Monday 11 December 2017
[Sir David Amess in the Chair]
Brexit Deal: Referendum
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petitions 200004, 187570, 193282 and 200311 relating to a referendum on the deal for the UK’s exit from the European Union.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, and a real privilege to lead this important debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee. This place is not short of a debate or two on Brexit—in fact, the Prime Minister is making a statement as we speak—but this debate is rather different from all the others because it is based on petitions signed by a very large number of people from across the length and breadth of our country. I thank the proposers of all the petitions and all the signatories. Looking around at the Members here today, I think we are going to hear a wide diversity of opinions.
We are here to debate themes expressed in four petitions. Like the rest of the country, they are not all of one mind on Brexit and they do not express a single standpoint. The petition that has by far the largest number of signatures—136,789 when I last looked—calls for a referendum on the final Brexit deal:
“We, the undersigned, call upon HM Government to give the people of this country the final say on the Brexit deal negotiated by the UK and EU. This would be done through a referendum that would take place prior to the April 2019 exit date.
The referendum would allow for three options:
(1) To revoke Article 50, thereby keeping Britain in the EU
(2) To reject the UK-EU deal and leave the EU
(3) To accept the UK-EU deal and leave the EU
If no agreement has been negotiated by the UK and EU before the date of the referendum, then the third option could be removed. If all three options remain, it may be necessary for the vote to take place using a Single Transferable Vote to ensure no option is disadvantaged. Regardless of whether individuals voted to remain or leave the EU in the June 2016 EU referendum, everyone should have a chance to decide their future based on the final agreement negotiated between the UK and EU.”
Does the hon. Lady think that, by signing the petition, people have in fact been expressing the will of the people?
They are certainly expressing their own views by signing the petition. I always think it is healthy for such petitions to be tabled. These are part of a very important debate.
The first petition is not dissimilar to another petition that calls for the final Brexit deal to be put to a referendum, with revoking article 50 as an option. On the other side of the coin, there is a petition that calls for the rejection of all demands from the EU for penalty charges for Brexit. Finally, the fourth petition calls for no referendum on the final deal between the UK and the European Union. The petitioners do not mince their words one bit:
“The attempts to propose yet another referendum and pose a set of questions to the British public on the final deal is a distasteful proposal, considering we were already given a free and fair referendum last year, to now agree to another referendum would be an appalling waste of taxpayers’ money and send out the wrong message to the British public that the vote last year was meaningless.
The referendum should not be re-run just to placate individuals unable to accept a democratic decision”.
There we have it. Therein lies our problem. Brexit is a subject about which we all think different things, and our country is deeply polarised.
Back in the day—it seems such a long time ago—when Prime Minister Cameron was listening to his focus groups, it all seemed so simple: offer a referendum on EU membership, unite the Tory party with a pledge, and ensure that enough UK Independence party voters come on side to beat Labour in the marginal seats in the 2015 general election. That bit seemed to work for him, but the next bit of the plot did not go quite so well. Try as team Cameron and other remainers might, they did not get a remain vote.
There have been many interpretations of the 2016 referendum campaign and result. It is certainly difficult to find a new one, but I have not been shy of trying. For all I have read and heard about this subject, I do not think that any other commentator has used one of Aesop’s fables to press their case. Allow me to try to remedy that omission. I think the little tale of the goat kid and the wolf explains perfectly what is happening— I should inform you that it is only a very short tale, Sir David.
“A Kid, returning without protection from the pasture, was pursued by a Wolf. He turned round, and said to the Wolf: ‘I know, friend Wolf, that I must be your prey; but before I die, I would ask of you one favor, that you will play me a tune, to which I may dance.’ The Wolf complied, and while he was piping, and the Kid was dancing, the hounds, hearing the sound, came up and gave chase to the Wolf. The Wolf, turning to the Kid, said: ‘It is just what I deserve; for I, who am only a butcher, should not have turned piper to please you.’”
The official moral of the tale is that everyone should keep their own colours. My adapted version of the moral is this: if one believes that Brexit is a lot of old cobblers, do not introduce an initial referendum on the subject. However, I hasten to add, I am speaking for myself and no one else. With the referendum genie firmly out of the bottle, we need to ask whether there is a case for one before the April 2019 exit date.
According to Survation, in an opinion poll for The Mail on Sunday, 49.5% of voters now want a referendum on the final deal, compared with 34.2% who definitely do not and 16.3% who say they do not know. Intriguingly, according to the same poll, 34% of the 2016 leave voters want such a referendum. That should not be such a great surprise. It is a view that Ross Clark expresses with great lucidity in The Spectator magazine:
“If we going to be forced to fund EU projects and not have full freedom to set our own regulations and cut our own trade deals with the rest of the world I can’t see the point of leaving at all. If we are not prepared to transform ourselves into a Singapore, recasting Britain as an unashamed honeypot for business and enterprise then Brexit will have been a waste of time and money. If we are going to remain a European-model social democratic country then we might as well remain in a club of other European social democracies”.
Now, I disagree profoundly with Mr Clark’s political views and with what he wants for our country, but his logic relating to a referendum on the final deal makes perfect sense. He also makes a compelling argument for holding a multi-option referendum, with electors expressing a first and second-preference vote.
My hon. Friend is making a wonderful speech. Has she had the opportunity to look at some of the work that the Constitution Unit has done through citizens’ juries, and similar work by Catherine Barnard at the University of Cambridge? People who voted to leave, when asked what they actually want, move in quite a sophisticated way, which demonstrates that the real question is not whether we are leaving, but what we want to go to next. On that issue, it is entirely legitimate to give the decision back to the British people. Why should anyone object to that?
I confess that I have not actually read that, but I should be delighted to do so, because it sounds a very thoughtful and extensive piece of research. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising it.
One of the strongest arguments for holding a referendum lies in the gap between the promises that were made on what Brexit would be and what has in fact happened in the meantime. Allow me to quote the Foreign Secretary—I like quoting him, ever since he wrote in a newspaper article three days after the general election that my seat had been won by the Conservatives. At that point I started to question the accuracy of some of his statements. Initially he told us that he would vote to stay in the single market. In the aftermath of the referendum, he wrote in The Daily Telegraph that
“there will continue to be free trade, and access to the single market”,
adding for good measure that there was no “great rush” for Britain to extricate itself from the EU.
This past weekend the Foreign Secretary took to the great literary medium of Twitter to say that, after meeting the Prime Minister, he
“found her totally determined that ‘full alignment’ means compatibility with taking back control of our money, laws and borders.”
What on earth is that supposed to mean? But it is interesting. Even more interesting, of course, was the glorious red bus that travelled the length and breadth of the land proudly proclaiming that a vote to leave would mean £350 million extra per week for the NHS. To my mind, the bus was the evidence equivalent of the chap going around with a sign saying that Elvis is still alive. Unfortunately, however, the ramifications are rather greater.
Here are a few other considerations. Were we ever told that in the 2017 Budget we would see the Chancellor set aside £3 billion over the next two years to pay for the administrative costs of preparing for Brexit—more than the £2.8 billion granted for the NHS in the same Budget? What of the downgrading in growth forecasts and the fall in our credit ratings? What of the very real concerns about jobs, as well as consumer, environmental and labour standards? What of the real issues of respect for the devolved Administrations and for our parliamentary institutions? What of probable Russian meddling in the referendum process itself? What of the elusive impact assessments, which apparently have vanished into thin air?
At the end of June the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union said that analyses were being done of 50 to 60 sectors. By 25 October we were being told that not only did they exist but they were “in excruciating detail”. Last week, however, when asked by the Chair of the Exiting the European Union Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), whether the Government had undertaken any impact assessments, the Secretary of State’s answer was no. This is not Harry Potter and the Ministry of Magic; it is supposed to be the serious business of the Government preparing for the biggest change our country has seen since the second world war. What in heaven’s name are we supposed to make of the obvious governmental chaos in this area?
What of a final divorce settlement, which will cost somewhere between £36 billion and £39 billion according to official sources, but up to £100 billion according to a former Brexit Minister? That represents “total capitulation”, according to one fulminating Daily Telegraph columnist—there is nothing like The Daily Telegraph when it fulminates, is there? Then there are the serious economic and constitutional issues relating to the Irish border and full regulatory alignment. What of the recent study by the Bank of England, which stated that a “disorderly” Brexit could cause
“a wide range of UK macroeconomic risks”,
such as a massive fall in the value of the pound?
The hon. Lady is making a typically engaging speech. The petitions are obviously well-intentioned and sincere, but they ignore the realpolitik of negotiation. In my recent trip to Germany with the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, we found that there was real enthusiasm for pulling any levers whatsoever to try to stop Brexit. Surely talk of a second referendum just adds succour to those who wish in effect to bring about a punishment Brexit so that there is no Brexit at all.
I am not sure that the Tory writing in The Spectator would agree with the hon. Gentleman. If I read the article correctly, the writer was trying to save the Government and to stop the Conservatives knocking the spots off each other, so I am not sure that what the hon. Gentleman said is true. I will move on to some of the points he makes later.
During the first referendum I said that the choice was between Operation Fear and Operation Lies. I believe that we need to have a second referendum. In the same way, Wales voted first against devolution and then for devolution. The public will have a clear idea of what the nightmare of Brexit will mean in a few months’ time. Do they not need to have their second vote, as second thoughts are always superior to first thoughts?
As ever, my hon. Friend makes his point well.
Let me return to that recent risk study by the Bank of England. In its stress test for British banks, the Bank modelled a 4.7% fall in output, a 27% devaluation of the pound against the dollar, and a devaluation of a third in house prices. Indeed, what if—to quote the Brexit Secretary—some of our key decision makers have just “slightly misspoke”? One minute the first part of a deal seems to have been done, and the next we are told that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. Then, in the midst of it all, it seems that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has had a moment of epiphany—we all like those moments. Recognising that there may be trouble ahead, he reassures us:
“If the British people dislike the arrangement we have negotiated with the EU, the agreement will allow a future government to diverge.”
But would it not be much cleaner, quicker and simpler just to put the final deal to the British public?
The hon. Lady is making a passionate and carefully thought out argument. Is it not also the case that after we have left the EU the Environment Secretary, or anyone else, will be unable to offer the United Kingdom the chance to come back in, because as soon as the United Kingdom is out we would fail the fundamental test of democracy? We would not be allowed back in because too many of the legislators in Parliament are not elected.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very interesting point.
The hon. Lady said right at the start of her engaging speech that the referendum had left the country polarised and divided. Would a second referendum make the country more or less polarised and divided?
It would be a different sort of referendum because it would be based on the final deal —but I am coming to that, if I get there.
“Realpolitik” was mentioned by the hon. Gentleman who has just been to Germany, the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight). I will bring that word in at this point, because there are realpolitik reasons for having a referendum on the final deal. The Government might claim to be trenchantly opposed to a referendum—I suspect that is what the Minister will say today—but might it not help dig them out of what appears to be an awful hole they are in? Would the idea not also generate real appeal at the other end of the political spectrum—and, I am sure, a cheer or two at next summer’s Glastonbury festival?
Opponents of any sort of referendum in 2019 will take a very different view of all that. They might say that referendums, “just aren’t very British”; that we are not Switzerland, California or Latin America and we do not do that sort of thing—or not very often. Opponents might ask what supporters of a second referendum really want—is it for Parliament to dissolve a result that it does not like until it gets one that it does, which is the political equivalent of a penalty shoot-out that keeps going until the preferred team wins.
There is also the argument that the Archbishop of Canterbury put forward last March, when their lordships considered the Government’s European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill on Report and Third Reading. The archbishop disagreed with those who said that the process for securing Brexit was simple. He stated:
“It would be dangerous, unwise and wrong to reduce the substance of the terms on which we exit the European Union to the result of a binary yes/no choice taken last summer, and the Government should avoid any inclination to oversimplify the outcome of the most complex peacetime negotiations probably ever to have been undertaken.”
However, he also had this to say:
“neither is the complexity of a further referendum a good way of dealing with the process at the end of negotiation. It will add to our divisions; it will deepen the bitterness…Division of our country is not a mere fact to be navigated around like a rock in a stream but something to be healed, to be challenged and to be changed.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 7 March 2017; Vol. 779, c. 1213.]
I am far more sympathetic to the need for a referendum on the final deal, and the more I consider the evidence from the start of this debate, the more I move towards that position.
I previously supported the referendum. It was the worst time in British politics that I have ever known, and some of us have been involved in British politics for rather a long time. Given that there is every danger that the debate could get worse rather than better, what safeguards would my hon. Friend put in place to ensure that any referendum at least tries to reach a higher level of political debate than the last one?
It will have been going on for rather longer. Some people I had communications from seemed to think that, because I am leading this debate, I would have a role in the final Brexit negotiations. That is a nice idea, and I shared my thoughts with them in some cases. I think that multi-option is very important, because it would bring greater clarity. When I saw the discussion on multi-option, my first thought was, “Gosh, this all sounds painfully Lib Dem”—without meaning any disrespect to anyone—but the options are complicated and we should dignify the debate and a future referendum by making it multi-option.
Does the hon. Lady agree that one way of ensuring that the referendum is different from the previous one might be to appoint an independent arbiter who would look at the claims being made by the different camps? If someone came forward with the ludicrous claim that there will be £350 million a week for the NHS, the arbiter would be able to say, “That is completely out of order. You cannot repeat that phrase.”
I do not think that it will be me making the decision, but that seems like a very sensible point.
Although I am far more sympathetic to the need for a referendum on the final deal than the archbishop was in his speech, he made his case powerfully. I have no doubt that in this House today and on other days, many different viewpoints will be expressed on Brexit issues. I am sure that will be the case in communities the length and breadth of the United Kingdom. One thing that I am far less confident about is that there will be a healing of the divisions anytime soon on this divisive subject. All of us, wherever we stand on the Brexit spectrum, need to be mindful of that.
