Leaving the European Union
Neil Coyle Excerpts
Monday 1st April 2019

(1 year ago)

Westminster Hall
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Department for Exiting the European Union
Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Ind) Hansard
1 Apr 2019, 6:27 p.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe.

“If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy.”

Those are not my words, but those of our first Brexit Secretary, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), who is one of many. The ability to change one’s mind is a beautiful thing and something that we should particularly value in parliamentarians. As Maynard Keynes said:

“When the facts change, I change my mind.”

Having a sealed mind—the inability to change one’s mind—is something that we should be very careful about. That is where we are at the moment, I am afraid. We are in a situation in which people seem incapable of changing their mind, but the public are not.

It is very difficult to quote a figure for the number of people who have signed the petition to revoke article 50, because it is changing. When we started the debate, it was 6,036,045, but the last time I checked—a couple of minutes ago—it was 6,037,286. Some 10,804 of those signatories are in my constituency, which is almost 16% of the electorate. I pay tribute to the 355 people who signed the petition to leave with or without a deal, because we should recognise their voices in the debate. I also pay tribute to the 496 people who signed the petition for the second referendum.

There are lots of reasons to change one’s mind. A good reason to change one’s mind is that the circumstances have changed. Another is that one has looked at the evidence. I come to this seeing both sides of the debate, because I started out—originally, when the referendum campaign was launched—as a soft-leave Eurosceptic. However, as Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee, I heard the evidence of harm week in, week out, and I came to the view that I was wrong. I was not afraid to say that. In fact, many colleagues said to me, “Don’t tell people that you’ve changed your mind. Just put a cross in a different box. It will be very bad for your political career if you change your mind.” It is astonishing that we have come to that—that parliamentarians are not honest and are not prepared to change their mind when they have looked at the evidence.

We focus on the idea that this is all about a WTO Brexit and trade, but from chairing the Health and Social Care Committee it became obvious to me that there is clear evidence of harm to social care, science and research from unpicking a close relationship that has brought enormous benefits for more than four decades. I looked at the harm that Brexit would cause to science and research. There is no version of Brexit that will benefit science and research, improve the situation for our health and social care workforce, or do anything positive for NHS funding.

Of course, the biggest, most remembered non-fact of all the referendum campaign was the £350 million a week for the NHS that never was. Those who led the leave campaign not only know that that was wrong, but valued the fact that people were quoting that figure and that there was a debate. I was in rooms with people who said to me, “Yes, we know the fact is wrong. It’s not a fact. It’s a gross figure, rather than a net figure,” but they were prepared to keep saying it. Many of those people now sit on the Front Bench. It is quite extraordinary.

We must consider the big picture and the extent to which people were misled knowingly and deliberately during the referendum campaign. We must consider the very real evidence that has emerged in every area of the degree of harm. We must be honest about the fact that there were many different versions of Brexit. I am a former clinician—I have said this before—and it would be ridiculous to take someone into an operating theatre more than 1,000 days after they had signed a vague consent form for an operation of some sort. The surgeon would be struck off. The surgeon in this case, I am afraid, is our Prime Minister. Now that we know all the circumstances of Brexit, she has a duty, once we have settled on a version, to allow people to go back and weigh up the risks and benefits of a known deal. That is what is required to give consent.

That is particularly true for young people. We are taking people into the operating theatre kicking and screaming with a consent form signed by their grandparents. We owe it to the British people to check that we have their valid consent before we carry out this extraordinary act of constitutional, social and economic surgery on the population. We have time to do so. We should take that time, and revocation is one way we could do that. We should revoke and reflect. As the hon. Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) said, that does not cancel Brexit altogether; it just gives us the chance to pause. This is a significant decision, and we should take the time to ensure we get it right.

There are many good reasons to change one’s mind, but there are some that are less honourable, such as changing one’s mind because it suits one’s leadership ambition or because this has all become about the unity of the Conservative party. The country is looking on in horror; it does not see those as reasons to change one’s mind or to stick rigidly to a point of view when all the evidence to the contrary is compelling. Many of my constituents have said to me over and over again, “Why is it that all of you get to change your mind so many times but none of us does?” They just want the ability to reflect the fact that many of them have changed their mind.

