Motion to Take Note (2nd Day)
Moved on Wednesday 9 January by
That this House, for the purposes of section 13(1)(c) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, takes note of the negotiated withdrawal agreement laid before the House on Monday 26 November 2018 with the title Agreement on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from the European Union and the European Atomic Energy Community and the framework for the future relationship laid before the House on Monday 26 November 2018 with the title Political Declaration setting out the framework for the future relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom.
Relevant document: 24th Report from the European Union Committee
I thank the House for its warm welcome, though I am not sure it is entirely deserved. I am delighted to reopen the adjourned debate. In my estimation, it is increasingly difficult to understand and keep track of exactly what is going on in this debate. It is even more difficult to try to explain it to the general public outside this House, particularly after yesterday’s shenanigans in another place. Let no one say that Speakers with powers improve behaviour. This House is a shining example of good behaviour, apart from the occasional expostulation from my good friend Lord Cumnock of Foulkes.
—after we leave the European Union, I would have been appalled. May the United Kingdom continue to prosper. Yet here we are. It is Groundhog Day. As for the debates we had yesterday and in December, I cannot help observing that, fascinating and excellent though the individual speeches may have been, we are often good at pointing out the problems but, with very few exceptions, we do not usually come up with many practical solutions that might help the Prime Minister in her discussions and negotiations.
Whatever views you have on Brexit, this stage of Brexit was always going to end in a compromise, especially during the course of transition. Yet what is so extraordinary is the sight of countries with some of the world’s most powerful economies and greatest histories unable to agree on how to trade in a fair, practical and sensible manner. What an appalling example to the rest of the world, which so often looks to the countries of Europe—including us—for wisdom, guidance and fair play. Trust has seemingly broken down between the Commission and the United Kingdom. There is more and more miscommunication and misunderstanding between the two.
Yet if we want a deal before we leave at the end of March, this one before us is the essence of what we are most likely to get. It is too late for anything else. I agree with many of the deal’s critics that it is far from perfect, but it is the one the European Union has agreed. However, unless something extraordinary happens over the weekend, there seems to be a consensus in both Houses and among political commentators that the House of Commons will not pass the deal next week—at which stage, no doubt, there will be discussion of the alternatives. Please, not another referendum. Can you imagine the debates we would have in this House on the questions, the franchise, the dates, the length of the campaign and its funding? Please, not that. There has to be another solution if we are not to leave on WTO rules at the end of March. That requires the Prime Minister to return to Brussels and the Commission to hear her out in a positive manner.
For me, the key lies with the backstop—an issue that most European Governments will not understand, on a border they have never seen and whose history or background they almost certainly do not truly understand. I understand why my noble friends in the unionist parties find the backstop so objectionable. Without their support, this deal does not get through the House of Commons. We can trade all sorts of different views on the backstop. The Attorney-General has opined why no one should fear the backstop, and this has been supported by my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern. Usually, when he says something is so, it is so. But the politics of this is different, and we need to go the extra mile. The Government yesterday published further thoughts and clarifications and indicated support for the helpful amendment brought by Mr Hugo Swire. But this issue stands in the way of a deal. If I were the Taoiseach of Ireland, I would fear no deal more than anything else. It is a paradox that the obstacle to there being a deal is a thing they invented to try to make sure there would be no border.
This is the political challenge facing the Commission, the Irish Government and the UK Government in reaching an agreement. I believe this period does not need to end in shambles. We need to rebuild trust with the Commission. After all, we will still be neighbours, traders and markets; we shall still share fundamental values as well as vital security infrastructure. We disagree on political direction. Failure to amend the deal will be a failure for Her Majesty’s Government but also for the EU and the countries it represents. I hope, therefore, that minds will be concentrated next week.
With a very small step forward by the EU to agree a better arrangement for Northern Ireland, and by bringing unionists on board in another place, we can remove so much uncertainty at a stroke and begin the work for a positive and prosperity-driven relationship between the UK and our friends in Europe.
My Lords, I make no apology for the fact that I will continue to press the Minister, and the Government, about the effects of the political agreement on our health services.
I start by thanking the Minister for addressing some of the questions that I raised in my speech in December, particularly those concerning medical research. It saves me from repeating the whole speech, which, as good as it was, would be tedious for me and for the House. However, I will return to some of the unresolved and serious matters that the NHS, the research community, pharma and medicine face, post Brexit—and to how very serious the issues of safety and availability will become if we should be so foolish as to crash out of the EU in a couple of months. I make no apology for continuing to speak about health and social care issues. I did it during the passage of the Brexit Act. I have been doing it during the extensive and somewhat bizarre debates about the “in case we crash out” statutory instruments. We tackled those concerning the regulation of human tissues, embryology, organs and blood yesterday. I will continue to raise these serious matters today and will do so during the passage of the Trade Bill.
At every stage I have sought reassurance from the Government over matters of reciprocal healthcare, the free movement of medical and nursing staff, the regulation and supply of medicines, clinical trials and research, the conduct and regulation of which is so important in the UK. Access to the portal is vital to patients across the UK and Europe.
The response of the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, in his opening remarks yesterday, was welcome, after a fashion. However, I want to raise two issues. What the noble Lord said was in many ways too aspirational and not concrete enough. It was about wanting to explore new relationships, not to continue the ones that work already and are beginning to fall apart. Secondly, it was about the future. The noble Lord said:
“We have been clear that we want to explore association with EU research and innovation programmes”.—[Official Report, 9/1/19; col. 2224.]
While research programmes are protected to 2020, this completely ignores the fact that most research programmes take years to design, negotiate and fund. Brexit is already having a chilling effect on future research. What do the Government intend to do about this? How can they ensure that our universities and research organisations are not severely disadvantaged by being excluded from the funding and regulatory regimes of which they need to be part?
I shall return to the issue of the portal, which the noble Lord failed to address in his opening remarks; I hope he will do so at the end of this debate.
Agreement must be reached in the negotiations on UK participation in the single assessment procedure and access to the portal and database, which underpin the cross-national clinical trials regulation and come into operation in the next year. No access to the portal will severely reduce the ease of UK-EU trials set up and hurt our thriving life sciences environment. Clinical trials take years to plan and run. As things stand, UK researchers will enter the implementation period unsure what regulatory conditions they will face when they exit it. What is the Minister doing to resolve this issue with the necessary urgency? Is he aware of the cost of failing to do so? The deal as it is expressed does not achieve access to the portal. The political declaration makes no reference to how UK-EU clinical trials will operate after Brexit and this is of significant concern. As every day passes, uncertainty continues to increase in the research community over what the regulatory framework will be after 29 March and whether UK institutions will continue to be able to lead on UK-EU trials.
A further aspect is the mobility of researchers. The publication of the immigration White Paper in December has not clarified how changes to the rules will affect medical research; perhaps the Minister would care to do so. The current Migration Advisory Committee recommendation is for a salary threshold of £30,000 per annum, a figure that would penalise many research technicians—skilled workers who form the backbone of the research workforce but are often not highly paid. EEA nationals will now be subject to the immigration health surcharge and immigration skills charge. Students from the EEA will be required to have a visa to study, as current non-EEA students do.
On UK-EU mobility, it is good that the importance of the international movement of researchers is recognised in the political declaration, but there is not enough detail on the extent to which this will continue, either for researchers moving across borders to live and work, or for short-term travel for shared projects such as clinical trials. Could the Minister clarify that?
It is absolutely essential for our world-leading medical research environment, and for the breakthroughs that benefit patients, that we continue to attract, recruit and retain global scientific talent at all levels. At present, neither the political declaration nor the immigration White Paper offer this certainty. Yesterday, the Minister made no mention of medicines, which is an issue I will continue to raise because of the supply of medicines in the short term.
Finally, I raise the issue of the European reference networks following Brexit. The ERNs are virtual networks of medical specialists across Europe. They facilitate discussions on complex or rare diseases and conditions that require highly specialised treatment. As such, they are an essential resource for the 30 million rare disease patients in Europe. I agree with the Specialised Healthcare Alliance that continued UK involvement in European reference networks is vital to driving forward improvements in rare disease care in both the UK and the European Union. However, at present, the ERNs are open only to EU member states and EEA members, which means that there is a clear risk that the UK will no longer be able to participate. Can the Minister ensure that the Government work with the European Commission to ensure that the UK is able to contribute to ERNs following Brexit, in the interests of patients with rare diseases? I hope the Minister will be able to answer these questions at the end of this debate.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, and to hear the contributions from other colleagues in the House.
Between the previous debate and this one, I visited the Middle East and north Africa, and a political friend of mine there told me that the world is both laughing and crying at us. They are laughing because of the farce of the Government’s ineptitude but crying because they love our country, as I and we all do, they need us to succeed in the world, and they see the canny British pragmatism of being independent but trading freely as part of the EU, with our openness and liberalism, being set aside in an uncertain world. To make the case further, the British Business Secretary—clearly going through trauma, as anyone listening to the “Today” programme this morning would have heard, but staying in the Cabinet, half-heartedly but on full pay—wrote this week that global confidence in the UK is seeping away because of the actions of the Government. They and he were of course right; it is a combination of farce and foreboding.
We have had the worst trading Christmas since the crash. Up to 5,000 jobs are going at JLR. Some £800 billion of assets in services, jobs and those managing them have moved and are moving to the EU. There are job shortages in key sectors, and on 21 December HMRC advised pharmaceutical companies to stockpile six weeks’ worth of stock over March and April. These are all now fact, and the permanently devalued pound compounds them all. They are the consequences of the prospect of leaving our biggest trading market, with no combined customs system.
Sir Walter Scott wrote what would be an apt description of the Brexit campaign:
“Faces that have charmed us the most escape us the soonest”.
Now the problem is that there is finally the crashing reality of what leaving means, and it does not match the rhetoric in a campaign that appealed to many people’s lesser angels. Realisation is never as good as anticipation, but the promises made, which could never have been kept, should never have been accepted by the Prime Minister in her Lancaster House speech. Lines in the sand have been washed away with every government retreat, and red lines suffer from greater and greater anaemia. Just yesterday, in a desperate attempt to appease the DUP, the Government committed to giving the non-sitting Stormont a veto on entering the backstop, which is utterly meaningless. We heard of course about a ferry contract being given to a company with no boats, but now we have a vote being given to an Assembly with no sitting Members.
There are only 43 sitting days left if there is no February Recess, and we are still promised more than 40 trade deals to ratify, as well as up to another 600 statutory instruments on delivering exit. We now simply cannot achieve a sensible, orderly exit, nor are the Government likely to be capable of delivering one at all.
We all know, mostly from speeches from the opposite side in these debates, that the party of incrementalism and resistance to radicalism struggled with being in a political union with the continent, because it never faced down its English nationalist edge. Instead of taking on UKIP, it sought to subsume it. It was the same when it struggled with the free trade arguments a century ago and land reform a century before that. Why it has been a surprise to some that it has been incapable of agreeing an exit when it could never agree what membership meant has been the surprise to me.
The difference now is that, in previous times, there was a clear opposition with a philosophical basis for their opposition: the Liberal Party, an alternative official opposition with an alternative proposition. But Labour now cannot even agree that the UK should stay in the single market, which guarantees the best economic and social future for our country. The Labour leadership, trying to inch the party to a general election in which the party will have a manifesto commitment to leave the EU, is not offering any meaningful opposition, so it is no surprise that it is not clear what it seeks in the meaningful vote. We heard from the cri de coeur of the noble Lord, Lord Howell, yesterday that he wants an election to unite his party, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, wants an election to unite hers. With both supporting Brexit, however, it cannot be a realistic way forward, nor will it adequately address the clear divisions in society, which were present long before the Scottish referendum, never mind the EU referendum, which nearly broke our union apart.
The divisions are deep in society, in the nations of the union and in the parties. The majority of Conservative Members do not want the Prime Minister’s deal, but she is persisting with it, and the majority of Labour Members want a referendum and Jeremy Corbyn is turning a deaf ear to them. We cannot easily get out of these divisions, but we need to accept that decisions of these magnitude need to go beyond a particular binary poll with undeliverable promises.
A higher proportion of registered voters voted yes in the Scottish independence referendum than voted leave in the EU referendum, but one side lost and one side won. But we surely cannot be in a position in which a 37.4% vote of registered voters on the winning side in the EU referendum has all the moral weight of democracy behind it, but the 37.8% of registered voters on the losing side in Scotland are cast aside as losers in perpetuity.
We cannot get out of the minority complex easily, but digging ourselves deeper into it over the last two years has not helped. However, least we can start. I hear the argument that another referendum will compound the divisions, but they were present before and will remain after. At least those who have to live with the consequences of this, young people in particular, need to have a say. Those who voted leave will decide whether this is what they actually voted for and whether it is worth it. This is a better start to addressing the deep social and economic divisions that allowed nationalism to breed than to limp on a journey into even more damage and division that this course takes us into. Perhaps then we can release government to focus on why this nationalism in Scotland and some parts of England has grown in recent years, while it is beneficial for our whole union to do so. We can at least have the rest of the world no longer crying with us or laughing at us.
My Lords, it is because so many people are concerned about the EU withdrawal and what it will bring that my conscience has directed me to say a few words in this mammoth debate. As far as I understand, severely disabled people have not been adequately considered in this saga. There are thousands of complicated rare conditions that people have to live with, and medicines become part of their lives. Already, the European Medicines Agency, which deals with safety of medicines and trials, has left London for Amsterdam. We will not have voting rights, which is most frustrating as we are the leaders in this field.
Britain’s most commonly used medicines are produced in 50 countries and drug companies say that airlifts, drug priority routes and export bans would be needed to prevent shortages under a no-deal Brexit, because of increasingly complex supply chains. Analysis carried out by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency has found that the 20 most commonly used drugs in the NHS come from 23 other EU states as well as 27 other countries. The British Generic Manufacturers Association has said that delays in crossing the Channel was the number one problem for medicine supply. I have heard nothing about the supply of medicines for rare conditions, which can be vital to an individual’s survival. This whole situation could become a nightmare. Working together in co-operation in healthcare is paramount.
