Motion to Take Note
My Lords, the Motion before us asks the House to take note of the ongoing discussions with the European Union. These discussions follow from the statutory debate on 29 January in the other place. It was during this debate that the Prime Minister was given a mandate to seek “alternative arrangements” to the backstop. During that debate the Prime Minister confirmed that,
“if we have not brought a revised deal back to this House by Wednesday 13 February, we will make a statement and, again, table an amendable motion for debate the next day”.—[Official Report, Commons, 29/1/19; col. 671.]
The debate on the amendable Motion will take place in the other place tomorrow, but, consistent with the approach taken throughout the process of exiting the EU, it is right that your Lordships should have a chance to comment on and inform the process also.
As always, I look forward to hearing noble Lords’ contributions this afternoon and, as we gather here again, no debate would be complete without an amending Motion from the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon. I pay tribute to her work and, indeed, that of my opposite number, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, for their continued contributions and the scrutiny that they provide.
I knew the Opposition would approve of that. I know that the noble Baroness will wish to speak to her Motion in a moment and so, if noble Lords will forgive me, I shall wait until my closing remarks to address it in full and to set out clearly how the Government will respond to it.
It also will not have escaped your Lordships’ attention that the vote in the other place tomorrow will not be the much-anticipated meaningful vote. As the Prime Minister has confirmed:
“When we achieve the progress we need, we will bring forward another meaningful vote, but if the Government have not secured a majority in this House in favour of a withdrawal agreement and a political declaration, the Government will make a statement on Tuesday 26 February and table an amendable motion relating to the statement, and a Minister will move that motion on Wednesday 27 February, thereby enabling the House to vote on it, and on any amendments to it, on that day”.—[Official Report, Commons, 12/2/19; col. 733.]
Noble Lords will clearly be aware of the statutory role that this House plays under the EU withdrawal Act, and debate will of course be necessary in this House also. The exact timings will be a matter for the usual channels. Nonetheless, as we proceed with today’s debate, I know that the work and the contributions of this House continue to play an important role in informing the deliberations and decisions of the other place. Indeed, the exit Secretary has made it his business from day one in office to work with this House and learn from the unparalleled collection of experience and expertise that resides on these Benches.
I am pleased that he was able to attend your Lordships’ EU Select Committee recently, and both of us met with Members on the Cross Benches earlier today. He is also meeting individual Peers from all sides of the House whenever he can, and his consistent message is that the Government want this House and its committees to continue contributing their wisdom as we shape our approach to the next phase of negotiations. The Constitution Committee heard similarly from the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster last week. I hope that this shows the sincerity of the Prime Minister’s commitment to fuller and deeper engagement with both Houses of Parliament.
Of course, this House is also very busy in its role of scrutinising and passing legislation. I noted the tweets yesterday morning from the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, which followed the appearance on the “Today” programme of my right honourable friend the Leader of the Commons. I agree that this House is playing a crucial role in considering both primary and secondary legislation. In the last fortnight alone, this House has considered three important Brexit Bills: the Trade Bill, the Financial Services Bill and the Healthcare Bill, which goes through Committee next week.
It means that we are confident that we can pass all of the necessary legislation required. I can only repeat the words that my right honourable friend used.
I also heard the remarks made yesterday by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, that there is still much work to be done in scrutinising these instruments. That work is being done to an extremely high quality, and this House is doing the country a great service. I thank noble Lords for that. I pay tribute to her and to all the other members of the scrutiny committees, chaired by my noble friend Lord Trefgarne and the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham. They have an intense workload.
I welcome the beginning of the European Union Committee’s work in considering the programme of international agreements that we are pursuing to ensure the greatest possible continuity, whether or not we are successful in securing the deal we all hope to achieve. The committee and its sub-committees are doing extremely valuable work, and we owe them also a debt of gratitude.
The Motion before us asks the House to take note of the ongoing discussions with the EU. My noble friend Lady Evans, the Leader of the House, set out yesterday the latest position when repeating the Prime Minister’s Statement. Noble Lords will be pleased to know that I will not test their patience by repeating that in detail. As they know, following the mandate given to her on 29 January, the Prime Minister visited Brussels last week, and, as she highlighted yesterday, both she and President Juncker have agreed that our teams should hold further talks to find a way forward.
Of course, the backstop is not something that we would ever want to use. In the event that it was implemented, we would only ever want it to be temporary. Given this, we consider it reasonable to ask for legally binding changes to reflect that temporary nature.
We are at a crucial point in the negotiations. As I have detailed, the Government are engaging with colleagues on all sides to help deliver a deal that the other place can support. This House has played, and will continue to play, a vital role in progressing the debate with scrutiny and expertise as we move into phase two of the negotiations, not least through wider exit preparations, including—as I touched on earlier—preparing our statute book for exit day. There are exit-related Bills and secondary legislation currently before the House and, as soon as possible after the other place has approved the deal, the withdrawal agreement Bill will be introduced to implement the withdrawal agreement in UK law. As we look forward, the Government are committed to ensuring that there is a greater say for Parliament in developing the mandate for the next phase of negotiations.
Noble Lords will be pleased to know that I will not seek to detain the House any further with an exposition of the Government’s policy, as we heard that yesterday. Today is an opportunity for noble Lords to expand on issues raised yesterday and perhaps even to raise some new ones that we have not heard before. I will of course endeavour to respond to as many of the issues raised as I can when I close the debate this evening. I beg to move.
My Lords, as ever we listen with great interest and expectation to the words of the Minister. Two weeks ago, having reflected on a quite crushing defeat in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister vowed to renegotiate and come back to Parliament with what, she said, would apparently be a better deal. As we edge closer to 29 March—there are now just 44 days to go—we were eagerly awaiting details of the progress made to date. But perhaps we should have known better than to expect anything of substance from the Prime Minister when her Statement was unexpectedly brought forward to yesterday afternoon. However, ever the optimist, I hoped we would hear the results of her mission to obtain legally binding changes to the withdrawal agreement. If not that, perhaps Mrs May was going to announce that she would genuinely seek to build a cross-party consensus behind a different, more detailed political declaration. Yet on both counts yesterday, we were disappointed.
For the past week, we have waited with bated breath to see the Government’s Motion for today’s debate. Perhaps the delay was a good sign; perhaps it would be a substantive Motion that we could consider and debate. But it seems to have been drafted to rub salt into already weeping wounds. All it says is that,
“this House takes note of the ongoing discussions with the European Union under Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union”.
This is a debate we could have had at any point during the past two years. The Motion says nothing, does nothing and therefore means nothing. While MPs hang around waiting for that meaningful vote, all the Government have to offer us today is a meaningless debate. So the purpose of my Motion—not an amendment, as the Minister said, but a separate Motion—is to provide some meaningful structure for our deliberations today.
For the benefit of the House, I will speak to both Motions together and although it might be a vain hope—as I said, I am ever the optimist—I would welcome government support for my Motion. The Minister shakes his head; perhaps I should not be surprised but he should not smile as he does so, as it will disappoint this House. Each and every time I make a proposal, I do so after consultation and discussion with colleagues across the House. I do that because I seek to be not controversial but constructive.
We want to find a way forward that can command broad support in your Lordships’ House and allow the Government to return to Brussels with something new to say—I am sure Mr Barnier would appreciate that. We want to rule out the catastrophe of crashing out on 29 March and ensure sufficient time for proper consideration of the legislation that is needed, or required, to deliver Brexit. We will also want to ensure that the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act is not ripped up and tossed to one side. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that.
The Government’s Motion today, if taken alone, is inadequate. It asks us to take note of the ongoing discussions—but what discussions? According to media reports, EU officials were once again bewildered as the Prime Minister arrived for urgent meetings in Brussels without anything new to discuss with those whom she had requested to meet. Despite having received a constructive proposal from the Leader of the Opposition, Mrs May refuses to provide Parliament with an opportunity to vote on that proposal, while stubbornly clinging to those now discredited red lines.
Rather than listening yesterday, therefore, to the Prime Minister’s plea for more time, perhaps it would have been more fruitful for noble Lords to have gathered in a Brussels hotel bar. Hopefully, Mr Robbins was able to enjoy as many different Belgian beers as the Government have timetables for the next meaningful vote. Even as the ONS data shows slowing economic growth, with manufacturing performing as badly as at the onset of the financial crash, the Government continue to talk up a no-deal exit, and all we hear from Ministers is that the only way to prevent crashing out is to support the Prime Minister’s deal, even though she herself has already rejected part of it—the backstop.
Many noble Lords will have heard the noble Lord, Lord Kerslake, interviewed on the “Today” programme last Friday. He laid out what we all know to be true. First, if the Government sought to rule out a no-deal exit at the end of March, both Parliament and the EU 27 would gladly facilitate this shift. Secondly, civil servants and local government are being forced to allocate limited resources to an outcome that, as we all know, would actively harm citizens, businesses and communities. The noble Lord also said that even if the Prime Minister was able to secure the changes she seeks, it is simply no longer possible for the Government to ensure an orderly exit from the EU on 29 March.
In that same programme, the shadow Chancellor again laid out the terms of Labour’s proposed alternative deal: a permanent and comprehensive customs union with the EU; close alignment with the single market, underpinned by shared institutions and obligations; dynamic alignment on a range of rights and protections; concrete commitments on future participation in EU agencies and funding programmes; and greater clarity on future participation in EU security mechanisms and arrangements, including the European arrest warrant. [Interruption.] There seems to be some sort of sequence dancing going on in the Chamber at the moment.
This is a serious proposition that takes on board comments from both sides of both Chambers. It is an arrangement that the Government should allow Parliament the opportunity—
I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. I am sure that the proposal from Her Majesty’s Opposition—that we should be part of a permanent customs union—is intended to be distinctive and different. But I am still trying to work out what, in practice, the difference is between what the Opposition seek and what the Government have negotiated, as stated in paragraph 23 of the political declaration: no tariffs, no fees, no charges, no quantitative restrictions and a single customs territory that permits no checks on rules of origin. All that falls within what paragraph 17 describes as,
“the development of an independent trade policy by the United Kingdom beyond that economic partnership”.
Going through it step by step, I find it difficult to see the difference. Where is it?
My Lords, I think that was more of a speech than an intervention. There is, however, a clear and distinct difference. If the Government think, like the noble Lord, that it is the same, why do they not support our suggestion? That would be very straightforward. Our proposal is different. The same is true of common external tariffs, which my noble friend Lady Hayter will deal with at the end of the debate. If the Government are so concerned that our suggestion is the same as their suggestion, they can easily support our proposals. I would welcome the noble Lord’s support today. What is being put forward guarantees, and gets, broad support in both Houses. The way to test that is to put it to a vote in the House of Commons, to see if it commands the support of MPs in finding a meaningful way forward.
My Motion today, therefore, is intended to assist the Government. It recalls that this House, by substantial majorities, emphatically ruled out a no-deal exit and called on the Government to act accordingly; and it reflects the mood of the elected House, where MPs have twice voted against the principle of crashing out without an agreement. It asks the Prime Minister to take all steps necessary to ensure that we do not leave without a deal on 29 March. This could include seeking an extension to the Article 50 negotiating period, which would allow time to develop the political declaration in vital areas that have not been given the attention they deserve, such as security co-operation, and, echoing the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, to pass the legislation that is required, or necessary—he will decide which word to use—to give effect to the final withdrawal agreement.
It would be helpful and in the interest of your Lordships’ House if the Minister could directly address the comments made by my noble friend Lord Foulkes and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, on the difference between legislation that is required by 29 March and that which is necessary. I am somewhat lost as to the distinction.
I am sure that the Minister has heard that, but I think that the Government have had some difficulty of their own in differentiating between what legislation is for a deal and what is for no deal. I am always delighted to receive any further clarification from the Minister, which I am sure the whole House would welcome.
I think we all understand that an extension to Article 50 would require the approval of the EU 27. However, faced with a choice between a limited extension to Article 50 and a no-deal Brexit, there is only one sensible option for both sides. Can the Government now stop dragging their feet, commit to asking for more time and therefore rule out once and for all, so that everybody knows, the most disastrous of all outcomes—a no-deal Brexit? Doing so would reassure citizens that they would not lose their basic rights, as well as businesses and communities. The fear of crashing out with no deal and of the consequences of that is not Project Fear; it is project reality. The Minister has to accept and understand those realities.
The Motion in my name also asks the Government to facilitate a further meaningful vote for MPs by the end of February and, as required under the EU withdrawal Act, to table a take-note Motion in your Lordships’ House. How timely this issue has now become. MPs will have the opportunity to vote on various amendments to a non-binding Motion tomorrow evening. That Motion was promised a fortnight ago to allow Government Whips to pick off potential rebels. Over the weekend, in an attempt to prevent a rebellion this week, the Communities Secretary committed to an extra vote by 27 February, confirmed by the Prime Minister yesterday. However, the exact nature of that vote will depend on the progress, or otherwise, of the negotiations. It could again, as will be the case tomorrow should there be a vote, be completely non-binding.
The Prime Minister is obviously trying to run down the clock and force a decision between her deal and no deal. We had confirmation of that Hobson’s choice last night, courtesy of ITV. It is only by securing a binding vote that MPs can apply the brake before we career off the cliff edge.
My Lords, I do not have much responsibility for the European Commission, but I would hope that we in this House have some influence on the Government. If we cannot as a House express our concerns about how the Government should conduct the negotiations in the interests of this country, for which the Government are responsible, we would not be doing our duty. I suggest to the noble Viscount that he pay a little more attention to what the Government are doing and try to get them to behave in a way that is in the interests of all the citizens of the UK, because they have a responsibility to negotiate on our behalf in the same way as the EU 27 are negotiating on behalf of their citizens.
I would prefer not to divide the House on my Motion tonight; that is a matter for the Government. I am not the only one—the noble Lord, Lord Butler, referred to it in the previous debate and earlier this week in Questions—who has struggled to understand why the Government have not simply accepted the previous two Motions that I have tabled without us having to push the House to a Division. They recognised the supremacy of the Commons and reflected the stated intentions of the Prime Minister. The Government say that they want to avoid a no-deal outcome and that they want to engage Parliament and swiftly secure MPs’ approval for the withdrawal agreement. My Motion does not undermine any of those proposals; it reinforces them. For the third time of asking, will the Government accept that this is a common-sense Motion, take all the necessary steps in relation to Article 50 and ensure that MPs are able to engage in a meaningful and timely manner?
My Lords, this is our ninth debate or Statement on the Government’s withdrawal deal. I do not know about hell, but there may be a special place in purgatory reserved for those who were condemned to speak in them all.
Yesterday I suggested that the Prime Minister might be modelling herself on Mr Micawber and simply waiting for something to turn up to resolve her Brexit dilemma. But I wonder whether I might have been unfair to her. Perhaps she has a cunning plan. Perhaps she believes that the only way she can get a deal through the Commons is to wait until after the EU summit on 21 March before bringing back any new proposals that have been agreed and to give the Commons literally a matter of hours either to accept them or face a no-deal crash-out. She could reason that, by then, MPs would be panicked into voting for a deal that they believe is not in the best interests of the country for fear of an outcome that is even worse.
If they were to do so, they would knowingly have voted to make the nation poorer, to sever crucial security links and—despite the vainglorious outpourings of the Secretary of State for Defence—to reduce our global influence. They would do so knowing that the UK has the power unilaterally to revoke Article 50. They would do so with a clear majority of the country consistently indicating that they believe that leaving the EU on the Government’s terms—or, indeed, any terms—would be worse for them and their children’s future than remaining a member. Some 80% of the country now disapprove of the way in which the Government are handling the negotiations.
If, instead, 70% or 80% clearly wished to leave the EU on the Government’s terms, one could understand why MPs might go for that option. But, given that a large majority of MPs agree with the majority of the population that Brexit would be bad for the country, why might they vote for it? Why might Ministers, who know that the Government’s deal is bad for the country, vote for it? Why might those on the Government Front Bench in your Lordships’ House who know that it is bad for the country—they know who they are—vote for it? Why does it look quite possible that the Leader of the Opposition might facilitate it? What is everybody scared of?
We know that some are unwilling to go against the views of their constituents—although the number of constituencies where there is now a majority favouring leave has greatly diminished. We know that some of them are scared of deselection. We know that a small number feel physically intimidated. We know that some want Brexit to proceed and prove disastrous to the Conservatives as an electoral force, and hope to emerge victorious from the wreckage. All these motivations are understandable, but all too often they represent a willingness to put party and personal interest before that of the country. It is no wonder that so many voters have given up on the political class as a whole, or that the rest of the world simply thinks that we have gone mad.
In yesterday’s discussion of the Prime Minister’s Statement, I raised two areas where the Government’s approach, in my view, is particularly irresponsible. The first was the Minister’s assurance, repeated today, that they can get all necessary Brexit-related legislation through Parliament by 29 March. Leaving aside the mountain of statutory instruments, we have Bills to deal with on trade, healthcare, agriculture, fisheries and immigration—not to mention the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Bill—which I assume, unless the Minister says otherwise, are all necessary.
These Bills, on a conservative estimate, will take at least 20 days of debate to get through your Lordships’ House if we are to scrutinise them properly, as Ministers say they accept we should. There are currently 26 sitting days scheduled between now and the end of March, and on the majority of days for which we now have business, these Bills do not feature. There is also the mountain of SIs, which could take, at a normal rate of progress, another 20 days. So will the Minister tell the House which additional Fridays and weekend days the Government intend to schedule between now and the end of March to allow these Bills to be debated? Or do the Government envisage using some as yet unspecified emergency procedure? If he cannot do this, I can conclude only that the Government’s assertion about following proper parliamentary process over remaining Brexit legislation simply cannot be believed.
The second area of irresponsibility relates to business, the economy and the labour market. For me there are few consolations in the failure of the Government to reach an end-point on the Brexit negotiations sooner, but one consequence of the delay is that the true economic costs of Brexit are now beginning to emerge. At a macro level, last Monday’s economic figures, which the Chancellor admits were heavily influenced by Brexit, show growth at an anaemic level, investment down, the trade deficit up, despite the devaluation, and every commentator believing that the prospects for the year ahead are even bleaker. Businesses are viewing the Government’s approach with “weary horror”, to quote today’s Financial Times.
Examples of this abound. Yesterday, 30 food and drink industry groups asked the Government to suspend non-Brexit policy consultations because the staff who would be involved are trying desperately to provide advice on how Brexit might affect their members. Polling the association has undertaken has shown that 10% of the sector has said that, under a no-deal scenario, they would simply go out of business. Today, the British Chamber of Commerce said that,
“businesses risk being left hung out to dry”,
by the Government and have asked 20 urgent questions, to which the Government have as yet produced no reply. Perhaps I could ask the Minister just three of them on its behalf. First, what rules of origin will businesses need to comply with after Brexit? Secondly, how will the new customs procedures impact businesses? Thirdly, if a UK business is in dispute with an EU-based company after 29 March, which authority will settle that dispute?
While this kind of uncertainty afflicts businesses, the staffing crisis in the NHS intensifies. In a previous debate I referred to the number of Italian nurses who are leaving or contemplating leaving the UK to return home. They are now being joined by nurses from Spain who are fearful that, in the absence of a specific agreement, of which there is as yet no sign, their time working in the UK will no longer count as relevant experience when it comes to looking for jobs back in Spain, so their career prospects will be diminished. In one typical example, four Spanish theatre nurses at the Royal Bolton Hospital have said that they are planning to return to Spain in the near future to avoid this problem. These are nurses whom we simply cannot afford to lose.
We must accept that, as the parliamentary and economic crises of Brexit worsen on a daily basis, our ability in the Lords to affect events is limited. We have an obligation, however, to do what we can, and therefore I hope that noble Lords will support the Motion in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, today. We on these Benches will continue to seek an end to the purgatory of the Brexit crises by giving people a chance to retain the strength and stability of our EU membership via a people’s vote.
My Lords, if you were to fly from Edinburgh to London Heathrow early on a Sunday evening—as I used to have to do week after week when I was serving in this House as a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary—you would find that shortly before you reach London the aircraft slows down and begins to turn gently to the right and progress in a circle. I believe it is called a holding pattern. We were told it was over a place called Bovingdon, which I was never able to identify from the air. At its western perimeter it extends to Aylesbury, which, from a height of 15,000 feet—first time around—looks quite interesting. You can see the line of the railway and the roadways all progressing in a north-westerly direction. As you come around for a second time and you look down at Aylesbury, you find that nothing has changed. It does not actually seem any more interesting than it was before. The third time around, you become really bored with Aylesbury, which is a delightful place to visit, I am sure, but nevertheless the process of going round and round in this circle is something that engenders various feelings: partly boredom, partly frustration and, for those who have deadlines to meet—a connecting flight, for example—increasing anxiety. One of the features of the holding pattern is that you, the passengers in this aircraft, are never told how long it is going to go on. Of course, an end is reached when there is an announcement, which I think goes like this: “Cabin crew: 10 minutes to landing”. At that point, you can be reasonably confident that the pilot, for her part, knows exactly where she is going.
I have not kept the same count as the noble Lord, Lord Newby, but as far as I am concerned this is the third debate on the agreement that I have taken part in—the third turnaround in the holding pattern. So far as I can tell, we have the prospect of yet one more to come—another take-note debate and another vote, perhaps in two weeks’ time—and we have not yet been told that there are only five or 10 minutes to landing.
I think there is more than a grain of truth in that part of Mr Tusk’s carefully planned outburst, born of frustration, about,
“those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it out safely”,
having something to answer for. As I did in this holding pattern, I feel a sense of increasing frustration, especially at the business we are doing in these weeks and in the forthcoming business weeks ahead. We are being fed on a diet of no-deal statutory instruments that most of us hope will never be used. When we look back, perhaps in six months’ time, we will come to realise that this—no doubt necessary—step has engendered an enormous waste of time and money. Leaving aside the debate as to whether the legislation is necessary or required, there is increasing concern, as we get closer to 29 March, that it will be more and more difficult to put through the legislation that surely has to be in place before Brexit. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, I look forward very much to hearing what the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, has to say as to what that legislation is. I rather agree with the catalogue that the noble Lord, Lord Newby, gave us a few minutes ago.
All that having been said, on how we get out of the maze that surrounds us I remain of the view—which I have expressed at least twice before—that there is really not very much wrong with the agreement itself if the backstop issue can be sorted out in a way that will satisfy those parties that have genuine concerns about it. I for one detect some positive signs in the Prime Minister’s Statement, particularly as I raised the issue of language in an intervention some weeks ago. Particularly interesting, I thought, were the second and third steps she mentioned—that,
“there could be a legally binding time limit to the existing backstop”,
“there could be a legally binding unilateral exit clause”.—[Official Report, Commons, 12/2/19; col. 731.]
Arguing for these solutions is not going to be easy and may well take time, but it is not quite as far-fetched as some might think that a solution by one or other of those means might be reached. I suggest that the line would be to fasten on the assurances that are already there in the protocol. Article 1.4 states that:
“The provisions of this Protocol are … intended to apply only temporarily”;
I emphasise “only temporarily”. Article 2.1 states that:
“The Union and the United Kingdom shall use their best endeavours”—
I emphasise those words—
“to conclude, by 31 December 2020, an agreement which supersedes this Protocol in whole or in part”.
Article 6.1 states that “a single customs territory”, which was at the centre of the arrangement, “shall be established”, but only until the “future relationship becomes applicable”. Especially, there is the overriding obligation in part 1 of the agreement at Article 5: the obligation of good faith.
We need to remember that the obligation of good faith carries much more weight in civil law systems than it seems to do in ours. In civil law, it is a principle about the implementation of a contract which can be enforced. There is no such general concept in English common law, which tends to regard good faith as a rather vague concept, not carrying very much weight. I hope we can build on the civil law concept and the language to which I have drawn attention already. The language is already in the agreement, after all. The case can be built on what is already there. I am glad to hear that the Attorney-General, who tended to underplay these points in his earlier advice, is now an active member of our negotiating team.
If something useful can be obtained out of this, what then? Accepting the agreement still seems to me the best way out of a highly unsatisfactory situation. Those who favour this course can only hope that this will achieve majority support before time runs out. I absolutely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, in the first part of her Motion, that we must stress yet again that a no-deal situation is wholly unacceptable.