Order. Members who were not present at the beginning of the debate are normally not called to speak. However, I recognise that an important and relevant statement was being made in the main Chamber, so I will waive that rule. All Members present who wish to speak will be called.
As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. We need to establish early in this debate that the majority of people who signed petitions for a second referendum want to change the decision of the first one. Let us not beat about the bush. All the talk of multi-options, this deal and that deal is irrelevant. What they are really after is changing it. Yes, we are a sovereign Parliament and we could in theory overrule the decision, but that would be incredibly damaging to the whole democratic process. When Parliament agreed to stage a referendum, it was delegating that sovereignty to the ultimate sovereign —the British people.
The aim to reverse has been led by pro-remain Members of Parliament—that is perfectly legitimate and is their right—peers and, most notably, big business. They pay little regard to voters. In my constituency, 70% of voters were in favour of Brexit. Frankly, the criticism often made that they did not know what they were voting for is an insult to my constituents and many people up and down the country. I can assure you, Sir David, that the people of Cleethorpes, and the people of Southend I am sure, knew exactly what they wanted.
When we say that people did not know what they were voting for, that casts no aspersion on their intelligence. The fact is that the Brexit campaign deliberately did not set out what leave would look like. It was a million miles away from the Scottish referendum where, whichever side of the debate people may have been on, at least those in favour of independence set out what that would look like. The Brexit campaign never did and that is why it is right that when people have the facts, they have the chance to look at it again.
I recognise that the hon. Lady has held a fixed position on this and it is a perfectly honourable one. I strongly disagree with her. The fact is that people voted for independence; to use the hackneyed phrase, they wanted to “bring back control”. People are very dissatisfied. We have never been anything other than a semi-detached member of the European Union. It has been a running sore through the body politic for the past 50-plus years. Whichever side of the argument we were on, this country needed a referendum to establish the will of the British people. That was clearly defined in June last year.
My hon. Friend is being most generous in taking so many interventions. Does he agree that when it comes to the EU and democracy, time and again whenever there have been referendums on the EU, people have been asked to go back, change their minds and vote again? That is not going to happen in this country—in this sovereign nation.
I entirely agree. It would be a breach of trust of the British people if we went back to them and held a second referendum. We would be saying, “Sorry, you got it wrong, folks. We know better”.
So why did the Conservatives take us into the Common Market in the first place?
The Conservatives took us into the Common Market—as it was then—but they did not do it with my blessing. In the 1975 referendum I voted to leave, so I have been pretty consistent. Unfortunately, the Labour Government took us into the then Common Market; it was Harold Wilson who tried to mend the wounds of the Labour party by holding the first referendum.
History repeats itself.
That is a matter of interpretation. The reality is that Parliament voted overwhelmingly to trigger article 50. Whatever colleagues might say now, the fact is that the vote triggered an irreversible process and was an acknowledgment of the original referendum decision.
May I correct something that the hon. Gentleman said? It is not an irreversible process. It is very clear that article 50 can be revoked. That is not in doubt.
The right hon. Gentleman might think that it is not in doubt but other opinions I have read and heard differ. Whatever the situation, Parliament would undermine the clear will of the British people if it attempted in any way to reverse that position.
Suppose the Prime Minister had stood up this afternoon and, instead of saying that there will be no second referendum, as she did at 4.21 pm, said, “Well yes, okay, let’s think about it. Maybe we’ll have a second referendum.” That would have undermined the British Government’s negotiating position. Clearly, the EU could then have said, “We’ll give them the worst possible deal and they will of course accept it.” Why would we want continued membership on worse terms than we have now? As I said, the Prime Minister has made that absolutely clear.
Another reason for not having a second referendum is that it would cause further political paralysis in this country and yet more time would be devoted to this matter. People have said to me repeatedly, “We’ve made our decision—just get on with it and let’s get over it.” The hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) spoke of multiple options. What could be worse than multiple options? Suppose 20% of people agreed with option A, 20% agreed with option B and 19% agreed with option C. That would be a recipe for complete and utter chaos.
I certainly accept that, if the voting system is wrong, multi-option referendums can be worse than useless, but does the hon. Gentleman not accept that, with hindsight, it might have been handy for the question on the ballot paper to refer to membership of the single market and the customs union? As things stand, we have no idea how many of the 17 million people who voted to leave wanted to remain in the single market and the customs union.
It was made very clear by speakers on both sides of the argument—there was a little package illustrating this on “The Andrew Marr Show” yesterday—that a decision to leave would mean us leaving the single market and the customs union.
I was in Brussels last month to take advantage of the opportunity to speak to MEPs, officials and so on to test the water. There is no doubt that there is some sadness among our European neighbours that we are leaving. There is sadness for different reasons. Those who, like us, are net contributors to the system—Germany, for example—are sad because either they will have to pay more or the EU budget will be drastically reduced. If the budget is drastically reduced, countries that are net gainers—those that joined fairly recently, such as Romania and Bulgaria, which are very happy at the moment and benefit from the largesse of the EU—would quite rightly say, “Hang on, folks. We joined this little club knowing that we were going to get these benefits. Now you’re actually taking them away.” There is clear unhappiness over there.
There is no significant support in my constituency for another referendum. Indeed, I suggest that in Cleethorpes, as in most northern towns and perhaps even in Southend, Sir David, where it has to be said there are many Labour voters—I am talking in some cases about constituencies with significant Labour majorities—the Labour party does not represent the people it purports to represent. There is obviously a state of confusion. I recall that only a few months ago, the leader of the Labour party sacked Front Benchers for voting in favour of our remaining in the single market. Now we are told that that is on the table and we ought to be leaving. There is clear confusion.
As I said, the reality is that this issue has been a running sore through the body politic for half a century or more. All parties have been split on it, which is perhaps a true representation of the British people. That said, we have taken the decision and it is now the Government’s duty to deliver on it. I am confident that that will be to the benefit of the whole country.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Sir David. It is a joy to speak about this issue at the same time as the Prime Minister, and to follow the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), on the day that I published my Terms of Withdrawal from EU (Referendum) Bill, which calls for the people to have the final say on the exit deal. In the event that they rejected it, we would stay in the EU, and the status quo and the rights and privileges we currently enjoy would be maintained.
Swansea overall voted narrowly to leave the EU. I believe that my constituency voted narrowly to remain. Since then, things have changed. At the 2017 election, I said, in essence, “Back me or sack me. If I am elected, I will do everything I can to ensure that we remain part of the single market and protect the 25,000 jobs in Swansea bay that depend on exports to the EU.” My share of the vote increased from 40% to 60%. I note that something like 186 people from Swansea West took the time and trouble to sign the petitions in favour of a final say referendum, and 16 signed the petition to say that they do not think we should have one.
The idea of an exit deal referendum came to me on the Sunday immediately after the vote on Thursday 23 June 2016. I conferred with a couple of constitutional lawyers and actually introduced the first version of my Bill a week later. But I need to make very clear my respect for people who voted to leave. They did so for a number of good, sound reasons. They voted for more money. They were told on the side of a red bus with a strange blond man standing in front of it that we would have £350 million a week more for the NHS, and they believed that. They were told in the 2015 Conservative manifesto that we would get market access. That document promised both a referendum and that we would stay part of the single market, so they felt that their jobs in exports—two thirds of exports from Wales go to the EU, compared with 43% of UK exports—were secure and that we would have market access. They were also told that we would take control and limit migration.
We have just been told that, instead of having £350 million a week for the NHS, the divorce bill being imposed on us will cost something like £1,000 for every family in the United Kingdom. It is approaching €39 billion, and its cost in pounds keeps rising as the value of the pound depreciates. We are told that we probably will not get market access. The deal has been made and we have to agree to pay that money irrespective of the trade deal, which will be made in the interests of the EU27. People see that the promises that were made were false and are not materialising, and they want a final say.
Is the hon. Gentleman’s principled personal stance on the single market and the customs union shared by his party leader—yes or no?
The Labour party is a democratic party and the nuances of its position on Brexit have evolved over time, but my position has been clear and consistent throughout. Other people in the Chamber and beyond have their own views, and I respect those views. Obviously, I would change my view if the facts suggested that I should do so, but I have already anticipated the emerging facts of economic catastrophe and the loss of rights and protections, which I will come to. My position is clear: I have always felt that we should stay in the EU. However—
Let me say this before the hon. Gentleman comes back in. If the people, with the facts at their disposal, vote in principle to leave, as they did, that is fine. Having ordered a product, as it were, they now need to look at whether what they received reasonably represents what was described and what they were promised. If they still want to go ahead, I am happy that we leave. However, if the hon. Gentleman buys a mobile phone that claims to be able to take colour photos, for example, but when it arrives it only does black and white, he should have the right to either send it back or accept it. I know he likes to see the world in black and white, so he would probably accept it despite being promised colour, but a lot of people would not do so—they would reject it.
Let me use another analogy: if the hon. Gentleman goes into a restaurant thinking he is going to get a free steak but ends up with a chewed-up bit of bacon that costs €40, he should have the right to send it back. He, however, would choose to eat it. He would say, “I ordered food and even though I thought it would be free”—remember that it costs €40—“and it’s bacon, I’ll eat it, because that is what I said.”
It is €40 billion.
I know; I am just talking about an individual case.
I will take the intervention of the bacon eater over there.
I am certainly not looking forward to dinner now. There is no question whatsoever about the hon. Gentleman’s principled stand. He has said clearly, as he stated in his election leaflet, that he would stand in support of the customs union and the single market. I ask him again, however, whether he thinks that his leader also supports that. What does he think of colleagues in his own party who have said different things in different constituencies on this issue?
It is true that people have said different things at different times—things are evolving. It is not for me to comment on everything that everyone says. The hon. Gentleman will know that a couple of weeks ago his own Brexit Secretary claimed that he had enormously detailed impact assessments—so detailed, confusing and even boring that he could not reveal them. Then, the next moment, apparently he did not have any at all. Obviously there are inconsistent views on that.
I am a proud member of the European Scrutiny Committee, to which the current Chancellor gave evidence before Brexit, when he was the Foreign Secretary. I remember asking him what economic assessment had been made of swapping the generally older, retired people from Britain who live in Spain and consume its health service—among other products in Spain, which are of course very nice—in exchange for hard-working Polish people in Britain who contribute tax. We will be swapping people who take public expenditure for people who are giving tax. He said, “Well, the answer to that is that no assessment at all has been made of the economic impact of Brexit, because we don’t intend to leave.” In fact, I can reveal—I know this from secret sources—that before the EU referendum, all the top civil servants were sent an email by No. 10 saying, “Under no circumstances should you do an assessment, economic or otherwise, of the impact of Brexit, because the media would find out and think we were anticipating leaving. That would encourage people to vote that way, because they would think that the Government thought we were going to leave, and we don’t want to give that idea credibility.”
There has been a long period during which the Brexit Secretary and the Treasury could have put together an impact assessment. Of course, the Treasury made an implicit assessment in the Budget. It is remarkable for the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) to talk about a shift in nuance in the Labour leadership—a gradual warming, if I can put it that way—towards the customs union and the single market, which I embrace, and to ask, “What about that inconsistency?” when we have a Brexit Secretary who one moment says that he has all these impact assessments, but then, when he opens the cupboard, the cupboard is bare.
The hon. Gentleman is speaking passionately. He made the interesting, supposed revelation that the Treasury did no assessment prior to the referendum. He will accept, then, that “Project Fear” was based, as we thought at the time, on absolutely nothing other than figures plucked out of the air.
What I said stands. Obviously, scenario plans were done in terms of the aggregate impact, and no forecast is perfect, but what we do know about the impact of Brexit was that, overnight, the hon. Gentleman’s salary and assets were devalued by something like 15%, because the financial markets took their own view that this was crazy. We are all worse off for it. People living in Britain have not really seen it, but gradually the impact of that devaluation is coming through in inflation, on top of low wages. People were told, and sadly it has happened: the poor have been made poorer. The leave campaigners said, “The reason you are poor is foreign people from the EU,” when in fact the average person from the EU contributes 35% more in tax than they consume in public services. The poor—and all of us—will become even poorer without them, and we have seen this awful devaluation.
The evaluations were not good enough, but there were dire predictions. Let us take as an example a Japanese car company. I know there have been lots of under the table, secret negotiations with car companies, but the reason they are here is that we are a stable democracy and economy, and provide an English-speaking platform to the biggest market in the world. Once we are not in that market, they and other investors will move. The economic impact on Britain, from an intuitive, a priori point of view, is wholly predictable.
Will the hon. Gentleman explain what is dire, catastrophic and crazy about five consecutive quarters of economic growth?
The hon. Gentleman will know that we have got the lowest growth in the G7—it is absolutely appalling.
From top to bottom.
From top to bottom, as the right hon. Gentleman says.
So now we have what can be characterised as the “Bad Friday agreement”. Our great Prime Minister was phoned up at 5 o’clock in the morning, dragged out of bed and required to fly to a meeting in Europe to be told, over breakfast, what she will receive for Brexit. She will have to pay between €35 billion and €39 billion, with no strings attached on trade. She will have to ensure that the single market and customs union operates within Northern Ireland, which is obviously a recipe for companies from Britain to move to Northern Ireland so that they can be in both the UK and the single market. She was told that 3 million EU citizens will basically still enjoy all the rights and protections from the European Court of Justice while British citizens will not—we will be second-class citizens in our own country. She was told all that, and she said, “Oh, that sounds all right. I’ll go and talk to Parliament about that.” Sadly, we are not able to view that statement in its entirety.
We have seen the devaluation, the inflation and the lost trade, and we have had problems with market access. The people in Swansea and elsewhere who voted leave were told, “Don’t worry: we’ll have single market access,” but already we are seeing an exodus of jobs. I am not just talking about the European Banking Authority or the European Medicines Agency, but those basic strategic units of key importance are being dislocated from the British economy. Indeed, many multinational headquarters are in London so that they can be next to the City and have access to Europe. Companies are considering relocating for that reason as well.
