I beg to move,
That this House has considered the e-petition relating to leaving the European Union.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. On behalf of 110,059 petitioners, I rise to present e-petition 219905, which states:
“If there is no agreement to leave the EU then Brexit must be stopped”.
I apologise to everyone if I need to stop and blow my nose. I am suffering with a cold and a cough but I will do my best to keep going.
It is an interesting time to introduce this debate, days after the Prime Minister made a statement to the House about a proposed withdrawal agreement, with statements from all parties and many individual MPs about whether the agreement would be acceptable, and also with the decision by EU members on ratification to come and so many uncertainties. Perhaps this is a good time to be listening to what our 110,000 petitioners feel.
As I arrived in my office today, news reached me of a walk-out by 200 young people from four schools in Northern Ireland, over what they say is the unwillingness of politicians in Westminster to address young people’s grave concerns about the draft Brexit deal. They are calling for a people’s vote.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech to open the debate. Does she agree that young people feel let down by the Brexit vote and that it is the duty of each of us to fight very hard for the future? Does she also agree that, in particular for people in Northern Ireland, where we only ever hear one side of the debate in the House, it is incumbent on each of us to listen very carefully to those young people in Northern Ireland?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. I certainly agree that we must listen to the voices of young people—I will talk about that in a moment—and that we need to have a full picture.
It is particularly relevant to note the walk-out today because the lead petitioner, Ciaran O’Doherty, is a young man, 15 years of age, who has given a lot of thought to the issue. I have been fortunate to receive a personal email from Ciaran, who lives in Northern Ireland and is very aware of the potential impact of leaving the European Union on his life and that of his family and friends. For him, the debate is not theoretical, but one he feels will have a real impact on his life. Brexit will, of course, affect all our lives, but there is an additional element here, with the focus on the Irish border. It is my job today to present the arguments on behalf of the petitioners and to press the Government on the points that the petition raises.
I would like to deal in turn with each of the matters that the petition raises. First, on deal or no deal, has an agreement been reached with the EU before the deadline for leaving? Then there is the impact of no deal on businesses; the impact of no deal on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland on citizens; and the impact on EU citizens generally. The petitioners go on to say that if no deal has been reached Brexit should be stopped, because of how people, and particularly in Northern Ireland, would be adversely affected. The lead petitioner says that
“leaving with no deal will be very bad for businesses and for the Irish border issue and for EU citizens living here.”
Taking each of the issues in turn, I hope to present the views of the petitioners and seek the Minister’s response.
First, on deal or no deal, has an agreement been reached with the European Union before the deadline for leaving? Do we have a deal or not? The petition is premised on the issue of whether we have a deal and, if so, on whether it addresses the concerns in the petition, particularly those relating to Northern Ireland. Over the next days and weeks there will be much debate in the House and elsewhere about whether the deal set out in the Prime Minister’s statement last Thursday and the provisions in the documents can be agreed. Judging from the long and heated questions following that statement, it appears unlikely that the current proposed withdrawal agreement will be accepted. For Labour, my party, it is clear that the deal fails to meet the six tests we have set out to protect, among other things, the economy, jobs and workers’ rights. Other parties and other Members have their own reasons for finding the deal unacceptable.
The question of the Northern Ireland border is key to the debate, and from where we stand now, it seems highly unlikely that when it comes to the vote in December the agreement will be approved—but, as they say, a week can be a long time in politics. I cannot read the minds of the petitioners, but I wonder whether their concerns for business, for peace in Northern Ireland and for European citizens living in the UK mean that many of them would find the proposed deal acceptable. What is absolutely clear is that they believe that no deal is such a concern that, in the event of that and of their concerns not being met, Brexit must be stopped.
On the impact of no deal on businesses, the petitioners are concerned about how leaving without a deal will affect business in the UK. Many businesses have expressed concern about the uncertainty about arrangements post-Brexit and also about what will happen if we leave the European Union without a deal. There are fears about disruption to just-in-time production methods hampering productivity, fears about transporting goods across borders and backlogs at customs controls, and fears about World Trade Organisation tariffs making businesses less competitive. Those are genuine concerns for many businesses and, of course, it is businesses that create and maintain jobs. The Government say that they are working hard to prepare for a no-deal scenario, but few people think that with less than five months to go before we leave the European Union all those issues can be properly addressed. The petitioners believe that if we face no deal we must stop Brexit.
Turning to the impact of no deal on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, it will be important to address businesses’ fear that no deal would result in a hard border, which could affect Northern Ireland’s future prosperity badly. Northern Ireland’s economy does not stop at the border and neither do the communities on the island. Any barriers may mean the disruption of trade, but they also mean disruption to how people have lived for generations, with families, and in some cases even houses, straddling the border. There is much talk of a technical solution to the customs issues, but does one really exist or are those just fine words that butter none of the metaphorical parsnips? Why is it that no other country in the world uses such technological workarounds, if they really exist and are fit for use? Most important of all is the concern of the lead petitioner and, I am sure, many of the petitioners, about what a hard border might mean for political stability and peace. It took a long time to get to the Good Friday agreement and to where we are today.
Ciaran tells me that he is not old enough to remember the troubles but that his parents do. He and they fear that leaving the EU without a deal will introduce a hard border and be a backward step if we wish to ensure that all people in Northern Ireland are able to live together peacefully. That is not just a concern of Ciaran’s; the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland recently expressed his concerns about the impact of a hard border. For Ciaran and other young people, who thankfully do not remember those earlier times, this must be a real worry and we owe it to them to settle the issue in a thoughtful way that does not put at risk the relative peace and stability of Northern Ireland and does not start to re-erect barriers—real or virtual—that could hamper that.
The petitioners are concerned about the impact of a no-deal Brexit on EU citizens already in the UK. EU citizens are a large part of our workforce in some sectors, and do a great job, whether in agriculture, health, social care or elsewhere. Many European Union citizens have already left the UK, fearing that they will be in a worse position if they stay here.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I do not have that detailed knowledge, but I am aware from talking to people who work in the NHS that there is a great deal of concern about that situation.
Many European Union citizens have left the UK, and it cannot be right for them to be so worried that they will be unwelcome that they leave, rather than risk staying. The Government have said that European Union citizens living lawfully in the UK today will be able to stay, but they will need to register for settled status under a new scheme, which is not yet up and running. That is not what those people signed up for, and they are understandably worried about a new regulatory framework replacing what was free movement between the UK and other European Union countries. Of course, that works both ways.
I do not speak as a technical expert on the mechanics of Brexit, and I do not suppose that Ciaran is a technical expert either. However, he and over 110,000 petitioners—a number that was still growing as of yesterday evening—say that they have huge concerns about the impact of Brexit on the areas I have mentioned, and that if there is no deal, or a deal that cannot deliver assurances on all of those issues, Brexit should be stopped.
My hon. Friend mentioned technical experts on Brexit. If the past two and a half years have proven anything, it is that what technical experts on Brexit think does not mean very much. Does my hon. Friend mean that it is now absolutely imperative that, one way or another, the people of our country decide what happens next?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. Certainly, the demonstration that took place in Northern Ireland expressed young people’s concern that there should be a chance for them to have their say, although I do not know Ciaran’s views on that.
Other people will have their own red lines on what must or must not be included in the agreement, but for the petitioners, the red lines are those I have talked about. Because the petition is an e-petition, the Government have already responded to it, and I am sure we will hear more from the Minister. The Government said:
“We are leaving the EU. That’s what the British public voted for and that is what we will deliver.”
My hon. Friend is doing a brilliant job of explaining the petition in layman’s terms, but does she accept that it is a rather binary choice? “If there is no agreement, then Brexit should be stopped” puts things in rather stark terms? We know that there is an outline agreement, but we do not know that there is going to be agreement about it in this House. There is a third way, which is to give the good old general British public a people’s vote on whether the deal is acceptable or whether we should remain.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention, which I think covers a point that we looked at before. Certainly, the petitioners say that they have real concerns and that there should be a provision to stop Brexit. I am summarising what the Government have said, and I am sure that the Minister will address more fully some of the points that have been made.
The Government say:
“We have already carried out very significant ‘no deal’ preparations and have been publishing a series of notices so that businesses and citizens have time to prepare.”
They say that their objectives are
“to minimise disruption and to prioritise continuity and stability, including for businesses…as well as for EU citizens”.
“continue working closely with industries that are most affected by ‘no deal’ plans and implementation”
“continue to apply highly automated, risk based and intelligence targeted customs controls when the UK leaves the EU.”
The Government say that the Prime Minister gave a “clear commitment” to EU citizens when she said:
“I couldn’t be clearer: EU citizens living lawfully in the UK today will be able to stay.”
Notwithstanding those confident assurances, I suspect that the petitioners will not feel confident that their concerns will be addressed sufficiently. I have no doubt that they would wish me to press the Minister on their behalf to fully address their concerns today, and recognise the fears that they have for the future.
Bearing in mind what has happened with the Home Office over the Windrush scandal, many constituents who are EU citizens have come to me, saying that they are very concerned about how the new scheme might operate. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the Home Office is neither resourced nor ready to deal with all of the settled status applications?
I do indeed share my hon. Friend’s concerns, especially as in preparation for this speech, I looked on the website to see the proposals. It all looked fine until I came to the bits that said, “More information will be posted.” We are getting very near, and for those who are in the position of having to apply, it must be a real concern that the full information is not yet available and the process has not begun.
The petitioners have raised their concerns, and the petition continues to attract signatures even as we speak. Those concerns are “deal or no deal”; whether an agreement with the EU has been reached before the deadline; the impact of no deal on businesses; the impact of no deal on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and what that means for citizens; and the impact on EU citizens. As I have said, the petitioners say that if no deal has been reached, and their concerns have not been properly dealt with and safeguards have not been given, Brexit should be stopped. I have not gone into the technicalities of what constitutes a deal, how it is reached, meaningful votes, or whatever. My job today has been to give the petitioners a voice on the very real issues that concern them, and I hope that I have done so. I have therefore moved e-petition 219905 on behalf of Ciaran and over 110,000 petitioners, which states:
“If there is no agreement to leave the EU then Brexit must be stopped.”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. Needless to say, I am opposed to remaining in the European Union, and Brexit must not be stopped. A huge majority of my colleagues—544 MPs—voted in favour of the European Union Referendum Bill, 17.4 million people voted to leave the EU, 494 MPs voted to trigger article 50, and 60% of my constituents voted to leave.
There can be no doubt that the British people and their representatives in the House of Commons think that Brexit should go ahead. We made a promise; now let us stick to that promise. The referendum question said nothing about the possibility that we would have a so-called people’s vote. The referendum on 23 June 2016 was the people’s vote: it gave the British people the opportunity finally to have a say on our future relationship with the EU. The people spoke, and we have to listen. The referendum question said:
“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”
That language was approved by the independent Electoral Commission. The question was clear, and the people voted to leave the European Union by a sizeable margin.
The risk to the UK’s trade after Brexit has been much exaggerated, much as the immediate aftermath of a leave vote was exaggerated by Government and business. The British people were promised rapidly rising unemployment, an emergency Budget, and untold horrors by those who supported remain in 2016.
