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[1st Day]

Part of Debate on the Address – in the House of Commons at 7:45 pm on 21st June 2017.

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Photo of Heidi Alexander Heidi Alexander Labour, Lewisham East 7:45 pm, 21st June 2017

I do not believe that I am politicising this. I am expressing the views of a significant number of my constituents and people who live in London.

On the day on which the election was called, I was stopped by a constituent at Lewisham station. He simply said to me, “We have to stop the damage Theresa May is doing to our country.” I put that statement on every one of my election leaflets. His concern was about Brexit, about his job in central London, and about his ability in the future to pay for his home and look after his kids. The repeal Bill that was formally announced in the Queen’s Speech will not make him feel better, although it is lauded by some as a positive thing. It will incorporate EU law into our domestic law so that we can decide at a later date which bits we keep and which we do not. That is okay as far as it goes, but there could be a massive sting in the tail.

The process might, for example, include repealing the European Economic Area Act 1993, which underpins our place in the single market. I see no circumstances in which I could vote for us to leave the single market. The Prime Minister might want us to think that the EU and the single market are the same thing, but they are not—the lie has to be nailed. I want to stay in the EU, but if Parliament is engaged in a damage limitation exercise, we must stay in the single market and in the customs union. I am not prepared to risk the queue of lorries at Dover and the queue of people outside Lewisham job centre that is associated with the alternatives.

The UK should be a country in which businesses want to invest, not a country that businesses want to leave. We need to maintain the ease with which British businesses trade with their European counterparts and sell to European consumers. We have seen the list of companies setting up operations overseas and considering their next move. In London, firms such as Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs and Lloyds of London are moving jobs to France and Germany. Yes, those are City firms, but we should also think of all the other jobs linked to our capital’s status as one of the world’s financial centres: in retail, hospitality and events management; and those of the couriers, cleaners and caterers who are up at the crack of dawn and sit on buses running through my constituency to keep this incredible city running.

Services account for nearly 80% of our economy. The single market is essential if we are to continue to trade freely and easily. If we do not put the economy first in Brexit talks, we will crucify our public finances, and we can then kiss goodbye to the extra investment needed in our schools, hospitals and elderly care. These are political choices. Do we prioritise the economy or controls on immigration in the Brexit negotiations? I choose the economy. We will have an immigration Bill at some point in the next two years, but we have no idea what will be in it. We have a two-year Session because the Government cannot draft an immigration Bill, a customs Bill or a trade Bill until negotiations have advanced and they know what to put in them.

In the meantime we tread water. As a country, we control immigration from countries that represent 90% of the world’s population. We have the more relaxed system of freedom of movement for the 10% who live in the countries closest to us, which by and large enjoy a standard of living that is either comparable to or approaching our own, but even within that more relaxed system, we could have had—and could still have—greater controls within the overall framework: the need to have a job, for example, or to be self-sustaining after three months of being here. We have the laxest approach to freedom of movement. We have chosen not to place conditions on people coming here, but then blamed the EU for our own failure to enforce conditions that could be part of the system.

We now have a revolt against that and all that it entails. The truth is that we already see people not wanting to come here. They do not feel welcome and the value of their earnings has dropped because of the devalued pound. Our hospital wards, care homes, building sites, farms and restaurants will be left scrabbling around for staff while the Government work out what on earth to do. We need immigration in this country. In 1949, the year my mother was born, more than 730,000 babies were born. Average life expectancy stood at 68. Fast forward to 1975, the year of my birth, and the number of babies born was down to just over 600,000. Nearly 30% of births today are to non-UK-born mothers and average life expectancy stands at 81. Our workforce of tomorrow—the people who will start businesses, work in public services and pay taxes—is partly dependent on immigration. We should be honest about that.

When we talk in Parliament about the causes of and solutions to our housing shortage, and about the pressures on our national health service, we should spend as much time focusing on our ageing population as we do on immigration. It is not a queue of migrants that I see at the doors of A&E; it is a queue of frail, disorientated older people. When I go door to door, even in a relatively young part of the country such as Lewisham, I am amazed by the number of older people living alone, barely moving out of one room. A failure to have an honest debate about that, and a failure to look at the evidence and come up with real solutions, will mean we spend the next few years focusing on completely the wrong priorities. That is my fear with the Queen’s Speech. It is my fear about how the Brexit debate dominates everything else, and it is the responsibility of our politics, irrespective of party lines, to find some answers.