Lib Dem Lords vs the Article 50 Bill: Andrew Stunell: Hard Brexit will cripple the construction industry

The Lib Dem Lords have made some cracking contributions to the debate on the Article 50 Bill. Ahead of its next Lords stages, we’re bringing you all the Lib Dem contributions over the course of this weekend. That’s no mean feat. There were 32 of them and cover more than 30,000 words. You are not expected to read every single one of them as they appear. Nobody’s going to be testing you or anything. However, they will be there to refer to in the future. 

Our Lords excelled themselves. Their contributions were thoughtful, individual, well-researched and wide-ranging and it’s right that we present them in full on this site to help the historian of the future. 

Andrew Stunell started by pointing out one irony. The Lords making the most noise about democracy and how the Lords had to do what the Government had said because it was the will of the people were the very ones who argued against the Lords being reformed and elected.

His main point was about the effect on the construction industry of Brexit. Government plans require it to grow by 35%, yet the many combined effects of Brexit would cause it to shrink.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Davies, has given me a wonderful introduction to what I was going to say in any case. Leaving the European Union is strongly against the long-term interests of the United Kingdom and it will hit hardest those citizens who rely most heavily on public services for the well-being of themselves and their families, and for whom economic prosperity is crucial for their job, the roof over their head and the money to pay for the services on which they depend. Several noble Lords have urged us to surrender the best interests of those hard-pressed citizens without a fight, misusing words like “democracy” and “accountability” to do so. But it is not anti-democratic to speak up for the views and interests of the 16 million people on the remain side of the debate, and it would be anti-democratic to leave their voices unheard in Parliament.

However, I also note a paradox. The same noble Lords who complain so bitterly about those of us in the House who have the temerity to speak up and say that Brexit will leave Britain weaker and poorer, diminished abroad and shrivelled at home, are also, almost without exception, against this House actually being representative of public opinion. While my noble friends have consistently advocated and fought for the democratic accountability of this place, our critics in this debate have argued over the years that a representative and accountable second House is the last thing they want to see.

The paradox is that those calling for our surrender to populism today do not believe that this House should represent the public, and have often set out their view that the Lords’ role is best understood as moderating the headstrong impulses of the mob with a strong dose of rationality and expertise. Indeed, just a few moments ago the noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury, said that we are famous for our evidence-based approach to issues that come before us. That is exactly what I and my colleagues are doing and will continue to do throughout this whole damaging and self-harming process.

That is why I will use the remainder of my limited time to focus on one very important but so far ignored sector: the construction industry. I remind the House that the Conservative Government are committed to delivering, among other things: 1 million new homes by 2020; large-scale school expansion and prison-rebuilding programmes; the three Hs of Hinkley Point, Heathrow 3 and High Speed 2; the northern powerhouse and a massive rail electrification programme; and, of course, a boom in exports across the world, needing new factories, workshops, laboratories, roads and ports.

Last November, the Exiting the EU Select Committee in the other place took evidence from the Brexit Infrastructure Group, led by Sir John Armitt, the past president of the Institution of Civil Engineers that to deliver all those things in a timely fashion, the construction industry needs to expand its capacity by 35% over the next decade. To deliver the Government’s investment programme, the construction industry has to grow by 35%. But to deliver the Government’s hard Brexit policy, cutting all access to EU 27 workers, would cause it to shrink by 9%.

Construction is bigger than aerospace and vehicle manufacture combined, contributing around 8% of UK GDP, but of course enabling far more. According to the ONS it employed 200,000 EU 27 workers in 2016—9% of its labour force. In London, EU 27 workers form 54% of the construction workforce, at every level, from top engineers and designers to site labourers. Just to maintain current construction output, EU 27 labour is essential, and the first step must therefore be to safeguard the position of those already here if output is not to decline steeply. To deliver the Government’s infrastructure and housing targets will require more migrant workers, not fewer.

However, that is not all. UK construction projects benefit from the tariff-free flow of goods from the EU 27, with one-third of all materials and construction products, including 90% of timber, imported from them. Therefore the mutual recognition of standards and qualifications, and a zero tariff, should be taken as givens in maintaining frictionless trade with the EU, and as essential if the construction sector is to grow in capacity and deliver the Government’s investment programme. A hard Brexit will certainly not be frictionless for the construction industry.

The Government’s response to this so far has been to downgrade construction in their negotiating strategy. In a list of 50 industrial sectors—where the grades are essential, important and low priority—construction appears as low priority, while the Government’s industrial strategy White Paper is silent on how to recruit and skill up the UK workforce needed to replace the 70,000 construction workers who retire each year, let alone how to plug the 200,000 gap when the EU 27 workers leave—and the 35% increase in capacity to deliver the Government’s infrastructure and housing objectives comes on top of that. A hard Brexit will cripple the construction industry and will leave the UK diminished and hamstrung. This Bill should go no further.


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One Comment

  • 32 is I think over three times as many Lib Dem peers as spoke on second reading of the referendum bill when a lot of points over second referenda etc could have been raised. Or indeed they could have opposed the Bill (which got an unopposed second reading)

    In particular there was an amendment (28) at report stage (which was withdrawn) requiring the government to produce a “Report on the consequences of United Kingdom withdrawal from the European Union” prior to the referendum detailing among other things the impact on Universities, devolved government, EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU. I don’t see why that wasn’t pressed to a vote.

    Ultimately Lib Dem objections as to what happens post referendum do flounder on the question of “well why did you vote for the referendum then?”

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