If we exit and have to do our own thing with other countries, I fear for Britain. We would turn our back on the biggest market in the world and turn to the United States and the open arms of Donald Trump—I hope you have not eaten recently, Sir David—who has already placed tariffs on and shown aggression towards Bombardier. At his inauguration he said, “Foreign companies are taking our jobs, making our products and stealing our companies”, and that he would ensure that new trade deals would at least achieve parity or ensure a trade surplus for the United States. I am fearful of the sorts of trade deals we will get with regard to money and qualitatively speaking. They sell asbestos, chlorinated chicken and the like—that is something to look forward to from the United States.
People are suddenly realising that what was promised is not going to materialise, and that what is materialising is something awful. The Prime Minister has also agreed a two-year transition period—which is two years on death row, in my view. Companies now have two years to make an orderly transition out of Britain. They can relocate to somewhere they will not face massive tariffs or restrictions on skilled workers or product parts moving across borders so that they can make their products and sell them.
What is more, people were told that they would take back control. We have been debating the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, which, in a nutshell, was meant to translate the rights and privileges of the EU constitution into British law, but which in fact is drafted so widely that it gives Ministers the right to change things as appropriate, so that those rights and privileges can be crossed out by future Governments. There is no guarantee for them. It is drafted so broadly that the courts are unable effectively to exercise judicial review over those rights. Finally, the enforcement agencies are not in place to deliver those rights. For example, in essence the European Court is enforcing air quality standards that we fail to meet in Britain; we would just be able to decide in future that we will not have air quality standards. Rights and privileges that we currently enjoy can be taken away by future Governments and the Government have concentrated power in Ministers, away from Parliament. Instead of taking back control, we are losing it.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I call Julia Dockerill.
It is Lopez, actually. I changed my name when I got married.
I do apologise.
The hon. Gentleman talks about taking back control, but does he accept that the EU is not a static organisation but one whose key leaders recently stated a desire for much deeper political integration among member states in the years ahead? If we halted Brexit would he tell the people of Swansea that rather than taking back control he would be comfortable handing much more control to the EU, to carry out the vision of people such as President Macron, Martin Schulz and Mr Juncker?
I congratulate the hon. Lady on her marriage.
Strangely enough, just before the Brexit vote I turned to the present Foreign Secretary and said, “Boris,”—this is what I say to taxi drivers, by the way—“can you name one law in the EU that you do not like?” I thought he would know because he was leading the campaign. He scratched his head and said, “There are three directives on bananas.” This is a true story. I said, “Well, the thing is, you can buy bananas in Tesco and the Co-op. There isn’t really a problem with bananas. Can you think of something else?” He scratched his head a bit longer and said, “REACH.” He was hoping I did not know anything about the regulation for registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals. I said, “Do you mean the regulation that ensures that manufacturers are required to prove that a chemical is safe before it is marketed, as opposed to the American system where they can sell what they like and the United States Environmental Protection Agency must prove that it is hazardous before banning it, which is why asbestos is still legally sold in America?” I said, “Given that, don’t you think the precautionary principle that we use, through REACH, is the right one?” He said, “Oh, I think John, over there, has got to talk to me,” and walked off.
Similarly, when I spoke to the present Environment Secretary I said, “Mr Gove—Govey—can you think of an EU law that you don’t agree with? You are leading this campaign with Boris,” and he scratched his head awhile and said, “I don’t know: the clinical trials directive.” Again, he thought he could throw these things in, hoping that I did not know anything about them. I said, “The clinical trials directive requires that pharmaceutical companies and drug companies publish their tests and trials before marketing a product, as opposed to what happens in America, where they could have a number of trials and choose to just publish the positive outcomes of those trials and not the negative ones. So if someone is making thalidomide or something similar they could say, ‘Look, we have had these five trials and there is nothing wrong with it.’ So what is wrong with that, Michael?” He said, “I have got to go and talk to Freda” —or whoever it was—and went off.
The question that was asked was whether I would be comfortable with more laws passed in Europe, and the answer is yes. Do I want deeper, closer and greater political union? No. Obviously the people of France and Germany, where there have been elections recently, have shown that they want maximised devolution and sovereignty within a partnership that collectively works for the good of all. That is the essence of the EU, not some sort of monolithic, bureaucratic, centralised system that generates laws that people do not like—and some of the architects of the disaster that is going on cannot even think of any such laws.
I apologise for being late, Sir David. I was listening to the Prime Minister’s statement. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is tragic that discussions that bring out what the EU is like—how we trade, what our relationship is, what our consumer protections are, and the environmental protection —are happening now, 18 months after the referendum? Would not it have been much better to have them before the referendum? Given that we did not have a proper debate, is not now—or the next six months to a year—the time to have a proper referendum on the deal, because that is when we have all the information?
That is precisely the point. We all bear our own responsibility for not talking about Europe enough in the past. Everyone said, “We don’t want to talk about that; it is really boring.” The Labour party has some responsibility for that. In the approach to the 2014 European election the Labour party campaign was about the cost of living crisis—to send a message to the Conservatives that it was terrible. Next to that was a leaflet from the UK Independence party saying, in various ways, “Europe’s rubbish.” If you are a normal person—I appreciate you are not, Sir David. [Laughter.] You are super-normal. If people get literature saying, “Europe’s rubbish,” and then something saying, “Send a message to the Conservatives about the cost of living crisis,” will they be bothered to vote?
I put out some literature saying that 25,000 jobs in Swansea bay depend on being part of the European Union, that people should vote Labour for the European Union—to keep that going—and that they should remember that their four weeks of paid holiday and the quality of the air they breathe and the water they bathe in rely on protection and guarantees from the EU, which is therefore a good idea. My vote went up in that election, comparing like with like and contiguous seats, with a big turnout and a big Labour vote. I think that was simply because we respected the fact that the election was about Europe, and we talked positively about Europe, as opposed to anything else.
The point that I am trying to make is that although the arch-fundamentalist Eurosceptic ideologues who seem to have hijacked the Conservative party, plus their UKIP bedfellows, keep going on in a monotonous, manic way about how awful Europe is, now that they are taking over, those of us who realise the benefits of Europe remain quiet. Worse still, Europe has been regarded as an embarrassing relative locked in the top cupboard of the house.
It is belatedly time, now that there has been a vote in principle to leave, because everyone was a bit worried about it—they do not know why, when asked—to talk about the issue and say, “Did you know that, if we go, it will be more difficult and expensive to go on holiday; we will lose all these jobs and our universities will not have such collaboration; we will no longer have the weight of the EU in negotiating trade deals but will be on our own, and the people we are negotiating with will know that and exploit it, and we will therefore be subjected to a battering of our rights and privileges; and business will say that we face tariffs and therefore cannot afford four weeks of paid holiday and all the red tape and health and safety?”
Now that people realise that will happen, they are saying, “Hold on. I thought that what was happening was that there were all these foreign people over here taking our jobs and services. I didn’t know they were contributing, net, to the Exchequer and helping me. I was led to believe something quite different. I didn’t know I would lose my job and there would be inflation. Now that I see that what is under the headline of ‘Brexit breakfast’ is something appalling, rather than what was on the menu, I should have the right to send it back, because it does not represent what I was offered.” In a nutshell, people are telling me, “This isn’t what I voted for, and I want to have the final say.”
Regarding those comments about the political parties, there has not been much political leadership toward giving people the final say on the exit package, but people are asking for it of their own volition. The news is very biased; I am not talking about the BBC here, but some of the gutter press have an almost manic obsession with saying, “We’ve got to get out at any cost; it doesn’t matter.” They have an obsession with leaving Europe, perhaps because Europe has the collective will to bring in regulations that bring people’s taxation to account and ensure that we live in a civilised world that is not becoming increasingly polarised. The people, as the recent Survation poll shows, are now saying, “Yes, we want to have a final say on the exit package. We voted in good faith, but this is not what we voted for.”
I believe that this is a one-way road, not a flip-flopping of British opinion. Every day, people are saying, “This isn’t what we voted for.” They are suddenly coming to that realisation. The important thing is that nobody blames the people for voting in good faith for what they believed to be the case, because they were told that it was true, but it has emerged that it was not true. As Keynes famously said:
“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?”
The answer, from a lot of Conservatives in particular, is, “Well, I just continue as if I didn’t know.” We can say, “Oh no. If you keep walking down this road you will go off a precipice.” They say, “Well, I’ve decided to walk down it anyway.” That is where we are headed.
The hon. Gentleman is making an eloquent speech. The poll he just mentioned, showing that more people want to stay now, also showed that young people are disproportionately among those who want to keep a close relationship with, or stay inside, the EU. Is not one of the tragedies of Brexit that we are betraying the futures of those young people? They will live with the Brexit decision much longer than any of us will, and their voices should be heard much more loudly in this debate.
That is an absolutely critical point. As the hon. Lady will know, the fact is that only one third of 18 to 34-year-olds voted in a referendum that will have such a massive impact over their lifetimes, and indeed their children’s lifetimes. Something like 80% of the over-65s voted. Of course, what follows is that, tragically, many of the people who voted to leave will have since passed away, and many of the people who were 17 at the time will now be 18. There is no doubt in my mind that, if there was another referendum, more younger people would vote. We saw that in the general election: a lot of the Labour vote, in my view, was from people who thought, “Hold on. I missed out on this Brexit thing. I’ve been sold down the river by all these older voters who participated, and that’s my future.”
One of my daughters said, “I’ve got a long time to live on this decision. Don’t you think that my vote should be weighted by the amount of life I’ve got left? There might be people who voted to leave who will sadly be gone from this world in 10 years, and I’ve got another 70 years.” I am not saying that she should have that weighting, but we should bear in mind that the future of all our young people is at a turning point. The idea that we should say, “It doesn’t matter if people have changed their minds. It doesn’t matter if the facts have changed. They said this then, based on a load of rubbish, so we’ve got to do it anyway,” about such a profound change is an indictment of the whole democratic and parliamentary system.
Our parliamentary system sends the people in this room, and in the larger Chamber, here to represent the best interests of their constituents. It might be the case from time to time that, because we spend our time thinking about these things, we like to think we have some inside knowledge or information to make those decisions. To subcontract and say, “You make the decision on the basis of a pile of lies on a red bus,” is disgraceful. I believe—and it is constitutionally true—that the vote was advisory. That was confirmed by the Supreme Court, which is why the Government were forced to have the article 50 vote.
The situation is changing. In fact, public awareness seems to be growing faster than awareness here, because they suddenly want a vote and the people in here do not want one. Once it hits a certain threshold—I think it will hit 60% within the next few months—we will find MPs saying, “If that is what they want, then we will have that,” which I think is fair enough.
My hon. Friend is making a convincing speech. The hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez) asked him about his constituents in Swansea. I wonder what assessment he has made of the impact on the Welsh economy, particularly given some of the grants the area might have received. Is he aware whether one of the secret papers that the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union might have in his drawer—or wherever they are—has made any serious assessment of the impact of stopping those grants and how much our national Government will step in on that question?
I am pleased that question has been asked. The reality is that Wales has 70% of the gross value added of the UK average. In other words, wages overall are massively less. That is why my area of Swansea bay and west Wales is the poorest part of the whole EU. It therefore gets convergence funding to support it. We have had a doubling of our great Swansea University, with an extra bay campus, and so on. Those things would not have happened had we not been in the EU. The big question is why people in Wales did not vote to stay if they get all these benefits—and they do get them.
I have a personal admission to make. The Welsh Assembly elections were held in the May before June 2016, and the whole focus of the Labour party was on trying to maximise representation in the Welsh Government. The view was therefore, “If we talk about Europe all the time, we are very divided; some Labour voters are for and some are against. Let’s just talk about the Assembly and what it does on health, education and everything else.” We then had a month left to talk about Europe. During that whole period, because we have proportional representation, the UK Independence party used the opportunity to spread malicious claims, such as, “Europe’s terrible. Isn’t it awful? We pay all this money for Europe.” Of course that is a lie in Wales’s case, since we are a net beneficiary, by billions of pounds. After the Assembly elections we had a month left, and people were already predisposed.
We have ended up with a farcical situation in which Wales will lose billions of pounds, and on top of that we will have the divorce bill thrust down our throats—£1,000 per family—and on top of that big infrastructure projects such as the Swansea bay tidal lagoon and electrification of the railways are being scrapped to pay for the Brexit bill. It is a great tragedy for Wales, and opinion in Wales is changing as people wake up to the reality—“Hold on; this wasn’t such a good idea after all.” They, like everyone in the UK, deserve a final say on the Brexit deal.
Sadly, we have had an interim agreement from the Prime Minister, but the worst is yet to come. If we have the new trade deals that people have talked about, “CETA-plus-plus” and the like, and we have buccaneer Britain on the high seas, hoping to carve up those trade deals, but with no experience of doing them in the past 40 years and no expertise, I fear for Britain.
I had better bring my remarks to a halt. People do not want this massive bill, higher prices, lost rights, an exodus of jobs and devaluation of wages and capital; they want to take back control from a team of incompetent Ministers who do not even do an impact study before going into negotiations. They want to take back control from incompetent Ministers who would carve up shoddy deals under pressure and behind closed doors. They want to have the final say so that, instead of paying more money for less, we have the option of going back to the successful partnership we previously enjoyed.
We all know this reality to be true. The great majority of MPs know in their hearts that it is not in Britain’s interests to leave the EU. They know that, but they say that the people said they wanted it. They also know that the people were misled, and that the people know that they were misled. As things change, politicians will come to the unstoppable truth that the people will demand —and will have, in my view—the final say on the exit deal, and I hope very much that we will remain in the EU.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I am pleased to speak in the debate—it will be for only a couple of minutes, I promise—which combines various petitions on the question of a second referendum regarding Britain’s exit from the European Union.
