2017 03 – Parliament Notes

Parliament Notes

by Dick Barry

European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill 

[Relevant document: The First Report from the Committee on Exiting the European Union, The process for exiting the European Union and the Government’s negotiating objectives, HC 815.]

On 31 January MPs debated the Second Reading of a Bill notifying the UK’s intention to leave the European Union. We publish below Keir Starmer’s speech on behalf of Labour, followed by the speech from Ken Clarke, the only Conservative to vote against the Bill, and Labour member Kate Hoey’s speech in support of the Bill. The Bill was carried on Second Reading by 498 to 114 votes. 47 Labour members defied a 3 line whip to vote against the Bill. The Third Reading of the Bill was carried on 8 February by 494 votes to 122. On that occasion 52 Labour members defied a 3 line whip and voted against the Bill. Ken Clarke was again the only Conservative to vote against the Bill. Clive Lewis, Labour’s Shadow Business Secretary, voted against the Third Reading and resigned from the Shadow Cabinet. All amendments to the Bill were either withdrawn or defeated in the Commons. The Bill is now with the House of Lords, where amendments are expected to be carried.

Keir Starmer (Holborn and St Pancras) (Lab) We have before us a short and relatively simple Bill, but, for the Labour party, this is a very difficult Bill. [Laughter.] I ask that hon. Members be courteous as I try to set out the position of the Labour party in what are very difficult circumstances. I will try to set that out clearly, and I expect people to be courteous.

We are a fiercely internationalist party. We are a pro-European party. We believe that through our alliances we achieve more together than we do alone. We believe in international co-operation and collaboration. We believe in the international rule of law. These beliefs will never change. That is why we campaigned to stay in the EU. We recognise that the EU is our major trading partner and that the single market and customs union have benefited UK businesses and our economy for many years. We recognise more widely the benefits of collaborative working across the EU in fields of research, medicine, technology, education, arts and farming. We also recognise the role that the EU plays in tackling common threats, such as climate change and serious organised crime. We share values and identity with the EU.

But we failed to persuade. We lost the referendum. Yes, the result was close. Yes, there were lies and half-truths—none worse than the false promise of an extra £350 million a week for the NHS. Yes, technically the referendum is not legally binding. But the result was not technical; it was deeply political, and politically the notion that the referendum was merely a consultation exercise to inform Parliament holds no water. When I was imploring people up and down the country to vote in the referendum and to vote to remain, I told them that their vote really mattered and that a decision was going to be made. I was not inviting them to express a view.

Although we are fiercely internationalist and fiercely pro-European, we in the Labour party are, above all, democrats. Had the outcome been to remain, we would have expected the result to be honoured, and that cuts both ways. A decision was made on 23 June last year to leave the EU. Two thirds of Labour MPs represent constituencies that voted to leave; one third represent constituencies that voted to remain. This is obviously a difficult decision. I wish the result had gone the other way—I campaigned passionately for that—but as democrats we in the Labour party have to accept the result. It follows that the Prime Minister should not be blocked from starting the article 50 negotiations.

That does not mean, however, that the Prime Minister can do as she likes without restraint from the House—quite the opposite: she is accountable to the House, and that ​accountability will be vital on the uncertain journey that lies ahead. She fought to prevent the House from having a vote on the Bill until she was forced to do so by the Supreme Court last week. She resisted Labour’s calls for a plan and then a wider White Paper until it became clear that she would lose any battle to force her to do so. Just before Christmas, she was resisting giving the House a vote on the final deal—a position that she has had to adjust.

That is why the amendments tabled by the Labour party are so important. They are intended to establish a number of key principles that the Government must seek to negotiate during the process, including securing full tariff and impediment-free access to the single market. They are intended to ensure that there is robust and regular parliamentary scrutiny by requiring the Secretary of State to report to the House at least every two months on progress being made in the negotiations and to provide documents that are being given to the European Parliament. The amendments would also require the Government to consult regularly the Governments of Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland throughout the Brexit negotiations. I have recognised on numerous occasions the specific issues and concerns of those living in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, and I support the proposition that they should be absolutely consulted throughout the process and that their interests should be borne in mind.

The amendments would also ensure that this House has the first say, not the last say, on the deal proposed at the end of the article 50 negotiations. We also support amendments in relation to workplace rights and environmental rights, and we will be making the case that the legal state of EU nationals should be resolved before negotiations take place. I recognise the Government’s position on EU nationals and the work done to try to ensure that there is a reciprocal arrangement, but that has not worked, and now the Prime Minister should act unilaterally to give assurance to EU nationals living in this country. I am sure that all hon. Members will have had, in their surgeries, EU nationals in tears over the uncertainty of their situation. I have seen it at every public meeting I have attended on the topic and at every surgery. I understand the constraints, but we must now act unilaterally to secure their position.

