibly distressing that anyone should have been made to feel unwelcome, or worse, as a result of that process. It is quite clear that that has happened and that the position is being made worse by the Government’s continued failure to confirm the long-term future of EU nationals in the UK.
Perhaps my constituents’ single biggest concern is the Government’s failure to anticipate or plan for the outcome of the referendum. The new Chancellor may have told the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs that he did not “see the need” for contingency planning but, frankly, that beggars belief. One of my constituents said that he was “left horrified” by the situation. Many are incredulous that the Government could have put the question to the British public without at least considering the possibility that they might not get the answer they wanted.
We now face weeks, months and even years of prolonged uncertainty about what “Brexit means Brexit” really means as we try to work through the incredible intricacies of extricating ourselves from the EU. What will Brexit mean for the countless individuals across the UK whose lives will be directly impacted by leaving the EU? Two of my constituents came to see me; they have worked in the EU for a decade but have no idea what will happen to the pension contributions they have made during that time. What will happen to our driving licences and our European health insurance cards once article 50 is triggered? That is a pretty important question for the millions of British citizens who regularly travel to the EU for work or holidays.
Under what circumstances will north-east firms be able to trade their goods and services to EU and non-EU countries in the future? That knowledge is crucial to the only region in the UK that consistently exports more than it imports, with some 58% of north-east exports currently going to the EU. What will happen to EU nationals who have made a life for themselves in the north-east, such as the 1,000 people who work in the NHS and the 600 university staff? Those are just two examples.
As one constituent asked me, what is the timescale for leaving the EU so that industry, academic institutions and other organisations have sufficient time to prepare? Crucially, what will happen to the £726 million of European funding due to the north-east over the next five years, not least because the north-east has received only 20% of its EU funding allocation so far? How will the Government ensure that the devolution deal—which is apparently still on the table for our region—is meaningful, given that it was largely underpinned by EU funding that the north-east was due to receive?
To what extent will the north-east be involved in the Brexit negotiations? Britain leaving the EU will clearly have a profound effect on my region and I share the determination of the North East Combined Authority that our voice is heard as loudly as anybody else’s throughout the process. How will the Government be held accountable for any of this?
Those are just some of the many unanswered questions about what Brexit actually means. Until we have the answers, we will not even know what Britain voted for in the referendum, and that is the crux of the matter. Nobody who voted on 23 June could possibly have known what life outside the EU would actually look like and, more than two months on from the referendum, we are no closer to the truth. The north-east will work together to make the best of this mess, but to do so we need answers to all those questions quickly.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David.
Almost two hours into the debate, there has been unanimity in this room. No one has actually said that they want to rerun the referendum; despite the fact that it has been somewhat fraught between the sides, the debate has found that agreement. People who have spoken may not believe that. Indeed, people in the Public Gallery and people who signed the e-petition may have hoped for something else, but no one has said, “Let’s rerun the referendum.” That is a good thing. I certainly do not want the referendum to take place again for a number of reasons, which I will outline.
I feel sorry for my friend, the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), who was called to order, but rightly so. After some of the arguments he put forward, the House may have felt a little bit like how Moses must have felt when he said to the children of Israel, “I am going to take you to a promised land that is flowing with milk and honey. Follow me out of slavery. Leave the building of these terrible buildings to the Egyptians. We’ll take you there.” And, a few steps out of Egypt, they said, “Oh, let’s go back. We can’t really see where we’re going. We don’t like this. There’s a big sea in front of us, which won’t part. We’ll have to find a different way.” Unfortunately, I think that that is how Moses must have felt. Therefore, maybe we can take some hope out of this because there is a promised land and a better place, and it will be when we Brexit fully and completely from the EU.
I love it. The analogy is brilliant because for the past 40 years we have been walking in the wilderness of the EU and at last we see the promised land. We are getting there. We are not even four months in and I think that the promised land—the horizon—is more than there.
I agree with something that was said by an earlier contributor [Interruption.] No, I will not give way again because it is unfair on the remaining five speakers. It would be a real slap in the face if we did what some people want us to do—have the vote again. That would say to the people, “You voted, but damn you. We’re going to make you vote again until we get the right result.” People have mentioned urban elites, metropolitan elites and all the rest of it, and that approach would just be arrogant. We are here as servants of the people and, as servants, we must do what the people have asked us to do. We seldom trouble the people with referendums.
No, I will not give way again. I have said clearly that it would be unfair on the other five people who want to speak.
It would be unfair for us to trouble the people—to say, “Give us your view” and then, “Damn you. We’re going to ignore you.” That would be immoral and absolutely wrong.
Another point I agree with is that we must be careful what we ask for. If we say that there will be huge thresholds in the future, what if, at some time in the future—and we all know this would be madness—someone crazy decided to pursue the crazy notion that we should have a referendum on, say, Scotland leaving the Union? If the result was wrong because we decided that the wrong result emerged or if there were not enough votes for that wrong result and we said, “Let’s have it again until you give us the result we want”, I would feel insulted for the Scottish people as I feel insulted now when some people tell me, “You voted leave, but it is not the right result and we’ve got to have that vote again.” That is immoral, wrong and anti-democratic. It is about time we listened to the people and put in place what the people want even if some of us find it distasteful and if it is not what we want to do.
Turning briefly to the petition, I have been told by some who have emailed me—those keyboard warlords in my constituency—that I had better turn up to this debate, vote in a particular way and have a rerun of the referendum because thousands of them have signed the petition. Of course, I looked closely at the petition and I have heard some of the arguments, but only 2,479 people from my constituency signed or emailed that petition. Frankly, I get larger petitions for rural potholes in my constituency. That is not a joke.
