Leaving the EU

Alex Norris Excerpts
Monday 14th January 2019

(1 year, 8 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Department for Exiting the European Union
Andrea Jenkyns Portrait Andrea Jenkyns - Hansard
14 Jan 2019, 5:17 p.m.

Therefore, if politicians want to respect the outcome of the referendum, WTO becomes a legitimate option and it is right that we are here today discussing it. The world has benefited hugely from the considerable progress made in trade liberalisation in the past 70 years, but multilateral liberalisation has slowed and it now needs a new champion. The UK can be that champion. The benefits of free trade are clear to see. The world needs a liberalising voice, and the UK can be that voice at a time when open markets are threatened.

The UK will prosper as a WTO member. We can immediately start further liberalisation with other WTO members on day one. I acknowledge that tariffs are a concern for some, but I ask them to keep in mind my desire for fewer tariffs and fewer restrictions to trade. Currently, under WTO rules, tariffs vary significantly by sector, but we need to see the bigger picture. In the 1980s, the EU’s share of world GDP was about 30%. In 2017 it was about 16% and by 2022 it is expected to fall further to 15%. The EU has a shrinking share of world trade, and Brexiteers can see the benefits of trading freely with the rest of the world, which is growing at a much faster rate than the EU.

The organisation Economists for Free Trade recently released a detailed report that considered the many implications of leaving the EU on WTO terms. In my view, the report shows that, although a deal is preferable, we have nothing to fear from leaving on those terms. From an economic perspective, the report showed that under WTO rules, we would be more prosperous as a country than we are now, and a lot better off than under the Prime Minister’s withdrawal agreement, which would leave us worse off by a staggering £100 billion. The report also showed that under no deal, consumer prices would fall by 8% and there would be an additional boost of 15% to the poorest households. I know many of my constituents would welcome that at a time when ordinary families are feeling the pressure.

It is important to note that since the mid-1980s, British exports to WTO countries have grown three times faster than those to the European single market. In fact, our biggest overseas market is America, and we trade with it on WTO terms. All that, taken together, demonstrates that, despite all the fear-mongering and demonisation of no deal, the reality is that there is nothing to fear. We already conduct much of our trade under those terms, which are essentially a set of global, enforceable rules that outlaw protectionist tricks, discriminatory tariffs and bureaucratic hurdles. The result is free and fair trade for us and our global partners.

After we leave, trade between the UK and the EU can move to WTO rules, meaning tariffs averaging about 3%. Some products have higher tariffs, such as cars, at 10%, with a 4.5% tariff on components from the EU. However, car companies can withstand a 10% tariff on sales into the EU because they have already benefited from a 15% depreciation in the value of sterling. Border checks on components from the EU will be unnecessary, counterproductive for EU exporters, and illegal under WTO rules, which prohibit unnecessary checks. The heads of firms such as Dyson, JCB and Northern Ireland’s Wrightbus support Brexit because they see the long-term benefits of our being free from the EU’s red tape. A WTO Brexit can achieve that.

I may have agreed with the decision to leave the EU, but it was the British people, not politicians in this place, who decided to leave, and their decision must be upheld. I was only elected to this place in 2015. I am not a career politician and I never worked in the Westminster bubble before being elected. I may not have had the traditional route into politics, but I strongly think that that is a positive. Trust in elected politicians is vital if the public are to have faith in this place and in the democratic process. I aim to uphold that trust. It is naïve to think that we know better.

My constituents know best: they know how best to run their lives and spend their money, and they know what is best for their country. They voted for Brexit, and Brexit must prevail, be that under a WTO Brexit or under a better deal than that agreed by the Prime Minister. My constituency, the Yorkshire and the Humber region and the country voted to leave the EU. We need to leave the European Union and its institutions and take advantage of the opportunities that Brexit can deliver.

I wanted a deal like the Prime Minister’s vision in her Lancaster House speech, which would have satisfied the referendum result. However, the Prime Minister decided, mistakenly, to no longer pursue that vision. Moving to WTO rules will achieve that global Britain vision. We want to be in Europe but not run by Europe. We want to be a truly global, free-trading powerhouse. That can still be achieved, but only by trading under WTO rules. Let us now look to the future, where we can all be free from the EU, to make our own decisions and to chart our own destiny.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris (Nottingham North) (Lab/Co-op) - Hansard
14 Jan 2019, 5:22 p.m.

This may be the first time I have served under your chairship, Mr Hanson. It is a pleasure to do so.