Taken together, the amendments would put real grip and accountability into the process, and the Government should welcome them, not reject them out of hand. I am mindful of the fact that 99 Back Benchers want to speak, and it is important, on such an issue, that I set out our position.​

It is important to remember what the Bill does and does not do. It empowers the Prime Minister to trigger article 50—no more, no less. It is the start of the negotiating process, not the end. It does not give the Prime Minister a blank cheque—and here I want to make a wider point that has not been made clearly enough so far in any of our debates: no Prime Minister, under article 50 or any other provision, can change domestic law through international negotiations. That can only be done in this Parliament. If she seeks to change our immigration laws, she will have to do so in this Parliament in primary legislation. If she seeks to change our tax laws, she will have to do so in this Parliament in primary legislation. If she seeks to change our employment laws, our consumer protection laws or our environmental laws, she will have to do so in this Parliament in primary legislation. If she seeks to change our current arrangements in Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales, she will have to do so in Parliament in primary legislation.

James Cleverly (Braintree) (Con) Does the hon. and learned Gentleman not realise that the very point of us leaving the EU is to ensure that this place can make decisions on those very points?

Keir Starmer Yes. When the Secretary of State last week said there would be many votes on many pieces of legislation in the next few years, he was not wrong. In each of those votes, at every twist and turn, Labour will argue that jobs, the economy and living standards must come first. We will argue that all the workers’ rights, consumer rights and environmental protections derived from EU law should be fully protected—no qualifications, limitations or sunset clauses.

Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab) My hon. and learned Friend rightly points to the very necessary consultation that must take place with the devolved Administrations, but on 17 January I asked the Secretary of State what discussions he had had with the north-east about the impact of leaving the single market, given that 58% of our exports go to the EU. Does my hon. and learned Friend share my concern that we still do not have an answer to that question—whether the Secretary of State has even had those discussions—as well as many other questions?

Keir Starmer I agree, and I urge the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State to ensure that there is the greatest consultation in relation to Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. They each have specific areas of concern, which are well known to this House.

Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con) Does the hon. and learned Gentleman share my concern that if no deal has been struck at the end of this process, all options must remain open and it will be for this place, not the Government, to decide what happens next?

Keir Starmer I am grateful for that intervention. It is to ensure that this place has a meaningful role that Labour has tabled these amendment, in relation to the final vote, to ensure that the issue comes here first, rather than later.

Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab) In that spirit, does my hon. and learned Friend agree that it is astonishing that the Government have not told us when they will publish the White Paper? Does he agree that it should be published ahead of the Bill’s Committee, which is scheduled for next week?

Keir Starmer I am grateful for that intervention. My view is clear: the White Paper ought to be published as soon as possible, and before the Committee stage is concluded, and I hope that it will be. More broadly, Labour will be arguing for a strong, collaborative future relationship with the EU. In her Lancaster House speech, the Prime Minister said that she does not “seek to hold on to bits of membership as we leave”.

That is short-sighted, as we are now finding in relation to Euratom. Why would we want to be outside the European Aviation Safety Agency, which certifies aircraft before they are allowed to fly? Why would we want to be outside the European Medicines Agency, which ensures that all medicines in the EU market are safe and effective? Why would we want to be outside Europol and Eurojust, which, as the Prime Minister and I know, are agencies that work closely together in the prevention and detection of serious crime and terrorism? The same goes for the European Environment Agency and Euratom. We challenge the Prime Minister on these fronts and ask that consideration be given to finding ways to ensure that we stay where we can within those agencies, for the obvious benefits that they bring, and we will absolutely challenge any suggestion that the Prime Minister has any authority whatsoever to rip up our economic and social model and turn the UK into a tax-haven economy.

I come back to the vote on this Bill. It is a limited vote: a vote to allow the Prime Minister to start the article 50 process. It is not a vote on the outcome, nor is it a vote on wider issues, which will fall to be voted on separately, but it is a vote to start the process. I know that there are some colleagues on the Benches behind me who do not feel able to support the Bill. I respect their views, just as I respect the views of constituents who feel the same way. I also understand and recognise the anxiety of so many in the 48% who voted to remain about their future, their values and their identity. They did not vote themselves out of their own future, and their views matter as much now as they did on 23 June last year.

