Lib Dem Lords vs the Article 50 Bill: John Lee: Treating EU nationals like pawns is immoral and demeaning

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. 

Former Tory MP John Lee slammed the government over its failure to offer the right to stay to EU nationals.  He also became one of the few Lib Dem rebels. He doesn’t support our position on a referendum although that seems to be because he thinks the right wing press would stir up trouble.

My Lords, increasing anti-European sentiment was a prime reason for me to bid farewell to the Conservative Party in 1997, 20 years ago, after 13 years as a Member of Parliament, from 1979 to 1992. That sentiment continued unabated, and finally resulted in the 2015 Conservative manifesto commitment, and of course the 23 June referendum. At the referendum, a simple question was put: in or out? There were no sub-questions on hard or soft Brexit, the single market or the customs union. Of course, there were exaggerations and untruths, many voted for all sorts of reasons, and many did not realise all the implications. But all that, I am afraid, is true of all elections and referendums. As we now know, there was a clear, albeit small, majority to leave—a decision I bitterly regret in so many ways, and a tragedy both for our country and for Europe. Looking back, the referendum was fundamentally flawed. Clearly, we should have given young people a vote—after all, it is their future—and I suggest that a higher barrier to leave than just a simple majority would have made sense. However, all that is hindsight; we are where we are.

It is fair to say, as a remainer, that our economy and financial markets have held up rather better than expected in the short term, but we are just in the foothills of negotiations. Tortuous paths lie ahead. I fear that Europe will ensure that we pay a heavy price for leaving, not least to discourage other countries from following us. However, we are already experiencing some of the negatives: a fall in sterling, resulting in rising inflation, which increasingly pressurises family budgets; a vile rise in hate crimes; uncertainties over future investment plans of major international companies; and a question mark over London as the dominant financial centre. However, one plus is that cosmetic surgery, apparently, has fallen 40% since Brexit, although I know of no reason for that and will not go down the route of speculation.

So far, the Government have hardly covered themselves in glory. Parliamentary scrutiny had to be forced on them by the courts, and they would have gained considerable respect by coming out early to guarantee that EU nationals living and working here would have a permanent right of abode. To treat them like pawns in a negotiation is immoral and demeaning. In practice, many of our key sectors, such as hospitality, caring, food processing and agriculture, are dependent on them remaining here.

There are those—a majority on these Benches—who argue for a further popular vote at the end of negotiations: a destination vote, or similar. But however it is dressed up, it will be seen as a second referendum. I cannot support that. Our people have already spoken. A further vote will prolong the uncertainty and cause uproar in the country, or worse. Fanned by a hostile popular press, it would only widen the gulf between the establishment and the population—the very gap that many on these Benches have been striving so hard to bridge. Noble Lords will be able to see why I am sitting so far away from our Chief Whip.

We are a revising Chamber, acknowledging the primacy of the Commons. It voted overwhelmingly—that is, by 494 votes to 122—to trigger Article 50. I submit that calling for those already here to be allowed to stay falls within our scrutinising and revising jurisdiction; but a call for a further popular vote goes way beyond it.


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