I had a petition with thousands more signatories for caravan legislation in the previous Parliament. As parliamentarians, we must remember to avoid the view that we are ruled by the tap of a keyboard and that just because someone taps “send” on a keyboard, we had better crack to that and jump to that particular order. We take our judgment seriously and we are here, as Burke said, to give our judgment and to give of our industry. We are not here to be told, at the click of a keyboard, “That’s the way you should vote in the future.” We should all, as parliamentarians, take that responsibility very seriously indeed because that is our role and our job.
Tens of thousands of people who signed the petition did so fraudulently. I am not dismissing the millions who genuinely signed the petition, but 77,000 signatures have been wiped out. I looked through the petition today, and someone signed it from the Solomon Islands. Tens of thousands of people have signed it from France. Frankly, one of the reasons why we voted to leave the EU was because we want to take decisions about ourselves and about our own country without jumping to the will of people outside this country. We should therefore not allow ourselves to be bullied by petitions; we should do what the people have told us to do and implement the result properly.
Finally, I agree with the argument that the debate was not good enough and was flawed on all sides. I think we can all share that view. Many a time during the leave campaign when I tried to raise agricultural issues and the importance of ensuring that we have an agriculture deal post-Brexit, I was told, “Oh, no, this is not about that detail. This is about sovereignty. Get on to that. That is what you must talk about.” When I got on to sovereignty, the same people on the remain side were saying, “But what about the farmers? What will they do? What will they do for their single-farm payment?” That is the nature of the maelstrom we are in. In politics we have to make those arguments. It is upon us if we fail to make those arguments, but it is also upon the media at times for not allowing a proper debate on many of these issues. The media were not interested in pursuing the details of what we were saying. Our campaign produced a detailed 100-page document on many of the key issues about future trade negotiations, and it got a tiny line in the newspaper before the newspaper went off on something else altogether. If there is a future referendum on any other subject, the media bears some responsibility for a proper and full debate.
Of course, we now have the madness that says that any bad news is all because of Brexit and that any good news is because there has not been a Brexit yet. We cannot have that nonsense. We are moving to Brexit, and the faster we get there the better for clarity, for all our country and for all our people’s sake. The hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber introduced the motion, and he is a great lad from bonny Scotland. I get on very well with him, and he is my namesake, but this sort of thing sounds a bit like being a bad loser. We have to pull together and get the best deal for the entire United Kingdom.
Nearly 17,500 people in Ealing Central and Acton signed this petition and 72% of my constituents wanted to remain, so I am here on their behalf. When the enormity of the result set in on that night—I remember that the rest of the country did not go the same way—I was saying to people that if there were a vote on the repeal of the European Communities Act 1972, I would have no hesitation in voting against, but we are not talking about that today. We are talking about this petition, which states that any referendum should have a 60% vote one way or the other and that there should be a 75% turnout. In answer to that, the Government have already said that the referendum was a democratic exercise in which 33 million people had their say and that the goalposts cannot be moved afterwards. I accept that logic. We cannot rerun a football match if we do not get the result we want. I was in Iceland this summer, and the people had the match ball from that horrible game just so they could rub salt into the wounds of English holidaymakers.
I accept all that. There is no parallel or precedent for what we have done. People say that 2016 is one of those years that proves the curse, “May you live in interesting times.” There have been a lot of celebrity deaths: David Bowie; Alan Rickman, who lived in Acton; and Muhammad Ali. Many of my constituents are going through a grieving process, and the saddest thing of all is “Britain in the EU, RIP.” In life, the probability of death is always one, but many of my constituents feel that the referendum result was not inevitable. The referendum was meant to put a lid on the issue and put it to bed. The previous Prime Minister was cowed by his own party’s internal politics, and this was meant to signal a full stop, but it feels as if we have uncorked a genie from a bottle, opened Pandora’s box or opened a can of worms—pick a cliché. The consequences are much wider ranging than any normal piece of legislation, because 40 years of law making will have to be undone, which will not be an easy process. There are two new Government Departments for a start.
We have all heard anecdotes and stories. I spoke to the head of Grange Primary School this morning, and he said that the day after the referendum parents, rather than children, from the settled EU population were in tears and fearing the worst. They thought that people would say, “Go home now.” Apparently things have not been as bad as they thought, but business people have lost contracts. We have a lot of Japanese residents in my seat, and many of the Japanese companies for which they work are saying that they will take their wares elsewhere. We are where we are.
I campaigned to remain, and I am the sort of person who is into building bridges rather than constructing walls, unlike Donald Trump in America. I was disappointed by the result, and I have to accept that the sky has not fallen in, yet. There is an argument that referendums are quite un-British. Why did we have this referendum at all? Some people in my party blame our current leader, but if there is one person whose door we can lay this at it is the previous Prime Minister. We are not Switzerland. There is an argument that we should not trust experts, and a good weight of expert opinion seems to have gone out of the window. The template seems to have been set in the three-hour statement he made when we came back on the Monday after the referendum. He got three hours of questions on all sorts of different aspects of Brexit, including hate crime and all the economic stuff, and the two responses he seemed to have were, “We must accept the will of the people” and, “That is a matter for my successor.” He seemed to say those two things, in either order, in answer to everything.
We cannot carry on with business as usual because things have been so drastically altered—a new political settlement lies ahead—but some safeguards need to be put in place if we ever have another referendum in this country. Safety valves and safeguards are an absolute necessity, not just a feasible prospect. The thresholds in the petition are quite high: 60% have to vote one way or the other and there has to be a 75% turnout. When he was Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr Cameron) probably thought that the vote would go the way of his other referendums. The referendum in 2011 on the alternative vote had a turnout of 42%, with 69% voting against, so it would have satisfied one of the thresholds but not the other. There is something in the argument that thresholds would protect us from close calls, but I do not know exactly where we should set the numbers.
There is limited time left and I have waited ages, so I would rather not give way. I will talk to my right hon. Friend afterwards.