I am a patriot. I love my country. Serving my neighbours, estate, city and country is the most important thing I can do with my life, which is why I come here every week. I leave my family on a Monday morning and desperately hope to get back by the time I said I would, not breaking any promises along the way. I find that that is the best way to do it.

This week we arrive at the significant crossroads that we have been approaching for several weeks. There are a number of paths ahead of us, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. Some options will please some people, others will please other people, and none will please everybody. In fact, I presume that every option will anger significant portions of our society. I say that as a preamble because when talking to friends in a more relaxed setting over Christmas—this may have happened to other hon. Members as well—people would try desperately not to talk about Brexit, but eventually somebody would ask why it is taking so long. This debate, and the petitions that sit behind it, show precisely why it is taking so long. The subject is difficult and unclear, and there are multiple points of view.

I attended this debate because I think it neatly encapsulates that. The arguments in favour of the Prime Minister’s deal, as well as those in favour of no deal, a new deal and another vote, all have things going for them—that is not a very popular thing to say, but I believe it to be true—but they also have a lot not going for them. Those who support those options do so with a deep passion, and those who do not often oppose them with a deep anger. I believe that virtually everybody holds a sincere belief that their course is the correct one to follow.

The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) skilfully introduced the debate, which covers such a broad and contrasting set of views. However, it is interesting that each of the petitions states as fact assertions that the others say are not facts. That shows that this is a difficult subject, which is why it is up to us in this place—we have put up our hands and said that we, as patriots, want to lead our local communities and our country because we care about them—to pick through it and arrive at a solution that serves our nation’s best interests.

Tomorrow will be our first test. Our first choice will be laid out in front of us—whether to accept to Prime Minister’s deal or not. I will vote against the Prime Minister’s deal. I cannot in good conscience bind our nation to a 585-page legally binding withdrawal agreement in pursuit of a well-meant but non-binding political declaration. I believe that this document threatens our historic Union and, frankly, that it does not please or deliver for those who wish to leave or to remain.

The deal is the result of the sum total of 31 months of negotiation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) said, probably rather more artfully than me, it is a pre-agreement rather than a deal. Do we think that we will have negotiated a comprehensive deal by the end of 2020? No, of course not; I do not think anybody believes that. We could therefore apply the extension. Do we think we will have negotiated a deal by the end of 2022? Using the narrowest definition, the EU-Canada comprehensive economic and trade agreement took five years of pure negotiation. Do we think that we could do it in less than four years? Has anything suggested that that could happen?

Before Christmas, the hon. Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley) and I were on our local television channel, Notts TV, as we often are. We always seem to get paired together; I think it is something to do with being younger Members. I am sure that we agree on many things about the world in general, but on political matters he and I disagree on quite a few. We discussed where Brexit would go in the new year and began to agree that the withdrawal agreement may in time become so attractive to the EU27 that it becomes the deal itself. The hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns) said that getting deals done with the EU requires the consent of all 27 other countries, one of which might say, “You know what? We’ve got quite a good relationship here. Why don’t we just stick with it?” That risk is another reason why it is not worth supporting the deal.

I read and took seriously what the Prime Minister said earlier today, as I always do. Obviously, I have not heard what has been said in the Chamber, but I suspect it was closely related. I do not take much comfort from the letters from the European Council, either, although I understand where they come from and the intentions behind them. The Prime Minister has said that she will not be here at the end of 2022. How many more leaders on the European Council will have gone by then? The answer is plenty. I therefore cannot in good conscience swap the legal certainty of what will happen to our country in the future for the assurances on a letterhead from those leaders, many of whom will not be here at that time. That seems to me a very poor trade. I am surprised anybody would be persuaded to make it.

The probable outcome, as has been said for a long time, is that the Prime Minister’s deal will fall tomorrow. No deal is not and should not be an option. The trade arguments are well played out. At the end of last year I visited Toyota outside Derby to see its just-in-time manufacturing operating model, and it was clear that any delay in the system would be very injurious to it. The economic shock resulting from tariff barriers will be felt by my community, one of the poorest in the country. That cannot happen.

We talk a lot about the economic impact of no deal, but we rarely talk about the security implications. The Select Committee on Home Affairs produced a very good report on that subject. We took a lot of very good evidence from people with differing views. We covered the Schengen Information System II, which ensures that violent criminals, possible terrorists and paedophiles from other countries cannot get into our country; they get the tap on the shoulder, go to a side room and do not come into our country. That database, which we check 500 million times a year, relates to people who present at a UK port. We do not know about it, but it keeps us safe in our beds.