Last weekend, I was with the million people—an extraordinary, positive outpouring from all around the country, walking past the Prime Minister’s door peacefully and asking her to put this to the people. I contrast that with the crowds that were outside the gate when I cycled out last Friday, screaming at me, “Traitor!” and “Bitch!”, and referring to other parts of my anatomy in a disgusting outpouring of hostility.

I hear the Prime Minister and others say that we cannot put this back to the people because it will unleash dark forces and division in our society, but those dark forces and division are already out there. We counter the far right not by appeasing them but by standing firm. Since when did this country not have a democratic process because we were afraid of the far right? I and many colleagues in this House have had to face that blast full on. I will not be quiet; I will keep saying loud and clear that it is time we put this back to the people.

Neil Coyle Portrait Neil Coyle (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (Lab) - Hansard
1 Apr 2019, 6:36 p.m.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) on her brilliant opening speech and on being a brilliant MP for my dad. I want to make four brief points, although there are some sub-points—things that might be a bit short.

It is three years since 37% of the eligible electorate voted to leave, and two years since the Prime Minister triggered article 50. Someone earlier described that as premature, but that is an understatement—it was reckless in the extreme. I voted against triggering article 50 and am proud to have done so. Everything we have seen since justifies the decision that I and all those who voted against took at that time.

I speak in support of the petitions in favour of a new people’s vote and revoking article 50 on behalf of an inner-London constituency with a more significant economic cushion. Other hon. Members have spoken about the harm, or the potential speed and depth of the harm, to their constituencies that comes from Brexit. I also want to challenge the idea that there is a north-south divide here, or that this debate is more affluent versus more disadvantaged communities, because that is simply not true.

In my constituency, some wards have 43% child poverty, there are hundreds of working people reliant on food banks under this Government, and there is a very significant homeless and rough-sleeping population. We should all be speaking about the additional damage that Brexit will do to our constituencies. No constituency will be better off as a result of any form of Brexit.

We would be doing people a disservice if we ignored the demographics of the 2016 referendum or the change that we have seen since. It should surprise no one that the vast majority of our black and minority ethnic voters chose to vote remain. They are sick of the foul press narrative, emboldened by this Government, on immigration. Immigrants make a positive net contribution to this country, and we should not be ashamed of making that case. More women, a majority of every group of employed people—full time, part time, self-employed, you name it—and overwhelming numbers of young people, where they voted, voted to remain. The two significant groups that voted to leave were older people and unemployed people. The Government ignore the change since 2016 at their own peril. Where will their voters come from in the future? The demographic change helps to explain why they are scared of going back to the people for a new vote.

I want to highlight some of the damage I have seen, even in an inner-London constituency. I have talked to employers and businesses from across my dynamic and vibrant constituency. Hospitality, construction and the public sector are struggling to recruit already, even before we get to any potential deal or crash out with no deal. I have seen two financial sector firms move to Frankfurt, and I have seen investment from different businesses go instead to Amsterdam when it would otherwise have gone to Elephant and Castle.

We have also seen damage in terms of democracy and the rise in hate. I echo the points made by the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), who spoke about events we saw on Friday. I think it deeply shameful that a neo-fascist was allowed to speak anywhere near the Cenotaph in our capital city.

We have also seen hate grow elsewhere. We now know more than we did before about Putin’s influence and about the depth of lawbreaking, overspending and criminality. Although some of us knew that those were lies on the side of that bus, we had no idea of the depth of the lying and criminality that was going on inside the bus just three years ago.

Voters are now being treated as though they are stupid. It fools no one that the person who, as Home Secretary in 2016, told voters that leaving the European Union would damage our national security and our economy is now, as Prime Minister, pretending that her deal, or any other offering, does anything different. Voters are not stupid and should not be treated as such. It is absurd to have made one claim then and to make a complete counter-claim now.

