My Lords, I rise with a mixture of anger and sadness to speak in this debate on a Bill which will trigger the implementation of the biggest political decision taken in my lifetime.
The European Union has been part of my professional, political and family life. I have never wavered in my view of the critical role the EU plays in safeguarding peace and stability amongst its members. It is certainly not perfect but it has been extraordinarily successful in bringing people and nations together, in stabilising democracies, as a catalyst for change in countries aspiring to be our partners, in creating the biggest trading block in the world which respects the rights of workers, consumers and the environment. Since we joined, both Conservative and Labour Governments have been crucial in the development of the EU and our proud place in the world owes a great deal to our membership.
Notwithstanding this brilliant beacon of hope for the world in these increasingly difficult and dangerous times, when our closest ally is abandoning values that we used to share, we are going to cut ourselves adrift thanks to Mr Cameron’s political expediency which backfired and which will have potentially catastrophic consequences for our country. I do not wish to rehearse the debate about the toxic rhetoric and intolerance of the deeply flawed referendum campaign of which I am still ashamed. Of course, alienation towards the EU did not begin last year and many of us bear a terrible responsibility for not being more robust in its defence over the last 20 years, countering the myths espoused by the press and their owners.
The mantra that the people have voted makes me wince. They have indeed voted and I certainly would not say that they did not know what they were voting for, they took the decision seriously, however, they were sold a pig in a poke and rather than taking back control of their lives, they may well be faced by job insecurity and rising prices, fewer rights as workers and consumers, fewer opportunities. Whilst I understand the anger about elitism and inequality that was expressed in the vote, I do not think that people voted to leave the Single Market or the Customs’ Union. I have to ask why the Prime Minister did not even try to negotiate future membership of the Single Market with some restriction on free movement? Why does she continue the appalling policy of Mr Cameron of putting politics before the economy?
Like other Noble Lords I have received hundreds of emails from people expressing deep, deep concern about Brexit. Some of the anxieties caused by personal situations were moving. I share their concern and I will certainly be supporting all of the amendments that have been tabled by my Front bench. I will also be supporting other amendments, for example ensuring that Parliament has a real say on the outcome of the negotiations, not just deal or no deal.
The Minister in the Commons said that “the vote will be either to accept the deal that the government will have achieved … or for there to be no deal”. That is simply not enough. Parliament should have the opportunity to send the government back to negotiate further with our European partners if the choice is between a hard Brexit that is not in the national interest or no deal. A recent ICM poll showed that only 35% of the public would support crashing out on WTO terms with no deal, whilst 54% would either want the Prime Minister to continue negotiations, or suspend Brexit pending a 2nd referendum. The European Union and the wider world are rapidly changing politically, socially, economically, technologically and environmentally, and it is therefore imperative for us to keep the door open to all options at the end of this process.
With this Bill, the country is embarking on a perilous journey towards an unknown future which rather than being driven by economic wellbeing is being driven by immigration control. The Minister will say that the Bill is about process rather than the substance of the negotiations but before embarking on a journey it is important to have a map and to understand what the implications are. A map would mean some clarity in respect of transitional arrangements that the Government will be seeking. No matter how much Ministers might say they are confident of concluding negotiations within two years, it is absolutely clear that this is simply not possible. The Government appears to be deluded about the difficulties ahead, and simply does not understand that the overriding priority of our 27 partners is to maintain the integrity of the European Union.
With regard to implications, where is the economic analysis? And how is the government going to ensure that whilst reducing immigration it can continue to meet the needs of our farmers, our businesses, our construction and engineering industries, our health and social care sector and our universities? It is not just the hugely important question of EU nationals currently living in the UK, it is our ability to attract skills and talent in the future. Will EU nationals wish to come and work here if they have to pay for health insurance or if their children have to pay fees for foreign students at our universities? There has already been a reduction of more than 90% in the number of nurses from the EU registering with the Nursing and Midwifery Council since the referendum vote
The referendum result was devastating for the 3 million but also to the Brits with whom many have relationships. People who contribute to our economy at all levels are already leaving this country because of the uncertainty for them and their families. The Prime Minister says she values the contribution of EU nationals and it is now time to act. We are talking about human beings, not numbers on a spread sheet and certainly not bargaining chips. They need and deserve a guarantee that their acquired rights will be respected. I do not underestimate the complexities but this is a problem of the Government’s own making and their have a huge responsibility to deliver. The situation of our own nationals in other parts of the EU is equally important, they are in favour of this unilateral action.
Whilst I am passionate about this issue, more importantly so are all of the young people that I know. I have spoken to hundreds and hundreds of young people since the referendum, in academies, grammar schools, FE colleges and Universities and all but a handful are despairing of the result of the referendum. They feel that their opportunities have been stunted and that we, the generation who had it all, have sold their future down the river. Those youngsters between the ages of 16 and 18 feel particularly angry that they were not even allowed to vote about their future. Many young people who feel European, are looking for jobs elsewhere in the world, my own children included.
I accept that for the moment there is no turning back, so it is our absolute duty to challenge the Government, to scrutinise and amend this Bill. But in doing so my views will not change. Whilst I want my country to prosper and I will do everything I can to help it succeed, I firmly believe that this will be much, much more difficult outside of the European Union when our power will be diminished. To mix my metaphors, alone we are merely a player on the global stage whereas the EU is greater than the sum of its parts and it enables us to have an enhanced role on that stage.