Angela Smith speech in the House of Lords, Wednesday 5th December 2018
I’m grateful to the Noble Lady, the Leader of the House for opening this important debate, and to the usual channels for facilitating what is effectively four days of debate across three days, to ensure that we have the opportunity to conclude our proceedings before the Other Place.
Since the result of the referendum this House has been constructive in examining the detail and implications of the UK’s departure from the EU. The clearest evidence of this are the many Select Committee Reports, on a range of subjects such as trade and financial services, judicial and security cooperation, and Northern Ireland, which have brought enormous clarity to complex matters.
When the Government was forced by the High Court to secure parliament’s approval to trigger Article 50, Your Lordships House passed just two amendments – on the position of EU nationals and the need for parliamentary debate with a vote for MPs on the eventual deal. Although opposing the amendments, the Government conceded the principle on both.
Our constructive approach has been evident in later legislation. On the Withdrawal Bill, around 160 hours of scrutiny led to YLH passing an unprecedented 15 amendments for consideration by MPs. Despite over the top protestations from some, this was clearly useful work. Our EU agencies amendment was accepted in full, and others, including on Northern Ireland and the meaningful vote, were accepted with some changes.
YLH, working across party lines to improve the legislation, secured almost 200 concessions, including crucial restrictions on delegated powers.
We considered there should be parliamentary oversight of the final arrangements, rather than our future relationship with the EU being approved by the stroke of a ministerial pen. This House agreed that we should debate the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal – but that the meaningful vote should be for the elected House. Any vote we have is an expression of our opinion as a second chamber.
Our debate over the coming days is in that context. It provides an opportunity for YLH to continue to be constructive, analytical and forensic in consideration of the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration.
Following discussions, and consultations, we have tabled a motion in my name to provide an opportunity for YLH to express its opinion on the outcome of the PM’s negotiations. I will speak to it now, although it won’t be formally moved until the end of the debate on Monday.
But I have just been informed that a further amendment has been tabled, although I haven’t had sight of it yet and don’t know what it says.
The aim of my amendment is to frame the next few days around the three key issues at stake.
Firstly, as noted, that it is for the elected House of Commons to determine this matter.
When we debated the Withdrawal Bill in this House MNF, Lord Monks, tabled a successful amendment that the Prime Minister should obtain a mandate from Parliament for her deliberations with the EU.
At the time, the Government was adamant that Mrs May could not be constrained by Parliament. Yet had she sought a parliamentary mandate, even for just the basic principles, she might not be facing such an uphill – and likely impossible – struggle. Yet, as we heard from her last night, she has again conceded the principle.
Whilst it is exceptional, the Government – as I speak – is releasing its own legal advice, after being forced to do so by MPs.
The House of Commons faces its most important division for 75 years so how can it be, as the Government claimed, that it is against the national interest to provide MPs with vital legal information? I am pleased that following last night’s vote, the Government has had to accept it was wrong. But the PM just made her job harder.
Secondly, the motion is clear that the option, or threat, of a no deal exit, is emphatically rejected.
While some may fondly imagine that the only consequence of no deal is that we step back in time and pick up where we left off 45 years ago, the reality is so very different. The world outside has not been static – waiting for us.
To crash out of the EU without arrangements in place for co-operation on trade, agriculture and fisheries, crime and security, consumer and employment protections, energy and the environment, would be grossly reckless and irresponsible.
It would leave the country in the curious position of being outside of the EU but having to essentially accept free movement due to a lack of alternative immigration arrangements. And it would leave our UK citizens in the EU, without security in employment or in retirement.
Initially, planes would be grounded. Regardless of the number of lorry parking spaces made available on our motorways, major ports would experience tailbacks and costly delays – with huge implications for the nation’s food security and exports.
Our already overstretched police forces would no longer have access to EU databases, but left to rely on patchy, outdated and cumbersome procedures for exchanging vital information on cross border crime.
And the lack of certainty for businesses would have a hugely detrimental effect on our economy and investment.
My Lords, there are no circumstances in which a no deal scenario has any benefit to the UK.
And thirdly – the motion regrets that the PM’s negotiated agreement is inadequate.
The Government initially argued against a transition or implementation period, as it claimed it would have everything in place by March 2019. This deal proves what an empty boast that was.
The Government is now forced to accept that such a breathing space is essential, as it hasn’t been able to reach agreement on multiple issues. The declaration outlines what both sides hope can be achieved, but offers zero certainty.