Looking ahead, the political agreement is troublesome—long on aspiration, painfully short on detail. As the Prime Minister herself said, it is not legally binding and provides for a spectrum of outcomes. It is far short of the framework that Article 50 contemplates, and negotiations will not be made any easier by the fact that if we reach that stage we will already be outside the EU.
There is much force in the point made by a former Cabinet Secretary last week that there is a real danger here unless we are given a clearer idea of the eventual destination by those who are supposed to be in charge of our affairs. Much hard thinking has to be done behind the scenes to work out a plan for that stage—not just a sketch of the plan, as Mr Tusk contemplated—that will command majority support as we set off into these negotiations. It will not be easy, but it is a very necessary step.
As already mentioned, time is patently too short for all the pre-Brexit legislation to be put through, whatever one makes of it. Insisting that we leave on 29 March looks more and more absurd, given that there is such a powerful case against a Brexit with no deal. A sharper attention to the timetable is necessary, which is the subject of the second part of the noble Baroness’s Motion. However, if one gives effect to what that Motion contemplates, it will leave us with only four weeks—just 16 sitting days—to get all the business done. The number of days shrinks time and again as we look at them. Surely the exit date must now be postponed.
If we are to ask for that, or if it is offered to us, we must have a clear idea as to what any extension is designed to achieve. I hope that although much effort is still to be concentrated on discussions about the agreement, a real and genuine effort is put in to working out a sound and convincing argument for an extension. That needs to be a detailed plan so that the timing of the extension can be guided by what needs to be done. After all, we cannot expect to be given a second chance. It would be a real tragedy if we were to fall short on that point and end up by default with a chaotic Brexit.
My Lords, I agree with a great deal of what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, said in his excellent speech. If this goes on much longer I fear that the noble Lord, Lord Newby, will run out of jokes and perhaps the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, out of apposite analogies.
As the Commons struggles it its paralysing three-way trap and the search goes on for the holy grail of alternative arrangements, the question again is how your Lordships can best help with advice on escape hatches, if any exist. The position has now been clarified and reclarified to the point of almost total unintelligibility. Either there is an Article 50 delay—short, medium or long—although for what purpose no one openly has an answer, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, emphasised; or there is the so-called crash-out, managed or otherwise; or, the best hope, the withdrawal agreement treaty scrapes through at the end of February or the end of March, still unopened but somehow reinterpreted by a codicil or instrument to make it temporary and conform to the consent required under the Good Friday agreement, a point that often tends to be overlooked. The device being examined for that is called a joint interpretive instrument which can be attached to the treaty. So that is what is behind the withdrawal agreement.
Behind the delay lobby is the obvious wish for another referendum, which we have heard about, although the questions remain of who knows where that would lead, what it would settle and whether the legislation to launch it could ever pass through the other place.
Behind the no deal, walk away or crash-out option on WTO terms, we have the assurance of my noble friend Lord Lilley that there are 30 reasons not to worry. Unfortunately there are many others who have at least 30 more reasons to worry a great deal—not least farmers, most of industry and business, the police and many other major concerns of this nation.
As for the withdrawal agreement scraping through before the end of March, behind that is the hope that both the EU negotiators and, here at home, the famous ERG diehards in the other place will all yield a bit and make concessions, along with 50 or 60 Labour MPs who are said to be now seeing sense, or so I read.
On top of this, we now have the letter of the leader of the Opposition, Mr Corbyn, to the Prime Minister asking for agreement on “a permanent customs union”. It is a pity that he did not ask instead for an evolving customs partnership because that in the end is what we are going to get. Not only do customs authorities in and out of the EU co-operate closely all the time anyway but most goods travel under simplified procedures.
However, more than that, behind the Corbyn letter there is an alarming and pitiful ignorance—admittedly widely shared by many Members of Parliament and the media—about the radically changed nature of all trade today and of the real meaning of a customs union in modern conditions. This is where your Lordships can help—if we can get heard above the cacophony of disagreements in the other place. The McKinsey Global Institute reminds us that today—and even more tomorrow—most international trade is not going to involve customs machinery at all. Already the bulk of both service trade and just-in-time import trade is conducted without any reference whatever to customs unions or customs delays.
Services do not do customs or customs unions. Services which are not traded through frontiers at all already constitute more value in global trade than goods. This dominance of services, which have grown 60% faster than goods trade in the past 10 years, is completely obscured by traditional trade statistics. The conventional statistics—last year’s Bradshaw, as the late Harold Macmillan would have described them—fail to track soaring cross-border flows of digital services and intangible assets between affiliates which are becoming a huge part of the trade picture. I do not know who does the research for Labour or advises the excellent but obviously frustrated Sir Keir Starmer, but they should get on top of this.
In short, the whole idea of a permanent customs union with the EU, which Mr Corbyn is calling for, is becoming marginal to boosting our trade and, therefore, our jobs in the digital age. As the Governor of the Bank of England was saying this morning, there is indeed a new order in cross-border commerce lying ahead. By the end of the two-year transitional period, if the withdrawal agreement allows, it will be even more so. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, whose speeches on this matter are always a treat that I enjoy, will be able to tell us exactly where Labour has got to on this new situation. We have heard nothing about it so far.
The other area where Commons experts plainly need help is in their mistaken conviction that the EU today is a fixed system on a fixed path. In fact, the old EU model is being rapidly overtaken by all the obvious pressures of digitalisation, notably populism, massive centrifugal forces and decentralisation—all causing what the New Statesman, which I do not often quote, calls a new European schism. Eastern and central Europe are breaking with Brussels, southern “Club Med” Europe is rejecting the north, I now read that the French are withdrawing their ambassador from Italy, and Greece has been putting on trial its chief statistician for the crime of telling the truth. As for the core of EU countries, France—our long-standing ally and friend—magnificent Germany, also now our good friend, are both in deep stress and political instability. We should be working out how to assist them instead of arguing with them over outdated trade practices.
Ireland, too, should be our closest friend these days, not our opponent. I strongly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hain, who made that point the other day. This is a close neighbour that is now richer than us in terms of per capita income, is increasingly ready to forget old bitterness, faces undoubted dilemmas with which we should strongly sympathise, and actually wants to engage more closely with the Commonwealth and stick closely to the Good Friday agreement, as well as the common travel area and a dozen other relationships that both sides should treasure.
All in all, the Brexit situation ought to be perfectly able to be handled by a properly informed and functioning Parliament ready to support a step-by-step approach into the utterly changed conditions lying ahead—the first step being precisely what the withdrawal agreement, maybe with some codicils, offers, as my noble friend Lord Lansley pointed out a few minutes ago.
My Lords, I am doing my best to follow the noble Lord’s argument. I do not entirely understand what a widening customs partnership is. It is an unclear concept. We all agree that in a digital age and where standards and regulations are at least as important as tariffs, we are in a different world. When Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister 30 years ago, she accepted that having a single market was more important than being in a customs union. Can the noble Lord explain how a widening customs partnership would deal with the harmonisation of standards and regulations, which—I think he is arguing—are more important than customs these days?
The explanation would take longer than the time I have available. I shall share it with the noble Lord afterwards but the basic point is that services are the expanding side of international trade. Standards have to be negotiated with America, the European Union and so on, and within the EU of course, but also with all the great new markets of Asia, Africa and Latin America, where the big expansion of services will be. There never was a clear single market in services. We hoped for it but it never worked. We face the same problem there as we are facing throughout the world. It is perfectly straightforward that in this area old-fashioned customs arrangements affect only solid physical goods; they are a declining part of the system. Therefore, concern with old-fashioned arrangements is becoming less relevant.
That is a different question. What we are talking about here is whether one is in or out of a customs union with the single market. I am saying that it matters a great deal less than it did. I can produce a long list of statistics showing that it is becoming less important.
Turning to the Irish border, I have always argued, as a lot of people have argued, that it does not need future technology. At present there is an invisible border but considerable differences between the Republic and the north in a variety of things. That can continue. There can be additional policing, authorised transport and all the rest of the things that we have discussed in this House which can deliver over the next two years, unless we are very stupid, a perfectly adequate invisible border. It can be done, and a great many people know it can be done. The argument about the backstop is absurd because no one ever wants to reach that point, as the noble Lord recognised.
In my view, the Brexit situation should be perfectly manageable. Next time it comes up in the House of Commons, it should be made a vote of confidence. If—I repeat “if”—regrettably this Parliament still votes it down and cannot agree on any way forward, and therefore is failing the people, the only course is for the people to elect a new Parliament, for which a short Article 50 extension would be needed and would be granted. Like it or not, and want it or not—and it does not sound as though the Opposition want it now—that is the way that parliamentary democracy works. Just in case, I gather that 6 June has been pencilled in as the appropriate date.
My Lords, it is always good to follow the noble Lord, Lord Howell, because I have known him for many years and he brings a great deal of wisdom and food for thought to our deliberations.
The UK is the prototype of a nation utterly dependent on its relationship with the world. This calls for statesmanship, vision and imagination to meet the challenges involved. Traditional experienced diplomacy is at a premium. This contrasts with petulant, arrogant, defiantly confrontational language, of which we hear too much. We have been repeatedly told that Britain will want to have a positive, warm relationship with Europe, whatever the outcome of our present negotiations. I fail to see how the language being used at the moment can possibly be preparing the way for that kind of positive relationship. It is not the way to win friends and influence.
We need a bit of perspective. The UK joined the Common Market of its own volition at the time of the Heath Government. It confirmed its membership of the European Community in the referendum under the Wilson Government. We must face the reality that, whatever the emphasis on economic policy and the economic implications, the whole drive for Europe has been political right from its inception at the time of the European Coal and Steel Community. Economic integration is vital, but it is not an end in itself and it has never been seen as an end in itself. It has always been seen as the means to build security, peace and certainty for the future of the European continent.
The challenges facing the world at the moment are immense: the new aggressive foreign policy of Russia; the uncertainty and volatility caused by the Trump Administration; the sinister extremist development of European ultra-nationalism in Poland and, sadly, in Italy, not to mention the reflections of them from time to time in elements of our society; the faltering Chinese economy; the Gulf; climate change; and migration, to which climate change is closely related. We are constantly debating immigration here, but we very seldom face up to the issue of how the scale of migration can be met effectively.
I say to my friends on the left that I also believe there is a tremendous challenge to Europe to develop a social agenda, rather than just economic discipline. Britain could play a major role in that. Above all, we should be in the midst of it all, fighting the battle and carrying the banner of unyielding commitment to social justice.
This past weekend, I have been rereading—not for the first time—the very absorbing biography of Sir Brian Urquhart, who will be 100 next month. He has served the UN with outstanding skill and commitment since its earliest days at Church House across the road. His memoirs are worth reading: indeed, one Under-Secretary at the UN has suggested that every new member of UN staff should be given a copy of this book and read it before starting their work.
I do not want to dwell on his UN record but on the earlier parts of his biography. He was clearly a very brilliant and able young man. In the Second World War, he found himself serving in the airborne division as chief intelligence officer. He became increasingly disturbed by the effort going into preparing for the Arnhem operation. He felt that this was becoming very dangerous. He used his authority and powers of persuasion to have some Spitfires from the RAF fly at tree-top level, taking photographs of the area where the parachute regiment was due to land. The photographs were very vivid: they completely upheld his analysis that the regiment was about to parachute into the arms of the Panzer division. The tanks and armoured vehicles were under the trees, exactly in the landing area.
He insisted on seeing General Browning, who was in charge of the operation, to show him this evidence. He had already been arguing his case for a long time, not always to his senior officers’ pleasure. Browning looked at it and the conversation came to an end. Sir Brian got back to his office and was rather surprised when the regiment’s chief medical officer came to see him. He said, “Urquhart, we all admire your professional skills, but you have been working too hard. You are under acute psychological strain at the moment. You are to go on sick leave”. Urquhart replied, “Sick leave at this moment?”—it was two days before the planned operation. He asked, “What if I refuse to go on sick leave?” The chief medical officer said, “Be careful or you’ll be court-martialled”. In utter dismay, he went to his home in Sussex, and one can imagine what he suffered there as over the next two or three days he watched unfold exactly what he had predicted.
I want to conclude with what Sir Brian says in his book about that powerful episode. He says that as a young man he had persuaded himself that logical argument and rational discussion, backed by irrefutable fact, could prevail, whatever the situation. However, he became totally disillusioned about that, saying that it was “utter nonsense”. When a group of people with dedication and single-mindedness are determined to do something, they will not listen. They will not look at the evidence in front of them, and this becomes increasingly true when personal ambition is involved. I find that story very powerful, because at Arnhem 17,000 allied soldiers died, were wounded or went missing. Instead of the end of the war being speeded up, as was the rationale for the operation, it was delayed.
There comes a point in human affairs when you have to say, “Stop”. I do not think that we have been saying “Stop” loudly enough. We have allowed ourselves to get tangled up in all sorts of legal arguments, when more or less all the evidence indicates that coming out of Europe is a disaster. I find it absolutely unacceptable that we, as a responsible Assembly, can contemplate that as the way forward and are not prepared to say that we cannot possibly go ahead with this operation without the specific endorsement of the British people. Another referendum is therefore indispensable—one in which the facts and the knowledge which we have acquired and which is now much more available are put before the people. We are going to carry a heavy responsibility into the future. Now is the time to start talking straight.
My Lords, I have not spoken in a Brexit debate until now because I did not think there was any point. What I might have said would have been said dozens of times before, and I do not suppose that whatever I say here today will have the slightest effect on the outcome. However, on this occasion, I wish to ask my noble friend the Minister a question.
Before I start, I should say that I voted to leave in the referendum. Indeed, I voted to leave in 1975 as well. Before we joined the Common Market, Britain had 100% control over its destiny and its laws, rules and regulations. The reason I voted to leave in 1975 was that I thought there would be a loss of sovereignty and, like the vast majority of Brexiteers, the reason I voted to leave in 2016 was to regain that sovereignty. I know that remainers cannot understand why Brexiteers voted to leave, just as Brexiteers cannot understand why remainers voted to stay, but we are where we are. What we need to do now is find a way through this quagmire that is in the best interests of the United Kingdom.
We are told that if we do not vote for Theresa May’s deal, there is a danger of us crashing out with no deal—falling off the cliff edge, which we have heard again today. I am not sure that we need to fall off a cliff edge if there is no deal, because under Article XXIV of the World Trade Organization’s General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the United Kingdom and Europe would be allowed to continue with the zero-tariff, zero-quota trading arrangements after 29 March. As the EU enjoys a £95 billion surplus with the UK, I cannot see why it would not welcome such an arrangement.
However, there are conditions. First, both parties have to agree to this standstill arrangement covering all goods trade, but could then negotiate at a later date a more comprehensive free trade agreement covering services and so on. This might not solve everything, but it should ease some of the fears about a cliff edge. Secondly, both parties must be in negotiations for a free trade agreement. It is on this point that I can see the Minister saying why we cannot invoke Article XXVI. He might say, “We have tried to negotiate a deal. Negotiations have failed, they have broken down, and because they have, we will not be able to invoke Article XXIV; hence, we are leaving without a deal”. I disagree. Just because the first deal put on the table is unacceptable does not mean that the second one will be—if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. That is exactly the point of Article XXIV: to reduce the disruption while negotiations continue.
I understand that the Department for International Trade is investigating the possibility of invoking Article XXIV. I also understand that the Malthouse compromise envisages as plan B, in the absence of a formal withdrawal agreement, a basic interim agreement with the EU using Article XXIV. However, it is disappointing that the Department for Exiting the European Union is silent on Article XXIV. I can understand the political reasons why No. 10—
I am sorry to interrupt the noble Earl, but I draw his attention to a briefing by the House of Commons Library from last week, No-deal Brexit and WTO: Article 24 Explained. Briefly, it makes it clear that if you have no deal, you cannot invoke Article XXIV. It is about interim application with a view to a full trade agreement. If you crash out with no deal, you are not negotiating a full trade agreement. Anyway, apparently no interim agreements have been registered with the WTO since 1995, because they can be objected to.
I think I have just explained exactly that point. Just because the first deal is unacceptable, does not mean that the next deal will be. Negotiations will continue.
I was saying that I can understand the political reasons why No. 10 would want to keep Article XXIV under wraps, because talking about its possibility in public would reduce MPs’—and, indeed, noble Lords’—fears about no deal. This would make no deal considerably less frightening and therefore lessen the chances of the Prime Minister’s deal being passed. I ask the Minister: what discussions have the Government had with Brussels, and indeed the World Trade Organization, about the possibility of invoking Article XXIV, to ensure that we meet all the necessary conditions? Where there is a will, there is a way.
My Lords, I regret that I will be unable to follow the noble Earl, because I still believe that leaving the EU is a bad mistake. Mr Tusk was right to say that the remain group—those who did not want to leave and those who want a second referendum—are in trouble because we lack leadership. We need a rallying point, but your Lordships will excuse me if I do not go over those arguments.
This is a strange and fairly terrible moment in the history of this country. We are so conditioned by the events of the last two years that we are no longer surprised that the fate of this country is still undecided, six weeks before Brexit is due to take effect. We still do not know whether we are going to remain, crash out, or do a deal. All we know is that Brexit means Brexit—we are no further forward. What we lack is any mechanism for ensuring that it is not chaotic. I share the anxiety of my noble friend Lord Butler and others about the massive overhang of legislation and statutory instruments we face. We cannot deal with them in the time left, and it is becoming more and more unconvincing that we will be able to deal with that load in 26 working days, except by allowing the Government a measure of almost despotic Henry VIII powers, which are wholly unacceptable in normal times and set a precedent which should worry us. The role of this House in ensuring that those proposed powers are properly examined and limited is vital. There is a temptation to think that because the press do not report us, we are unimportant. We have a key role to play in examining legislation over the next six weeks. I personally will do my best to be here to vote and to ensure that we do what we can to keep whatever has to be done within reasonable limits.
I have a second worry, which is about my old profession: the Civil Service. Civil servants are keen to do their best for the Government of the day. Do not believe anyone who says anything different. They want to say, “Yes, Minister”. They want to offer a solution to every problem that their political masters offer them, but the scale and complexity of what is being undertaken at the moment is beyond the comprehension of any of us. I was in charge of two government departments before I became Cabinet Secretary, and our relationship with the EU permeated every aspect of our daily life. To try to rewrite that in the next few weeks is almost impossible, and to try to deal simultaneously with two possible outcomes—crashing out and doing a deal—is both a terrible complication of the task and quite possibly beyond their competence. The Civil Service is being asked to do something which no civil service could do. It will do its best but it is almost certain that some awful things will go wrong. My plea is that the political reaction should not be one of blaming the Civil Service but of understanding the scale of the task that it has been set, and for concerns to be focused at the political level, where people can defend themselves, not on people who are unable to defend themselves and have been doing an honourable attempt to implement a colossal task.
Nobody is going to get what they want from this Brexit saga. The Brexiteers are not going to get what they want. I think the Brexit dream is slowly dying. I fear we remainers may not get what we want, although I should be delighted if some deus ex machina emerges in the final squeeze. I do not think that the scale of what has been done will give business what it wants; I think it will find itself without the certainty it needs. I do not think that the people who wanted to restrict immigration will get what they want. It is quite normal in political affairs for nobody to get what they want, but on this scale it is worth noting.
What we will get is change. We are spending far too much time, because of the Brexit debate, on things that are not of major importance. The ship of state is becalmed. Nothing is going on in government to deal with the big issues facing the country domestically, such as the NHS or universal credit, because all the energy is going into Brexit. Beyond that, the world around us is changing. We think Brexit is the big issue, but the really big issues include the tension between America and China, which will dominate the world over the next 10, 20 or 30 years; there are big issues in Europe, as the noble Lord, Lord Howell, superbly illustrated. We should be part of the solution to these problems, not making them worse by leaving. Technology is changing. I chaired two workshops recently which left me breathless about the scale of change that is coming, which people do not know about. A good example is quantum computing, which will alter computing in the next 20 to 30 years. It will have huge industrial consequences. The world in which we do business, operate and co-operate with other countries will alter. Our energies should be there, instead of us going round in circles and exhausting ourselves with exchanges on subjects that few of us fully understand.
I support the Motion in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith. The no-deal proposition is terrible and I cannot see why it cannot be ruled out in the national interest. What matters now is the interest not of parties, but of the people on the street—the citizens of this country. History will examine what we do very critically. The eye of history is on our generation. The people who will pay the price and who will write the history are the young. I do not think they will be kind. We should prepare ourselves for some very sharp criticism of the period we are in. The best we can do is to argue for what we believe to be right in the national interest and, as Members of the House of Lords, to examine the Executive and hold them to account with all our best ability and strength.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Wilson of Dinton. I have enormous sympathy with just about every word he uttered. Like others, I contribute to the debate yet again with a heavy heart and deep regret that we find ourselves in this position. Once again, I find myself supporting the noble Baroness’s Motion and urging my noble friends on the Front Bench to accept it without putting it to a vote.
We are here to take note of the ongoing discussions—not negotiations, just discussions—taking place within the EU following our Article 50 notification. Why are we noting anything about discussions? The EU has made it clear that negotiations are over, on terms agreed and signed off by the Prime Minister and our team. What are we to make of this? We seem determined to break bonds with our nearest neighbours, to all our costs. We persist with apparently running down the clock, threatening no deal up to the last day, expecting the EU to cave in to whatever we demand. It is just not going to happen. The Prime Minister’s Statement says that she continues,
“to work with Members across the House to do everything we can to help build a country that works for everyone”.—[Official Report, Commons, 12/2/19; col.732.]
If that really is the aim, persisting with a no-deal route, keeping business in the dark about its future and risking people’s jobs and livelihoods by refusing to listen even to Parliament’s instruction that we must not leave without a deal is totally inconsistent with those aims.
Yes, it is true, as the Prime Minister says, that opposing no deal is not enough to stop it. But securing a deal is not the only way to stop us crashing out without one. We have the unilateral power to revoke Article 50. It is within our control. The Prime Minister says that public faith in our democracy will be damaged if Parliament ignores the result of the 2016 referendum. How could anyone seriously pretend that we have ignored that result? What is being ignored, to the detriment of trust in our Government and parliamentary leadership, is that the promises made at the time of the referendum cannot and will not be delivered. Yet the premise of the course that we are set on is that this is the will of the people. How do we know that this is what the majority of the country actually wants?
The Prime Minister says we must all hold our nerve to get the changes Parliament requires and to deliver Brexit on time. But the EU has made it clear that it will not drop the backstop. Indeed, if border checks are solved by technology, as the ERG has repeatedly suggested, what is the fuss about the backstop? It will never be needed.
Plan B, the Malthouse compromise, has been roundly rejected by trade experts. They have had to explain—as has the parliamentary Library, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, pointed out—that WTO law does not allow the UK and the EU to keep trading as if the UK were still in the EU.
The noble Lady asked what the fuss was about the backstop. Perhaps I may explain in one sentence. It is a constitutional point, not a point about customs. Any change to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland has to respect the terms of an international agreement, the Good Friday/Belfast agreement. That agreement specifies no constitutional change without consent. I do not know what conversations are going on, but if the noble Baroness reads the present version of the backstop agreement, she will discover that it does not respect the Good Friday agreement. This, in my view, has been an error both by our Government and by the EU.
Nobody is arguing for a return to what is somewhat confusedly referred to as a “hard border”. There is agreement between the EU, the UK and the Republic of Ireland that there should be what is confusedly called a “soft border”. That is not the problem. The problem is about the constitutional status of a part of the United Kingdom. That is why people are so angry and so worried about the backstop, and why there have already been a good deal of incipient attempts at violence in Northern Ireland, which mercifully did not kill anybody.
Perhaps we need to pursue this further but my understanding is that if there is technology which can ensure a frictionless border, the practical problems could be dealt with.
However, the Malthouse compromise—plan B—also falls foul of this problem: that it is impossible under WTO law for the UK and the EU to keep trading as if the UK is a member state while negotiating a free trade agreement for the future. On that basis, I am afraid that my noble friend Lord Cathcart appears to be mistaken.