Those are some of the reasons that the revoke petition in particular has grown so fast and so furiously since it was launched. In my constituency of Southwark, 25,000 people have signed the petition and, in the borough as a whole—across two and a half constituencies—some 75,000 people have signed the petition to revoke article 50. That is more than double the number of people in our borough who voted leave back in 2016.

The Prime Minister claims that she has the support of the people for her pitiful offering, but there is no petition for her deal. That petition does not exist, simply because the public support for it does not exist. I would wager that, even were public support for any such petition to increase, it would still have fewer signatories than there were members of the Cabinet, given what we have seen over the past few weeks.

Finally, even in Bermondsey and Old Southwark—a heavily remain constituency—I have spoken to multiple people whose views have shifted since 2016, as well as many more who still support leave but do not support the Prime Minister’s deal and do support a public vote. Voters whose views have shifted include a prison officer, a banker and a teacher. On Friday, I met a man and his best friend, who is Portuguese and is worried about her future rights in the UK. They recognise the crisis that we are in and the damage that we have seen. They want to revoke article 50 and they want a say on whatever course this country chooses to take. For those reasons, I will be voting today with those people in mind.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock (Edinburgh North and Leith) (SNP) - Hansard
1 Apr 2019, 6:42 p.m.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr McCabe. There have been some terrific contributions in the debate. I particularly appreciated that of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), which was wide ranging and covered a great many points that I very much agreed with. Something that really stuck out was what she said about the very different visions of what Brexit meant and how no one was talking to pull those visions together into some sort of whole. I will address that further in my speech.

The hon. Member for Nottingham East (Mr Leslie) spoke of a mirage of Brexit, which I thought was a terrific term. It really describes the nonsense, in some cases, that we were told by those who supported Brexit and which was offered to those who would eventually vote for it. Describing that as a mirage is particularly apt. The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) spoke of the country never forgiving and mentioned citizens’ assemblies, which are certainly something that should be considered more closely.

The hon. Member for Streatham (Chuka Umunna) quite rightly reminded us of the younger generation, of the importance of these decisions for their lives and of how we, as those who are in power now—and of a certain generation, in my case—must remember and consider them at all times. We in this place are creating their future and, frankly, if we pursue this Brexit, it will be a very poor future—I include my own children in that consideration.

My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) gave a terrific speech, for which I thank him. It was very measured and considered and I agreed with everything that he said. The hon. Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) reminded us that, ultimately, Brexit is a political choice. That must be remembered during our votes tonight and in all our consideration of this incredibly important issue.

I must highlight in particular the contribution from the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), which was extremely frank. She, too, spoke of the many different versions of Brexit, and her condemnation of the hostility that has arisen in recent weeks hit the nail right on the head. She spoke of the whole Brexit debate unleashing dark forces and division. We must stand up to the far right rather than appease it.

The call rings out from Brexiters that we must respect the will of the people in the 2016 referendum. The question that keeps occurring to me is, “What was the will that was expressed?” For some, it was perhaps the £350 million a week for the NHS, and they may be very disappointed when that does not arrive. For others, it may have been the higher wages that were promised during the leave campaign, which is a benefit that does not seem to be appearing any time soon. Some may have been wooed by the promise to scrap VAT, about which we have heard almost nothing since, or perhaps by the easy-as-pie trade deals, of which we were supposed to have dozens by now. Alternatively, was it the UK-EU trade deal or the new immigration system that we were supposed to have by May next year?

One thing that we still have is the pledge that there will be no change to the operation of the Irish border, as promised in a Vote Leave news release of 1 June 2016 by the right hon. Members for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) and for Witham (Priti Patel). The one promise left standing is the one that seems to be causing all the problems between the Tories and the DUP.

Despite all the fluff and flannel since 2016, it is fairly clear that leave never meant leave and Brexit never meant Brexit. In the blizzard of reasons for voting one way or another, there was never a manifesto; there was never a plan for what happens afterwards; and there was never any vision of the future. No one was selling truth or honesty, but there was plenty of prejudice and imagined slight on offer, and plenty of gung-ho hot-headed invective, but very little sober reflection.