Just before the Christmas Recess, some of us were invited to visit the Francis Crick Institute, which carries out worldwide medical research. It was a great pleasure to meet some of the young researchers who were bursting with energy and enthusiasm and were the brightest and the best; research institutes must have them in order to compete in world research. Some 40% of the Crick scientists are Europeans, as are 55% of the post docs. Virtually every scientist thinks that a hard Brexit would completely cripple British science, while 97% think that a no-deal Brexit would be bad for UK science. One student working on an effective immune response is leaving the UK to return to Germany once her PhD ends. This decision was made because of the UK’s decision to leave the EU. At the moment, people have no idea how funding for post docs will be guaranteed and the insecurity causes students great concern. It would be sad if Brexit were to cause the brightest and the best to do their research elsewhere.
Another major anxiety is that the Government and the independent Migration Advisory Committee have shown that they do not understand the needs of severely disabled people who are living in the community and need to employ people so that they can live independently. The White Paper, The UK’s Future Skills-based Immigration System, published in December 2018, states that only the brightest and the best earning £30,000-plus a year can come here to work from anywhere in the world. Other workers will be allowed to come for a maximum of 12 months only, to be followed by a “cooling-off period” of a further 12 months, whatever that means. Perhaps the Minister could explain it. It will not entitle anyone to access public funds or to the right to extend a stay. Does this mean that employers will have to pay for private healthcare for their employees?
I have to declare an interest, in that I employ EU workers. They are happy to work at the weekends and to live in. It takes time for disabled people to train employees to meet their individual needs. Many of the people who are willing to work and to be trained for employment with disabled people come from Europe. Already, many of these much-needed people have returned to the EU due to problems involving Brexit. I find the Government’s proposals on these matters unacceptable.
Care workers also work in care homes and hospitals. These rules will also apply to them as well as to ancillary workers in the NHS. These employees need to be honest and willing workers; they do not need to be high flyers on a high wage, but they do need to be treated fairly and looked after. Many UK workers do not want these jobs and some of them are not fit for purpose. Our social care is already in crisis and it needs to be saved.
There is also a shortage of vets, about half of whom come from Europe. Many of them work in abattoirs. If they are restricted, this will affect animal welfare. I hope that sense will prevail before it is too late.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Masham. My speech, however, will be taking a slightly different path from hers.
Nothing has changed since we debated the withdrawal agreement last month to make it any more palatable. That includes the extra bits of parliamentary process, both in Parliament here and in Northern Ireland that the Government invented yesterday. None of that can override the withdrawal agreement itself. The withdrawal agreement is as unsatisfactory today as it was last month. Fortunately, the Government’s Motion is only a take-note one and hence I shall be spared the need to vote against it, but I hope that the other place will reject the withdrawal agreement when it votes on it next week.
The principal problem remains the backstop, which passes all power to the EU, which will then decide whether we enter the backstop and whether and when we exit it. In practice, that means that it calls the shots on the terms on which we exit. This betrays the referendum result. Staying in some kind of limbo—following the rules indefinitely but having no say in them, while paying through the nose for the privilege—does not respect the sovereignty of the UK or the decision of the majority who voted to leave the EU.
I have been dismayed by the way that the EU has treated us. When the Prime Minister met the European Council on 13 December, she was again treated shabbily. The draft declaration which had been prepared to follow that meeting was deliberately and ruthlessly edited by her fellow Council members to remove references to the backstop being temporary and of short duration. They also deleted the reference to giving further assurances, and indeed none has been forthcoming.
It is about time that we stopped being supplicants to the EU. We are still the world’s fifth-largest nation in terms of GDP. We chose, as is our right, to leave the EU and have spent the last two and a half years trying to do so in a civilised manner within the terms of Article 50. We deserve better than being treated like a naughty child, to be scolded and punished at every turn.
The EU is fond of saying that it does not know what we want from the negotiations. While I think that that is said with largely malicious intent, I too have struggled to see the clarity and confidence in our negotiating position. Why, for example, we even bothered with the Chequers proposals last summer completely defeats me. However, my disappointment in the Government’s negotiating skills does not diminish my pride in this country and my confidence in its future outside the EU. We should now turn our efforts to three things.
First, we must concentrate on planning for our exit on 29 March without this withdrawal agreement. We should not use defeatist language like “crashing out” or “no-deal Brexit”. We are simply leaving: it is just an exit. We will, of necessity, revert to trading with the EU on WTO terms and we need a clear strategy for that, including what our stance will be on tariffs. We must make every effort to reach agreements on matters such as citizens residing out of their home territory, on travel arrangements including flights and visas and on practical methods for reducing friction at our borders. The very clear statement yesterday by the president of the Calais port that there would be no practical problems in maintaining traffic flow demonstrated that there has been a lot of scaremongering. Indeed, too often, risks have been talked about as if they are virtual certainties that would be incapable of mitigation by practical steps.
Secondly, we must start working with the EU on a proper long-term trading relationship. The starting point must not be the vacuous and inadequate political declaration. We need to go back to the basics of the current economic equilibrium of our trade. Put simply, we buy a lot less in terms of goods from the EU than EU nations buy from us, but our service sector is in surplus. Our negotiations should be built around what is important to each side, not just what is important to the EU.
Thirdly, we should get to work on trade arrangements with other key nations. The withdrawal agreement prevents meaningful trade negotiations because there is no certainty about whether and how we will escape the backstop.
There will be problems, points of friction and some real practical difficulties, I have no doubt about that, but we shall no longer have to hand over the £39 billion included in the withdrawal agreement. We can spend it on our national priorities. The Government must now restore pride in our nation and confidence in our future. The best way for that to happen, even if there is some short-term pain, is to reject the withdrawal agreement and move rapidly to charting our life outside the EU as a free-standing nation.
My Lords, the reason why I am making my small contribution today is that for the last two years this House and the other place have been going round in circles, which has landed us in the muddle that we are in today. I believe that we must turn to the people again for their guidance, now that they are more informed, in the absence of strong leadership from the centre. I must confess that I am not the greatest advocate for referenda, especially the kind that we have had to encounter for the last two years, where many of the key issues were rarely, if ever, discussed in a meaningful way. People are really only now beginning to understand the full effects of this country leaving the EU. In the fallout from the 2016 vote, though, it is clear that a new referendum is needed. It must be one that addresses openly the true and accurate nature of the issues facing the nation, bereft of the kind of waffle that was part of the 2016 campaign.
The main political parties have also been guilty of not stressing many of the real issues that have emerged during the course of the campaign, notably Northern Ireland. As my noble friend Lord Murphy of Torfaen said in his powerful speech when we last debated this issue, the Northern Ireland problems were hardly ever discussed. My noble friend and my noble friend Lord Hain, both of whom were Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—like my noble friend Lord Dubs and myself, who were Ministers—know how important the Good Friday agreement is to the Province and indeed to the rest of us, yet, as we all know, that was hardly ever discussed in any meaningful way during the course of the referendum campaign. There are of course many other issues that were not discussed fully in that campaign: the potential problems of medical supplies from abroad; reduced numbers of doctors and nurses, which will greatly affect the NHS; the damage to the funding and research programmes in our universities—the list is endless.
In the face of the many failings of the referendum campaign, I get tired of the many people in this House and outside who bang on about “the will of the people” and the need to honour the result. Even referendum results are not cast in stone. No less a person than the former Brexit Secretary David Davis once said:
“If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy”.
When one considers that the leavers won by a very slender majority of 52% to 48%, clearly the time has come for a revisit now that some of the distortions and lies have been revealed. The most notable was the misleading message on the infamous Boris bus, but there were many more like it.
My final plea is that the long-term survival and prosperity of our nation will rest in the hands of the younger generation: our children and grandchildren. It is the wishes of the young people who voted in the referendum of which we should really take note. Studies of the voting pattern of the different age groups in the 2016 referendum given to me by the House of Lords Library show that the vast majority of 18 to 24 year- olds and 25 to 34 year-olds voted remain, with the majorities for the leave vote appearing among those who were over 45 years of age. The knowledge that the new referendum will release some 2 million young people who were not eligible last time, the vast majority of whom will be expected to join the lower age group in voting remain, is another good reason why, in the interests of the future generation, bringing the question back to the people must be of considerable importance.
Out of the conflict and muddle of the last two years at least comes the potential for a better, more informed debate, with clearer judgments on the real issues. Once we have the result of a referendum based not on fiction and distortion but on facts and a full understanding of what Brexit really means, we can then say, with real meaning, “No more referenda”—because that will be the real, true meaning of the British people.
My Lords, for more than two and a half years, Theresa May, the Prime Minister, has been immensely busy and resilient, despite her rebellious House of Commons troops behind her. For that, I give her credit, as others in the House have done. If it had been a peaceful political time, she might have done rather well as a Prime Minister. But this is not a peaceful time and she has become a loser on the crucial and historic issue of Brexit.
I was of a generation that grew up just after the end of World War II. On a cross-party basis, we dreamed of a better and more prosperous Britain and no more wars. On the crucial vote in the House of Commons on 28 October 1971, I helped 69 Labour Members of Parliament to vote for Europe, despite a three- line Whip against. Then, despite ups and downs, disappointments and unevenness between different regional and local parts of the country, we set upon 40 years of remarkable success.
So, given the outcome of the referendum, I was dismayed and profoundly shocked. However, in the July 2016 post-referendum Lords debate, I said, with great sadness, that:
“Whatever is done is done. …We cannot reverse the outcome by stealth”.
All I could hope for was that Britain would,
“stay as close as possible to our European partners in friendship and to mutual advantage”.—[Official Report, 6/7/16; col. 2039.]
When friends and colleagues began to talk of another referendum, I was warm but sceptical. I assumed that a new era would fall into place, uneasy, diminished in the world and damaging, but—up to a point—credible. But that has not happened. Neither the Government, nor the official Opposition, nor the Brexit ideologues had done their homework in advance in measuring the possible consequences of losing a referendum.
As a result, at every stage through these years, with every new analysis, with every report and with every forecast, the news has been bad and getting worse. The voters at the referendum were wholly unaware of what happened to be the grim future realities. When the Prime Minister reported last month on her visit to the Argentina summit, she said that Britain was looking forward to future trade agreements. She said:
“Once we leave the EU, we can and we will strike ambitious trade deals”,
“forge new and ambitious economic partnerships”.—[Official Report, Commons, 3/12/18; col. 529.]
Then a week ago, the Foreign Secretary rejoiced at trade prospects in Singapore and Malaysia.
But there is no evidence whatever that there will be frictionless trade to compensate for the loss of European Union business. The long debates in this House on the Trade Bill showed that trade negotiations are always complex, painful and slow. The Prime Minister dreams of the distant sunny uplands, but self-deceit is the most commonplace instinct for all political leaders.
In that respect, for a Conservative Prime Minister with a sense of history, I give high marks to Harold Macmillan both for the wind of change and everything on Europe. Much earlier, in 1938, he published a book called The Middle Way: A Study of the Problem of Economic and Social Progress in a Free and Democratic Society. He wrote about unemployment, insecurity and poverty. Harold Macmillan would be turning in his grave at the outcome of Mrs May’s proposals.
As the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, said in the incomplete debate in December,
“we are voting in this legislation to make this country poorer”,—[Official Report, 5/12/18; col. 1038.]
and my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire said that,
“inequality, poverty and social divisions”,—[Official Report, 5/12/18; col. 1011.]
would not be resolved by the Government’s flawed proposals.
As the Government have spent so much time and energy in getting nowhere, I acknowledge that efforts have been made to find realistic alternatives. All involve risk and uncertainty and the EU27 has its own view, but for me, another referendum is now the overwhelming best option available.
It is not my habit to take part in political marches, but in my 90th year I was proud to join 700,000 men and women in favour of another referendum. If need be, I shall march again.
My Lords, I spoke about Brexit a few times both before and after the referendum but, as the heavyweight reports to take cognisance of began to pile up, I have been content to leave the heavy lifting to genuine heavyweights such as my noble friends Lord Kerr and Lord Hannay. But at such a momentous juncture in our nation’s affairs, it seems imperative that one should stand up and be counted.
The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of Shaws, told me that she had voted against the Third Reading of the withdrawal Bill, although the Opposition considered that to be something of a self-indulgence, because she felt that it was important to have on the record where she stood when the history of these things came to be written. I felt very much the same way but, unfortunately, was not able to be present to vote. I am therefore speaking today to put that record straight.
I remain a pretty unashamed remainer, believing that the country has been guilty of an astonishing act of self-harm from which it needs to be rescued, if at all possible. I say this not just on the grounds of the economic damage it will do, although there is virtual unanimity that it will certainly do that. I am thinking here not so much of the hit to individuals’ living standards as the progressive starvation of resources for public services and social progress. What concerns me even more is the “go it alone” mentality of the Brexiteers which turns its back on internationalism and a spirit of co-operation, which is the only way to make it in today’s world.
There has been consensus in the debate that there are four possible ways forward: Mrs May’s deal, no deal, something else or a people’s vote. Let us dispose of the no-deal option. Those who advocate leaving on WTO terms maintain that Britain has grown its exports to the more than 100 countries with which it trades on WTO terms three times faster than its exports to the EU. To begin with, we should always be wary of statistics that quote comparative growth rates without reference to the level from which the growth started. More importantly, this has been entirely consistent with EU membership. Where is the evidence that we would do any better by leaving the EU? The EU cannot discriminate against WTO members but it cannot discriminate in favour of them either. As the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, pointed out, in the event of no deal, far from protecting us from retaliation, WTO rules would oblige the EU to impose the same tariffs and non-tariff barriers on UK goods as it does on those from any other third country. Under WTO rules, the UK could cut tariffs and other barriers to zero for imports from the EU but only if it did so for all other countries as well, which would interfere with our ability to negotiate the trade deals with other countries to which Brexiteers look for so much. Therefore, it is far from clear that the grass is any greener under no deal and WTO.
Mrs May’s deal has few friends but in some respects it is the least worst option—as the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said, it is the softest of soft Brexits. Yet by common consent it is worse than what we have at the moment. In fact, everything is worse than what we have at the moment. The Prime Minister has therefore been extraordinarily irresponsible in running the clock down in order to set up a choice between her deal and no deal as the only option. If the Prime Minister’s deal is not acceptable there needs to be space to consider other options, such as Norway or a people’s vote, together with any necessary preconditions such as revocation or suspension of Article 50. I am glad to see that the House of Commons is at last being more assertive in seeking to take some control of these issues. Although it is tempting to support the Prime Minister’s deal in preference to no deal, it should be rejected to provide space for returning the issue to the people—the only way of breaking the parliamentary deadlock. I shall therefore support the Motion in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith.