Like many other countries we are in the grip of populism, whose success is based on promoting beguilingly simple soundbites and solutions to hugely complex problems. Populist leaders know that they cannot actually deliver these simplistic slogans. All that they need is for people to believe slogans such as, “Take back control”, “More money for our priorities”, “Free trade deals, easy peasy”, “Make Britain great again” and “Have your cake and eat it”. The referendum promises were never honest; they were designed to seduce people into a fantasy world of sunlit uplands, and they succeeded, but those running the leave campaign had no actual plan for how they would manage the country after Brexit. Indeed, the whole Brexit programme is based on a fundamental misunderstanding and misrepresentation of how the commercial world operates. Is this naive ignorance by politicians who have never run businesses or conducted trade negotiations, or do they just not understand or care about the legal realities?
I cannot believe that the principles of the Conservative Party—pragmatism, supporting business and jobs—are being sacrificed on the altar of an ideological fantasy, with its sacred duty to break 40 years of success. We have reckless brinkmanship and there is a reliance on railroading Parliament into acquiescence, even with the prospect of no deal. The path we are on is conducted by people who have got everything wrong so far about Brexit, about how the EU works and about how international trade operates. David Davis claimed that he could get a free trade agreement by going to Berlin, where they would be desperate to protect BMW. Liam Fox claimed that he would have 70 deals ready to roll on 30 March, on the same terms as before. The public were assured that we could have a final deal on the future relationship agreed in two years. The ERG insisted that we could leave the customs union and single market, and still have no hard border in Northern Ireland. None of these was ever realistic. Even the claims that the withdrawal agreement and political declaration will mean taking back control of our borders, laws and money cannot be relied upon, with all the difficult decisions being left to future negotiations after we have left.
The only aim seems to be to leave the EU, whatever the cost. The Government’s own figures prove that leaving the EU will make the country poorer, while leaving without any agreement will demolish our industrial success. We will lose thousands of businesses and jobs. It is not too late to go back to the British people with an honest reassessment of the false promises which they have been led to believe. It is not too late to give the country the chance to confirm that people are happy to proceed or have changed their minds. This is about not just trade but our whole way of life: our children’s future, our freedom and rights, our national security. So much is at risk. I am in favour of co-operation and partnership. But we must take care that at this crucial stage in the negotiations we are not just railroaded into leaving the EU, come what may, without checking back with the British people.
My Lords, I listened with some interest and considerable agreement to the noble Lord, Lord Wilson of Dinton. I cannot, however, go along with his final enthusiastic flourish: that we must continue to argue for what we believe in. I say that not because I do not argue for what I believe in, but because both sides of this argument have been arguing for what they believe in for the past few years and we have not got to any agreement—or even increased understanding of each other. This is a phenomenon not just of this country, but a global one: countries and communities are split down the middle because people are arguing for what they believe in, come what may.
I am quite used to that. I am used to people taking to weapons because of what they believe in. I have spent a good deal of my life trying to persuade people to look beyond what they believe in to a better future for their shared community. I agree largely with the Motion in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon. However, it means two quite different things among the people supporting it. Some say that they will not leave the European Union without an agreement—and they want an agreement. Others say that they will not leave the European Union without an agreement, while rather hoping that there will not be one, so that they will not have to leave. We need to be a little more straightforward if we are to find any resolution in the interests of our country.
There has been a good deal of talk about the backstop, and I will focus on that, because there is a considerable lack of understanding about what is involved. As the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill of Bengarve, pointed out, the key issues are not those that many people speak about. I hear many people speaking about the Good Friday agreement, but quite a number of them have not read it, or if they have read it they have not understood it, or if they have understood it they are disingenuous about it and are using it to promote one side or other of a Brexit argument that has nothing to do with it.
What happened with the agreement? First, the British and Irish Governments realised that they had been poles apart for a long time, and that that was not in the best interests of either country. They agreed to come together to build a new relationship, and reach a political agreement that will provide a basis for that. The basis was not the Good Friday agreement but the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1985, which was a very flawed process. I will not revisit that—I see the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, nodding his head—but it brought the British and Irish Governments together at the level of Prime Ministers, Ministers and civil servants, over a period, to build and develop a relationship with each other. That enabled, in the context of the European Union, and with the support of our friends in the United States, a new agreement to be produced—the Belfast agreement of 1998. That addressed the disturbed relationships within Northern Ireland, between north and south, and between Britain and Ireland.
Let us be clear, however: the key relationship was between London and Dublin—between the British and Irish Governments. That was the driver that kept it going, and when they forgot about that it was a disaster. The noble Lord, Lord Trimble, is not in his place but he, the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, and others will remember those occasions when Bertie Ahern, as Taoiseach, allowed Mr Gerry Adams and his colleagues to go to Dublin and start external negotiations, and then the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, went to London to talk to the Prime Minister, Tony Blair. The whole process began to fall into disarray. Some of us had to publicly call for them to come back to Belfast, to the chairmanship of George Mitchell, to try to reach an understanding. The key thing was to keep the British and Irish Governments together.
When, therefore, I hear people saying that the British and Irish Governments cannot negotiate on questions like the backstop without doing it through Brussels, I do not find it easy to believe. Brussels never complained when the British and Irish Governments were negotiating on Irish border issues; on the contrary, they took pride in the fact that it was being done, that the model of the European Union was being adopted, and that funds could be made available to promote it. The reason that we are having this problem is that the British Government, having dealt with the Irish problem, did what the British Government usually do with the Irish problem; that is, ignore it and hope that it will now go away, and not pay proper attention to the Irish Government and their relationship with them. What then happens? Surprise, surprise, a decade on, they run into difficulties.
The noble Lord said that Brussels did not intervene in the negotiations at an earlier phase. The reason was perfectly simple. It was that both the United Kingdom and Ireland were in the single market; they were in the European Union together, and there was nothing for Brussels to intervene about. That is not now the situation.
My Lords, as far as I am aware, they are both still in those places. They may be negotiating to go out of them, but they are still currently in them. If Brussels does not want any help, it may find itself creating problems rather than finding solutions. That is not in anybody’s interest.
In terms of the Good Friday agreement—I was part of the negotiation—neither the British Government nor the Irish Government bothered to fulfil the requirement of the British-Irish side for meetings of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, which did not meet for a decade. Is that not evidence that London was not paying proper attention to the relationship with Dublin?
What about Dublin? It is absolutely clear that the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, decided that, rather than act as a bridge between the United Kingdom and the European Union, he would line up with Europe and act as a bulwark for the European Union against the United Kingdom. It was not for the first time, and not for the first time has it been a disaster. Historically, every time Ireland has lined up with the rest of Europe against England, rather than Britain or the United Kingdom, it has always ended up being let down, from Roger Casement to Wolfe Tone. Every time they depended on people from outside to help in the relationship, it was historically disastrous. England’s difficulty was rarely Ireland’s opportunity; it was more often Ireland’s difficulty as well, and that is the danger that we are in at the moment.
The British and Irish Governments need to work much more closely together and engage with Brussels. Is there some practical way in which it could be done? I hear lots of people say that all these things are impossible; I came to the conclusion quite some time ago that had the people negotiating in Belfast, Dublin and Brussels been in Belfast 20 years ago, we would never have had a Good Friday agreement, because they would have said, “It’s all impossible. The IRA will never do this. The unionists will never do that”. But we got there, right at the end of the time. How did we do that? First, we built relationships. We did not stand shouting abuse at one another. We started to talk. Then we set to the side high principle and started talking about the practicalities. When we asked unionists whether we could have cross-border bodies or, as republicans would have said, all-Ireland bodies, the unionists said, “No, you can’t have that”. We said, “Hang on a second. We’ve actually been co-operating for 40 or 50 years on the question of fisheries in the Foyle because the fish pay no attention to the border and just go backwards and forwards. Could we do something now on other issues?” “Ah”, the answer was, “if they’re practical issues, we can”.
When Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness wrote a joint letter in 2016 to the Prime Minister, they pointed out some of those practicalities. They said, “What are the issues?” In terms of the economy, which has been mentioned, there are basically two. One is agriculture and agri-food business; the other is energy, particularly electricity. What if the British and Irish Governments came together and said, “We’ve reached an agreement. Because it’s an island, it’s a natural quarantine. We’ve got to look after animal health and plant health. We’ll deal with agriculture and agri-food business on an island-wide basis. We’ve got good traceability and we’ll work together on those things. We’ve got an electricity grid which is for the island as a whole and, by the way, we’ll reach agreement that we are not going put any nuclear reactors on the island of Ireland. Could you let us deal with those things on an all-Ireland basis, because that’s the vast majority of the problem?” I think that quite a lot of unionists, as long as it was seen not as a constitutional but a practical issue, would say, “Okay, let’s talk about that; we can maybe do that”. As Ian Paisley famously pointed out, the people are British but the cows are Irish. So we can do a little bit on the agricultural side.
People on both sides of the border already know where they should be paying their taxes to—they do not always do it but they know where they should be paying them to. If you are taking a load of petrol from Belfast to Dublin or, much more interestingly, a load of Guinness from Dublin to Belfast, you know perfectly well that taxation is different on the two sides of the border, whether or not you are in the EU. You still have to pay your taxes, and it is traceable.
If we deal with the practical realities, we can find ways of resolving these problems, perhaps quite quickly. But they need to take place in a context where people want to reach an agreement, not frustrate an agreement, for whatever reason and whatever background they come from.
It has been said clearly that time is short. The reassuring thing is this: two months before we reached the Belfast agreement, Sinn Féin had not even put forward a proposal for a Northern Ireland Assembly; less than two months later, we had a Good Friday agreement. It is doable if we are determined to reach an agreement and not frustrate the reaching of an agreement.
My Lords, it is fascinating to follow such a fluent speaker. I do not think that I am qualified to challenge what he told your Lordships.
As a convinced supporter of leaving the European Union, I recognise that I am in a tiny minority in your Lordships’ House. I invite noble Lords to pause for thought that this House, for the first time since 1910, has parted company with the people. There was a trust, I believe, between the people and the Peers that we would support them against a high-handed other House. I am not sure that that is entirely significant, but what I would say about people who are very gloomy about the churn and bad temper that the noble Lord, Lord Wilson, touched on is that we might look back and say that this was an extraordinary moment of change in British history and British politics where there was a realignment of people, and the bad temper and hot debate was all part of that and was perhaps more constructive than we see it now on a day-to-day basis.
I was interested, as perhaps other noble Lords were, to read an article in last week’s newspapers drawing our attention to the treaty of Utrecht of 1713. The author—of the article, not of the treaty—Mr Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, made the point that the famous treaty still holds force today because, unlike agreements such as NAFTA, NATO or the World Trade Organization, it contains no escape clause. The withdrawal agreement has no escape clause either. By signing it, we would be bound by its terms literally for ever. No country that I can think of with any significant stature in modern times has ever committed an act of such suicidal folly and self-harm as throwing away indefinitely fundamental sovereign powers.
I accept the advice that the term “best endeavours” may indeed have some force in international law, and, for all I know, “protocol” or some other comfortable form of words might, in diplomatic terms, add value to negotiations, but this is simply not good enough. We have been here before. I remind noble Lords how Mr Tony Blair affected to meet concerns about the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, which became legally binding under the Lisbon treaty. He told the other place that, through securing Protocol 30:
“It is absolutely clear that we have an opt-out”.—[Official Report, Commons, 25/6/07; col. 37.]
The rest is history. As a consequence of that contemptible episode, the ECJ acquired jurisdiction over swathes of our commercial, social and criminal law that was not intended by Parliament.
Of course, I am not remotely exercised by President Tusk’s preferred choice about where I spend eternity. What I cannot ignore is the EU’s increasingly aggressive attitude to this country in general and its relentless attacks on the City of London in particular. I remind noble Lords, as I have before, that we are morally and legally entitled to leave the European Union.
A gulf is fast developing between the very well-paid and arrogant officials of the EU and the citizens and institutions of individual states. I meet men and women from continental Europe who express acute embarrassment and shame at what is being done and said in their name. A group of top German economists have told the EU to tear up the Irish backstop and ditch its ideological demands in Brexit talks, calling instead for a flexible Europe of concentric circles that preserves friendly ties with the United Kingdom. Brussels must, they said, abandon its indivisibility dogma on the EU’s four freedoms to come up with a creative formula or risk a disastrous showdown with London that could all too easily spin out of control. What welcome and sensible mood music that is, compared with the vile-mannered stuff issuing from the mouths of some Eurocrats. The vexatious backstop is, for me, only one of the wholly unacceptable aspects of the withdrawal agreement. If there is any merit in the political declaration, I think it is that it has little or no legal force. By my reading, it gives away control over the environment, labour law, competition and state aid. Through non-regression clauses, none of this body of law would be capable of repeal. There is no mutual recognition for future trade in services. Accordingly, under the scope of the withdrawal agreement the most valuable and critical part of the economy will have been sacrificed.
During these debates I have asked the opposition parties from time to time what they like about the EU. I do not think there is much interest in the Liberal Democrat view, as it becomes daily clearer that, as a party, they have more appetite for virtue signalling than for governing. Their attitude to EU membership at the last election decimated their numbers, but it has not led them to moderate their actions here in your Lordships’ House to be more in line with their representatives in the House of Commons, a practice followed, I suggest, by both Labour and Conservatives in the past. Labour politicians, as distinct from Labour voters, have an obvious taste for EU membership, as it shields them from any responsibility for their redistributive policies. Their appetite for helping themselves incontinently to money they have not earned is something they can and do blame on the remote people of Brussels.
We know that part of the animus about the Labour Party on the Benches opposite is their attitude to the distribution of wealth. To be more specific, I am simply asking the noble Lord whether, as an Etonian, he believes there is an issue there? Does he have some understanding of why many people in this country would take a different view?
How nice to hear from an old class warrior. Yes, I did go to Eton and, yes, I do have land, or my family does—I have declared an interest; it is all in the register—and I should have thought my party were really rather enthusiastic redistributors ourselves. My point is not that we are redistributing other people’s money incontinently but that we are happy to face the voter at election time, but I enjoyed the intervention.
Given that we never hear from Labour politicians so much as a syllable of criticism directed at the EU and its works, I would love to know how ready they are to sign up to the EU’s federal ambitions, how comfortable they are with the well-chronicled defects of its institutions, the vast cost of corruption, the crony capitalism, the protectionist policies that harm developing countries, the democratic deficit and the truly inhuman scale of youth unemployment. Above all, they speculate, wrongly, that Brexit will cause poverty, yet they seem determined to ignore the impact of the common external tariff at between 18% and 20%—I have asked the noble Baroness on the Front Bench several times—that is levied on clothes, footwear and food. So much for Labour’s pretension to care for the poorest and most vulnerable in society.
I will say more generally that I cannot remember a time when the political class was so out of touch with the people they represent—that is a more general point and I do not focus it just on the party opposite. I canvassed opinion quite widely in Cumbria over the weekend, consulting people who voted leave and those who voted remain but have now become leavers. The reason for the change is quite often rather complex. However, overwhelmingly it has been that this has all gone on for far too long and that, to quote my right honourable friend the Prime Minister,
“no deal is better than a bad deal”.
I happen to believe unashamedly, as somebody in business, that a clean break on WTO terms is better even than a second-rate deal. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and all those following her, even some on my own side, have talked about chaos and crashing out. Some 130 countries deal on WTO terms without much distress. Maybe they have been listening to the CBI, an organisation at the heart of crony capitalism that takes money from the European Union.
It is time to take stock. Those on my side of the argument put forward suggestions and ideas almost daily. For example, I have qualified enthusiasm for what has become known as the Malthouse compromise. I wholeheartedly applaud Kit Malthouse for bringing together people of opposing views in a constructive search for solutions.
My understanding remains that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister undertook to achieve certain objectives consistent with the result of the referendum. They were to take back control of our laws, end European Court of Justice jurisdiction in the United Kingdom, end vast sums of money going to the EU, end free movement, allow the UK to leave the single market and the customs union, guarantee control of our agriculture and fisheries policy, allow new, independent trade deals for goods and services, guarantee existing defence and security arrangements with interested allies and keep the parts of our precious country united. In these very difficult circumstances, a reasonable person might allow for some slippage on some of these undertakings but, as I understand it, not a single one of these undertakings has been honoured in full by the withdrawal agreement. I do not know which failure shocks me most; I single out just one. Surely every single loyal British subject is entitled to assurances following the warnings by a former field marshal of the British Army and heads of our Security Service that the withdrawal agreement imperils our security. Can it really be the case that defence of the realm—that principal responsibility of all democratically elected Governments—can be traded away? What is going on?
I agree with the notion that officials advise and Ministers decide, and it would therefore be wrong to point a finger at the Civil Service. To that extent, and only to that extent, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Wilson. Might it be, I ask myself, that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister’s heroic resilience under such unprecedented pressure is the result of the field of advice being too narrow rather than too broad? Might it be the case that she consults with colleagues too little rather than too much? Whatever the case, it seems that confusion reigns. Worse, it feels that as the process winds wearily on, we are being deceived. I know for a fact that I am far from alone in this view. If trust continues to be eroded, and if people are denied the Brexit they voted for, I fear for my party, my country, the new generation and those that follow. Above all, I fear for representative democracy and the rule of law, which our forebears won at such great cost.
My Lords, I do not know if it has something to do with the algorithm used by the Whips’ Office to allocate the order of speakers in these debates, but this is far from the first time that I have had the pleasure and honour of speaking after the noble Lord. I have forgotten how many times it has been. His hatred of the European Union is so obsessive that it becomes quite amusing at times. Normally I do not have time to correct him, unfortunately, but I will correct him on just two points, since I think I can take that amount of time today.
The noble Lord referred to corruption in the European Union. That is a frequently used argument that one hears the whole time in Eurosceptic rhetoric. It refers to the Court of Auditors declining to sign the accounts of a number of operations involving the distribution of agricultural funds in the Union. The Commission itself has a very good record on corruption—much better, I might say, than the British Government. We are talking here about failures by the member states in their role distributing Union funds, such as structural funds and agricultural support. If, in fact, the Union were centralised as he says it is and all this was done centrally by the Commission, there would perhaps be less local democracy and less federalism, but there would also be less of what he calls corruption.
The second thing the noble Lord said—again, you hear this very frequently from Eurosceptics—was that the Union is undemocratic. In actual fact, if you suggested making it more democratic—I would be very much in favour of doing that, for example by having election of the President of the Union by universal suffrage as happens in the United States or France, say—he would be horrified and would say that was against national sovereignty. He cannot have it both ways. It is completely illogical. If he wants to charge the European Union with being insufficiently democratic, he cannot at the same time reject the obvious remedy, which would be to make it more democratic. I personally regret that that has not happened in the past and I trust it will happen in the future. It is more likely that it will happen in the future, because we will no longer be there. That is one of the ironies of this situation.
The present situation is obviously confusing for everybody, but one thing is quite clear: the Prime Minister, Mrs May, is playing games with the British people. She says that she intends to continue the negotiation with the European Union. She says that she has left some of her team in Brussels for that purpose. That is utterly absurd. The European Union has told her very clearly that it is not prepared to negotiate any further on her particular deal. That was a very reasonable answer and one that I would have given if I were in its shoes, because no sensible or business-like person agrees to reopen an agreement just a few weeks after it has been signed. It is utterly ridiculous. They were very helpful to Mrs May the other day when they gave her some explanatory letters, but apparently that was not good enough for her. The idea that she is continuing to negotiate is absurd.
Leaving her junior officials in Brussels and saying that they are somehow continuing the negotiation is even more absurd. If the Commission is not making concessions to her, it will hardly make concessions to junior officials. I imagine they are spending their time eating moules-frites and drinking rather nice beer. They cannot be doing anything else and presumably they are being paid on expenses for that purpose. It is all part of a charade mounted by Mrs May.
In the same way, a couple of weeks ago, Mrs May said that she wanted to discuss the Brexit situation with the Opposition and with parliamentarians across the board. It all sounded splendid, except that if she had had the slightest genuine intention of exploring the possibility of a consensual Brexit, she would have done all those things two or may be two and a half years ago. The thing is clearly a gimmick.
Why is she doing all this? She is clearly doing it, once again, to try to waste time. I have said this before in this House: the agenda is to waste time. She has done it on this occasion by simply cancelling votes or debates in the House of Commons or postponing them for a later date. Every time she gains a week or two, she gets nearer and nearer to 29 March. She thinks that on the eve of 29 March, everybody will be terrified of being blamed for a hard Brexit and will simply sign up to anything she wants as an alternative. That is the game that is being played. It is a very ruthless game, and it is hardly straightforward. It is perhaps a game that is not yet fully understood by the British public, but it will, no doubt, be dissected by historians in the future and we should have no illusions about it.
What should we do? I have no doubts about that at all. We are in a situation where Parliament cannot make a decision. There is notoriously no majority support for any solution in the House of Commons. There is majority support for a negative aspiration, which is not to have a hard Brexit. In a situation in which the normal leadership of an institution cannot agree on structural policies—on important corporate strategy, for example—it must go back to its stakeholders. A public company must go back to its shareholders. If you are a lawyer negotiating on behalf of your client and you cannot make any progress, you have to go back and ask for further instructions. The Eurosceptics rather like the word “instruction” in this context because they like to think that the referendum was an instruction to Parliament. I did not believe that and nor did the High Court. Nevertheless, perhaps if they like the word, they would like to chew it over and think about it again. That is a very normal situation which arises when an agent finds that he cannot make any further progress on the basis of instructions he has already been given. He must go back to his principal and ask for further instructions.
If the Executive branch of the British Government will not do it, Parliament must go back to the British people and ask for further instructions. That means that we should have another vote on this subject. Far from being undemocratic, it seems to me to be extremely democratic to give the people of this country a chance to judge the whole matter again. Lord knows, there has been fantastic change over the last two and a half years in this context. All of us, including very much myself, have learned an awful lot of things about Brexit which we never guessed before.
I like to think that I took a reasonably active part in the campaign. I never heard the words “customs union”—nobody ever mentioned it. Everybody talks about the customs union now. In the campaign, I did not hear any mention of the Irish dimension, until I raised it myself in a public debate in the Mansion House. My opponent clearly had not thought it through and so I had a considerable rhetorical victory there, which I enjoyed. However, it did not figure on the agenda in the referendum campaign.
Nothing could be more natural, democratic and transparent than saying to the British public, “We have been debating this for two-and-a-half years now. We have looked at it from many aspects and points of view. There are people in Parliament who are in favour of every conceivable possible solution. We would now like you, ladies and gentlemen, to take the decision”. I hope that is the way we will go forward—it should be. It is profoundly respectful of the electorate and the principles of democracy. Pragmatically, it is surely the only sensible and viable way out of the dilemma we now find ourselves in.
I wish to make one further point. There has been a great deal of concern, rightly so—not only in this House but in the other House, the media and in private discussions all over the country, particularly in industrial and commercial fields—about the damage that will be done to the British economy by any Brexit, particularly a hard Brexit, whenever it comes, be that in a month or two or at any other time. That nightmare faces us, and it is right that we should be mainly concerned about it.
However, the economic issues that I am most concerned about in this context are the longer-term ones. If we leave the European Union, it is goodbye to manufacturing in this country. That is a big statement, I know, but I am prepared to justify it. Of course there will still be some small manufacturing operations trading in the local market—manufacturing will not totally disappear—but it will go down from the present 8% of the economy to perhaps 2%, which is the kind of figure you find in Australia or Norway.
The reason for this is—I have been interested in this matter from many points of view, including my days in the City years ago—that almost every investment in manufacturing in this country is made for the purpose of establishing a base for supplying the single market, which many people have always wanted, and if you are no longer in the single market you do not qualify. As it is, we are in the single market but people who invest here and then sell in Spain, France, Germany or wherever have to face considerable transport costs and foreign exchange risks. They have accepted all those things up to now against the compensating advantages which we can offer in this country, but we have added, unfortunately, to the equation the substantial negative factors of the prospect of delays at frontiers and complete uncertainty about future British policy, including on regulatory divergence which could create non-tariff barriers. We have an unpredictable, incompetent Government, one member of whom has become a theatrical example of that incompetence. None of this reassures potential investors and it will be very bad.
