Now that the UK has left the European Union, our focus must be on getting a deal that protects jobs and businesses and allows British firms to trade freely, as well as guaranteeing the supply of goods and services and frictionless trade, which we were promised. The coronavirus pandemic has shown how fragile the supply chain can be both across Europe and globally, and the impact that disruptions can have on people’s lives as well as businesses.
We need a deal that safeguards workers’ rights and environmental standards, and protects the Good Friday agreement as well as maintaining access to medical supplies and ensuring that they are kept intact. Crucially, the deal should reject the sort of tariffs and barriers that make it harder to trade abroad, push prices up and make it more difficult for people who are already suffering.
The deal we strike must protect our citizens’ wellbeing and security. That is the first duty of any Government. Ministers have insisted on sticking to the timetable drawn up before the extraordinary challenges posed by the pandemic. It is striking that recently two thirds of the British people said they agreed with the statement that the Government should request an extension to the transition period in order to focus properly on corona- virus and dealing with its consequences. Ministers’ timetables take no account of the disruption to the negotiations because of covid, nor the dramatic effect on our economy. I do not need to emphasise the Bank of England’s prediction that we face the worst economic slump for more than 300 years, with unemployment set to double this year and youth unemployment set to reach 1 million.
Millions of people coming through the pandemic face redundancy and great uncertainty. Many thousands have lost loved ones. Others face losing their businesses, their homes and, at worst, a deep economic depression. Yet Ministers insist on pursuing the same course of action as before the crisis. When the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill was being debated, Opposition Members argued that it should be sensible and flexibility should be built in to keep our options open, but Ministers rejected that. It is like spotting the iceberg and still steering towards it.
The terrible economic prospects make a successful conclusion to the negotiations even more vital now for our country, security and wellbeing. That conclusion must ensure that even greater burdens are not placed on people and businesses. The signs are not promising. There has been a marked reluctance on the part of Ministers and the Prime Minister to provide regular updates. The Government are fearful of scrutiny, transparency and accountability. The fact that there has been only one statement after we requested an urgent question emphasises that. The chief negotiator said on Twitter:
that we made very little progress towards agreement on the most significant outstanding issues”.
Looking forward, it is crucial that we have a trade agreement that truly ensures frictionless trade and protects our rights, and that we protect ourselves against no deal and crashing out. That means that Ministers need to be responsible, recognise the new reality of the pandemic and the dangers to people’s lives and our economy, and ensure that we exit properly, without disruption and damage to our country.