I do not agree with the argument made by the hon. Member for Morley and Outwood about WTO trading terms, but it was well made and I respect it. However, the WTO provides no fall-back in relation to security. I know that people will push for a no-deal option, which is valid. I understand that, and I get emails to that effect. However, those who do so should explain what would happen to someone who presented at a port at 12.1 am—one minute after we have left the EU, while the fireworks or whatever are going on—who would previously have got that tap on the shoulder and not been allowed into our country. The answer to that question is critical, but I do not think there is one; our Committee’s inquiry certainly could not find one. As a result, I do not think that any responsible Government ought to countenance no deal.

I shall put that to one side and move on. It is well known that Labour Members seek a general election, as the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam said, so that we can secure new leadership on this issue and, of course, many others, although this is probably not the moment to go through them. Having said that, I am not averse to a trip to the bookies and I am very aware that the bookies do not think that we will win in our pursuit of a general election any more than the Prime Minister is likely to win tomorrow night, so let us say that both of those fall. What happens then? It means that, come Wednesday or onwards, into early next week, Parliament as a whole will have a real job to find something that respects the referendum result but does not damage our country.

I am here today—I take the chance to speak to and engage with Government Front Benchers when I can—to appeal for a change of tone. I say this very personally. There is no party politics in this; it is my personal feeling. It is a culmination of 18 months of frustration, because I feel that we have been derided throughout this process. I was elected in June 2017, and I feel that since then those of us on the Opposition Benches have been told that we cannot count, that we do not read the documents—that is always a good one—that we are not being honest in our intentions and when we say we are pursuing one goal, we are actually pursuing a second, secret goal, or that we are playing politics in what we do. I believe those to be unfair and untrue charges. As I said at the beginning of my speech, I come here because I want to serve my city and my community.

I believe that the Government will have to change their tone because, frankly, whether it is on Wednesday morning, Thursday morning or next week, the Government will need support from Opposition Members. It does not take a political strategy genius, which I am not, to say this. We are getting to the point at which we know what there is not a majority for in Parliament. We know or may well find that there is not a majority for the Prime Minister’s deal. We know from last week that there is not one for no deal. If it is shown that there is not one for a general election, either, we will become defined by what we know there is not a majority for. That means that we will have to look at what there is a majority for, and we will start with the biggest blocs, which are the Government’s payroll vote and Members on the Opposition Front Bench. The Government will have to engage with the Opposition. Labour Members are derided for not having a position on Brexit, but our priorities have been on the website for a long time. We have been talking about a customs union for a long time. We have talked about migration, rights at work—

Graham Stringer - Hansard
14 Jan 2019, 5:33 p.m.

My hon. Friend is right to say that there is no majority in the House of Commons for a general election at present—partly because a two-thirds majority is needed under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011—but does he really believe that if the Prime Minister loses tomorrow by more than 100 votes and potentially 200 votes, this Government will have any credibility left at all if the central plank of their existence has failed by so many votes in the House of Commons? Is not the only honourable thing to do to have a general election and see what the public think?

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris - Hansard

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. I would not presume to explain any elements of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act to him, given that he legislated it and I did not, but as well as his reference to a two-thirds majority, the failure to achieve a second vote of confidence within 14 days will automatically lead to a general election. However, I take the point that, on the issue of the day, on the sum total of 31 months of work and leadership—what we are answering tomorrow is the product of all that work—if that fails, it is a fundamental failure for the Government and one that I do not think could be seen off. I think we ought all to be careful, certainly on the Opposition Benches, about setting what we think are good and bad losses. Any loss on this issue is devastating for the Government, whatever the number is.

If they want to carry on, the Government will have to engage with the Opposition on the presupposition that we want to engage on the issue, that we want to make things better and that we might want to find a solution, all of which has been said so far. We all might—this would be of benefit outside the House as well as inside—try to change the way we engage with each other. The petitions show the need for that. They start with assertions that are not necessarily facts; they are just strongly held views, and we all have strongly held views. And we all come at the issue—I assume this is true of all hon. Members present—from the perspective of what we believe is best for our country, so perhaps we ought to engage with one another on those terms, rather than on the basis of what fits into 140 or, now, 280 characters and going down to those very pure binaries. Frankly, if we do not show that there is a parliamentary solution in this place—I have talked about the things that there perhaps are not majorities for—where does that leave this issue? Hon. Members who might passionately have wanted to see a particular goal achieved might end up not getting it at all.

Steve Double Portrait Steve Double (St Austell and Newquay) (Con) - Hansard
14 Jan 2019, 5:35 p.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson, and an honour to follow the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris). I congratulate my fellow member of the Petitions Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), on the way in which he opened the debate on these petitions.