I have come to be more troubled than I was by the arguments against a people’s vote—in terms of damage to democracy and trust in politics—but otherwise I do not have much time for them. It is not a second referendum: it is a referendum on a different question in the light of greater knowledge, so this is really the least worst option, as the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, has said.
I have a friend who said that he put aside his principled objections to referendums in the pragmatic belief that remain would win. I am prepared to put aside my principled objections to referendums in the pragmatic belief that a second vote is the only way of getting ourselves out of the mess we have got ourselves into. I bumped into the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, the other day. We were both bemoaning the state we had got ourselves into but he said that it might just come out all right. I said, “It might just come out all right if everything goes wrong with the way the Government are trying to manage things”, and I rather hope it does.
My Lords, I feel like a rarity in this House, in that this is my first speech in the Chamber on Brexit. It is hard to know how much value my six minutes will add among over 130 speeches in the latest of so many debates on this subject. However, like the noble Lord, Lord Low, I think that it is time to stand up and be counted.
The first thing to say is that I do not think that Brexit should be the most important issue facing us right now. I also think that most of the electorate feel the same. The global outlook economically is poor; our public services are in a dreadful state after 10 years of austerity, with a huge staffing crisis facing both the NHS and our schools; the Government’s welfare reforms are in pieces; everything the Transport Secretary touches goes wrong; our prisons are in a dreadful state; and we are going through a mental health crisis, especially among our young people. I could go on. I am desperate for the time and money currently diverted to Brexit to be returned to rebuilding this country.
That said, I believe passionately in the importance of the free movement of goods, services, capital and labour. Our nation’s history as a great trading nation, a great financial centre and a true global heavyweight depends on those principles. They are also the founding principles of the EU and the reason I voted to remain back in the referendum.
And what a catastrophe that referendum has turned out to be. To be fair to the Prime Minister, she was dealt a rubbish set of cards by her predecessor, and, unlike most of the men implicated in this disaster, she has not shown the same sloping shoulders and shed her responsibilities. I believe that she has shown commendable resilience in keeping at it and trying to deliver the mandate to deliver Brexit. That said, she has made an appalling job of playing the cards she was dealt.
It has always been predictable that Brexit needed to mean more than Brexit and that, once it was defined, the divisions in her party would make life very difficult for her. Things could have been very different if Mrs May had chosen to engage across the parties for the last 30 months. As it is, only the inexplicable position on Brexit of Jeremy Corbyn has allowed the Prime Minister to remain in office.
Her political strategy of kicking the can down the road for as long as possible has, however, run out of road. We now have her withdrawal agreement and the accompanying political declaration. We now know what Brexit means. I would like to say that we now have political certainty, but of course we do not. The only certainty that we have is uncertainty. In my commercial work I see the huge damage that this is causing our economy, and this damage comes as we see worrying signs of the next global slowdown just around the corner and few, if any, policy levers available to anyone if that turns into a crash. This uncertainty is at the heart of the Government’s failure and it is why I will support the second Motion in the vote on Monday.
Others have analysed the weaknesses of the agreement better than me, and I particularly value the insights of the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, but I am especially appalled by the political declaration. How can we agree something that is so vague on our future relationship with the European Union? Our economy, our environment and many parts of our society depend on a close future working relationship with the European Union, and we are offered just 26 pages of good intent in future negotiations.
The other big uncertainty is the current political situation and the likelihood of the withdrawal agreement being defeated next week in the other place. What happens then? As we all have, I have thought long and hard about this. In agreeing to Article 50 being triggered, Parliament respected the referendum result, and both the main parties again respected it with their manifesto positions in the 2017 general election. The Government formed from the Parliament elected have negotiated an agreement with the European Union, and the European Union says that this is the only agreement that can be negotiated—so far so good.
Our problem is that Parliament is unlikely to agree that the agreement is in the national interest. That is not out of disrespect for the democratic process but because representatives are carrying out their duty to,
“act in the interests of the nation as a whole”.
They and we are obliged by oath to vote for what we believe is in the national interest. For reasons debated at length in your Lordships’ House, it is clear to me that the withdrawal agreement is not in that interest.
If Parliament defeats the agreement, I believe there is only one possible next step that respects democracy: we must accept that Parliament has failed to agree terms with the European Union and the question should be put back to the country as a vote of the people. This would not be to repeat the question or to test the view on a no-deal Brexit. Parliament seems clear that no deal is in no one’s interest, and I therefore do not believe that it would legislate to allow it on the ballot. We should instead ask the people whether the withdrawal agreement is better than remaining in the European Union on the current terms—yes or no. That respects the work that the Government and the European Union have done in defining what Brexit looks like, and it respects the will of the people. If they vote yes, we proceed with Brexit on the withdrawal agreement terms; if not, we withdraw Article 50.
I hope we can get there quickly, and that we can then remain in the European Union and drive change from within. Most of all, I hope that we can then get on with fixing so much that is broken in Britain following the catastrophic legacy of David Cameron.
My Lords, in a debate on 20 November, at col. 192, I asked the Minister what the Government’s plan B would be if the so-called deal were rejected. I received neither acknowledgement nor answer. I do not expect one today. I am content to wait for the three days after any rejection of the deal in the other place.
It is becoming increasingly obvious that the thoughts of the Government have gone no further than the so-called deal and that, in the event of rejection, they contemplate a no-deal Brexit. Of course, I do not know whether this is a crude attempt on the part of the Government to lure Members of the other place into the Lobby in support of the so-called deal, or a policy in default of any other.
We need the Government to be clear and straight- forward with the public. This is not really a deal for the future. It sets out the terms of our withdrawal but does nothing about the future relationship. This is evident from the political declaration, which is misleadingly spoken of as part of the so-called deal. It is merely yet another statement of what we would like and hope for, but is largely unachievable in view of our own self-imposed red lines.
All the arguments remain unresolved about a hard or soft Brexit, Norway or Canada. The arguments currently raging will continue, whatever the outcome, unless there is some real leadership from all parties on where we really want to be. If the so-called deal is accepted, we have until the end of the transition period to resolve that. If we follow the precedent of the last two and a half years, what faith can anyone have in a resolution being achieved? If it is agreed, we have until 29 March to enact the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 and all the promised Bills on a multitude of policies and issues.
This provokes some questions. How is it going to be possible for Parliament to do a proper job of examining and scrutinising the legislation, to say nothing of scrutinising and debating the pile of affirmative statutory instruments now building up, given this timetable? Even if we manage to deal with the legislation, can the Government ensure that we will not limit our scope for negotiation again in the transition period, imprisoning ourselves within another set of red lines? Will the ultra-Brexiteers not threaten the Government over that legislation, as they have done to date, to ensure that it becomes more difficult—if not impossible—to negotiate the close relationship with the European Union that the Government tell us they desire?
If the deal is rejected, this will not reduce the amount of legislative work to be done by 29 March. It becomes increasingly clear that, whatever the outcome of the vote in the other place, we have presented ourselves with an almost impossible task through our own incompetence.
We need political leadership to level with people now that it is blindingly obvious that we cannot leave the European Union and retain anything like as advantageous a position as we enjoy as members; we certainly cannot do so if we insist on our red lines and reject the customs union, single market and any involvement of the Court of Justice. I am realistic enough to realise that it is unlikely we will see a withdrawal of Article 50; however, I believe it is vital that we seek an extension so that the alternatives may be explored unfettered by prior red lines.
Your Lordships’ House is required only to consider the proposal, but we can hope that our concerns are noted in the other place. The Motion in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, is the only means of formally registering our concerns. If it is moved, I shall vote for it. I am grateful to her for emphasising the concerns many share about a no-deal scenario. Her Motion also criticises the agreement and the declaration, but they have been challenged across the spectrum of remain and Brexit views. We should not have issued Article 50 before we knew what we hoped to achieve or, indeed, without considering what would be possible. We did it, and we are about to pay the price of our own incompetence unless we can achieve more time for whatever we decide to do.
Parliament has a role to play and, if the proposals are indeed rejected, Parliament must fill the vacuum of political leadership and not abdicate responsibility to another referendum. We must seek a compromise realistically acceptable to our own different parties and factions, and to the European Union, without the fetters of ill-advised red lines. We have had the farce; we must now avoid it turning into tragedy. That needs to be an important consideration for this House and the other place.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, particularly as I agree with everything he said. It is a truism that when two people in an organisation agree, one of them is unnecessary, but I do not think that applies to a legislative Chamber. I did not speak in the last debate. Looking at what has been happening—not just since then but earlier—all I can say is that Brexit has sucked the life out of British politics. We are not functioning as a country anymore because Brexit dominates everything. There is no thinking going on, and problems concerning poverty and the economy, for example, which my noble friend spoke about, are not being dealt with. We have to move forward.
When this process began, with a referendum, it was fairly clear that Northern Ireland would be one of the sources of enormous difficulty. Indeed, I argued at the time that, even if one supported leave in every respect but one, Northern Ireland was a good reason to vote remain. I did not support leave at all but Northern Ireland itself was an argument for voting to remain: there is simply no solution to the problem. I do not see a way forward and nobody has yet been able to suggest one. That is a good argument for thinking again about the whole thing.
There is a way out: to have a customs union and for us to be in it; then, the Northern Ireland border would not be a problem and everything would be fairly straightforward. For some reason, the Government do not like the idea of our being in a customs union. Their argument is that we should be free to negotiate with other countries. But let us look at how well Germany, within the EU, does trade deals with China and with other countries. Many European countries are knocking spots off us and are not at all constrained by being in the EU. Our being in the customs union would not be a constraint on anything. It would be a positive move and very helpful as regards Northern Ireland.
Moving on to Dover, which I visited with the Select Committee some time ago, one of the figures given to us was that it takes less than two minutes to clear a container from within the EU, while it takes an average of one and a quarter hours to clear a container from outside the EU. There is simply no space at Dover even to make the arrangements to look at the loads to see whether they pass the health tests. Frankly, unless we have a seamless operation in Dover, Kent will be a car park. The whole problem of stacking along the M20, which we have seen when there have been problems in Calais with farmers over the years, will be much exacerbated. I do not know what we are going to do, and none of the people who support leave has an answer to it.
I have spent a lot of time knocking on doors during the referendum campaign. I was mainly in Hammersmith, which was 70:30 for remain, so I was not getting a typical picture. Nevertheless, immigration was pretty well the only issue that came up—I suspect that “take back control” was interpreted by people as meaning immigration. I will recount one little doorstep encounter. I was talking to a woman who said she was not going to vote remain because of immigration. I said, “But look at the health service. I had a small procedure carried out in Charing Cross Hospital. I was there for one day, and all the people who treated me—the doctor, nurses and so on—were immigrants. Where would we be without them?” She said something which I thought quite significant: “It’s not the ones who are here that bother me; it’s the ones who are going to come in the future”. That is where Boris Johnson, with his 70 million Turks poised to enter Britain, has a lot to answer for. That was Project Fear, if there ever was.
I believe the referendum showed a strong alienation in this country between people in the north and those in the south, and between people in towns and the countryside and those in cities. It is an alienation for which all political parties are responsible and which we have done very little to tackle. The referendum result was a symptom of people saying, “You don’t care about me, so this is my answer to you: I’m just going to vote against the system”. It was an argument of people who felt that their voices were not being heard.
I believe in a second referendum, but I have argued with myself for quite some time as to whether it is democratic to have another one. People on the other side argue that it is a total breach of faith with the electorate if we ignore the result of the referendum. I honestly do not believe that is so. I believe people are entitled to have their say yet again on the detail when they know what it means. It is a bit like buying a house: you like it and you put in an offer subject to survey; then the survey says that the house is rubbish and there are all sorts of problems, so you withdraw. It is quite legitimate for us to argue that it is democratic to say to the people of this country, “We’re going to give you another chance to have your say now that you know the details”. I do not understand why the people on the leave side of the argument are so frightened of that. If they believe public opinion is still with them, they should have confidence in that.
John Hume, the great Northern Ireland politician and Member of the European Parliament, knew a thing or two about peace processes. He said that the European Union, to his mind, was the most successful peace process in world history.
My Lords, I was unable to speak last time because I came after the plug was pulled. Then, I was 128th; this time I am 59th, so that is some consolation, I suppose. Coming after so many speakers in both debates who have eruditely expressed what I feel, I will be very specific. My concern is with the effect of the Prime Minister’s deal—or, even worse, the effect of no deal—on our prosperous, life-enhancing, soft power-boosting creative industries, which now contribute more than £1 billion to the UK economy. Why am I concerned? It is because they have massively benefited from our membership of the EU. We live in a golden age of British creativity, which Brexit, in my view, threatens to destroy.
Before the Recess, the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, surely a creative industry in himself, led a debate on the impact of Brexit on the arts. Read his speech and shake in your shoes—I think he might say “boots”, but anyway, read it. Crucially, the creative industries rely on people’s ability to move freely across Europe, to work and travel without the need for visas. They rely on the free movement of instruments, equipment or samples without onerous and expensive tariffs, carnets and border checks. They rely on the automatic recognition of qualifications, allowing professionals, such as architects, to continue to practise in the EU. They rely on a digital single market that protects our IP, fought for by the UK from within the EU. They rely on investment from EU funds. They rely on country-of-origin rules, whereby the mutual recognition of broadcasting licences between the UK and the EU has led to this country being the leading hub in Europe for the international broadcasting sector. Some have already made arrangements to move their headquarters from the UK. These freedoms, these mutual agreements, have both facilitated and fuelled the exchange of culture, creativity and expertise, and generated commercial and artistic opportunities.
Of particular concern is the Government’s position on immigration. There are, even before Brexit, 17 creative roles on the Government’s shortage occupation list, but the Government have pledged to end freedom of movement from the EU and to reduce levels of what they refer to as “unskilled migration”, limiting migrants to those who earn more than £30,000. As my noble friend Lord Newby pointed out in last year’s debate, such a move would have severe negative effects on the agricultural, hospitality and care sectors, and I would add the creative industries. Since that first debate the Government have published an immigration White Paper and asked the Migration Advisory Committee to review the shortage occupation list and the definition of “skilled worker”, and to engage businesses and employers as to what salary threshold should be set. However, the White Paper still clearly states, in black and white:
“The MAC recommended retaining the minimum salary threshold at £30,000”.