Any mobile phone contract now has a cooling-off period. There is a sense of buyer’s remorse doing the rounds. In a 72%-in constituency, I have had emails from people saying that they did not realise that leave would win. France bans opinion polls in the run-up to a vote, and we could introduce that safeguard. We are not saying that we should rerun exactly the same question, but we could ban opinion polls in the run-up to a future vote.
Nobody knows what “Brexit means Brexit” means. Members on both sides of the House have mooted the idea of having some sort of accountability process. At a general election both sides have a manifesto with codified promises. Perhaps in future the lead campaigns on both sides could have the same. We have heard that most of the promises were not worth the paper they were written on or the cost of the paint used to write the lies on the side of the bus. I advocate that both sides should have proper manifestos from now on. Yes, 48% voted the wrong way—or the right way, depending on how we look at it—but that cannot really be called a ringing endorsement. Maybe we should have some facts because it seems quite possible to do mendacity in these referendums.
From all the Government’s indications, rerunning a referendum that went the wrong way for our side is not an option but I argue for introducing certain measures. I agree with the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), who has now left the Chamber—[Interruption.] I am just concluding. This is my last sentence. We should have a referendum on the terms of Brexit, because nobody knew what they were voting on, so I advocate having a referendum on what comes after the negotiations.
I am being told to wind up. There is an American saying: “The people have spoken, the b******s.” In some sense, I feel that way. In short, we remainers are down, but hopefully not out—not yet, anyway.
I will be as brief as I can, Sir David. I never thought of the referendum as a telephone contract before; I thought it was slightly more important than that. First, I am against the wording of the petition. If we put a threshold on turnout, it would simply be an incentive for people to stay at home; it would value their abstention like a vote. If we demand 60% voting one way, we would be saying that some votes are worth more than others, and that is a very non-UK tradition.
My second point is that the enthusiasm from both sides, before and after the referendum, has given the lie to what was said in opposition to having a referendum: that nobody cared about Europe. No political debate in this country since I have been in politics has raised such passion and commitment on both sides. Probably we should have had the referendum a good deal sooner than we did.
Thirdly, on the argument for having another referendum, I have looked through the record of the Second Reading debate on 9 June, and I cannot find one speaker in that debate, including some of the right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken today in favour of a second referendum, who was in favour of a second referendum or a referendum on the detail. It is sourness from losers who want another referendum, and it is being wrapped up as, “All right, we’ve lost the referendum; we’re out. We accept that—we’re democrats—but we’ll look at the detail.”
However, if we sit back and think about what that means, we find that it means complete uncertainty until the details are sorted out and a referendum is held. Although right hon. and hon. Members have said that it will not be another in/out referendum but will be about the details, if the details are rejected, it means either a third referendum or a reversal of the first referendum. In practice, it is a repeat referendum, which might require a third or fourth referendum, depending on how the legislation was worded. I am afraid that despite all the casuistry that has been used, it is an argument to have another referendum on the same issue.
An argument was made and it has been dealt with a bit. I strongly approve of the tone used by my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) in this debate; I think that we need more of that and less aggression. He highlighted, as have other Members, the number of Labour voters and of poor and dispossessed people who voted out. It has been suggested that those people did not know what they were doing—that in some sense they were duped, or were voting out of anger and dispossession. That was not my experience. On the day of the referendum, I was out in my constituency, in what is either the poorest or the third poorest ward in the country, depending on how we count such things. I talked to people who were motivated to vote: some did not normally vote in elections, some did; some voted Labour, some did not. They did not say, “I am very angry and dispossessed.” They were voting out of a sense of patriotism and a belief that this country should be a self-governing democracy.
There is something insulting, particularly from Labour politicians, in saying that such people were just voting out of anger and did not know what they were doing. They certainly did know, and given that 70% of Labour constituencies voted to leave the EU, the Labour party has a great deal of serious thinking to do about how we relate to that. That is why I appreciated the statement that my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham made about trying to bring things together.
Finally, some in this debate have made claims about pledges made during the referendum. Let us be absolutely clear: lies or distortions—call them what you like—came from both sides in the referendum. In that sense, it was no different from a general election. In every general and local election that I have been in, I have thought my opponents were telling lies, and could justify it on many occasions. We would rerun every general election if we had to do so because lies had been told. The nature of debate in this country is to expose those lies, and the strength of our democracy means that they are exposed.
I was a member of the Vote Leave board. When we debated or said things, there was no idea that we could commit a Conservative Government to doing something. When I was asked “What does this mean?” during the 50 or 60 debates that I did in the run-up to the referendum, I said, “What we are actually voting for is the freedom for a United Kingdom Government to make decisions. I can’t commit that Government to doing anything, and neither can anybody else in this campaign.” To say that we have to hold to account those who made commitments, statements or arguments during the debate is simply nonsense in the kind of parliamentary democracy that we live in.
We should see the debate for a second referendum as what it is: people being angry because they have lost some hope. That will dissipate, and we can bring the country together. It would be dangerous, damaging and undemocratic to have a second referendum on the issue.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. One reason why the petition had so many signatories is that there was some confusion about what Brexit might mean, and what “Brexit means Brexit” might mean. However, a consensus has now been clearly established in Westminster Hall that Brexit means breakfast. When I said that before the summer, the BBC thought it was a slip of the tongue, but my hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) has confirmed that it is in fact the case. Whether it is a dog’s breakfast or a full Scottish breakfast has yet to be determined, but the Prime Minister has appointed some cereal Brexiteers to lead the negotiations. Perhaps it is no surprise that some of them are getting a frostier reception in European capitals, and that some of our neighbours just want to say cheerio to the UK as soon as possible.
I will reflect briefly on the petition system and how we got to this debate, the issue of thresholds and referendums and the differential result across the UK. Four million signatures was a remarkable achievement, as was the rapid pace at which it was achieved. The irony has been noted that the petition was started by a leave supporter who has since disowned it.
