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The outcome of the EU referendum

AngelaSmith.jpgAngela Smith's speech in House of Lords two-day debate on the EU referendum, 5th July 2016

My Lords, recently we have seen how strong leadership, good team work, thoughtful strategy and real skill can be effective and successful. Unfortunately, it has come not from Government but from the Welsh football team, who have brought some much needed cheer to us all.

The debate over the next two days is not about the referendum campaign. We’re all seeking to understand what happens next – where do we go from here? And what alarms me – and I think is fuelling the uncertainty that now affects so many areas of our life – is not just how few answers the Government has, but how few questions appear to have been asked beforehand.

This was something that we in this House recognised and asked that the Government prepared not only reports on the impact of Brexit but also contingency plans. The Government declined to do so.

So My Lords, it is impossible to address the uncertainty without recognition of the false promises that were made on such a gigantic scale. The most obvious is the insistence – before the vote – that £350 million a week would be available for the NHS, before then being denied within hours of the polls closing.

It is one thing to make promises in good faith, even if they can’t later be fully kept. It is quite another to tell tall tales, knowing that they are complete fiction. But both fuel the current uncertainty.

In Questions last week, the NL Lord Keen of Elie was asked about the 3 million EU citizens living in the UK and the UK citizens living in the EU. Unable to offer any reassurances, he merely implied that EU citizens in this country would be used as bargaining chips when negotiating the rights of British citizens living in other countries.

We all know that is wrong. It is unacceptable and must be resolved urgently. The longer this issue drags on the more damaging it is. We’ve had two Prime Ministerial statements on this issue since the result.  The fallout has dominated articles, the airwaves, social media, and conversations in our pubs, in our shops and around dinner tables up and down the country.

My Lords, since the result we have less certainty, not more. And that is in part because of the way in which this has been handled by the Government, with apparently no plan to deal with the situation.  Having said he would see through the negotiations, the Prime Minister then announced his resignation and said it is a matter for his successor.

I feel very strongly that those who made their case by relying on information that was known to be false, or made promises they knew that they would never be able to keep, have acted without integrity. And when the new Prime Minister comes to appoint a new cabinet, it should be uppermost in her mind that a commitment to the truth is an essential quality.

We all know that we have a difficult road ahead of us and we must all play our part. We have to move forward in a way that is constructive and in the best interests of our country, British citizens and those that live and work here. And in order to do so, we recognise that there are issues that cannot wait for Mr Cameron’s replacement to be in place. 

If we look at some of the constitutional issues that is where absolute legal precision is required.

Firstly, how is the Trigger for Article 50 authorised? Is this a matter for Parliament or the Executive? The current Prime Minister has said that when to trigger Article 50 is a decision for his successor. So is it the view of the Government that the decision lies entirely in the hands of the new Prime Minister? Why would such a fundamental decision not be a matter for Parliament?

And secondly, there remains a lack of clarity about the process and when it takes effect. Last week on the statement, the NL Butler of Brockwell asked an extremely important question of the NL the Leader. He asked for confirmation whether the UK’s departure from the EU would not be final until the end of the two year negotiation process; and whether, when the terms of departure were known, it was the duty of Government to ensure that the public had the opportunity to consider those terms.

The NL Leader did not answer the question, other than to confirm what we already know – that Article 50 will trigger a two year process and the current Prime Minister is handing that responsibility to his successor. This is a very serious and important issue on which lawyers are already in debate. Having given people a say in initiating the process of withdrawal, should the public wish to debate, discuss and vote on the terms of that withdrawal, will they be able to?

On the advice of senior and expert legal opinion, the Report of our own EU Select Committee, chaired by the NL Boswell made this point:- “Withdrawal is final only once a withdrawal agreement enters into force, so a member state that had given a notification under Article 50 would be legally empowered to reverse that decision before this stage.”

But legal opinion published in an article on UK constitutional law, Pulling the Article 50 Trigger: Parliament’s indispensable Role – by Nick Barber, Tom Hickman and Jeff King – all highly respected and regarded in the legal world are also clear that:- “once article 50 is invoked and the clock starts ticking on the two years of negotiation, if no acceptable withdrawal agreement is reached, membership ceases without agreement”.

So we have two serious legal opinions – both completely different.

Now, I’m not a lawyer and it’s not for me to judge which is correct – but surely the Government must have clarified exactly how this works before embarking on this journey? It can’t be left for the next Prime Minister to clarify. So, does the Government have a position that it has agreed with the EU? And can the Government today confirm what that position is?

On the role of Parliament, last week, the NL said the role of Parliament wasn’t yet clear – something since confirmed by other senior Conservatives, now standing for the party leadership.  This is a critical issue. It’s not about allowing time for debates and it’s not even just about scrutiny of decisions taken by Government. These are the most profound, complex negotiations imaginable.  We have 40 years of cooperation, 40 years of joint working, and 40 years of legislation to unravel and disentangle. 