I hope that the respectful approach that I have tried to adopt to colleagues and to the anxiety among the 48% is reflected across the House and that we will see a good deal less of the gloating from those who campaigned to leave than we have seen in the past. It is our duty to accept and respect the outcome of the referendum, but we remain a European country, with a shared history and shared values. It is also our duty to fight for a new relationship with our EU partners that reflects our values, our commitment to internationalism and our ​commitment to an open and tolerant society. Above all, it is our duty to ensure an outcome that is not just for the 52% or for the 48%, but for the 100%. That we will do.

Mr Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe) (Con) Mr Speaker, you will not be surprised to hear that it is my intention to vote against the Second Reading of this Bill, if a vote is called, and to support the reasoned amendment, which I think will be moved very shortly by the Scottish nationalists.

Because of the rather measured position that the hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) had to present on behalf of the official Labour party, it falls to me to be the first Member of this House to set out the case for why I believe—I hope that I will not be the last such speaker—that it is in the national interest for the United Kingdom to be a member of the European Union, why I believe that we have benefited from that position for the past 45 years and, most importantly, why I believe that future generations will benefit if we succeed in remaining a member of the European Union. It is a case that hardly received any national publicity during the extraordinary referendum campaign, but it goes to the heart of the historic decision that the House is being asked to make now.

It so happens that my political career entirely coincides with British involvement with the European Union. I started over 50 years ago, supporting Harold Macmillan’s application to join. I helped to get the majority cross-party vote for the European Communities Act 1972, before we joined in 1973, and it looks like my last Parliament is going to be the Parliament in which we leave, but I do not look back with any regret. We made very wise decisions. I believe that membership of the European Union was the way in which we got out of the appalling state we were in when we discovered after Suez that we had no role in the world that we were clear about once we had lost our empire, and that our economy was becoming a laughing stock because we were falling behind the countries on the continent that had been devastated in the war but appeared to have a better way of proceeding than we did.

I believe that our membership of the European Union restored to us our national self-confidence and gave us a political role in the world, as a leading member of the Union, which made us more valuable to our allies such as the United States, and made our rivals, such as the Russians, take us more seriously because of our leadership role in the European Union. It helped to reinforce our own values as well. Our economy benefited enormously and continued to benefit even more, as the market developed, from our close and successful involvement in developing trading relationships with the inhabitants of the continent.

The Conservative Governments in which I served made very positive contributions to the development of the European Union. There were two areas in which we were the leading contender and made a big difference. The first was when the Thatcher Government led the way in the creation of the single market. The customs union—the so-called common market—had served its purpose, but regulatory barriers matter more than tariffs in the modern world. But for the Thatcher Government, the others would not have been induced to remove those barriers, and I think that the British benefited more from the single market than any other member state. It has contributed to our comparative economic success today.

We were always the leading Government after the fall of the Soviet Union in the process of enlargement to eastern Europe, taking in the former Soviet states. That was an extremely important political contribution. After the surprising collapse of the Soviet Union, eastern and central Europe could have collapsed into its traditional anarchy, nationalist rivalry and military regimes that preceded the second world war. We pressed the urgency of bringing in these new independent nations, giving them the goal of the European Union, which meant liberal democracy, free market trade and so forth. We made Europe a much more stable place.

That has been our role in the European Union, and I believe that it is a very bad move, particularly for our children and grandchildren, that we are all sitting here now saying that we are embarking on a new unknown future. I shall touch on that in a moment, because I think the position is simply baffling to every friend of the British and of the United Kingdom throughout the world. That is why I shall vote against the Bill.

Let me deal with the arguments that I should not vote in that way, that I am being undemocratic, that I am quite wrong, and that, as an elected Member of Parliament, I am under a duty to vote contrary to the views I have just given. I am told that this is because we held a referendum. First, I am in the happy situation that my opposition to referendums as an instrument of government is quite well known and has been frequently repeated throughout my political career. I have made no commitment to accept a referendum, and particularly this referendum, when such an enormous question, with hundreds of complex issues wrapped up within it, was to be decided by a simple yes/no answer on one day. That was particularly unsuitable for a plebiscite of that kind, and that point was reinforced by the nature of the debate.

Constitutionally, when the Government tried to stop the House from having a vote, they did not go to the Supreme Court arguing that a referendum bound the House and that that was why we should not have a vote. The referendum had always been described as advisory in everything that the Government put out. There is no constitutional standing for referendums in this country. No sensible country has referendums—the United States and Germany do not have them in their political systems. The Government went to the Supreme Court arguing for the archaic constitutional principle of the royal prerogative—that the Executive somehow had absolute power when it came to dealing with treaties. Not surprisingly, they lost.