I understand the economic theory which tells you that it does not really matter if we have a manufacturing economy; that it is just as good to have services, for example, or mineral extraction like the Australians. Theoretically that is true, but it makes a great deal of difference to individuals who have the skills required in manufacturing because it determines whether or not they have a job. It makes a great difference to areas of the country which have traditional manufacturing bases because it determines whether or not they become depressed areas. It is serious in human terms and should not be lightly thrust aside. It is a serious issue and that is why I mention it.
In other areas, there has been a complete failure to understand the long-term damage that will done. The noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, who is not in her place, made a good speech a couple of weeks ago about the broadcasting directive. No one contradicted her understanding of that, which is that if we leave the European Union it will no longer apply here. At the moment, as the House knows, that means that a television programme or a film which is released under licence in any EU country can be automatically shown anywhere else without further expense or bureaucratic procedures. That is a great advantage for our creative industries. If we no longer have the broadcasting directive, we shall be the last place anyone wants to make a programme or a movie, for reasons which are obvious to the House. That is an example of a services area—the creative arts—where we have a good record which will be damaged by leaving the European Union. It is so crazy.
Then there is the issue of the City and banking. Of course, bankers are unpopular people and no politician wants to be associated with defending their interests, and so the matter has never been properly mentioned here. Many people say, “Oh, it will be all right. Everyone will stay”. Some have said to me, “There has not been the exodus from the City of London which you expected”. I did not expect it at this stage in the game—I was right not to do so—but I read an article in a paper before Christmas which said that only 7,000 people from financial services have moved because of Brexit. That is an interesting use of the word “only”.
First, 7,000 people is not nothing at all by any means. The House will follow my elementary maths. You would not normally think it worth while to relocate someone who was not earning, say, £100,000 a year basic, with bonuses in a normal year being perhaps £200,000. So £300,000 earnings would be normal for someone in that category who is going to be moved for business reasons. If you multiply that by 7,000, it is close to £3 billion. Tax at 40% would mean about £800 million less for the Revenue. No doubt someone on that kind of earnings will save some money, but the rest of it will be spent. So there will be a considerable negative multiplier effect if people leave. It was 7,000 before Christmas—no doubt it is more now and might be more in the future—and that is not to be laughed at. It is a serious issue. It may not affect people in this Chamber, but we should think carefully about the prospect of running down such a British industry.
There will also be a loss of opportunities in that interesting sector—I worked in it for many years—for young people in the future, who had on their doorstep the biggest international financial market in the world. That will steadily no longer be the case. It will not happen overnight, but that will not be the case in 10 or 15 years’ time—certainly not to the extent it is now. We are debasing and devaluing a big national asset, and it is a sad moment.
Saddest of all is the fact that we are leaving the European family. We are rejecting our neighbours—not as neighbours but as close partners and friends in a common enterprise—and it is a grave and serious situation. We will be regarded inevitably as being stand-offish, arrogant and very foolish. People will not take pleasure in doing us favours in the future and they will not be particularly sympathetic if we run into reverses. It will change entirely our relationship with our closest neighbours and trade, defence and security partners in the future. We will no longer be working with them closely on all the causes we hold dear, from stability in the world, to the environment, to free trade, to human rights and so on. That will be a sad and grave day in the nation’s history, and I bitterly regret it.
My Lords, following the longest speech in the debate, I am challenged to make sure that I do not go on quite as long as that.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Stamford, whom I regard as a friend—we were colleagues at one stage, on the same side in another place—that he is not being entirely realistic. I share many of his sadnesses and regrets, but it is not realistic to expect a second referendum. To go on about that is not doing Parliament or the people any great service. I do not like the whole concept of a referendum; it is inimical to parliamentary representative democracy. However, we had a referendum and we have to live with it. We heard a wise speech from the noble Lord, Lord Wilson of Dinton, in which he remarked that nobody will get what he wants as a result of this. He has left the Chamber—but it was still a very wise speech, and doubtless he will come back. He made another comment with which I disagreed: he said that we had become becalmed. In fact we have been caught in a whirlpool that is going round and round and, within the next six weeks, we will come to that artificial date, 29 March.
What do we do over the next six weeks? I do not particularly like the deal that the Prime Minister struck, but it is realistic. It would be sensible to go along with it rather than to plunge ourselves into further chaos, and certainly rather than to have a no-deal conclusion—that would indeed be a disaster. Those who know about these things have warned us repeatedly in recent days and weeks how much of a disaster and a jump into the unknown it would be. I say to my noble friend Lord Cavendish, for whom I have an affectionate regard, that at the end of all this the very rich will not suffer, whatever happens. I am concerned about the workers in Sunderland who—misguidedly, I think—voted by a large majority to leave. I am concerned for the future of people in the West Midlands, and those in Lincolnshire who voted in great numbers to leave, thereby putting the horticultural and agricultural industries in some jeopardy. However, the fact is, as is often said, that we are where we are and we have to go forward.
We cannot retain all the benefits of membership if we are leaving. One cannot leave a club and keep all the benefits. That is as plain as the proverbial pikestaff. This is a great country and I hope that its greatness has not come to an end. We are, I hope, facing a future that is not entirely dire, but I do not mind saying to your Lordships that my sons and grandchildren are deeply despondent about what has happened, and we have to have regard for them. As we have said in this Chamber time and time again over the past two years, although the majority was clear, it was small. So it is entirely wrong to try to behave on a winner-takes-all basis; there has to be compromise. I say to my noble friend Lord Cavendish and those who think as he thinks, quoting the famous words of Cromwell from a different age, conceive it possible that you might be mistaken.
Of course it does. We all have to do that, and therefore we have to approach this in a spirit of not only compromise but some humility. The ultra-Brexiteers in my party do not represent the Conservative voters in the country, although they most certainly represent and reflect members of Conservative associations. However, they do not represent those who normally vote Conservative and I urge them to have some regard for people’s concerns and try to have—as the noble Lord, Lord Davies, suggested —as amicable an outcome as we can, retaining our friendships and alliances. I implore the adherents or members of the ERG: you are not representing true Conservative opinion in the country but have hijacked the show to a large degree.
I suppose that it is the same sort of broad church as one that is attended only by, say, high Anglicans or low Methodists. There is no room for those who take a different view towards the European Union. The ERG’s members are all very anti the EU and determined to get us out without the sort of connections that our country is going to need.
That illustrates the divide in the party, and what we have to try to do over the next few weeks is bring people together. I do not agree with everything that the Prime Minister has said or done—of course I do not. However, we must give some support to her in the deal that she has reached and try to get it endorsed in Parliament. If it is not, I really fear for the future of our country. As far as your Lordships’ House is concerned, we of course have to acknowledge the political supremacy of the other place. My whole political philosophy is based on that; the elected House is where the power should and does lie, and that is right. We have to go along with whatever the Commons decides at the end of the day, even if decides on another referendum. I hope that it will not, and that MPs will rally round on 27 February or whenever and that there will be a majority for a deal like the Prime Minister’s, because I truly fear for the future if we fall or are pushed off the cliff edge.
I want amicable relations with our friends and allies and a Europe that can work together, including those who are members of the European Union and those who are not. We have to recognise the militant populism surging in so many European countries. Whoever thought that one European neighbour would withdraw its ambassador from another because the Deputy Prime Minister of that country was inciting rebellious forces within the other country? We are living in dangerous times and need to inject some peace and calm into this situation.
I mentioned a while ago that the Prime Minister should appeal across the House to the Leader of the Opposition and give all Members of the other place a free vote when it comes to the meaningful vote. That is essential. It happened when we went into what was then the European Community and it should happen before we come out of the European Union. We should press for that. As for tonight, I do not for the life of me see what point or purpose there would be in voting against the Motion tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon. There is not a word in it with which any of us, I hope, would disagree if we want a smooth outcome. So I implore my friends on the Front Bench not to vote. Last time, there was a similar Motion and an overwhelming defeat for the Government, which was wholly unnecessary because we were all singing from the same hymn sheet. Let us try to bring today’s proceedings to a close without dividing this House and in so doing send a message to the other place.
I rest my case but very much hope that by the end of March we will have reached some sensible conclusion, part of which should be an extension of the leaving date to ensure that all the necessary legislation passes through Parliament in a tidy and seemly manner.
My Lords, in common with many noble Lords, I had decided to abstain from any further EU withdrawal debates feeling that all there is to be said has been said not once but many times. I was also keen to cede the floor to noble Lords better equipped than me, through experience and expertise, to comment on the manifold versions of EU withdrawal currently on the table and, indeed, at this point scattered all over the floor.
However, in reflecting on the contributions of other noble Lords to the debate in this House on 28 January, and in following the ongoing discussions that are the subject of today’s Motion, I am struck by the continued silence of what Sir Ivan Rogers, in his Liverpool University lecture last year, referred to as “the dog that failed to bark”, and so I rise, I hope briefly, to ensure that in this take note debate this House really does take note of the impact of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU on our world-leading services sector and of the absence of any real consideration of the needs of services industries within ongoing discussions.
Services are a UK success story. They have driven three-fifths of the rise in UK exports over the past 20 years, they are responsible for more than 40% of our total exports, they contribute 80% of the UK’s GDP and they account for four in five jobs up and down the country. UK services are exported all over the world, but the largest single destination by far is the EU, which is worth £90 billion annually to the economy.
So why have we heard so little about trade in services over the past two and a half years, never mind over the past two and half weeks? It might be because of the high concentration of services in London and the south-east or because of the predominance of financial companies in the general perception of what constitutes the service sector. With London perceived to have prospered at the expense of the rest of the country, and with the financial sector still held responsible in the public mind for the 2008 crash and the years of austerity that followed, perhaps forefronting services in negotiations did not feel like much of a vote winner.
Whatever the reason, much of the debate on the future economic relationship between the UK and the EU has focused on key “at the border” issues affecting trade in goods, such as customs and tariffs, rather than the “behind the border” issues of domestic rules and regulations that are the potential barriers to free and open trade in services. It is certainly easier to grasp the more straightforward concept of selling a good than it is to understand cross-border services trade, which is by no means all carried out via virtual means. There are five modes of services. Yes, services are provided remotely, but they are also provided in the supplier’s country, such as tourism or studying at a university. They are provided in the consumer’s country through the establishment of permanent offices. They are provided by fly-in, fly-out provisions, and they are provided within the manufacture and supply of goods, which are almost always supported by services, including maintenance contracts, legal, design and technology, and this last mode is not covered by the WTO General Agreement on Trade in Services. Of course, most of these services are delivered by people on the ground, which means that service provision is linked inextricably with ease of movement.
This bundling together of services, goods and people finds perhaps its most sublime expression in the cultural and creative industries, particularly in the part of the sector in which I was active, where it is impossible to distinguish between the person and the service they offer. I doubt he would have expected to be quoted in this context, but WB Yeats had it right when he asked:
“How can we know the dancer from the dance?”
In terms of the service that dancers provide, you just cannot.
As was noted earlier, the creative industries are particularly relevant in any discussion about services. They are responsible for almost 10% of UK service exports, they are creating jobs at four times the rate of the wider economy and they contribute £101 billion in gross value added every year, which is more than oil and gas, automotive, aerospace and life sciences combined. This success has been achieved on the back of the freedoms enabled through membership of the EU: the ability to cross borders without visas; to transport instruments, scenery and costumes without tariffs, carnets and border checks; to have professional qualifications recognised and IP protected; and to travel freely, often at ludicrously short notice.
Despite their importance to the economy, the UK’s reputation, tourism, inward investment and employment, the withdrawal agreement is silent on services. As we have often said in this Chamber, it is true that the declaration on the future relationship is, despite its brevity, a far more important document, in the long run, than the agreement itself, but the language is vague and none of it is legally binding, so while it promises “ambitious arrangements”, it is worryingly light on trade in services and on the mobility of people that allows services to be delivered.
It is hard not to conclude, as Sir Ivan Rogers did in his Liverpool University speech, that,
“UK services’ industries needs have been sacrificed to the primary goal of ending free movement”,
on the basis that it is the will of the people. I ask once again: which people? Polls show that public concern about immigration is the lowest it has been for 16 years. The Migration Advisory Committee has noted:
“The UK may find itself in the position of ending free movement just as public concern falls about the migration flows that result from it”.
Even the Sun reported a YouGov poll showing that eight out of 10 leave voters want to welcome the same number of doctors and nurses to the UK after Brexit, with more than half keen to welcome even more. One in five leave voters wanted more social workers, too. It was the high-salaried bankers they wanted turned away. So much for the proposed post-Brexit immigration policy which, as it stands, will facilitate exactly the opposite: access for the higher paid, but nothing beyond a one-year stay for the nurses, care workers and teaching assistants on which our economy and society depend. Once again, just for the record, I say that salary levels are not a proxy for skills.
The CBI warns that for service industries, like so many others, no deal is not an option. It goes on to say that under a no-deal scenario service industries would not be able to rely on WTO rules and that companies in some of the UK’s most successful exporting sectors, including finance, broadcasting and airlines, would be unable, for certain types of services, to trade at all. This will hit not just London and the south-east; the north-east and the West Midlands send about half of their services exports to the EU, which makes them proportionally more exposed to the effects of no deal.
Given the strength of the UK’s services sector, the jobs it provides, the tax revenue it generates and, by extension, the public services it supports up and down the country, can the Minister confirm that appropriate attention will be focused on getting the right deal for the services sector as discussions continue?
I join other noble Lords in expressing my disappointment at yesterday’s Statement. We are told to hold our nerve. I know a thing or two about nerves, but we now find ourselves in a situation not unlike the ballet dancer’s standard anxiety dream: it is 7.29 pm, the overture is playing, the curtain is about to go up and we are all lined up on stage with absolutely no idea of the steps we are supposed to perform. The Prime Minister’s Statement on the ongoing discussions provided no comfort whatever for the services sector or any other that the cliff edge is receding. In fact, it did quite the opposite: her apparent tactic of kicking the can continually down the road in an attempt to ensure the other side blinks first seems to be taking us ever closer to a place where no deal is a horrible inevitability.
This House and the other place have both confirmed their belief that no deal must be taken off the table. With the clock ticking, with no alternative arrangements to the backstop on the horizon, with no sign of EU willingness to reopen a deal our own Prime Minister said was the best we were going to get, with a mountain of statutory instruments and Bills still to be scrutinised and debated and with no parliamentary majority for a deal in sight, it is surely time to admit that there is no possibility that this country will be ready to leave the EU on 29 March. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, so eloquently pointed out early this afternoon, we now need as a matter of urgency to start the process of requesting an extension to Article 50 while time might just still be on our side.
My Lords, this is my third time speaking and my third time doing so after the noble Baroness, Lady Bull. I do not know whether there is any significance to this.
Anyway, this Brexit debate is nothing if not a contest between two visions of the future. There is no surprise about that. However, the debate has become so dogmatic, dug-in and devoid of good old English common sense that it has also given rise to two versions of history. Just as the EU today claims moral ownership of the Good Friday agreement as if it had taken part in the negotiations and suffered thousands of casualties during the Troubles, there are some remainers who give the EU credit for ending the Cold War—so much so that, in our debate on 28 January, to the applause of others sitting opposite us, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, gave the then European Community the credit for bringing down the Berlin Wall.
This is entirely false. I was living in Germany, married to a German. I was there in September 1989, the very first time East Germans—
My Lords, if I can correct the noble Baroness, the credit I gave to the EU was for welcoming the states of eastern and central Europe into a state of democracy and freedom. We can argue about the cause of the fall of the Berlin Wall; I did not ascribe that, as such, to the EU.
I will cover that particular point in my next paragraph. I will continue because I am not yet confident enough to speak without notes, but beware: it will happen one day, and noble Lords might regret it.
I was living in Germany. We were there in September 1989, the first time that the East Germans were allowed to leave East Germany. We ran to the border and saw people coming out on bicycle, on foot and in their little Trabants. The West Germans lined the street and welcomed the East Germans. It was an unforgettable moment—the celebration of freedom from a state of oppression. This moment remains in my mind and will do so for a long time. My children are half-German.
The EU had nothing to do with it. It happened because of the fall of communism, mainly because of its inadequacies. If any international organisation contributed to the fall of communism, especially of the Soviet Union, it was NATO, not the European Community, as it was called then. If any international statesman helped the Berlin Wall come down, it was President Reagan, who called to Mr Gorbachev in 1989, “Tear down that wall”.
If we cannot agree on the future of this country, the least we can do is not reinvent the past to gain advantage in Brexit debates. Let us not forget that Paris and London were strongly opposed to the reunification of Germany in 1990 for fear that it would become too powerful. Let us not forget that Chancellor Kohl told the German people in 1997 that EU integration and the adoption of the euro were the price that Germany had to pay to dominate Europe without alarming its neighbours. Let us also not forget that Kohl pledged to his people that the euro—which led directly to economic crises in Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland, and to the impoverishment of Italy today—would be no less strong and stable than the deutschmark.
My Lords, we all have our historical memories and interpretations of history. In 1990-91, I spent a lot of time in the transforming societies of eastern Europe—Poland, Hungary, Romania, et cetera. The first thing that their new Governments wanted to know was how soon they could join the European Community. It was partly the attraction of the European Community which had led those Governments, including that of Hungary—who were a good, progressive Government in those days—to believe that reform was possible. My participation in this was different from that of the noble Baroness, and I saw something rather different too.
I completely understand what the noble Lord is saying and completely agree with him. In the east, they all wanted to join the European Community. It was seen as a symbol of freedom. This is not my point. My point is that it was implied in the previous debate that the European Union—when it was called the European Community—played a role in liberating the communists, and that this is entirely wrong. It had no role whatever.
Absolutely—I have the same recollection.
The point I am trying to make is that people are over-exaggerating in all these debates. I know that some people say the Brexiters are exaggerating on one side, but the remainers and reversers are also totally over-exaggerating. They have a nostalgia for a European Union which is a completely different entity. The European Community that noble Lords may be idealising had 12 relatively cohesive members. We are now leaving a squabbling group of 28 members, where even the EU’s core democratic values are in question. The “ever closer union” has come to a halt and the economy looks to be doing the same. What is economically essential to complete the eurozone has become politically impossible, as President Macron has learned to his cost. As the BBC would say, despite Brexit, we are actually doing rather well economically.
Compare us with France and Italy, as well as with Germany, which is now falling into recession. We need to be realistic. We keep looking inwards at what is happening in this country; this is not happening in the rest of the European Union. The real threat to prosperity is not Brexit—as some noble Lords call it, “crashing out”—but uncertainty and indecision. If one message comes over loud and clear from businesses and people in this country, it is, “Get on with it”. This is another way of saying, “Just do as you were instructed”.
We need to try to work together to find a solution and stop bickering and reinventing the facts. Do not delay; do not betray. Let us get on with it. There must be a solution somewhere that we can agree and work together on. As noble Lords keep saying, there is a future generation. They will not see us as very good if we keep on fighting, discussing and bickering. We need to look forward. I am sorry, I am a Conservative: we have a Conservative Government and we need to support our Government.
My Lords, I follow the noble Baroness, who had the misfortune to follow me in the great Lutyens house in Washington. It is said that every ambassador deplores his predecessor’s taste and his successor’s judgment.
I owe the House and the Minister an apology. I was called away and missed part of his speech.
The text for my sermon is the following:
“Taking back control is a careful change, not a sudden stop—we will negotiate the terms of a new deal before we start any legal process to leave”.
That is what the Vote Leave campaign said in June 2016. I repeat,
“we will negotiate the terms of a new deal before we start any legal process to leave”.
Here we are with six weeks to go, but we do not know what the new deal is and we are flirting with no deal.
Flirting with no deal is playing ducks and drakes with the country’s economy. It would be hugely damaging. British business is shocked because this is not what it was told to expect; it is not what it did expect; it is not what it is prepared for; and it is still in the dark about how to prepare for it. The noble Lord, Lord Newby, mentioned the British Chambers of Commerce’s 20 questions to the Government—20 basic questions that it has asked with six weeks to go. The noble Lord highlighted three of them; I would like to add three questions to the Minister.
First, supposing that there is no deal, what, on 30 March, will be our trade regime with our biggest trading partner—the 27 countries of the European Union? Am I right in thinking that the EU will apply its common external tariff and that the fascinating arguments about Article XXIV of GATT advanced by the noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, are a very elegant red herring? Am I right that the EU will apply its common external tariff in full on 30 March?
My second question is as follows. In the event of no deal, how many of the EU’s free trade deals with major third countries will have been rolled over? What about Canada, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, which are all big trading partners? Am I right in thinking that the answer is, “None of the above”?
Thirdly, in the event of no deal, how many new trade deals with third countries will be in force? What about Canada, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand? Am I right in thinking that the answer is, “None of the above”?
With six weeks to go, if the answers are as I fear or if the Government do not know the answers or will not reveal them, it is grossly irresponsible not to take no deal off the table. This is not a Westminster game; real jobs are at risk out there in the real economy. The irony is that those who misled us back in 2016 by saying:
“Taking back control is a careful change, not a sudden stop—we will negotiate the terms of a new deal before we start any legal process to leave”,
are precisely the same people who are now saying that we do not need any new deal and that no deal will be just fine. That is irresponsible. It might be just fine for them; for the country it would be disastrous.
Of course, the Minister will say, yet again, that the way to avoid no deal is to vote for Mrs May’s deal—the one that both Houses rejected by large majorities. They rejected it because it is such a humiliating and one-sided deal, and it will not get much better in the next six weeks. Here, I disagree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, whom I normally follow with great respect. As President Tusk and President Juncker said in their letter a month ago,
“we are not in a position to agree to anything that changes or is inconsistent with the Withdrawal Agreement”.
That draft treaty, on which they shook hands with Mrs May back in November, will not change in any significant respect, and I do not think that it is going to change at all.
It is perfectly possible to envisage changes to the political declaration, provided that they are not inconsistent with what is in the draft treaty. Of course, the political declaration is not legally binding. We in this House have spent very little time on it; we have spent most of our time on the treaty because we are so fascinated by the backstop problem. However, we should have spent more time on the political declaration because it is the most extraordinary document. It is astonishingly wide in scope and astonishingly shallow in substance. It does not settle anything for the future negotiation.
The political declaration kicks off well in paragraph 4:
“The future relationship will be based on a balance of rights and obligations, taking into account the principles of each Party. This balance must ensure the autonomy of the Union’s decision making and be consistent with the Union’s principles, in particular with respect to the integrity of the Single Market and the Customs Union and the indivisibility of the four freedoms”.
I wonder which side drafted that. The next sentence reads:
“It must also ensure the sovereignty of the United Kingdom and the protection of its internal market, while respecting the result of the 2016 referendum including with regard to the development of its independent trade policy and the ending of free movement of people between the Union and the United Kingdom”.
Who drafted that one? That is settled, then—there we have it. These principles will be respected, so the game is over and we might as well crack open the champagne straightaway.
Bits of the declaration do settle things. Paragraph 24 shows that we have accepted that we cannot be in the agencies, particularly the medicines agency, the chemicals agency and the aviation safety agency. Paragraphs 89 and 90 show that we have accepted that we will not have access to the European arrest warrant, the Schengen Information System and the European Criminal Records Information System. The police tell us that we will suffer greatly from that, but we have accepted it. The financial services paragraphs—paragraphs 37 to 39, which are astonishingly thin—make it clear that passporting and mutual recognition will not happen. That is not good news for the City.
However, most worrying are the really vacuous paragraphs about my old profession—the section on foreign policy co-operation. When you think of Peter Carrington moving the Council on the Falklands, of John Major moving the Council on a safe haven for the Kurds in 1991, and of the way that Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the other heavyweight in the Council, would defer to Douglas Hurd at the very time that the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, was speaking about—I wish that Lord Hurd of Westwell were with us today—it is very sad to read where we have got to on foreign policy. The political declaration says:
“The Parties will shape and pursue their foreign policies according to their respective strategic and security interests, and their respective legal orders. When and where these interests are shared, the Parties should cooperate closely … To this end, the future relationship should provide for appropriate dialogue, consultation, coordination, exchange of information and cooperation mechanisms”.
