Brexit debate - Paul Farrelly rails against 'blank cheque' for EU exit negotiations

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02 Feb 2017

I am strongly in favour of the reasoned amendments and against the Second Reading of this grudging, threadbare Bill, which will have such profound and damaging consequences for our country. Like the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), who again today proved himself to be a true statesman, I did not vote for the legislation paving the way for the referendum, so I am being entirely consistent in my opposition. I did not vote for the referendum because I thought it a reckless gamble with our country’s future by David Cameron—and so it also proved for his future.

In Stoke-on-Trent, next door to my constituency, 70% voted to leave and 30% to remain. In Newcastle-under-Lyme, after a very hard campaign, it was 60% and 40%. As this fraught, long process goes on, I have not given up on persuading another 10%, at least, in my constituency. In opposing the Bill, I am not disrespecting the opinion of the majority; I just think, on this occasion, that it is wrong. I am not failing to trust the people; I just disagree with some of them and agree with the 48% who voted to remain. What I do not trust, however, on the basis of their performance so far, is this Government to achieve the best for our country if we hand them this blank cheque of a Bill with no safeguards.

We need assurances on many areas, including on tariff-free access to the single market for our goods and services—for the ceramics industry, a major exporter in my area of the Potteries, for instance; on continued membership of the customs union, which not only aids trade in Europe but, importantly, helps to diminish non-tariff barriers to trade; on assurances on visa-free movement to and from the European continent, which we have got used to and which is so important to our people, businesses and the economy as a whole; and on guarantees that the rights of EU nationals living here and of UK nationals on the continent will be protected, not just with permanent leave to remain but with full democratic rights, so that we do not create a second class of Gastarbeiter among our populations. These are fundamental issues that the Government need to address further before being given the green light to trigger article 50.

I and other colleagues will no doubt be the target again of orchestrated abuse, as we have been since the vote in December, for being so impertinent as to even raise these issues. However, I think we can be given a bit of slack for our questioning in the mere seven months since the referendum, when my next-door neighbour, the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash), spent 40 years defying the so-called will of the people following the overwhelming vote to remain, by two thirds to a third, in the 1970s.

Let me draw to a close by mentioning a further safeguard that such a Bill needs: the guarantee of a meaningful vote on the terms that the Government negotiate before we exit the European Union. After her trip to the White House, I see that the Prime Minister was in Turkey at the weekend. There was a very effective piece of political advertising during the referendum that entirely changed the terms and the tone of the conversations that we were having in Newcastle-under-Lyme and around the country in the last few weeks of the campaign. That was the big, red banner poster that went up saying, “Turkey (population 76 million) is joining the EU—Vote Leave”. It was not, of course, and it is not. That was a lie, but the only question that we were asked from then on was, “What are you going to do about the Turks?” It was simply impossible to convince people during the referendum that it was indeed a lie.

The peddling of myths and falsehoods during the referendum is a very good reason why there should be a second, meaningful vote on the terms of departure—a vote on the facts and not the fictions. Quite frankly, this House and the country deserve better than the type of vote that has been promised so far by the Prime Minister, which is, “My way or the highway”. That is simply not good enough.

When I was growing up, in my late teens and early 20s, I used to organise international youth exchanges. Every summer, teenagers from all parts of Europe gathered to tend war graves in Berlin, where the wounds of conflict were still fresh and the cold war divided the city by a wall. I did that because in Staffordshire, at Cannock Chase by the Commonwealth war memorial, we have the German war graves. I have worked closely with the German War Graves Commission over many years. For me personally, co-operating with Europe is about much more than simple prosperity. I would simply not be doing the right thing by my conscience, nor would it be in the interests of the country or what I believe to be the interests of the people I represent, if I voted for this flimsy Bill. I do not support leaving the European Union and I think this Bill is too blank a cheque for this Government.