The referendum vote was the single biggest democratic exercise in our nation’s history. More people voted in that referendum than had voted in any election before, and many people who had never voted before voted. I have spoken to many people in my constituency who had never voted before. Some people had voted many years ago and given up voting because they felt that their vote did not make any difference, but they voted in that referendum because they felt that it was their opportunity to make their voice heard and to bring about change. A clear majority voted to leave. As has been well documented, 17.4 million people had the courage, despite “Project Fear”—despite all the predictions of doom and gloom, the world ending, the economy crashing and half a million jobs going—to say, “No, we are voting for change.” They did not vote for things to be almost the same; they voted because they wanted things to be different.

The responsibility is now on us in Parliament to deliver on the result. In bringing about the referendum, we made the position clear to the British public. In fact, the Prime Minister at the time, David Cameron, famously said that we were putting the decision in the hands of the British people and we would implement whatever decision they made. This was not a decision to be made by politicians—not a decision to be made by Parliament—but a decision that the British people would make, and Parliament would implement what they decided.

That was two and a half years ago; indeed, it is coming up to three years ago, and here we are, in this very significant week in Parliament in the process of us implementing the decision that the British people made in the referendum. We have a huge challenge before us. The challenge is this: are we going to do what the British people instructed us to do, or not? For me, this whole process has become about far more than simply whether we leave the EU. It has become about trust in our democratic process. We need to understand that there is a growing sense among many, many people in our country—I receive countless emails; I get them virtually every day expressing this concern—that we are in the middle of an establishment stitch-up. The view is that there is an attempt to prevent us from leaving the EU—that the establishment will somehow manufacture a technical outcome that means we do not actually leave. I have to say that the events of last week and some of the newspaper headlines in the last few days have heightened that genuine concern. I believe that, the people of this country having been told that we were giving them the decision and the choice, the consequences of us now not delivering on that decision would be incredibly serious for our country.

We are here today to debate a number of petitions regarding our leaving the EU. As we have heard, some are calling for us to leave immediately, some are calling for us to leave with no deal, others are calling for another referendum and others are basically saying, “Let’s scrap the whole thing and pretend it didn’t happen.” Clearly, the petitions reflect the deep divisions in our country at the moment. There are strongly and genuinely held views right across the spectrum as to where we are and what should happen next.

It is interesting to note that the biggest petition by far, with, last time I checked, over 327,000 signatures—more than all the others put together—is the one calling for us to leave without a deal. That generally reflects what I get in my postbag. The vast majority of people, particularly of those who voted to leave, say, “On the ballot paper, it didn’t say, ‘Leave with a withdrawal agreement or a free trade deal.’ It didn’t say, ‘Leave with any strings attached.’ It simply said, ‘Leave or remain’,” and they voted to leave.

The majority of the British people—certainly, the majority of those who voted leave—simply want us to get on and do as they instructed us. If that means leaving without an agreement, that is what they want us to do. We need to understand that that is the legal position. The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which this House passed, states that we will leave on 29 March this year. It does not say that we will leave if we can agree a withdrawal agreement or a future trading deal. It simply says—it has established in law—that we will leave. We need to understand that. There are Members of this House who voted for that withdrawal Act but who do not seem to understand that that is what we voted for. There were no strings attached to that decision. It simply says that we will leave.

I do not want to leave without a deal. I desperately want a withdrawal agreement and a future trading arrangement that I can support and vote for. Sadly for me, the deal that the Prime Minister has agreed and brought back to this House is not one that I can support, because I do not believe that it delivers what we promised—delivering on the referendum result. It locks our country into an untenable situation that completely undermines our ability to negotiate a future trading arrangement.

Over the last two years of negotiations, we have had things to negotiate with. Having surrendered those things to the EU, I do not understand how we think that we will get a better outcome than we have manged to get in the last two and half years. We had our £39 billion to negotiate with and we had the ability to say that we will walk away without a deal, and yet we have not made any progress. The withdrawal agreement hands those things over to the EU and leaves us hoping that we can get a decent deal out of it.

The withdrawal agreement works only if we have faith in two things: first, the goodwill of the EU towards us and, secondly, the negotiating ability of those negotiating on behalf of the UK. Given the experience of the last two years, I am sad to say, I would be absolutely foolish to have confidence in those two things—no reasonable person could. The withdrawal agreement would undermine our whole negotiating position and lock us into a situation that we were in great danger of never being able to get out of. Regrettably, I cannot support the deal.