Sorry, but I will carry on. The reality has been quite different, with a thriving economy, the fastest wage growth in a decade, record low unemployment and record high job vacancies. Why on earth would the British people believe “Project Fear 2”, which has been rolled out by those who seek to undermine the will of the British people? No agreement with Europe will not mean an end to trade; that is a simply ridiculous argument. In 1980, the EU’s share of world GDP was about 30%. In 2017, it was about 16%, and by 2022, it is expected to fall further to 15%.
I apologise, Sir Roger.
If we were to go on to World Trade Organisation rules when we leave, we would be trading under the same terms as the USA already does with us. Tariffs would average only 3%. Some tariffs on exports would be higher, but some goods would still be exempt completely. The WTO has about 160 members, accounting for 90% of world trade. We would still trade regardless of whether we leave the EU on WTO rules or with a trade agreement. We are the world’s fifth largest economy. We are one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. We have the best universities in the world and the most resourceful and amazing people. The UK will always succeed. I am confident we will prosper.
I am carrying on. The biggest benefit to us leaving on WTO rules is our freedom to sign our own free trade deals with the rest of the world, such as with the world’s largest economy—the USA—and with the economic powerhouses of tomorrow, such as India. It has the added benefit of meaning we would also keep the £39 billion.
On a point of order, Sir Roger, can you give us some guidance? It would be really helpful for Members to know whether the hon. Lady has written a letter to the chair of the 1922 committee calling on the Prime Minister to go, but she will not take any interventions. Can you help us try to determine the answer to that question?
Thank you, Sir Roger. Under WTO rules, we will be in control of our own destiny and we will be able to deliver on the Prime Minister’s promise to be a free trade champion and to be a truly global Britain, unlike under the PM’s current deal.
As a Conservative, I believe in the benefits of free trade. I want to see free trade with the rest of the continent that is as liberal as possible, but that cannot come at the expense of breaking the promise made to the British people at the referendum, or by my party or Her Majesty’s Opposition in our manifestos. Trust in Parliament and politicians is essential for a strong democracy. Across the west, we have seen declining levels of public trust in politicians and political institutions. The level of mistrust and scepticism has increased and I have grave concerns that if we do not deliver—if Brexit is stopped—that trust will erode further.
In November 2017, Ipsos MORI undertook a poll of trust in professions. Public trust in politicians was only 17%, which is truly damning. To put that into context, nurses were trusted by 94% of people. The ordinary man in the street was trusted by 64%. Bankers were trusted by 38% and professional footballers were trusted by 26%. We need to reverse that shocking trend and stopping Brexit will certainly not do that—quite the opposite. Some 70% of Conservative seats and 61% of Labour constituencies voted to leave the EU and they will not trust us again if we remain in the European Union.
It is also important to note that there is not and never was an option to keep the status quo. The EU is a project that supports deeper integration, and it is not clear on what terms Britain’s membership would be, even if the anti-democratic “stop Brexit” campaigners got their way. For example, would the UK remain an EU member state on its existing terms with opt-ins, opt-outs, a budget rebate and so on? If the UK were to remain, it has been suggested that we could end up paying more money to the EU budget. One of the pledges of the referendum was to take back control of our money. Those suggesting that Brexit should be stopped are essentially suggesting that they would be willing to pay more in and get less back. Good luck to them in selling that to their constituents. Our hard-fought rebate was a famous victory for Margaret Thatcher; Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair gave away a large chunk of the rebate for nothing. To remain in the EU following the largest democratic decision in our nation’s history would be an outrage, but to pay more into the EU’s budget for the pleasure would be a catastrophe.
Not everyone here today will agree on whether our relationship with the EU is positive or negative, but we should all be able to agree that we are united under our democratic ideals and our British principle of fair play. Referendums are extremely rare under our constitution and even if they are not necessarily constitutionally binding, it would be unthinkable for the UK Parliament to overrule a referendum. I sincerely hope that that never happens, and I would always oppose such a move.
If the Opposition parties had won the 2011 referendum on our voting system or the 2014 referendum on Scotland’s independence, how would they and their supporters have felt if Parliament had rejected or overturned the result? That is the situation that this petition supports. It is wrong and simply un-British.
SNP Members are particularly keen to overturn the referendum result, and I suggest they be cautious about setting that dangerous precedent. Their sole purpose is independence for Scotland; I do not support that, nor does Scotland, but nevertheless let us imagine Parliament overturning a yes vote. That would simply be wrong. We are leaving the EU. It is what the British public voted for and what we must deliver. If we do not, more is at stake than simply keeping the status quo; we will erode trust in our democracy.
The petition, signed by more than 100,000 people, states that if the Government fail to reach an agreement with the EU by the deadline, Brexit should be stopped. After last week’s chaos, who can blame those who signed it? Tory infighting is usually something I would welcome, because it is fun to watch blue on blue, but Brexit transcends party politics. We have 130 days left before we crash out of the EU, and we do not know what we are going to do. In responding to the petition, it is time that we ditched our divisions and looked at the facts, because they are shocking. We have no majority for the Northern Ireland backstop, no majority for a deal that makes us a rule-taker, and no majority for a withdrawal agreement that leaves 3 million EU citizens facing unacceptable limbo.
At the heart of my support for the petition is the case of EU nationals. Some 22,000 EU nationals live in Hampstead and Kilburn, and it is in defence of their rights that I rise to speak. These are not people who have the right to vote for me. This is not about politics; it is about the fact that they have lived in the community for years and years. This is their home. They make an unquantifiable contribution to our community, our NHS, our businesses and our creative sectors.
I agree, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I will read a few of the words that the Prime Minister has said about the EU nationals living here. I repeat that 22,000 EU nationals live in Hampstead and Kilburn. The Prime Minister has repeatedly told the House and Members that even in the case of no deal, EU citizens will have their rights protected. However, to choose just one example, on page 28 of the agreement, article 15(3) states that the right of permanent residence can be lost if family or work obligations mean that someone has to leave the country for five years. As the3million says, EU citizens living in the UK will soon have to pay to apply to stay in their home, and will have to undergo systematic criminality checks.
I agree that that is absolutely ridiculous. It also goes against all our British values of welcoming people.
In the Prime Minister’s CBI speech, EU migrants were told that they would lose their place in the queue for employment opportunities. We are at a pivotal point in our history. Do we want to become a Trumpian society in which we demonise migrants and do not make them feel welcome? Or do we want to go back to the British values of welcoming people to this country, as refugees or migrants, because of the contribution that they make to our country? Does what the Prime Minister has outlined sound like the protection of existing rights? My residents in Hampstead and Kilburn do not think so. I will illustrate my point with the example of two of the 22,000 EU nationals living there.
Sarit from Hampstead town is an EU doctor. In a year, he does 2,000 NHS surgeries. He said that Brexit is a threat to his work in the UK. I went through a very difficult childbirth two years ago on the NHS, and every single doctor, nurse and midwife who treated me was from the EU. There has been a 96% drop in the number of EU nurses applying to work in our NHS. Georgia, a Cypriot constituent, has lived in my constituency since 2003. She wrote to me of her fears about the new reticence of firms in Canary Wharf to hire EEA citizens.
The official Vote Leave statement said on 1 June 2016:
“There will be no change for EU citizens already lawfully resident”.
“will be treated no less favourably than they are at present”.
With that clearly no longer the case, we can add the betrayal of EU citizens’ rights to the long list of betrayals that have led to an undeniable shift in public opinion.
Hon. Friends have mentioned the people’s vote. A Sky News poll on 15 November asked whether voters would support or oppose a referendum to choose between the draft Brexit deal, no deal, or remain, and 55% were in support of a people’s vote. In a YouGov poll, 59% of respondents said that they now support a people’s vote. The change in opinion is clear, and as parliamentarians we have a duty to act on that change, and on the failure to achieve a deal.
The hon. Lady referred to the withdrawal agreement. Does she accept the opinion of Unionists that no Unionist can support a plan that gives Brussels more say than the UK Parliament over trade and rules in Northern Ireland? How can anyone in this House support a plan that draws a regulatory border down the Irish sea, and support the withdrawal agreement? Does she feel our angst and our annoyance at what is happening?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Perhaps the Minister can answer that question, as well as my long list of questions. Have the promises of Vote Leave materialised? If not, should not the public be given another say on the deal that is reached? Does the draft deal stand a chance of passing through the Commons, in the light of dissent from across the House? If not, should not the public be given another say on the deal that is reached?
My hon. Friend is making a convincing case for people having changed their minds. Two years ago, the Conservative party chose a leader, yet some people in that party now want to choose another leader. They do not want that leader set in stone for two years. To draw a parallel, people have changed their minds on this subject. There should be an opportunity to see whether the will of the people is still the will of the people.
I agree with my hon. Friend. I hope that the leader goes on another holiday, so that we have an opportunity to choose another leader for the country.
Does the Minister believe that a no-deal scenario, with all the chaos that it will cause, is a viable path for our country? If not, should not the public be given a say on the deal that cannot be reached? It has for some time been clear to me, and thousands in my constituency, that the Government do not have the answers, so ultimately the people should be given the opportunity to vote again.
Given that voters found out only last Wednesday what they apparently voted for in 2016, the only proper democratic course of action is to put the Prime Minister’s proposal to the public by way of a people’s vote, and to see whether they want to accept that or remain in the EU. Does my hon. Friend agree?
When we went to the ballot box on that fateful June day, there was only one question on the ballot paper: “Do you want to leave the European Union or not?” All those people arguing that it became a proxy vote on immigration—I agree that it was—and about all the other associations with the vote should remember that. It was not a sensible way to run a referendum that I did not agree with in the first place.
History will probably show that we did not always get it right. I am not resistant to change. It is because I respect democracy that I think we need a people’s vote. I respect people’s opinions and the right to change one’s mind once a decision has been taken. Democracy in the UK did not begin and end with the referendum in 2016, and it certainly does not end after two years of shoddy negotiations by the Government, after which we do not know what will happen in 130 days. Given the Government’s failure to bring home a deal that can command widespread support in the House, it is high time that we parliamentarians trusted the British public to have their say and vote again.
I must start by saying to the hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns) that people often do not trust politicians because they fail to answer questions, or, in her case, fail to accept the question posed in the first place. It would have been helpful if she had answered some of the questions when people sought to intervene. If she wants to intervene on me, I am very happy to give way to her or anyone else during the debate. Perhaps she did not want to take any interventions because she felt her arguments were rather weak.
The past week has been an absolute shambles. Anyone —in the United Kingdom or elsewhere—who looked at our Government and what they are doing with Brexit could not think anything but that this is a most depressing spectacle of a Government completely out of control destroying the best interests of the United Kingdom. What is happening is nothing to do with national interest, but everything to do with the Tory party interest. Who will be the next leader? What particular version of Brexit will be delivered by the Government?
Earlier there was an exchange about whether the country knew what it was voting for two and a half years ago. Clearly, it cannot have done. The Prime Minister has set out her deal, which has promptly been rubbished by a large number of her own MPs who think a different deal is what people wanted. The public are justified in not knowing what was offered to them two and a half years ago, because the Tory party does not know now what should be offered to the people.