So there seems to have been movement on the word “unskilled” but not on the threshold. Does the Minister not accept that this is simply semantics?
I am mystified by where “unskilled equals earning less than £30,000” came from. Can the Minister enlighten me? It certainly did not come from anyone who understands or works in the creative sector. Authors in the UK earn an average of just £10,500 per year. Musicians’ earnings are on average around £20,000. Artists, actors and illustrators have similar stories. As the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, said in her speech last year:
“Salary levels are not a proxy for skills”.—[Official Report, 5/12/18; col. 1074.]
Of course, this arbitrary equation disproportionately disadvantages those at the beginning of their careers—more often than not the young.
Creative skills do not easily sit alongside the traditional qualifications and classifications that the Home Office uses to evaluate visa applications. Many creative jobs are for SMEs or freelancers without the resources to employ legal advice or, for that matter, pay the compulsory immigration skills charge that kicks in once we leave Europe.
A number of authors from outside the EEA were refused entry to last year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival because of complications in the visa application process. Is this a precursor of things to come? Will European artists be deterred from performing in the UK? As the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, has said:
“Free movement is a two-way street”,—[Official Report, 5/12/18; col. 1078.]
because there is significant and important movement of the creative sector from the UK to the rest of the EU, but so important is the mantra “Take back control”—into which, let us face it, is inextricably wrapped “no more freedom of movement”—that the Government do not listen.
Last October a group of musicians wrote an open letter laying out the problem. Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg MP’s response was, “Handel did not need the free movement of people to come to England to write ‘The Messiah’”. A signatory of said letter, the composer Howard Goodall, did some homework, and Handel did. Mr Goodall wrote:
“A bespoke Act of Parliament had to be passed in 1727 precisely because free movement was not available to him”.
I fear there would not be enough parliamentary time these days. Perhaps the Minister has a view. Neither Howard Goodall nor I is arguing that writers will not write, musicians not compose and artists not paint because of Brexit. It is the performing, touring and promoting—the essential cross-fertilisation of collaboration—that are threatened.
Liberal Democrats have consistently made the case for remaining in the EU because we know there is no deal better than the deal we have as members of the EU—certainly not the chaotic, incoherent place in which we are now. The British people must be involved when a final deal emerges. We are a democracy. As the noble Lord, Lord Pendry, said, we have elections, which allow us to change our minds. That is democracy.
To return to the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, in his debate on the arts he said:
“A referendum is not a sacred document”.—[Official Report, 11/10/18; col. 241.]
I could not agree more. We need a people’s vote. As the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said, it is the people, not the politicians, who deserve the final say. I believe that this is what people want.
My Lords, the Prime Minister is inviting the House of Commons to approve the withdrawal agreement she has made with the European Union. I am a remainer but, like my noble and learned friend Lord Hope of Craighead, I have reconciled myself to accepting that, if the House of Commons were to approve that agreement, we should leave the European Union in accordance with the mandate in the referendum of June 2016. However, it seems possible—even probable—that there will be no majority for it. Indeed, with the House of Commons as it is now constituted, the only thing for which there probably is a majority is a determination not to leave the EU on 29 March with no deal. But that is the prospect that faces us imminently if the Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement is not approved.
It is widely accepted that there would be serious economic consequences from crashing out of the EU without a deal—certainly in the short term and probably in the longer term. Some Brexiteers are trying to reassure us by saying, “Don’t worry, it may never happen”. This does not seem a very good basis for sailing confidently into what the Prime Minister has described as uncharted waters. There is too much reason to think that at least some of it will happen. Indeed, it is already beginning to happen.
The clock is at five minutes to midnight. There are a bare 11 weeks to 29 March. There is not enough time before then to negotiate a different deal, even if the EU were prepared to do so. There is not enough time to organise and carry out a second referendum, even if it were thought necessary or desirable to hold one. The immediate priority must be to move back from the cliff edge, postpone the deadline and give ourselves more breathing space.
As far as I can see, there are two ways of doing this. We could seek to defer the deadline and set a new date. Or we could revoke our notice of withdrawal from the EU, which the European Court of Justice has explicitly confirmed that we can do unilaterally. The trouble about simply deferring the deadline is that this would do little to diminish the extent to which Brexit is dominating and distorting public and parliamentary business and industrial and commercial activities. Nor would it mitigate the uncertainty, rancour and deep divisions bedevilling the situation at present. Before long, a new deadline would present us with a new cliff edge.
Given the present state of the House of Commons, it is prudent to assume that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to conclude a deal with the EU that would meet with parliamentary approval in this Parliament. So, if the Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement is rejected by the other place next week, I believe that she should, without further delay, revoke the notice of withdrawal from the European Union on 29 March and undertake that there will be no further decision to give notice of withdrawal during the life of the present Parliament. That would avoid the perils and tribulations of leaving the EU with no deal. It would give more time to consider in detail and discuss with the EU what we would like to achieve in a permanent relationship with an EU of which we are not a member. It would give more time to legislate for and organise a referendum, if that were thought desirable.
I am not arguing for a second referendum, but the constituency has changed since June 2016, with some older voters dropping out and some newer voters coming in. We hear a lot about the 17 million who voted to leave but less about the 16 million who voted to remain. The majority in the 2016 referendum was relatively narrow, and I do not think it would be undemocratic to give the people an opportunity to confirm their views or change their minds in the light of all that has happened and become known since June 2016. Revoking the notice of withdrawal would enable the Government and Parliament to find time to address the many other important issues on which progress has been delayed or frustrated by the administrative and legislative complexities of Brexit.
For the time being, the Prime Minister has nothing to fear from threats of a no-confidence vote from the vultures on the Back Benches of her party in the House of Commons. She has said she will not lead her party into the next election. So she is in a strong position to exercise the responsibilities of her position as our Prime Minister in the national interest.
If the Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement is rejected in the other place, it will be very much in the national interest that we should not leave the EU on 29 March with no deal, and that we should be able to consider our long-term relationship with the EU without the deadline hanging over us at present like a sword of Damocles. These suggestions are offered in pursuit of the doctrine I associate with the late Lord Healey:
“When you’re in a hole, stop digging”.
My Lords, I acknowledge the experience of the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, but I disagree almost entirely with every word he uttered.
It has come to this. After two and a half years of trench warfare by remainers, it is Parliament against the people—or at least most of Parliament against the majority of the people. As the broadcast media continues to pour out its anti-Brexit propaganda, who can be surprised that tempers are becoming frayed? Who is going to feel responsible as events unfold?
All great issues are, I believe, essentially very simple. We make them complicated when we do not want to face them. The plain fact is that we leave the European Union on 29 March. Remain fanatics both inside and outside Parliament have fought tooth and nail to obstruct the decision taken in 2016. They pretended they were trying to improve the situation, but all their suggestions have been nothing more than distractions, sideshows and ruses, designed for one purpose: to stop us leaving. Starting with the judicial review, we have had a meaningful vote, withdrawal agreements, second referendums, people’s votes, backstops, the postponement or revocation of Article 50 and, last but not least, a general election.
As far as I can see, there is little point in pursuing any of those ideas further or in further discussions. The arguments are increasingly circular and are leading us absolutely nowhere. Divisions are deep and abiding. The trouble is that when discussion stops, friction becomes more likely, and who is going to be held to blame for that? The only sensible, positive and optimistic way forward is for us to accept that we are leaving the EU on 29 March and to make all the necessary arrangements as quickly as possible.
Can we please slay the last big bogeyman, that leaving without a deal will be disastrous? Let us have no more hysterical talk, and sadly we have heard it again today, of crashing out—the BBC is, I think, the worst offender—of cliff edges and of catastrophes? There is never really any detail of how and why those things could, or should, arise.
Can I make a plea? Can I urge remainers not to continue their virulent disparagement of our leaving without a deal? It helps no one. My noble friend Lord Lilley, who knows much about these things, has set out detailed reasons why leaving without a formal deal is workable and indeed has many advantages. He understands the position, I believe, better than anyone. Time does not permit me to list them all here but I would like to mention some. The UK will not pay its £39 billion divorce bill. It avoids a transition period and we can get on with things straight away. There is no need for an Irish backstop. The UK as a whole will be able to enter a Canada-plus-plus-type deal. The WTO is a safe haven, not a hard option. UK exports to countries trading on WTO rules have grown three times faster than to the EU. I could go on. My noble friend deals with most of the issues that we are concerned with, in my opinion, very adequately.
By statute, we leave the EU on 29 March. Only by statute can this be stopped, and that would be a truly disastrous course of action. The only way possible to bring together the different factions in this issue, and at the same time move the nation forward to a better and more positive future, is to put our differences behind us if we can and set ourselves a common goal. I suggest that my noble friend Lord Lilley’s proposals show us the way.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Framlingham, opened by expressing his total disagreement with what the previous speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, had said. I am going to repay the compliment by saying that I did not agree with one word of what he said.
We are in a position today where we are waiting to see if the Government can produce that little bit of magic—parliamentary magic—in the next few days that will save the Prime Minister’s deal with the EU. The Prime Minister is rummaging around for a winning formula, including, I read today, contemplating possible guarantees that workers’ rights will be aligned with the EU indefinitely. I have to say that the TUC is very sceptical about the Government’s sincerity, given their record of hostility stretching back so many years on this particular subject. But I am glad that, at long last—and it has been a long time—the Government are beginning to reach out beyond the Conservative Party, although it seems far too late to garner additional support for any deal that will be put to the other place next Tuesday. There should have been this process at the start of the proceedings, after the referendum result. The Government should have led a process that got people together to decide the most practical way of dealing with the referendum result and with the European Union in future. Instead, we are faced with the discussion at the 11th hour, as the Government face, desperately, a pretty bleak prospect next Tuesday. Trapped by her own red lines and a fractious party, the Prime Minister is likely to be forced to come up with a plan B next week. It is that prospect that I would like to address briefly this afternoon.
Plan B surely cannot be no deal, which would be a recipe for chaos across a wide range of this nation’s activities, including a hard Irish border. The noble Lords, Lord Lilley and Lord Framlingham, might ignore that particular inconvenient truth, but a hard Irish border is not something anybody with a knowledge of the history of Ireland would fancy. It is a desperate situation. There would be huge pressures at the ports, as we have already heard from previous speakers, and no doubt we would find ourselves quickly approaching EU countries again to help us out of the mess in the event of having gone down the no-deal route. This time, it would be against a backdrop of chaos and disruption.
The Prime Minister famously said that,
“no deal is better than a bad deal”.
Now she has come back with a bad deal, including a vacuous, aspirational political declaration about the future, which is no more than a wish list, and a programme for intensive talks over the next two years designed, ironically, to get us as close as possible to the current status quo as we can get. The deal to be voted on in the other place next week is a mechanism for more uncertainty, not less. It gives no security but offers insecurity, lots of rows and more and more dislocation. I certainly cannot support it but will support the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lady Smith. But let us be clear that no deal is the default option. It will happen on 29 March unless there is an alternative plan. The need for such a plan is therefore now urgent. If the Cabinet cannot come up with one, Parliament must rise to the occasion and do so.
The PM recently added the third possibility of no Brexit, admittedly more as a threat than a real option. But it should be crystal clear to everyone that anything that a UK Government can negotiate will be less favourable than our current membership—less favourable in almost every respect: economic, trade, security, financial services, science, education and culture, all will be worse than the status quo. The reason given for not recognising that is that we must respect the result of the 2016 referendum. I take that very seriously—I initially held that view—but the cost, the disruption and the risk to jobs, workers’ rights and the economy have become clear. The dangers are all too tangible and cannot be airily dismissed as yet another Project Fear. When the facts change, you should change your mind, as a famous economist famously advised—or as a wise miners’ leader said, we should be,
“a movement not a monument”.
I therefore favour asking the British people to take a fresh look at the position, through a people’s vote, with a firm remain option on the ballot. We are unfortunately a long way from that situation. I cannot yet see a solid majority for that option in the other place, and both the main parties’ Front Benches are not in favour, at least yet. If the Commons goes for that option, obviously the Electoral Commission could have a tricky job in sorting out and securing support for the appropriate question.
One other option should therefore be kept in play: the compromise option of remaining in the EEA and rejoining EFTA. I hope noble Lords will have a chance to read two pamphlets, one by my noble friend Lord Lea and Michael-James Clifton of the EFTA Court, and the other by Lucy Powell MP and Robert Halfon MP. These set out clearly how this option could be made to work through retaining membership of the single market and the customs union while leaving the EU with no problems in relation to the Irish border. It might just be an acceptable compromise. It is perhaps everyone’s second-best, but it should not be ruled out too easily at this stage.
In conclusion, we must encourage the other place—which has huge decisions to take—to be statesman- and stateswomanlike and prompt them to rise to the occasion and give a lead to the nation. The Cabinet has been failing to do that. Now, at last, it is Parliament’s turn, and we, and especially the other place, cannot afford to fail.
It is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Monks, because I too agree with the conclusion that he has reached. I support the Motion in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon. Many powerful reasons have been given in the debate in December and over the last day or so that support that view. There is, however, one issue I wish to raise that is different, but which illustrates the problems that this deal will cause. In my view, we should focus on the longer-term effects of the deal and what it does for our future negotiations. That issue relates to the position of the UK as the leading centre in the world for international, commercial and business litigation. It is chosen by countries and businesses from all over the world. I appreciate that, in speaking about work for lawyers, I am not adopting a cause that wins universal popularity. However, it is important to recognise the substantial contribution, measured in billions, that this work provides for the UK economy and, importantly, for Her Majesty’s Treasury.
