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Baroness Smith: Labour peers have brought hard, factual realism to the Brexit debate

4 min read

Labour peers have worked tirelessly to hold ministers to account amid a Brexit debate too often lacking in hard, factual realism. As we search for a way out of this mess, both Houses of Parliament must play a greater role in healing the wounds of the past few years and restoring public trust in politics, writes Baroness Smith

While I’m one of life’s great optimists, this season of political party conferences is taking place at a time of unprecedented uncertainty and division for our country.

With just a few months to go in the Brexit negotiations, the government remains unable to provide a credible description of how we will depart from the European Union. It did briefly look like the prime minister had united her cabinet around a way forward with her Chequers paper. But the ink was barely dry before the plans began to unravel. Cabinet ministers briefed against it, the Brexit and foreign secretaries resigned, and Mrs May capitulated to the European Research Group in an attempt to pacify hardline Brexiteers.

As we now head apparently towards a ‘blindfold Brexit’, confidence in the government’s competence to deliver on its promises is testing all but the most devoted Tory loyalists.

Labour members of the House of Lords, meanwhile, working with peers from all parties and none, have brought hard, factual realism to the Brexit debate. The role of an unelected chamber is rightly limited, but it can be useful.

Detailed committee reports on the implications of Brexit for trade, agriculture and the Irish border, for example, have become invaluable. Successful votes on legislative amendments provide opportunities for MPs – and the government – to reconsider, often in the light of new information.

Much of our work is meticulous and unglamorous, and some among our most hard-working colleagues rarely get the credit they deserve in the media. There are few days when peers are not addressing some aspect of Brexit and seeking a response from the government. Too often the replies are inadequate – not because ministers are wilfully withholding information, but because they just don’t know the answers. In too many cases, nobody does!

Despite loud protestations about the Lords from some of the most ardent Brexiteers, it is this forensic work that even the government admits is valuable. On the EU Withdrawal Bill, we sent 15 amendments back to the Commons for further debate, with nearly all of these accepted in whole or in part.

In my time as leader of the Labour peers group, we have successfully challenged the government on a wide range of key issues – on tax credits, secure tenancies, energy prices, child refugees and the appalling Trade Union Bill. But there is no doubt that our time and energy – like that of MPs, civil servants and some of our greatest policy minds – has been consumed by the implications of leaving the EU.

Across the country, meanwhile, so many of our fellow citizens are struggling on low incomes and insecure work. They and their families face challenges of homelessness, mental health, major problems in our health and social care system, drastic cuts to police and school budgets, violent crime and so many other issues. Some have little hope for the future.

So, the tragedy of Brexit is not just the uncertainty and division it has created, but that so much effort has gone into managing the process while failing to deal with so many of the strategic issues affecting everyday lives.

Big promises such as £350m a week for the NHS are now derided for the nonsense they were, but the problems they were meant to address remain.

Ever the optimist, I’m looking for a way through the current mess – a way that doesn’t leave the outcome in the hands of those with an over confident ‘it’ll be alright on the night’ view of Brexit. Or indeed, with those trying to lower the bar of expectation by professing that a no-deal would not be the end of the world.

That requires parliament playing a greater – more meaningful – role to settle our economy, heal the wounds of the past few years, and restore public confidence in politics. It will require heavy lifting in both houses – but whatever the next year brings, I’m more than confident that our peers will step up to the plate.

Baroness Smith of Basildon is shadow leader of the House of Lords

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