I will not give the time of day to the bluffers in that party who believe that no deal is manageable. Some actually believe that. The Government have done a good job of setting out precisely what the impact of no deal would be, but some say, “Well, it would lead to a few transitional problems”. I suspect those people are sitting on family fortunes large enough not to be disturbed by the slight transitional problems that might occur if a no deal is what happens. Although the Prime Minister said she would not, I think Ministers should make some contingency plans for what happens if there is no Brexit. I hope that that is where we end up.
The opening speech and later contributions have set out the impact of no deal on EU citizens in the UK who are already demoralised and disturbed by what is happening about their futures here. Also, UK citizens in the EU are all too often completely forgotten in this process. I am getting reports from places such as France where UK citizens who have been long-term residents are being asked to go to a place many miles away from where they live to fill in forms that they have not had to fill in before, and they are very worried. Sometimes they are very elderly, and they do not know what is happening. If they have read some of the laws being prepared for the French Senate, they should be worried. They should also be worried about what French employers are being told about what they have to do to prepare for no deal and the checks that they might have to carry out on UK citizens. We seem to have completely neglected the interests of those citizens in this process.
Those who are arguing that no deal is manageable clearly have not spent much time with many businesses. Everyone I talk to, whether in the haulage industry, the pharmaceutical sector, universities or the NHS, is very concerned by the suggestion that no deal is a possibility. Some have already made costly investments to try to cope with it, such as ensuring that they have cold storage available for medicines. Some have made the preparations. The largest companies could probably cope with no deal, but smaller ones would not be able to. Many companies that operate with small margins will probably go to the wall if they suddenly find that the relationship that they had with a supplier in the EU no longer functions as a result of there being no deal. If we end up in a no-deal scenario, people such as the Minister and the Brexiters will have to explain to those companies why they have been put out of business.
I welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Morley and Outwood is at least here. At least she has had the nerve to come and attempt to defend the policy that she supported. Where are the others? Where are those who have been so prominent in saying that this is a brilliant deal for the UK that will deliver fantastic benefits in terms of trade deals and so on? Incidentally, I have found it hard to identify any company that thinks that there will be a huge trade deal out there for them. Companies that already export very successfully around the world are saying to me, “I’m not quite sure what this trade deal will give me that I don’t already have, because I’m already trading successfully around the world. I worry that the very successful trade that I do with the EU will be damaged as a result of what the Government are doing.”
We need to establish whether the article 50 process can be stopped. There is no point in trying to cancel the process before 29 March, as the petition suggests, if that is not possible. That is why the Wightman case, which seeks to establish whether article 50 can be revoked, and with which I am peripherally involved, is critical. The Government have said, “It’s a hypothetical question. We’re not going to revoke article 50, therefore we’re not going to tell you what our legal advice on the subject is.” I think that Members are entitled to know whether article 50 can be revoked. If we get to 29 March 2019 without a deal, I suspect that everyone in the Chamber will want to know the answer to that question. Ministers will no longer be able to hide behind the words: “It’s a hypothetical question. You’re not entitled to know the answer.”
Absolutely. The Government do not want us to go to the ECJ to get clarification. Regrettably, they are keen to block such action so that we cannot know the answer. The Government have five QCs working on the case, including the top two QCs in the country. I would like to see the bill that the Government will get for trying to hide from Members of Parliament whether article 50 is revocable, because that is what they are trying to do. I think that is incredibly reprehensible.
Lib Dem party policy is that if we reach 29 March without a deal we will seek to revoke article 50 unilaterally. The Government have set out the consequences of no deal in the technical notes, and those consequences are so dire that we need to have such a stop gap to prevent us from falling over the cliff. I am afraid I must briefly touch on Labour party policy. It seems to me that the Labour party has more obstacles than the grand national that have to be crossed or cleared before it will come out formally to support a people’s vote. I know some in the Chamber on the Labour Benches will not support one, but others have already stated their support.
We need to hear from the Labour Front-Bench spokesperson today whether the Labour party will support a people’s vote, because we will quickly get to the vote on the deal. If the Government dare to introduce the motion that was so soundly rubbished by people such as the hon. Member for Morley and Outwood, there will be an amendment calling for a people’s vote. Then the Labour party, which has been playing a little dance—more dances than “Strictly”—will have to come clean to the public, its own Members of Parliament, its own supporters and the large number of people who have joined the party in recent years about whether it will support a people’s vote or will, in fact, aid and abet the Government in crashing us out of the European Union.
I assure the hon. Lady that we will certainly not split three ways. One Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament has some reservations, but I am confident that between now and the vote he will have changed his position, and will fall in line with the position that the party has overwhelmingly adopted.
No—that is potentially two ways, but I am confident that we will all be going through the same Division Lobby for this vote. I hope that the Leader of the Labour party will join us. We know that we will end up with either the Government’s deal or no deal if the Labour Front-Bench team does not support a people’s vote. I hope that they will.
The idea that there will be a general election is one of the obstacles that the Labour party has put in the way of supporting a people’s vote. The only circumstances in which a general election would happen would be, first, if the Prime Minister said, “I want a general election.” We all remember what happened the last time she decided to call one—it did not go very well, so it is unlikely that she will do that.
The other circumstance would be if there were a vote of no confidence, which would probably require the Government’s friends from the Democratic Unionist party to support it. The DUP would be looking at the Leader of the Labour party potentially becoming the Prime Minister. I suspect that the DUP would not want to facilitate that. If the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) wants to intervene and confirm that they would support a vote of no confidence, this is his moment. He is sitting on his backside, and clearly does not want to confirm that this afternoon.
Clearly there are almost as many Tory party policies on where the Government should be going as there are Back Benchers. I do not know whether Tory Back Benchers have an official position on whether they would seek to revoke article 50 if we reached 29 March without a deal, or whether they are happy for us to go over the cliff. I guess we will have to wait and see. One clear element of Tory policy is to blame everyone but them for the debacle unravelling in front of us.
A procession of very senior ex-Ministers has appeared on television in the last couple of months. One such ex-Minister said, “I’m our man in Washington and I’ll be able to secure a free trade deal with the US in three months.” The same person spent two years trying to negotiate the deal with the European Union and had to walk away. The outgoing Secretary of State for the Department for Exiting the European Union is also seeking to blame the Europeans for bullying the Government. I recall that he was one of a number who said that Brexit would be simple and straightforward, that the EU would give us everything that we wanted, and that it would all be done almost overnight. The reality is that he has failed. There was never any chance that the sort of Brexit that he and some other prominent Brexiters claimed was deliverable would be delivered for the United Kingdom.
The right hon. Gentleman always gives way, even though we hold practically opposite opinions. What has made the difference is the backstop down the Irish sea, which is why the former Brexit Secretary took the principled decision to resign his position, as others have done. It makes the whole withdrawal agreement more unacceptable. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that from where we stand as Unionists, things have moved beyond the pale, so we will have to make our decisions accordingly whenever a withdrawal agreement comes before the House?
Clearly, and rightly, the hon. Gentleman will take the decision that his party feels is appropriate, although I am sure he will also want to bear it in mind that Northern Ireland voted to stay in the European Union. I hope he will factor that into his considerations.
Northern Ireland is only part of the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, along with Scotland, Wales and the rest. The decision was made collectively. For the record, my constituency voted by 56% to 44% to leave. I understand that across Northern Ireland the majority opinion was different, but throughout the whole United Kingdom the vote was clear. We all want to leave and we will leave it together, not in parts.
I was not suggesting that the hon. Gentleman’s constituency had voted to remain, but I am pleased that he acknowledges that the overall picture in Northern Ireland is that people voted to remain in the European Union. What he says confirms something that some people realised at the outset, two and a half years ago, which is that frankly there was no solution to the Northern Ireland border problem. Some of those who claimed wrongly that there was a solution were former Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland, who should have understood the import of it and known better. I do not think that there is any mileage in the technical solutions that are being proposed. Yes, technical solutions can be part of the answer, but it is not clear to me how we can find a technical solution to any checks that will have to happen, particularly occasional checks of the contents of vehicles.
Last week, the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs heard expert opinions from representatives from Holland and Switzerland about how the technological method would work. May I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman reads the transcript of the evidence from those two experts, which will give him an indication of exactly how it will work?
I am sure that the credentials of the hon. Gentleman’s experts are sound, but at an event yesterday I sat next to a businessman who trades all over the European Union. He pointed out how much more difficult it is to trade with Switzerland: it required HMRC to come into his business to check the validity of the paperwork for a £1,400 order. Differences clearly exist between the trading models that apply around the European Union, so it is not enough simply to say we should adopt the approach or the technology of Switzerland, where I understand that checks are still conducted not at the border, but some distance away.
I really should conclude my speech. If we get to 29 March without a deal, I think our stopgap should be to revoke article 50. I hope that the European Court of Justice will confirm that that can be done. If we do not revoke article 50, every single Member of Parliament who advocated that no deal was manageable will have to face their constituents on 30 March and every single day afterwards to explain why there is a shortage of medicines in the NHS and of food on the shelves at Sainsbury’s, and why a process that it was claimed would be simple, straightforward and manageable was nothing of the sort.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and to speak in this debate.
When is a deal not a deal? When is an agreement just a draft agreement? Here we are, two years after triggering article 50, and Parliament now has before it a document of 500-plus pages that sets out how we will go about leaving the European Union, and a seven-page political declaration about our future beyond that point. It is almost as if we had a technical drawing of the taxi that we will get there in—it might have only three wheels and some of us might not be able to get out at the end, but we will still enjoy ourselves—and only a bland sketch on the back of a napkin of what it will look like where we are going.
That is the context of the petition before us today, which I support and which has been signed by 206 of my constituents. Is it a cry for help—a cry for sense? In the referendum, East Lothian voted by 64.6% to 34.4% to remain in the European Union. That overwhelming majority was reflected across the whole of Scotland. I grant that it was not the view of the whole United Kingdom, but people are very worried about a no-deal Brexit, which is a distinct possibility threatening us if the Prime Minister is unable to get her deal through Parliament in a meaningful vote.
The petition realistically encapsulates the political stalemate between our political Executive and the legislature. Ministers have spent the weekend pushing the idea that this deal is better than no deal. That is a false dichotomy. I remember a time when no deal was better than a bad deal. Hope and expectation rather than cold facts have driven decision makers into this position. At what stage should we hold to account those who promised that such a utopia was down the road, but instead delivered a dog’s dinner—or a dog’s Brexit-fast? It is nonsense to suggest that a democratic decision is binding for ever. People are entitled to change their mind when they find out the facts and when democratic legitimacy is questioned. If no democratic decision could be revisited, Parliament as an institution would be defunct.
