Baroness Smith: We will not block Article 50 – but we will ensure ministers keep their promises
Scrutiny of the Brexit process is being met with howls of 'constitutional outrage’. But the House of Lords will not be intimidated into neglecting its responsibilities
Like most politicians I’m a bit of a news junkie, although like others who suffer from email and information overload an article may be fascinating at the time, but soon forgotten as we move onto another day and different stories.
Two items from the past few weeks, however, have made an impact on me and seem so very relevant to the issues that our country is now facing.
The first was a report by the Social Market Foundation and CAGE that the year when people were happiest was 1957. That year has resonance for me, as my parents met, then married, in 1958 and had their first child, me, in 1959. And there’s no doubt that despite poor housing, low wages and all the other issues facing a young married couple they were happy times. But why?
It was a time of hope and optimism. Like all other adults they’d been born or lived through the Second World War, loved ones had been killed and possessions were few. For most there were few opportunities.
But they were certain that they would see peace, had better prospects and that their children’s lives would be better. How many people feel that today?
Few in their late teens, twenties or early thirties will talk with such optimism and hope for the future. We should not underestimate their anxiety and fears. It’s not just about leaving the EU, although that is undoubtedly a large part of their uncertainty – it’s also about getting a job, affording a home, and a sense of alarm that our country and the world seems to be getting more and more divided.
The second item appeared in The Daily Telegraph and was just the latest in a long list of articles seeking to make the Lords a battleground for the triggering of Article 50. No matter how many times it’s made clear that a second, unelected Chamber is not going to wreck the Bill, there always seems to be government ‘source’ or unnamed minister willing to threaten the House with suspension, a thousand new (Tory) colleagues or some such nonsense.
But it was the tone of some of the quotes in this piece that I found so disturbing. It spoke about letting the Lords talk “until they wet themselves” and introducing a new class of “sunset peers” that could be brought in to get the Bill through before disappearing back from whence they came. (No-one seemed to have twigged that it would take at least two years to introduce them to the House).
Reports meanwhile of possible amendments around the issues of parliamentary scrutiny as the Brexit process moves forward are met with howls of ‘constitutional outrage’. We witnessed under David Cameron a government that so feared challenge and hated scrutiny that it sought to curb the Lords on Secondary Legislation after being asked to reconsider their position on tax credits (which they then did!).
So let’s be very clear. As I have said so many times before, we will not block or frustrate the Article 50 Bill.
But notwithstanding the truncated timetable imposed by the government, we will treat it as we do all primary legislation, giving it due and proper scrutiny, looking at possible improvements, encouraging ministers to makes changes, and possibly referring it back to the Commons for further debate.
In doing so, we may retable or develop Labour amendments, to reflect the need for Parliamentary engagement during the process leading to our leaving the EU. And we will work, as we always do, with others across the Lords – including backbench Conservatives – to achieve the best possible outcome.
As we’ve seen with the Commons votes, there will be some exaggerated ‘outrage’ from those most enthusiastic supporters of Brexit who see even asking the most simple of questions as an affront to democracy. But we cannot allow ourselves to be intimidated into not fulfilling our responsibilities.
Article 50 is just the start, not the end of the process. As well as the EU negotiations, we will have the so-called ‘Great Repeal’ Bill.
During that framework Bill, and the raft of secondary legislation that will follow in its wake, many in the Lords will be working to ensure ministers keep promises not to dilute employment and social rights, environment and consumer protections. And the ongoing work of the Lords select committees in examining the issues to be addressed in trade, financial services, security, police co-operation and fisheries for example will be of significant value to the government throughout and beyond the Brexit process.
Given the government is playing catch up on Brexit, having distracted itself – and Parliament – with a challenge to the court ruling, and dithered on the White Paper, we now need a more grown up and inclusive approach from the prime minister. One that welcomes scrutiny and respects both Houses of Parliament.
Baroness Smith of Basildon is a Labour peer and shadow leader of the House of Lords