I hope that the Prime Minister will go back to the EU, having lost the vote tomorrow. I believe that a significant loss will give a clearer message to the EU that the withdrawal agreement is completely unacceptable to Parliament, and that the EU cannot tinker at the edges or provide us with reassurances and nicely worded letters to go with it but must come up with something fundamentally far better for our country, or we will have to leave with no deal.

I know people will say that the EU has said time and again that there are no grounds for renegotiation. However, as other hon. Members have said, the EU has a good record of backing down at the last minute when it is up against a wall. I do not think we have really tested the EU’s resolve in these negotiations. Losing the vote tomorrow will give the Prime Minister the opportunity to go back and truly test the EU’s resolve. Is the EU really serious that it will not give ground and renegotiate? Is it prepared for us to walk away without a deal?

Let us be clear that leaving without a deal will involve some huge challenges, but it will not be the disaster that some predict. Time and again, we have heard the doom-merchants say that we will have no medicines and our aeroplanes will not be able to fly, but all the economic predictions have been proved wrong. I find it incredible that people are predicting the impact of Brexit in 10 years, when, in my time in politics, every six-month prediction from the Treasury has proved to be wildly wrong. It is utterly beyond me how they think they can predict 10 years ahead when they cannot get six-month predictions right.

Every scare story has been exposed as being completely untrue. Even the Mayor of Calais has made it clear that there will be no disruption to trucks coming across the English channel from Calais. I am sure that on our side of things, we will not make it more difficult for our exports to go the other way, either. Therefore, I think we can put to bed the scare stories that paint this as an utter disaster. Yes, there will be challenges, but, throughout its history, our country has shown itself to be at its greatest when faced with challenges. I believe in the ability of the British people and British business, if there is no deal, to overcome any challenges as quickly as possible and move on to the future.

It is worth highlighting some of the other things that the petitions call for. There are petitions calling for a second referendum. I certainly do not support that. Not only would it send a hugely damaging message to the British people—that somehow the first referendum was wrong or invalid—and be hugely disrespectful to them, but I fail to see what it would achieve. The first referendum was divisive enough, but in the current climate, a second referendum would be even more divisive and damaging to our society. What will we do if leave wins again? We will have wasted our time. If there is a narrow victory for remain, do we have a third one to make it best of three? I fail to see how it would make real progress.

Over the weekend, I was thinking about today and I suddenly remembered, in the depths of my memory, that the House had actually considered this matter. On 20 December 2017, when the House was debating and voting on the withdrawal Act, an amendment was tabled calling for a second referendum on the deal. I do not know how many hon. Members remember that. Do you know, Mr Hanson, how many Members of Parliament voted for that amendment? I was quite astounded. Having listened to some of the voices from across the House, I thought it would be hundreds. It was 23. When the House had the opportunity to express its view on a second referendum, a whole 23 Members of Parliament—good on them, virtually all the Lib Dems voted for it, so at least they have been consistent—voted for one. That amendment was resoundingly defeated.

As we had the opportunity to vote for a second referendum only a year ago, I find it quite difficult to accept that so many Members of this House are now calling for one. I am not sure what has gone on during that year, but clearly something has. My line is quite simple: the House had the opportunity to vote for a second referendum, the amendment was resoundingly defeated and we should put the matter to bed. Continuing to call for a second referendum after not having voted for one at that time shows a lack of credibility.

Then there are the petitions that say that we should rescind article 50 and scrap the whole thing: “Let’s just cancel Brexit and put it in the too-difficult-to-do pile.” That, above everything, would be hugely damaging to our democracy and would send a disrespectful message to the British people. For Parliament, which voted for the referendum by a huge majority and said, “We put this decision in the hands of the British people,” to now say, “We cannot deliver it. It’s too difficult. Let’s just scrap it and call the whole thing off,” would send a wrong and damaging message to our country.

It is essential that we deliver on the referendum. I am concerned by some of the things that have been said by those, including some Conservative colleagues, who are clearly scheming and trying to find some unconstitutional technical way to overturn it and prevent Brexit. We must be honest with the British people and have integrity. All hon. Members in my party stood on a clear manifesto commitment in the last election that we would honour the referendum and deliver Brexit, so to go back on that and try to prevent it would be hugely damaging and would send all the wrong messages.

I genuinely hope that when it looks as though the vote has been lost tomorrow night, the Prime Minister goes to try to get a better deal that we can support. Let us not forget, however, that the legal position that the House voted for is that come what may—deal or no deal; withdrawal agreement or no withdrawal agreement —we will leave the European Union on 29 March. It is vital that the House delivers on that commitment.