EU (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill – speech by Bishop of Southwark

On 20th February 2017 the House of Lords held the first in a two-day debate on the Government’s EU (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill. The Bill would give the Government authority to begin the process of withdrawal from the European Union. The Bishop of Southwark, Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, spoke in the debate:


The Lord Bishop of Southwark:As many in your Lordships’ House are aware, my diocese covers most of south London and east Surrey. The voters there opted to remain in the European Union on 23 June 2016 by some margin; in the borough of Lambeth, where I live, nearly 80% of those voting opted to remain. Only in Sutton and in Surrey did votes tip the other way. What I have occasionally heard articulated, but have yet to see in action, is how the aspirations of those people—and indeed, if one thinks more widely, Londoners in general, or Scots, or the people of Northern Ireland or simply people under the age of 45—are to be taken into account. The majority of all these groups voted to remain. If we adopt a model for leaving the EU that ignores them, we risk a regional divide, generational resentment and a threat to the union.

The campaign, like that of 1975, was passionate and defining. Unlike 1975, it rode on divisions which have yet to pass away. Unlike 1975, there was little sophistication of argument in terms of what it is to be European, or detail as to what the alternative narrative for our place in the world might be. We should seek to mitigate the centrifugal forces unleashed. The Prime Minister, in her speech of 17 January, spoke of our European identity. It is time, both in these negotiations and without, to take practical steps to recognise this simple fact of geography and the cultural ties we share.

Arguably, we have more in common with the countries of western Europe than we do, for example, with the United States of America. For Her Majesty’s Government to respond more positively than they have done to amendments on the residence rights of EU citizens already living here would be one such practical action, but there must be others. The land border in Ireland is also of special concern. In addition, there is something providential in the untapped potential of our associations with the Commonwealth, a truly global entity. Such acts of affirmation that we are citizens of Europe would do something to assure the 48% that they are not ignored.

The issue around EU residents is not simply one of a quid pro quo for the 1.2 million to 2 million British citizens in other EU countries; it is about dealing with the uncertainty that stigmatises millions of our neighbours and erodes the common good.

It is good to read in the Government’s White Paper that, even in the EU, Parliament remains sovereign. It is in that light that I hope the Government will accept that the origins of persistent attempts to amend this Bill lie partly in their own resistance to parliamentary scrutiny of the process of leaving the EU. We do not legislate by plebiscite, nor do we govern solely by decree. We have, perforce, in recent months, under pressure and under judicial direction, rightly evolved a practical understanding of proper scrutiny in the second Chamber based on the constitutional bedrock of the Queen in Parliament rather than, as hitherto, the bare exercise of the royal prerogative. As I speak, the Prelates and Barons who scrutinised Magna Carta are looking down upon our deliberations, so there are long established precedents for the solemn task entrusted to us by the Bill. Our Writ of Summons commands us to attend to assemble for “arduous and urgent affairs” and to give “counsel”.

A fresh approach by the Executive of partnership with the legislature may indeed make this time in the life of our nation much more fruitful, not least because those with whom they must negotiate are not likely to prioritise solely economic considerations; otherwise, we may find that the Government’s confidence in the ease with which a deal may be struck is misplaced, and Parliament will be merely a frustrated bystander. Despite these and many other concerns shared by my colleagues on this Bench about the terms of our exit and our future relationship with the EU, I recognise that the Bill before your Lordships’ House is primarily about process rather than substance.

The electorate voted last year to leave the EU. Despite the vagaries of the European Union Referendum Act, it was clear that voters understood that they were, in effect, making a decision, not merely expressing an opinion. They did so in sharply differing numbers riven by age, income, qualifications and location. Regrettably, many parts of the country that have most benefited from EU funding voted decisively, if quixotically, to leave. The Bill in the form in which it comes before your Lordships passed the elected House with a large majority. The subject of what Britain’s future relationship with the EU should be remains an open question and should rightly be subject to intense debate and scrutiny. The Government will ease the Bill’s passage if they give way on scrutiny. It is the view of a number on these Benches, including my noble friend the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, who regrets that he is unable to be here today, that it would be preferable not to weigh down the Bill with additional provisions. For these reasons, I take the view that, where there is a choice on offer between government assurances and the passing of amendments to the Bill, the more sensible course would be to bank the former and avoid the latter.