These Monday afternoon debates are becoming something of a showpiece, and a bit box-office. Often, this Chamber is busier than the main Chamber, although not perhaps this afternoon, given the two hours for which the Brexit Minister spoke. We are only too aware, though, that Parliament debating something is different from Parliament deciding something. We must be careful that the petition system does not give constituents the impression—as the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) suggested, some constituents do get this impression—that these debates will lead to an immediate change of policy. We all have a responsibility, as do the media, to be clear about what we are trying to achieve in these debates. As a member of the Procedure Committee, I will be considering how we can do so. The Government should listen to what the Procedure Committee said about private Members’ Bills, so that we Back Benchers have more opportunity to bring to the House concrete legislative changes.
The issue of thresholds is very important. The threshold in the 1978 Scottish Assembly referendum has been mentioned; if that threshold had been in place in this referendum, we would not have had a leave vote. The Scottish National party proposed the four-nation lock; if that had been accepted, the leave vote would not have stood either. The SNP reserves the right to question the result, and particularly the result as it pertains to Scotland, because we did not vote for the referendum legislation in the first place: we did not see the need for a referendum and we warned of exactly the kind of situation we have ended up in.
I was interested to hear from the champions of participatory democracy on the Government Benches this evening. I had understood that Parliament was sovereign and had the final say, but now it appears that they are prepared to concede some of that sovereignty to the people, which we are very happy to accept, because in Scotland we have always accepted the sovereignty of the people. Tomorrow in this Chamber we will debate the claim of right for Scotland, which accepts the right of the people of Scotland to determine the form of government best suited to their own needs.
The reality is that the people of Scotland have chosen to remain in the European Union, so that now has to form part of the UK Government’s consideration as they take forward their negotiating position. Although there may not be a second referendum on Brexit, there must be an opportunity for Parliament to express its will and its view on the article 50 process and on the results of the negotiations. As SNP parliamentarians, we will not vote for any proposal that would take Scotland out of the European Union against its will, and we will resist attempts to bypass Parliament in the process.
I understand and share the frustration of my constituents, more than 5,000 of whom signed the petition—the highest number in Scotland outside Edinburgh, interestingly enough. Some 78% of my constituents voted to remain; that has to be taken into account, and I hope the UK Government will engage with the Brexit Minister who has been appointed by the Scottish Government—that shows the seriousness of the Scottish Government in trying to find a solution that can work within the result that has been delivered. But at the end of the day, if there is a material change in circumstances—it was interesting to hear the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) use that phrase—we reserve the right to ask for another referendum—on the question of Scottish independence.
I will try to cut out from my speech all the points that have already been made, to allow my colleagues time to speak.
Some 23,815 people in Bristol West signed this e-petition —I think that was the second-highest number—and in the referendum more than 80% of my constituents voted to remain. Many have told me of their sadness at the result. I know it will make some of my constituents unhappy, but I believe it is not right to hold a second referendum.
I shall briefly give the arguments for a second referendum and why I do not support them. Some have said that they feel the leave campaign was based on misinformation or lack of clear information; as others have said, that can also be said of the remain campaign that I fought as part of. Another argument for a second referendum is that the details of the deal were not known or clear at the time of the first; my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) made good points on that topic. Others have said that they would like MPs to scrutinise the detail of the deal, to hold the Government to account and to hold the Prime Minister’s feet metaphorically to the fire over every detail, but that they do not want another referendum. That is where my heart lies, and I feel many of my constituents are going to back me on it—I hope most will, if they hear my reasons.
Some of my constituents have told me that, no matter how sad they are, they feel it is important to respect the democratic process. Many people felt involved in this referendum and were moved to vote for the first time in years. It would be tragic if those people were given the idea that their views had been ridden roughshod over and were told that they did not count. However, my constituents have many concerns and want to ensure that there is proper democratic accountability, and I believe that that is where the solution lies. We need to act in a way that does not tell voters who voted leave that their views can be dismissed, but that also takes into account those who are concerned about what happens next.
The Prime Minister has indicated that the Government will not put the Brexit settlement to a vote in the House of Commons before article 50 is invoked. Indeed, I sat through the statement made earlier by the Secretary of State for Brexit and he did not mention that. In the referendum campaign, leave campaigners said repeatedly that Parliament should be sovereign. I particularly recall the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) making much of that point in each of our many vigorous, lively and enjoyable debates. I believe parliamentary sovereignty is now being flouted, because the House is being denied the opportunity to debate the Brexit settlement fully and to vote on it before article 50 is triggered and the clock starts to tick. Once it is triggered, we all know that that will be it: we will be out in two years, with or without a good deal.
People of all views on Brexit, whether they voted leave or remain in the referendum, will want to know at least some of the details and that they are going to be carefully scrutinised. They will want their views to be represented in Parliament by their democratically elected Members of Parliament and for them to be given a vote or votes on that settlement. I believe many, perhaps most, of those people calling for a second referendum—I hope that includes my own constituents—would be satisfied with delegating scrutiny of the detail to their elected Member, and for us to be trusted to vote against or for invoking article 50, until we are satisfied that it is a good deal for the UK. Again, I am sure that those who voted leave would also want us to have that scrutiny.
Finally, I believe that my constituents want to know that I have been given the chance to defend workers’ rights, environmental protection and consumer regulations; to stand up for the EU citizens who have made Bristol their home; to ensure that the world-class university in my constituency has had the opportunity to renegotiate partnerships to carry out vital research; and to find ways for Airbus and other big and small local employers to manage their multi-European workforce and the rules and regulations of trade. They want to know that I will be able to represent them in a debate and in a vote. If the Government would be so kind as to agree that article 50 will not be triggered without the consent of Parliament first, a clear plan in place, and full and proper scrutiny of that negotiated plan, I believe that that would satisfy most of those who currently ask for a second referendum, including the people of Bristol West who I represent.