My constituency recorded one of the highest remain votes in the country—about 76%—so hon. Members might think the electorate there would be champing at the bit for a second go, or at least the opportunity to have a vote on a final deal. However, only 167 voters in East Renfrewshire could be bothered to sign the e-petition on holding a referendum on the final Brexit deal, although it fared significantly better than the petition on the opposite position, on having no referendum on the final deal, which mustered a grand total of 12 signatures from my constituency. Compared with the numbers who signed one or the other of the e-petitions relating to Scottish independence, which we debated in this Chamber last month, that suggests that the question of membership of the European Union simply does not cause the same passion or strength of feeling as the question of Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom. However, it might also speak to the broader feeling that, to be honest, people are scunnered with referendums. Let us be frank: referendums are dreadful, divisive ways of settling major questions. My constituents’ lack of interest in this question points to an exhaustion with binary politics and constitutional wrangling. It would also explain why the only party explicitly offering a second referendum at the last general election—the Scottish Liberal Democrats—secured 2% of the vote in my constituency.
Are people dancing down the streets of Barrhead and Clarkston at the thought of Britain leaving the EU? No, but they are also not drawing the blinds and taking to their beds. They are disappointed, but they are accepting and they want us to get on with it, so it was no surprise that, when I was out and about this weekend, the overwhelming response from leavers, remainers and could- not-care-lessers to Friday’s news was, “Thank God for that.” It is a good, sensible, realistic and pragmatic deal to take us from phase 1 and into the matters of the future trading relationship.
I understand that many people feel really strongly that the UK should remain in the EU and wish to bring about a second referendum in the vain hope of achieving that aim. However, I am afraid that I do not support those calls. I voted remain in the EU referendum not out of any particular love for the European project but because I recognised its value to trade and business, and that, because we are so integrated with our European partners in so many fields, the process of untangling that would be extremely complex. I have not exactly been proven wrong.
However, I accept the result of the referendum, and I am committed to fighting for the best deal possible for East Renfrewshire as we leave the EU. To me, that will be a deal that is focused on and prioritises free trade and boosting strong, sustainable economic performance. I am particularly pleased, as I know my constituents are, that we now have agreement on the status of EU citizens in the UK and vice versa. As we move through to phase 2, I believe we should aim for the freest possible trade in services between the UK and EU member states, ensuring that businesses and citizens have certainty. That is particularly desirable in highly integrated sectors, such as financial services, in which many of my constituents are employed. It is vital that there is no cliff edge.
The Government have made it clear that they will seek a withdrawal agreement, and that the final agreed deal will be incorporated into a new statute. That is welcome. However, timings mean it is possible that that process will take place after we have already left the EU, as the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union accepted. Parliament should have the same opportunity as the Parliaments of the EU27 to have a meaningful vote on the deal on the table before it is signed off. This week, we have an opportunity to ensure that that is the case.
Scrutinising every aspect of the deal extremely closely, challenging the Government on their negotiating stance where we think it is appropriate and ensuring that Parliament has the final say on the final deal is our role as parliamentarians—that is our job. It is what we were elected to do, and provided we are all actually prepared to do it, there is no reason or requirement for a second referendum. We were elected to make the big decisions on behalf of our constituents, and any Member who is incapable or unwilling to do that should not be here.
While I have sympathy with those who want to run through the whole shebang again in the hope of getting a different result, I cannot agree that it is a necessary or sensible way forward. Instead, I simply say: please, God —no more referendums.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) for the way in which she opened the debate and the tone that she set.
I obviously do not want to trawl through the trauma of the EU referendum, but we must note that 23 June 2016 was just a point in time. It was a date in the diary and it was a test of the people of our country on the facts that they had in their possession at that time; of course, we have already heard that many of those facts were, in fact, fiction. Indeed, that bus came to York and advertised that our NHS, which is in a real financial crisis at the moment, would receive £350 million a week. None of that has materialised, and our health service is being penalised.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will just make a few opening remarks, if I may. The referendum asked only one question: “Do you want to leave the European Union?” It did not ask about the single market, the agencies or the customs union. In fact, I recall a time when the Prime Minister was not even clear about the status of the customs union after the referendum, so there was clearly not a comprehensive, in-depth understanding of what leaving the European Union actually meant; everybody interpreted it in a different way.
I think all of us in this room, if we are honest, have gone on a journey since the referendum. We have learned a lot more and we are gathering a lot more information about what is to come. When someone says, as the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) did, that the people voted to leave, I say, well, they did, but only by a very narrow margin—3.7%. My interpretation of the result is that the country was divided, and therefore that every time the people who voted to remain hear that this is the will of the people, their views are being completely ignored. The reality is that it was the will of half the people who voted. We also know that only 72% of the people eligible to vote did so, and, as we have heard, with demographic changes, more people today would be able to vote, so it is not the will of the people, it is the will of some of the people, half the people, at a point in time.
To predicate the whole future of our country on that point in time, in the way the Government are, is really divisive. That is what we have seen: a really divided agenda moving forward. That is what I want to address. The most important thing now is pulling our country together. The rhetoric is being put out more and more; half of the people are hearing that their votes and their views do not matter any more, because we are going off this cliff edge come what may. We really need to respect everybody, and we need to find a way of pulling people together.
There was some hope in the statement on Friday morning, because it talked about things perhaps not changing so dramatically. We know that where there are polarised views, we have to find a mechanism to bring people together. The statement, in paragraph 49, said:
“In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union”.
It is clear where we are heading: after 18 months of further division and pain, we are actually heading to a bit of a convergence of views. That is really important, and it is why Labour set out right from the beginning that we believe in staying in the customs union and single market throughout the transition, and then seeing where we end up after that.
The reality is that we will of course have to be close to the European Union because we will continue to trade; we will obviously have to trade within their rules, and that is the way it will continue. This nonsense that we have to go to a completely polarised position does not work. However, we have already had 18 months in which the pain of the process has been deeply divisive, as I have mentioned, but also deeply damaging to our economy.
For me, the headline in the Budget was the £65 billion loss as the economy has contracted. We heard about the additional £3 billion being put into this process and we have heard of the £36 billion or £39 billion bill to leave the European Union. How much will all these new agencies cost to set up? How much will these trade deals cost us? The real cost is not before us, and it is absolutely essential that we have a better understanding of the impact of leaving the European Union. To keep that information covert, as opposed to sharing it, means that Parliament cannot scrutinise it. Nor can the people of this country; it is about their hard-earned money, which they pay through taxes. It is vital that they have a real understanding of where we are heading.
My hon. Friend is making a persuasive speech about how the referendum was really a snapshot in time. I wonder if she has seen the demographic figures showing that by 2022, at the next scheduled election, there will be more than 3 million extra voters aged 18 to 22 who were unable to vote in the referendum. That is the danger. I do not want to be as crude as to say, “Where there’s death, there’s hope in politics,” but we know there is a younger generation who were denied the vote. Our party thought that 16-year-olds should have had a vote. In time, they will be in the ascendant, and there is a strong case for reviewing that decision. Does she agree?
My hon. Friend makes a really good point. The reality is that it is not only the age demographic that is changing; opinion is also changing, as we heard through the Survation poll. We expect that to continue, because the myths about Europe are being dispelled as there is more debate and discussion, and people are facing the reality and the sheer cost of what is to come.
We need to make sense of the process. If, in trying to honour the majority of people who voted in the referendum, things are not working in the way that the Government first set out in their ambition, I have no issue with them saying, “Look, we’ve tried. We’ve gone through a negotiating process, but in the best interests of our country, our economy, jobs and the protections we have fought hard and worked for over the years, we are better having a stronger relationship with Europe than walking away altogether.” We need to be pragmatic, as opposed to just following a political narrative that is wearing really thin throughout the country. Otherwise, it is a complete insult to the people who put thought into their vote on 23 June.
In my own city of York, we had a 58% remain vote, but in York Central—the constituency I represent—two thirds of people voted to remain. They did that because of the impact analysis they did. I have gone round before and after the referendum talking to our major industries, to see what the impact is. Let us look at tourism. We were told that Britain would really benefit from tourism; more people would come into the UK because the pound was weaker and therefore we would see a real boom. When I talk to the industry, they say they cannot cope with Brexit. People who previously supported Brexit are saying that it is deeply damaging. We are losing all the labour in the tourism industry, and as a result, businesses are closing. York has a big tourism footprint. We cannot get enough chefs, and we cannot get cleaners for our hotels, and it is deeply damaging on that front.
The universities are a large part of our economy, too, and they are in a desperate state because they have no certainty over future funding, which is their lifeblood. Things are getting really tough. I meet with the vice-chancellors, and they are deeply concerned about where we are going. They are forming relationships for the future, but with the uncertainty about the future, they are not clear where they will take them.
I have not heard language colleges debated. On Friday I met with the language colleges in York—it is a major industry in the city—and they say that all the trade is moving over to the Republic of Ireland, and therefore they are not able to recruit the students they need. Businesses are divesting and moving their headquarters to Ireland and the EU. Of course, that is not just happening in York. It is happening across the UK.
I have had many discussions about the dependency of our NHS on EU labour. People have choices, and they are choosing not to come. I heard on Thursday night how the hospital, after much effort, was able to recruit more than 40 Spanish nurses. Only three now remain. It is not going to be able to repeat that. We know that patient safety is being put at risk as a result of the numbers falling. This is a real challenge for our local economy. When I met with CBI members in the region, they said that 42% of business investments are now not in the UK, but have gone to elsewhere in the EU. That is why Labour has emphasised the importance of a jobs- first Brexit the whole way. We know that good-quality jobs are disappearing, and York has faced that challenge. As we have heard, we have lost the European Medicines Agency, and we are losing our influence and job opportunities as a result.
I want to come on to the issue of how we bring the country together. The reality is that we are still incredibly polarised and split. I have not heard anything from the Government about trying to bring the country together, as well as the people who have polarised views. Just to say, “You voted at a point in time and that’s it, we’re moving on,” is incredibly damaging, and we need to try to adjust that agenda. I did not hear anything from the hon. Member for Cleethorpes about a way forward for the 30% of people who voted remain in his constituency, and about how he would bring them back to the table.
We need a wider conversation with the people of the country. It is intense in Parliament, and it is more intense in Government, by all reports, but the people of the country voted on 23 June, and quite frankly their views have been ignored. There has not been national engagement and a capturing of people’s views as they have shifted. Polling has been done, and we are doing work in our constituencies, but there is not that inclusivity of people across the country. It is essential to look at how we can capture people’s views. Having a referendum that seeks to know the views of the people of our country and to ask much broader questions would help to formulate our future direction.
We have to recognise that we are at a unique point in our history, and we must dig deeper into what the real concerns are. I know that people voted leave for many different reasons. In the north of England, many people felt that for decades, they have been in economic recession, and people have been poor. Because Europe did not answer those questions, they thought, “Well, clearly it’s failing us,” so they voted to leave. They perhaps did not see the failure that is to come down the track, of being outside the EU.
At the time of the vote on article 50, I was serving in the shadow DEFRA team. Many people wanted to leave not the single market, but the common agricultural policy. People had different views on what they wanted to do. There was concern about the immigration issues that were being ramped up by the far right. It is absolutely right that we defeat those views, but we also have to look at a very failed immigration policy in our country. It has failed because Government took away the funding to support people who were placed in many of the poorest areas, and therefore there was a real challenge in those communities. The Government have completely failed when it comes to exploitative agency labour, which has removed jobs and opportunities from local people. All sorts of issues have to be addressed.
Because all the Government’s time is subsumed in Brexit, I have not seen them address the real concerns of people who voted to leave. We have huge inequality. We heard in the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report last week that 13.9 million people in our country are living in poverty. We heard about the rise of older people in poverty, but also children in poverty. We also had the Social Mobility Commission report, which shows a regression in social mobility in our country. Of course, many of the people who voted to leave are trapped in poverty, without opportunities in life. We are not seeing the Government really addressing the concerns that people voted about on 23 June. That is why it is really important that we go back, to understand formally what those are. I hear this debate in the House time and time again. People are being ignored, and our democracy is failing them.
One of the last points I want to make is about the end of the process. If we had confidence that there was going to be a meaningful vote in Parliament, we would be able to represent our constituents’ views well. My biggest concern is that the vote will just be whipped through and hon. Members will vote along party lines, and ultimately the people of this country will be ignored—because of the political narrative in the House and out in the media, as opposed to their status at the end of this process, no matter what economic situation we find ourselves in—because it is about saving the skin of the Government when we get to that point, rather than finding a different way forward.
[Sir David Crausby in the Chair]
On referendums, we have all had our experiences and I am sure that we would never want to repeat them, but we need to find a way to include the people of our country in this process. I suggest a general election.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to contribute to the debate. We have a veritable smorgasbord of e-petitions before us, so all of us can probably choose at least one of them to support and push forward.
I have been listening to the debate since it started and I have to say that I find Brexit debates, both in this place and in the other place, relatively dispiriting. Of course, I am not seeking to cast aspersions on colleagues here, but I find the debate dispiriting. We start from the principle of trying to debate something, and I came here today thinking that we would have a wonderful theoretical debate on the value of representative versus participative or direct democracy, the utility of referendums versus parliamentary democracy, and how the inherent tension between those concepts has caused such theoretical and practical problems in the past 18 months or so. What immediately happens, however, is that we all go back into our tribes depending on whether we like or dislike Brexit. Many of the speeches that I have heard, which have been heartfelt and have clearly come from a place of real principle, have fallen back on to whether people support Brexit or do not support it.
We have to be more careful about these kinds of discussion. I have heard massive misuse of polling in just the past hour and a half. The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) talked about how we should have some kind of independent arbiter to judge the correctness or otherwise of what politicians say. I think that that is a terrible idea, but if we are going to do it, I gently say to the right hon. Gentleman that we might start by banning politicians from using one poll to prove that something is suddenly a comprehensive, complete and totally true statement. If we want to play that game, a poll carried out by Opinium says exactly the opposite. I understand that the Survation poll, which has been quoted so extensively in this place already, also gives the Labour party an eight-point lead. I know that Opposition Members are delighted about that, but I do not believe that 45% of the people in my country believe in neo-Marxism and I hope that it will not happen. I will not go down the party political route, other than to say that.