It is interesting that as more and more facts become apparent, people’s confidence in politicians seems to be attacked again and again. We seem to fail not only to recognise what has happened in the past, but to offer any way out. What is required is to recover that trust by looking into our constituents’ eyes and saying, “We can sort it.” Whether we leave with a deal or no deal, it is a betrayal of our young people, our communities, our farmers, manufacturers and industry, and our working people. It is a betrayal of people young and old in my constituency of East Lothian.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the timber industries—I refer to my registered interests—I am seriously concerned about the impact of no deal on the timber sector. Last week, I had the privilege of meeting representatives from the Irish timber industry, who spoke about the chaos that could come their way in a no-deal Brexit. They also spoke about the strength of an industry that, over its time in Europe, has created a way of dealing and doing business that means that a piece of wood purchased in B&Q may have started life in the Republic of Ireland, been felled and cut in Northern Ireland, and been transported across the border to be ready in the shop for the purchaser. The additional logistical costs to timber importers will affect not only small businesses across the supply chain, but the wider construction industry, which will play havoc with the Government’s timid housing proposals.
Such worries are spread across every industry. There is a disconcerting sense that the Government believe that they have reached a good deal because they have a seven-page document about the future, but it offers no more certainty or security than a catastrophic no-deal scenario. Neither option provides the certainty or security that my constituents demand, but there is another answer. I believe that, if asked, the people of East Lothian would vote as they did last time—to stay in Europe—but this time it would be a vote for no Brexit.
Let me flesh out my concerns about the no-deal Brexit that will happen if, as expected, the political impasse between the Prime Minister and Parliament cannot be broken. Each impact of leaving without a deal is far worse than not leaving at all—the very essence of the young gentleman’s petition. A no-deal Brexit would put us on WTO terms, which would introduce tariffs and strict standards, potentially blocking businesses from trading across the whole of Europe. We should not leave the EU for that. We would lose frictionless border crossing by people and equipment, and we would lose on-time delivery for manufacturing. We should not leave the EU for that. A no-deal Brexit would threaten the valued rights and protections of workers across Britain. We should not leave the EU for that. It would hamper and harm our environment. We should not leave the EU for that. A no-deal Brexit would put the Union at risk. We should not leave the EU for that.
I thank the Petitions Committee for bringing forward this debate and allowing us to consider, with only months to go, what the impact of a no-deal Brexit would be on this country. I have to admit that, in eight years in Parliament, I have never been more worried—not just about the potential impact on this country, but about the state of British politics and our apparent inability to listen to one another, to work constructively together and to find a way out of this mess.
Although I understand the passion and sincerity with which people have conducted themselves, this debate has drawn attention to many of the reasons why we are unable to find a way through this mess: entrenched positions, more talking than listening, and the repeated use by a number of people of the word “betrayal”, which only a few years ago was reserved for people on the far right but now seems to be part of our modern lexicon, with hugely damaging results. Our political debate has become angry, divisive and violent at the exact time that we should be taking a lead in trying to calm this down.
It is in that spirit that I congratulate the young man, Ciaran O’Doherty, for the way he has put together and presented this petition, because the real human implications of what we potentially are about to do to people like him must be heard and considered by all of us. Should Parliament not reach agreement either on this withdrawal agreement or on an alternative course of action in a few months’ time, and if the Government do not sit up, listen and take action, we will leave without a deal. I share the view of many colleagues who have spoken today: that would be an absolute disaster for this country.
I am really concerned to hear—from Opposition Members as well as Government Members—the idea that a no-deal Brexit is a political hoax. I share the view of the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) that many of the people who are pushing the idea that no deal would not be a problem or that, somehow, it cannot happen are incredibly protected from the impact of those decisions. They are wealthier and more privileged, have more access to power in all its forms, and have options for what they and their families do next. I want to put on record that for the vast majority of people whom I represent, the situation is much more terrifying than that. For all the anger and bluster in Parliament, the thing I hear most from my constituents as we approach the deadline in March 2019 is genuine anxiety about what will happen to them, their jobs and their children’s future.
As this debate becomes angrier and angrier as we get closer to the deadline, and as we continue to talk past one another and to lecture one another about what is in the moral interest of this country, I say to colleagues who make a very passionate case for a second referendum that my in-box in Wigan is filling up with messages from people who tell me that they voted leave, that they want the result to be respected, and they now want no deal at all with the European Union. That is a much stronger assertion even than just a few months ago, when it felt like the debate was starting to calm down. The debate has become angrier, and those people have decided that they want to raise their voices loudly at this time and set us on a disastrous course for them, their families and my community, because they feel that that small bit of control that they exerted two and half years ago is in danger of being taken away.
To my colleagues who sincerely and passionately make the case for a second referendum, I say that that is only part of the solution. If they genuinely want to heal the divisions in this country and provide a sustainable future, this cannot be a tug of war between two groups of people who cannot co-exist. Democracy is not the tyranny of the majority; the 48% and the 52% must be heard. This is their country, and the future must belong to both groups.
I wonder whether the hon. Lady welcomes the fact that those people involved in the people’s vote campaign, which includes Members from all political parties apart from the DUP, are actively working to draw up an offer that would address the legitimate concerns that leave voters had? Should we get into a people’s vote campaign, we can then say that these are the things that we would do to address some of the key concerns that people who voted leave had—it would not address all concerns—about things such as investment in infrastructure, skills, training and quality jobs.
Having had some quite tough words for people making that case, it is right to acknowledge how positive that contribution is and how important that work is. I gently say to the right hon. Gentleman that if the starting point for a campaign is that “you are wrong, and we are right”, it is very unlikely to get a hearing. I can see some hon. Members shaking their head, and I accept that there are different nuances to that campaign. I accept that there are activists and spokespeople for the campaign who do not take that approach, but some of the right hon. Gentleman’s leading advocates and spokespeople take that exact approach and have spent two and half years telling 52% of the country that they have betrayed a generation and that they are wrong.
It is with sadness rather than anger that I say that it is not going to work. It will not provide a sustainable future for this country, just as the words of the hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns) do not provide any comfort or reassurance to the 48% of people, including a number of her own constituents, who voted remain and who feel passionately that the future is being taken away from them and their children.
I want to turn my attention to a no-deal outcome, because it is increasingly likely that that will be the default option as we approach March 2019 and as we prove unable to agree on an alternative course of action. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) on the impact that this would have, and I agree with the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) as well. The businesses in my constituency that will be most affected by this, by tariffs and by problems at borders are, like his, not the big companies—for example, the Heinz factory that employs 1,200 people in my constituency and more in the supply chain—because they have the ability to plan for what comes next and have been doing contingency planning for some time. They have political clout: should there be queues at lorry parks, they will be able to get their products through. The hardest hit will be the smaller companies that have perishable goods and do not have the clout and contingency funds, such as the Kings Quality Foods meat production company in my constituency. I agree with the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington that many of these very good companies will go under if we do not take action now to prevent a no-deal Brexit.
On the way down here last week, I was stopped at the train station in my Wigan constituency by a mum whose son has a life-limiting illness: Duchenne muscular dystrophy. That young boy, Jack, has become extremely well-known in Wigan. His parents have founded a charity called Joining Jack and have been campaigning for a cure. There is no cure as yet, but there is medication that can delay the degenerative effects of this horrible, cruel illness. She is desperately worried about what is about to happen; like many families around the country, they are discussing stockpiling medicine. Every dose that that young boy misses knocks weeks off his life. Conservative Members on the hard end of Tory Brexit are playing serious, high-stakes poker with people’s lives, and we should be concerned about how to stop it.
I am also concerned about food. Some 30% of our food comes from the EU, and many of my constituents, like those of many other hon. Members, are already accessing food banks because they cannot afford food prices. What do we do when inflation and the price of food goes up as the value of the pound falls?
Like Ciaran, I am concerned about the impact of what we are doing to Ireland and Northern Ireland. It is often called “the Ireland problem”, but as they rightly keep telling us, it is a problem that we created for them. I was serving in the shadow Cabinet in the run-up to the referendum, and I spent months going around the country, mostly in northern towns, trying to convince people that remain was the best option. Apart from the times when we raised it, the issue of Northern Ireland and the border came up only once. Here we are with just days to go until we leave the European Union, and it seems that there is a group of people who think that that is not an issue. Ciaran can tell them that it absolutely is.
There are profound questions to ask about the implications for energy and our pensions. We ought to work together to ensure we have the legal tools available to prevent the outcome of no deal.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. I was in Northern Ireland a fortnight ago talking to Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs officials, who have to implement whatever they have to implement in March. The reality is that they have nothing to implement. They cannot put a border in, and they cannot do checks because they have not taken on additional staff. They admit it is a mess. They have to make decisions, although they are very wary of making political decisions, because they are not politicians. That is the reality. I was in Newry, and I saw it. The problem is that they do not know what will happen after March.
I could not agree more. As we approach Brexit, far too many people are making false promises or are being far too complacent about the potential impact of what we are going to do. I have spent time talking to our counterparts who are about to bear the brunt of it. They know the cost of it, and we should too.
Still now, given everything we know about what is about to hit us, the Government are refusing to be honest. I say this to the Minister as somebody who indicated from the outset that I was prepared to consider the Government’s withdrawal agreement—I have read every page of it and the seven-page political statement that goes alongside it. They cannot ask Members of Parliament like me, who are prepared to put the country’s interests first, to vote for a withdrawal agreement while withholding information about what its impact will be.
The Minister will not tell us what the economic impact is of the various options available—no deal, this deal or remaining in the EU. That is one of the reasons why I and almost every single Member of Parliament in this Chamber support the amendment to the Finance Bill that would force the Government to reveal that information, which we will vote on later. Why should we have to drag the Government to the House and force them to reveal information that should have been ours by right? The Government have no right to withhold that information from the people and Parliament. We are about to embark on a course of action that could be destructive to this country, so the Government have a duty and a responsibility to put that information before the House.
Like the hon. Lady, perhaps I can speculate on the reason why the Government are seeking to withhold this information. Is it not simply because they will be extremely embarrassed when it confirms that the Prime Minister’s deal, no deal, Canada plus plus plus, Norway minus minus minus, or whatever else, is worse economically than staying in the European Union? That is why they do not want the information out there.
The difficulty is that we do not know, and we should know. It is our right to know. More importantly, the people we represent have a right to know before we potentially embark on a course of action that could be deeply destructive to their lives in the ways I outlined a moment ago.
The state of this debate is an absolute disgrace. It needs to be reset with honesty and clarity. That begins with the Government setting out their plan B to avoid a no-deal Brexit if, as seems likely, the withdrawal deal does not secure the consent of the House. What legal advice have the Government had about the mechanism to revoke article 50? Without knowing that, we do not even know whether there is a clear route to prevent no deal at all. What discussions have they had with the EU about extending article 50? Is there a willingness to do so? Do they intend to do so if this deal does not succeed?
The lesson that should have been learned in the past two and a half years is not only that we should have done the referendum differently but that we need a completely different approach to the way we have done politics over the past two and a half years. We have collectively let this country down with the angry shouts of betrayal and the inability to listen to people who do not share our point of view. The only mandate that came out of that very divisive referendum was for compromise. That is what the House of Commons needs to start doing now.
