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[1st Day]

Part of Debate on the Address – in the House of Commons at 4:57 pm on 21st June 2017.

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Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Father of the House of Commons 4:57 pm, 21st June 2017

I am very reassured by that, because it means that in this global future, with all the new deals we wish to make—on the horizon that beckons before us of where we are going to go—in more than 50 countries we are going to continue on exactly the same footing as we are on now, taking on all the obligations of the existing EU trade deal and deriving all the benefits. I find that extremely reassuring, and my right hon. Friend and I should make an unlikely delegation to the Prime Minister to urge that upon her as the next step to take. I think the idea is—I will entirely welcome it, of course, when we are out of the EU—that we look forward to new trade deals negotiated with other countries, but I think we grossly underestimate the difficulty of doing that.

For example, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade visited the Philippines. He assured President Duterte how much we shared his values, which I found rather startling, but he was on a worthwhile mission of which I wholly approved, trying to pave the way for a proper free trade deal with the Philippines. It so happens that I have been to the Philippines several times: I have made political, ministerial and business visits, most of which have had, as part of their agenda, trying to promote trade and investment in the Philippines. It is not an easy market. The idea that we are going to make rapid progress in the Philippines should not take hold too strongly with my right hon. Friend and his colleagues. If he can make any worthwhile advances in less than a few years, it will be a quite remarkable achievement.

We might be able to get somewhere with New Zealand, and, when they have finished with TTIP, we might be able to get somewhere with President Trump’s United States, but there will be difficulties even there. We must have an agreement with the New Zealanders. They are our best friends in the world on this kind of subject, they run a very well-governed country, they are very well disposed to us, and they share our views on free trade. Nevertheless, their first demand will have to be the lifting of quotas and tariffs on lamb. That will pose problems for our troubled agricultural sector, so we had better prepare to handle that carefully.

The first demand of any American Administration—assuming we even get anywhere with the protectionist and isolationist current Administration—will be that we open up to their beef. Personally, I do not have any hang-ups about hormone-treated beef, but there will have to be some quite hard negotiations about exactly how far we are going to open up our market to the Americans, who are always anxious to get rid of their heavily subsidised agricultural produce. They will not regard us as strong bargaining partners in the situation we have put ourselves in. I shall not go on, but the whole idea of leaving the customs union has its limitations.

Similarly, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham chose to raise the question of our paying a financial contribution. Everybody is having to come to terms with that. I wish my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union well in the main negotiations at the moment and hope that he comes back with the best deal he can get, but he is not going to start the negotiations with the European Union on the basis that we repudiate all the legal, financial and treaty obligations that we have already signed up to, or without a proper, reasonable, objective division of assets and so on. I wish him well in getting a modest figure.

If we wish to have totally unfettered access to the market in the rest of the European Union, which I do, we are completely wasting our time if we turn up saying we are not going to make any contribution to the regional grants that are made to the less developed economies of, for example, eastern and central Europe, which is the basis on which those economies are prepared to enter into free trade with developed economies such as ours. No other country has an agreement with the EU that does not involve a contribution of that kind.

The reason usually given is that we wish to have more control of our borders and deal with the free movement of labour—the point made by Toby Perkins. I quite accept that we have a political problem in this country on the subject of immigration; we need to accept that in a serious, professional and civilised manner. I do not have personal hang-ups about immigration—it is certainly no question of culture, race, or anything of that kind, as far as I am concerned. I think British society is very much stronger, healthier and more interesting nowadays than it was in my childhood. I now live very contentedly in a multi-ethnic, multicultural, international society, and I think that is the way the 21st century is going to go in every developed country in the world.

The problem is the numbers of people coming here, but the problem is not, in my opinion, the numbers of other EU nationals in particular. That was not the surge in feeling that lay behind a lot of the votes in the referendum. There are people who do not like foreign languages being spoken on the bus, but I think that they are outnumbered.

It is undoubtedly the case—it is a fairly easy case to make—that EU nationals of all the ethnic groups in this country are the most likely to be in productive and valuable work and the least likely to be claiming benefit, and they are allowed here on the basis that they will take work. Since the referendum, there has been more serious discussion about the devastating effect it would have on various sectors of our economy and key public services if we started, with new rigorous controls, excluding EU nationals from coming here.

I have just had for the first time in my life first-hand experience of the best of the national health service, and the multinational teams who dealt with me at every level contained a very high proportion of EU nationals. The public do not actually get upset about German academics or Romanian nurses or Polish building workers; it is the sheer numbers of other immigrants who come here. UKIP, in its dog-whistle campaigning, always campaigned with posters showing brown or black people trying to enter this country. They never explained that for the huge numbers of people wanting to come here from Africa, the middle east, Afghanistan and so on it was an entirely sovereign decision for the United Kingdom whether they were given legal status to live here and nothing whatever to do with our membership of the European Union, which does not make the faintest difference.

I am quite clear that this country should behave in a civilised and responsible way towards the world’s poor, that we should certainly honour our international law commitments on this subject—on the law of asylum and so on—but we have to reassure people who decided to vote leave because they saw all those pictures of people on the beaches of Libya, and thought our borders had been lost and that it had something to do with the EU that so many of them were trying to come here. In fact, I think, a lot of the problem is not caused by the EU; it is a problem we share with the other nations of northern Europe in particular. Lots and lots of young men take the family savings and risk their lives paying people smugglers, and they mainly head for Germany, Sweden or the United Kingdom. We have been co-operating, and we should continue to do so, with the other member states on issues such as tackling the problem of crossing the Mediterranean, and sealing the outer European border but controlling it in a way that lets in people whom we need or to whom we have an obligation, moral, legal or otherwise. The idea that leaving the European Union means that people will stop trying to get across from Calais or Ostend is an illusion.

More importantly, our big problem, which is normally shoved under the carpet but has been mentioned several times in the media recently, is the huge number of undocumented illegal immigrants in this country. Nobody knows how many there are, but estimates vary between 400,000 and 1 million. Not surprisingly, following the recent horrific tragedy quite a number of them turned out to be living in this tower in North Kensington where we saw such appalling, heart-rending scenes.

All over the country, they are there. They are camping out near the channel ports. British people smugglers are bringing them in. There are people who have been refused asylum but have never left, people who have overstayed their visas. That is the real problem, but how do we deal with it in a way that is not merely cruel and inhuman? It is a tremendously difficult problem. We cannot just deport people who are probably using a false name, who are probably not giving their genuine nationality. We have to try to persuade some country to take them back because we want to deport them, but that country will deny that they want these people or that they are anything to do with them.

To start concentrating on freedom of movement of labour and trying to put in unnecessary barriers to people who, as every study shows, have been making a positive contribution to the economy of this country for most of the past few decades, is a substitute for facing up to the enormous problems of reassuring our public that we are not sacrificing our humanitarian values but we do understand that we cannot take the world’s poor and that we need some system to address that.