Baroness Angela Smith speech to the House of Lords
Last June 23rd, this country held an historic referendum with a straightforward, direct question: “Should the UK remain a member of the European Union, or leave the European Union?”.
It required a straightforward direct answer. A single cross in either the Remain or the Leave box.
The result of that referendum, although hardly overwhelming, was clear in favour of leaving the EU.
But although the question was simple and straightforward, the simplicity ended there. For those charged with implementing the decision it has been anything but.
It has led to the resignation of a Prime Minister who had promised that whatever the result he would stay and see it through.
It has led to the Government going to court to avoid seeking Parliamentary approval, on an issue that was supposed to be about sovereignty.
And it exposed the lack of preparation for a Leave vote.
That lack of Government planning has created a vacuum in which uncertainty has thrived.
“Brexit means Brexit” was perhaps the most unwise of all statements following the referendum. It just served to highlight that void. But, until the two years of negotiation have ended, and until the pompously, and hopefully inaccurately named, ‘Great’ Repeal Bill and consequent legislation has been completed, none of us know what Brexit will look like.
And that has fuelled uncertainty for businesses, for universities, for science, for environmentalists.
And worryingly for both EU citizens living and working in the UK and UK citizens living and working in other EU countries.
And it has become obvious that no thought had been given to our citizens in Gibraltar or the implications for Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement.
My Lords, a recent report identified 1957 as happiest year of the last century. But why? It was a time of low wages, poor housing and we hadn’t yet had the benefit of the social and reforming legislation of the 1960s and 1970s. But it was a time of optimism.
Few of our young people today – ‘millenials’ as they’re often termed – will talk with such optimism for the future, faced as they are with job and housing insecurity, and a world that seems to be becoming more dangerous.
Obviously, not all of that anxiety is a knock-on effect of the referendum. And membership of the EU would not solve all our problems – any more than it caused them.
But in 1957, with the horrors of the war years fading, it was also a time of hope and a brighter future ahead.
And let’s not forget that in that same year, sixty years ago, part of that optimism led to the Treaty of Rome.
So, whilst accepting that today’s EU is wider in shape and influence than the earlier models, we should acknowledge the vision of those men and women who wanted to see countries across the European continent knowing and understanding each other and at peace with one another.
With so much of the debate around Brexit being about business and the economy, we should take care never to lose sight of that vision. And we should never take peace for granted.
Today, wars are not fought between European countries. But we have battles to fight in tacking serious and organised crime, terrorism, money laundering from drugs, child abuse and people trafficking. So, we must continue working together on these issues across borders – and on security where we have taken a leading role in the European Union.
With around 190 speakers signed up to speak today and tomorrow in Your Lordships House, it shows not just the depth of feeling on this issue – but the expertise that is available here and I hope that the Government will welcome and make use of.
My Lords, many, on both sides of this issue, are angry and they’re worried. Like many other Noble Lords, I have received numerous e-mails. Some want us to block Brexit and others consider any debate and discussion, and any amendments we may pass as a constitutional outrage.
Much of the work of this House is undertaken away from public gaze, and even those with an interest in Parliament will be more familiar with the work of the elected Chamber.
With some of the ill-informed reports and comments, and when certain newspapers call judges ‘Enemies of the People’, we should not be surprised that our role is often misunderstood and that some exaggerated and inaccurate outrage has been hurled at Noble Lords.
But my Lords, we should be both surprised and angry with those who should know better. MPs, even Peers from Your Lordships House, and an anonymous ‘Government source’ have threatened this House with 600 or 1000 extra Conservative Peers to get this legislation through, or with abolition.
I did have to point out in response to one Conservative MP, that it would take about two years to introduce 1000 new Peers which might be a little too late for this Bill.
But My Lords, we will not be threatened into not fulfilling our normal constitutional role – and neither will we be goaded into acting irresponsibly.
We have to have a serious and responsible debate.
And in doing so, if we ask the House of Commons to look again at an issue, it is not a constitutional outrage but a constitutional responsibility.
And it is the House of Commons that will, as always, and quite rightly, have the final say.
