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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Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse (Bath) (LD)
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I have many reasons to be proud of my constituency of Bath. One of the most important to me is its long tradition as an open-minded, welcoming and outward-looking city. Bathonians want this country to reflect those values, which we hold close to our hearts. Bath was one of the constituencies with the most signatories to the petition to halt Brexit for a public inquiry. In 2016, 68% of Bath residents voted to remain, putting us in the top 50 remain-voting constituencies in the UK.

Just days after the referendum, a handful of us residents founded what became one of the most active grassroots campaigning organisations in the country, Bath for Europe. We came together as a non-party political group of volunteers campaigning for the UK to remain at the heart of the European Union. I was a founder member of Bath for Europe before I was elected the MP for Bath. We were ordinary people achieving extraordinary things. We donated our spare time, talent, creativity, knowledge, experience, ideas and resources to keep the cause of Europe front and centre, both locally and nationally.

In addition to organising rallies, marches, speakers, events and regular meetings, perhaps our biggest achievement was our constant engagement with members of our community. Every week, we held street stalls and commuter calls, handing out leaflets and discussing Brexit and what it would mean for our city and our country. We did our research, and we respectfully listened to people, some of whom had opinions very different from our own. We spoke to them in a positive spirit. We became a fixture in Bath, and our constructive dialogue helped to lift the public discourse.

Among the most damaging legacies of Brexit have been the deepening division in our society and an aggressive culture war that seeks to pit people against each other. Bath for Europe stands for equality and fairness. For example, this spring, the group held a virtual EU citizens fair to support those applying for settled status. Bath for Europe remains a force in our city. The people of Bath will continue to uphold the values of openness, inclusion and international co-operation, and I will use my voice to represent their views in Parliament.

It is important to stress that we should not fight lost battles. No EU membership is now a reality. That does not mean that there are not many millions of people in the UK who believe that our place is at the heart of the European Union. Their voices need to be heard too, and I am one of them. Passionate supporters of a football club do not immediately switch sides to the club who won the premier league. They stay loyal to their side through the years, even through relegation, and prepare for better times.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer
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Does the hon. Lady agree that it is a fundamental of democracy that the losing side accepts the overall result and the winners? That is how democracy works. One does not have to change one’s view, but one has to recognise the result.

Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I absolutely understand that democracy needs to play itself out, and I do not want to reheat the battles that we had for two and a half years in this Parliament.

However, we have argued again and again that the decision made in 2016 was unclear. We need to make it clear and discuss to the end whether what people understood they voted for in 2016 is really what they wanted. The result is now there, I accept that; we had a very clear election result, and we are now no longer members of the European Union. That is why I say that it is no use to now fight lost battles. But we have a passion to be at the heart of the European Union, and almost half of the people of the UK still believed that going into the 2019 election. They have not suddenly gone away. The winning side has to accept that too, therefore the debates that we continue to have here are not undemocratic. They are part of democracy. People have their voices heard.

EU membership at some point in the future continues to be a Liberal Democrat ambition. I firmly believe that our time will come, but in the meantime I will stand up for all EU citizens here in the UK and for UK citizens in Europe, and make sure that they can live with all their rights undiminished. That is what I now fight for: to keep the flame alive that our place as the United Kingdom is at the heart of the European Union. I will not give up on that belief, and I do believe that our time will come.

--- Later in debate ---
Munira Wilson Portrait Munira Wilson
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There are two types of uncertainty. Crashing out without a deal at the end of the transition period is complete uncertainty, in terms of the unknown. Although there may be some uncertainty from extending the transition period, at least businesses are able to continue to trade easily. One of the issues that I want to touch on is medicines, about which the industry has spoken out very clearly in the past week or so.

The Government’s choosing to pass the deadline for extending the transition period, as we hurtle towards a potential no deal, was reckless and a monumental act of self-harm for this country. I want briefly to touch on three points. First, on the rights of EU citizens and naturalisation, I am concerned, given that we have already seen some rolling back from commitments in the withdrawal agreement, that the rights of UK citizens in the EU and EU citizens in the UK are at risk. In my borough of Richmond upon Thames, we have 14,500 EU nationals who are applying for pre-settled or settled status under the EU citizenship scheme. Back in May, the Home Office snuck out some guidance that made it harder for those with settled status to secure British citizenship. That has thrown several individuals’ futures into the air and, unfortunately, despite my letter on the topic to the Home Secretary on 29 May, I have yet to receive a response.

Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse
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Are we not talking here about the human cost of Brexit? We are talking about uncertainties, but it is important to look not just at business uncertainties but human people’s uncertainties, and the cruel situations that some of them find themselves in.

Munira Wilson Portrait Munira Wilson
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Absolutely. The business situation is also a human situation, because we are talking about the loss of jobs and livelihoods.

I want briefly to touch on agriculture and food standards, because my inbox has been overflowing with emails about this issue and the many concerns of constituents about the potential for undermining those standards as we enter into trade deals. The Liberal Democrats and others have consistently tried to amend the Agriculture Bill on its passage through Parliament to protect our standards, but the Government have refused to acquiesce on the point. In the case of the Trade Bill, they are refusing any democratic or parliamentary scrutiny. I am not sure how that is taking back control.

In the final area I want to touch on, I must declare an interest. Prior to coming to this place, I worked for nine years in the pharmaceutical industry and I still have a small shareholding in Novartis Pharmaceuticals. On medicines and health in general, it is clear that there is no oven-ready deal as promised back in December. In the midst of a pandemic, people are rightly worried about their health and several constituents have written to me about their concerns about the UK leaving the European Medicines Agency at the end of this year and what that might mean for the licensing of a covid vaccine or treatment. They are also concerned about us leaving the EHIC––European health insurance card––scheme that means that we can get treatment abroad and European citizens can get treatment here. The point about medicines and vaccines regulation applies equally to non-covid treatments.

Before anyone intervenes, I appreciate that the Health Secretary has made an announcement today about the UK collaborating with the US, Canada and other regulatory agencies on cancer medicines. That is welcome and I congratulate the Government on that, but we must remember that the UK is only 3% of the global pharmaceutical market, so if we go our own way on medicines, British citizens will be further back in the queue for new medicines and treatments. Let us not forget that. The deal announced today is only for cancer treatments and there are many other disease areas where British citizens risk being left behind and missing out on innovative treatments.

More pressing is the concern raised by European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations and the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry last week. With a supply chain already hit by the challenges of covid during the pandemic, they are very concerned that if we end up with no deal at the end of December, there could be real supply chain issues with medicines crossing the Channel. They have called for an urgent mutual recognition agreement to ensure that important tests and inspections are recognised either side of the Channel.

There is still a lack of clarity about how the Northern Ireland protocol will work in terms of regulated products such as medicines if no trade deal is in place and how medicines shipped from Great Britain to Northern Ireland will be treated on the other side of the border. While the deadline for securing an extension to the transition period has passed––though where there is a will, there is a way, so if there were a last minute change of heart, I am sure that the European Union would be all ears––it is imperative that in the short time remaining we secure the closest possible alignment with the EU in terms of customs, of regulations on medicines and other regulated products and of our food and agricultural standards. And let us not forget people––how we treat our EU citizens and how our citizens are treated in the EU.

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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.