What about the position of Members of Parliament? There is no doubt that by an adequate but narrow majority, leave won the referendum campaign. I will not comment on the nature of the campaign. Those arguments that got publicity in the national media on both sides were, on the whole, fairly pathetic. I have agreed in ​conversation with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union that he and I can both tell ourselves that neither of us used the dafter arguments that were put forward by the people we were allied with. It was not a very serious debate on the subject. I do not recall the view that £350 million a week would be available for the health service coming from the Brexit Secretary, and I did not say that we going to have a Budget to put up income tax and all that kind of thing. It was all quite pathetic.

Let me provide an analogy—a loose one but, I think, not totally loose—explaining the position of Members of Parliament after this referendum. I have fought Lord knows how many elections over the past 50 years, and I have always advocated voting Conservative. The British public, in their wisdom, have occasionally failed to take my advice and have by a majority voted Labour. I have thus found myself here facing a Labour Government, but I do not recall an occasion when I was told that it was my democratic duty to support Labour policies and the Labour Government on the other side of the House. That proposition, if put to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) in opposition or myself, would have been treated with ridicule and scorn. Apparently, I am now being told that despite voting as I did in the referendum, I am somehow an enemy of the people for ignoring my instructions and for sticking to the opinions that I expressed rather strongly, at least in my meetings, when I urged people to vote the other way.

I have no intention of changing my opinion on the ground. Indeed, I am personally convinced that the hard-core Eurosceptics in my party, with whom I have enjoyed debating this issue for decades, would not have felt bound in the slightest by the outcome of the referendum to abandon their arguments—[Interruption.] I do not say that as criticism; I am actually on good terms with the hard-line Eurosceptics because I respect their sincerity and the passionate nature of their beliefs. If I ever live to see my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) turn up here and vote in favour of Britain remaining in the European Union, I will retract what I say, but hot tongs would not make him vote for membership of the EU.

I must move on, but I am told that I should vote for my party as we are on a three-line Whip. I am a Conservative; I have been a decently loyal Conservative over the years. The last time I kicked over the traces was on the Lisbon treaty, when for some peculiar reason my party got itself on the wrong side of the argument, but we will pass over that. I would point out to those who say that I am somehow being disloyal to my party by not voting in favour of this Bill that I am merely propounding the official policy of the Conservative party for 50 years until 23 June 2016. I admire my colleagues who can suddenly become enthusiastic Brexiteers, having seen a light on the road to Damascus on the day that the vote was cast, but I am afraid that that light has been denied me.

I feel the spirit of my former colleague, Enoch Powell—I rather respected him, aside from one or two of his extreme views—who was probably the best speaker for the Eurosceptic cause I ever heard in this House of Commons. If he were here, he would probably find it amazing that his party had become Eurosceptic and rather mildly anti-immigrant, in a very strange way, in 2016. Well, I am afraid that, on that issue, I have not followed it, and I do not intend to do so.​

There are very serious issues that were not addressed in the referendum: the single market and the customs union. They must be properly debated. It is absurd to say that every elector knew the difference between the customs union and the single market, and that they took a careful and studied view of the basis for our future trading relations with Europe.

The fact is that I admire the Prime Minister and her colleagues for their constant propounding of the principles of free trade. My party has not changed on that. We are believers in free trade and see it as a win-win situation. We were the leading advocate of liberal economic policies among the European powers for many years, so we are free traders. It seems to me unarguable that if we put between us and the biggest free market in the world new tariffs, new regulatory barriers, new customs procedures, certificates of origin and so on, we are bound to be weakening the economic position from what it would otherwise have been, other things being equal, in future. That is why it is important that this issue is addressed in particular.

I am told that that view is pessimistic, and that we are combining withdrawal from the single market and the customs union with a great new globalised future that offers tremendous opportunities for us. Apparently, when we follow the rabbit down the hole, we will emerge in a wonderland where, suddenly, countries throughout the world are queuing up to give us trading advantages and access to their markets that we were never able to achieve as part of the European Union. Nice men like President Trump and President Erdogan are impatient to abandon their normal protectionism and give us access. Let me not be too cynical; I hope that that is right. I do want the best outcome for the United Kingdom from this process. No doubt somewhere a hatter is holding a tea party with a dormouse in the teapot.