This has been a curious debate, hasn’t it? It has been a bit like the referendum: there was an issue on the paper, but Members have largely talked about something else. Perhaps that is partly because of the slightly unfortunate scheduling of this debate at the same time as a major statement in the Chamber. Maybe some of the points that have been made would have been better raised in the main Chamber, but I chose to be here today because the numbers in constituencies like mine and those in similar cities are absolutely staggering, with 17,000 to 20,000 people signing the petition. That comes as no surprise to me, because of the strength of feeling that exists. I see the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) sitting opposite me; he and I are in the same county, but it is a divided county with very different views. In my city, Cambridge, there is passion about the European Union and a real and genuine sense of loss, worry and concern. That is why I am here.
One point I have taken from the debate so far is about the 52% and the 48%. In a way, the 48% knew what they were voting for—they did not necessarily know everything about the European Union, but it was the status quo. The problem is that the 52% were voting for a whole range of different things. That is the issue before us now: some Members here today clearly want a hard Brexit—to separate, get away as quickly as possible and go off to the promised land—but there is a whole spectrum of ways out. That is why the question whether there should be a further decision is so important.
For reasons of brevity, I will give just two examples. The issue of the EU citizens who live and work in my city is huge. The council leader told us at a very big rally in the city on Saturday that there are 9,000 EU citizens living and working around the area, and their status is uncertain at the moment. We can argue about whether certainty should be given to them—I strongly feel that it should—but there is uncertainty at the moment, and it is likely that as time passes people will begin to drift away, which will have a negative impact on the city. If there is a deal that gives absolute certainty, that is different from a deal that is uncertain.
Let us look also at environmental issues, which are dear to many of my constituents. If we look at nature directives such as those on birds and on clean beaches, we see that we have much stronger legislation from Europe than from our own Parliament. If that legislation is incorporated into UK law, the situation will be different from if it is not. People would make different decisions depending on what happens with that.
Of course we cannot rerun 23 June; the world has moved on. Not only has Britain changed, but Europe has changed, and the situation will be very different in the months and years ahead. But surely that is the point of politics, and that is why there will be a further decision at some point in the future. Whether that is at a second referendum or a general election, I passionately believe that there will be a further decision.
There has been passion from the leave side in this debate, but there is also passion on the pro-European side, among those of us who believe passionately in the European Union, are proud of what it has achieved and want to remain part of it. I can assure those who have fought with such passion for 20 or 30 years to get us out that there are Opposition Members who will fight for just as long to keep us in.
This is an interesting debate to attempt to sum up. I clearly do not have time to address all the interesting points that have been made. I apologise to Members whose constituencies I am not familiar with, and also if I miss out their “right honourable” titles. If I do not have time to get around all the points that have been made, Members can assume that if they said something that I agree with, their point was very well made, and if they said something that I disagree with, their arguments were fatally flawed and really should not be heard again.
I have a huge amount of sympathy with the intentions of the 4 million-plus people who signed the petition, but in my heart of hearts I cannot support the petition because of its wording. Nor can I support its general thrust, which is that we should have another referendum on EU membership. The most fundamental of my political beliefs is that the people are sovereign. The sovereignty of the people means that people have the right to be wrong and to take decisions that I personally disagree with. I have had quite a lot of practice at being gutted and devastated about referendum results and at having people who trust me to act on their behalf begging me to force a rerun because there must have been some mistake. I have had to say to them, “I’m sorry, it’s not the way I wanted it to happen.” In both cases, the result did not reflect the way people in Fife voted, but it reflected how the people as a whole voted. We have to respect that. As part of that, though, I will demand and insist that the people of my country have their wish respected as well. That is a red line as far as I am concerned.
We cannot ignore the frustration we are seeing. It is wrong to impugn the integrity, character and honesty of the 4 million people who have asked for a second referendum. I do not impugn the integrity or honesty of the 4 million people who voted UKIP—I suspect that there is not an awful lot of overlap between those two groups of 4 million. However passionately and fundamentally I might disagree with someone else’s view, I will always stand by their right to express it. One of the ills of the politics that we are now seeing come to fruition is that we are far too quick to criticise people’s integrity and question their motives just because they have views that differ strongly from our own. I welcome the contributions that have been made on both sides of the debate, even though I felt that some of them showed poor analysis and I could not possibly agree with them.
I shall pick up on one or two key points. A Labour Member made an interesting intervention early in the debate—I am sorry, but I cannot remember who it was and whether they are still present—suggesting that the demand for a second referendum is damaging to our democracy. No, the demand for a second referendum is a strong symptom of the fact that our democracy is already severely, if not fatally, damaged. A fundamental test of any democratic process should always be that the losers accept that the contest was fair. In this case, a substantial number of the losers do not believe that. If they are honest about it, a substantial number of the winners are probably also not happy about the way in which the contest was won.
Nevertheless, we cannot attempt to rerun the contest. Like other Members, there may be circumstances in which I would support another referendum to confirm our exit from the European Union, although I am not yet convinced about that. We have to stop and ask ourselves: how have weaknesses been allowed to develop for so long in this, the so-called mother of all Parliaments, such that a Government can embark on a course that leads to something that the vast majority of that Government, including the then Prime Minister himself, were convinced would be catastrophic for the nations they had been elected to serve and to lead? How can a Government who had the support of only 36% of those who bothered to turn out and vote lead four nations of 60 million-plus people down a path on which that same Government did not want to embark, when two of the four equal partner nations were determined not to embark on that path? We have been led into a position from which I can see no way for England and Wales to retain their membership of the European Union. If or when they change their minds and try to get back in, I wish them the best of luck, but I cannot see an acceptable way for them to retain membership.