After the referendum, a good deal of work was done by the legal profession and the judiciary on what was needed to safeguard the pre-eminence of the United Kingdom by ending the uncertainty on which our competitors were starting to rely and providing the certainty that those negotiating a jurisdiction clause require. In late 2016, a paper was presented to the Ministry of Justice and other arms of government. In the summer of 2017, the Government were asked urgently to take a number of steps, and particularly to work with the EU to ensure that there is a simple and flexible regime for the mutual recognition and enforcement of civil judgments on our departure from the EU, when we would cease to be a party to the EU regime. In August 2017, the Government published a paper for partnership, with cross-border civil judicial co-operation with the EU after we leave. This was a pragmatic and realistic way forward, which I fully supported then and support now. It would provide the certainty so badly needed and support the ongoing work that the judiciary and the legal profession are undertaking to try to preserve the pre-eminence of the UK in this area.
The question for me is the effect of the deal on the position of London and the rest of the United Kingdom. Plainly, the continuation of the status quo by the withdrawal agreement presents no problem in itself, but the all-important political declaration is a matter on which I wish to focus. It provides nothing of the Government’s August 2017 proposals on the enforcement of civil judgments. I surmise that this is not because the Government have changed their mind, but rather that this was one of the matters that they were unable to include in the political declaration. Why is that? It is not because of its lack of importance, but because the negotiating position of the UK has become so weak, for the reasons given, even at a time when we still have leverage through the financial contribution that we are to make.
The next stage of the negotiations is more important. In considering that, we ought to look at the position of the EU 27, as their attitude is a vital factor. In this area, they are our competitors—and they have not been idle. In Paris and Amsterdam, commercial courts have been recently established where the proceedings are conducted entirely in English. They are being actively promoted as a much better alternative to the UK because their judgments will be recognised and enforceable across the EU and because of the certainty of their position. Germany and Belgium are considering doing the same. Last Friday, the Taoiseach was reported to have said that the Irish Bar Council and the Law Society took the view that,
“one of the areas that could benefit from Brexit are legal services, on the basis that Ireland could … take some business from the UK”.
Once lost, this work, which contributes so much to our economy, would be difficult to get back.
Let me turn briefly to the next stage of the negotiations. It is inevitable from the deal that the UK’s negotiating position will be very much weaker in many respects. The deal in effect enables our former partners in the EU to control the pace and outcome of the negotiations to their advantage and to our disadvantage, particularly through the leverage that the backstop provides. I agree with the many who have pointed to the multitude of other flaws in the deal. Long and complex negotiations—for that is what they will now be—will advantage our competitors in the EU 27, as they will be able to continue to exploit the uncertainty so caused. For this and for all the other reasons given during this debate, the deal looked on as a whole, and its medium and long-term effects, will have a very damaging effect. In my view, those who must make the decision in the other place would be well advised to reject it.
I see the force of the point about the dilemma we all face in the UK, as made so eloquently by many, including the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead. The issue for the decision-makers is to weigh the manifest disadvantages of this deal against the alternative courses of action which have been explored in the debate. By my support of the Motion, I would rule out a no deal, but in my view the other alternatives, for the reasons given by others which I need not repeat, are all options that will do much less serious medium and long-term harm to the UK economy than entering into this deal. I include within the other options another referendum, as it is clear that the effect of Brexit will be greatest on the young generation. They should be given the chance to express their views in the light of what is now known.
My Lords, it is my pleasure to follow the noble and learned Lord, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd. He has given me yet another reason why I should support the Motion in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon. I wondered whether, having spoken in the original incarnation of this debate, I should take part in its successor, but 6 December seems so long ago and the ground is shifting, so I feel justified in taking another bite at Brexit.
In December I voiced my concerns about the withdrawal agreement and its concentration on trade in goods while it is services that are pivotal to the UK economy. Those concerns have been deepened by the latest news from the Office for National Statistics. Yesterday it reported that, in the third quarter of last year, production in the services sector was just 0.1% higher than a year earlier. That is the slowest growth rate in two years and a very bad omen for our economy since services account for three-quarters of our earning power. If that sector does not grow at a decent rate, nor will the economy as a whole. We should not be surprised by these gloomy numbers. It is the uncertainty over what Brexit really means for services, particularly financial services, which has forced organisations to take the wise precaution of preparing for the worst. Research just published by Ernst & Young shows that, since 2016, financial services companies have announced plans to move around £800 billion-worth of staff, operations and customer funds out of the UK to the other EU 27 countries. Gradually, those moves are happening. Day by day, jobs, money and investment are leaving the UK.
As we contemplate that massive hit being inflicted on our economy, it is worth reminding ourselves just what in theory we will save by leaving the EU. The ONS tells us that in 2016 our net contribution was £9.4 billion. Remember that I have just mentioned the sum of £800 billion leaving the UK. That £9.4 billion is only 1.2% of government expenditure, and that is before taking account of any of the money that flows from the EU back to the private sector in this country.
EU membership in 2016 cost us just 39p per person per day. That is very much less than the business being haemorrhaged out of the country now. Just think what that 39p bought us in benefits, not least the ongoing security and peace that we have enjoyed for so long.
I have listened to those noble Lords who have assured us that Britain will be great again and we must go forth with confidence. My noble friend Lord True, while urging us to look to the future, declared yesterday that,
“the world out there is as big and round now as it was in 1492 and people are waiting to do business with us”.—[Official Report, 9/1/19; col. 2272.]
What are they waiting for? We have already heard from the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, that Germany and other EU countries are already strong within the EU, doing much more in export markets than the UK. It is not membership of the EU that is holding us back. It might be products; it might be services; it might be our abysmal productivity, as the noble Lord, Lord O’Neill, said yesterday, but it is not membership of the EU. If my noble friend Lord True knows those countries and those people who are waiting to do business with us, could he just urge them not to wait any longer? We would very much welcome them now.
Neither do I believe that it is a lack of functioning ports that is holding us back. Nevertheless, I hoped that the Brexit chaos might have produced just a small nugget of good news with the plans to reinvigorate Ramsgate as a freight port. A few years ago, the Royal Military Canal in Hythe was being dredged. Along its length there were big placards declaring that this work was being in part funded by the EU and bearing the wonderful slogan, “Dredging for a better future”. I pledged that I would do my best to find an occasion when I could use that slogan. When I heard what was going on in Ramsgate, it seemed to me that this, at least, might be an example of the Government dredging for a better future. Yesterday, however, the Mayor of Ostend put paid to that. He told the BBC that it was “completely impossible” that Ostend would be ready to cope with freight ferries from Ramsgate any time soon, and certainly not by 29 March this year. Whatever is going on in Ramsgate, I am afraid that it is not dredging for a better future. In fact, there is no better future ahead at the moment. It looks unutterably gloomy.
Brexit is not Brexit: it is an embarrassing shambles. Whether it is this deal or no deal, it is not in the interests of this country. The only democratic way to determine what happens next is to give the people a vote on whether they want to proceed with this nonsense or stop it. My belief is that, at 39p per person per day, they will decide that staying in the EU is a very sensible thing to do and will vote to remain. After that, business could invest with confidence, people could move freely around Europe, and the embarrassing exercise that this national hara-kiri is amounting to could be abandoned.
My Lords, I very much agree with much of what the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, said. I feel some constraint, as we were earlier advised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, that we were addressing a Bill to leave the EU. I will therefore try to limit my remarks for the most part to how we could get a better outcome while still leaving the EU. I think that his words have been touched on by my noble friend Lord Monks.
To give some shape to what I want to say, I will deal with issues of substance such as the single market and the customs union, which address questions such as Dover/Calais and the Irish border. However, there are then endless issues of process, ranging from the role of Parliament to a general election, a referendum or perhaps tossing a coin. The two are quite separate but get mixed up.
On what I call the substance, the Institute for Government said the other day that there is a spectrum of trade-offs and we have to decide where there can be any sort of parliamentary majority between those trade-offs. That is exactly right on where we are today. There can be such a majority in the area, as has been said, of moving from Pillar 1 to Pillar 2 of the European Economic Area. By the way, I have heard it said in the Corridor, “Who’s ever heard of the EEA?” I do not know how many of the people who say that sort of thing fly to Alicante or some other part of the continent for their holidays and come back to Gatwick. If they do, they will have to queue under a big heading saying “EEA”—or, to be a bit more technical, “EEA and Switzerland”. Perhaps I can ask the Minister to check before Monday so that he has time to get an answer to this question: what will happen to the EEA queue at Alicante or at Gatwick?
Apart from getting longer, will it still be there at all and who will be able to go through it?
I would like to stay in the single market and the customs union. The pamphlet that I helped to prepare points out—Liberal Democrats please note—how it could be done successfully. My basic difference from the Government’s proposal is that we would stay long-term in the single market and in the customs union or, if you want to use the indefinite article, “a” customs union negotiated with the EU, which I think would be roughly the same thing. As far as I understand it, and I will be corrected if I am wrong, the objections to doing that are not from Brussels, as those requirements or suggestions were requested, but from London—ideological objections because of certain parts of the Conservative Party.
Someone made the remark in this context that they feel “trapped”. I think it was the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, who asked, “How do we get out of this trap?” We are not the only people who are trapped: people in Bolton are trapped and see their public services and industry disappearing all at the same time. My noble friend Lord Grocott made the very valid observation that people feel that they are on the dumping ground of history. Without mentioning Professor Trump—actually he is not a professor, is he? I do not think he can even read a book. Without mentioning President Trump, we are aware of that sort of politics.
To go further on to the point mentioned by my noble friend Lord Monks, I say that earlier in the year we tabled an amendment to have a parliamentary role in a mandate. In a trade union you have a mandate, and then you have the executive look at the results of the negotiation by reference to the mandate. That was not done, which was a pity. It was the Commons that rejected it, not the Lords. If there had been such a mandate we would have been a little further forward, such as looking at the proto-treaty that emerged on 20 December, when we were on our way home for Christmas, about the EFTA/EU separation agreement.
I would like to ask the Minister to reply on Monday about how, if we did wish to synchronise the clocks of leaving the EU and rejoining EFTA, that would work. Would that be compatible with the proto-treaty published on 20 December?
In conclusion, the idea that the EEA is incapable of reform is not the case. It was always intended by Jacques Delors that it would evolve. It would be a different organisation with Britain back in it; there is no doubt about that. On the objection that, when we have left the table, we would not have a vote, even Boris Johnson’s logic surely would not demand that we leave the table, pay no money and yet complain about not having a vote.
I will finish where I began. To get out of the mess that we are in at the moment we are very much hoping that there will be support in both Houses—as I think there will be—for the emergence of some sort of interest in an amendment next week that we stay within the European Economic Area.
My Lords, I hope that when he replies, the Minister will have noted the strong speech from the noble Lord, Lord O’Neill of Gatley, echoed by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, just now, that the Conservative Party’s internal confusion over Brexit distracts the Government from Britain’s underlying problems of inequality, poor productivity, poor housing and the north/south divide. Resentment over those neglected problems drove a large part of the vote to leave. Failure to address them will leave the country bitterly divided, whether we leave the EU or stay.
I want to challenge the deliberately misleading claims being made about the financial implications of the EU withdrawal agreement and the impact of withdrawal from the EU in the long term. On Monday the Prime Minister, announcing the new 10-year plan for the NHS, said that the extra financing would be available because,
“we will no longer be sending vast annual sums to Brussels ... with no increase to people’s taxes”.
David Davis, on the BBC “Today” programme on Tuesday, declared that leaving without a deal would free us from any future financial obligations, thus giving the Government a full £15 billion a year to redistribute to other spending programmes.
Yes, the UK has been a net contributor to the EU budget. We are the second-largest contributor, after Germany, as a wealthy country with a large population—though in terms of contributions per head we are the fifth largest, after the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany and Denmark. We should also remember that Norway contributes more per head to this explicitly redistributive budget, as a rich non-member which benefits from access to the single market. We have developed common institutions and agencies which have saved us money through sharing resources, and which will cost us more to set up again on our own. We have benefited from common programmes, which, when we leave, we will have to fund ourselves. And we have contributed to Europe’s global role in an uncertain world: a global Britain within a global Europe, rather than against a global Europe.
When we joined the European Economic Community in 1973, George Thomson, the British Commissioner, set up the Regional Development Fund to assist poorer regions across the member states, through which funds flowed back to peripheral regions, including within Scotland and the rest of the UK. Margaret Thatcher—of whom I know the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, is a particular proponent—declared in her Bruges speech in 1988 that Prague, Warsaw and Budapest were also part of Europe. Successive British Governments championed eastern enlargement, from 1990 on; and funds thereupon began to flow, including from our contribution, to the poorer states of eastern Europe and to others outside the EU in the European neighbourhood—more than to France, Italy or Spain. That has been a shared investment in European security, since the end of the Cold War.
We have not yet negotiated the terms of our future relationship, but Ministers have repeatedly stated that they want the UK to remain closely associated with many of the EU’s existing programmes—from Horizon 2020 and its successor fund for research and innovation to the Erasmus student exchange programme, to Europol and the intelligence networks which contribute to our shared security, and to the European Defence Agency, which supports co-operation in defence procurement. It would damage our economy to cut ourselves off from commonly funded trans-European networks in energy and telecommunications. Ministers have promised that we will continue to pay our share of these programmes in return for continuing participation. The political declaration on the future relationship refers to a,
“fair and appropriate financial contribution”,
in return for UK participation in these.
The Government have not yet told us how much it will cost to replace EU spending within the UK on programmes from which we will withdraw—agricultural and environmental support, financial transfers for our poorest regions, and funding for scientific research and universities, if we do not remain within those EU programmes. Even the hardiest Brexit supporters seem to think that these funds will somehow continue to flow. Sir John Redwood declared last week that Brexit would allow us to cut tariffs and grow more of our own food. How we will manage to grow more of our own food without financial support for agriculture I simply do not understand. No one in the referendum campaign explained that Britain benefited from the many common institutions and agencies that we share with other EU states.
Now that we are leaving, we are spending heavily on duplicating those institutions. We need an upgraded national medicines agency, for instance; we are already recruiting additional diplomats to manage our bilateral relations with our European partners and others; we now have a new Department for International Trade. The Institute for Government recently reported that Defra has increased its staff by two-thirds since the referendum to handle repatriated agricultural and environmental regulation. HMRC estimates that it needs 5,000 more staff and a complex new computer system. Border Force is woefully short of staff and is actively recruiting. We cannot take back control of our coasts and waters without a substantial increase in HM Coastguard and more maritime patrol vessels. On top of what has already been spent, the Chancellor announced in December a further £2 billion for Brexit preparations distributed across 25 government departments, bringing spending on Brexit so far close to £5 billion. No doubt there will be more to come.