I debated with my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) during the referendum campaign, and we both tried to keep the debate calm and rational. I completely agree that anger, nastiness and calling people names does not help the cause of democracy. Having said that, I disagree completely with her last point. She said that the result of the referendum was for compromise. No, it was not. It was to leave the European Union, and the question was completely unambiguous and unconditional. Since the referendum, the people in the minority—those who lost—have gradually tried to recast the debate, continue with project fear and put barriers in the way so they can start again. I do not think the debate should be between leavers and remainers: it should be between the people who accept the democratic decision and those who do not. The Lib Dems have been quite clear throughout that they do not accept the democratic decision.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way, as he has accused us of not being democratic. Will he explain what is undemocratic about allowing the people, in a people’s vote, to determine whether they agree with the deal that the Government have come forward with?
The fact is that we had a vote, and it was hard-fought-for. Like many hon. Members on both sides of the House, I had been arguing for a referendum since before I joined Parliament—I was elected in 1997, as was the right hon. Gentleman. Right hon. and hon. Members had been arguing for referendums going back to Maastricht—I voted to have a referendum on Lisbon—and we kept losing. The argument for a referendum was that many of the people’s rights had been given away in treaties such as Amsterdam, Nice, Maastricht, the Single European Act and Lisbon, and they should have had a chance to vote on that.
I have not finished answering this one.
Eventually, a party that agreed that there should be a referendum won a general election. Hon. Members from all parties voted to have a referendum. I accept that in a democracy people can change their minds, but they cannot do so before we have implemented a decision that hundreds of right hon. and hon. Members voted for. That would detract from democracy.
If the result of the referendum is not respected fully and carried out, there will be a fundamental issue for those who support the 1975 innovation of referendums. The Scottish National party, for example, will no doubt come back for another referendum on the future of Scotland; we have also had a referendum on the voting system, and might have another. That will undermine the legitimacy of not only this referendum but others. People who voted leave would not necessarily accept the legitimacy of a second referendum, and not to implement the first one would undermine the whole constitutional construct of referendums. That is the answer to the question of the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake).
At the previous general election, the right hon. Gentleman stood on an election ticket for another referendum and won his seat. I accept that, but only 12 people from his party won on that particular ticket; my party stood on a ticket to honour the referendum result, as did the Conservative party, and that is what I intend to vote for, and will continue to vote for, whether that means voting in support of the Government if they put sensible things forward, or voting against if they do not put sensible things forward—which I think is the position with the agreement.
A great deal has been said today, and I will go through some of the arguments put forward. One was that during the referendum people did not know enough to come to a conclusion and were duped in some way. As in all electorates, people on both sides distort: they get excited and go past the facts. For example, I have never been in a general election in which the Lib Dem literature put out in the constituency has stayed close to the known facts that everyone else in the constituency believes in, but that is not a reason to rerun elections. The same happens at a national level. In a democracy, we leave it to the electorate to use their common sense to judge, from their experience, between nonsense and sense.
Will the hon. Gentleman accept that there is a difference between a general election, the result of which may be overturned in three, four or five years —whenever the next election takes place—and a referendum, which potentially has a permanent effect? Does he not agree that the confirmed evidence of illegal activities by Vote Leave and BeLeave—Leave.EU is now being investigated by the National Crime Agency—suggests that this referendum was of a questionable nature? In case he suggests that the remain campaign did the same, I add that no one has taken any allegation about that campaign to court, as has happened to the other side.
I am sure, Sir Roger, that if I started to get into matters that may come before the courts, you would rule me out of order. I will not do that. All I would say is that legal action has often been taken over general elections—another case from Kent is before the court at this very moment—so I do not accept that point. After the 1975 referendum, it took more than 40 years to hold another. As I explained in answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s previous intervention, a party needs to win a general election saying, “We want a second referendum”, before we have one—and good luck to them, because I think they would lose.
All parties have a great deal of division. The country is split, and party support is split. Many leave voters vote for my party, and for the Conservative party, so if the parties chose to move away from their position, they would be in electoral peril—but it is up to the parties to stand for that, if they want to, and to lose the support of people who voted leave.
It is often said—it has been said in this debate—that promises were made by Vote Leave that have not been kept. I campaigned as hard as I could for leave, but I made no promises. How can a Labour MP, in opposition, make such promises? The referendum was not a manifesto that one party was behind; it was an argument about what this country should do—should we be in the European Union, or out? The only decision, as I said at the beginning, was whether to leave or stay in—a decision that the electorate made.
I am intrigued by the hon. Gentleman’s astonishment at how a Labour MP could possibly make promises to the electorate during a referendum. His colleague next to him, the hon. Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield), will know what I am talking about. Did the hon. Gentleman read the vow that Gordon Brown put on the front page of Scotland’s biggest national newspaper immediately before the 2014 referendum? That was clearly a case of an Opposition politician—a Labour politician—making promises about what would happen if, in a referendum, people did what he wanted them to do. Why is the hon. Gentleman so astonished about what a Labour politician might do in 2016, when his own party leader did it in 2014?
I am not sure that I completely understand the question. One cannot promise to carry out something if one is not in government; one can only make the case for people voting a particular way in a referendum. The electorate voted as they did, and that was clearly an instruction for the Government to carry out. They have not been very good at doing it, but it was an instruction. During the debate that set up the referendum, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), who was on Labour’s Front Bench at the time, gave an absolute commitment: “This is not for Members of Parliament to decide. We’re passing the power over to the electorate to decide.” That was echoed by all the parties. One cannot make promises in a referendum campaign; all one can do is advise people which way to vote, which I did. It is a bogus argument to say that promises were made and not carried out.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a difference between a general election, in which parties stand on manifestos on a broad range of issues, and this referendum, which asked a very specific question? Today, we have a very different level of knowledge of what that specific question means, which was not available when the referendum took place.
It was always going to be the case that we would have a different level of knowledge and information afterwards, because time goes on; I agree with my hon. Friend. I put it that what has happened since is that our arguments have been validated by the obstructive nature of the EU. I remember many debates and discussions in which the arguments of the leave campaign were, in essence, that the EU had too much control of our democracy and the majority of our laws. My opponents said regularly, “No, it’s less than 10%”; we would argue about the Library documents on what was and was not a law; and they would say, “No, this is essentially just a trading organisation. It has minimal impact.” Now, we see that the EU is trying to hold on to control, not only in Ireland, but over our regulations and laws on manufacturing. We can now see how powerful the EU is, and how difficult it is.
The Prime Minister went to the EU and has come back not, unfortunately, representing the views of the people of the United Kingdom to the EU, but representing the views of the EU to the United Kingdom. She has come back with an absolute constitutional monstrosity, under which, in effect, the EU will keep control of whether Northern Ireland has separate laws from the rest of the country.
Over the years, I have been a remainer, and I make no secret of that. It was always an alibi of Ministers, when agreements were made in the Council of Ministers and when the thing was not going well in the House of Commons, to say, “That is a European angle.” I remind my hon. Friend, who takes as much of an interest in the trade union movement as I do, that a lot of the progressive trade union legislation came from Europe; they had to fight tooth and nail there. Finally, the referendum was not run like a general election campaign. Leading lights in the referendum went around with a red bus and made all sorts of promises to the British people. We must face up to that to be truthful with one another, as my hon. Friend said earlier.
My hon. Friend makes a number of points. On trade unions rights, there is no doubt that in 1988, when the President of the Commission came to the TUC, he said, “Forget Thatcher; we can look after the trade unions.” Unfortunately, we moved from a social Europe to a global, much more free-market Europe. Since then—I do not know if my hon. Friend knows—the Viking and Laval decisions have undermined minimum wage legislation throughout Europe, and have damaged trade unions because they have changed the definition of a trade dispute. I do not accept that the EU is fundamentally good for trade unions, but I must move on.
[Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]
I was not going to talk about Northern Ireland, because there are people in this room who know a great deal more about it than I do, but I do not think there is anyone else here who was present—the Minister could have been, but I am pretty certain that no one else was —when Croatia was accepted into the European Union. There were about three or four of us in the Chamber—there clearly was not as much concern about the EU then. Croatia has one of the EU’s longest borders with the rest of Europe. Across that border there is human trafficking and sex trafficking; it is unguarded a lot of the time and it is one of the main entry points of wickedness into the EU. Croatia was accepted by the EU, but it did not have the rule of law, and it protected war criminals after the break-up of Yugoslavia. The EU wanted Croatia in, because it was expanding.
Northern Ireland has had a troubled border. The EU had nothing to do with the Good Friday agreement. The basis of the Good Friday agreement is that all parties accept peace. The EU has been weaponising that issue; the United Kingdom Government have said very clearly that they will not produce a hard border, so the only people who might are those in the EU. They have used that as a control over the UK, which unfortunately the Prime Minister has accepted.
This is a huge debate, as I am sure you know, Mr Hollobone. The continued project fear accepts that somehow the EU has been great for the United Kingdom’s growth, and that the EU’s regulatory model is economically a good thing, but for the 10 years before the referendum, all other continents apart from Antarctica grew by considerably more than the EU—it was not a particularly vital area. There are some areas where this country is strong, such as in the biological and agricultural sciences, where we are world leaders, but the regulations coming from the EU damage our economy and cause job losses regularly. I do not believe in a completely free market—quite the reverse—but we can have regulations that are appropriate to our economy, and that will help us to create jobs at the cutting edge. The only future for this country is in high technology, which is restricted by the EU.
Although there are many more points I could make, I will finish by talking about no deal. It would be better if we had a deal. It is extraordinary, when our regulatory position is completely aligned with the EU, that the EU tries to keep control of this country’s laws. It is even more extraordinary that the Prime Minister has accepted that. The majority of our trade is on World Trade Organisation rules. The EU is a signatory to the World Trade Organisation. There is no reason whatever why the disruption if we left the EU without a deal would not be minimal. Are people here who support the EU saying that if we left without a deal, the EU would stop sending medicines to this country? If they are saying that, why would we want to be part of a body that would punish the child with muscular dystrophy that my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan talked about? It would not happen by accident; the EU would have to stop medicines coming to this country. It would have to stop radioactive materials needed for the health service from coming to this country.
We rely on our Government being prepared to go back to the EU to seek that ongoing co-operation to prevent that from arising. I have asked the Government to provide clarity on that. It cannot be right that we are asked to back something without absolutely no idea where it may lead and what the alternatives are.
The difficulty in the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that those who claim there might be medicine shortages are part of project fear is in the fact that the Secretary of State for Health asked pharmaceutical companies to stockpile medicines. It is not the remainers but the Minister in charge who has asked for it to happen, not because those nasty Europeans—as the hon. Gentleman seems to believe they are—would block medicines from coming to the United Kingdom, but because they may get stuck at the border, at Calais and Dover, when checks have to be carried out on those vehicles, as would be required under no deal. Government Ministers have asked to start that stockpiling, not remainers.
I do not think the right hon. Gentleman was listening to what I was saying. We are completely aligned with the EU, both on our medical regulations and on our trade regulations. There would be no need, on day one, to stop those medicines coming across.
