How Liberal Democrat Lords stood up for the British people – Jonny Oates

In a few years’ time, when people may well be wondering why Parliament didn’t stop the Government in its reckless pursuit of the most damaging brexit possible, it will be clear who stood up for their rights. As Labour crumbled in farce, Liberal Democrat peers stood firm for the rights of the EU nationals who are are parents, neighbours, partners, co-workers and against the Government. The Lib Dem lords did all they could to prevent the disaster.

Here is Jonny Oates’ speech when pressing the issue to a vote.

My Lords, I move this Motion for the following reasons. First, despite the large majority that voted for the amendment to the Bill in this House, the Government have failed to make any concessions and not even attempted to address the many issues raised by noble Lords in Committee. Secondly, the profound nature of the issue at stake should make us think very carefully before we concede. This debate is not over some arcane technicality or some petty, partisan disagreement; it is about people’s lives. It is about whether people will be allowed to live in the country that they have made their home with the people for whom they care, whether they can stay in a job or plan a career, and whether their children can remain in the school they know and study with the friends they have made. It is about their futures, their homes and their families, and it is about the fear and misery being caused by every further day of uncertainty.

Thirdly, we should weigh our decision very carefully, because this debate is also about the integrity of our country. It is about whether we will honour the unequivocal commitment made by the official Vote Leave campaign that, if the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, the rights of all EU citizens in the UK would be guaranteed. Unlike most other issues arising from the referendum, there is absolutely no dispute about what was promised to EU citizens. The Vote Leave campaign, which was supported by a number of noble Lords, made the following categorical statement:

“There will be no change for EU citizens already lawfully resident in the UK. These EU citizens will automatically be granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK and will be treated no less favourably than they are at present”.

There were no caveats; there was no issue of reciprocity or talk of negotiations—just a categorical commitment unilaterally given.

Finally, this debate is about the role of this House. Precedent indicates that, when the rights of individuals have been threatened, this House has always been robust in its defence of them. I hope that we will live up to that precedent today. The facts are clear: a firm and explicit commitment was made by the Vote Leave campaign that the rights of EU citizens in the UK would be protected. Parliamentary committees of both Houses agree that a unilateral guarantee should be provided now, and all the bodies representing British citizens in the EU who have contacted me and many other Members of this House have supported that position

It is clear that, if we do not insist on our amendment, there is a real possibility that EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU may not have clarity as to  their status for another two years. The House of Commons Exiting the EU Committee rightly described such a situation as unconscionable. I understand the nervousness of some noble Lords about challenging the elected House on this matter, but to those who argue that it is not the right time for us to insist on our amendment, that this Bill is the wrong place for us to insist or that precedent tells us that we should not insist, I respectfully argue the contrary. Your Lordships’ EU Justice Sub-Committee and the House of Commons Exiting the EU Committee unanimously agreed that the UK should act unilaterally and that the time to act was now. This Bill is the only place to act if we are to end the debilitating uncertainty that is causing so much distress.

The Minister says that we have the right to amend the Bill; we also have a right to insist on our amendments, and precedent tells us that we should—that when issues of important principle or individual rights are at stake, your Lordships’ House can and does insist on its position and, if necessary, repeatedly pushes the issue back to the Commons. It did so on the 2014 Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, and on the 2012 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. It did so no fewer than three times over the 2007 Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill, no fewer than four times over the 2006 Identity Cards Bill and no fewer than five time over the 2005 Prevention of Terrorism Bill. It has regularly insisted on amendments to Bills when far less was at stake than today: on the powers of the Learning and Skills Council; or the means by which the chairman of the Legal Services Board is appointed; or even on the fitting of retro-reflective tape—whatever that is—on heavy goods vehicles.

How then, when the rights of millions of people are on the line, could this House give up at the first attempt? How, when clear and unequivocal commitments were made to EU citizens in our country, could this House fail to insist that they are upheld? How, when the integrity of our country is at stake, could this House fail to insist that it is upheld? Many people will be watching us tonight: we cannot please them all, but we can show them that no matter what the pressures from the media or the threats from the Government may be, we are prepared to do what we know to be the right thing. I have no doubt that the right thing is to insist on this amendment to protect the rights of EU citizens in the UK and, in doing so, to uphold the honour and integrity of this country. I beg to move.

And here is his summing up at the end of the debate:

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, for his principled advocacy ​on this issue, but I must confess I cannot follow the constitutional argument that he and other noble Lords have made that somehow we cannot insist to the elected House. I could understand it if this House never insisted, or if the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, never voted to insist against the will of the elected House, but he knows that is not the case. I wonder why on this issue of such vital importance to so many people we should not.