There is no definition of “appropriate” there. This is sad. We have contributed a huge amount to the foreign policy of Europe over the last 40 years. Now, we and the EU will be following our own interests and, if they happen to coincide, there will be some mechanism for talking about it. That is very bad.
I should draw the House’s attention to an even more vacuous paragraph on space. Paragraph 107 says:
“The Parties should consider appropriate arrangements for cooperation on space”.
So that is done—it is settled.
This document settles nothing at all. It is not prescriptive or definitive. We should remember that the EU will be negotiating on the legal basis of Article 218, and it needs unanimity on its side. Any single member side on that side can block anything. If somebody decides that to allow access for British fish products to his market he will demand access to British fishing waters, there is nothing to stop him saying that this year, next year and the year after—until we agree. Remember that the outcome is subject to national ratification; it goes off to the Wallonia parliament and referenda in five EU member states.
There is nothing certain in this description of the future. The only thing that is certain is that we are heading for at least five years—probably 10, I would guess—of continuing uncertainty. I come back to agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, because it would be shocking if I only disagreed with him in my remarks. I strongly agree with the way he ended. We do not have to accept this choice. It is not a choice between being thrown over the Tarpeian Rock on 29 March or the slow strangulation of this rebarbative negotiation, which would poison our relations with our neighbours for a decade, and the certainty that the deal we would end up with is a hell of a lot worse than the one we have now. We do not have to buy that choice. The first thing to do is agree that we should seek an extension under Article 50(3) of the treaty.
My Lords, let me again draw attention to my interests in the register and say what a pleasure it is to follow the noble Lord, Lord Kerr. I agree with him that where we are is just not acceptable. Today, I want to deal with a few points on, first, the timetable and, secondly, what I see as the view from Brussels. In UK political scenarios, it seems we spend most of our time speaking to each other; we seldom look outside the country and ask what other people see and what they have to say.
The first thing I would say is that this agreement is not about a dispute between Britain and Ireland; it is about an agreement between us and 27 other member states. Secondly, it is not an agreement that they want us to leave. It has been very clear from the first instant after this decision was made that the European Union would make jolly sure that the terms of our leaving were such that nobody else would ever try it. That is what this agreement is about. Of course, it is not actually an agreement. It is an agreement to seek an agreement. It has nothing really in it. The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, has drawn attention to some of the vacuous statements in the political declaration, statements which led to us being excluded from Galileo and the excellent Minister Sam Gyimah feeling he had to quit the Government because, as he said, we had no voice, no vote, no veto—that is where we are heading.
As far as Europe is concerned, we have a deal. It is up to us whether we accept it. They are not saying that there is a deadline for a deal; they are saying, “If you want to keep talking to us, there might be an amendment at the margin, but there will be no amendment on what you agreed”. Anyway, the only body capable of signing off on a deal is the Council. Messrs Barnier, Juncker, Verhofstadt and Tusk all represent important institutions, but they have no delegated power to sign off any deal. What they would say is, “You already have a deal; it has already been agreed by the Council. It is up to you to decide whether or not you accept it. Yes, we may talk about declarations or side points, but the main deal is not open”. Even if there is a subsequent side agreement, let me remind noble Lords that the Council next meets on 21 March—quite a long time from now. They will say, “There is no point postponing Article 50; nothing will change. All that would change is that you would have a few more weeks to ask for something you are not going to get”. Of course, if there was a real prospect, the Council, acting through the 27 member states, might be able to agree to extend Article 50. But why should it? What is the point? There is no point, as far as Brussels is concerned.
In this Chamber, we always forget that there is a body called the European Parliament. It is quite clear that the Council cannot conclude the agreement without the consent of the European Parliament.
Of course, the European Parliament has that right; it is a co-decision-making body with the Council. It has been represented by Mr Verhofstadt and the agreement will be placed before the European Parliament, which in theory can reject it—as can the British Parliament.
Yes, and it can carry on rejecting it, in which case we will have no deal. However, the European Parliament is a joint decision-making body and it cannot take a decision until there is an agreement in the Council.
The European Parliament next meets, after the Council, on 25 March. That is a Monday; they will not be there. So the earliest day the European Parliament could agree is the 26th. When you look at the clock, you see that if there is a change, there will be no agreement until the 26th. Then we will be right up against it, but the choice will be fairly clear. Assuming we follow normal conventions and have a Lords debate before the Commons debate, our debate will be on the 26th, and could presumably start as soon as word reaches us from Strasbourg that they have agreed the deal; having a debate would be senseless if they have not. We could have our debate and, on the 27th, the people down the corridor could start theirs. That is the timetable; that is the only one there is if there is an amendment to the deal. I ask the Minister whether he has any other, counter timetable, because that is the realistic timetable.
I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, that there is one point in her Motion which I find difficult, because it is unrealistic. That is the words:
“before the end of February 2019”.
If those words could be removed from the resolution, it would be perfectly acceptable. However, it is perfectly impractical to think that anything could be done before that date in February. That is one point that I would like the noble Baroness to consider regarding whether or not we could get a consensus in this House. There is nothing else in the resolution that most of us—other than those who strongly wish to leave without a deal, or with a very attenuated deal—could disagree with. I put that point forward.
The final point I want to make is this. Of course I deplore Project Fear, which we find constantly; this country will not collapse if we leave the European Union. It will have a difficult time; it will have a pretty torrid time for a pretty short time, but it is still basically a great country that will survive. It is not a country that will go into meltdown, or cease to exist, or where all the lights will go off. It is a country that will survive. However, it will survive as a diminished power in the world. It is a country that will survive outside the one bloc which uses its strengths to make it an important country. We will look back on this in the way that my generation look back on Suez—as a turning point which diminished this country. When we go into these negotiations, if we accept this deal—we will accept something or other—we are, as the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, said, going to have five or 10 years of fruitless negotiation. There will be no MEPs or people in the Council of Ministers to represent our views. We will constantly be the supplicant state, we will not have much power and we will have to take what we are given. That is not a good position for us to be in. I do not write off our country; it will survive and prosper, but it will never be as great as it can be as part of the European family.
My Lords, it is often forgotten that in May 1940, when we faced our deepest crisis, it was Labour, led by Clement Attlee, that saved Britain. It put country firmly before party, and, with the help of Tories who also put country first, ensured that Churchill became Prime Minister instead of Halifax, and so prevented a humiliating peace with Hitler. Today Labour is once again in a position to save Britain at a time of the greatest crisis since 1940. Alas, although that is the wish and the policies favoured by the Labour membership and supporters, unfortunately, a small group of ideologues has captured the party and defies the view of the vast majority of its members. Corbyn and his clique support Brexit, and even seek ways of making common cause with Theresa May to achieve it, whereas the membership opposes Brexit, and is in favour of remain and a new vote.
Corbyn has behaved dishonourably, indeed disgracefully. The letter to Mrs May before their meeting, drafted I gather by shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer, referred to the fallback position—which is official Labour Party policy—of a further people’s vote. Before the letter was sent, that reference was deleted. When asked why, the answer was, “Oh, we forgot to put it in”. What duplicity—and why was Corbyn seeking to do a deal which would leave the present Government in power to 2022? It seems that it was so that the Tories could take the blame for the disaster of Brexit, and would be out of power for a generation. When Labour supporters become aware of this manoeuvring by a small clique to thwart their wishes, there will be an outcry. Their behaviour should be exposed to every party member, and shouted from the rooftops. Polls show that Corbyn already has a negative rating among Labour supporters and has lost the support of most party members. The power of this clique can be broken.
Consider our present circumstances. We are stumbling towards a no-deal Brexit, now judged by many to be the most likely result. Most in the Tory party still seem mainly concerned with preserving its unity—but now, as in 1940, is surely the time to forget about party. Should not Labour pro-Europeans come out and publicly announce that, unless Corbyn abandons his support for Brexit, they will no longer accept the Whip? I believe that, as in 1940, a significant number of Tory pro-Europeans will be willing to show that they are no less patriotic than their Labour colleagues, and will also put country before party. The effect on our politics would be dramatic. If all pro-European MPs now declare their support for a new people’s vote, and campaign to remain in a reformed European Union, to save British manufacturing, the service industry, and hundreds or even thousands of small businesses that cannot cope with Brexit, then Brexit can be stopped. Labour can once again give a lead, and save Britain.
My Lords, I cannot comment on the reflections of the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, on the Labour Party as I am not sufficiently knowledgeable of its manoeuvrings. I have not yet spoken in this series of debates, so I will start with a staccato summary of my general views on the subject before coming to particular points.
Like my noble friend Lord Cormack, I do not care for referendums, but we voted to hold it. I campaigned and voted to remain in both 1975 and 2016. However, I accept the result. There are times in life when things change, and one simply has to come to attention, turn and march forward in the new direction, making the best of it that one can. Change can come suddenly, as when one loses an election—some of us have had experience of that—or it can creep up more gradually like old age, and some of us are experiencing that now. Either way, you accept it. A third referendum would not be wise. People talk of a second referendum, but of course it would be a third referendum on the same subject. Of course, those who think that the present result was unacceptable want to try again, but whoever lost a third referendum would want a fourth. The idea that it would settle the matter is wrong. It will be many years before history can judge whether or not it was the right decision. I suspect that in future many PhDs will be earned by academics arguing both ways. The judgment will depend, of course, among other things, on what happens to the EU in the coming years, as well as what happens to Britain.
Like my noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford, I believe that so-called alternative arrangements can be found so that the borders—both the land border in Ireland and our sea borders in south-east England—can remain much as they are now. From the trade point of view, it is the customs authorities which will organise that. We had a stark warning from the noble Lord, Lord Wilson of Dinton, about the stress on the Civil Service at the moment, and I firmly agreed with that part of what he said. I base my conviction that alternative arrangements can be found on my dealings, as Customs Minister many years ago, with the late lamented King’s Beam House, then the headquarters of customs. There had been a series of organisational changes since then, but I doubt that they have led to better practical advice to Ministers—I fear the opposite.
The former proud department of Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise, with all its experience, was merged with the Inland Revenue in 2006. Then in 2008, the Border Agency was created under the Home Office, and took over the border duties at ports, airports and the land border, and the customs cutters with them. Its responsibilities for immigration work, given the problems, were the main concern of management and Ministers at that time and since. These days, port, airport and cutters officers belong to the Border Force under the Home Office, whereas taxation officials collecting VAT, excise duties and so on are mostly inland and come under a different organisation.
We all know that tax, particularly VAT, excise rates and coverage, differs sharply between the United Kingdom and Ireland and between the United Kingdom and our continental neighbours. This makes smuggling at land and sea borders worth while if you can get away with it. Supplies for personal consumption are taxed in the country of purchase, so people in Northern Ireland cross the border to buy things without problems, and the same applies at Dover and elsewhere. That should not change. On the whole, smuggling is effectively countered by the relevant agencies in the various countries co-operating, and there is every reason why, if customs duties eventually differ, as presumably they will, in addition to the tax differences, the same will apply.
In designing alternative arrangements for handling cross-border trade, either on the land or the sea border, it should be remembered that the merged HMRC is trying to manage a range of complex IT changes all at once, including Making Tax Digital and its part in universal credit. It is also, unrelated to Brexit, introducing a new customs declaration service—a computer system that will replace CHIEF, the 25 year-old customs handling of import and export freight computer system. I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us whether the introduction of the new customs declaration service is going to timetable. It was scheduled to finish in March—an interesting combination of dates. Both CHIEF and CDS are linked to the existing EU export control system and will still need to be after Brexit as well. All this reorganisation must be making life very difficult for the customs management. Nevertheless, I firmly believe that alternative arrangements are technically possible and that they would work just as well as the existing and long-standing taxation and border arrangements work at both land and sea borders.
This debate has been, to some extent, a repeat of previous ones—the holding pattern that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, so charmingly introduced us to in his speech. Some contributions have simply repeated or developed further people’s previous views, but some important contributions have been very positive, starting with the noble and learned Lord’s. I was interested that he urged acceptance of the agreement, except for the backstop, and then carefully set out in a very good way solutions that sounded extremely reachable. I also noted the intervention by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, and the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, regarding the Northern Ireland aspects. They were most important interventions that should be taken into account and carefully considered as to what we do today.
I believe that in the end we shall emerge from this process battered, no doubt, but unbowed. I believe that this country has a great future whether or not we succeed in solving all these problems in the next few weeks. It might be that the backstop has to be extended, but only for a specific purpose. It is the next few weeks that will count, even if there is a bit of tidying up to do, as it were, in the few weeks after 29 March.
My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, this is the very first time I have inflicted my views on your Lordships’ House on what is without doubt the gravest matter I have faced in the 20 years I have been here and probably in my lifetime. I have a number of reasons for not having previously spoken on the subject. In the first place, I was not sure there was much I could offer that was new and illuminating. Secondly, I continued to hope that the Government, and indeed the leadership of my own party, would do a better job of steering clear of the self-destructive path that both, in their different ways, seem to be taking.
I have always shared the common view that Britain was a pragmatic, sensible country with an instinctive aversion to extremism, be it of the right or the left. It is now clear that I was wrong on just about all counts. This has led me to conclude that I do in fact have one or two fresh observations to offer. For once, time allows me to put those thoughts into context. On this occasion, context is particularly important.
Like one or two other Members of your Lordships’ House I am a mongrel. My mother’s family were immigrants from Russia and my father’s family were French—albeit they arrived as invaders on these shores 953 years ago. Our family home is in west Cork in the Republic of Ireland, where, for 30 years, I have enjoyed watching the relationship between my country of birth and my country of adoption grow ever closer. Sadly it is now clear that relationship is dangerously deteriorating.
For the past 50 years I have also run my own business, working in and indeed with the United States, during which I have made literally hundreds of trade deals. Most recently I spent four years as the UK’s trade and cultural envoy in south-east Asia, all of which allows me the conceit of believing that I know a fair bit more about the effects of Brexit on Ireland and the business of negotiating, most especially in the United States, than the current Minister for International Trade, Dr Liam Fox. From time to time I hear him and others speaking rather airily of a special relationship—that post Brexit we will be free to make the mother of all trade deals with the US. This belief is either a cruel fantasy or a deliberate falsification of what the best of his department know to be the truth.
“The chief business of the American people is business”.
That is not just a speech line dreamed up in 1925 by Calvin Coolidge; there is also a deep truth attached to it. No matter how close you may personally feel to an American business counterpart, when you sit across the negotiating table, all notions of a special relationship go out of the window and new rules apply. My friend the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, knows well of what I speak.
The first of those rules is that only a fool allows the other side to know where their red lines are drawn. The art of the deal is discerning where the other side’s red lines are in order to begin to assemble your own. Having done so, the second rule is keeping them to yourself. We somehow managed to break both rules within months of the referendum. We have been trying to haul ourselves back from that absurd position ever since. I used to believe—no, I used to assume—that we had some of the finest minds in the world working in our Foreign Office, a number of whom have presumably been seconded to the task of attempting to fulfil our new trade fantasies.
As he takes note, I would like to throw a few questions at the Minister. I ask him to respect the House by offering a thoughtful response to them. As Dr Fox dreams of improving on the EU’s trade arrangements with the US, is he aware that around 40 million Americans claim Irish roots and in most cases actually describe themselves as Irish-Americans? That is 12.9% of the total population and close to 20% of the voters in the crucial north-western swing states of Pennsylvania, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts and Connecticut. Is he also aware that no fewer than 63 US Congressmen and Congresswomen are members of the Friends of Ireland caucus, most of whom have direct Irish heritage? Did he know that US Senators Cantwell, Casey, Cassidy, Collins, Cruz, Durbin, Enzi, Kaine, Kennedy, Leahy, McConnell, Murkowski, Murphy, Murray, Sullivan and Toomey all have direct Irish heritage—that is, nine Republicans and seven Democrats? I will leave it to Dr Fox and those who advise him to work out the electoral consequences of a situation in which this country was rightly held responsible for severe disruption and maybe even disaster to the Irish economy on both sides of the border.
With the 2020 US elections just 20 months away, how would the Minister fancy the chances of a Senator or a Member of the House of Representatives who was felt to have in any way supported Britain in heaping misery on the Irish economy? As he prepares his response, I am sure that he feels that he can safely take refuge in an assurance that the Government have no intention of damaging the Republic of Ireland or its economy. But does he seriously believe that right now that perception holds good in Dublin, in Brussels or, crucially, in Washington?
I can confidently make him one promise. Should we crash out or endanger the Good Friday agreement, either accidently or through sheer ineptitude, then all the blame will lie with us. We will not be forgiven—not in Ireland, not in Europe and, politically at least, not in the United States. There will be no point in sending Boris Johnson off to attend a St Patrick’s Day parade wearing a green leprechaun hat, because Dr Fox is likely to find what he believed to be a friendly Congressional door slammed firmly in his face.
That is the purely political reality. But on any number of other fronts we are already discovering powerful lobbies in the US seeking preferential treatment in areas such as food safety standards, demands that are totally incompatible with our own established norms. Is Dr Fox, a medical doctor, going to suggest for one moment that we downgrade our own health and safety standards to close a trade deal? It is unthinkable.
Our Minister for International Trade has developed a habit of trying to retrofit his ideological preferences to imaginary world scenarios. However, despite small successes with Switzerland and Singapore, real life will surely close in, and he will be found to be what the Americans refer to as a blowhard.
John Harris, the Guardian columnist, wrote yesterday of his recent encounters with real life on both sides of the Irish border:
“Just about everyone I met knew perfectly well that Theresa May’s travails over the so-called backstop are the product of politicians and voters elsewhere forgetting about the island of Ireland, only to be reminded that for the people who live there, Brexit represents a profound set of dangers. No one was that surprised about this amnesia, but many were very angry about it”.
I am one of them. I am very angry. I am angry because most of the public discourse regarding the backstop, particularly from the ERG, has revealed a staggering level of either pig ignorance or malicious disregard, and I am not quite sure which is worse. As Harris wrote, Brexit is a,
“Pandora’s box, brimming with unforeseen consequences”.
Ever the optimist, my final question to the Minister is this. What specific plans do his Government have for healing the wound we have managed to inflict on our closest geographical and cultural neighbour, once all this present madness is behind us? It would be very wrong for him to either ignore this point or resort to any form of bland assurance, because, either knowingly or unthinkingly, enormous damage has already been done, and we will have to work very hard and with great imagination to recover the relationship that was so brilliantly forged by Her Majesty the Queen less than eight years ago, in May 2011. But even then, we will still be left with the question that many of us are forced to ask: was all this pain necessary? Was it really worth it? I profoundly believe it to be in the national interest to support the Motion of my noble friend.
My Lords, over past months we have learned all sorts of names as choices for European Union withdrawal. These include the Canada formula, the Norway arrangement, an adaptation of the latter called Norway-plus, then the expedient of a United Kingdom-European Union customs union, and, not least, the no-deal option.
Recently, however, quite some publicity has focused instead upon a new suggestion, to which noble Lords have already referred. This seeks to combine the customs union formula with Norway-plus, for one of its elements is the soft Brexit, Norway-plus deployment of membership of the European Economic Area and another is a UK-EU customs union.
Although coming forward rather late in the day, this notion is to be welcomed, for it enables an even wider grapple or context. Within this, each of the proposals, their permutations and their combined total can arguably be assessed all the more accurately.
I will comment briefly on their shortcomings, on the consequent challenge to Parliament and the country, yet on the prospect for the United Kingdom now to go in a much better direction.
Deficiency of offer is notably reflected by the reaction of another place. There is no stomach for any of the proposals. In the first place, to devise a palatable one requires patience and stamina. For seeking to do so, all of us will wish to pay tribute to my right honourable friend the Prime Minister.
Yet this expedient has been defeated by a large majority, and it will not pass without a significant alteration to the backstop, which is unlikely. The most recent intervention, outlined earlier, a UK-EU customs union allied to Norway-plus, might have come to the rescue. But it will not, for beyond Europe it would deny the UK an independent trade policy. Many will object to that.
Nor will it work to play for time. A request for an extension has already been rejected twice in another place. Even if it came to be approved, the EU is unwilling to reopen the withdrawal agreement in any case. Furthermore, remain will not achieve a majority; it only would through a second referendum.
Where Parliament certainly comes together is in its aversion to a no-deal Brexit. This, it is estimated, would produce an economic recession of minus 2% to minus 3% of GDP. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, and several other noble Lords have implied, it goes without saying that such an incompetent outcome would be as little tolerated by the country as it would be by Parliament.
That apart, if no version of an EU withdrawal arrangement is endorsed, there will be a no-deal Brexit. Among others, the noble Baronesses, Lady Smith and Lady Bull, and the noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, are correct to warn that at the moment that eventuality is far more likely than not; albeit not so much through any degree of complacency in Parliament. In fact, almost the reverse is true, more from an increasing awareness that the issue has become too hot to hold.
To protect against a no-deal Brexit: that is why the matter should now be returned to the country, as a number of noble Lords have advocated. Parliament would then have a clear mandate to deploy one of three alternatives: the Prime Minister’s current plan, no deal or remain. It has been alleged that it would not be procedural, and that it would be wrong to do this. Until last month, that caution had some force. Now it no longer does. For, conversely, it would be highly irresponsible and far worse for Parliament to drift into no deal without public consent, irrespective of a possible convincing public demand not to return this to the country. That is a point which the noble Lord, Lord Wilson of Dinton, my noble friend Lady Altmann and others have stressed.
As noble Lords have also mentioned, there is now much more information and knowledge on the consequences of EU withdrawal than was the case in 2016. To avoid a no-deal Brexit, if consulting public opinion is the right action, there is also the corollary to that, and the prospect of a much better direction, one of stronger unity among parliamentarians and improved public trust in them—and, towards the United Kingdom from those in Europe and beyond, of greater confidence and respect.
My Lords, this afternoon my son was in Parliament with his geography class from school. Next month, he will be 18 years old. Our older daughter turned 18 in October 2016. Neither had a vote in the June 2016 referendum. Both will now have a vote. Like them, there are 2 million youngsters who did not have a say in their future and who still do not have a say.
We are told—we have heard it in this debate—that we have to respect the will of the people and we have to respect democracy. Democracy is holding this country to ransom with a vote from three years ago. The electorate have changed, demography has changed and, as we are told time and again, in the 2017 election, implementing Brexit was in the manifestos of both parties. People vote in elections for lots of different things; there are hundreds of items in manifestos, and to say that they voted just because “Brexit will be implemented” was in a manifesto is absolute nonsense. Governments also change their mind after elections about their manifestos, and people change their mind. After all, the PM said that there would be no election to start off with. Then we had the vote that was lost by 230 in the other place—the biggest defeat in history—so now the Prime Minister has changed her mind and has backed the Brady amendment. In fact, she now has a reputation for turning. Time and again, her red lines have become pink. She does not just turn; she pirouettes, but not as well as the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, who made a brilliant speech earlier.
The noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, said that we must obey the will of the people and their instructions but as the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, said clearly, we are a representative democracy. For Nick Boles MP, 60% of his constituency voted to leave yet he has the guts and the bravery to go with his opinion on a Norway-plus option. That is representative democracy, because he thinks it is in the best interests of his constituents and of the country. On that theme, the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said that in the other place there should really be a free vote when it comes to the meaningful vote.
What about the 48%? There were 17.4 million who voted leave—52%—but what about those 16.1 million? This is the tyranny of the majority. In normal election cycles, every five years people get a chance to change their minds. Most importantly, next week it will be three years since the referendum was announced. People then had four months to make up their minds on an issue of the utmost complexity, covering more than 40 years, which was not even one of the top 10 issues in people’s minds at that time. Yes, the NHS was there, as were taxes, infrastructure and education, but not the EU. People had to learn about it and decide in four months. They voted for various reasons and, yes, people were deceived—on both sides, arguably. Of course the migration crisis was at its peak in 2015, something that was milked by UKIP during the election. Where is that migration crisis today? As the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, said, concerns about immigration are at their lowest in 16 years. The world has changed and the facts have changed.