My colleagues in the other place, Seema Malhotra and Stephen Kinnock have written to the Prime Minister with six key principles of how that engagement could be taken forward.

So, has the Government considered new parliamentary structures, such as specialist Committees – and possibly Joint Committees – to work on the detail and seek advice from experts? And what consideration has been given to the role to be played by EU Committees in YLH, with their vast expertise?

As well as the legal process of disengagement and removing ourselves from the EU institutions, we will have to examine areas as diverse as environmental protection, rights at work, consumer protection, crime and security, and transport. Alongside of course, the all-important trade discussions, including the single market and freedom of movement.

My Lords, then there is legislation, provided for through treaties and directives that will need to be confirmed in British law if we wish to keep it. Do we know how many such laws there are and in which areas? My Lords, I would sincerely hope someone somewhere in Whitehall is trying to compile what I imagine will be the largest ring-binder in history.

This is why the role of Parliament has to be clear. Once Article 50 has been triggered, we cannot afford to waste 6 months while the Government starts to consider what the processes in Parliament will be.

In the Prime Minister’s statement there was more about the role of the devolved institutions and the civil service than the role of Parliament. And what about the role of those institutions and organisations affected? Local government, our NHS, the police, the TUC, business, education, science, our arts and sports sectors. So many vital decisions, decisions that affect our economic, social and cultural life, are now on hold.

When Mr Cameron committed to staying on for the negotiations that was accepted as providing continuity.  But now the Conservative Party is having a contest for a new Leader to be Prime Minister.  Even the NL Dobbs said they even he couldn’t have scripted this story – and he invented Francis Urquhart and House of Cards!

The role that Parliament has in our EU negotiation should be set out by those who wish to be the next Prime Minister. The two main contenders for leadership have starkly opposing views – even on when negotiations should start.

On Sunday, Theresa May – appearing on the Peston programme – said:- “not before the end of the year. Need to be clear about our own position.” Theresa May wasn’t just a member of the Cabinet that gave us the referendum, she was the Home Secretary.  Was the Cabinet really so unclear when it made the decision about what our position would be?

Then yesterday, Andrea Leadsom said we should trigger Article 50 and start negotiations straight away.  It is a continuation of the ‘act now, think later’ policies that have created such instability.  

Turning to the government’s programme, last week I asked the NL the Leader about the Government’s programme for the coming year. She said that nothing has changed. But everything has changed. This isn’t business as usual. The legislative programme which was outlined a little over a month ago in the Queen’s Speech seems to limp on, without recognising the huge amount of new work that needs to be undertaken.

Journalists have reported how senior civil servants already feel that Brexit will consume their energies for years to come. It will be the central focus of our politics and our government. A massive collective effort from everyone and anyone involved in Government that no part of the civil service will be able to avoid. From Whitehall to Local Government: gaps in funding from the EU will have to be plugged, regulation will have to be undone and then redone, and networks will have to be reworked. 

It’s right that the Prime Minister has said that the brightest and the best will be needed for this process. But we need the brightest and best to work on housing policy: we need the brightest and best to develop the UK as the centre of new digital and technological advances; and we need them to tackle the growing crisis of our health service and the demographic changes that an ageing society brings. Just think what they could be doing now.

And My Lords, not a single sector is currently being offered guidance or support from Government on what the EU result means for them. There have been no answers for our businesses or public services, who employ thousands of EU citizens. There are no plans or advice for our more deprived areas about how they can manage the withdrawal of EU funding. And our educational institutions, environmental bodies and the scientific community require advice, require support and above all they need information.

Large employers are already drawing up plans to leave the UK, and the Government’s lack of certainty about EU citizens working for global companies based here is hugely damaging. So My Lords, this is the result of economic uncertainty. But the result of cultural and social uncertainty is uglier still and sharply felt. Since the EU result, there has been a 57% rise in hate crimes and 4 times the national average hate crime incidents reported.

For those who have invested so much in the ideals of Europe and those on either side of the campaign, the current political enthusiasm and interest should be harnessed for good. We want to see it focussed in positive ways, not left blowing in the wind or worst still, fuelling a greater distrust of politics and politicians.

I doubt that the NL will be able to convince YLH that the Government understood all of the implications of a Leave vote when it offered a referendum. But we do need urgent reassurances on the constitutional position and the role of Parliament. I accept there are some issues that it is reasonable to leave to a new Prime Minister. But not these.

My Lords, more than ever we need to around a common purpose of decency and tolerance. This is true for tackling the social uncertainty we face, but also our current economic and political uncertainty. And when the country is crying out for such certainty, along with direction and leadership, we have a duty to answer. I believe that YLH can be part of the solution. And as the Opposition, we stand ready to play our part.


Baroness Angela Smith of Basildon is Shadow Leader of the House of Lords. She tweets @LadyBasildon

Published 5th July 2016

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