I have heard a number of different comments today and I want to take up a few of them. The hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies), who is no longer in his place, talked at one point about how, if we are honest as Members of Parliament, most of us know that ultimately Brexit is a bad idea. I think it was Elizabeth I who said, “Don’t seek windows into men’s souls.” I do not subscribe to that view. I genuinely understand why people in my constituency voted 63% to leave; I understand why I voted to leave. It was not because of a hatred of the European Union or because of the caricature of how we are that some people try to propose. It was not because of the lies that certain people have talked about in here, which I absolutely disagree with. It was actually because we happen fundamentally to believe that the future of our country can be better served in a different way from what has happened in the past 40 years. I ask those people on the opposite side of the debate just to think carefully about some of the comments that they make, because I do not believe in the depths of my soul that Brexit is a bad idea. I think it is a good idea, but I also understand the challenges that those people are putting forward. We should not enter binary discussions or make assertions.
I followed the speech by the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) as closely as I could, and he seemed to be saying not only that we need Parliament to protect the British people from their decision, but that we need the EU to protect the British people from our own Parliament. I wonder whether my hon. Friend has a little more faith in this place and its people.
I absolutely hope that that would be the case. It is utterly important that we ensure that there is a wide debate about the issues, but ultimately we start from the principle that a large number of people—the largest number of people ever—have made a decision and we should seek to honour that.
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I believe, from the bottom of my heart, that we will be worse off if we leave the European Union. The more we talk about how we appreciate European workers and how they support our economy and local services, and the more we talk about regulatory alignment and the fact that we do not want new borders, the more we are describing what the EU actually is, so why are we leaving?
The hon. Lady has expounded my point perfectly. I do not doubt her resolve, her willingness or her absolute belief; I just happen to disagree with her. I hope that Opposition Members—I am not suggesting that this applies to the hon. Lady—understand and recognise that we have deeply held views as well.
I also heard earlier that if we had a second referendum, it would be a different sort of referendum, as if the first one was invalid or incomprehensive or there was not sufficient discussion. Again, the conversation tended toward the emotional and the lies. Just from the emotion that I have heard expressed in this Chamber today, the conversations that have occurred and the use of terms such as catastrophe, exodus, dire, crisis, lies, death row and malicious, I do not believe that there would be anything less than the kind of emotional discussion that we had two years ago, so we should be very careful what we wish for.
I have heard conversations about multi-options. Even though I understand in principle the point made by the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones), and I know that one of the e-petitions under discussion suggests multi-options, I wonder whether, if we proposed a second referendum with multi-options, we would all be here in three or four years’ time talking about one option that got 42% of the vote and the other two options that got a smaller proportion of the vote, and then delegitimising the 42% of the vote option because it did not manage 50 plus one, which is the usual yardstick for success.
Then we get into the slightly more absurd discussions, which I know were not entirely serious on the part of some people who have commented, about vote weighting or the fact that some people are dying and therefore their vote is less valid. I just think we have to be much more careful. I agree with the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) that we need to be much more careful about how we debate and discuss this matter, because my constituency is a constituency of honourable people who understand the challenges and have researched the issue and watched the television, but who still voted 63% leave. They and I voted to leave because we legitimately think that that decision means that our country will be better in the long term.
I want to talk briefly about the idea perpetuated by some that people did not know what they were voting for. We have to accept the principle that people vote for many different reasons. I would not like to suggest that that is not the case, but I know that the thing that was closest to what people understood was happening on the day was the leaflet the Government sent out to every household in this country. When I reread that this morning in preparation for this discussion, it was pretty clear to me what was happening. Nothing in the leaflet mentioned a second referendum. It stated:
“On Thursday, 23 June there will be a referendum”—
singular. “It’s your opportunity”—there was no multitude of opportunities. “It’s a big decision”—singular. It is “One” decision, not decisions plural. The leaflet goes on to say that it is a
“once in a generation decision”—
not a twice in a generation—and:
“The government will implement what you decide.”
That leaflet came through my letterbox in north Derbyshire and the proposition was absolutely clear to me and to all of my residents in Dronfield, Cutthorpe, Eckington and Killamarsh. It is incumbent on hon. Members that we recognise and honour that. I reject totally and completely the notion that people did not understand what they were voting for. They understood what they were voting for. They understood the propositions that were on the table. They understood, if I am honest, the things on both sides of the argument that went too far. I will not talk about them individually, but I was unhappy, as a leave voter, with some of the suggestions from the remain camp, which are also in the leaflet, about how there would be almost an economic collapse. We have to be very careful about how we discuss this matter, where we are going with it and what we want the outcome to be.
I am reluctant to intervene, having made the opening speech, but I would like to ask the hon. Gentleman one question. I am talking not about my personal view on this issue, but about the points raised by Ross Clark in The Spectator. His view is that what is being implemented by the Government is not what he voted for, and that was the fear, because it was not as simple as a binary choice. He is a very traditional conservative with a certain view that is very much against further association with the European Union. What would the hon. Gentleman say to people such as him?
I have not read the article the hon. Lady is referring to, but I will address the principle. What she outlines explains beautifully why the sorts of intellectual contortions that we have heard in this debate over the past hour and a half, and elsewhere, will ultimately not work. We can make an assessment about why some people voted one way and others voted another way, but there are 30 million different reasons that people voted for it. We can make an assessment about whether the voting system was correct, or whether the right people voted, and we can make an assessment about whether the debate—before, during and after the vote—was appropriate, but ultimately those are our assessments, not facts. Assumptions have been bandied around far too much over the past year; the whole discussion has been about assumptions. When we get into the amorphous mass that we have arrived at, an hour and a half into this discussion, it is not possible to get much further, so we have to boil it down to the simple point: people voted and made a decision, and ultimately we have to implement what the people decided.
This has been an interesting debate. Today is an important day concerning Passchendaele. During a fascinating debate in the main Chamber a few months ago, a prominent Brexiteer described Passchendaele as a “wonderful battle.” My father was at Passchendaele and that was not his description. He went to Passchendaele because he wanted to kill Germans who were bayoneting Belgian babies. He took part in other battles, including the Somme and Messines Ridge, but came out of the war as someone who loved Germans, because they saved his life. They rescued him when he was bleeding to death in a foxhole.
As a child, I was taught to hate Germans. I was taught again and again that the only good German is a dead German. In the first half of the last century we built barriers between nations, but the European Community built bridges. That is one of the major achievements of my lifetime, along with the health service and the national insurance scheme in the 1940s.
Having been to a Rohingya camp three weeks ago, I have seen the ultimate divisions between nations and how propaganda can divide people of different descent. It has divided people of Bengali descent from people of Burmese descent. I have seen the ultimate horror of the anti-humanity on that border. I believe—I mean this profoundly—that in this petty squabble about Europe we have seen a feeling that we should turn away from emphasising the oneness of the human family and rejoice in our nationalistic differences. That, by any standards, is a backward step.
Why do we need a new referendum? It was quite reasonable for the Labour party—I supported this at the time—to vote for article 50. That was our genuflection to the vote and democracy, but the only reason for voting for article 50 was to see what it meant. For every person who read the Government leaflet, I bet that 1,000 saw the bus with that promise of all the money that would come back to the health service. The Foreign Secretary is still promising that. He has talked about it twice in recent weeks. Sir David Norgrove, the chairman of the UK Statistics Authority, the man who calls out such errors, has said that those claims were untrue and that the £350 million was a gross figure. The maximum would have been £250 million, if every penny we spend in Europe was devoted to the health service, but that is not going to happen. The Foreign Secretary has already spent 150% of the money we can expect back, and The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has spent 40% of it, because he has guaranteed the money for farmers. If we take it according to the way people voted on 23 June, we have already spent 190% of the money that we will get back, but it was nonsense on both sides. It was a referendum based on fiction.
In the next couple of weeks we will have a debate on the influences. I believe that the referendum was not a fair vote. It was heavily influenced by propaganda machines that are outside the control of the Electoral Commission. Changes in the use of algorithms, botnets, money from abroad and very clever artificial intelligence influenced people in an invisible way. That is the best reason why we need a new referendum.
I sit on three Select Committees, as do many other hon. Members present, and at every session we hear about the possible advantages of Brexit. They are all speculative. Most of them will not happen. They are all hopeful. They are all based on a manic optimism that is compulsory for Tory party MPs these days, but the horrors are certain.
Chlorinated chicken has been mentioned, but we would allow even worse things into our market, such as irradiated meats. Something called pink slime beef would become lawful and it is coming our way from America. We have been told by Tim Martin that if we opt out, we will save thruppence ha’penny on our meals in Wetherspoon and a ha’penny on our drinks. I think that saving four pence makes it a very expensive pint, if we are expected to down a pink slime beef burger.
We are going to turn against our principles. We need to look at every realistic part of this. As far as Wales is concerned, they said it was about bringing back control. Well, we have lost control. There is a power grab against the Welsh and Scottish Governments. They will not be able to pass laws that are beneficial, because the laws will be invested here in Westminster for a period. There is a certain date for coming out, but there is no certain date for repatriating those laws, which were supported in Wales not by one referendum, but by three.
I believe that we are now in a position where the public have changed their mind. They have seen the full horrors of what is going to happen. We are going to lose jobs—1 million jobs, the CBI says. We are going to lose money—£100 billion, the CBI says. None of those things was in the leaflet or formed part of the debate on 23 June, 18 months ago. We have to give the people a second chance based on knowledge and on the truth of what Brexit will mean. I believe that the country would come around to saying that this will be a fall into a sinkhole of economic decline. And, on the second vote, second thoughts are always superior to first thoughts. We have a duty as Members of Parliament not to be imprisoned by a vote that was taken as a snapshot on a single day, on the basis of untruths, lies and exaggerations.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir David. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in support of the petition for a ratification referendum, which was signed by no fewer than 864 of my constituents. For the purposes of full disclosure, the other petition, which was against a ratification referendum, was signed by 10.
The Green party fully respects the fact that voters made a decision and delivered a message to Parliament on 23 June last year, but we have also consistently said that the referendum was, and could only be, the start of the democratic process, not the end of it. The voters could not and did not express any opinion on the terms on which the UK should leave the EU, because those terms remained completely obfuscated. The leaders of the leave campaign did not ever want to set out what leave would look like, so it was hard for people to express a view on that.
For example, did the voters instruct the Government to ensure that when the UK leaves the EU it remains in the single market and the customs union, perhaps through membership of the European economic area? No one knows—not the Prime Minister, not the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, and not any Members of the House. Alternatively, did the voters instruct the Government to ensure that the UK leaves the EU, the single market and the customs union? Again, no one knows. Although, we do know that voters were repeatedly and confidently assured by prominent leavers, such as Daniel Hannan MEP, that there would be
“full participation in EU markets”
Did the voters instruct the Government and Parliament to ensure that the UK leaves Euratom, the REACH agreement or the European Medicines Agency’s regulatory regime? Again, no one knows, but it seems reasonable to conclude that most voters will not have given such questions any thought, because they did not feature in the referendum campaign, despite regulatory certainty being essential to British businesses.
Did the voters approve the terms of the future relationship agreement negotiated between the UK Government and the EU27? Of course they did not, because they were not told that there would be such an agreement, let alone what would be in it. Indeed, 17 months on, and with just 10 months left to conclude the negotiations, neither the voters nor Members of this House know whether there will be any such agreement before we drop out of the EU on 29 March 2019. However, we do know that voters were blithely assured, again by leavers such as Daniel Hannan, that the terms of the agreement would be “easily” agreed. That is very odd, because it does not look very easy right now.
Thanks to the chaotic and reckless nature of the UK Government’s negotiating strategy, and their stubborn refusal to lay out detailed proposals, we simply have no idea how the Prime Minister and her bumbling Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union plan to square their determination to leave the single market with the rather obvious fact that that implies having a hard border somewhere—either across the island of Ireland or in the middle of the Irish sea.
The Green party believes that a democracy worthy of the name must mean voters having a real say over the biggest decisions affecting their lives. Withdrawal from the EU is simply the most significant decision that Britain has taken since 1939, which is why we have consistently said that the terms of the withdrawal agreement, or departure from the EU without any such agreement, must be subject to a ratification referendum. That ratification referendum must give voters the option of approving the terms of withdrawal negotiated by the Government, or, if they do not like those terms, remaining in the EU—that has to be on the ballot paper as well. In other words, the ratification referendum—let us remember that this is the first referendum on the terms of withdrawal from the EU and the basis for our future relationship—must allow voters the democratic choice between accepting what is actually on offer or cancelling the article 50 notification and remaining a member of the EU.
I want to stress that we are not talking about a second referendum, although that term has been used many times this evening. This is not an attempt to overturn the decision that voters made on 23 June last year. The point is that the leave campaign, very deliberately, never set out what Brexit would look like, and people’s views naturally evolve as more information becomes available, so it is absolutely right that the British people who triggered this process should also sign it off, since once they know the outcome of the current negotiations they can see the terms of the deal and decide whether they like it. If they like what they see, they can go ahead and leave the EU; but if they do not, the option of remaining inside the EU must also be on the table and on the ballot paper.
Can the hon. Lady clarify whether her proposed—I will not say second referendum—new referendum would provide an option for saying, “No, we don’t like this. We want you to go back and push on these items,” or would it be a binary, all-or-nothing choice, where we either take what is on the table or cancel the whole process?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Certainly, if there was enough time to ask our negotiators to go back to the table, I would have no problem with having that option. However, the real worry at the moment is this: we heard what the Secretary of State for Brexit said on the Sunday television programmes yesterday, and he is talking about having a whole year for negotiations, so the idea that we would then be able to come back and have a serious discussion, if they have not properly negotiated a transition period, is yet another thing that is in doubt. It is clear that people should have the option, if they wish, to remain in the EU. The Prime Minister has pledged that MPs will have the final say on any deal, but I simply want to widen that franchise. The British people should have the final say. That is not denying democracy; it is enhancing it.