A deal would be better—a sensible deal, not the deal put forward, which gives the EU suzerainty over this country for an indefinite time. I will probably be in the same Lobby as my hon. Friends when it comes to voting on this deal—if it ever goes to the Floor of the House. I have voted with the Government and against them, and I will continue to look at whether they are implementing the deal. The Prime Minister said originally that no deal can be better than a bad deal. Unfortunately, she has come back with a bad deal.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone. I am pleased to be able to begin the summing-up speeches, but I am in two minds because a little birdie told me that the Division bell may go at around half-past 6. I wonder whether we should try to get through the debate by then, rather than having a hiatus of perhaps an hour and a half and coming back for the last few minutes.
The events of the past week or so have made this debate even more topical. By far the most significant thing to happen in the past week has been the Prime Minister, not once but twice, going on the record and saying, “We can stop Brexit.” She no longer talks about there being two options—her deal or no deal. She now talks openly about the possibility that Brexit may not happen.
Interestingly, in her lengthy contribution, the hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns) never actually said we cannot stop Brexit. She attempted—not very successfully, in my humble opinion—to explain why we should not stop it, but she never tried to say we cannot stop it. I invite the Minister to tell us, right at the beginning of his response, whether he agrees with the Prime Minister that Brexit can still be stopped. Once the Government conceded that point, the debate would become very different. I still believe that we can stop Brexit, if that is the will of Parliament and the will of the people. How do we know what the will of the people is without asking them? That is a question that some people may want to answer.
I believe the Government tried not to have to present a coherent argument that we should not stop Brexit because, once all the facts have become known and people, I suspect including a lot of MPs, realise just what it involves, there is no longer a coherent argument. The recently departed Brexit Secretary admitted that he did not realise how important trade between Dover and Calais was to the UK economy. If the person who led negotiations on the UK’s behalf did not fully understand what Brexit was about, what chance did the 34 million other people who took part in the referendum have of understanding all the intricacies and details?
I could almost understand the rationale for saying, “Well, maybe it’s a bad idea and maybe a disastrous idea, but we have to go through with it anyway because it’s what people voted for.” The truth is that none of us has the right to say what those 17.5 million people voted for. We know they voted to leave the European Union. I think it was the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake)—it may have been someone else in his party—who said immediately, “Now we know where people voted to go away from, but we’ve no idea what they voted to move towards.” We can guess that not many of those people voted deliberately to make themselves, their families, their towns and their communities poorer.
We do know that those people voted for some kind of Brexit in a referendum that, by today’s standards, would not get a clean bill of health as free and fair. The leave campaign, in its various guises, stands accused on a number of counts of breaching spending limits that are there to stop the wealthy elite from buying our democracy. We know there were large-scale breaches of data protection law. We know that the leave campaign lied to us. How else can we describe the £350 million on the side of the big red bus?
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, when we include the leaflets arguing the case for remain that the Government sent out, the remain campaign effectively spent twice as much? Those leaflets cost £7 million, doubling the amount spent on the remain campaign.
It is a matter of record how much the UK Government spent. It is not yet a matter of record how much the leave campaign spent, and I doubt whether it will ever be a matter of record where exactly in the world that money came from. Some of it was deliberately channelled through Northern Ireland to ensure that its original source could never be made known. Interestingly, those who are so desperate to have no regulatory divergence between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain are quite happy to have regulatory divergence when it stops the source of that half a million pound donation ever being made public.
The Brexiteers tell us—the hon. Gentleman tried to—that none of this really matters. They tell us that, somehow, if someone cheats at the Olympics and gets caught, they have to hand back their medal and lose their world record 10, 15 or 20 years later; if someone cheats at football, they are banned from the competition the next year; but if someone cheats with the very fundamentals of our democracy, “Well, that’s just what politicians do.” If that is the view of the Brexit side in this argument, it is no wonder that, as the hon. Member for Morley and Outwood mentioned, politicians are held in such low regard by the citizens of these islands. If politicians themselves are prepared to stand up and say, “Oh, yeah, somebody cheated, but it doesn’t matter because it’s only politics”—
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is indicative of the poor quality of that side of the argument that the hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns) refused to take a single intervention or to engage with any of the arguments, but is currently on Twitter calling me a betrayer of this country because I made the point that we had to calm the debate down? [Interruption.] Oh, now she seems to have found her voice. Perhaps she should have found it earlier when we were debating the actual issue facing this country.
Thank you for being lovely. I have never made a point of order before. I did not take any interventions because I did not think it was right to intervene on anybody else. To be honest, Lisa, I was not calling you a betrayer; I was actually pointing to the fact, on social media, that it is fine you likening people to the far right, which is disgusting—
Order. I am afraid that is not a point of order, and the hon. Lady must not address another Member directly across the Chamber. If she wants to think about how to phrase her point of order, I am very happy to take it. Alternatively, she can intervene on the Member who has the floor. I call Peter Grant.
I have to take the word of the hon. Member for Wigan about what her counterpart has put on Twitter, because the hon. Member for Morley and Outwood blocks me from viewing her tweets. I do not know why. Is that what the standard of debate has come to—getting blocked by a fellow MP on Twitter just for saying some things they do not agree with?
The hon. Member for Wigan made the point powerfully that the whole Brexit process has worsened what was already an extremely worrying position in British politics. Too many people have lost the ability to disagree without becoming disagreeable. Too many people have lost the ability forcefully and passionately to present a case in disagreement with somebody without resorting to personal insult and abuse. Yes, there are people who would claim to be on my side of the Scottish argument who resort to the same tactics. I will call them out just as quickly as I will call out others.
It is one of the many ironies of this situation that the people on whose behalf appalling abuse was heaped on a small number of Conservative Back Benchers for rebelling on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill to help to secure a majority in favour of Parliament being given a vote on the final deal, and in some cases the people who participated in that abuse, would be furious if they were denied the right to vote on a deal that they are not happy about. I believe there is an unanswerable case for asking the people again, this time with an electorate who know exactly what they are being asked to vote on and in a referendum that can be made fair in all regards.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if there is a further vote, on this question or any other, we should get to the bottom of the National Crime Agency inquiry, clean up not just the funding but some of the messaging that came out, and learn the lessons from that?
There is no doubt at all that the law in these islands has not kept up with modern campaigning techniques—particularly social media campaigning. There is a legitimate, right and lawful way to use social media to press a political campaign, and there are other ways, which certainly are not moral and should not be legal. We have not yet got the law in the right place for that. In any election, if there are valid and significant questions afterwards as to whether it was fair, the result is tainted for everybody.
For example, we now know there was a dodgy decision-making process about where the World cup would be held in a few years’ time, which tainted that decision immediately. If people are prepared to demand a re-run of a vote about where the World cup would be held, because they think the decision might be a bit dodgy, how much more important is it to at least look at and satisfy ourselves as to whether one of the most important decisions that people in these islands will ever be asked to take was taken fairly, or whether there was serious or criminal misconduct and whether that seriously undermined the legitimacy of the decision.
The hon. Gentleman is making a good point about the use of social media. I point out, with some disappointment, that there are Members in this Chamber who are tweeting about the competence and views of other Members in this Chamber. Is it not the case that, if we are going to improve the quality of debate and the confidence that members of the public have in us as their representatives, we need to be respectful of the debate, as well as the mentions and motions that are made in the House?
I will defend the right of anybody, whether they are a politician or a normal person, to take exception to somebody’s political views and to knock down their views as hard as they can if need be. However, when they begin to knock or mock the person, a line has been crossed. Obviously, I cannot monitor what is happening on Twitter just now and some people have made sure that I cannot monitor what they are doing publicly on Twitter.
No, I really need to move on. I said that I did not want to take up too much time and I may have taken more interventions than I expected.
We hear a lot about sovereignty when we talk about Brexit. Regarding sovereignty in Scotland, it might be worth reminding Members that on 4 July 2018 the House unanimously agreed a motion that stated that
“this House endorses the principles of the Claim of Right for Scotland…and… acknowledges the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of government best suited to their needs.”
How do we square that with the fact that 62% of people in Scotland said that the form of government best suited to their needs was a Government who were part of the family of nations that is the European Union? I am not suggesting that the whole of Brexit has got to stop for ever to suit one part of the United Kingdom, but it is unacceptable that the majority view in Scotland and in Northern Ireland has been completed ignored by the Government almost from day one.
For example, during media interviews over the weekend, the Prime Minister claimed that nobody had put forward a workable alternative to her proposed agreement. That is categorically untrue. It is almost two years since the Scottish Government published “Scotland’s Place in Europe”, setting out a couple of options that would respect the overall result of the referendum to leave the EU but would retain as much as possible of the benefits of EU membership for those parts of the equal partnership of nations where people had voted to remain.
“Scotland’s Place in Europe” did not set out the Scottish Government’s preferred option—and certainly not my preferred option—because it was based on a method of leaving the European Union. It was a significant compromise by the Scottish Government and it was dismissed with hardly a second glance. That is possibly why at the weekend the Prime Minister was, no doubt in absolute good faith, unaware that it had ever been published. I think she put it in the bin without bothering to read it and has now forgotten it ever existed. Ironically, the proposals and options set out in that document are probably closer to what the vote leave campaign promised leaving would be like than anything I have seen since. It is certainly closer to the Brexit campaign promises than anything the Government have produced, either in the speeches made by the Prime Minister or in the draft withdrawal agreement.
It is clear that the Government do not want any kind of meaningful debate or vote in Parliament about what Brexit should mean. The Prime Minister unilaterally and unnecessarily drew red lines before she began to negotiate and then complained that other people had not been pragmatic or flexible enough. We now have a Prime Minister who has insisted from day one that the Brexit negotiations cannot impose a binary choice on Britain, who is herself imposing a binary choice on Parliament by saying, “Take it or leave it. My deal or no deal. If you don’t let me be in charge, I’ll take my ball and go home.”
The Prime Minister, who for two years has been appeasing the hardliners by insisting that no deal is better than a bad deal, is now trying to browbeat the rest of us into voting for a very bad deal, by telling us that no deal is not better than a bad deal—it is actually significantly worse. This Parliament should not accept a choice between two bad outcomes or be forced to accept a choice between two outcomes, neither of which can command anything like a majority in the House. I think it extremely unlikely that the Prime Minister’s draft agreement can get a parliamentary majority. No deal, as beloved by the 28 MPs who signed up to the Leave Means Leave website, has even less chance.
What kind of democracy is it? What kind of taking back control for Parliament is it if Parliament is denied the option of recommending a proposal that is probably the only one that would gain an overall majority in Parliament? Of course, it does not mean that Parliament can overturn the result of a referendum that was held two years ago. I do not think that England and Wales can stay in the European Union unless there is a referendum in which their people say that that is what they want to do. Surely, if Parliament believes, and it is the judgment of 650 Members, that the best option available now is that we do not leave, we have got to be prepared to go back to the people and say, “Now that you know exactly what this Brexit thing really means, do you still want to go ahead with it? Do you want the Government to try and get a better deal, or do you now think that we should not be going ahead with Brexit at all?”
I am absolutely convinced that there will be a people’s vote in Scotland in the not too distant future. The Prime Minister, and indeed the rest of Parliament, may well have a significant part to play in deciding whether that people’s vote is conducted among 5.5 million people on one question or 60 million people on a different question. The intransigent and patronising approach to Brexit that the UK Government have been adopting is effectively persuading greatly increasing numbers of people in Scotland that when we exercise our unalienable right to choose the form of government best suited to our needs, fewer and fewer people in Scotland are prepared to believe that that will be based in the city of London for much longer.