Just today those at Migration Watch UK, of all people, released the claim that immigration will actually increase if Brexit takes place. It said that the average of 250,000 will almost double and hit half a million—so much for reducing net migration. But analysis after analysis shows that the migration of 3.5 million EU people has brought net benefits to our economy, whichever way you look at it. These immigrants are not a drain on our public services; they support them. There are 130,000 of them working in the NHS and the care sector alone.
What about the claim that we have no control over EU migration? I have brought this point up and asked Ministers about it time and again. Finally, I got it in writing from the Government in December. In an Answer from the noble Viscount, Lord Younger, the Government have now admitted in response to my Question that the 2004 regulation allows every EU country to repatriate EU nationals who have come in through free movement after three months, if it is shown that they do not have a job and cannot support themselves or are not in full-time education. We have never used this provision but other countries, such as Belgium, repatriate thousands of people every year. We have had control over EU migration. Why has that been hidden from the public? Finally, the Government acknowledged in writing, first, that this regulation exists; secondly, that they could use it; and, thirdly, that they never have. People are being conned. Why is this country not waking up to this nonsense?
People say that you cannot rerun a referendum—“We are where we are”—but what do we know now? Now we know that Northern Ireland is the Achilles heel of Brexit. The backstop is stalling everything. It is necessary for the Good Friday agreement and for the precious peace that we have in Northern Ireland. In fact, I would pay the £8 billion net a year that we pay to the European Union for the peace that it has brought over the last four and a half decades. But how much was Northern Ireland mentioned during the referendum? It barely was, yet now we know what a major issue it is.
The Government have lost by 230 votes, and now we know more in every area. We had an excellent debate here on security. There are databases that we use every day, let alone having access to Galileo. We have looked things up 500 million times on one European Union security database alone, and there are many others. What is to happen if this is not sorted out? The security of our citizens, the most important priority for any Government, is jeopardised by the nonsense that is Brexit. On consumer rights, now we know that our consumer protections are also being diminished. Which? magazine says that in a no-deal situation, there would be a bonfire of consumer rights and protections.
I am proud to be the president of the UK Council for International Student Affairs. We know that 130,000 out of 450,000 international students here are entitled to home student fees, home student loans and the right to remain here indefinitely after they study. If there is no deal and this issue is not sorted out, analysis says that there will be a decline of 57%. As a university chancellor, I say that the effect on all our universities will be huge. What about the academics at our universities, 20% of whom are from the European Union? In this great country, with less than 1% of the world’s population, we produce 16% of the world’s leading research papers. Much of that world-beating research is because of the collaborations that we have, including with European Union universities.
Dominic Raab said that he did not realise how important the Dover-Calais corridor is, or how important frictionless trade is. But now we know, as does he, how important they are to our automobile industry, which relies on the one-hour just-in-time principle.
At Harvard Business School, I conducted a role play with one of the world’s experts in negotiations, Professor Deepak Malhotra, in which he played the Prime Minister. The scenario came down to, “She did her best; the EU did its best”, then because she knew that she would lose the vote in Parliament, she pulled it at the last minute. Does that sound familiar? It is exactly what happened in December. Our role play continued, with the only solution being that she would go back to the people and say, “I will implement whatever you want, unlike my predecessor”. We would then have a people’s vote as a result, and if we did then I bet that we would have a 60% remain vote. Instead, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, said in an excellent speech, we are now in a holding pattern and waiting for the announcement “Ten minutes to landing”, except that we have 44 days left and no deal is still being held out as a threat by the Government to the EU and to Parliament.
The European Union negotiators are painted as the bad guys. We have heard in this debate that they are the ones being intransigent—but it is nothing like that. They have in fact been entirely consistent throughout; they have a mandate from the 27 countries and they are holding the line. It has taken two years to negotiate three items covering 600 pages, yet the political declaration—the framework—has less than two years to be negotiated. It is 26 pages long and it is full of platitudes and a wish list.
We are going into a blindfold Brexit. This can has been continually kicked down the road, “To infinity, and beyond”. The uncertainty this has caused for investment in this country has been tragic. The lowest growth rates in our history are forecast for the next five years, at less than 2%. Other countries have looked upon the UK as a gateway to Europe and the investment that flowed into that gateway is now being jeopardised.
Then we hear the nonsense about going global. Dr Fox said that we would have trade deals signed at the stroke of midnight. Supposedly, four are ready, including one with the Faroe Islands—big trade partners of ours. What about the 50% of trade that exists at the moment with the European Union? It may be declining but it is still 50% of our trade: approximately 45% of our exports and 55% of our imports. On top of that, 17% to 18% of our trade comes from free trade agreements through the European Union’s deals with over 50 countries. Two-thirds of our existing trade, therefore, is with and through the European Union. Then we are saying that all these other trade deals will just roll over. Dream on. The Japan-EU trade deal, the biggest in world history, took years; the Canadian one took eight years. They are not going to roll over a trade deal with a bloc of 500 million people—the biggest trading bloc in the world—to a country of 65 million people and a much smaller economy. It does not work like that; that is not the real world.
Some say that we should be doing more with the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth, including India, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, makes up less than 10% of our current trade. India has only nine bilateral free-trade agreements, and not one with the western world. Try doing a free trade deal with India with the hostile immigration attitude that we have at the moment. The noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, who is not in her place, said, “Look, in spite of Brexit we’re still doing so well”. Actually we are not doing that well. Our economy has stalled. In spite of being in the European Union for more than 40 years, until the referendum we were the fastest-growing economy in the western world. We were flying. We were at the top table: a global economy, respected by the whole world in spite of being in the European Union for 40 years at that stage.
The only way forward is for Brexit to be delayed. That is the only way. We have now heard that Olly Robbins was speaking in a bar in Belgium. I hope that he was drinking our King Cobra, which is brewed in Belgium, and I thank him for what he said. We must delay Brexit—tout de suite, à ce moment. We are beyond playing chicken with the EU and with our people and their livelihoods. There is too much at stake: it is irresponsible and unacceptable. Article 50 must be delayed immediately. The Prime Minister’s deal is as dead as a dodo. No deal should not now be an option. The amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, is absolutely right.
To conclude, that leaves two options: the least worst, which is a Norway-plus deal, and the best, which is to go back to the people and have a people’s vote. Dr Victoria Bateman of Cambridge University was naked on Radio 4 earlier this week, with the words “Brexit leaves Britain naked” written on her. As I have said time and again, the people of this country have now seen that the Brexit emperor has no clothes.
My Lords, my aim today is to put the case that the time has come for your Lordships’ House to consider a slightly more assertive position on Brexit—a slightly more muscular role, perhaps. I draw your Lordships’ attention to two items now standing in my name on the Order Paper. The first is the EU Membership Bill introduced in December, reflecting the Lead Not Leave bipartisan campaign undertaken by me, the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, and Gina Miller—the remarkable campaigner who defeated the Government in the Supreme Court over the triggering of Article 50. The other is a Question for Written Answer that was tabled today. First, it asks HMG what assessment they have made of the proposals of the Lead Not Leave campaign, in particular the one that suggests moving from debating terms for leaving the EU to debating terms for remaining in the EU. Secondly, it asks HMG about the potential benefits of the UK remaining in the EU on the basis of guarantees of constitutional and institutional reform.
The point of both of these is that we have spent two years arguing about terms for leaving. How about spending two minutes on terms for remaining—remain-plus, let us call it? We all agree that we cannot remain as before—to remain now would be a national humiliation that would last a hundred years. We also know that we must not, in this House, put on airs and graces. We must not get too big for our boots. We know our place. We can ask HMG to think again, scrutinise, but never challenge. We have heard it all a hundred times before, for a hundred years: “Watch it, or we’ll set the Parliament Act on you!”.
So why change now from all that humility? We should because there was no mandate in the EU referendum. The decision made by the British people was, “We can’t decide. We’re not sure”. Unlike a general election, when the vote can be reversed at the next election, in this referendum the result is permanent. So one vote is not enough. That is why nobody is happy. Leavers do not want to be half-in and remainers do not want to be half-out.
For pointing that out in this House, as we have often done, we are routinely denounced as the “remain House”. We are accused of thwarting, obstructing and frustrating—those are the words used—what is called the sovereign will of the British people in the biggest vote in British democratic history. The last person who made that accusation against us was the then Liberal Prime Minister Asquith on 2 March 1911. Commending the Parliament Bill to the House of Commons at Second Reading, Mr Asquith made the following statement about us:
“Take the hereditary principle. What can we get out of it? Honourable Gentlemen opposite—”
he was speaking of the Conservative Party—
“have got a great deal out of it … a practical working instrument … to frustrate and nullify the functions of this House”.
Then the Prime Minister said, of the hereditary principle:
“Let it not be our master. So say we. It is because it has been our master—because it enslaves and fetters the free action of this House—that we have put these proposals before the House, and we mean to carry them into law”.—[Official Report, Commons, 2/3/1911; col. 584.]
It is clear from that passage that the Parliament Act 1911 was fuelled overwhelmingly by the hostility of the Government of the day towards the power of the hereditary Peers. However, as we all know, that position changed when the House of Lords Act 1999 removed the hereditary Peers from the House. We were then told—were we not?—by the Leader of the House, the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, that your Lordships’ House was now “more democratic”, “more legitimate” and more authoritative.
Of course that is true. Your Lordships’ House has the expertise to help the House of Commons in the awesome task of leaving the EU. I was grateful to my noble friend the Minister for encouraging this House to, as he said, contribute to the deliberations of another place. That is because during the ping-pong on the EU withdrawal Act, there was much toing and froing about the meaning of “meaningful vote”. Section 13 of the withdrawal Act, to which the noble Baroness the Leader of the Opposition has drawn attention in her Motion, sets out the steps that must be fulfilled in domestic law before the UK can ratify a withdrawal agreement negotiated with the EU. Section 13(1)(d) specifies that a withdrawal agreement negotiated with the EU cannot be ratified unless,
“an Act of Parliament has been passed which contains provision for the implementation of the withdrawal agreement”,
in domestic legislation. Of course, the usual powers of the House of Lords in respect of passing Acts of Parliament would apply.
It is also worth pointing out that the Commons and the Lords have different powers under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010—CRaG, I think it is called—in relation to the process for ratifying treaties. But, having said that, the Prime Minister indicated in the Commons yesterday that provision might have to be made in the withdrawal agreement Bill—the legislation required to implement the withdrawal agreement in domestic law, which must be passed before the withdrawal agreement can be ratified—to vary the normal requirements of CRaG if there was insufficient time. Perhaps the Minister will clarify what that means later.
In the meantime, given all that, is it not reasonable for this House to try to help another place with Brexit? Why now? It has to be said that the other place has not covered itself in glory on the issue of leaving the EU. Of course, the House of Commons has used its best endeavours, but the result is a 585-page document which nobody likes and which will never, whatever happens to it, heal the divisions in the country.
As I hope I have explained—but your Lordships all know it anyway—we can help. Will your Lordships join me in encouraging HMG and my noble friend the Minister to do what they should have done the day after the referendum? This is not crying over spilt milk because it is not too late. Here is the deus ex machina which the noble Lord, Lord Wilson, wants to see arise. This is the conversation that should happen tomorrow. There are only two characters on the stage in this play: Us and Them. “Us” is the British Prime Minister; “Them” is the German Chancellor and the French President. The European Commission officials in Brussels do not appear, as they are minor players in this final scene, which I shall now perform for your Lordships. I shall start with “Us”, the British Prime Minister.
“Us: I know it annoys you to set a precedent. I don’t want any special treatment, you know.
Them: Really? So what do you have in mind?
Us: I’m not asking for any exceptions for us. All I want is a few changes for the benefit of all fellow members.
Them: All members? From you? You think only of yourself. You’ve been sulking for years. Variable geometry! Two-speed Europe! Opt-outs!
Us: Yes, sorry about that.
Them: Well, what is it you want?
Us: We don’t want anything. We’re leaving anyway. But you keep saying how very sad you are to see us leaving.
Them: All right, all right. So what would it take for you to stay?
Us: Well, why didn’t you ask before? Now you mention it, only two things.
Them: Go on.
Us: First, equality with Germany in voting. Not to be a subordinate. Not a junior member.
Them: What else?
Us: We want to recognise free movement of people. But also legitimate concerns among member states about uncontrolled immigration.
Them: Is that it? Anything else?
Us: No, nothing else. That’s it. Let’s call it remain-plus.
Them: Then you’d stay?
Them: And what do we get out of it?
Us: You get what you always wanted. Unity. No breakaways. No precedent for anyone else. We all stick together. Peace. Security. And the EU to be a vanguard force. A frontier spirit. An economic power equal to America and China. What say you?
Them: OK! Done! It’s a deal! Let’s go! When do we start?”.
At this point, some noble Lords may ask, “Why would they do that? Why would the EU ever accept that?”. My answer is that they have a big motive. In France, 40% of the population are apparently interested in “Frexit”. Austria, Greece, Italy and France will apparently all express their unhappiness with the present EU set-up in the forthcoming Euro elections. The current front-runner to replace Mr Juncker as the President of the EU Commission, Mr Manfred Weber, says:
“Brexit is absolutely an example that people can see in reality ... why our main message for the EPP campaign is that it’s better to reform the European Union where we need a reform, than to leave or even destroy it”.
So there you have it. We in your Lordships’ House will step up to the plate. We in your Lordships’ House will reframe the debate. We in your Lordships’ House will save the nation from two more years—or perhaps five more years, as we have heard—of turmoil and unhappiness.
I look to my noble friend the Minister. As I have said to him many times before on these long EU occasions, I do not know how he does it. I am sure that the whole House shares my affection and respect for my noble friend and I look forward to his wise and thoughtful response to remain-plus.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, is well known for providing some very interesting ideas. We thank him for many of his suggestions. I am glad that he comes to the same conclusion as I think most Members of this House will do in this debate, have done in previous debates on this subject and will continue to do in the future.
Fortunately and agreeably for this House, it is only a minority of Members who do not seem to understand the functioning of the EU. Such people therefore produce a lot of criticism which is unfounded and inaccurate. Let us take once again the huge concept of sovereignty and what it really means. At the moment, the EU is a collection of 28 genuinely sovereign countries. All of them have their own intrinsic sovereignty, none of which has been reduced by membership of the EU, except by decisions of those sovereign countries working through integrated institutions and treaties decided by unanimity to limit some of their separateness in sovereignty to increase the general strength of the whole Community. The general sovereignty of the whole Community and the Union grows as a result of those decisions gradually and step by step. Treaties are freely entered into without any major aggro or difficulty. There are always lots of discussions and arguments about detail, but some of those matters of detail do not have to be decided by unanimity. As we know, they can then be subject to the subsidiarity effect of majority voting and the directives that allow a sovereign member state to produce its own legislation on a particular agreed policy.
I cannot understand what the anxiety is. A colleague such as the noble Lord, Lord Cavendish, is an example of someone who misunderstands all that and is fearful of a lack of sovereignty. There is no such lack; it is a gradual, total increase all the time of both the national sovereignty of the more important member states as a result of their collective membership of the Union and the Union’s collective sovereignty, which grows at the same time. Why do the other 27 never express any anxiety about this concept of sovereignty? It is very logical, based on common sense and unique in the world, which is why it is magic to many people. It is a pity that people here—not many, but some—wish to live in a past of old-fashioned, pretend sovereignty or pictorial sovereignty, which has no substance in the modern world. The modern world is interconnected and international, with all people of all kinds working together. Foreigners are in different countries in ever greater numbers. The more there are, the better and more exciting it is. As Ken Clarke famously said, we need more foreigners because they make British society more exciting. That is a perfectly acceptable remark. I hope that colleagues who do not have such anxieties about sovereignty might explain it better to those still worried about it.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, for his remarks. He is not here at the moment, but his speech mirrored amazingly the remarks that he made eight months ago, in July last year, when he said that we are heading for crashing out unless things are taken into control and brought into proper order.
I was in the Commons for 27 years and, after an interval of seven years outside Parliament, have been in the Lords for more than 14 years. I can honestly say that I have never before had the sad misfortune of witnessing the outrageous behaviour of a Prime Minister in exceeding all norms of civilised conduct and intelligent restraint in the ruthless pursuit of the narrowest part of their own party’s interests. It gives me no pleasure to say this, but it is true. I have never experienced it before over all those years of all the Prime Ministers that we have had of whatever party.
Of course, some people would say, maybe fairly, that Mrs May was entitled to pursue “Brexit means Brexit” immediately after taking over from David Cameron following his colossal mistakes, in that period after what is now viewed by many as an imperfect referendum process—that was not the public’s fault; it was that the construction of the referendum exercise was totally flawed and mistaken. She had the right to do that only until the fatal and fateful 8 June 2017 election result. At that stage we need to remind ourselves that she completely and utterly lost the mandate of “Brexit means Brexit”. Already people in the country were experiencing second thoughts anyway. Instead Mrs May, amazingly and unbelievably, launched an outrageous and squalid deal with the most unpopular party in the Commons, the right-wing extremists of the Ulster unionist clique in the DUP, to create an artificial majority. In civilised countries with a written constitution, that would mostly have been ruled out of order by the relevant constitutional court or council of state anyway; but not in this country, because we have bandit politics because of no written constitution, as we know. The Government created an artificial majority with right-wing extremists from Northern Ireland who, incidentally, oppose all modern human and civil rights for modern women; and there was a huge £1 billion bribe as well. As one famous magazine, the New Statesman, said on 28 January:
“Mrs May could have used this crisis as an opportunity. Having secured no mandate for her Brexit policy, she could have reached out to parliament and sought to forge a cross-party consensus with all the opposition parties. Instead, she bought the support of the reactionary DUP and indulged her party’s Europhobes”.
Only after a historic defeat and at this perilously late hour has Mrs May now finally at least pledged to pursue a cross-party approach, which now looks totally insincere and ungenuine. It is now already too late for her to do this.
What Parliament must do now is to secure an extension of time beyond 29 March. Kenneth Clarke, when it was all first promulgated, always thought it was a fundamental mistake to have the date put in at that stage and objected to it, and quite rightly so. Then there was the famous amendment by Dominic Grieve. We now need to work for a people’s vote to sort out this catastrophic shambles, because the whole world is unfortunately and tragically laughing at Britain.
Staying in the EU would end the historical mistakes and our condescension over Ireland—I thank the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, for his contribution in this respect today. That has been one of our tragedies in this country. I am glad that the condescension in people’s voices towards Irish people when they addressed them and so on has now at long last disappeared—from most people, anyway. Commitment to the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland must unshakeably be maintained, because it is a solemn and sacred promise and there would be mayhem and trouble if it were not.
On all the intelligent analyses and examinations of recent figures, the various polls now show a huge change in public opinion, especially among the large number of younger voters—not just the ones who still support the Labour Party, despite Jeremy Corbyn’s mistakes, but others as well, including our British citizens living in other EU countries who have been there for more than 15 years and were arbitrarily denied the vote in the last referendum; that is a shameful fact. If the public accepted the final verdict of Parliament in this mayhem and confusion, that would be a marvellous result from the point of view of restoring the authority and sovereignty—yes, sovereignty—of the British Parliament, mainly, of course, expressed in the House of Commons. But if that is not enough because of the terrible, tearing crisis that has been caused in this country to people’s confidence in politicians and the political class, we need to get on to the concept of a people’s vote.
Finally, I quote Dominic Grieve, who has been very brave in all this in the House of Commons. Writing in the Evening Standard on Monday, he said:
“The next weeks are likely to be decisive in this respect”—
the respect that I have been discussing. He continued:
“The opportunity exists for the House of Commons to rise to this crisis and show the common sense that could get us out of difficulty. But that means putting aside the shallow considerations of party political advantage and having the courage to be honest with others as to what is happening. Insisting that all will somehow be well if Brexit goes through now, rather than insisting on a pause and a measured reconsideration, is an abdication of our responsibility”.
If the MPs can rise to the occasion that Dominic Grieve wants to see, that will be, in our history, the second of our finest hours.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Dykes. I was delighted to hear his positive comments on immigration.
Today’s Motion refers to the,
“ongoing discussions with the European Union”;
“interminable” might be a more appropriate adjective. If kicking the can down a dead-end street was an Olympic sport, we would have a gold medal winner. But it is not a sport. Brexit has become a constitutional crisis. I am staggered by the contempt with which Parliament is being treated in this process. It has now been suggested that the real meaningful vote on any deal might be put back until just days before exit day. That would be a travesty. I would support anything they can do in the other House to bring back some parliamentary control over this process. Brexit is not a sport, a mere matter of tactics— which seems to be the way it is being played at the moment. It is about our place in the world, and every day this fiasco goes on our stature in that world is being damaged, as is our economy.
Some noble Lords might have taken heart this morning from banner headlines. The Daily Telegraph trumpeted:
“Bank chief says Brexit can kick-start golden era of trade in contrast to earlier warnings”.
The Sun told its readers that the Governor of the Bank of England admits that Brexit could “spark a golden era”. I fear that Mark Carney has not discovered a new vat of optimism. These headlines were exactly like the deftly edited posters that appear outside theatres. The reviewer wrote that the play was “stunning in its ham-fisted approach, the acting amazing in its mediocrity”, and the poster simply boils down the review to “stunning, amazing”. Alas, the speech from which Mark Carney’s “golden era” was extracted was a heavyweight one on global trade, delivered yesterday in the City. On reading it, the phrase “golden era” seemed to be missing; the closest I could find was:
“Brexit can lead to a new form of international co-operation and cross-border commerce”.
Well, that must be a possibility. But in the meantime, the governor pointed out that:
“With fundamental uncertainty about future market access, UK investment hasn’t grown since the referendum was called and has dramatically underperformed both history and peers”.
The Telegraph and the Sun are cherry-picking on a heroic scale. They have been taking lessons from our Brexit negotiators, and they are misleading the public still in pursuit of their Brexit ideal.
Yesterday, the Office for National Statistics reeled off a set of gloomy numbers, including a 0.4% drop in GDP. We are already getting poorer. A trade deal with the Faroe Islands will not save us, although at least it amounts to some progress for Dr Fox. It is also great news for lovers of crustaceans. Our main imports from the Faroe Islands—£200 million of them—are fish and crustaceans. Our GDP, however, is not going to benefit hugely from this deal. In 2017, our trade deficit with the Faroes was £167 million. We buy £200 million-worth of their shellfish; they buy just £33 million-worth of goods from us. So it is a trade deal, but hardly a triumph.
The time has come to stop this nonsense. Opinion polls now show a consistently significant majority in favour of remaining in the EU. Yet the Prime Minister persists in pursuing Brexit, even declaring it, as my noble friend Lady Altmann reminded us, her “sacred duty”. I applaud her sense of duty, but I see the Government’s duty as safeguarding the best interests of this country, not deliberately leading it into decline. Where is the sense in pursuing this crazy course? It is, one might say, “Jacob’s folly”. Follies, I remind the House, are rich men’s fantasies. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, they are, “costly, generally nonfunctional”. Why on earth are we indulging this rich man’s folly when it is clear that it is already endangering the livelihoods of ordinary working people and will further impoverish them?
As the noble Lord, Lord Newby, and others have pointed out, European workers are quitting the UK in droves every day—nurses, doctors, vets and even vegetable pickers. The cost of a broccoli harvester, I am told, is now up to £13.50 an hour. The effects on broccoli prices are soon going to be feeding through into the shops: your five a day will soon be costing you a great deal more.
It is not just the economic effects of Brexit that we have to be conscious of. One of our major cultural institutions had until recently 40% of its front of house staff from overseas. It is losing them at a rate of 2% a month and one of the reasons they are going is because they are encountering such hostility. People are horrible to them because they have foreign accents. It is so bad that the institution has offered to swap their name badges, which currently have just their Christian names on, for one with a name of their choice, so that instead of Emile they might choose to be Len and they might get a better reception that way. We have become a horribly xenophobic country in some quarters, but what are we doing pandering to that tendency? We should be fighting it, not being bullied by it.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister held a conference call with business leaders. They made very clear to her that the possibility of no deal should be taken off the table straightaway. They stressed the need for certainty. The withdrawal agreement gives them no certainty at all. It is better than no deal, but it promises, as others have said, years of more negotiations, and the one thing that is certain is that while those negotiations go on we will continue to see business and investment drift away from this country. Parliament is spending all its time pursuing a course that, even if it succeeds, amounts to failure.
