Leaving the EU Debate

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Department: Cabinet Office
Monday 5th October 2020

(3 years, 7 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Paul Blomfield Portrait Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to wind up for the Opposition with you in the Chair, Sir David. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) for the way in which he opened up our discussion, and other hon. Members for their contributions to the debate.

The concerns raised in the petitions probably reflect the time at which they were launched, which was several months ago. The priority now is to look at the challenges that we face with just weeks to go before the deal that we need on our future relationship with the European Union has to be concluded.

On the issues raised in petition 300412, Labour pressed the Government, perhaps with some prescience, to give themselves some flexibility, when Parliament debated the withdrawal agreement Bill, and we tabled an amendment to that effect just in case unforeseen events might lead to the Government needing some wriggle room. I have to say that at that time we did not anticipate a global pandemic, but nevertheless we made that case. Our amendment was rejected, and the departure date was locked in law. The Government could have changed it before 1 July, but they did not, and neither did the European Union propose a delay.

We left the EU on 31 January, and we will leave the transition period on 31 December. We accept that completely, so I have to say that I share some of the exasperation of the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell)—if not for the same reason—at some of the contributions from Government Members and the allegations that they are making about the position of the Opposition. They should—we all should—have some humility and some honesty in looking back at the paralysis in Parliament over the last four years, and recognise that many of the delays were caused by the way in which the Conservative party was tearing itself apart on this issue and that some of those who delayed a deal being reached were those described, I think, by a former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer as the Brexit extremists within his own party. Indeed, the Prime Minister was utilising the issue as he egged them on in his rise to power. But we are now into the final month of negotiations, and both the UK Government and the EU are clearly seeking a resolution within weeks to secure the deal that we need by 31 December.

The other two petitions raise real concerns, and they were clearly exacerbated by the Government’s handling of the report from Parliament’s Conservative-chaired Intelligence and Security Committee, the publication of which was deliberately and unnecessarily delayed by the Prime Minister until after the general election. It was damning in its conclusion that the Government

“had not seen or sought evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes”.

As one of its members said when the report was published in July,

“The report reveals that no one in government knew if Russia interfered in or sought to influence the referendum, because they did not want to know.”

There are real issues that deserve consideration, but they cannot halt Brexit, as the petitioners seek, because we have, as a number of Members have acknowledged, already left the European Union. That is the result of the mandate that the Government received in last December’s election, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) mentioned, but it is only one half of the mandate. The other half is to deliver the deal that the Prime Minister promised the British people. That pledged an

“ambitious, wide-ranging and balanced economic partnership”,

with

“no tariffs, fees, charges or quantitative restrictions across all sectors”.

It pledged a deal that would safeguard

“workers’ rights, consumer and environmental protection”

and keep people safe with a

“broad, comprehensive and balanced security partnership.”

That was not a proposal or a wish list, but an agreement—and one that was ready to sign off. In the Prime Minister’s words,

“We’ve got a deal that’s oven-ready. We’ve just got to put it in at gas mark four, give it 20 minutes and Bob’s your uncle.”

Originally, he said that it would be done by July, despite the pandemic, and then, forgetting his words, that it would be done by September. That came and went too, so he set a new ultimatum of mid-October, which he then dropped over the weekend after his conversation with the European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen.

As a number of Members have said, businesses need clarity. The Government are providing confusion. The same incompetence that we have seen in the handling of the pandemic is now threatening jobs and the security of our country through the handling of these negotiations.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer
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In previous debates during this long discussion, my hon. Friend and I have disagreed. Today, I essentially agree with the approach that he has taken, but is he not being a little asymmetric? It is his job to attack the Government and criticise and analyse what they do, but does he not feel that one reason why there is not an agreement now is that the EU has withdrawn what it offered right at the beginning—a Canada-style agreement—and has also withdrawn the recognition of this country as a third country, which was previously on offer?

Paul Blomfield Portrait Paul Blomfield
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I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. He is right that we have not always agreed on these issues over the last four years, but we are in roughly the same place now, in wanting to secure a deal by December—not just any deal but the deal that the Government have pledged. That deal was not described by the Prime Minister as something that might be achieved; he said it was there, ready to go and we just had to press the button. I will return to the specific question of Canada, because it is important.

Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse
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Is it not also true that it is unfair to say that Brexit was not done in the last three years because of all the people who wanted to delay it, when it was the Tories and the Conservative Government who did not get the deal done? They dithered and argued among themselves, and even decapitated their own Prime Minister. Is it not true that the Conservative party was also to blame for Brexit not getting done for such a long time?

Paul Blomfield Portrait Paul Blomfield
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Indeed, that is the point I was making a moment ago. The agony within the Conservative party, as it tore itself apart, was a significant delaying factor in getting the deal done.

As a number of Members have said, businesses require certainty. We welcomed the Minister back to her place at Cabinet Office questions last Thursday, and I am delighted to see her on the Front Bench today. I will ask her four specific questions, to which I would be grateful for a reply in her closing remarks.

First, can the Minister guarantee to the automotive sector that it will not face any tariffs from 1 January, in accordance with the Prime Minister’s promise, despite the apparent decision by the Government not to press to secure an agreement on rules of origin?

Secondly, can the Minister assure the financial and legal sectors, which are hugely important to our economy, that the Government’s deal will allow them to do business without new barriers, as the Prime Minister promised?

Thirdly, can the Minister guarantee that there will be no weakening of the arrangements that we have had within the European Union to keep the UK safe from serious international crime and terrorism, and, in particular, that we will retain access to systems such as the European criminal records information system, which shares data about prior convictions across EU countries?

Finally, returning to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer), given that the Government have insisted that they want a Canada-style deal, which raises the question of why that is off the table, would the Minister confirm that the Government would be willing to accept the non-regression clause provisions within the EU-Canada deal on workers’ rights and environmental protections? Those are precisely the points that were ripped out of the withdrawal agreement after the December election. If the Government were prepared to accept those, it would be a gamechanger in the negotiations.

Those are straightforward questions because they are all based on promises made by the Prime Minister, so it should be relatively simple for the Minister to say yes to each one of them. If not—I hate to think it—the Government might not have been telling the truth.

The coronavirus pandemic, which is referenced in e-petition 300412, makes it even more important that the Government deliver the deal that the Prime Minister promised, to support jobs, the security of our country, business and people’s livelihoods. As we look to the future, rebuilding from the devastating impact of the virus, we cannot face the additional problems of a disruptive departure from the transition. Covid-19 has taken people’s bandwidth in the civil service, politics and the EU. Businesses have not been able to prepare in the way that they would otherwise have done, because their capacity has been stretched.

It was unfortunate that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, in his recent statement to the House, tried to point the finger of blame at businesses for not being prepared. They are not helped by the unanswered questions that remain. Businesses around the country have reasonable questions about trade not only in goods, but in services. The agricultural sector has questions about health, food safety, standards and checks. The hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) talked about the problems of the pharmaceutical sector. I have talked to many other sectors in my role. Businesses representing critical sectors of the economy simply cannot get a hearing from this Government.

The Government have maintained throughout the coronavirus crisis that they could deliver a deal in the timeframe they have allotted themselves. They will be judged by that promise. As it stands at the moment, they need to get a grip and deliver the deal: not any deal, but the deal they promised last December; the deal that we need for the country to move on.