David Davis’s dream of leaving Europe without any further commitments assumes that our continental partners will continue to co-operate with us whatever we do and however we behave. Less reckless politicians understand that borders cannot be managed, nor trade maintained, without active co-operation with neighbours, so talk of some sort of “managed no deal” floats around. After all, we have 1,000 Border Force staff in France, Belgium and the Netherlands at present to speed travellers and goods across the Channel. I expect that the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, expects that they will stay there so that there will continue to be frictionless trade. If we want them to stay in post and still benefit from other shared networks, we cannot simply walk away from the legacy costs of EU membership, as David Davis and the noble Lords, Lord Forsyth and Lord Framlingham, and the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, in this debate all want to deny.
There is, therefore, no Brexit dividend. It is a sign of desperation that the Prime Minister is now claiming what Boris Johnson put on the side of the bus, which the Chancellor must have told her is nonsense. Brexit is already imposing substantial extra costs on the British Government. It will impose longer-term costs, both on the budget and on the wider economy.
My Lords, many of us hoped that the holiday season would clear our minds and lift the Brexit fog, but, alas, the fuzziness remains and has come back with a vengeance. More worryingly, the ideological divides between and within families, communities and political parties show little sign of being resolved, let alone healed.
Yet the eyes of the world are on us, particularly from the business community, whose primary focus is to secure a timely decision and path to certainty, especially at a moment when the headwinds of the global business cycle are turning against us. Our international reputation for political stability and mature, predictable and rational decision-making has already been dented. The actions of Parliament in the coming days and weeks will determine how the UK continues to be perceived by global investors, with very real economic consequences.
With fewer than 80 days to go before the expiry of the Article 50 period, this is not a time for political handwringing. There is plenty of evidence from Hansard of advice ignored and warnings neglected. The time for protracted debate has ended; it is time to decide. Extending the Article 50 period is unlikely to produce a fundamentally different set of choices or trade-offs that we are not already aware of. At this stage in the life of a complex negotiation it is not about tinkering with individual clauses but evaluating the balance of advantage of the deal, taken as a whole, compared to other credible and deliverable alternatives—to govern is to choose. That is why brinkmanship has its natural limits. Indeed, it feels like brinkmanship is the order of the day, whether between the US Congress and the White House on the federal budget, Washington and Beijing on trade tariffs or the Janus-like face-off on Brexit between the Prime Minister, Parliament and Brussels simultaneously.
Taking things to the wire can play a legitimate part in a robust negotiation and help test boundaries, but in international diplomacy there are limitations on playing poker with people’s lives and livelihoods. We should also remember that an open hand holds more than a closed fist. As the noble Lord, Lord Tugendhat, reminded us in the previous debate, Brexit is,
“a process, not an event”.—[Official Report, 5/12/08; col. 1000.]
We are barely at the end of the beginning so we will need to draw upon a store of good will with our European partners over many years—it is the end destination that matters most.
That is why leaving the EU without a negotiated withdrawal agreement has no credibility. The Justice Secretary rightly describes no deal as a unicorn. But, sadly, there are still enough MPs willing to chase the unicorn who can block the Prime Minister’s deal. They will continue to do so, however many times she brings a vote back to Parliament and regardless of any further assurances received. It is therefore abundantly clear and has been since last July, when the Chequers plan was unveiled, that a deal cannot secure approval without the support of opposition MPs.
The only viable path for the Prime Minister following the outcome of next Tuesday’s vote is to conduct a discovery process aimed at establishing whether there are enough opposition MPs willing to set aside their party Whip and act in the national interest to support an alternative Brexit plan. To draw an analogy with financial markets, a clearing price is often discovered through a book-building process to gauge demand at different levels. It is this type of process of indicative votes that is required to help determine the next steps.
Opposition parties, once they have exhausted their inevitable attempt at holding a no-confidence vote in the Government, should allow Parliament to have a series of free votes and enable MPs to reveal their true preferences. It is likely that such a process will confirm that the House of Commons opposes no deal, as the amendments to the Finance Bill have already signalled, and that MPs prefer a softer form of Brexit, perhaps tilted more towards Norway than Canada.
Some will inevitably view this as a betrayal of Brexit, but it simply reflects the change in parliamentary arithmetic following the 2017 general election. It also reflects the consequences of a simple, binary referendum. There are at least 17.4 million versions of Brexit and no settled consensus on which path to pursue.
The Prime Minister, to her credit, has tried to chart a middle course that strikes a balance between safeguarding prosperity and regaining sovereignty. The more difficult part to swallow is not the backstop but the flimsy nature of the future framework and the absence of any interconditionality with payments being made to the EU. To use a financial markets analogy again, we have simply secured a £39 billion option value on negotiating a trade deal. Some would consider this an expensive option but, in the context of a £2 trillion economy, it is a bearable price to pay.
What is less bearable is replacing one form of uncertainty with another. We have limited control over the future timetable and cannot impose any sanction or penalty on the EU if a deal is not finalised by the end of 2020. In fact, my noble friend Lord Macpherson has suggested that it will take us until the middle of the next decade to finalise a future deal. So we are forced to take much on trust and must be prepared for an extended period in Brexit limbo. It is ironic that the foremost of the Prime Minister’s 12 negotiating objectives in her Lancaster House speech in January 2017 was delivering certainty and clarity. I have previously described the situation we find ourselves in as a grubby compromise, but it is a necessary compromise if we are to find a way through that reconciles so many conflicting objectives, pressures and realities.
I sincerely hope that Parliament can solve this most difficult of Rubik’s cubes, but we must be prepared for the very real possibility of a blocking minority for every option, resulting in deadlock. In those circumstances, we will rapidly become a zombie Parliament and lose all remaining authority. In such a situation, a fresh democratic process—whether a referendum or general election—will become inevitable.
My Lords, I had intended my contribution in your Lordships’ debate before Christmas to be my first and last speech on the subject of Brexit but, as speaker number 93 in that debate, I do not think that my words carried a great deal of weight, and those who thought otherwise will have read them in Hansard over Christmas. Either way, I intend not to repeat what I said then but to make a couple of comments on what seems to have happened in the meantime.
First, it is my perception that few, if any, of those involved in this debate have changed their views. If anything, most people both in and outside politics appear to be further entrenched in their opinions. There seems to be no evidence that the Government have won any substantive concessions from the EU in relation to the backstop. Consequently, there is a widely held view that the DUP has not changed its opposition to the Prime Minister’s deal, and I doubt that the ERG has either. All in all, I think it is widely accepted that the Government’s withdrawal agreement will probably be rejected by the other place next week.
A number of noble Lords have concluded—some of them, it seems to me, reluctantly—that one way forward is to have a second referendum or a people’s vote. Other noble Lords who have spoken have rejected this as impractical, unrealistic and likely to increase the unpleasant and divisive nature of the current debates. I agree with that view but, more importantly, I note that the head of steam that was seen to be gathering in favour of a people’s vote before Christmas has subsided since then, and I perceive that there is no real desire, except within a very small group of remainers, to pursue this option.
Similarly, but for other reasons, it seems unlikely that there will be a general election. If the withdrawal agreement is indeed rejected, the DUP will probably support the Government in a vote of no confidence and few, if any, Tories will vote against their own party. Clearly, a significant number of Labour MPs, fearing either deselection or their leader’s unsuitability for high office, do not want an election either.
Despite the convolutions of Motions and amendments in the other place designed to avoid a no-deal Brexit or possibly any Brexit at all, it is a fact that both Houses have, by significant majorities, put in place two pieces of legislation that ensure that we will leave the EU on 29 March. Only the Government can initiate repeals of or substantial amendments to that legislation, and as of today that is not going to happen. We could of course, as noble Lords have said, seek to delay Article 50, but this requires the agreement of all 27 EU countries and it seems that that will be forthcoming only if the delay is for a specific reason. It also requires the Government, not Parliament, to execute this, and as of Tuesday the Government have confirmed that that will not happen.
If all that is correct, the assumption is that all that is left to debate is the manner of our departure. Presumably, one option is to go back to the EU, as several noble Lords have said, and accept Mr Tusk’s offer, repeated by Mr Barnier, of a Canada-plus-style deal. It is not perfect and there would be undoubted problems, mostly due to the short timetable, but there is no doubt that we could make it work and make it work well. It has previously been rejected on the basis that it did not solve the Irish border question. But as the United Kingdom Government have made clear, we will not erect a hard border, the Irish Government have confirmed that they will not, and now Mr Juncker has confirmed that the European Union will not. The problem of a hard border, which should never have been raised in the first place, has now largely evaporated.
The most likely scenario is that we will leave the EU without a deal on WTO terms. I recognise that many of your Lordships find this prospect alarming, frightening even. I respect those concerns. Most of them, if not all, have been addressed. If both the CEO of the port of Dover and his counterpart in Calais say that they have the resources in place to manage those changes, the onus is on those who disagree to explain exactly why, rather than simply shouting the odds repeatedly. For example, the pharmaceutical industry consists of many well-managed businesses. The idea that they have made no preparations in the last two years and are simply waiting for their UK markets to implode is ludicrous. They will manage the changes and risks in the same way that business always does.
I do not know whether Brexit will be chaos, or another millennium bug. When men such as my noble friend Lord Bamford, who is sadly not in his place today, Sir James Dyson and Sir Rocco Forte—who all personally lead their own world-class international businesses, on which their family fortunes and reputations have been built and depend—publicly state that they are confident that they will thrive on WTO terms, I take some comfort.
Let us put aside talk of people’s votes and general elections, which are not going to happen, and of delaying Article 50 or employing devious parliamentary devices to make the Government’s life more difficult. Let us focus on a successful departure from the EU on 29 March. Your Lordships can help this process or hinder it. The British people will be justifiably angry with those who put political point-scoring above our country’s best interests, which involve completing Brexit as best we can.
My Lords, if there were no other reason for supporting the Motion before us today, for me it would be Ireland. So much was achieved in the Good Friday agreement, but that was only a beginning. The immense amount of dedicated, practical work happening at all levels on intercommunal relations has been important in building a secure, stable future for Northern Ireland. What has facilitated that is the reality that, as members of the European Union, a minority in Northern Ireland felt that there was an equivalence because they had the charter and the European Union’s position on human rights as a context, not just a traditional British approach to justice.
The question raised in this debate is this: what has changed since December? For me, a great deal has changed. Over the recess, I spent a lot of time talking to a wide cross-section of people. I was dismayed at the degree of disenchantment among intelligent people with how political institutions in Britain were mishandling the situation. The situation is grave. In my long life in politics, I do not remember a time when there was such widespread disenchantment, including with the ability of the most privileged sections of our community and how they think about these issues. It is grave because, out there, extremism is real. The memories of the 1930s should be dominant in our preoccupations. We must not play into the hands of extremists. We have a huge responsibility at this juncture. There has also been a failure to put in a wider political context the possibility of another referendum—a failure of real political debate and a failure to engage the widest possible cross-section of the community.
One issue about which I have always been concerned is migration. It is disastrous that, in Britain, the issue has become almost totally one of immigration. Immigration is just one consequence, or one part, of the much wider global issue of migration. Where in the debate about our relationship with Europe has been the real concern about the part we should play in devising worldwide migration policies? Without this, we shall always be talking about sticking fingers in the dam or coping with a particular influx.
We have not really debated in this context the relevance of all this to the world economy, on which Britain is utterly dependent. What are our policies on the world economy or on trading systems? There is a great deal of preoccupation in Britain with social injustice, but the concern is not just about poverty and wealth differentials in Britain. A lot of people are deeply concerned about the global dimensions to all this. Where has that debate been? We are preoccupied—at times almost neurotically—with environmental issues, the latest being the very real issue of pollution and the damage it is doing to our children’s health. Where has been the debate about that?
A further referendum might be a fallback position, but I am concerned that it could mean we forgo the chance for a real, widespread public debate about how the European Union as an institution is relevant to the issues that confront us, nationally and internationally, in all these dimensions, and what our position should be in response. I believe that the best way of having that debate is in the context of a general election.
My Lords, I will focus my comments on three issues: the impact of this agreement on the Yorkshire region, the effect on local government, and UK citizens living in the EU.
Yorkshire has a population of over 5 million. Its businesses include a substantial manufacturing base, a fishing industry on the east coast, farming in North Yorkshire, a strong financial sector in Leeds, renowned universities with significant interests in EU-funded research projects and a fine cultural sector. Each of these businesses anticipates a negative impact from Brexit with a deal and some a disastrous impact with no deal.
The West Yorkshire Combined Authority has reported its concerns for the future replacement funding of the current €396 million that supports regional economic growth. This fund has enabled the installation of a superfast fibre-optic broadband network across more than 500 different postcode areas to boost business. That EU funding provides a very large resource that may no longer be available, and it will hit the prosperity of a region whose household income is already below the national average. For many Members of this House, losing a few quid here and there will make no difference. For people where I live, losing a few quid here and there makes the difference between existing and just surviving.
Individual local authorities are also trying to mitigate the significant risks that leaving the EU will bring. Kirklees Council, on which I sit, has evaluated those risks. These include the prospect that the economic downturn will significantly affect business investment and survival, and hence business rates income to fund council services. The assessment is that housebuilding will decline again, failing people who desperately need a home. Then there is the inability of employers in health and social care to fill vacancies and provide care because EU citizens, on which the care sector depends, are returning to their home countries. All these, and more, will result in even more pressure on council services that are already stretched to breaking point.
In addition, there are two particular areas of concern. The first is for the waste disposal side of the council’s statutory functions. Currently, waste can, and is, shipped to EU countries—for example, for the recycling of plastics. Waste approvals post-March 2019 will not be valid, and plastics and other waste materials will no longer be able to be sent to EU countries. There is a big question mark over what happens to this waste material when government inaction means that our own plastic recycling sector may be unable to cope.
Secondly, as this House is aware, there has been a rise in all forms of hate crime since the referendum in 2016; this has not abated. Community cohesion is, and will be, challenging for those of us who strive to see all people treated equally and with dignity. As the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury has said, this is indeed a moral issue.