It is unacceptable to suggest that Scotland and/or Northern Ireland just have to follow suit. What the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) said was interesting. I agree with him that we can never say, “Thank you very much for giving us your opinion, but damn you, we’re going to ignore you,” but 57.8% of people in Northern Ireland said that they wanted to stay in the European Union. I am not prepared to say to those citizens of one of the nations of these islands, “Damn you, we’re going to ignore you and take you out of the EU, even if you don’t want to go.”
There has been a lot of discussion about the nature of the wildly untrue statements and promises that were made during the referendum campaign. It genuinely scares me that Members of Parliament—honourable Members of Parliament—can sit here in an open forum and say, “Yeah, but people tell lies in general elections and council elections. It is just part of the system.” It should never be part of the system. It is appalling that a Member of this Parliament was found by a court of law to have told a blatant lie, but the law does not provide for that person to be forced to seek re-election through a by-election. There is something fundamentally wrong if the political system not only tacitly but now explicitly accepts that telling lies is an accepted part of the political process. If this whole shambolic affair does nothing more than create a situation in which lies and politics and public life are no longer allowed to coexist, perhaps the cloud will have a bit of a silver lining.
As I mentioned, I have been through two referendums—I hope I do not lose the third, because I think if I lose three times I am out altogether—and the contrast between them could not have been more marked. Other Members have mentioned the Electoral Reform Society report, which highlighted many concerns. I shall give one example. On the Sunday after the Scottish independence referendum, I, along with a lot of campaigners on both sides of the debate, was invited by my local church to attend one of the services of reconciliation that took place the length and breadth of the country. Yes, no and don’t know campaigners and activists literally joined hands in prayer—or whatever was appropriate for those who do not have a particular faith.
The immediate response to the Brexit vote was a substantial and horrific increase in racial violence. If that does not tell us that the Brexit referendum has left a legacy that is far more toxic and poisonous than it needed to be, we are certainly not watching what is really happening in these islands. I commend the two Members who are no longer present for the initiative they took to try to heal the divisions. I do not think those divisions were caused by the referendum. The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) referred to the referendum having laid bare the divisions. The malaise in the political process has been brought to a focus by the referendum. That was always going to happen.
The referendum was provoked by the desire of the then Prime Minister to fend off a challenge from the extreme right—not only the extreme right in the Conservative party, but those who were too extreme for his party—rather than facing down the xenophobes who wanted to demonise immigration and hold immigrants responsible for all the ills in our society. It is sad and shameful that neither of the two major political parties went into the last election saying, “You know what? We are not going to be bullied by the keyboard tappers of the Daily Express and the Daily Mail. We are going to tell it like it is. We are going to say that we stand for immigration being a positive contribution to our nations. If you want to vote for a Government who say something different, you can have that Government, but we will not be part of it.” Neither of the two major parties was prepared to do that, because getting elected was more important to them than saying what they fundamentally believed in.
I cannot believe how the Labour party produced election material saying, “Vote Labour for strong immigration controls”. I was brought up in the Labour party. The second time in my life that I voted was when I voted for a Labour MP. Interestingly enough, the first time that I voted was in the 1979 devolution referendum, and when we were cheated out of that one it nearly put me off voting for life. I cannot believe how the party I was once pleased to support can have any truck with those who want to demonise immigrants and immigration and blame them for the ills of society. When Labour made that concession—when it started to try to appease the far right, just like the Government of the day—that put us on a headlong course at the end of which Brexit was perhaps inevitable, and the horrific racist and racialistic legacy that has been left in too many of our communities will take a long, long time to put right. I hope that it is put right in time for my friends in other parts of the United Kingdom to be welcomed back into the European Union, but I can tell people something for nothing—Scotland is a member of the European Union now, and I intend for us to stay that way.
It is always a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David.
For some, the referendum result represents a moment of golden opportunity; for others, it is a time of enormous economic risk. The petition we are debating today has been signed by an overwhelming number of people who believe that a second referendum should be put to the electorate. It has been signed both by people who voted to leave and by people who voted to remain. Curiously, the petition was created in advance of the referendum by somebody who supported the leave campaign and who is said to have believed that the result would be close but most likely in favour of remain. He was wrong.
With a majority of just over 1.25 million votes, 51.9% of votes cast called for us to leave, compared with 48.1% of votes to remain, on a turnout of 72% of the electorate. The referendum was certainly one of the most significant exercises in democracy that we have seen for a very long time, and it was for that reason that the Labour party tabled dozens of amendments to the European Union Referendum Bill to address the concerns that have now been raised in this petition, including provisions for electoral turnout and for a minimum threshold. Such amendments were rejected by Members of Parliament, alongside provisions that would have allowed 16 and 17-year-olds to have a say in what is probably the most important decision for their generation.
However, we must be clear that the British people decided in the referendum that our relationship with the EU, and its balance of rights and responsibilities, was wrong and needed to be addressed. Nevertheless, they did not, nor could they have been expected to, establish what the alternative might be. That is what the Government and Parliament must now determine.
What makes this process so complex is that we must seek to negotiate our exit from the EU and our future relationship with it while simultaneously forging our future bilateral trade partnerships with other countries—countries that would like to have clarity about where we stand with the EU before they conclude their own trade deals with us. Nothing could have made that clearer than the report released at the weekend by the Japanese Government, which expressed their proper concern about securing future access to Europe for Japanese companies that have invested billions of pounds in UK factories, jobs and distribution centres. That indicates the extraordinary risks that investment in the UK faces if we fail to maintain the free movement of goods and services into the world’s largest consumer market.
The Government must also address all the legislative gaps that will arise as a consequence of our secession from the European Union. The British people did not vote to see their workplaces made more dangerous or their maternity rights curtailed. The Government must ensure that where the basis of such rights and protections is lost because of legislation disappearing following a UK exit from the EU, new primary or secondary legislation is introduced to maintain the standards that British people have a right to expect.