I do not think that I have ever done this before, but I want to quote the very thoughtful recent words of the Leader of the other place, Andrea Leadsom. She wrote:
“my constituents … are increasingly concerned that the business case is being undermined from all angles, and the basis for which Parliament gave its support to the project may no longer exist”.
She mooted the idea that it might be wise therefore to abandon the entire project. How wise. When new evidence appears, sensible people respond to it and, day by day, the damage that any Brexit does becomes more apparent. To be fair to Mrs Leadsom, she was actually referring to HS2, but she has seen the light over that and if she can see the light over that, I hope she might see the wisdom in applying similar logic to Brexit. The case made for it was flawed. The evidence has changed.
The public should be given the opportunity to vote against Jacob’s folly. I dislike referenda for the same reasons as my noble friend Lord Cormack, but when you have got into a mess through a referendum, the only way out may well be another referendum. Otherwise, we just pursue a course of self-harm. To leave without a deal would be disastrous, and that is why I shall be supporting the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, this evening.
It is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft. I have never heard her make a bad speech: every speech I have heard her make has been brave, powerful and funny and that was no exception.
I am also glad to be in quite a small band in this Chamber tonight of people who have not made a contribution to this European Union debate before. I am in the company of the noble Lord, Lord Cope, the noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, and my very good friend Lord Puttnam, and I regard it as very good company indeed. Although I did not agree with everything the noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, said, I am very pleased to be in his company.
It has been an incredibly gloomy debate because this House feels that we are in the waiting room with absolutely nothing happening except the can being kicked down the road. We rightly think that our influence on events is quite minor. Again, we are right about that. I rather disagree with the procedural urging from the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, for us to take a more assertive role; I do not think that we should. Our power, such as it is, is to persuade and to make clear what the real choices are.
Although there have been quite a number of gloomy speeches, some of which, indeed all of which, were excellent, I suspect some have been delivered before, in various guises. There is nothing wrong with that—they were so good that they were well worth delivering again—but there were also quite a few things said that I did not know and that may well influence events, at least to some extent.
In my speech, I simply want to make two points. The first is that the debate that is now reaching a critical stage should be conducted in an honest and not a dishonest way. I have three particular dishonesties that are currently gripping this debate. The first is that the choice that faces the country is between some version of Mrs May’s deal and no deal. That is not correct. If the Commons says no to the deal, it will plainly be open to Her Majesty’s Government to ask for more time, and the indications are that the European Union would say yes to more time. I do not know how long, but I think it would be very unwise of this country to say that, if we cannot get Mrs May’s deal through, we should go for no deal.
Do not forget the objective choice that would then face the United Kingdom if there were no deal: we would have the choice of trading on World Trade Organization terms, which is likely to increase tariffs on goods by about 5%, leading to unemployment that will obviously affect people employed in manufacturing industries most, so that the poorest will be likely to be the worst affected. We could try to get around that—and the Government will have to make a decision about this—by saying, “Let us liberalise all trade and have no tariffs on goods and make that a unilateral decision”. I see the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, nodding his head vigorously. The consequence of that is that there are no trade deals to be done. America and Japan are not going to offer us trade with no tariffs, and they will not need to negotiate terms with us. So we open our doors and we will get some benefits from that, but the whole of the Brexit idea, as far as the Brexiteers are concerned, on trade—namely, that we will negotiate marvellous terms with everyone else—will not happen. That is the choice that will have to be made if we go for no deal.
I urge the Government—this is why I strongly support the Motion from the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, this evening—to rule out no deal. She can do that by saying that, if we cannot make a deal, we will come back and ask for more time. I am not in favour of asking for a long period of time. I think two to three months is all that should be required. The nation is not helped by this period going on for a long time. But the debate should not be framed as Mrs May’s deal versus no deal.
The second dishonesty is that there is a realistic prospect of getting some sort of changes to the backstop. We know that the Prime Minister urged the House of Commons to vote for the Brady amendment, the terms of which required the replacement of the backstop with “alternative arrangements” that would deliver an open border. The three proposals that she is making in these negotiations are: that there be a time limit for the backstop—the Irish Government have made it clear that they would not accept that, quite rightly, because it would not be a backstop; that the United Kingdom have a unilateral exit, which is equally problematic for the same reasons; and that the whole backstop be replaced by something else—I do not know what; possibly the Malthouse compromise.
The Malthouse compromise involves the United Kingdom entering into a customs agreement with the European Union that there be no tariffs on goods, which is perfectly possible. As everybody in the House will understand, it does not obviate the need for a customs border, because you have to check where the goods come from to see if they are entitled to the no tariff. The answer, not from Mr Malthouse—obviously a totally admirable chap who has simply brought these people together—but from the people advancing this nutcase compromise, is that there will be technology that makes it clear from which country these goods come. That is how the Malthouse compromise deals with the customs aspect.
As for the regulation aspect, what Mr Malthouse proposes—not him, but other people—is that there be an agreement between the European Union and the United Kingdom that both sides be deemed to have the same regulatory position. They advanced that case on the basis that we have the same regulatory position at the moment and it is not likely to change that much over the period of time, so let us therefore just treat the regulations as the same. It is clear what is being asked for. It is completely hopeless as a proposition, because the European Union is rightly saying that it cannot have a flapping open door if we are not in the customs union or the single market. That is a flapping open door.
I do not know how the alternative discussions are going. I understand—I could be wrong about this—that Mr Stephen Barclay, a person for whom we should have the highest admiration because he has taken on the job at short notice, is the person negotiating the alternative arrangements to the backstop. Blimey! How did we end up with a totally inexperienced Minister, through no fault of his own, seeking to negotiate one of the most important negotiations we have ever indulged in since 1945? I suspect—I hope the Minister will be able to help me on this—that no meaningful negotiations to replace the backstop are going on. Could he tell us how the negotiations are going, first of all on a time limit to the backstop and secondly on a unilateral exit for the United Kingdom? What stage has been reached? Are any drafts in existence? What has the European Union’s attitude to these proposals been?
The third dishonesty is that all of this can be dealt with by 29 March. The number of people in the House who have made it clear that that is impossible demonstrates that that is a dishonesty on which we should not proceed.
What should we do now? What is wrong with Mrs May’s deal? There is really only one thing wrong with it: that she has given away our biggest negotiating card, namely the budget deal, in exchange for what the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, described as simply no agreement at all. We need certain things nailed down in that political declaration. The things we need nailed down are: first, that we stay in a customs union, because the less friction there is in trade, the better; secondly, that we get the benefit of integrated supply lines, so we get a deal whereby there will not be regulatory checks; and, thirdly, in relation to the main goods we deal with—medicines, chemicals and aerospace—that there are deals whereby our goods and theirs can cross the channel without customs or regulatory checks of any sort. That is not pie in the sky. Those things could have been put into the political declaration. They have not been, because Mrs May has spent since 17 December 2017 until now trying to unscramble the problem she got this country into as a result of the agreement she entered into on 17 December 2017.
We stand at a moment where it is not too late to get a good deal. I was strongly in favour of remain, and I am strongly against a second referendum. We have to respect the result of the referendum, but we should do a deal that gives us the softest Brexit possible, and it is not too late.
My Lords, it is an honour to follow the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer. I wish to make a simple point about accountability. My noble friend the Minister was generous in his opening remarks about the work of this House, and I would like to repay the compliment. My noble friend has spent hundreds of hours in this Chamber being accountable to us, however unreasonable, long-winded and bad-tempered our speeches. I salute his stamina, patience and skill. He and his colleagues are democratically accountable. Where is the same level of accountability of Mr Juncker, Mr Tusk, Mr Selmayr and Mr Barnier? They work for us too. How often do they show up in the British Parliament? Never. Or the European Parliament, for that matter—once in a blue moon. Why is this? British taxpayers contribute to their salaries, £350,000 tax-free in the case of Mr Juncker. In fact, when you think about it, it is a bit odd that the Commission is negotiating on behalf of 27 members against one. How did that happen? Should the Commission not have said, “We cannot arbitrate between our bosses, so we’ll stay out of this”?
Last week Mr Juncker and Mr Leo Varadkar allowed themselves to be filmed cooing over a card sent by an Irish citizen. Part of the message in that card said:
“Britain does not care about peace in Northern Ireland”.
This is blatantly untrue and disgracefully disrespectful to many who have given their lives and their bodies to try to preserve peace in Northern Ireland. More than that, it is a very odd thing to endorse about a country that is not an enemy and not even an ally, but still a member.
Last Sunday my old colleague Andrew Marr said this at the start of his television programme:
“I just want to say one thing about our line-up of interviews. We are at a moment where negotiations with Brussels are absolutely critical, and it has been a long moment. And week after week I get the chance to cross-question British Ministers and opposition politicians. And week after week, we ask the likes of Donald Tusk, Michel Barnier and Jean-Claude Juncker to answer questions as well. And week after week they say no. We try. We keep trying”.
Yesterday the EU’s ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, published a report about the appointment of Martin Selmayr. I would like to read part of it:
“This complaint-based inquiry concerned the appointment of the European Commission Secretary-General, Martin Selmayr, in 2018 … Following an extensive inspection of Commission documents and written questions put to the Commission as part of the inquiry, the Ombudsman identified four instances of maladministration in the handling of the appointment and made a recommendation … Following the Ombudsman’s findings, the European Parliament in December 2018 passed a resolution calling on the new Secretary-General to resign … The Commission’s reply to the Ombudsman’s recommendation presents no new information and does not alter the inquiry findings, which showed in detail how Mr Selmayr’s appointment did not follow EU law, in letter or spirit, and did not follow the Commission’s own rules”.
No, because I do not know the details, but I have not heard that it broke any rules. I have not actually finished the quote, which goes on:
“It is highly regrettable that the Juncker Commission chose not to implement this recommendation. The Ombudsman looks forward to its implementation by the next Commission”.
Good luck with that, because we all know who is going to be pulling the strings in the next Commission —Mr Selmayr. We are asked to put our faith in a good faith pledge from an organisation that will not even obey its own rules. We should remember that Mr Selmayr was the prime suspect behind the—
Allow me to correct an error. Mr Juncker regularly appears before the European Parliament where in the past he has been heckled by Nigel Farage, who I am sure the noble Viscount feels is doing his best to hold him to account. That is part of what the Commission has to do and the European Parliament is part of that accountability mechanism. Of course, the European Union is a 28-member country, therefore accountability is complex, but it is not entirely absent.
If the noble Lord reads Hansard he will find that I did say that he appears before it—I said “once in a blue moon”. There is no question that he appears before it an awful lot less than my noble friend Lord Callanan appears before us, which was my point.
I personally think that my noble friend Lord Callanan is extremely patient and polite in this House.
As I was saying, Mr Selmayr was the prime suspect behind the leak about a dinner in Downing Street, at which untrue and personal remarks were made about the Prime Minister. It is he who is keen to block the UK’s access to the Galileo satellites. The Napoleonic behaviour of the Commission gets more blatant every day. It is not just pursuing a so-called European system of protectionism like Bonaparte, but brushing aside democratic and accountability constraints in pursuit of the self-interest of an imperial bureaucracy.
Back in 2015, I did not want the UK to leave the EU. Naively, I did not know how the Commission carries on. I helped to edit a 1,000-page plan called “Change, or go”. The EU refused to change in response to David Cameron’s reasonable requests, so I concluded that we should go. I was reminded of those days by the excellent television series by Norma Percy over the last three weeks, which gave inside views of that renegotiation and the events that led up to it. It brought back memories of how much the Commission disliked Britain then, thought our affection for democracy was stupid and quaint, and how it kept wishing we would go away. Yet now it wants to stop us leaving.
The most sobering thing I have read today is from Jim Ratcliffe, Britain’s successful chemicals businessman. In an open letter to Jean Claude Juncker, he says:
“Nobody but nobody in my business seriously invests in Europe. They haven’t for a generation”.
He says the EU is scaring away investment with heavy green taxes, with Europe’s share of the world chemical market having halved to just 15% in the last 10 years. He says the EU has,
“the world’s most expensive energy and labour laws that are uninviting for employers”.
The UK’s growth last year was better yet again than Germany’s, France’s and Italy’s, so it is clear that the reason for our sluggish growth—and it is sluggish—is that we are still in the EU. It is precisely for the people at the bottom of the pay scale that we need to leave and rediscover growth and enterprise.
My noble friend Lady Wheatcroft worries about the wages of a broccoli picker going up lest it put up the cost of vegetables. If it means that broccoli farmers have to pay a little more so that people in the north of England can afford to work for them rather than seasonal workers from abroad, that is quite good for people at the bottom of the pay scale. That, I think, is why we are leaving.
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Viscount. He does not do frictionless, in either debate or trade. In any case, I suggest that if he was surprised about the form which the withdrawal negotiations have taken, it can only be because he did not read Article 50 before we got going down this road. It is only about six lines; it is quite clear; and it was drafted by a Member of this House. It is a pity he did not read it first. If he had, he would have found out what the format of the negotiation would be.
Well, that is very good, but I am sorry that the noble Viscount came to the conclusion that he did. It was available and there is no surprise in it. It was precisely what was laid down by a treaty, which this House, along with the other place, ratified not all that long ago. We seem to have a rather cursory attitude to the treaties that we enter into, but we should not have, because they matter.
Anyway, here we are, another week, another debate, which brings us no closer to an agreed and parliamentarily- approved outcome to this whole sorry saga. Two more weeks have gone by of not very useful activity by a Government who have not so much lost their way but never found it in the first place. If the Prime Minister is not deliberately aiming to run down the clock, she is giving an extraordinarily plausible imitation of someone who is doing so.
In the last two weeks, the Prime Minister has visited Brussels in an attempt to dismantle an international treaty provision to which she had agreed in good faith a mere two months ago. We agreed to it not once, but twice, because we agreed first in December 2017 and now again in November 2018. She told us in November 2018 that this was the best deal that was available, but I suspect her visit to dismantle that has been to no avail. She visited Belfast to tell a population that voted by a substantial majority to remain that leaving was going to be just fine—to no avail. She visited Dublin to persuade a Government to put their survival at risk—to no avail.
Meanwhile, on all sides we are seeing evidence, which is accumulating, of the serious damage that this policy of stubborn procrastination is inflicting on the economy. We have seen inward investment cut—that is Nissan. We have seen growth forecasts cut pretty sharply. We have seen ferry contracts for non-existent ferries axed. We have seen billions of public expenditure being squandered to give some pretence of credibility to a policy which should have been discarded months ago.
What is to be done, as Lenin once said in a rather different context? First, the option of leaving without a deal should be shelved now once and for all. The Government say that that cannot be done. That is simply untrue. It can be done by scrapping some of the Government’s red lines. It can be done by seeking a prolongation of the Article 50 cut-off period. It can be done by giving the electorate another say. Eschewing those options, as the Government do, which is totally legitimate on their part, does not mean that they cannot be carried out.
Secondly, not a single option available to us at this stage, not even approval of the Prime Minister’s plan, can actually be completed and implemented before 29 March. Talks should be initiated with the EU on a prolongation of that period, to which all 27 member states have to agree.
Thirdly, the option of another referendum should be recognised as providing the clearest route that is now available to us to achieving closure on this matter. The outcome of such a referendum could be made mandatory so as to avoid the risk of an endless process. Preparations for holding such a referendum could be put in hand quite quickly if the will was there to do it.
I agree that these are not easy choices but they are ineluctable ones and we are going to face them in the next few weeks. They should be made by the end of this month at the latest, and it is for that reason that I will support the Motion in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith.
My Lords, I draw attention to my interests as set out in the register.
I am not certain whether one is permitted to use a term derived from another European language in these fractious times but there is an inevitable element of déjà vu, not only in this debate but at this critical time in this nation’s history. Even as the situation develops in new and usually perturbing ways, it is increasingly difficult to find new things to say, although I admire the skill of my noble friend Lord Saatchi, who certainly broke new ground in his contribution to this debate.
I have always been a great admirer of the negotiating skill of the noble Lord, Lord Hannay of Chiswick, but I hope he will not mind if I say I wish he had been in charge at the material time but that I think it is too late to follow his advice now.
In order to avoid repeating myself, I thought it wise to cast my eye over the various speeches I have made in this place since the referendum result in June 2016. I was relieved to find, slightly to my surprise, that I have been following a remarkably consistent line: first, that we must accept the referendum result; that we must be mindful of the equivocal verdict of the British people in a general election less than a year later; and, perhaps most important of all, that there is a pressing need to address the underlying causes of the vote for Brexit and, in particular, to heal the scars that it will leave.
I have repeatedly called for moderation, for a new common ground. I do not think that has fallen on deaf ears as such but, sadly, the deafening siren call of party interest can too easily drown out the less strident tones of moderation. I congratulate the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, on an outstandingly brilliant speech, one of several he has made on this subject.
As the intractable impasse over the border in Ireland overshadows us all, I listened carefully to the brilliant speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Bull. Rather like her, I was drawn to that great Irish poet, WB Yeats. I have in mind his Second Coming, which says:
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”.
We must not allow that to happen.
As many speakers have pointed out, in June 2016 no one voted to be poorer; no one voted to make our streets or our global environment more dangerous; no one voted to see the City of London relegated from the top of the international premier league to mid-table obscurity; and no one voted to have dark threats—almost incitement in some cases—of civil unrest, sometimes made by public figures who really ought to know better. None the less, those could be the consequences if we do not compromise now and work together in the public interest across traditional political boundaries.
Brexit was always going to entail a daunting process of negotiation. Despite the disingenuous assertions of some political figures, negotiation is by its very nature a multilateral, not unilateral, process. It requires engagement, skill and patience and cannot be brought to a satisfactory conclusion through an evocation of the Dunkirk spirit alone.
My message is simple: we should support the Prime Minister in her endeavours to honour the referendum and the commitments made in 2017, while also protecting our long-term economic and political stability and development. Furthermore, do not let us do so half-heartedly but with passion—the very passion that brought us all into public life in the first place—otherwise Yeats will indeed be casting a lugubrious shadow over us for a long time yet, with his terrible premonition that:
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity”.
Let us all hope that the second coming of the withdrawal agreement sees a coming together here, in the House of Commons and right across the nation—because then, and only then, shall we be able to move forward together once more.
My Lords, I wrote this speech with the intention of being optimistic and constructive, and I have just about managed to hold on to that.
I hope by now that the House has given up on the notion that people do not know what is good for them and that we must rescue them from themselves. Those days are long since gone. Surely the European Union is not going to allege that it has to follow rules in all circumstances and cannot be flexible. Look at the appointment of Mr Selmayr, as the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, said. Look at the rejection of migrant quotas across the Union, the building of fences between countries to keep out migrants and, above all, Mr Tusk’s Poland, which is breaking the rules on the environment, independence of the judiciary, independence of the press and without any sanction from the EU because Hungary is backing up Poland.
The exchange of correspondence between the Prime Minister and Mr Corbyn should not be taken at face value, although it cannot be bad that they are at last in contact over our exit from the EU. I surmise that Mr Corbyn wants the UK to leave the European Union because continued membership might stymie some of the ideas he has for his potential premiership—for example, state aid rules. He admitted voting against membership in 1975; he opposed the Maastricht treaty and called it a bankers’ Europe; and he opposed the Lisbon treaty. I never thought I would say this but I agree with Jeremy. I believe that his letter is designed not to block Brexit but to ensure that if things go wrong he cannot be held responsible. His letter might also serve to undermine the Prime Minister’s negotiations in Brussels and divide the Cabinet. To these ends, he appears even to have abandoned his insistence on an end to free immigration. I do not think that this will hold.
The continuing uncertainty over the backstop should be seen as artificial, for it is clear that a border that satisfies safeguarding the territory of the Union is feasible. The Republic can work with the EU over the form. A customs union is not necessarily the answer, given the extensive delays on the Turkish-Bulgarian border. Nor should we be held to ransom by threats of renewed terrorism. The UK has always remained firm about not changing its policies in response to violence. I suspect the prolongation of dispute is part of a campaign by Ireland to achieve unification. Like it or not, if no technical solution to the border is achieved, or if we leave with no deal, the only solution in the end will be Irish unification, not now as dread a subject as it once was.
As we see the other place riding roughshod over conventions and proving that the Commons cannot and should not take control because it is as divided as the Government’s route to exit has ever been, and by displaying those divisions to the world, they are allowing Brussels to say that it does not know what we want and enabling it to ignore the obligation in Article 50 that,
“the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with that State, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union”.
The Union has shirked its responsibility. Should we indulge it by extending Article 50? In this I rely on the opinion of Martin Howe QC, who has examined the legalities. It has been too readily assumed, even here this evening, that we have but to ask for an extension and it will be granted, or that a legal duty should be placed on the PM to secure this. It is not, however, ours for the asking. Under Article 50, the European Council, with unanimous agreement, is empowered to grant this. It would take into consideration the fact that there is a European parliamentary election due in May. Any extension beyond the summer would mean the UK’s inclusion in the elections, even though our seats have already been reallocated, and our remaining there for the next five years. A short extension of a few weeks would be pointless as the European Parliament, which is charged with consenting to the withdrawal agreement, is to be dissolved on 18 April. In the case of a longer extension, given that the consent of each European state would be required, it places each of them in a strong position to demand concessions and impose conditions on their consent. The Spanish will be thinking about Gibraltar, the French about fishing, and the Germans about getting larger contributions from us to the EU budget to alleviate their increased share. In sum, to demand an extension drastically weakens our negotiating position, opens us to blackmail and takes the pressure off the European Union to fulfil its obligation under Article 50. Moreover, this and other amendments are ignoring our constitution and have changed the status of the Speaker in the other place. The way in which these amendments are being handled is storing up problems for future Governments and legislation that opposition and rebellious government MPs do not like.
All those who want to take hard Brexit off the table—if ever there was a meaningless concept, that is one—seem to forget there is a perfectly sensible alternative, namely voting for the May agreement, even if it is not ideal. As I have said more than once in the past two years, we are one against 27 and it was bound to be the case that if the Prime Minister came back with a deal that was not liked by Parliament, and had to go back to the 27, they were unlikely to offer her a better one. Therefore, if we vote on the Motion tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, it will not be a meaningful vote but meaningless. We cannot take no deal off the table unless there is an alternative. We cannot force the Government to comply with her wishes by the end of this month.
On treaties, noting a few days ago that France and Germany have re-entered another pact, I was reminded of what General de Gaulle said—in terms, I hasten to add, that would not be acceptable today—about the Franco-German treaty of 1963:
“Treaties are like roses and young girls. They last while they last”.
I turn to the escape mechanism I have mentioned before, which is backed by several international lawyers, including Professor Verdirame of KCL, and former First Parliamentary Counsel Sir Stephen Laws, but not by all. Article 56 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties provides for withdrawal if, inter alia, it is implied by the nature of the treaty. Since the wording of the protocol is clear that the objective of the withdrawal agreement is not to establish a permanent relationship between the Union and the UK, but is meant to be temporary, this is indeed implied. The protocol specifies a best endeavours obligation to conclude an agreement that supersedes the protocol in whole or in part.
Best endeavours must surely be in doubt, bearing in mind the comments of Donald Tusk recently and the plain wish of the European Union to keep us in a permanent union. If the EU in future proceeds in a way that is intended to make the protocol permanent, one can conclude that the best endeavours obligation is being breached, which is a ground for withdrawal under Article 60 of the Vienna convention. The arbitration provisions in Article 170 of the withdrawal agreement do not remove the Vienna convention rights. The fact that the most distinguished lawyers are not in agreement over this gives one hope. This sort of disagreement lays the foundation for prolonged and serious litigation in the International Court of Justice, which will be very lucrative for our legal representatives and might be what is needed to jolt the European Union into settlement and action, so I encourage the Minister to proceed on the basis that the Vienna convention applies. After all, if one can leave the European Union on the application of Article 50, surely an agreement of lesser scope cannot be permanent and without external determination, so my guess is that round about 28 March a version of Mrs May’s agreement will pass and in future we will have to sort out the adverse consequences, if any.