Individual lives are being, and will be, profoundly affected by the decisions that we are making. Many Members of your Lordships’ House will have family members who have taken advantage of the freedom of movement to live and work in the EU. I want to end with the reflections of young people from the UK who are part of the vibrant, new classical music scene in Germany. This is what they say:
“I am living with immense uncertainty, not knowing how my circumstances are going to change. It is very stressful.”
“Will I be able to continue working Europe-wide? Currently, I’m able to move freely and easily between different European countries for work.”
“What will this mean for my colleagues working in the music field? Are we going to have to get a visa every time we have a concert in another European country?”
“Even though I and many hundreds of thousands of others have chosen to live in another EU country, we are still British citizens. We exercised our right to freely move, live, study and work in a new country. Brexit is putting our new lives in jeopardy.”
These young people and thousands of others are not outside Parliament shouting the odds, but their voices must be heard too.
We are in danger, as a country, of listening only to the most outspoken, the most bellicose, the most threatening. Parliament has a duty to hear and respond also to the voices of those who have taken advantage of the freedoms the EU has enabled. The decision we make will profoundly affect individual lives, including the future for our children and grandchildren. The greatness of our country lies in an outward-looking, co-operative pragmatism. We are in grave danger of creating a lesser country, one that is insular and introspective. I cannot and will not support that direction of travel. People in 2016 did not vote to harm their neighbours. They did not vote for a mean-minded country. People have a right to review the decision. Parliament must give them that opportunity in a people’s vote.
My Lords, when last we attempted this debate, it seemed to me that there was an elephant in the Chamber. We had the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration, but missing at the time was the White Paper on immigration. I said then that to those sectors of the economy dependent for success on the movement of people and services across borders, this document was every bit as significant as the two on the Order Paper. I still believe that to be true so I make no apology for focusing today on the ways in which this recently arrived White Paper adds to our understanding of a future outside the EU.
Like the political declaration, this White Paper has its own elements TBC, but at least it provides some clarity of intention. It confirms, as anticipated, that the current dual-entry system will be replaced with a single route for all countries. So far, so logical, except that this route will give access only to the skilled and highly skilled, with no parallel flow of low and medium-skilled workers coming, as now, from the EU. With virtual full employment in the UK, many business sectors rely on this supply chain, not least to fill vital but lower-paid roles in health and social care. We know from forecasts commissioned by this Government that a further 725,000 medium and low-skilled roles open up every year, a figure roughly in line with the number of young people annually who turn 18. Is the intention for every one of these young people to occupy these low and medium-skilled roles? If so, so much for the ambitions of the Government’s 2017 strategy to increase social mobility through education.
To address this challenge in the short term, the White Paper proposes a transitional measure: a route that will see employers reliant on a rotating pool of low-paid workers on 12 month visas—workers with no right to settle and no job security. This will mean loss of know-how, discontinuity of service, constant recruitment and retraining and dips in standards, risks so clearly outlined by my noble friend Lady Masham of Ilton earlier. Some of these workers will be responsible for the most vulnerable in our society; they will be care workers, teaching assistants and nurses.
The White Paper also confirms the intention to measure a person’s potential contribution by how much they earn. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, for giving airtime to my mantra on this. All together now, once again:
“Salary levels are not a proxy for skills”.—[Official Report, 5/12/18; col. 1074.]
We are promised a future in which only the brightest and the best are welcome, but in the sector I know best, culture and the creative industries, importing only established stars is not the way to ensure a thriving domestic sector. A vibrant sector depends on talent pipelines built by spotting and nurturing potential, by welcoming the entrepreneurs and the stars of the future—young people earning far less than £30,000.
However, by far the most dispiriting message in the White Paper can be found at paragraph 6.41, where the decision not to open a dedicated route for unskilled labour is described as being,
“consistent with the public’s view … that lower skilled migrant labour may have depressed wages or stifled innovation in our economy”.
That may or may not be the public’s view, but the MAC’s report repeatedly makes clear that it is far from true. At paragraph 7, it says that,
“migrants have no or little impact on the overall employment and unemployment outcomes of the UK-born workforce”.
At paragraph 8 it says that,
“migration is not a major determinate of the wages of UK-born workers”.
On page 62 it says that,
“not only may migrants directly contribute to the levels of innovation they may also enable UK workers to become more innovative, by bringing with them complementary skills and ideas”.
It is deeply disturbing to see this important paper base its policies not on evidence but on perception. Perhaps it is not surprising, given the unswerving determination we have seen from the outset to end freedom of movement on the basis that it is the will of the people. Which people? The Migration Advisory Committee itself notes:
“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”.
On Monday, an Ipsos MORI poll backed this up: concerns about immigration are the lowest they have been for 16 years.
It is certainly not the will of the younger generation, for whom freedom of movement is a primary concern. This is not in the sense in which the White Paper refers to it, but in terms of the opportunities and rights that it brings in the areas of human and civil rights, cross-border families, travel, work, education, and trade.
The Ipsos MORI poll lists—in order—the issues of greatest public concern today. After Brexit, they are: the NHS, poverty, crime, housing, the economy and education. Leaving the EU will not solve any of these. As the noble Lord, Lord Horam, pointed out in December, the Brexit vote was a response to problems for which Brexit is not the solution. It will impact disproportionately on those areas that voted leave and it ties up valuable government time that could be focused on those issues. I cannot agree with those noble Lords who see this as a reason just to “get on with it”. We may all be weary, but we have a responsibility to the next generation, whose voices and views are too often absent from this debate. It is their future we are debating, not ours.
I understand concerns that failing to deliver on the 2016 vote might be seen to betray democracy, but the betrayal happened three years ago in a referendum based on corrupt practices and fantastical pledges, made by people with no right to make them and no obligation to deliver. We are now in danger of committing a far greater betrayal, either by signing up to a deal which everyone agrees will leave us worse off, or by exiting the EU without a deal in place.
It is hard not to conclude that pushing the vote down the road—alongside the visible ramping up of no deal preparations—is part of a strategy to ensure that the deal passes in the other place. If the strategy fails, as it seems it will, the ticking clock may leave us only two options. We can apply to extend Article 50 so that the public can choose between what is on offer and what we already enjoy. Or we can revoke Article 50 and get on with addressing the issues of inequality, poverty, health and social care that are the everyday reality for communities up and down the country.
My Lords, there are two harsh truths about this debate. First, there is little one can say about Brexit which has not been said before. Secondly, nothing any of us can say is likely to change the minds of people who think differently.
I have not changed my mind since I last spoke in December, but I do have a new perspective after spending two weeks in continental Europe in the company of the French and Germans. As I heard at first hand, both the French and Germans live in deeply troubled countries, politically and economically. The latest official figures, which came out just last week, show a sharp drop in industrial production in both countries. It is not surprising that they see Brexit as a hammer-blow to their interests. What is more, deep down, each fears to be left alone with the other in a European Union without the United Kingdom.
In our Brexit debates, we can be dangerously anglocentric, ignoring at our peril how things are seen from the other side of the channel. For instance, by the end of the year, there will be a new president of the European Council, a new president of a new Commission, a new president of the European Central Bank and a newly elected European Parliament, where the so-called populists are expected to be heavily represented. We will be negotiating our future relationship with a whole new cast of characters. There will be risks and opportunities.
As some of us British indulge in a shameful competition to come up with the most apocalyptic vision of Brexit, there are many on the other side of the channel and the Irish Sea who also have anxiety, some of it worse. It may seem old-fashioned and ripe for satire, but what Britain could do with right now is a large dose of the old wartime spirit: “Keep calm and carry on”. If the Prime Minister’s deal is voted down, there is no cause for panic or hysteria. It is certainly no cause for parliamentarians to throw their hands in the air, deny their responsibilities and tell the public that they got it wrong the first time and should please try again. Brexit is not a game of pass the parcel, however difficult the decisions to be taken.
As for no deal—a dishonest piece of deceptive shorthand, if ever there was one—it is ludicrous to run screaming from the room at the very notion. We should instead analyse the many different types of a so-called no deal, if push comes to shove and we leave the EU without an agreement on 29 March. As my noble friend Lord Lilley pointed out,
“WTO is a safe haven, not a hard option”,
and we will possibly,
“cash in, not crash out”.
I was horrified to read a recent tweet by one of our Members, who claimed that Brexit would leave us worse off, permanently. Does anybody have any idea what “permanently” means? Look at Galbraith, a well-known economist, who said:
“The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable”.
Any student of economics knows perfectly well that there are too many variables in human behaviour to predict the future.
I have already quoted one American and I will quote another. President Franklin Roosevelt said that,
“the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”.
That is as true today as it was then. It is about time that we set an example to the nation and throw off negative, defeatist and abusive attitudes. I object when other people call us narrow-minded. We are allowed to have our own opinion. The whole point about this debate is that everybody should have their own opinion and we should be courteous to each other.
Brexit was never going to be easy—people who voted to get out knew that it was never going to be easy. After 60 years of membership, how could it be easy? But we know that people and business will adapt. When we became a member of the European Union, we also had to adapt. I believe that this country can do it. I am sorry to say it, but I would like us to be more positive and to stop the ongoing negativity. I find it very depressing.
My Lords, present circumstances present a major challenge to Parliament. A month down the line, we have a Government determined to delay, taking up one month of the four left to 29 March—to do what? To start again now. They are resolute for repetition—
“No deal is better than a bad deal”—
as if the repetition proves the assertion.
When the crunch comes about no deal, there is obvious incompetence in the choice of a company like Seaborne Freight. The public outside Parliament must be deeply concerned as to what on earth is going on. The world outside, as I glean from my frequent travelling, is shocked that this country could find itself in this state of affairs. This challenge now has to be met by Parliament.
The ex-Cabinet Minister, Nicky Morgan, said at the beginning of the week that Parliament has been denied a say on the way forward for too long and that it is time for it to assert itself. The Commons has done so. The Finance Bill amendment requires a no-deal scenario to be brought back for a decision by Parliament; and the Government defeat yesterday means that if the vote is lost by the Government next Tuesday, they have to come back with a next-steps programme within three days. That is action, and it speaks of a desire by Parliament to become the deciding voice: not acting as a Government, but acting as the representative spokespeople in the Commons of the electorate who brought us here, and who are here by appointment.
Process in Parliament for the next few months is vital. We have to show that the country can competently progress this matter. There are specialist committees of both Houses. We have no break coming up, except for a weekend, it transpires after yesterday. We have just short of four months in which to use our committees and those in the Commons, and to have debates in the Chamber of both Houses that are designed to inform the world outside and ourselves as to what we are about, with much more competence and detail than broad debates permit.
Here are some suggestions about what to discuss. The first is the consequences of no deal—not from the point of view of cloistered economists or national institutions, but of the people involved. The most reverend Primate yesterday spoke to experts in Kent. They have used past, actual experience as evidence of what might happen in the future in order to show that no deal will be a real and material risk to Kent and the country. That is a topic we should be on top of and that the country should understand.
The next issue is trading with the WTO regime. As I told the House last time, I have been involved in trade negotiations between countries, not with the WTO. I remind the House that the Doha round to create the WTO after GATT stopped after six failed years in the early 2000s, because nobody could agree on how to shape it for the future. What of the logjams of the European Union and the United States refusing to change their systems of agricultural subsidies? We talk about going in on WTO terms, as if you sign a document, press a button and everything starts moving. Every country in the WTO has its own interests to serve.
If there is a dispute, it is supposed to go to a judicial panel for resolution, but at the moment it is not functioning. Why not? Because the United States refused to support the necessary appointments to the judicial panel. Therefore, we would be joining the WTO with no working internal system to resolve problems. This morning, Greg Clark, the Business Minister, stated that business, commerce and industry in this country regard WTO as a “dire prospect”, based on rudimentary systems that do not reflect modern commerce and trade. That was a Government Minister. Are we ready for this? Are we ourselves educated enough? Do the people outside with whom we are going to negotiate think we are serious?
Finally, there is the extension, if necessary, of Article 50, which can surely be obtained if the objective is to allow Parliament more time to make a more considered decision and, if necessary, to put forward a new proposal. What does all this mean? It means that Parliament is now required to provide leadership. It must inform the public, impress the world outside that we know what we are about and achieve an exit from Europe—in whatever way we do it—that is reasoned, transitional and balanced, and in accord with our traditions of being a serious trading nation, fit to do trade with once we are out of Europe.
My Lords, it has been my view, repeated perhaps too often in speech after speech in this House, that once the Government declared that they would not stay in the customs union and the single market, we were heading for no deal. Whatever ingenious schemes might be devised by top Brexit department civil servants, the Irish border question would remain insoluble—and it still is. The May deal is probably as near as any scheme can get to a solution, but still does not solve the problem in practice and seems certain to be defeated. Also, the Commission is right that no further negotiations can now solve it. There is no time. The Article 50 timetable can be extended, but not for further negotiations—Labour, please note.
In fact, probably the best and most certain way to avoid the disaster of a no-deal Brexit and, indeed, to obtain an extension of Article 50, is a new people’s vote. That a no-deal Brexit would be a disaster could not have been more clearly demonstrated than by the speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Hain and Lord Kerr, yesterday, and many others, including the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, today. But, I am told, a people’s vote does not currently command a majority in the Commons. Why? It is said to be undemocratic, because it would overturn the 2016 vote. Really? When did it become anti-democratic to reverse a vote if circumstances change? One of the few sensible things David Davis has said in recent times is that to deny a change of opinion is to deny democracy. Only dictatorships do not allow people to change their minds. In addition, where is the evidence that 52% of voters did not care if Brexit meant the devastation of integrated supply chains and the consequent devastating impact on jobs in manufacturing in Britain? A very large eve-of-poll survey in 2016—I believe the only poll of the reasons why people voted as they did—found that almost all leavers believed that Brexit would have no downside but would promise a future in the sunny uplands.
It is said that a new vote would be divisive, as if we are not a divided nation now, and that it might lead to violence. Since when has the threat of violence become a reason for abandoning policy? Are hooligans, like those outside Parliament a few days ago, to dictate what we may vote for? That really would be the end of democracy.
I cannot understand why so many Conservatives no longer seem to care about our standing and influence in the world. Many people abroad long admired our record for political stability, common sense and skilled diplomacy. Now that reputation is lost. We are regarded with a mixture of astonishment and pity.