EU nationals living in the UK and British nationals living elsewhere in the EU are desperate for clarity about where they stand. Do the Government plan to remove EU nationals from the UK? Should we prepare ourselves for the repatriation of some 1.1 million British citizens who are currently living elsewhere in the EU? Those are the non-duckable questions on which the Government have a duty to provide clarity; I hope that the Minister will provide such clarity in his summing-up today.
EU member states are our closest neighbours and strategic allies in matters of defence and co-operation, and the world is looking to us to set out how we will ensure that our departure from the EU does not cause instability throughout the region and— consequently—further afield.
The EU is currently the destination for 45% of all the goods and services that Britain exports and the source of 53% of all our imports. That is a stark measure of the level of trade integration that must now be renegotiated in the light of the referendum result. The Government must balance and recalibrate all the different elements that our membership of the EU has previously entailed. Essentially, however, there are three possible trading models: a free trade agreement, whereby member countries agree to abolish tariff barriers and quotas for goods and services between themselves; a customs union, in which member countries agree not only to reduce tariff barriers and quotas between themselves but to adopt common external tariffs towards other countries; and a single market, in which there is free movement of goods, services, capital and people, or labour. In a single market, there is also policy harmonisation over what constitutes such things as fair competition or reasonable health and safety regulations.
Although both sides of the referendum campaign lamentably failed to make it clear, in voting to leave the EU the British people voted to leave both the single market and the customs union. There is no smorgasbord of trade agreements laid out and waiting for the UK to choose from. The options that will be available to us will be determined just as much by what the other EU member states are prepared to give us as by what the UK wants.
Currently, there is no unified view among the other 27 EU members as to what they are willing to negotiate on. That situation is not going to be made easier by the forthcoming elections in France and Germany, both of which could have new leaders by this time next year. Timing is essential in all of this, and British MPs who say the Prime Minister should trigger article 50 now and without delay, without first setting out to Parliament the terms and basis upon which the Government seek to negotiate—indeed, without even indicating the red lines that the Prime Minister should seek to protect—simply have not grasped the logic of article 50. It is the logic of the game that young, testosterone-fuelled car drivers call “chicken”. The principle of that game is that while it is beneficial for each driver that the other driver gives way, their own optimal choice depends upon what their opponent is doing. If their opponent yields, the other driver should not yield, but if the opponent fails to yield, the other driver certainly should give way, to avoid a head-on crash.
What we know for certain is that no incumbent French or German leader can afford to be seen to be conciliatory towards the UK in negotiations before the elections in their own country. However, article 50 will not only trigger those negotiations but set a firm time limit—two years—within which they must be concluded. After that, in the absence of an agreed negotiated trade settlement, the UK would simply be ejected from the EU with no trade deal at all, unless every country in the EU separately agreed to an extension of negotiations, which could lead to the UK being held hostage to several unpalatable ransom demands.
Time is critical in negotiating trade deals; everything must come together, because the reality is that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. Before article 50 is invoked, the Government must set out how they intend to ensure that the promises made to those who voted to leave the EU are met. The Government must decide whether it is vital to keep passporting arrangements for our financial services sector, and if that is a red line, they must decide what price they are prepared to pay for it. If that price is the continuation of the free movement of people, many people who voted to leave the EU in the referendum might well feel that the Government are simply ignoring their concerns over immigration.
Similarly, if a deal were concluded that allowed us to keep single market access and have no free movement of people, our financial contribution towards the EU might have to continue at an extraordinarily high level. A negotiating red line that achieved market access without free movement but at huge budgetary cost might not be acceptable to those who thought they were voting to stop paying £350 million a week to the EU so that they could spend it on the NHS instead. It might also not appeal to those who voted to leave because they wanted to reclaim the UK’s sovereignty. In return for its access to the single market, Norway is obliged to enact three quarters of all EU laws into its own domestic legislation. A UK operating under such an arrangement would in effect be a vassal state, paying tribute to the EU and meekly enacting the laws passed down by Brussels, without the right to influence or shape them that member status confers.
None of those arguments are arguments for ignoring the expressed will of the British people, but they are very good reasons for saying that the Government must decide precisely what they want from any negotiation and what they are willing to pay or sacrifice to get it.
It is also vital that there is real democratic oversight. That means that Parliament must be extensively involved in the process and that once the Government are clear about what their own objective is, they should then present it to the country. Even though the petition is evidence that some wish to see a repeat of the referendum vote, the Government, as we know, have refused that. However, such a refusal should, at the very least, come through a parliamentary vote in the House of Commons. Then, and only then, does it make sense to trigger the UK’s departure from the EU by formally invoking article 50.
Article 50 is a fuse; once it is lit it cannot be extinguished. If it is prepared for well, it may lead to an extraordinary firework display, as Britain illuminates the world stage with a renewed sense of commercial purpose, but if it is prepared for hastily and badly, the fuse will result in an explosion whose economic consequences will set back our country for a generation.
I congratulate the Petitions Committee on arranging the debate and the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) on sponsoring it.
It is a healthy development that petitions receiving widespread support should be debated in Westminster Hall. This one has achieved more support than most—we should recognise that—and I recognise the great interest in the subject around the country. We have heard today from many speakers whose constituencies had a high turnout and it is striking, as the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) pointed out, that we have not heard from anyone who has backed the petition’s motion unequivocally and called for a second referendum on the same terms.
The hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) got called short in his statements. I suspect that I will be called rather short in mine as well, so I have some sympathy for him there. However, many of the issues he raised were addressed in the debate we had on the devolved Administrations and we absolutely stand by the assurances we gave about engagement with the Administrations on those matters.
The hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) is an experienced parliamentarian and he held out all sorts of interesting theoretical possibilities and challenges of the negotiations to come but, regarding the petition, it was clear that he did not support it. He talked about those MPs who were calling for article 50 to be triggered immediately and, of course, one of those was the leader of his party who, on 24 June, said that the article should be triggered at once. Admittedly, in July he corrected himself and recognised that it was a good idea to prepare for negotiations.
