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Yes, Labour Wants To Hold Ministers To Account Over Brexit - But The Prime Minister Must Engage The Expertise In Both Houses

16/03/2017 09:25
POOL New / Reuters

There's little doubt that the referendum result and the process of triggering Article 50 has been bruising for Labour.

It wasn't only the Conservatives that didn't make plans for a vote to Brexit - we hadn't either. That's less of a dereliction of duty than the government that held the referendum and failed to prepare for either outcome. Nonetheless, we didn't have a clear strategy of how to respond to a vote to leave.

While the Tories foolishly enjoy the trauma many in our party have felt over the result, they should be wary of gloating. To assert that what unites us is greater than what divides us has rarely been more apt. Yes we disagree on tactics and approach but there is little disagreement on the potential perils and pitfalls that lie ahead. And there is widespread agreement that the inadequacy - so far - of Ministers' responses, the lack of planning, and the absence of any coherent answers on some of the most serious issues, provides little confidence in the government.

As we prepare for the next stages of Brexit, Labour's united work as a party must not just be about exposing government inadequacies - the latest of which is the Brexit Secretary's admission that no assessment has been made of the costs of failing to achieve a deal with the EU. We must also offer and promote an alternative vision of our place in Europe and how this can be achieved.

So when the bill to trigger Article 50 was passed this week, there was little cheer at Westminster from either side of the argument. Only the most ideologically ardent leavers fail to appreciate the scale of the issues to be dealt with and resolved in an almost absurdly short window of time.

For Labour in the Lords, we took great pride in our two amendments that, having been initiated by our Labour team in the Commons, were passed with massive majorities in the second chamber. Firstly, a majority of 102 for a unilateral guarantee on rights for EU nationals resident in the UK, strongly supported by so many of our own citizens living elsewhere in Europe. And then, in the interests of the sovereignty we've heard so much about, a majority of 98 - in the largest ever turn out for a Lords vote - for Parliament to have the final say on the outcome of negotiations.

Many Peers didn't come into the chamber with fixed positions, so the quality of the debate on the legal implications as well as the ethical and pragmatic considerations really mattered.

Such large majorities, with support from all sides of the House, were a serious moral and constitution highpoint. As the Bill returned to the Commons, we were optimistic of either a much improved position from the government, or a significantly better vote in favour; particularly given the number of Conservative MPs who had been both publicly and privately very supportive of our position.

Despite all of this, strong legal advice from senior and distinguished lawyers that Parliament would need an amendment or new legislation to conclude the outcome of the negotiations was ignored. Information from the worlds of science, academia and health of the dangers of EU workers, from all levels, leaving the country and creating serious skills shortages were also ignored. And pleas for pragmatic common sense fell on deaf ears.

Ministers, having previously conceded the principle on both issues, remained stubbornly opposed to any amendments claiming they needed 'a clean bill'.

With others in the Labour Lords team, I watched the debates anxiously. This was our best opportunity to get a change in the Bill. Would more MPs reject the government's arguments and support our amendments on just these two key issues? As the results came through, it was clear that the expected and much heralded support had melted away. Not one Conservative MP voted for the parliamentary sovereignty amendment and just two on EU nationals. The government increased its majority on both issues.

So back to the Lords came the unamended Bill.

It was a harsh reality to accept that there was now no possibility of getting the amendments through. The Commons, as the elected House, rightly always has the final say - and on this occasion, it was not going to change its mind.

We could have made a stand on the principle again - but having already done so with such large majorities, nothing could better that. Averaging 100 across the two votes, this should stand as a testament to the strength of opinion in our chamber. Results that were cheered on by our colleagues in the Commons and the wider public outside.

Had we taken a further stand, all we would have been able to do is delay the passage of the bill by a few hours, offer false hope that somehow we could change the Bill, and end up with dwindling majorities on issues we cared about. A slow death for a passionate and principled argument.

It was then that the Liberal Democrats, despite knowing that there was nothing to be achieved on the two issues, chose to vote again. All the more puzzling, given that a week earlier they had voted to try to stop MPs debating our successful amendments.

Crossbench Peer David Pannick, the lawyer who took the case on parliamentary sovereignty and whose commitment cannot be questioned by anyone, refused to support them, telling the House: "For the Liberal Democrats to press this matter... is a completely pointless gesture, and I for my part cannot support it."

Lord Pannick added that this was just the start of the process. Indeed, it is and what comes next could define our country for a generation.

My colleague Dianne Hayter, our Shadow Brexit Minister in the Lords, then made it clear that our commitment to these issues does not diminish or go away. Making a difference is what matters and what drives us - rather than 'pointless gestures'. She also flagged up that there are 'imaginative' ways to return to these issues. And so there are, and today we have tabled two Brexit-related motions for debate and votes if necessary in the House of Lords.

The first, in Dianne's name, calls on the government to report to Peers and MPs by the end of the current parliamentary session on progress made towards ensuring the rights of EU nationals resident in the UK, as well as those from other EEA countries.

The second, in my name, asks for a joint Committee of both Houses to consider and report on the terms and options for Parliament's meaningful vote on the outcome of the negotiations.

I hope the government takes these motions in the spirit that they've been tabled. Yes, Labour wants to hold Ministers to account over the guarantees and assurances they have given to date. But we can also be useful, and I would encourage the Prime Minister to engage the expertise and knowledge that sits in both Houses - on our benches and elsewhere. You never know, it might just help strengthen her negotiating hand.

Baroness Smith is Labour's leader in the House of Lords

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