The world today faces grave dangers to democracy: an aggressive Russia; a nationalist, more isolationist United States, poised to abandon its leadership of democracy in the world; China, an increasingly powerful world force; and rising populism and nationalism in Europe, encouraged by Brexit. At a time when Europe’s influence as a centre of democracy and stability has never been more important, Britain, which could play a vital role, is about to weaken Europe’s and destroy its own influence.
Nor do I understand Labour’s leaders, who claim they will listen to their membership, yet refuse the overwhelming view of Labour members and voters, who support a people’s vote and indeed remain. If Labour supported a new vote we would get one. Perhaps I am an incurable optimist, but I believe that Parliament and the Labour Party will in the end come round to accepting that, since MPs cannot agree, there must be a new people’s vote. As opinion polls now indicate, the disaster of Brexit can be avoided.
I end by reference to the speech made by my old friend and colleague, my noble friend Lords Rodgers of Quarry Bank. He and I became friends when we were students at Oxford together. We became Members of Parliament within a few weeks of each other. I am the older; I am much older than he is, by at least 10 days. I think we are also the only surviving Members in Parliament of the glorious 69 Labour MPs who voted against a three-line whip in 1972 and secured our entry into Europe. I fought a by-election on the issue and won it by saying country first, constituency second and party third. Is it too much to hope that Conservative Members of Parliament and of this place will, when it comes to the crunch, put the interests of the nation first and not the interests of the party?
My Lords, in this high-calibre and important debate, I have heard most of the speeches and listened with great care and interest. I missed a few speeches but, so far, I have heard little on the views, needs and hopes of business, though there has been more today. With respect, without business and trade we have nothing. They provide employment, taxes, national insurance and, by extension, health, social security, education, defence and pretty much everything.
Business is critical, and I say this on a day when Prime Minister Abe arrives in London. I remember vividly how, when I was Lord Mayor in 2016, shortly after the referendum, I was visited in Mansion House by the then Japanese ambassador. He was the representative of a friendly country and a large and welcome investor in this country, a good employer and provider of, I think at the time, more than 120,000 valuable jobs. He was stunned at the outcome. Much of the investment assumed easy access to the EU.
I am sure that we all agree that the views of business, and not least those of our international investors and partners, are tremendously important, so I want to broaden the lens to try to capture a view from a business I know well—maritime. Many noble Lords, including our Convenor, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, have noted the unhappy predicament in which we find ourselves. In a debate of the highest standards such as this, with views being well articulated, we can confound ourselves with all the considerations. I want to try to inject a positive and more optimistic note.
Here I declare my interests as recorded in the register as chairman of Maritime London and as a council member and former chairman of Maritime UK, which works with the Government to promote the sector both nationally and internationally.
Maritime is one of the UK’s biggest industries. The latest data commissioned by Maritime UK from the leading economic consultancy CEBR at the end of 2017 estimated that the sector directly supported just over £40 billion in business turnover, £14.5 billion in GVA and nearly 186,000 UK employees in 2015. The substantial direct economic contribution of the maritime sector exceeds that of other comparable industries such as aerospace by some margin. Average productivity in the maritime sector exceeds the national average, and this is also true of each subsector of the industry.
This is an important and efficient sector, but it is more than those figures and statistics. We are an island nation, and we must always remember that 95% of our exports and imports are effected by sea. Our highly efficient ports are at the centre of this, investing more than £600 million of their own funds annually to maintain and enhance their efficient and rapid service. They are looking to increase that if they get certainty in the business outlook.
For the first time in decades, the importance of this nation remaining a great trading nation comes to the fore. The maritime industries are the enabler and the facilitator. The British Government have estimated that by 2030 the blue or ocean economy, comprising the wider maritime industries including aquaculture, undersea mapping, subsea mining and so on, will exceed $3 trillion a year. This is a time of great opportunity for the UK. We are fortunate that the UK remains perhaps the world’s leading maritime centre, blessed by close co-operation with government. However, we are under intense pressure from competitor maritime centres around the world—the Far East, Scandinavia and the Gulf to name a few.
As we leave the EU, the maritime sector is key to positioning the UK as an outward-looking and global trading nation. There is a great potential for substantial growth in the industry, playing a major part in growing our nation’s exports, driving innovation and, importantly, bringing growth and opportunity to our disadvantaged coastal areas.
That is why this sector also cannot support a hard Brexit. We have had far too much uncertainty for the past three years. It has already been said repeatedly in the House that a hard Brexit where Britain crashes out is surely not the way the United Kingdom, a world leader in many things, not least the rules-based international order, should conduct itself. This is not theoretical gameplay. Let us be clear: the EU will remain our most important market, so surely this is not the way to build a solid future relationship with our neighbours.
For these reasons, and accepting that this is not a perfect deal, the maritime sector supports the proposed agreement. In this, we share the views of the vast majority of business organisations. We are living in rapidly moving times and I am sure that the days ahead will throw up many developments. We are hearing a good number of calls in the debate for a people’s vote. As a remainer myself, I see the attraction in that, but there is a significant risk that a vote to remain would be a gift to populists and populism. Any move in that direction therefore has to be very clear on how it is going to be sold to the large number of people who voted to go and for whom it was a protest vote. We should remember that many of us in the Chamber today are really in the south-east bubble. In the absence of some great confidence that we can sell the people’s vote to everyone and get acceptance, we should work to take this deal across the line so that we can concentrate on future relations and give ourselves two years to prepare and to gear up in order to meet the great opportunities that we must now grasp.
This is a time for cool heads. We need to work on the next stage and use the time to gear up, refine our strategies, enhance our export promotion organisations, identify how to ensure that Britain is a still-greater place to do business and seize the opportunities. In such a case, we should approve the withdrawal agreement and accelerate work in realising this potential. There is no time to waste.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Mountevans, and to hear his views on the maritime industry, on which he is a great expert. I shall not, however, be following him down that particular path. As the 76th speaker in this debate, I fear that it will be impossible to avoid some repetition. I can only hope that my homework will not be downgraded too severely because of it.
The trouble with the withdrawal agreement is that neither the leavers nor the remainers like it. Even if the Prime Minister could get some meaningful concession on the backstop, it is very unlikely that it would be enough to get it over the line. On the positive side, it is encouraging to hear that she has firmly stated her opposition to the idea of a second referendum, and that she has also ruled out cancelling or postponing Article 50. We live in a very fast-moving political landscape and this, of course, could change, but whatever happens in the weeks to follow, I fervently hope that we will not go down the route of a second referendum, which would be incredibly divisive for the country, as my noble friend Lord Strathclyde said so persuasively in his speech earlier today. Just think what a Pandora’s box it would open for Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP.
Encouragingly, there has been a gearing-up of planning for a clean Brexit on 29 March: not a cliff-edge Brexit or a crashing-out Brexit, as it is so often referred to, but a clean Brexit. Contingency planning and some bilateral agreements are being put in place to clarify the position on air travel, commercial lorries and expatriates. Although these came very late in the day, this is all good news. As a noble Lord mentioned in a speech yesterday, during an interview on Radio 4, the president and chairman of the ports of Calais and Boulogne was at pains to explain that comprehensive plans have already been put in place to ensure that, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, there will be no delays in commercial traffic passing through those ports. As it seems inconceivable that we should sabotage our exports by placing cumbersome checks on our side of the channel, he was at a loss to see what the fuss was all about. If noble Lords were unable to hear that interview, I recommend it as required listening.
I agree with all noble Lords who advocate having a free trade agreement with the EU immediately post 29 March and then, after an agreed period, moving on to WTO terms. Many respected businessmen also believe this. My noble friend Lord Mancroft—who, sadly, is not in his place—mentioned them by name, but I do not think he mentioned the past Governor of the Bank of England, the noble Lord, Lord King of Lothbury. However, I believe this to be the right course for another reason, one which, happily, is now receiving more attention and to which other noble Lords have referred—that is, concern for the Armed Forces and the intelligence services if we sign up to this agreement.
The former head of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, and the Falklands hero Major-General Julian Thompson, along with other former senior military and security figures, have warned that the Government have embedded the UK in EU defence and security structures without seeking proper parliamentary oversight or approval. They argue—convincingly in my view—that this constitutes a threat to national security, putting our UK forces and intelligence and security interests under the emerging superstructure of EU policy. In a strongly worded letter to all MPs dated 7 December, they said:
“The first duty of the state, above trade, is the security of its citizens. The withdrawal agreement abrogates this fundamental contract and would place control of aspects of our national security in foreign hands. Vote against this bad agreement”.
In a further statement, they go on to say:
“The ‘flexible partnership’ is not on offer: only subordination to the inflexible pooled law of the EU. The defence documents show that if the UK participates in EU defence it accepts 3rd country associated status”.
According to some reports that I have read, our officials have apparently been heard acknowledging in private that the Government had known that the strict EU participation criteria would apply when they agreed to authorise joining the defence and military frameworks between November 2016 and June 2017. Understanding this, my honourable friend Sam Gyimah MP resigned as a Minister. Noble Lords will remember that he was, I think, the seventh Minister of the Government to resign, calling the plan “naive” and,
“not in the British national interest”,
and saying that voting for it would,
“set ourselves up for failure”,
“our voice, our vote and our veto”.
I believe he was also prompted by the EU determining that we shall have no further involvement with the Galileo satellite project, despite having one or possibly two tracking and support stations on UK Overseas Territories.
I am getting close to my six minutes so I shall be selective here. In conclusion, I thank and congratulate Mr Nicholas Shrimpton for proposing that we add another acronym to our lexicon: MANDATE. In last week’s Sunday Telegraph he said:
“We need the acronym Mandate (Managed No Deal And Timely Exit). The Government certainly has a mandate for it—the referendum, the repeal of the European Communities Act 1972 and the invoking of Article 50 (all with substantial majorities). The Prime Minister has usefully established what the least bad deal would be. It is not good enough. Let’s get on with Mandate”.
I could not have put it better myself.
My Lords, there have been many failures of leadership in the political process of deciding on what terms and how to leave the EU. By far the greatest has been the lack of any serious attempt at reconciliation by the Government of those in favour of leaving and those in favour of remaining. How many times have we heard the mantra, “The people have spoken”? Yes, they have, but just over half spoke in one way and just under a half spoke in another. In those circumstances, surely it was incumbent on the Government to try to bring a divided country closer together. Surely it would have been right to spend some time listening to remainers as well as leavers and trying to shape a Brexit structure that took into account their views as well. Instead, the Prime Minister rushed into invoking Article 50 and drew red lines, having done little or nothing to promote a consensus. The views of those in her own party who wanted a hard Brexit were allowed to prevail. The Prime Minister’s attempts to reach out to the electorate to persuade them of the merits of the deal, which we are once again debating, were a consequence of desperately trying to conjure up pressure on MPs from their constituents. They were not part of a well thought-out approach to create the more informed debate that should have taken place over the last two years.
We are told that the response of many people was, “Get on with it. We’re fed up with Brexit so we will support your deal, which will bring it to an end”. But are the Government telling them the truth? This is not the end; it is only the beginning. There are months, even years, ahead before the transition period is concluded, which will be marked by yet more bitter argument and in-fighting. The people were told lies when it was claimed that leaving the EU would be easy. We now need honesty about how much more negotiation will be needed, even if Mrs May gets her withdrawal deal.
The choice that the Government are asking Parliament to make between the withdrawal agreement and no deal is dishonest too. I know that there are some people in this House and in another place—whom I will call the Brexit militant tendency—who want to crash out. However, for most of us that prospect is too awful to contemplate, not just because of the economic damage it will do, as the Treasury, the Governor of the Bank of England and the business community have made clear, but because of the threats to our security with respect to terrorism and serious cross-border crime, the huge damage it will do to our world-leading university sector, the chaos at our borders and too many other dire consequences to list in the time available. So we should not be browbeaten to support the Government’s withdrawal deal for fear that no deal might happen. Assuming that the Prime Minister’s deal is rejected, as seems likely, I hope MPs will consider no deal as a matter of urgency, reject it and end any further wasteful and needless expenditure squandered on planning for it.
The many reasons for rejecting the Government’s withdrawal deal have been set out by other speakers, and I shall not repeat them, but two issues are worth re-emphasising. First, it does not allow us to take back control; it actually means losing control. Secondly, the political declaration lacks a clear sense of direction about the Government’s end goals. It is well-meaning, but essentially a list of platitudes.
I am not a fan of plebiscites, but I now accept that if Parliament cannot agree on a way through the current deadlock, it would be right to return to the electorate. I do not accept the argument that that would be undemocratic. By the time of another vote it will be three years since the last one. In those three years, we have learned a great deal that most people did not know before about the many problems posed by leaving the European Union. So many different aspects of the nation’s economic, social and political life after more than 40 years of membership would unravel. In the light of that and with no parliamentary consensus, why is it undemocratic to give people the chance to change their view—or, for that matter, to confirm it?
I end with young people. I have raised their position once before when debating Europe in the House, and I do so again. The evidence of the pressures they are under is clear. They are the first generation to be worse off than their parents at a similar age, and are faced with housing costs they cannot meet, often in insecure jobs, with incomes that are too low for them to save and, if they are graduates, with huge debts to repay. Why on earth would we knowingly choose to jeopardise their future further? It is they who will bear the brunt of the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s depressing economic scenario. They have their lives ahead of them and will be more deeply affected by what might happen than most of us. By June next year, there will be three cohorts of young people who were not old enough to vote in the 2016 referendum. A people’s vote would allow them to do so. Many young people are idealistic about being part of a wider international community in Europe and beyond. They seek common ground on issues that concern them, from climate change to the fight against poverty. They dislike narrow nationalism. That is why well over 80% of them want to remain in the European Union. We should let them have their say.
Finally, I want to ask the Minister, when he replies, to tell the House what the Government plan to do if, as expected, they lose the vote on Tuesday. The Prime Minister’s humiliating decision to pull the vote on 11 December wasted five weeks. I believe that it is the Minister’s duty, when he sums up, to indicate what options the Government are considering for the three-day window they will now have. If he merely repeats that we will leave on 29 March without a deal, which is what has been said in this House so many times before, that will be wholly irresponsible and deeply shocking.
Debate adjourned until Monday 14 January.
House adjourned at 2.59 pm.