It is also important to stress that a ratification referendum is not a silver bullet. We owe it to ourselves to acknowledge that when people voted to leave, many of them did so because of very legitimate concerns. In my view, from the people I have spoken to, not many of those concerns actually relate to the EU per se, but those people were persuaded that their very legitimate concerns about housing, jobs and the NHS were somehow linked either to our membership of the EU or to the presence of immigrants in this country. What we also need to do, at the same time as campaigning for a ratification referendum, is campaign for changes in this country, as well as changes in the EU.
I am not talking about some kind of reversion to the status quo ante—the status quo before the referendum happened. We are not pretending that it did not happen or trying to go back to 22 June last year. It did happen, people are very angry and many of the reasons for their anger are legitimate. However, the irony is that by leaving the EU, the problems that they were most concerned about—their future prospects at work, their kids’ future prospects, whether they could access the NHS and whether they could get affordable housing—are all going to get 100 times worse. Believe me, we have not yet even begun to imagine the anger of those people when they realise that.
It is absolutely crucial that, alongside campaigning for the ratification referendum, we look at the way in which the deep social divides in this country have been exploited by many of the leaders of the leave campaign. They have used them as a wedge to drive home their long-standing ideological hatred of the EU, even though those problems are likely to be made worse by leaving the EU.
The hon. Lady makes a powerful point, even though I do not agree with it, and powerfully expands her position on a second referendum. May I ask her how many referendums she proposes to accept in this discussion? Will we be going to 20, 40 or 135, until we get the right answer?
I was about to thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but that was such a ludicrous and frankly dishonourable one. It is very clear that I am talking about the idea that people should be able to look at the facts, which are not present right now, and were certainly not present on 23 June last year.
I am also making some serious points about the very real grievances that the referendum result laid bare. Frankly, it is cynical and shocking how those grievances are being manipulated by the leave campaign for its own political ends. I believe that one of the things that the referendum tells us is that we need to look at the way in which people are governed in this country. That involves looking at a voting system that systematically takes power away from people. It is such an irony that the party that is in the lead in calling for Brexit and bringing back control does not want people to have control when it comes to their own electoral system. That party does not want them to have a real say. At the last election 68% of the votes cast made no difference to the outcome, because they were piling up in constituencies where, because of first past the post, they were not necessary.
Let us look at the way the UK is governed. Let us look at issues such as more devolution to the regions and electoral reform for more widespread proportional representation. Where the case is to be made to the “left behind”—those people were left behind not in some kind of casual accident, but as a deliberate and predictable outcome of the process of neo-liberal globalisation, which systematically marginalises them—it will take a long time to turn around some of those impacts at the root of why so many people voted to leave the EU, but we have to start now by finding genuine solutions to people’s worries about jobs, pay, schools and housing. Ultimately, things will only shift once trust is built and people see with their own eyes that their lives are getting better and that being inside the EU was never the cause of their problems.
In conclusion, a ratification referendum would give the British people more democracy, not less. This time around, I hope, the necessarily short referendum campaign will be conducted in a more open, honest and transparent way.
Thank you for chairing the debate, Sir David. I will make a few comments about some of the contributions that have been made. I start by thanking the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) for introducing the debate and for setting out the range of views in the petitions. She drew attention to the fact that it is dangerous for the Prime Minister and the Government to seek to represent the views of only one section. When I specifically asked the Prime Minister when she will stand up and speak for the 48%, her answer was, “I am representing the 52%.” Other Members have asked, “Why has this debate been quite binary?” I think it is because our Prime Minister has adopted a binary position on whom she is representing, and that is very dangerous.
I was amused when the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) referred to the fact that the European Union has been a running sore through the body politic. To be more precise, it has been a running sore through his political party, and that is why we had the referendum.
Perhaps the case in point is the fact that we would not be having this discussion had a certain former Prime Minister not brought it on, due to the running sore within his own movement.
Indeed; the measure was clearly designed to try to bring the Conservative party together for a general election campaign. The hon. Member for Cleethorpes also asked why we would want to settle for a worse deal than the one we have. That is exactly what we will do as a result of his Government’s actions.
I welcome the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies), who is not in his place. A vote on the deal is Liberal Democrat policy. There will be an opportunity to test the House on day eight of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, when amendment 120 will be voted on. On 20 December, I hope that many Members of Parliament from all parties who are in the Chamber today will support that and enable that further vote to happen.
The issue of young people and the fact that they voted heavily to remain has been rather set aside by Government Members. Although I would not support the idea of weighting for votes, disregarding those concerns and not accepting that there is a difference between the impact on young people and the impact on the older section of the population who voted to leave is a concern.
The issues that were raised about the impact on Wales are a concern, too. If farmers in Wales are expecting to get the same level of subsidy that they do now, they need to rethink things, because frankly, they will not. Farmers are certainly very worried by the prospect of no deal, so a positive thing about Friday was that the possibility of no deal has receded a bit. I met a farmer last week who potentially faced tariffs of 40% on lamb if we fall back on World Trade Organisation rules. If anyone thinks that a single hill farmer will continue to operate in Wales or Scotland with 40% tariffs on lamb, if we fall back on WTO rules, they need to think again.
The hon. Member for Swansea West said that there was no one who has experience of doing trade deals. When I asked the question, I got one name—Crawford Falconer—so at least the Government have one person. It is a pity, however, that Mr Falconer came from the Legatum Institute, which, frankly, has adopted a rather biased position on Brexit and is very much pushing a hard Brexit agenda.
The hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) referred to the value of trade. He said that he supported remain because he recognised the value to trade and business of being in the European Union and because we were so integrated. Yet he is now fully endorsing something that he knows will cause damage to trade and business. That is why I find it difficult to understand the position that Conservative remain-voting Members of Parliament are now adopting, with their wholesale endorsement of something that they know will cause damage. Yet they are willing to proceed with it; the will of the people dictated it, so we are going over the cliff edge, come what may. They know that it will cause damage but they are endorsing it.
The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) was right to say that the referendum was at a point in time. She said that she found hope in the statement on Friday, as did I, but my little bit of hope was somewhat reduced within 24 hours, when the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that if people do not like the deal, they can tear it up at the next general election and have another one. I am not sure what message it sends to the European Union about our negotiations with it, or indeed, to the Irish about the certainty they can have about what our Government agree, if a very senior Cabinet Member says, “Actually, if you don’t like it, we’ll give you another one. We’ll give you the real hard Brexit that I support, as Secretary of State for DEFRA”—or as the spokesman for foreign affairs. I do not have confidence that this will stick for very long. Members are waiting in the wings and keeping remarkably quiet at the moment, and I wonder how long, for instance, the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) and the right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) will do so.
I would like to comment on many other things, but I am aware that we need to move on to the Front Benchers’ contributions soon. The hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley) should not be surprised that this has not been an academic debate on the benefits of referendums versus parliamentary democracy. He has strong views on this debate, as do I and many other Members of the House. We on the Opposition side have strong views because we believe that this will be the single most damaging, dangerous thing that the UK has embarked on in the past 50 years. I am afraid that we are not going to have an academic debate about the merits of referendums; we are actually going to focus on what we think will cause major damage to the United Kingdom.
If people do not believe that, I recommend that they talk to foreign diplomats, from the European Union and outside it, about what their perception of the United Kingdom is now. That is not just down to who we have as our Foreign Secretary, but because they believe that we are isolating ourselves and taking a step backwards. We are far from being the global Britain that the Government talk about. Our friends believe the opposite. That is not me saying that; it is what I hear from my contact with diplomats, who are conveying that message to our Government. They do not understand. We used to have a Government who were pragmatic and well organised in negotiations and who played a central role in the European Union; now we have a Government who are disorganised, do not know where we stand and have not even yet had significant Cabinet debates about what the future of our relationship with the European Union should look like.
Finally, I was wondering whether there was anyone who was perhaps more pessimistic about Brexit than me, but I have found in the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) someone who feels as strongly—indeed more strongly than I do. I also support entirely the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), who I think is in the same place as me. She rightly highlighted the very legitimate concerns that the people who voted leave had during the course of that campaign. I challenge the Government to say what they have done about some of those most significant concerns.
On housing, we need 300,000 new homes. How many of those will the Government build? How many will they build when many of those construction workers who work in London do not return after Christmas because they prefer to stay in their countries in the European Union? So that is not going to happen. On the skills agenda, the number of people doing apprenticeships, which are about giving people the skills to take the jobs here so that we do not have to rely on people from the EU, has halved. The Government are simply not addressing those concerns.
On 20 December, I hope that people will support amendment 120. Other Members have referred to the Survation poll and I agree that we cannot claim that everything has changed on the basis of one poll. However, a number of polls—not just the Survation poll—point to a shift. Peter Kellner has pointed to the same thing: a shift, for instance, from working-class voters on this issue. Other Members quoted the figure of those responding to the Survation question—
“When the UK Government’s negotiations over the terms of Britain’s exit from the EU are complete, would you…support holding a referendum?”—
which is just under 50%, whereas 34% oppose such a referendum.
When I was quoting those figures, I saw the Minister shaking his head. I am not sure whether he disagrees with Survation’s methodology—perhaps he does and would like to set that out—but those are the figures that it provided, and I am sure its poll was decent and well researched. The main argument deployed against having a vote on the deal is that the will of the people was expressed on 23 June 2016, so job done; we proceed. Well, people around the world are considering with increasing concern whether there was, for instance, significant Russian interference in the US elections. Will they be happy and confident in future years simply to go along with the result, knowing that the Russians might have played a significant role in perverting the outcome of the election?
The hon. Member for Newport West referred to the debate that will take place next Wednesday, on 20 December, about Russian interference in UK politics and society. There is evidence of organised Twitter activity by the Russians, seeking to influence the outcome of the EU referendum. Why did they do that? Because it is in their interests to split up the European Union, and they know that the UK played a significant role in ensuring that sanctions were applied to Russia. There is evidence. I ask Conservative leave supporters what level of interference from abroad or lies peddled at home—I will not cover the ground about the £350 million a week for the NHS, as it has been mentioned frequently in this debate—would make them feel that maybe the result was not quite so convincing after all. It was only 52% to 48%.
I have before me a selection of leaflets—I will not go through them, because I know that we need to get to the Front-Bench speeches—containing what the leave campaign said during the EU referendum period. They say that we will get lots of money back after leaving the European Union, but they do not mention all the additional costs, including duplicating agencies and the settlement bill, which we now know is a down payment, not the final payment. We might have to pay for access to the single market and the customs union, when we know that we will have a smaller economy. Again, the Minister shook his head when the figure of £65 billion in shrinkage was mentioned; that was actually the Chancellor’s figure, so I am not sure what he was disagreeing with.
We know that the NHS is spending more money on visas for nurses, because nurses are not coming from Spain, Portugal and Italy anymore. In fact, I have been told that the recruitment fairs that the NHS used to hold have stopped, and nurses are coming instead from Thailand and India. The difference is that the Government—the hospital trust—must pay £1,000 per visa to secure those nurses, whereas when they came from Spain, Portugal and Italy, it cost NHS trusts nothing at all.
I do not have time to go through all the things that were said by the leave campaign in its leaflets, none of which, I argue, has been delivered. Another Member referred to the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, which I certainly recommend. It is an example of the will of the people being expressed through a deliberative and constructive process that takes people through the arguments. It is the debate that we should have had before the EU referendum, but did not. The outcome, hon. Members will be interested to know, was that on migration, people wanted to
“retain free movement of labour, but with the UK Government exercising all available controls to prevent abuse”
of the system. Incidentally, the UK Government could have done that, but chose not to.
I will be extremely brief, because I know that there are other speeches to be made. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that instead, we have had a bitter debate that has been xenophobic in tone, has lacked a lot of facts, and has led to an increase in hate crime since the beginning in earnest of the referendum period?
Yes, and I suspect that every Member who is a remain supporter will have experienced that on stalls. People have come up to me and accused me of being a traitor. When papers talk about people being saboteurs, it clearly feeds that section of the population who might respond aggressively. It has fed that, and I regret it.
I will finish on a point about the strongest reason why Conservative Members should support the idea of a vote on the deal. First, even the most hard-line Brexiter must recognise that this is bad news for the UK—for UK jobs and UK families. It is also bad news for the Conservative party, because this is Tory Brexit. The Conservative party is delivering Brexit, and if it turns out as badly as some economic analysts predict, I expect that it will hang around the neck of the Conservative party for the next 20 or 30 years; I hope so. The Conservatives have an opportunity to engage the public and give them their say. If the public endorse and want to proceed with a deal that causes us more and more damage as each day goes by, they can say so in a referendum, but if they do not, that will give the Government the let-out that they need to stop them embarking on a course that Members of Parliament overwhelmingly knew would cause us damage, as we have heard it from some here today, and still know will cause us damage—but that they intend to proceed with anyway.
Thank you for calling me, Sir David. I am grateful for the chance to begin the summing up. I am not yet persuaded, but I am certainly open to persuasion. I do not agree that we can look for a second referendum just because we do not like the result of the first, any more than I like the idea that every defendant should be allowed to appeal over and over just because they did not like the verdict; it must be demonstrated that there was something wrong with the process.
In this case, there was something badly wrong with the process. Some of the flaws in the referendum legislation and process have already been highlighted, although it must be said that if some of the people raising those concerns had voted against the referendum Bill on Second or Third Reading, or voted against triggering article 50 instead of following their Whips through the Lobby, it might have been a different story, although I know that some Members who were here earlier did in fact rebel on some of those votes.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am just about to refer to the hon. Gentleman, so I might be about to cover his point. He commented on the clash of dates in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, which had vital national elections just a few weeks before the EU referendum. It was not realistic to expect all in those elections not to campaign on issues for which the individual Parliaments were responsible and concentrate on the EU referendum.