On a point of order, Mr Hollobone. I seek your guidance on whether it is appropriate for Members who have taken part in this debate to tweet during it and to use the word “betrayal”. Would you agree, Mr Hollobone, that using that word in such a heated discussion is something that Members should know to avoid? We are trying to work in a reasoned and safe manner, as far as possible. The use of the word “betrayal” potentially has risks associated with it.
I refer Members to Mr Speaker’s quick guide to participating in the Chamber and Westminster Hall, in which he states that a Member should not insult another Member or accuse them of lying. Whether “betrayal” is an insult or not is probably subjective. Mr Brake has made his point and it is on the record.
It is a pleasure to wind up the debate for the Opposition with you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone, as it was to listen to much of it with Sir Roger in the Chair.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) for the way in which she introduced the debate and framed the discussion. I join her in congratulating Ciaran O’Doherty, who initiated the petition. Whatever else we think, I am sure we all celebrate the fact that a young man, 15 years old, wanted to participate in the discussion that is going on across our country and raise the concerns from his part of it.
I understand those concerns. I spent a fair amount of time in Northern Ireland in the summer and I have to admit that it was the first time I had been there for 40 years, when, at the height of the conflict, I organised students across the sectarian divide and it was a part of the country at war, with the war spilling over into the rest of the country, and I was struck by how far things have changed, but also by how fragile the peace is and how much the need to address the issues of the border must be a central part of these negotiations.
I sympathise with Ciaran’s frustration, and the frustration felt by the signatories to the petition, about the way the negotiations have been proceeding and the risks for us as a country. The hon. Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson), who was formerly the Transport Minister, and was also the Universities Minister, was right when he said recently that we are facing the biggest crisis since the second world war. My hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) made that point in a different way and reflected on a different aspect of the crisis: the way the binary and angry discourse on the issue opened up by a binary and angry referendum made it difficult for us to navigate the choices ahead of us. We have to be honest. As she said, we do not want simplistic arguments on either side. There is no easy way forward from the position we are now in as a country.
This is one of the most significant moments in recent British history. One of the things about history is it does not feel historic when people are in the middle of it. They are living their lives in an ordinary way, alongside making the decisions. However, the decisions that we make in the next few weeks will shape our country for generations. It is a heavy responsibility on us, and it is one on which the Government have been failing. We have seen two years of internal conflict for the Government, and external chaos, until, last Thursday, they finally brought us a draft withdrawal agreement that, predictably, unleashed another wave of ministerial resignations. However, perhaps even more extraordinarily, within 24 hours of signing up to it, five members of the Cabinet were openly plotting against it. It is a deal that, on the basis of last Thursday’s statement, cannot command the support of Parliament, so the situation could not be more serious.
It did not have to be this way. If the Prime Minister had reached out at the outset after the referendum and said, with honesty, not some of the nonsense that was said about the nature of the vote—that it was a historic mandate and the biggest vote ever, and so on—but that the people had voted to leave the European Union only by the closest of margins, that it was a mandate for an orderly withdrawal but not an opportunity to burn every remnant of 45 years of co-operation and partnership, and that we would seek a closer relationship that was right for the economy, no longer as members but as partners, putting the livelihoods of people in this country first in a customs union close to the single market and in the agencies and partnerships we have built together for 45 years, she could have secured a majority in this House and united the country that was so bitterly divided by the referendum. With that sort of deal the Northern Ireland border would not have been an issue.
Instead, the Prime Minister pandered to the Brexit extremists of the European Research Group in her party—people like the Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) who said his ambition was to destroy the European Union.
I am happy to do that. I do think that those who have defined their politics by their desire to take us out of the European Union at whatever cost to the economy of our country and the stability of our continent are taking an extreme position. I think we need a more sophisticated debate and the word “extreme” is a reasonable one within the vocabulary of our language.
I just wish that the Prime Minister had set out at the beginning of the process a negotiation agenda that would have brought people together, instead of drawing red lines in the interests of party management rather than the country; then we would be in a different position. The schism that has divided the Conservative party has blocked effective negotiations at every turn. What has been happening would be almost forgivable if it was based simply on ideology, but now it is as much about personal ambition in the Tory party. Obviously everyone acknowledges the brazen ambition of the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), which determined everything he said on Brexit, but now others are reinventing themselves with a clear eye to the pending leadership election they want to prompt.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) said, Opposition MPs could stand back and enjoy it while the Conservative party tears itself apart, but it is too important, because the future of our country is being sacrificed on the altar of Conservative battles and personal ambition. Parliament must not let that happen. The Prime Minister has finally managed to secure a majority in this House—against the deal she presented to us last week. It fails the Opposition’s six tests, which—I see the Minister smiling—she at one stage embraced and said she was “determined to meet”. My hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) set out with some clarity the way the deal fails the tests, and fails the country. Those who voted leave, and there is no significant indication that views have shifted dramatically, as my hon. Friend pointed out, will not ultimately thank politicians who deliver a damaging Brexit on a false prospectus.
The question now is what happens not if, but probably when, the House rejects the deal. The petition reflects the frustration that people feel about the shambolic handling of the negotiations and the chaos in the Cabinet and Government. However, I will seek to reassure the petitioners that just as there is a majority in Parliament against the Prime Minister’s deal there is also a majority against crashing out without a deal and with no transition.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman has anticipated the question I will ask, because I raised it earlier in the debate. Can he confirm what the Labour party’s position will be when, inevitably, an amendment calling for a people’s vote is tabled to the Prime Minister’s motion, if indeed she brings one forward? Will the Labour Front Bench support that or not?
Obviously I did anticipate the right hon. Gentleman’s intervention and he will not be surprised that I intend to answer it in due course. It is part of my speech and clearly a central issue. I remind him that we should be careful in our consideration of the issues in question, and we should have regard to positions adopted in the past. Perhaps we would not be in the position we are in if his party, for example, had not been the first, I think, to call unambiguously for an in-out vote on membership of the European Union, and to condemn the Government for offering only a conditional vote.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for enabling me to correct the record. He will know, of course, that we promised an in-out referendum in relation to any treaty change. The referendum that we had was not about treaty change, but about whether we should be in the European Union or not.
I hate to correct the right hon. Gentleman, but he is wrong. I will send him a copy of his party’s own leaflet, which criticised the Government for offering only a conditional referendum, criticised Labour for not offering one at all and said there should be an in-out referendum and the result should be binding. He should take care, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan pointed out that we should all take care, when reflecting on these issues.
It has been informative to watch as the “No deal is better than a bad deal” mantra has finally been dropped by almost everybody on the Conservative Benches. We have watched people who have been parroting that for quite some time rush into the TV studios over the weekend, seeking to secure support for the Prime Minister’s deal by saying, of course rightly, that no deal would be a disaster for the country.
Does the hon. Gentleman not think that it is slightly strange that the Prime Minister tries to frighten remainers by saying, “If you vote down the deal, we will leave without a deal,” while at the same time she tries to fight off the ERG by saying, “If you vote down the deal, we don’t leave at all.”?
I do; it is a reflection of the corner into which the Prime Minister has painted herself.
Petitioners should be reassured that we, as Opposition parties, will work across the House to ensure that we do not face a no-deal scenario. When the deal is inevitably voted down, the Prime Minister must follow the direction of the House. She has been intent on denying Parliament a truly meaningful vote, just as we have been intent on securing it. We will not accept the premise that she is trying to present —“It is my deal or no deal, take it or leave it, like it or lump it”—and nor will Parliament. When the deal is voted down, we need maximum flexibility and all options on the table.
We will demand a general election, as hon. Members would expect, and I hope that some Conservative MPs, although perhaps understandably reluctant to vote for one after their last outing, may come to realise that it would be in the interest of the country to break the deadlock. If they do not, then all other options must be kept open, including a public vote that would include remain as an option on the ballot paper.
The Government have spent the last two and a half years putting the interests of their party before the interests of the country, pursuing a divisive split from the EU rather than seeking to build a new and close relationship, and negotiating within their warring party rather than negotiating effectively with the European Union. They have failed the country. Our people need and deserve better, and this Parliament will need to ensure that they get it.
This is the first time I have served under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. You are a near neighbour of mine in constituency terms and used to represent a huge chunk of my constituency. I know I do not do as good a job as a constituency Member of Parliament as you did, but I hope I can at least be good and behave myself in front of you as Chairman of this debate. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, as it was to serve under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale).
I have learned many things during this debate. The first thing is never to drink a litre of water over a three-hour debate, but that is by the bye. I learned the power of a petition, because we have had a good and, on the whole, constructive debate. I commend Ciaran O’Doherty, the lead petitioner, because it is a big step to do this sort of thing, and to get the publicity that has gone with it. He should be congratulated in many areas, because without any mass of publicity, his petition has breached the 100,000 mark. Sky is trying to get a petition about leaders’ debates—a petition that I am in favour of—which it advertises on a regular basis on its news broadcasts, and which now sits at 70,000-odd signatures, so Ciaran O’Doherty should be very much congratulated on getting the number of names on his petition that he did.
I also congratulate the Petitions Committee on arranging this debate, and the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) on sponsoring it. I have enjoyed listening to many of the contributions, and I thank the hon. Lady especially for the polite and sensitive way in which she introduced the debate. I will talk about many of the questions she raised, especially around no deal, which other people call “leaving the EU on WTO terms”, and one of my colleagues calls a “global British leave.”
I should state at the beginning that no one is talking about introducing a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. We will not do so, and the Irish Taoiseach has said again today that Ireland will not. That is not on the table. I will pick up the points that the hon. Lady very properly mentioned about the concerns of EU citizens in the event of us leaving on WTO terms. As the Prime Minister said, these people are our friends, neighbours and co-workers, and
“EU citizens living lawfully in the UK today”
will be entitled, and welcome, to stay.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns) for her contribution. As ever, she hid her views under a bushel; I wish she would just tell people where she stands on issues. As ever, she strongly represents the people who voted for her in her constituency when she won it at the general election, and her constituents’ views on these matters. Her point about trust in politics, a fair point that was echoed by a number of other speakers, was particularly well made.
I listened to what the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) had to say about EU citizens’ rights. There is a careful balance to be struck here, because there have been a whole host of assurances from senior politicians, I think on both sides of the House, that EU citizens currently resident and working in the United Kingdom would be welcome to stay here under a no deal, and the Prime Minister has already pledged that under a deal. I think the hon. Lady may have been slightly confused, if I may be so bold, as to the bit of the withdrawal agreement that she read out; that was an inner deal, a reciprocal way that both we and the European Union will deal with EU citizens living in the United Kingdom and UK citizens living in the EU. I will happily write to her, or have a chat with her afterwards, to clarify that.
I think the hon. Lady will find that that is common in international law across the globe, so yes, I think it is correct. I can only hold in admiration Sarit, the hon. Lady’s medic constituent, who does 2000 surgeries every year, thank him for what he does, and say, “You are more than welcome to stay. We welcome you with open arms. Thank you for being here in the first place.” I wish Georgia well in finding a job. I hope I have made the point about how we will deal with EU citizens.