My Lords, I am speaking in the gap, so I will be brief. The Government’s five words that have worried me most right from the beginning of these debates are, “the brightest and the best”, and there they were again in the very first paragraph of Sajid Javid’s opening speech in the Immigration Bill’s Second Reading debate last month in the Commons. To take the example of the creative industries, it is unlikely that artists and creatives, including other Europeans who have become established abroad already, will want to spend a great deal of time in a country where free movement is denied to its own citizens. This will be a fact if Brexit happens.
We have not had a debate about free movement in this country. Immigration is not the same thing, although the Prime Minister conflates them within her proposed immigration policy, with no thought at all about how this policy will affect the British themselves. As the noble Lord, Lord Fox, said last week in Committee on the Trade Bill, trade is about people. It is about movement both ways, not just of goods but of people. The loss of free movement will be catastrophic for our service industries, whose importance, and whose future importance, is hugely underestimated, since the free movement of British people, including movement between other countries, is essential to their operation. This plain fact is being ignored by both the major parties. Those who think that protecting manufacturing is the only way to protect jobs, even if that is possible, should think again. Bartenders, chefs, workers at ski resorts, beauticians in holiday resorts, plumbers, IT workers, performers and musicians are just a few of the new mobile working class whose widely varied livelihoods must also be protected. Many of them are self-employed, and all of them are part of a sector that now represents 80% of the economy.
More essentially still, particularly among young people, free movement across Europe is an established democratic right. From the point of view of the left, free movement ought to be understood as a socialist objective. I take my cue here from the social philosopher André Gorz, who believed in an emancipatory socialism which maximises freedoms for all people, not one which hems people in, which is what Brexit in any form will do, except for the privileged few. For these reasons I hope that the Immigration Bill—a Bill that is unnecessary and destructive—is stopped when it reaches the Lords.
My Lords, the UK is now fewer than 50 days away from the due date set by Brexiters for leaving the EU, but the Government are yet to bring forward a deal that commands a majority; nor have they proposed amendments to the withdrawal agreement that the EU can agree to. Yesterday’s Brexit Statement showed that nothing has changed. It just took us even closer to the scheduled exit day with no sign whatever of when or how the Brexit mess is going to be resolved.
The Prime Minister’s run-down-the-clock strategy is hidden in plain sight, although even before the eavesdropping on Olly Robbins it was obvious that she would have to ask for an extension to Article 50. The regret is that she lacks the honesty to acknowledge that, apparently preferring to inflict deep anxiety and pain on businesses as well as her fellow countrymen, who rely on vital medicines, need to know if they will still have a job on 30 March or want to make travel plans. For those who rely on nurses or carers who are EU citizens, the ending of free movement and the imposition of a £30,000 salary threshold is frightening. The noble Baroness, Lady Bull, mentioned this, among many other things, in her excellent speech.
Mrs May said yesterday in the Commons that she had wanted everything “sorted before Christmas”. A riposte to that used somewhat unparliamentary language, perhaps understandably, since this was a blatant piece of economy with the truth. The Prime Minister herself kicked the can down the road, axing the meaningful vote scheduled for December in order to keep her extremists happy. She continues to do so. Over almost three years, the Prime Minister has dithered, delayed, prevaricated, obscured and wasted time at every stage, not least with a completely pointless election in 2017.
One of the obfuscations being practised by the Prime Minister is over the assertion that the words “alternative arrangements” already appear in the package. They are in the withdrawal agreement in the political declaration but in a completely different context from the so-called Brady amendment. In the deal, they describe arrangements that would be reached in the future relationship to supersede the backstop such that it does not have to kick in, not as a replacement for the guarantee that the backstop represents. The way that the Prime Minister is distorting the truth of that drafting is beneath her dignity.
Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay says, “We are committed to getting a deal”. The Prime Minister had a deal before Christmas. In January, she claimed that it was the only deal in town. She confirmed yesterday in her Statement that the EU was maintaining its position that it would not reopen the withdrawal agreement. She also said four weeks ago that the EU was not prepared to agree a unilateral exit or time limit and that any attempt to make such changes to the withdrawal agreement would risk other member states raising issues about fisheries access or Gibraltar. However, she said yesterday that both these things were among her asks. Earlier, the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, said that it was reasonable to seek these changes. Can he tell us whether we are still risking other member states raising fisheries access and Gibraltar?
Houdini has nothing on Theresa May and her Government. It is clear that reopening negotiations between Messrs Barnier and Barclay is simply smoke and mirrors designed to buy the Prime Minister time. Donald Tusk tweeted just a few hours ago:
“No news is not always good news. EU27 still waiting for concrete, realistic proposals from London on how to break #Brexit impasse”.
There is so much dishonesty from the Government. As Confucius apparently said:
“When words lose their meaning, people lose their freedom”.
Thankfully, there are signs that MPs are breaking out of their cage of learned helplessness, because deliberate procrastination and keeping no deal in play have consequences in the real world. As the British Chambers of Commerce said today, and as my noble friend Lord Newby noted, it means that businesses risk,
“being left hung out to dry”.
How is that a responsible thing for a Government to do?
We are all familiar with the Brexit promise made by Trade Secretary Liam Fox that he would have 40 trade deals ready for one second after midnight on 29 March. That, of course, is the same Dr Fox who said that a free trade deal with the EU should be the “easiest in human history”. Other Brexit promises worth recalling include one from Michael Gove. In April 2016 he said:
“The day after we vote to leave, we hold all the cards and we can choose the path we want”.
John Redwood said in July 2016:
“Getting out of the EU can be quick and easy—the UK holds most of the cards”.
I am not sure how that has gone. In the same tradition, I am afraid, we now have the Prime Minister’s promise to maintain workers’ rights at an even higher level than that guaranteed in the EU. However, that was somewhat torpedoed by the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, who castigated EU labour laws, so I do not think that there is unity on the Tory Benches in regard to workers’ rights.
What exactly is this farce now about? Apparently it is about keeping the Conservative Party together, although the long-term prospects of that look slim—in fact, the party is completely incoherent. In the meantime, how many sacrifices is the country expected to make on the altar of that elusive Tory party unity?
For the Prime Minister to play games with the welfare of British citizens is, in my opinion, morally reprehensible. As one commentator put it today, Mrs May’s new addition to her well-worn vocabulary—an injunction to “hold our nerve”—might be good advice for a nation facing some terrible external threat but it is an absurdity when applied to an entirely self-inflicted fiasco.
The things that I am holding my nerve about are an extension to Article 50 and a people’s vote, because I think that the prospects of both are rising. The Prime Minister is allowing herself many bites at the cherry but refuses to allow the voters even one single chance to reassess whether her Brexit is such a great idea. This cannot hold and must change. Agreeing to the opposition Motion tonight is one step in achieving that change.
My Lords, considering the lessons of the Brexit debate, the CER’s Charles Grant starts with a dig—although it might have been a compliment—at the noble Lord, Lord Kerr. He describes Article 50 as having been,
“designed to put the departing country in a weak position”,
but he then reckons that,
“the British damaged their already weak hand by putting incompetent and ignorant ministers in charge, by being horribly divided (in contrast to a united EU) and by taking two years to come up with a half-serious proposal for the future relationship”.
He then considers that,
“the biggest lesson … is that any effort to leave the EU will turn out to be … more complicated, time- consuming, expensive and damaging than its advocates ever suggested”.
That is not quite the phraseology of Donald Tusk but I think that the spirit is the same.
Meanwhile, the indecision rolls on. There are 44 days to go and no solution. No one has the foggiest idea how this will all play out. There is no “10 minutes to landing”, in the words of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope. The electorate, according to Lord Ashcroft’s polls, say that the problem is that Ministers,
“left their homework until Sunday night”.
We now witness the Prime Minister becoming the Oliver Twist of negotiations, not in demanding a better deal for the UK, which of course any Prime Minister should do, but in asking for something for herself—more time. On every occasion on which she comes to Parliament, it is to ask for more—another bowl of time to try to wriggle out of a deal which she signed and negotiated, which she first recommended to Parliament before then voting to change it, and which she now thinks she can get through only by running down the clock. She endlessly asks for time when what she really plans is to take the country to a very high mountain late next month, force it to look over without a parachute—the no-deal jump—and then offer her plastic wings of an inadequate deal to soften the landing on the rocks below. What is her advice to colleagues as they peep over? It is: “Hold your nerve”. What a kamikaze pilot.
We are partly on that cliff edge because the Prime Minister refused to start by building consensus, rather than learning lessons from the Anglo-Irish agreement process, which was described earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice. Very late in the day she offered talks with the Opposition. What happened when the Opposition responded? Our leader wrote to the Prime Minister, setting out ways in which the deal might attract parliamentary approval through changes to the political declaration, not least to avoid a catastrophic crash-out which would damage business, commerce, travel, our diplomatic, trading and security relationships, and the future of our economy. What did he get in reply? A churlish, inaccurate opening paragraph, where, in response to some thoughtful points about the future, she instead falsely writes:
“It is good to see that we agree … not to seek an election or second referendum”.
Neither Labour nor this letter said anything of the sort. The letter was about the EU deal, making no mention of our much-wanted election, nor a potential referendum—bad politics, Prime Minister. It is a testimony to her own preoccupation with rows in her own party rather than the needs of the country.
More seriously, her letter made no mention of no deal and its avoidance, nor of any extension to the Article 50 timeframe. She dismissed the very inaccurate description of Labour’s call for “a” customs union, to reject “the” customs union, but as the noble Lord, Lord Butler, reminded me earlier, that was something Labour had never asked for. Indeed, a full free trade agreement could, under WTO definition, be a customs union, if it had a common external tariff, which the Article 24 option mentioned earlier would of course not include. It is likely that the full free trade agreement we will probably end up with will have a common external tariff—so that is where we will get to anyway.
I will respond to questions from the noble Lords, Lord Lansley and Lord Howell. First, the noble Lord, Lord Howell, asked where we get our briefing from, as though it were made up in the Library—not a bad place in which to make things up, mind you. I, and all the team working on Brexit, draw on detailed discussions with very seasoned trade negotiators, senior WTO officials and experts, dispute adjudicators and specialist trade lawyers. If anyone thinks we are doing this on the back of an envelope, I can tell them that that is absolutely not the case. I also say that, yes, we want to be part of a customs union and we wish the Government would discuss this more positively with us, rather than repeating that mantra of an “independent trade policy”, presumably in the belief of some golden goodies coming from the US. But what are those golden goodies? As my noble friend Lord Puttnam warned, American lobbyists are already demanding that any UK-US trade deal goes beyond just the chlorinated chickens we have heard about, to include changes in NHS drug rules, weaker data protection, carcinogens in pistachio nuts and lower food safety standards. Will the Government risk no deal for that?
One line in Jeremy Corbyn’s letter was not disputed by the Prime Minister: that there is,
“a clear majority in Parliament that no deal must … be taken off the table”.
It is obvious why: consider the immediate imposition of tariffs and checks, transport chaos and shortages of medicine and certain foods. It would be catastrophic for certain industries. Just today, we heard about a possible loss of jobs at Ford, because of the challenge to car manufacturing. A no-deal Brexit is,
“the biggest threat businesses have faced since 1939”,
according to one trade association, with the possibility that,
“one in four food exporters…could go out of business within six weeks”,
not least because meat exports, faced with over 13% WTO tariffs, simply become unprofitable. It is not just domestic producers—the Falkland Islands desperately needs to retain its tariff and quota-free access to the EU 27 markets, which take 94% of its fish, as it could not compete with 18% tariffs it would then have to pay, putting all its economy at risk. Mrs Thatcher would not have approved of such disregard of the Falklands.
The CBI’s Carolyn Fairbairn talks of near “negligence” for failing to resolve the political crisis, saying that,
“we really are in the emergency zone of Brexit…this is real danger time”.
Even David Davis seems to accept that danger, calling for a tax-cutting no-deal emergency budget. Chillingly, while acknowledging that sterling could fall by over 20%, he asks:
“Is this such a bad thing?”
Well, clearly not if you are rich and well paid, but on low fixed wages, as food prices soar, it might indeed be such a bad thing. I trust the Telegraph was not well briefed about government plans, codenamed Project After, because it says that these included slashing tariffs and cutting taxes. Less money for Government would mean diminished services, lower incomes, and fewer nurses, teachers and police. I wonder which communities would feel the chill wind of that?
The Prime Minister is, possibly deliberately and certainly irresponsibly, taking us to that cliff edge on 29 March, with perhaps the meaningful vote in the Commons delayed until just days before, if all that Brussels bar talk is to be believed. This makes an extension to Article 50 inevitable, if for no other reason than that your Lordships’ House, let alone business, is not ready for that.
The uncertainty facing citizens, exporters and importers is intolerable. The Government should now admit we need longer before we leave, especially as any extension will require negotiation with EU partners, each and every one of which has to consent. They should start readying for the inevitable now, as recommended by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, the noble Lords, Lord Cormack and Lord Kerr, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bull.
I would never question whether there is a special place somewhere for those who dilly and dally over vital decisions needed for our country. However, I can predict that the electorate will be unforgiving, particularly in polling stations, if Ministers bend more to their ERG caucus than to the interests of the country, sacrificing the economy on the altar of short-term political survival. It is in everyone’s interests that we do not leave the EU without a deal, and it is in democracy’s interests that this matter is brought before Parliament in a timely manner. Without the date in our Motion, such a vote would not be timely, as it would be on the eve of possible departure—a real gun-to-the-head vote. In light of that, I trust that the whole House will support the Motion shortly to be moved by my noble friend.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken today, and for the many insightful and considered contributions. Indeed, I am particularly grateful to those noble Lords who sought to rise to the challenge of making points that the House had not previously considered. Sadly, many failed in that task, probably including myself, but I particularly enjoyed the contribution of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, and his holding pattern analogy, which was particularly novel and amusing, although I do not agree with it. I also enjoyed my noble friend Lady Meyer’s spirited speech, despite many interventions. She made some excellent new points about the realities of some of the failings of the EU, which, of course, we do not often get to hear in this House.
During the debate, many noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, drew attention to the Prime Minister’s letter to the leader of the Opposition. In particular, a number of noble Lords spoke about the Government’s position on the customs union. As my noble friend Lord Howell pointed out in his speech, the political declaration that we have debated at length in this House explicitly provides for the benefits of a customs union. However, it also recognises the development of the UK’s independent trade policy beyond our economic partnership with the EU. Let me be clear: we are not considering staying in the customs union. We want to play a full and active role on trade policy on the global stage, working closely with friends new and old. From trade remedies to trade promotion and bilateral to multilateral negotiations, the UK will be able to tailor its trade policy to the strengths and requirements of the UK economy and in support of our industrial strategy.
While I am on the subject of trade, I pay tribute to the excellent speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, on the importance of trade in services. While I again did not agree with every point she made, I can tell her that the UK services sector is a global success story. Our internationally competitive sector plays host to world-leading firms, as well as thriving small and medium-sized businesses. The political declaration includes a commitment to conclude an ambitious arrangement for services and investment that goes well beyond WTO commitments, alongside new arrangements on financial services. But leaving the EU will give the UK regulatory flexibility where it matters most for its service-based economy and where the potential trading opportunities outside the EU are the largest. Globally, services trade is growing rapidly and UK services trade with non-EU countries grew by 73% between 2007 and 2017.
My noble friend Lord Cope asked me quite a technical question about whether the UK’s customs declaration process is on track. We will have a functioning customs system on exit. HMRC continues to progress dual running of the customs declaration system and CHIEF, the current customs declaration system. It can process sufficient numbers of customs declarations anticipated in a no-deal scenario. This capability will be deployed alongside the CDS, ensuring we will have a functioning customs system on exit.
The noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, asked whether I was aware of the number of Americans professing to have Irish roots. The answer is yes, I am, because many of them are indeed my relatives. I also have Irish roots. Indeed, I have discussed Brexit with many in the Irish American community. He might find that not all opinion is uniform on that matter.
Indeed I will. I have been preparing for today’s debate and sitting in the Chamber, but I will have a look when I get the opportunity. I can also assure the noble Lord, as he suggested I would, that we have no intention of inflicting any damage on the Irish economy.
Many noble Lords, such as my noble friend Lady Altmann and others, have again asked about Article 50 and suggested that we could simply extend or revoke it. I think she is profoundly wrong on this matter. The Government’s policy has not changed. We will not revoke our notice to withdraw from the European Union under Article 50. We stand by the commitment we made to the British people to uphold the result of the 2016 referendum. To revoke our Article 50 notice would be to dishonour that commitment and to reject an instruction clearly given to us by the British people. On this point I agree with my noble friend Lord Cavendish.
I also do not believe that there is anything like a majority in the House of Commons for such a course of action. Indeed, we might soon find out. I note that there is an amendment tabled by the SNP that, if selected, would put that notion to the test in the other place. Perhaps that would be a useful reality check for those who cling to the belief that they can wish away the referendum as if it had never happened.
I also remind noble Lords, including the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, and the noble Lords, Lord Kerr and Lord Hannay, those who would like to extend Article 50, that as they know very well, that is not a unilateral option. An extension would require the consent of all 27 member states, a point well made by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech. As the Prime Minister correctly highlighted in the other place last week, the EU is very unlikely simply to agree to extend Article 50 without a plan for how we are going to approve a deal. To this extent I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope. The best way forward, as I have said many times, is to leave in an orderly way with a good deal.
My noble friend Lord Balfe asked me to speculate on potential ratification timetables in the European Parliament. I hope we will be able to secure a satisfactory deal in plenty of time to allow the EP and this Parliament to approve it. I also gently say that we are not proposing to leave the European family—we are proposing to leave the European Union, which is not the same thing.
Unsurprisingly, many noble Lords returned to their favourite subject of a second people’s vote. I include in that number the noble Lords, Lord Judd, Lord Wilson, Lord Davies, Lord Taverne, Lord Hannay and the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft. I am sure it will come as no surprise to any of them to hear me say that the Government stand by their policy to respect the result of the 2016 referendum. This Government made a commitment to the British people that we would respect the result of that referendum; I agree with the points made on that commitment by my noble friends Lord Cormack and Lord Cope. I note that this was a promise made by the Opposition too, and while obviously I have many differences with Jeremy Corbyn, on this matter I pay tribute to him, because he at least, unlike many in his party, seems to want to stick by that pledge made in their last election manifesto.
The only guarantees that another referendum would bring are of more mistrust and uncertainty. I notice that the supporters of a second or indeed, according to the noble Lord, Lord Cope, a third people’s vote, have yet again failed to offer this as an option in the House of Commons votes tomorrow, because they know, as do the rest of us, that there is no majority in another place for a second or, indeed, third vote.
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, the noble Lord, Lord Newby, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, and in his inimitable style—although indirectly and through the noble Baroness, Lady Smith—the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, all asked about the legislation to be delivered in advance of exit day. With regard to primary legislation, the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018, the Nuclear Safeguards Act 2018, the Haulage Permits and Trailer Registration Act 2018 and the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Act 2018 have all now received Royal Assent. Six other exit-related Bills are currently in Parliament. The Trade Bill, the Financial Services (Implementation of Legislation) Bill, the Agriculture Bill, the Fisheries Bill, the Healthcare (International Arrangements) Bill and the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill will be prioritised appropriately to ensure that the measures necessary for a functioning statute book on exit day are in place before the UK leaves the EU.
With regard to secondary legislation, the majority of statutory instruments are needed in either a deal or a no-deal scenario, and they will be deferred to the end of the implementation period if they are not needed on 29 March. This is part of our long-term planning—
The planning of parliamentary processes and times are matters for the usual channels, in which the noble Lord used to take part, but we remain confident that we will deliver the appropriate and necessary legislation ready for our exit day.
If the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, is in his place—he is—I can tell him that Ministers have been actively engaging key figures in Europe. They include my colleagues the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who were in Brussels and Strasbourg this week. The Foreign Secretary was also in Paris earlier this week. I have spoken to a number of my colleagues in ministries in other European countries as well. Meetings to discuss the ideas put forward by the alternative arrangements working group have taken place, and we are grateful to that group for its work. We continue to explore its ideas.
The Prime Minister set out the UK’s position, strengthened by the mandate that the other place has given her: that Parliament needs to see legally binding changes to the backstop, which can be achieved by changes to the withdrawal agreement. She and the President of the Commission agreed that our teams should hold further talks to find a way forward. The Prime Minister and Mr Juncker will meet again before the end of February to take stock of those new discussions, so our work continues. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, made some extremely good points on the need for discussions to continue.
I thank my noble friend Lord Ridley, first, for his compliments and, secondly, for his question about the card reportedly received by Jean-Claude Juncker from the Irish Taoiseach. I had better be careful how much I say about this, but while I have done a lot of leaflet delivery in my time, the letterboxes in Brussels seem to have got a lot larger since I was last there. Perhaps it was an early Valentine’s card from Leo to Jean-Claude. In any case, the Government are fully committed to upholding the commitments of the Belfast agreement. My noble friend also made some very valid points about Commission appointments; much as I am tempted, perhaps I should leave my remarks on them there.
My noble friend Lord Cathcart asked about using Article XXIV of the World Trade Organization’s General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade to ensure that we have tariff-free and quota-free trade with the EU. This provision refers to interim agreements. In order to use it, we would need to agree with the EU the shape of the future economic partnership, together with a plan and schedule for getting there. This would then need to be presented to all 164 WTO members and they would be able to scrutinise it, suggest changes and, ultimately, veto it. This is of course not the Government’s preferred option. The Prime Minister and her team are working hard to agree legally binding changes to the withdrawal agreement, as I said earlier, so that Parliament can unite behind it and the UK can leave the EU with a deal.
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, asked about CRaG—the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act. As the Prime Minister set out yesterday, it remains the Government’s intention to follow normal procedures if we can. However, if insufficient time remains following a successful meaningful vote in the other place, we will make provision in the withdrawal agreement Bill to ensure that we can still ratify on time, to guarantee our exit in an orderly way. This would of course require agreement in both Houses; noble Lords will no doubt want to consider the arguments carefully. What is important is that Parliament has the opportunity for ample time to scrutinise, debate and vote on the withdrawal agreement. In the circumstance where the House of Commons had voted to pass that agreement, though, it is hard to see why Parliament would want to hold up our exit or to allow MPs or Peers to consider the treaty once more.
I turn to the Motion of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, which seeks to tie the Government’s hands in negotiations. We cannot support a Motion which mentions “all steps necessary” to avoid no deal without excluding “no Brexit” from the list of necessary steps. The Prime Minister has been clear that the Government want to leave the EU with a deal agreed with the European Union and with the support of Parliament. That is why she has listened to the concerns raised in the other place about the backstop and is working to find a solution that can command the support of MPs. As I said, discussions with the EU are continuing with that aim.
However, as the Prime Minister has said, it is not sufficient just to wish to avoid no deal. The best way for MPs to avoid a no-deal scenario is of course to vote for a deal. When we have secured the progress that we need, we will bring forward another vote under Section 13(1)(b) and (1)(c) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. But we do not agree with the timing strictures that the Motion in the name of the noble Baroness proposes. As the Prime Minister said, and as I set out in my opening speech, if the Government have not secured a majority in the other place in favour of a withdrawal agreement and political declaration, the Government will make a Statement on Tuesday 26 February and table an amendable Motion to that Statement. A Minister will move that Motion on Wednesday 27 February, thereby enabling Members of the other place to vote on it, and any amendments to it, on that day.
This has been another good debate on our exit, and it will certainly not be the last. As I made clear in my opening remarks, a clear timetable has been set out for the next steps in Parliament. Tomorrow will see debate in the other place, where MPs will also consider amendments to the Government’s Motion. Noble Lords, as I will, will no doubt be watching with great interest. In closing, however, I reiterate, in case there is any doubt, that this Government are committed to delivering on the result of the referendum. We want this to take place in a smooth and orderly way, which requires securing a deal that MPs can support. The other place has made clear what it wishes to see changed, and that is what the Prime Minister is working to secure in our further discussions with the EU.