So, let’s be very clear. As I have said so many times before, in Your Lordships House, and publicly we will not block, wreck or sabotage the legislation before us. Whatever our personal views, disappointments and genuine concerns for the future that is not the role of this House.
But, I’ve also said, neither should we provide the Government with a blank cheque. It would be irresponsible to merrily wave the Government off to negotiate our future without parliamentary engagement or accountability, and merely ask them to return two years later with a deal.
If sovereignty is to mean anything, it has to mean parliamentary responsibility.
My Lords, this legislation is first stage of the process by which the Prime Minister can invoke Article 50, to start negotiations to leave the European Union and will lead to the so called ‘Great Repeal Bill’ by which we will start to bring provisions derived from EU law into UK law.
We will treat this Bill appropriately and as seriously as we do all primary legislation.
As evidenced from the amendments already tabled we will seek improvements, encourage ministers to make reasonable changes, and possibly, just possibly, we may ask our colleagues in the Other Place to reconsider on specific issues.
That’s not delaying the process, it is part of the process and has no impact on the Government’s self-imposed deadline.
And we will work, as we always do, with others across Your Lordships House, including Noble Lords on the government benches.
As we’ve already seen from the excellent Lords Select Committee Reports, many of the issues to be addressed are complicated. They are complex. And they require wisdom, experience, thoughtful strategy and serious negotiation.
Whether it’s the issue of the Irish border or trade policy, our fishing industry or fighting crime and remaining at the forefront of dealing with security issues – this isn’t going to be easy.
My Lords, this Bill is very specific and is about process rather than outcomes. But process is important. Both those who advocated this path and those charged with implementing the outcome bear a heavy responsibility.
So our negotiating teams will need the best possible support. They will need to scrutinise. They will need to challenge.
The motivation to get the best possible deal will be driven by understanding the complexities involved. Not a glib confidence that it’s all going to be fine.
The process of Brexit cannot be run solely by those that have no doubt. It has to engage those that fear the worst and will work for the best.
After the division of the referendum, the PM has to make this a Brexit, not just for the 52%, but a Brexit that is also understood by the 48%. And indeed, we should also consider those who at 16 and 17 were denied the opportunity to vote on their future.
Government ministers frequently state how scrutiny, challenge and the revision function of this House improves legislation. That is our sole purpose.
Our amendments are guided by key principles and have been drafted after reflecting on the debates in the Other Place, and comments made by Ministers. They include:-
- Parliamentary engagement to ensure that the UK Parliament is not less engaged or less informed than the European Parliament, or other national parliaments.
- A meaningful vote on the negotiations
- Protecting EU citizens living in the UK
- And also our commitment to the Good Friday or Belfast Agreement, which has helped to secure peace and a soft border with our nearest European neighbour, the Irish Republic.
When this Bill was agreed by the House of Commons – it was after Government commitments on some of these issues, so wouldn’t it be helpful if they were written into the Bill itself.
Parallel to the negotiating process as we debate the Great Repeal Bill and subsequent legislation, we’ll do our utmost to ensure ministerial promises not to dilute employment and social rights, environment and consumer protections, are kept – and that bringing these issues into UK legislation is about sovereignty not weakening legislation.
And also, the ongoing work of our EU select committees will be of significant value to the government throughout and beyond the Brexit process as readily acknowledged by the NL Bridges.
Given the Prime Minister is playing catch up on Brexit, with her govermment distracting itself – and Parliament – with a challenge to the court ruling, and dithering over the White Paper, we now need a more mature approach.
My Lords, this is a defining moment for our country. There must be some acknowledgment from the government that this process is not just about the legislation before us and where it leads but also about the need to craft a new vision for our role in the world, that is realisable, sustainable, brings our country together and gives hope and optimism to our young people and generations to come.
Our scrutiny of this process over the coming months and years will hold to that vision.
Baroness Angela Smith of Basildon is Shadow Leader of the House of Lords. She tweets at @LadyBasildon
Published 20th February 2017
Baroness Angela Smith speech to the House of Lords