Should the deal we are debating be accepted by the Commons, the Government will bring forward what it calls an Implementation Bill – but nobody has any idea what it will be implementing!
Our future economic prosperity, our security and our place in the world – all are weakened by this agreement. Since the publication of the political declaration, it has become clear that the envisaged trade and security relationship is below par.
Even if the PM had got everything on her Chequers shopping list – and we should be clear that it is nowhere near – the result would be slower economic growth.
There is no provision for a permanent UK-EU customs union. Nor for continued participation in the European Arrest Warrant. Whilst the EU has stated that the UK can enjoy an unprecedented level of third country security co-operation, we have no idea whether there will be access to databases such as the second-generation Schengen Information System.
And on Northern Ireland, the Prime Minister has produced a backstop that literally nobody is happy with. Not her backbenchers, not the DUP, and certainly not the Labour Party.
So my Lords, what does the PM’s deal offer us? It is a wish list - with decisions to be made later. In the words of the latest Brexit Secretary, “we have agreed to strike an ambitious new flexible and scalable relationship that allows us to combine resources worldwide for maximum impact.”
If only there were some existing international organisation that allowed the UK to maximise its contribution to global affairs…
This deal before us represents a blind Brexit, with no certainty or clarity for the future. It does not deserve our support.
When the Prime Minister claims that this is the best deal – what she means is that it is the best that she has been able to negotiate. The ‘red lines’ Mrs May set at Lancaster House were never a great starting point for a strategy.
Throughout, she has sought to appease one or other of the rival factions in her party.
The noble lady the Lord Privy Seal, in the statement last week, referred to Brexit as “building a brighter future of opportunity and prosperity for all our people.” On what basis can that claim be made? What is the evidence? Where is the detail?
The Government’s economic analysis was modelled on the White Paper produced post-Chequers. That’s not even Government policy any more.
We have been told that countries are queuing up to sign trade deals with us. The US President clearly thinks otherwise.
The PM’s most positive interaction at the G20 summit was meeting her Japanese counterpart, who, echoing our motion, pleaded with Mrs May to rule out no deal.
And the Chancellor of the Exchequer has admitted that the deal leaves us worse off, saying: “there will be a cost to leaving the European Union because there will be impediments to our trade.”
So the option being presented by the PM – is her deal, which would leave us worse off, or a catastrophic no deal. That’s a Hobson’s Choice and not one any responsible government should ever seek to force its Parliament to take.
Let us be very clear: the Government has mismanaged this entire process. Every time there has been a fork in the road, with decisions to be taken on the direction ahead, the Prime Minister has taken the wrong turn.
No responsible government would ever trigger Article 50 without having some kind of blueprint for the negotiations and ensuring buy-in from Parliament.
No responsible government would ever alienate its closest allies before talks had even begun, by refusing to protect the rights of their citizens who have made this country their home.
And no responsible government should ever talk up the chance of falling off a cliff-edge, forcing businesses to implement contingency plans that result in the loss of UK jobs.
So it is little wonder that the Prime Minister is living life on the edge, taking each week – actually, each day – as it comes. Or that our country is so divided.
My Lords, that division is not the only tragedy of Brexit. Just think, if that energy, intellect, enthusiasm, and the money, had been channelled into tackling some of the great issues of our time. To eradicating homelessness and poverty, to tackling climate change, to addressing preventative disease, to conflict resolution.
For the first time since the Second World War, we have generations of young people without the hope, without the optimism or without the confidence in the future that their parents and grandparents had.
Whatever the eventual outcome of the wider debate on Brexit, there is an obligation to address that and to prove that the current state of our political life is not the norm; and that Parliament and politics should and must be a force for good.
The public was promised outcomes that were never realistic.
So over the next few days YLH will do what it does best, scrutinising the agreements and highlighting the many issues and inconsistencies within them.
On Monday, before the Commons takes its own binding decision, I will ask YLH to vote on the motion standing in my name. There’s just 3 points:
- It is for MPs to make this decision
- That no deal can ever be an option
- That even if the PM thinks it’s the best deal she can get, it is inadequate
We hope that our debate, the evidence we have already provided through our Select Committees, and the work of our EU Committee, will be useful to MPs as they deliberate.
And, as part of our role of being helpful to the other place, we hope that YLH will want to express the view that the Prime Minister is wrong to impose this as a choice between her deal or no deal.