Intervention from Lord Cormack (Conservative)

Perhaps I can answer the noble Lord. Yes, we agree on the fundamentals of the issue, but this is a constitutional matter. What is the point of prolonging a time-sensitive Bill, on which the fortunes of so many ultimately depend, merely to have the satisfaction of being soundly beaten in the Lobbies?

Jonny Oates continues:

Whether we are soundly beaten in the Lobbies is a matter for noble Lords. It is not, with respect, a matter for the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. I seek to put my argument and I hope to convince people. None the less, I pay tribute to the advocacy he has given so far and to all noble Lords who have made this issue crucial.

I am sorry that the Government continue to refuse to do the right things. I am sorry that they failed to make any concessions, or answer any of the questions that were put to them in Committee. I am particularly sorry that, as a result, they intend to allow the fear and uncertainty of millions of EU and UK citizens to continue. But the Minister, to be fair to him, has been given an impossible job defending the indefensible and I respect the skill with which he does it. What I cannot respect are the seven current Cabinet Ministers who backed the Vote Leave campaign which made an unequivocal, unilateral commitment to EU citizens during the referendum campaign—a commitment that has been betrayed. I hope that all noble Lords who supported and were involved in Vote Leave will think about that commitment, which they made without caveats or conditions.

That is the Government’s position. What I do not understand is the position taken by the Labour Front Bench in the House today, but I recognise that it will be as bewildering to many Labour Members as it is to me. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, that if you want to get the ball back across the net, it is very important not to drop the bat before you get there. The Labour Party has a key role in the way things are decided in this House. If it was prepared to stand behind this and insist, there would be a greater chance of success.

Last Tuesday, the Leader of the Labour Peers, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, made great play of attacking the Liberal Democrats, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, has done. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, asked how we could oppose the Bill given how extraordinarily important the amendment on citizens’ rights was. I voted that the Bill should not pass because I firmly believe that we should not begin withdrawal negotiations until there is a mechanism for the people to have a final say on the outcome of those negotiations.

There were two things also on my mind when I went through the Division Lobby: first, the Government were making it crystal clear, even at that stage, that they would concede nothing in regard to the amendments; ​and secondly, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, had already indicated that if the Bill was returned to this House, she would concede everything.

Intervention from Baroness Smith:

The noble Lord is absolutely wrong on that point. If he is going to quote me, he should do so correctly. I have always said that in this House we respect the primacy of the other place. We said that there should be no extended ping-pong but that we would listen to what the Commons had to say. If the noble Lord really believes that by voting for this Motion tonight he will change the mind of the other place, then he can go ahead but do not give false hope to people who rely on this House to make a point to get the other side to think again. It is no good noble Lords opposite cheering me—you got us into this mess.

The noble Baroness’s argument makes no sense at all. She has voted in many Divisions insisting on amendments when she knew they had no chance of success. It turns out that many of the amendments she voted for in the past to insist to the Commons when it was not going to give in were more important than this amendment. I am sorry about that and bewildered by it.

I hope that noble Lords of all parties and none will on this occasion pay attention to their conscience rather than their party Whip and join us in the Division Lobby. In view of the importance of this issue to millions of EU and UK citizens, I would like to test the opinion of the House.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Andrew McCaig 17th Mar '17 - 5:47pm

    In my constituency there are over 2300 people on the electoral register who can vote in local but not national Elections. A glance at the surnames shows they are overwhelmingly from continental Europe. Now is surely the time to recruit these people, forgotten by the government and rejected by the 52% (whether intentionally or unintentionally) to our cause!

  • Stood firm on EU nationals in the UK but totally ignored UK nationals living in the EU.

    Are UK nationals second class citizens as far as the Lords is concerned ?

  • @John – agree, but also note that the Commons and especially all those backbench Conservatives who fought so hard for the “return of sovereignty” failed to stand up for “the will of the people” and assert the sovereignty of Parliament over the executive; just as they repeatedly did when previous EU treaties were put before them…

  • @john the UK parliament cannot legislate for the EU27 nations. But we can protect EU citizens living here so that the EU27 will reciprocate in kind.

  • Andrew McCaig 18th Mar '17 - 1:42pm

    If we had taken the high ground on EU nationals the 27 would have reciprocated. But if they had been foolish enough to do otherwise we should have found something else to bargain with, not people’s future and security.

    I do not trust St. Theresa one inch not to threaten to abandon EU citizens in return for some other perceived slight over contributions or whatever. Not in public of course….

  • @Red Liberal & Andrew McCaig – The Amendment as it stood was a bit daft, what some advised was that the amendment be modified to make it conditional on the EU extnding the same rights to UK nationals living in the EU, this firmly putting the onus back on the EU; where it belongs…

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