Monday, July 22, 2024

Brexit: “We will not be threatened” Baroness Smith delivers Brexit speech

BARONESS Smith of Basildon, the former MP for South Basildon and East Thurrock, Angela Smith, in her capacity as shadow leader of the House of Lords, rose on the floor of the House of Lords to deliver her speech on the Brexit debate.

Baroness Smith said: “My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her opening comments. As she was hunting for the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, in the sea of faces today, it struck me how pleasing it is to see such a full House on the first Monday back after recess, and we extend a welcome not just to all noble Lords who are in their place but to distinguished guests visiting from the other place. All of us will be spending a lot of time together over the coming days and weeks, and I thank my noble friend Lady Hayter for volunteering to wind up for our Benches tomorrow evening.

Last year on 23 June, 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 box 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 led to the resignation of a Prime Minister who had promised that whatever the result he would stay and see it through, it 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. Until the two years of negotiation have ended, and until the pompously, and hopefully inaccurately, named “great” repeal Bill and consequent legislation have been completed, none of us knows what Brexit will look like, and that has created and fuelled uncertainty for businesses, universities, science, and environmentalists and, worryingly, for EU citizens living and working in the UK and UK citizens living and working in other EU countries. It has become obvious that no thought had been given to our citizens in Gibraltar or to the implications for Northern Ireland and the Good Friday agreement.

A recent report identified 1957 as the happiest year of the last century. It was a good year. It was the year that my mum and dad met, and I followed soon after. Why was it the happiest year? It was not just because of that. It was a time of low wages and poor housing and we had not 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—the millennials, as they are 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 increasingly 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 1957, with the horrors of the war years fading, was also a time of hope with a brighter future ahead, and let us not forget that in that same year, 60 years ago, part of that optimism led to the treaty of Rome.

While 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. We still have battles to fight, even though wars are not fought between European countries. We have battles to fight in tackling serious and organised crime, terrorism, money laundering, drugs, child abuse and people trafficking, so we must continue working together across borders on these issues and on security, where we have taken a leading role in the European Union. The fact that around 190 speakers have signed up to speak today and tomorrow shows not just the depth of feeling on this issue but the expertise that is available here in your Lordships’ House. I hope the Government will make use of that, and I welcome the noble Baroness’s comments on that in her speech.

Many on both sides of this issue are angry and worried. Like many other noble Lords, I have received numerous emails. Some want us to block Brexit, while others consider any debate and discussion, or any amendments we may pass, as a constitutional outrage. Much of the work of this House is undertaken away from the 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 your Lordships. But we should be 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 1,000 extra Conservative Peers to get this legislation through, or with abolition. I had to point out to one Conservative MP that it would take around two years to get 1,000 new Peers, which might be a little too late for this Bill.

We will not be threatened into not fulfilling our normal constitutional role—neither will we be goaded into acting irresponsibly. We have to have a serious and a 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. It is the House of Commons that will, as always and quite rightly, have the final say. So let us 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. However, as I have 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.

This legislation is the first stage of a 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—ask our colleagues in the other place to reconsider on specific issues. That is not delaying the process, it is part of the process and has no impact on the Government’s self-imposed deadline. We will work, as we always do, with others across your Lordships’ House, including noble Lords on the government Benches.

As we have already seen from the excellent Lords Select Committee reports, many of the issues to be addressed are complicated. They are complex and require wisdom, experience, thoughtful strategy and serious negotiation. Whether it is the issue of the Irish border or trade policy, of our fishing industry or of fighting crime and remaining at the forefront of dealing with security issues, this is not going to be easy.

The Bill is very specific and 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. 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 is all going to be fine. The process of Brexit cannot be run solely by those who have no doubt. It has to engage those who fear the worst and will work for the best. After the division of the referendum, the Prime Minister has to make this a Brexit not just for the 52% but on that is also understood by the 48%. We should also consider those who at 16 and 17 were denied the opportunity to vote on their future.

Ministers frequently state how the scrutiny, challenge and 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 negotiations; immediately protecting EU citizens living in the UK; and 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 the Bill was agreed by the House of Commons, it was after Government commitments on some of those issues, as helpfully indicated by the noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal, so would it not 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 will do our utmost to ensure that ministerial promises not to dilute employment and social rights or environmental and consumer protections are kept, and that bringing these issues into UK legislation is about sovereignty, not weakening legislation. As we have already heard, the ongoing work of our EU Select Committees will be of significant value to the Government throughout and beyond the Brexit process. I am pleased that the noble Baroness the Lord Privy Seal and the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, have recognised that today.

Given that the Prime Minister is playing catch-up on Brexit, with her Government distracting themselves and Parliament with a challenge to the court ruling and dithering over the White Paper, we now need a more mature approach. 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 about the need to craft a new vision for our role in the world that is realisable and sustainable, brings our country together and gives hope and optimism to our young people and the generations to come. Our scrutiny of this process over the coming months and years will hold to that vision.

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