The franchise has been mentioned; 16 and 17-year-olds, who statistically had more to gain or lose from the referendum result, were the one group excluded. EU nationals were not allowed to vote. Who anywhere in the UK has been more affected than EU nationals? The rules that usually control funding in elections in Great Britain did not properly apply, so a £500,000 donation was able to be channelled into the leave campaign—from who knows where—via the accounts of a political party in Northern Ireland, where, for understandable reasons, there have been more moves to retain the confidentiality of those who fund political parties.
As has been said on numerous occasions, there was no process whatsoever to hold anybody to account for telling the biggest pack of lies ever told during the referendum campaign. The £350 million on the side of a bus was certainly the biggest in terms of the size of the letters, but it was not the only or the biggest lie that was told.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will give way first to the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) and then come back to the hon. Gentleman.
The hon. Gentleman likened the situation to a court making a decision, and mentioned the process. Surely the other issue is fresh evidence, and an abundance of evidence is emerging every day that people will pay more and more jobs will be lost. Now that people are realising what the evidence is, they are changing their minds.
I will come back in due course to the wider question of whether the circumstances have changed significantly or whether people simply understand the circumstances better now.
Since the referendum, we have heard repeatedly about the myth of the £350 million. “Where is the money?” is the question repeatedly asked. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the £350 million will become available only after we leave?
Well, it might become available after we leave, but I have not seen any hint of it in the Chancellor’s forward spending projections, or any indication that the NHS will suddenly become adequately funded, after not having been for a long time. The simple fact is that that was a good example of taking one isolated piece of information about the European Union and interpreting it to say whatever was wanted. In a previous Westminster Hall debate, I remember a number of hon. Members on the leave side claiming that nobody paid any attention to that big red bus anyway, which makes me wonder why they spent so much money driving it the length and breadth of these islands.
On the change of circumstances, I would always say that if it cannot be demonstrated that there has been some change of circumstances, it is difficult to argue for a rerun of any kind of process, whether an election, a referendum or anything else. In this case, it is difficult to be sure whether the facts have changed or whether people are more in possession of the facts than before. Certainly, some people have switched from vote leave to vote remain because they simply did not understand how complicated and fundamental a change this could be—the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) gave some exceptional examples of that.
With permission, Sir David, I will quote at greater length than I would normally from a document that was published shortly before the referendum, to give an indication of how people’s interpretation of the facts can sometimes change. It says:
“Voting to leave the EU would create years of uncertainty and potential economic disruption. This would reduce investment and cost jobs…it could result in 10 years or more of uncertainty as the UK unpicks our relationship with the EU and renegotiates new arrangements with the EU and over 50 other countries… Some argue that we could strike a good deal quickly with the EU because they want to keep access to our market. But…it would be much harder than that… No other country has managed to secure significant access to the Single Market, without having to: follow EU rules over which they have no real say; pay into the EU; accept EU citizens living and working in their country”.
A number of hon. Members will be familiar with that information, which comes from the document about the referendum published by the UK Government in April 2016. The hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley) spoke glowingly about what a good-quality publication it was.
We might look back to those Government announcements from April 2016 and say that they got it right, but unfortunately they are now telling us that they got it wrong. They are telling us that the negotiations will be very quick and there will be no loss of investment, no loss of jobs and all the rest of it. The Government have changed their mind; they have obviously decided that there has been a significant change of circumstances. The Prime Minister has gone from a remainer to a leaver; the Foreign Secretary had written an article for a newspaper saying why we should remain, and changed his mind; and of course, the Environment Secretary went from the best friend and strongest supporter of the Foreign Secretary’s leadership campaign to somebody who chose to stand against him. Even at the highest levels of government in these islands, Cabinet Ministers can change their minds very quickly. I understand the argument that if the people change their mind at some point in the future, they should be given the opportunity to express that at the ballot box.
Generally speaking, however, I take the view that the way for a party to change a referendum result is to get elected at the ballot box with an explicit manifesto commitment to a referendum. The Liberal Democrats had that manifesto commitment at the last election, but they did not come close to winning. I do not think we can say that everybody who voted Liberal Democrat wanted another referendum. We certainly cannot say that everybody who voted for another party did not want another referendum. If somebody wants to put the public through a process such as a referendum, they have to have some kind of clear public mandate for that. Only in exceptional circumstances could Parliament decide on a referendum that was not in the manifesto of the Government or the Opposition. I am not saying that it could never happen, but I think it would be very unusual indeed.
Having said that, we have to accept the simple fact that we have never had a referendum on leaving the single market or the customs union. Some people might claim that we did because somebody on the vote leave side and somebody on the vote remain side said that we would have to leave the single market and the customs union if the result was to leave. I caution hon. Members to be careful before they start asking the House to accept that the losers’ views are the ones that have to be put into place after the votes have been counted. I could give examples of where that logic would lead to conclusions that Conservative and Labour Members would be unhappy about.
The Government’s response to the question of the single market and the customs union has been to conflate what is necessary with what they have unilaterally decided. We now have Conservative Back Benchers who believe in good faith that it is not possible to leave the European Union without leaving the single market and the customs union. Quite clearly, that is possible. It is not what the Government have decided, but they have decided that because they decided it; it was nothing to do with the referendum.
The Government have refused point blank to tell us whether they have taken legal advice on whether article 50 can be withdrawn or revoked at any time for any reason. They are simply saying that their decision is that they will not revoke it—end of story. I wonder why they are being so coy about what legal advice they have had. Not that long ago, in the lead-up to other referendums, the Government were quite happy to publish legal advice when it seemed to support the political position they wanted to adopt. There is a degree of inconsistency there: sometimes the Government will publish legal advice and sometimes they will not. As long as the Government will not publish the advice they have had on whether article 50 can be revoked, people will wonder why.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the most likely reason that the Government want to withhold that advice is because they do not want to give people the certainty that article 50 is revocable? I think that is what the advice says.
The right hon. Gentleman may well say that; I could not possibly comment. I remind him, however, that like his colleague the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), I am a member of the Exiting the European Union Committee and we have had a lot of interesting discussions about why the Government might or might not want to disclose stuff, to decline to say whether it has been done, and then eventually to say that they cannot disclose it because it does not exist.
I understand why the result of the June 2016 referendum came as a massive shock for a lot of people—people who voted to leave, as well as some who voted to remain. It is correct that most people, however they voted, had no idea what a massive decision they were taking. I have been accused—in the Daily Express, no less—of saying that people were stupid. I do not think that they were stupid on 23 June; I think that they were badly informed—sometimes they were ill-informed and certainly they were misinformed a lot of the time.
The social implications of leaving the European Union have still not been properly discussed. I travel to other parts of Europe on parliamentary business, and I went to Northern Ireland with the Exiting the European Union Committee just a few days ago. The social impact of a possible change in the relationship between Northern Ireland and its neighbour to the south is really frightening people. I do not use that word lightly; people are frightened about what will happen to their communities and to their social and family links.
In Donegal, if someone needs radiotherapy, they go to a foreign country—they cross the border into Northern Ireland and the Government of Ireland help to pay for that hospital. On both sides of the border, people are used to the fact that they go to hospital or to school or to visit their granny in a different country. It is not just about whether people will be allowed to stay there and continue to make those journeys every day of their lives, but about the fact that a decision has been taken—not by the people of Northern Ireland, incidentally; as in Scotland, they voted to remain in the European Union—by somebody else that will fundamentally change the psychology of the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The psychological and social impact of Brexit in Northern Ireland has not been touched on in most of our debates over here.
Comments have been made today about the size of the majority in the referendum. I am not convinced that that is a strong argument because we could wait a long time before we got any more than a 10% majority either way on the question of leaving the European Union. People have sincerely held views in opposite directions, so if we set a limit that there has to be a majority of more than so-and-so per cent., we could be going over it again and again. I do not think that would help.
If the Government want to continue to insist that Parliament simply has to vote for whatever deal they come back with at the end of this process—remembering that the only choice we have just now as far as they are concerned is to accept their deal or have no deal at all—it is important that they are a lot more inclusive about who contributes to those negotiations. They have to be prepared to listen much sooner in the process, not only to the Opposition, but to their own Back Benchers. If they had had the humility to do that during the first round of negotiations, we would have got to the stage we reached on Friday a lot sooner and with much less pain and grief.
The time may yet come when I will be prepared to say that there has to be a second referendum on EU membership. I do not rule that out; indeed, I suspect that I am coming closer to that view as each day passes. However, although I fully understand the grief that people are suffering as a result of the vote, I think that when we give people the right to take a decision, we must give them the responsibility to live by its results. I suspect that if we had a second referendum, either during this Parliament or at some other time, we would have a much more constructive and better informed debate than we did last time. I certainly know the result I would hope for if that happened, but—as always— I will accept any result that shows the will of the people.
It is a pleasure to wind up for the Opposition with you in the Chair, Sir David. I join other hon. Members in paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) for how she framed our discussion this afternoon, and I thank her for her informed, thoughtful and entertaining speech.
We in the Labour party campaigned strongly to remain in the European Union. We believed that to be in the best interests of our country economically and politically and the best interests of the continent that we share—and will continue to share—with the other 27 members of the European Union. However, I want to make it clear at the outset that we are not calling for a further referendum, or what might best be described as a third referendum, after the first in 1975 and the second in 2016.
Of the four petitions under our consideration, the one that includes strongest support for such a referendum is the first, which expresses an aspiration to give
“the people of this country the final say on the Brexit deal negotiated by the UK and EU…through a referendum that would take place prior to the April 2019 exit date.”
That wording highlights the difficulties with the aspiration that those who drafted and signed the petition may genuinely and understandably feel. A number of hon. Members have already highlighted the 2016 referendum’s problems, one of which is that it offered a choice between a known and an unknown: we had experience, knowledge and understanding of being a member of the European Union, but leaving was an unknown. That vacuum was seized on by leave campaigners, who painted the situation in all sorts of ways to meet whatever aspirations they felt were held by those who might support them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) and others rightly highlighted issues with the leave campaign, while acknowledging that the remain campaign did not get it right either—both sides have questions to answer about how their campaigns were run. Nevertheless, the basic problem of the choice between a known and an unknown will not have changed before April 2019. The only matters that we will have negotiated over the next 10 months, because they have to be agreed by then, are our departure, the basic agreement for which was settled on Friday; the transitional arrangements, which are critical; and the broad direction of travel for our future relationship. The detail of our understanding of how we will work with the EU27 will not be settled before we depart the European Union in April 2019, so a vote within that timeframe will have many of the same problems as the 2016 vote.
I understand what the hon. Gentleman says, but does he agree that a vote next October, say, would at least have the advantage of taking place against a background of a known settlement deal and a reasonable understanding of the impact on EU and UK citizens? It might still leave a big question mark over the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, and we might still not have a detailed idea of the trade relationship, but in all probability we would have at least a heads of agreement about where the relationship is likely to go. Is that not a lot better than what we had on 23 June last year?
Many of us have described it as a step on the road to what our future relationship might look like, but it is only the first step; the big issues remain unresolved, and will continue to be unresolved by the date that the right hon. Gentleman suggests for another referendum.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will not, actually, because my hon. Friend has had plenty of opportunity to contribute to the debate.
From day one, the Opposition have argued that Parliament should have the final say on our deal before March 2019, and that that should be a meaningful and real decision, with all the choices in front of us.
I have asked the Government to set out their estimated timetable for negotiations and agreements, but so far we have been denied that road map for the decision making. I believe we are in danger of leaving by coincidence, as it were, and it is important that the Government at least provide a timetable of how they think the decision-making process will go ahead.
That might be helpful, but if the Government did provide such a timetable, they would discover that they are already two months behind their first target date.
I understand the frustration of those who call for another referendum. Judging from the comments of leading leave campaigners in the days before the 2016 referendum, we would be facing the same demands from the other side if the remain camp had won by the same margin.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government’s lack of preparation for the result was a dereliction of duty? If they had been more prepared the week after the referendum, that would have speeded things up; at least we would have had some sort of a road map by now. It is the feeling that the process is completely out of control that is so frustrating.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The arrogance and confidence with which the Government approached the referendum campaign was probably what led to the result; it certainly meant that they were not prepared for the outcome.
I also understand the frustration that the promises made by leave campaigners were so quickly disowned after 23 June, whether that was the nonsense about £350 million a week for the NHS or the expectations about migration that were unleashed but that the Government have no intention of delivering in the way that the leave campaign led people to expect. Since Labour’s view was that our membership of the European Union was too complex and far-reaching an issue to be resolved by a simple binary vote, we did not support the call for a referendum at the time of the 2015 election. At least the enthusiasm of the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) for a further referendum matches his enthusiasm for the last.
We have heard some interesting contributions to the debate. The hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) made some thoughtful comments. The hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley) was probably right to say that these debates slip too often into tribalism, although I thought he was edging towards it himself at the end of his contribution. One of the problems with a simple binary vote was that it left the result open to the extreme interpretation, and those on the right of the Conservative party have tried to fill the void. They quickly seized upon the result, describing the decision as the biggest mandate in UK political history, which it was not. The number of people who voted to leave in 2016 was roughly the same as the number who voted yes in 1975—and that was a 67% vote in favour of joining the European Community. However, that did not stop some of the leave campaigners who remained consistent for more than 40 years in seeking to overturn that vote.
