Second Reading of “Brexit Bill”: Speech of the Bishop of Southwark
The first day of the House of Lords Second Reading of the European Union (Notification for Withdrawal) Bill commenced on Monday 20 February; over 190 of their Lordships had indicated their intention to speak, including the Lord Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, whose speech is reproduced below, [emphasis added]:
“As many in your Lordships’ House are aware, my diocese covers most of South London and East Surrey. The voters there opted to remain in the European Union on 23rd June 2016 by some margin; in the Borough of Lambeth, where I live, nearly 80% of those voting opted to remain. Only in Sutton and in Surrey did votes tip the other way. What I have occasionally heard articulated, but have yet to see in action, is how are the aspirations of those people in my diocese – and indeed, if one thinks more widely, Londoners in general, or Scots, or the people of Northern Ireland or simply people under the age of 45 – be taken into account? The majority of all these voted to remain. If we adopt a model for leaving the EU, my Lords, which ignores them, then we risk a regional divide, generational resentment, and a threat to the Union.
The campaign my Lords, like that of 1975, was passionate and defining. Unlike 1975, it was crude and rode on divisions which have yet to pass away. Unlike 1975 there was no sophistication of argument in terms of what it is to be European or detail as to what the alternative narrative for our place in the world might be.
We should, my Lords, seek, to mitigate the centrifugal forces unleashed. The Prime Minister in her speech of 17th January this year spoke of our European identity. It is time both in these negotiations and without to take practical steps to recognise this simple fact of geography and cultural ties we share. We share more my Lords in common with the countries of Western Europe than we do, for example, with the United States of America. For Her Majesty’s Government to respond more positively than it has done to amendments around the residence rights of EU citizens already living here would be one such practical action but there must be others. The land border in Ireland is also of special concern. In addition there is something providential in the untapped potential of our associations with the Commonwealth, a truly global entity.
Such acts of affirmation that we are citizens of Europe would do something to assure the 48% that they are not ignored. The issue around EU residents is not simply one of a quid pro quo for the 1.2 million to 2 million British citizens in other EU countries, it is about dealing with the uncertainty that stigmatises millions of our neighbours and erodes the common good.
It is good to read, my Lords, in the Government’s White Paper, that even in the EU, that Parliament remains sovereign. It is in that light that I hope the Government will accept that persistent attempts to amend this Bill lie partly from their own resistance to Parliamentary scrutiny over the process of leaving the EU. We do not legislate by plebiscite, nor do we govern solely by decree. We have, perforce, in recent months, under pressure, under judicial direction rightly evolved a practical understanding of proper scrutiny in the second chamber based on the constitutional bedrock of the Queen-in-Parliament rather than, as hitherto, the bare exercise of the royal prerogative. As I speak, the prelates and barons who scrutinised Magna Carta are looking down upon our deliberations; so there are, my Lords, long established precedents for the solemn task entrusted to us by this Bill. Our writ of summons, my Lords, commands us to attend to assemble “for arduous and urgent affair” and to give “counsel”.
A fresh approach by the Executive toward the legislature in partnership may indeed make this time in the life of our nation a more fruitful one, not least since those with whom they must negotiate are not likely to prioritise solely economic considerations. Otherwise we may find the Government’s confidence in the ease by which a deal may be struck to be misplaced and Parliament merely a frustrated bystander.
Despite these and many other concerns shared by my colleagues on this bench about the terms of our exit and our future relationship with the EU, I recognise that the Bill before your Lordships’ House is primarily about process rather than substance.
The electorate voted last year to leave the EU. Despite the vagaries of the Referendum Act, it was clear that voters understood they were, in effect, making a decision, not simply expressing an opinion. They did so in sharply differing numbers, riven by age, income, qualifications and location. Regrettably, many parts of the country that have benefitted most from EU funding voted decisively, if quixotically, to leave.
The Bill in the form before your Lordships has passed the elected House with a large majority. The subject of what Britain’s future relationship with the EU should be, my Lords, remains an open question and should rightly be subject to intense debate and scrutiny. The Government will ease passage of this Bill if they give way as regards scrutiny, as I indicated moments ago.
It is the view of a number on these benches including my noble friend the Most Reverend Primate, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who regrets he is unable to be here today, that it would be preferable not to weigh down the Bill with additional provisions. It is for these reasons I take the view that where there is a choice on offer between Government assurances and the passing of amendments to this Bill, the more sensible course would be to bank the former and avoid the latter.”