[6th Allotted Day]

Part of European Union (Withdrawal) Act – in the House of Commons at 3:52 pm on 10th January 2019.

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Photo of Eleanor Smith Eleanor Smith Labour, Wolverhampton South West 3:52 pm, 10th January 2019

I rise almost a month to the day since the original meaningful vote on the Brexit deal was suddenly called off by the Government. Since then, nothing has changed. No new documents have come forward, and no further clarification or revisions have been made. I cannot support the withdrawal agreement and political declaration of our future relationship with the EU because the deal does not protect workers’ rights or trade union legislation. The document I have seen, which describes what the future relationship between the UK and the EU will look like, is only 26 pages. Those pages contain a few meaningless phrases about future legislation. On protecting workers’ rights they state that

“the UK will consider aligning with Union rules in relevant areas”.

As a lifelong trade unionist, I must ask what kind of deal to protect workers that is. Why have negotiations only achieved a vague wish list of the so-called “high standards”? The only thing that seems clear and certain is that this deal will make the country poorer and severely affect areas such the black country.

In the 2016 referendum, people did not vote to be worse off. The Attorney General has confirmed that this deal lacks safeguards to prevent UK employment rights from falling behind those of neighbouring EU countries. I am being asked to put on a blindfold and walk meekly into the Lobby, believing that the Government will guarantee the rights of working people, and that if I do not do that it will lead to a no-deal Brexit. It is unfair of the Prime Minister to seek to hold Parliament to ransom in that way. It means that working people have no way of knowing what the UK’s future relationship with the EU will look like, and how it will impact on their lives.

The Government have no record of standing up for the rights of working people in the UK—indeed, many Tory MPs have spent years undermining them. The Cameron Tory Government tried to introduce an anti-trade union Bill to take away many of the unions’ hard-won rights. The Government fought for years to defend the imposition of employment tribunal fees, which were scrapped only when the Supreme Court found them to be unlawful following legal action by the trade union Unison. Ministers are more likely to speak of a bonfire of red tape. The Secretary of State for International Trade, Dr Fox, wrote in 2012:

“To restore Britain’s competitiveness we must begin by deregulating the labour market. Political objections must be overridden. It is too difficult to hire and fire and too expensive to take on new employees.”

The Prime Minister has refused to rule out scrapping the working time directive, the agency workers directive and the pregnant workers directive. All those are in the EU and currently protect UK workers. After the 2016 referendum, the trade union movement was willing to sit down with the Government to discuss its members’ concerns, but the Prime Minister has failed to engage with and listen to trade unions and the millions of their members in this country who need a union to protect their working conditions and contracts.

We now have a deal that nobody wants. When article 50 was invoked, the Government should have called together the leaders of all the political parties in order to form a cross-party Brexit consensus to help in the negotiations with the EU. I understand that the Government have to rule, but this is a matter of such national significance—perhaps the most important event since the second world war—that it will affect our lives and those of generations to come. A strong leader would have reached out to politicians beyond their own party, rather than keeping it to a small clique within Government. Instead, we have a deal that satisfies nobody—neither leavers, nor remainers.

As politicians, we will be blamed for this mess, but the only people to blame are those who have been involved directly in the Brexit negotiations. It is for these reasons that this deal cannot command my support. If it cannot achieve the support of Parliament, the country will need to find a real alternative.