Since then, however, we have all had a chance to take stock. From hearing other hon. Members today, I know that they, like me, have spent time talking to constituents and have received a range of different responses. I have met people who wanted to leave so that our laws would be made at home, but who still wanted to keep freedom of movement. I spoke to one lady who did not like the control that she thought the EU had over our lives, but thought we should have common standards for goods across Europe. There was no settled will of the people, no single movement, and no collective decision-making. There was no plan to vote for, no manifesto to be held to, and no vision of a new constitution. Any politician who says that they are simply respecting the will of the people is actually just hijacking an advisory plebiscite for their own personal or political advantage.

My constituency of Edinburgh North and Leith is decidedly in favour of the EU. More than a quarter of the population signed the online petitions to revoke article 50. That reflects what is said to me across the constituency on a regular basis. People are worried about whether their doctor will be still be here in future. They are concerned about whether their neighbours and friends will face pressure to leave. Concerned constituents have made countless representations to me about how the community will be affected if we no longer have the flow of fresh faces and if we cannot hang on to the new Edinburgh North and Leithers that we have currently.

The wife of the regius keeper of the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh contacted me because she was concerned about her right to stay. She did not work much while she was bringing up their children, but her husband served with distinction in the Marines, and was invalided out at the rank of lieutenant colonel. He is also a member of the Her Majesty’s Body Guard of the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen at Arms, but that cuts no ice. A constituent who does not want to be named because she fears the repercussions came to me in fear of being deported to the EU country that she left as a toddler to come to the UK even before that country joined the Common Market. She raised her family here and looks after her grandchildren while her children work, but her status here is now uncertain.

Break in Debate

Jenny Chapman Hansard
1 Apr 2019, 6:59 p.m.

I am admiring and respectful of the petition, and I understand the reasons for it. I also do not discount the proposition put this evening. The Minister should not read too much into the fact that I am not voting for it. I would add that the Labour party will whip its Members this evening, unlike the Government, who dare not whip even their own Cabinet. If I were the Minister, I am not sure I would bob up and down quite as much on this particular issue.

Neil Coyle Portrait Neil Coyle - Hansard
1 Apr 2019, 6:59 p.m.

Perhaps some clarification would help: my understanding is that there is no Whip for Labour MPs on this particular vote. Many of us will join colleagues from across the House—and, I am sure, the Minister—in supporting revoking article 50.

Jenny Chapman Hansard
1 Apr 2019, 6:59 p.m.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s advice, which I am sure he would have given regardless of advice from his colleagues in the Whips Office.

What I interpret from the fact that 6 million people—thousands of them in my constituency—have signed the petition is how concerned, angry and frustrated people are with how the Brexit process has been mishandled by the Government. I do not think there has been the same amount of public support and cut-through for a petition at any other stage in the Brexit process.

Break in Debate

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris - Hansard
1 Apr 2019, 7:30 p.m.

I shall happily answer that point later in my speech.

Neil Coyle Portrait Neil Coyle - Hansard
1 Apr 2019, 7:31 p.m.

The Minister seems to be struggling to split the hypothetical from what happened in the election. Perhaps he has the figures for the number of people who downloaded or bought the Conservative manifesto; however, as to the simplistic suggestion that the vast majority of voters read any party’s manifesto, we all know it to be untrue. The practical reality in constituencies such as mine was that in every leaflet I put out—in every interview and article, and at the hustings—I said I would continue to oppose Brexit, full stop, so it is completely false to pretend that in the election voters only voted in the knowledge that Brexit would be delivered. It is nonsense.

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris - Hansard
1 Apr 2019, 7:31 p.m.

In a way the hon. Gentleman is making the point that I was trying to make to the hon. Member for Streatham, because people did pay attention to what individual MPs were saying in their constituencies —at least, more people than ever before attended hustings in my constituency, and I should like to think that that was reflected elsewhere. The disconnect comes from the fact that in the end lots of people vote, as the hon. Gentleman knows, for a party rather than an individual. If a candidate’s party, nationally, says something loud and clear, they are almost disrespecting their party’s manifesto by saying something different locally.