We need success in these trade negotiations to recoup at least some of the losses that we will incur as a result of leaving the single market. If all is lost on the main principle, that is the big principle that the House must get control of and address seriously, in proper debates and votes, from now on.

I hope that I have adequately explained that my views on this issue have not been shaken very much over the decades—they have actually strengthened somewhat. Most Members, I trust, are familiar with Burke’s address to the electors of Bristol. I have always firmly believed that every MP should vote on an issue of this importance according to their view of the best national interest. I never quote Burke, but I shall paraphrase him. He said to his constituents, “If I no longer give you the benefit of my judgment and simply follow your orders, I am not serving you; I am betraying you.” I personally shall be voting with my conscience content, and when we see what unfolds hereafter as we leave the European Union, I hope that the consciences of other Members of Parliament will remain equally content.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab) I will, not surprisingly, be wholeheartedly voting to trigger article 50 tomorrow evening. I have also used my judgment. I accept that Lambeth voted overwhelmingly for remain but, as I have made it very, very clear, this was a United Kingdom referendum, not a constituency or borough-based referendum. I welcome the many letters that I have received from my constituents—a lot were very pleasant—regretting that I will vote to trigger article 50. I have also had many nasty, venomous letters, not necessarily from my constituents, but from across the country. I resent and deplore the language that has been thrown around over the past few months. It comes not just from one side. There is a tendency to think that it is only the remainers who have had some pretty awful things said about them. Pretty dreadful things have been said by some who voted to remain against people such as me who stood out against our own party. None of it is acceptable. Members all need to do their bit to ensure that we seek to improve the level of political discourse, especially over the years when we are involved in our negotiations.

Like the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash), I remember the Maastricht treaty debate, when I was a relatively new Member of Parliament. Time after time, the Labour party made us come along to vote against all the amendments but then, when it came to the final vote, we were ordered to abstain.

I welcome the speech made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer). I welcome his tone, the graveness of the way in which he put his argument, and his honesty about the difficulty that Labour faces on this issue. I am very pleased that my party has decided not to block the referendum decision; it would be a travesty if we did.

I wish to raise a couple of annoying things that people keep saying. One is that people did not know what they were voting for. It is said that those who voted to leave did not understand what that meant. That really is patronising, and it shows part of the reason why so many people voted to leave—they were fed up being treated as if they knew nothing and as if those in power knew more than them.

Mr Duncan Smith I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way, which means that I have secured her a bit more time. Does she recall that during the course of the referendum—this was certainly my experience, and I hope that it was hers—there was much more engagement, much more questioning, much more interest and a bigger turnout than at any general election in which I have ever been involved? People were really trying to find out what this was all about.

Kate Hoey The right hon. Gentleman is quite right. At the many meetings I spoke at all over the country, there was a fervent interest in the issue. People wanted to know more. I remember hearing the former Prime Minister and the former Chancellor of the Exchequer very clearly warning—not just warning, but threatening—people that if they dared to vote to leave, the consequences would be our leaving the single market. Let us not call it the single market; it is an internal market. If we are leaving the EU, of course we have to leave the internal market. I am sure that, like any other country outside the EU, we will be able to get a deal that allows us to have access to that market.

The other matter I want to raise is this idea that if someone voted to leave, they are, if not an outright racist, an indirect racist. It is ridiculous and appalling that the 17 million people who voted to leave are being treated in that way. We know that those people were against not immigrants, but the idea that people from 27 other countries—26 excluding the Republic of Ireland —could come into our country for no other reason than that they could do so. That did not apply to people outside the European Union. We betrayed the people from the Commonwealth so badly back in 1973, yet they had no right to come here. It is all about getting back control. I know that that sounds like a cliché, but it is what we are doing—taking back control of our own country.

Once we have left the European Union, we will probably have sharp disagreements in the House and not so many cross-party views on a lot of the issues. We want to build—I certainly want to build—a post-Brexit UK that looks at spending priorities that might be very different from those proposed by Members on the other side of the House. I want to look at how we can use new freedoms on state aid in our country, and in order to do that, we must trigger article 50 and get into the negotiations. Our businesses and the country generally want us to get on with it. We have left ourselves in a situation in which we are spending two days of debate on a very simple Bill. The amendments will be considered next week, one or two of which I hope the Government will accept, but the reality is that this is a process that needs to be triggered. We need to do it soon, and the public expect us to do that. I have hope that we can look forward to negotiations that will take this country not to the foreboding place that the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr Clegg) mentioned—I have no foreboding about our future outside the European Union—but to a bright future. That will happen tomorrow night when we vote to trigger article 50.