As we have heard, the referendum was one of the biggest democratic exercises in British history. Turnout was high, at 72%, with more than 33 million people having their say. More than a million more people voted leave than voted remain. The turnout was bigger than in any general election since 1992 and it was the second-highest popular vote of any form in our long and distinguished democratic history. No single party or Prime Minister has achieved more votes in our history than the vote to leave did in June. The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) spoke about the passion with which the referendum was fought, and the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) spoke of people who were voting for the first time in years. I recognise both of those statements. This was a once-in-a-generation vote and the decision must be respected.
Like many people who signed the petition, though by no means all of them, I campaigned for a different outcome, but I also spoke out repeatedly in the House, both before and during the passage of the legislation for the referendum, about trusting the people on this matter. On 24 June I might have preferred a different result, but I did not falter in my belief that it was right to give the British people their say. Both the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) and my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (William Wragg) spoke passionately about people going through the stages of grief. One of those stages is denial, but the one thing we cannot do is deny the outcome of the vote. To deny the outcome or the validity of the referendum is to deny the clear mandate of the British people—in this House, as hon. Friends have pointed out, we are their servants and not the other way around.
There will be no second referendum, no attempts to remain inside the EU, no attempts to re-join through the back door. Indeed, that would fly in the face of democracy and, I believe, entrench the sense of a disconnect between the country and this place that some argue contributed to the referendum result. We must now prepare for the process of exiting the EU, as we heard from the hon. Member for Brent North, and the Government are committed to ensuring the best possible outcome for the British people in the negotiations. I cannot cover all the detail of the preparations, but I refer hon. Members to the statement and responses given by the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my right hon. Friend for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), earlier today. As he said, we should seek to deliver on what the country asked us to do through the referendum. We are encouraged by the national mood and by the fact that many who voted remain now want to make a success of the course Britain has chosen.
We will work hard to get the best possible deal for the whole of the UK. The Prime Minister and the Conservatives in Government will provide strong and proven leadership as the UK begins its negotiations to leave the EU and forge a new role for itself in the world. As the Secretary of State set out earlier during his detailed statement and more than two hours of questions, we will consult widely in the process, to make the most of the opportunities that our departure presents—getting out into the world and doing business right across the globe, while at home building a Britain that works for everyone.
Let me address precisely the premise of the petition. It called for the referendum to be rerun in the event that certain thresholds or super-majorities were not achieved. Some hon. Members have suggested and other motions have argued that it should be rerun on the basis of the quality of the debate. That is not the subject of the petition and hon. Members were right to observe that such a criticism could be made, subjectively, of almost any democratic contest in the history of the world.
The European Union Referendum Bill was introduced in May 2015, following years of long, hard debate. It delivered on a manifesto commitment of my party, which I have little doubt played an important part in our election success. It delivered on the promise given by the Government at the last election to give the British people their say on the UK’s membership in an in/out referendum by the end of 2017 and then to respect the outcome of their decision. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) pointed out, the previous Prime Minister made it clear before the referendum that the Government would respect the result.
As I am sure hon. Members will recall, the Bill was fully scrutinised and debated in both Houses, with this House supporting the Bill on Third Reading by an overwhelming margin of six to one before it received Royal Assent in December 2015. Therefore, I cannot accept the argument that we ought now to have a second referendum. Nor can I accept that a threshold ought to have been set when no such provisions were put to a vote during the many debates in this House. As my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose) pointed out—I am grateful to him for bringing his expertise and experience to the debate—those points were never brought up in the debate or put to a vote during that period. We, as parliamentarians, signed up to the Bill and we must now respect the outcome of the referendum.
It was the European Union Act 2015 itself that set out the terms for the EU referendum. It set the question that would appear on the ballot paper, the absence of a threshold and the franchise. It also provided a power to set the precise date of the referendum in regulations. Just as with the 1975 referendum on Europe and the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, the Act did not set a threshold nor require a super-majority for any outcome. The hon. Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) talked about the 1979 referendums and about how they did have such requirements, but he also pointed out that the Scottish National party and others opposed that approach and its call for a super-majority. I recognise also his point about bringing people together in the aftermath of the referendum. He is right to say that we should bring people together rather than concentrate on rerunning the referendum. He is also right that we need certainty, and much of the statement that was set out earlier today and the announcement from the Chancellor during the summer are there to provide that certainty. A second or third referendum—a neverendum, as some hon. Members have suggested—would not provide the certainty that our country needs.
I conclude by saying that turnout was high, our instructions from the British people are clear and we are moving ahead. The machinery of government is now working hard to get the best deal from Brexit. While respecting the views of the millions who signed the petition, we must also respect the millions more who voted on 23 June and the clear mandate that was given, not merely after a few weeks of campaigning but after a debate that exercised this House and our nation for decades. I look forward to many more debates in this Chamber and in the House about the nature of our exit and the future relations between the United Kingdom and Europe, but I must be clear on behalf of the Government that we will respect the outcome of the referendum, treat it as an instruction from the British people and carry out the mandate they have given us.
I thank all those who signed the petition that got us to this position today and I also thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed to the debate.
I was struck by the comment the Minister made a couple of times about respecting the outcome of the referendum. The freedom to commit the United Kingdom Government to a debate was also mentioned. I do not think that many people would disagree with that—it is the fundamentals of our democracy—but I ask the Minister once again to recognise that different parts of the United Kingdom voted in different ways. We respect what has happened in England and Wales, but the Government have to listen, not just to the Members of the Scottish National party but to the Scottish Parliament, which voted so universally to empower the Scottish Government to protect Scotland’s position within the EU. The Government really must seek to do that.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).