It is always a pleasure to listen to the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) talk. He will remember a day in the last general election, at the beginning of the campaign, when he and I were canvassing on the same street in his constituency—a constituency I know well, as I lived in the neighbouring one for a decent period of time. He is a very good champion of his area, but he is completely out of sync with his constituents on this particular matter, since it is a 56% leave seat, and the area we were canvassing might well have a different view from him on this point.
I note with satisfaction that the hon. Gentleman’s visit to Carshalton and Wallington did not deliver the result that he and the Conservative party had hoped for. I point out to him that the latest polling suggests that my constituency would now vote to remain if another vote took place, and he may also be aware that in every single constituency in the country, a majority of people are apparently in favour of a people’s vote.
Ah, polling. My word; thank God the polls are always correct, eh? I wonder how well the hon. Gentleman would fare if, based on this issue, there were a people’s vote about who should be the Member of Parliament in his constituency. I am not convinced that a people’s vote is the way forward, but he did identify, quite correctly, a dilemma that many Labour Members of Parliament will recognise, especially those representing midlands and northern seats. They passionately believe that leaving the European Union is not the right thing for the country to do, but represent seats in which the vast majority of people think otherwise.
I always enjoy listening to the hon. Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield), who I think is one of the best orators in the House—he tells the story. He might have mentioned the word “betrayal” once or twice—we will not go there quite yet—but did so in a completely different way to the problem tweet that we inadvertently talked about during the debate. He represents his constituents fairly; as a believer in this being the right thing for our country, I do the same for mine. I met representatives of the timber trade recently to discuss their concerns about deal and no-deal issues.
Forgive me for choosing favourites, but my favourite speech was that of the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy).
You can stick that on your leaflet at the next election. Forgive my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns) for that tweet. You have not betrayed the people; quite the opposite—in your speech you represented people’s views faithfully, passionately and with an understanding of the dilemma that some Members face.
I would prefer for the Minister not to quote my tweet without having read it, so I will read it to the Chamber:
“Ultimate Brexit fence sitter Labour’s Lisa Nandy has likened those using the word ‘Betrayal’”—
I am quoting her words—
“to the Far-Right. Rubbish! What about Gina Miller who likened Brexiteers to extremists. Both Conservative and Labour stood on a manifesto to deliver Brexit. Not to do so is a betrayal.”
I did not say that she had betrayed the people. Would you please retract that, Minister?
I apologise if I inadvertently referred to another Member incorrectly; I was talking about the contribution of the hon. Member for Wigan. I hope I did not upset my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood; I did not mean to. I wanted to point out that the hon. Member for Wigan made the case for her constituents’ views. She said—quite rightly in my experience; my constituency is similar—that views have hardened among those who voted to leave the European Union two years ago, and she also talked about how she campaigned in the referendum, so I did not see betrayal in that at all. She also made some wise comments on democracy. We had the largest democratic turnout in our entire history for the referendum, with 33.5 million voters. To my mind, when a decision of such constitutional significance is made, it is paramount that the correct procedure be followed. The ballot paper presented us with a clearcut choice, and a very simple question:
“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union, or leave the European Union?”.
The hon. Lady will probably remember “pencilgate”. During the referendum, people on all sides of the debate were passionate about the way they were going to vote, and people on the leave side were worried that using the voting-booth pencils would result in some Government authority rubbing out their vote. It did not; leave won, and the Government are delivering Brexit.
I am very grateful to the Minister for his kind words, and in particular for striking a better tone than his colleague, the hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns). As well as making the points that he mentioned, I also asked him what the Government’s plan B would be to avoid a no-deal Brexit if the current deal were not passed by the House of Commons. I would be grateful if he responded to that in the remaining time.
One of the points that the hon. Lady raised was about the analysis that would be presented to Parliament when the debate on the withdrawal agreement and political declaration motion takes place. Once we bring forward the vote on the final deal, Her Majesty’s Government will present Parliament with appropriate analysis to make an informed decision. Ahead of an EU Council, it would not be practical or sensible to set out the details of exactly how Her Majesty’s Government would analyse the final deal, but we will set out the assumptions and the methodology when we present the analysis to Parliament for the meaningful vote. We are conducting a comprehensive, thorough and ongoing set of analyses, so I hope that in the near future the hon. Lady will see some of the facts and figures that she wishes to see.
Yes, I do think the right hon. Gentleman is being a bit pedantic.
As ever, I thank the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) for his wise counsel and his contribution, which outlined many of the issues mentioned by the hon. Member for Wigan. I am also grateful for the Front-Bench speeches from the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) and the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant).
The UK and EU have taken quite a decisive step forward since the petition was launched. We have agreed, in principle, the terms of the UK’s smooth and orderly exit from the European Union, as set out in the withdrawal agreement. We have also agreed the broad terms of our future relationship, as set out in the political declaration.
It is worth reiterating what the agreement means, in relation to both the withdrawal agreement and our future relationship with the European Union. It means a whole host of things and answers many of the questions that many Members across the political divide have raised over the past two years. It secures the rights of more than 3 million EU citizens living in the United Kingdom, and about 1 million UK nationals living in the European Union, to continue living in those countries. It guarantees the terms of a time-limited implementation period, which provides the certainty to UK businesses that they have been telling us—as everyone in this Chamber has told us—that they need. It ensures a financial settlement that the Government believe to be fair. It confirms Gibraltar’s inclusion in the withdrawal agreement, including in the implementation period.
A mechanism to resolve any disputes between the UK and the EU in future has been agreed. Crucially, the agreement preserves the economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom, upholding the Belfast agreement. A lot has been achieved by the Government and the Prime Minister in the past weeks and months, whether people have enjoyed the headlines of the past few days or not.
On the future relationship, the draft political declaration means that we have also agreed in principle with the European Union on a free trade area for goods with zero tariffs, on no quotas, and on deep regulatory and customs co-operation, which will protect British businesses and the companies that support people’s jobs and livelihoods—companies such as those mentioned by the hon. Member for Wigan. Common ground has been reached on our intention to have a close relationship on services and investment, including financial services; on the desire for wide-ranging sectoral co-operation, including on transport and energy; and on fisheries, recognising that the UK will be an independent coastal state.
Consensus has also been reached on key elements of the future internal security partnership. There will be swift and effective extradition arrangements, and we will continue data exchange on fingerprints, DNA and vehicle records, as well as passenger name records—a whole host of things that not only the Opposition but the Scottish National party have asked for in the past. On foreign, security and defence policy, we have agreed arrangements for consultation and co-operation on sanctions, participation in missions and operations, defence capability development and intelligence exchanges.
While the legal agreements that will establish the future relationship can be negotiated only once the UK is a third country—when we have left the European Union—the full political declaration will provide a precise set of instructions to negotiators. The withdrawal agreement includes a legally binding commitment that ensures that both sides will use their best endeavours to negotiate in good faith the detailed arrangements that will give effect to the future relationship.
As we have always said, Parliament will have the opportunity to vote on the deal reached with the European Union once the full political declaration has been agreed, which will hopefully happen very soon at the summit. Once Parliament has approved the final deal, we will introduce the EU withdrawal agreement Bill. That will implement in UK law our international commitments, as set out in the withdrawal agreement, including on issues rightly raised by Opposition Members such as citizens’ rights, the financial settlement and the time-limited implementation period. It will simply be about domestically implementing commitments agreed in the withdrawal agreement as we bridge to our future relationship.
Those of us who have spent any time in the European Parliament—I spent 10 years there as an MEP; I know that the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) is an expert on negotiations at the European level—know that nobody will ever get everything that they want from a negotiation. However, there is a deal on the table that is worth looking at seriously. I gently challenge the hon. Gentleman to say whether he actually believes that his party leader and Front Benchers really believe that their six tests on what is a workable outcome for the Labour party will ever be satisfied. I think he intimated that the Opposition may be a bit more interested in having a general election than in getting a decent deal with our European partners.
I would thank the Minister for allowing me to intervene, but he invited me to do so. I simply respond by asking whether he agrees that, as our six tests were ones that the Prime Minister said she was determined to meet, they are a reasonable basis for assessing the deal.
I do, and I believe that the Prime Minister believes that she has not only very firmly hit those six tests on the head, but has planted that nail well into the plank of wood. The question is whether Labour’s is a political choice to try to get a general election, or whether it is interested in delivering the best deal in the national interest.
However, that is a bit too political for the tone I was trying to strike. I will make some points on our contingency planning in case the deal does not work out. While the chances of no deal have been reduced considerably, the Government will always do the responsible thing and prepare for all eventualities in case a final agreement cannot be reached. Extensive work to prepare for no deal has been under way for more than two years, and we are taking the necessary steps to ensure that the country continues to operate smoothly from the day we leave.
Our objective in such a scenario would be to minimise disruption by taking unilateral action to prioritise continuity and stability, wherever possible and appropriate to do so. We recognise that, in a no-deal scenario, citizens and businesses would need time to prepare themselves. We published 106 specific technical notices across the summer to help businesses, citizens and consumers do exactly that. We have already passed laws to ensure that we are ready for such a scenario, such as the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, the Nuclear Safeguards Act 2018 and the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018. We have also signed a number of critical international agreements. On nuclear co-operation, we have signed agreements with the US, Australia and the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Every Government Department has been working for nearly two years to prepare for a no-deal scenario, with a huge amount of taxpayers’ money having been spent on this insurance policy. However, there are a number of concerns about how to mitigate some of the potential problems at our borders. The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington has disappeared; how annoying. I wanted to point out that he was probably the only person in the room who listened to the Senate debate in the French Assembly about what our French partners are doing to prepare for a no-deal scenario. It is actually quite important that we do the same as them. They have given Ministers emergency powers to ensure the flow of trade across the short straits by increasing the number of border officers and border checkpoints, introducing a border inspection point for agri-goods and a whole host of other things. We must obviously take this in the round.
Going back to the petition, I am afraid that I will disappoint the petitioner and the hon. Member for Blaydon, but I do not think that either will be surprised. Britain will leave the European Union on 29 March next year. The people of the United Kingdom gave the Government—all of us—a clear instruction: they want to leave the European Union. The Government respect that decision.
I will keep my remarks brief. We have had a wide-ranging, interesting and lively discussion on the broad subject of leaving the European Union. I will return to the points made by our petitioner, Ciaran O’Doherty.
I remind hon. Members that Ciaran and the 110,000 people who signed the petition were saying that they are really concerned about the impact of leaving the European Union without a deal on businesses, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and European citizens. I thank the Minister for his reply, but I am sure that Ciaran will be disappointed that the Minister has not been able to go further towards recognising his very real concerns, and those of all the other petitioners, arising from leaving the European Union.
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions. I think it has been a thoughtful, interesting and wide-ranging discussion. I hope that the petitioner and people who see the debate appreciate the time given to it, and the contributions from hon. Members. The petitioners will clearly be disappointed, but at least the issues raised by their petition have had a good airing.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the e-petition relating to leaving the European Union.