At the same time, some of those same people have interpreted the 2016 vote as a mandate for the deepest rupture possible, which it was not. As others have pointed out, it was not a mandate for driving over a cliff edge with no deal, or without a transitional deal on much the same terms that we have now. It was not a vote for leaving all the agencies and partnerships, from Euratom to the European Medicines Agency, and it was not a vote for turning our back on the single market or for walking away from the customs union, regardless of the consequences. It was simply a vote to leave the European Union. It was a close vote—a painfully close vote—but there was a clear decision, and we should be implementing that decision in a way that tries to unite the country and not divide it.
I turn to the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell), because she addressed a central issue. I have been involved in all sorts of campaigns over the years, but one of the worst aspects of the 2016 referendum was just how unpleasant and divisive it was. I did dozens and dozens of meetings in my constituency, trying to make the case for us to remain within the European Union, and I was delighted that my constituents voted—by about 70%—to remain. However, the very last question at the very last meeting that I attended in a local church has stayed with me ever since. Somebody said, “How are you going to put together our broken country after this referendum?”
Another referendum will not tackle that challenge, but frankly nor will the approach of the Prime Minister in allowing the extreme Brexiteers in her party, who are a minority, to set the agenda. To be fair to the Prime Minister, she went to the country in June to seek a mandate for extreme Brexit, but she did not get it. That vote of the people deserves respect, too, but she is pushing on regardless and allowing the internal management of the Conservative party to come before the national interest.
The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) talked about this issue having been a running sore. Others have pointed out that it is not a running sore through the country; it has been a running sore through the Conservative party.
May I intervene on that point?
Yes, I would love the hon. Gentleman to do that.
I pointed out that the 1975 referendum was to deal with the running sore within the Labour party. The Labour party was split at that time, as the hon. Gentleman will know. The fact is that both parties have been divided on this issue, which is actually a reflection of the way that the country is divided on it.
The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the point I was making was about the situation we are facing now, whereby the running sore that has driven the Conservative party to make so many mistakes on the question of the European Union is still there in the way in which we are seeing the Conservatives manage the Brexit process. We saw the landmark speech in Florence, in which the Prime Minister sought to define the way forward for the negotiations by drawing a line and moving forward. Within 24 hours, members of her Cabinet were unpicking it and she responded by back-pedalling.
We saw that again in relation to the settlement on Friday. That was a negotiated settlement, which drew the line under the first three key issues of the negotiations, so that we could move forward as a country. However, within hours members of her own Cabinet were seeking to say, “No, no, it wasn’t quite that.” Even the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union was saying, “Well, that was just a kind of an agreement. We can always change it.” That inability to confront those within her party whose motivation in politics is driven by nothing beyond their hostility to the European Union is now damaging our country and damaging our ability to negotiate a departure from the European Union on terms that could reach out to the 48% as well as to the 52%.
What we need now, though, is not another referendum but a fundamental change of approach by the Government, to recognise what people did vote for on 23 June 2016 and what they did not vote for; to seize the opportunity not to take one side of the argument but to pull the country together. It is a challenge that I regret the Prime Minister has so far shown no sign of rising to. I hope that she might yet prove she is able to rise to that opportunity, and this debate might be a small part of that process, in a way that she has clearly been unable to so far. The interests of the country depend on that.
First, I congratulate the Petitions Committee on arranging this debate and the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) on presenting and sponsoring it. Like her, when I studied these petitions I noted that a wide range of views were reflected in them, but she did an excellent job of reflecting those views in her engaging introduction.
As my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley) described, a veritable smorgasbord of EU referendum-related issues has been put before us. However, the motion largely considers the case for a second referendum, or, indeed, as the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) described it in his usual perceptive way, a third referendum on the deal for the UK’s exit from the European Union.
The Government’s position remains the same. We said at the time of the EU referendum in 2016, which I remind people that Parliament voted to hold, that we would respect the result, and that is what we are doing. The result of the referendum on 23 June 2016 saw a clear majority of people vote to leave the European Union. This Parliament overwhelmingly confirmed that result on 8 February this year, by voting with clear and convincing majorities in both Houses for the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill. The Bill was passed by Parliament on 13 March 2017 and it received Royal Assent from Her Majesty the Queen, becoming an Act of Parliament on 16 March 2017. The UK voted to leave the EU and it is the duty of the Government to deliver on that instruction.
The Minister says that the people voted for Brexit, but the ballot paper had no clear option regarding the single market and the customs union. Will he not accept that the Government have no mandate at all for the kind of extreme Brexit they are pursuing, whereby we would be out of the single market and out of the customs union? That was not on the ballot paper and he cannot claim that it was.
I say to the hon. Lady that we have been very clear that we respect the position of the European Union but the four freedoms are inseparable, and therefore the Prime Minister was clear in her balanced Florence speech that our approach will be to come outside the single market and the customs union, and to negotiate a new relationship with the European Union, which I will come to.
The 2016 referendum was one of the biggest democratic exercises in British history. Turnout was high, at 72%, and more than 33 million people had their say. As my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire made clear, at that time the Government made the implications regarding the decision that people were taking very clear.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton), I campaigned for a different outcome, but I also spoke out repeatedly in this House, both before and during the passage of legislation for a referendum, about trusting people on this matter. As I have emphasised to the House before, and as I think the hon. Member for Sheffield Central made very clear, this was not a decision made after just a few weeks of campaigning, but one that came after a debate that had exercised this House and our country for decades. Indeed, as the hon. Gentleman said, this debate should not be seen as a debate on a second referendum so much as a debate on a third referendum, but each of those previous referendums were billed as the decision for a generation and we should respect that.
Will the Minister give way?
In a moment; I will make a little progress first.
Two of the petitions under discussion suggest that we hold a new referendum on the final deal, with the option of revoking article 50. I stress to the House, as many Ministers have done previously, that the Government are committed to delivering the result of the June 2016 referendum. We have been clear that this is a firm matter of policy; article 50 notification will not be withdrawn.
E-petition 200004 suggests that a second referendum should give voters three options. I think that a number of Members have touched on the risks of that. Such a three-way referendum would almost certainly not deliver a majority for any of the scenarios and I strongly advise against any course of action that would end in considerable constitutional uncertainty. The people of the United Kingdom have already delivered a mandate with a majority, and the Government are committed to deliver on that.
Last September, when a similar petition was brought before this House for debate, it had more than 4 million signatures. Despite that, however, the motion failed to garner a single Member of this House to speak in favour of it during the debate. The hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies) subsequently said to me that he would have been at that debate to speak in favour of it, had not business kept him elsewhere; I think he more than made up for that in his long contribution today.
I will give way to the hon. Member for Swansea West, seeing as I mentioned him.
As I explained at the time—the Minister has probably forgotten—I was in Strasbourg, making a speech on how disastrous Brexit would be. If those people who voted in good faith for Brexit now find that, because of the €40 billion, they have less money, rising inflation, higher costs, lost jobs and lower prospects and therefore change their mind and say, “Look, I was wrong,” should not they have a right to a say on the Brexit deal? Why not—
I should perhaps ask the hon. Gentleman to give way. He is in danger of making another speech. I do not share his pessimism. I believe we can achieve a successful outcome to the process. The premise of his question is, therefore, wrong.
The hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) made an interesting speech. He talked about manifestos and elections. Indeed, it is worth noting that at the general election earlier this year more than 85% of people voted for parties that were committed to respecting the result of the referendum. Both the Labour and the Conservative party manifestos made such a commitment clear. The people have spoken and the Government have made it clear that we have listened. Rather than second-guess the British people’s decision to leave the European Union with a second or third referendum, the challenge now is to make a success of it, and that is how we are approaching the negotiations—anticipating success, not failure
It is vital that we try to reach an agreement that builds a strong relationship between Britain and the EU, as neighbours, allies and partners. I respect the point that the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) made—indeed, it is one I have made in previous debates, including the last time we had one on the referendum—but we need to bring people together through that process, and I believe that the Prime Minister’s speeches in Florence and at Lancaster House set out to do exactly that.
Given that the Minister was a remain supporter, have his reasons for supporting remain, which presumably were about the economy, changed and does he now think that Brexit will be a bonanza for the UK? Given that we will have to pay €40 billion as a down payment for the settlement bill, does he believe that the Government will be in a position to deliver on the genuine issues that were raised by leave supporters with regard to housing, infrastructure, skills, jobs and so on?
I disagree with almost every part of the right hon. Gentleman’s intervention. I believe we will be in a position to deliver more housing. We have already delivered more jobs and we will, I believe, continue to do so. We can make a success of the process. Indeed, I was asked a similar question on local radio over the weekend, and was able to say that as a result of the progress made in recent weeks I am more confident than ever before about the outcome of the process.
I ask the House to consider, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) clearly pointed out, the message that would be sent to the electorate if we failed to respect the outcome of the referendum. It would risk public trust in this institution. As the Prime Minister said recently, this is about more than the decision to leave the EU; it is about whether the public can trust their politicians to put in place the decision they took. The British people can trust this Government to honour the referendum result and to get the best deal possible. We recognise that to do otherwise would be to undermine the decision of the British people, and that would have worrying implications for our democracy.
That does not mean, of course, that the process should be without scrutiny, a great deal of which has been provided by the hon. Lady, so I will give way to her.
The Minister has just said that he changed his mind: he campaigned to remain but he is now convinced that we can make a success of leave. Because he is an MP he can afford to change his mind, but what he is saying means that other people cannot change their minds and should not be given the opportunity to do so and have that reflected in a vote. If this is going to be such a wonderful success—I keep saying this—why not call for a confirmation of the decision? Then we could all be 100% sure, and all those remoaners and reversers will finally have to shut up because people will have confirmed that this is the best thing since sliced bread.
Like a number of Members, I spent a lot of time talking to my constituents about the issues. I respect the decision they took in the referendum, and I want to see that through and deliver for them on this once-in-a-generation opportunity, which Parliament voted to give them, to decide on the matter. The Government are meeting their commitment to engage with Parliament and keep it informed, and to allow for proper scrutiny. The hon. Member for Clwyd South pointed out in her opening speech that the Prime Minister was making a statement in the main Chamber when this debate got under way. I think it is a good thing that that statement went on for two hours, with the Prime Minister directly answering the questions of Members of Parliament, and we will continue to do that in DExEU, through regular statements and Committee appearances, and by timetabling debates in Government time.
Will the Minister give way?
I need to make a little progress. I will give way to the hon. Lady in a moment. As we have said, both House of Parliament will have the opportunity to vote on the final agreement reached with the EU as soon as possible after the deal is agreed, and it will be a vote on whether to accept the deal or move ahead without one. But we have gone further. The withdrawal agreement and implementation Bill will give Parliament further time to debate and scrutinise the final agreement we strike with the EU. Although parliamentary scrutiny is important, I remind the House that those will not be opportunities to reverse the instruction of the people of the United Kingdom. We will be leaving the EU.
Turning to negotiations, we have reached an extremely significant point.
I will give way to the hon. Member for Clwyd South, who moved the motion, but I am afraid that will probably have to be the last intervention.
I credit the Minister with seemingly being one of the few in government who really does not misspeak, and that is rather good. Earlier, he said that article 50 will not be withdrawn, but he did not say that it cannot be revoked. Am I correct in my hearing?
The hon. Lady has, I think, correctly quoted me.
The UK and EU negotiating teams’ joint report published on Friday highlights the progress already made in negotiations in three areas. The first area is a fair deal on citizens’ rights, which allows for UK and EU citizens to get on with their lives broadly as now, in the country in which they live. The hon. Member for Swansea West spoke about swapping elderly Brits for young EU citizens. Quite apart from that playing to a stereotype, which I know many British people who live in EU countries and contribute to the economies of those countries resent, I say to him that it was never the intention of anyone in the process to force people to leave their homes. I am glad that an agreement has been reached to give reassurance to 4 million citizens—both EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU.
The second area is an agreement on the island of Ireland, and the situation in Northern Ireland, about which the hon. Member for Glenrothes spoke passionately. The agreement preserves the territorial integrity of the UK and the progress, peace and stability that has been brought about by the Belfast agreement. The solution will see no hard border, and no physical infrastructure at it. The third area is a financial settlement that honours the commitments we undertook as a member of the EU, as we said we would. It is a fair delivery of our obligations, in the light of the spirit of our future partnership.
On that last point, I would like to take the opportunity to respond specifically to e-petition 187570, which refers to penalty charges. Let me be clear: there is no suggestion that the UK will pay a penalty charge for leaving the EU. Both parties have now agreed a methodology for a fair settlement of the UK’s rights and obligations as a departing member, in accordance with the law and in the spirit of the UK’s continuing partnership with the EU.
The joint report is, overall, an important step forward for both sides and demonstrates the interests we share in managing our exit smoothly, and in moving the negotiations on. Above all, it signals that we now have a common understanding, and it is clear that both sides want to move forward together towards a discussion of our future relationship. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire on engaging with that in his contribution and on showing the approach we can take to making a success of it.
As we approach the December European Council on Thursday, we look forward to progressing the negotiations in the mutual interest of the UK and the EU. Any commitment to a second referendum would actively undermine our negotiating position. As my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight), who is no longer in his place, pointed out in an intervention, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union has noted:
“The consequence of putting a second referendum at the end of the negotiation is to invite every single member of the European Union who does not want us to leave to propose the worst possible deal, in the hope that we will change our mind”.—[Official Report, 24 January 2017; Vol. 620, c. 176.]
We are not going to do that. We will seek the best deal for the UK and we intend to negotiate under the best possible conditions. To do otherwise would be irresponsible in the extreme.
Our position is clear: there will be no second referendum. Our focus should now be on making a success of Brexit and attempting to get the best deal possible, an agreement that is in the interests of the United Kingdom and the European Union and one that takes in both economic and security co-operation. It is the Government’s duty to deliver for this country and reach a desirable final agreement, and we will do just that.
We have had a comprehensive debate, but it will not be the last on the subject. I am sure that it will be raised many more times on the Floor of the House and, probably just as significantly, across our country.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petitions 200004, 187570, 193282 and 200311 relating to a referendum on the deal for the UK’s exit from the European Union.