My Lords, this debate should have nudged the Government to make more rapid progress on Article 50 and the final agreement; to involve Parliament, the devolved Assemblies, consumers, unions and business; and to propose a transition period along the lines outlined by the Minister’s predecessor, the noble Lord, Lord Bridges. We particularly welcome him to the debate today.
We have heard many criticisms: of the Government’s response to a nine month-old report at 3 pm before a 4 pm debate; of the unwillingness of the Secretary of State to appear before our EU Committee, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Jay; and of the threadbare and, incidentally, undated position papers, which left the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham at a loss to know what the endgame is.
I have received some pretty flimsy Answers to many Written Questions that I have put, such as:
“The extent to which European Medicines Agency procedures will apply … after we have exited … will be subject to negotiation”.
I could have worked that out for myself. Other Answers said that the Government,
“are working to understand the impacts that withdrawal will have”,
including on the European Food Safety Authority, and:
“The Government is currently considering how to ensure functions … carried out by the European Commission … continue”.
These were 15 months after the referendum.
There is even an apparent backtracking on Parliament’s involvement, with the Minister seeming to recoil from the earlier undertaking of the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, that “a meaningful vote” on the exit deal would take place before that in the European Parliament. She said only that “We expect and intend” that to happen before the European Parliament’s vote. Of course, we are still awaiting clarification of the status of any such meaningful vote. And now we have Clause 9 of the withdrawal Bill, which allows Ministers to implement as UK law—by statutory instrument—anything in the withdrawal agreement, without primary legislation.
My right honourable friend, Hilary Benn, asked the Secretary of State for assurance that such Henry VIII powers to implement the withdrawal Bill would not be exercised until Parliament had had its vote on that agreement. He is still awaiting a reply. It is not just Parliament that the Government ignore. The Prime Minister has declined an invitation to address the European Parliament—the one Parliament which, under Article 50, must give its consent to the exit deal. Today, the Welsh and Scottish Governments, which have been completely sidelined in preparing the UK’s negotiating positions, have signalled their intention to withhold consent if there is no radical change to the Bill. Their legislative consent papers set out how they want the Bill to change. Without any concessions to these elected bodies, this House might have something to say.
Business wants to know more. The CBI has asked for the talks to speed up and to enable trade to continue without disruption. A survey of over 1,000 businesses showed that two-thirds need to know the details of transition arrangements by June next year, with one-third needing details by the end of this year. As the chief executive of London First said,
“we can’t afford to wait … the government must act now on a transitional agreement while setting out what the UK’s long-term future will look like”.
Meanwhile, unlike the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Rolfe, businesses do not like what they are seeing in the leaked immigration paper and nor do scientists, who fear it would lead to a brain drain. Please do not say that it is only a draft; it is all beautifully laid out, photographs and all—it looks a bit official to me. Consumer representatives feel totally excluded from the process, while the TUC says that the Government are heading for “kamikaze” Brexit, thanks to a near “criminal lack of preparation” for the talks. No wonder six in 10 voters have lost faith in the Government’s ability to deliver Brexit successfully.
Our Constitution Committee’s chair, my noble friend Lady Taylor, said that the withdrawal Bill,
“represents an extraordinary transfer of legal powers from Parliament to the Government … this is unacceptable”.
She goes on,
“we warned … that such powers must come with tougher parliamentary scrutiny … and we are disappointed that we have not only been misquoted by the government, but that our key recommendations have been ignored”.
If that committee thinks that the Bill has shortcomings, it should look at the position papers, which have been described today as—admittedly—“fine” and “useful” by some on the Government Benches, but more generally as “depressing”, “optimistic”, “magical thinking”, full of “meaningless phrases”, “vague”, “thin”, “so many words; so little substance” and, perhaps more seriously, “shadow boxing”, “playing hide and seek”, being “poles apart”, “counterproductive” and operating in a “parallel universe” from our EU partners.
The papers begin to acknowledge the challenge of exit but reveal a refusal to face up to hard choices—just 12 months from when a deal is needed. The European Parliament’s co-ordinator and President judged that it was unlikely that there would be sufficient progress in the Brexit negotiations by October to move on to the second phase of talks, which would mean that they could be delayed to December. We have just heard today that the next round of talks has been postponed by a week. Perhaps the Minister can tell us the reason for and implication of this delay.
Our future trading relationships with the EU will be crucial, so these second-phase talks are key, as the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, noted. The British Retail Consortium fears that unless the right customs system is in place, it will affect availability on the shelves and push prices up. Given that we produce only 60% of our food, and with three-quarters of food imports coming from the EU, we need to replicate the current EU food standards to allow smooth transit through customs and,
“avoid unnecessary interruption to trade”.
The BRC’s chief executive said:
“Getting this right is essential to ensuring UK consumers are able to buy the products they want after Brexit”.
With annual customs declarations to rise from 55 million to 255 million from 2019, the BRC said no deal could mean delays at ports of up to three days. For the food sector, exit day seems very close. According to the BRC,
“to ensure supply chains are not disrupted and goods continue to reach the shelves, agreements on security, transit, haulage, drivers, VAT and other checks will be required to get systems ready for March 2019”.
We have seen the boss of Sainsbury’s fearing that food could be left rotting at borders. The NFU has warned that the wrong exit could leave Britain with a bare larder, leading the NFU to want the UK to remain in the customs union, at least for a transitional period.
Meanwhile, Ryanair’s Mike O’Leary describes,
“a serious threat of no flights”,
from the UK to the EU unless the two sides strike a deal similar to the current open skies framework, although he sees little prospect of such a deal. The longer Brexit remains up in the air, the higher the risk that flights will be grounded—his words, not mine. Perhaps the Government’s next position paper might be on transport.
I say to the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley, and the noble Lord, Lord Cavendish, that I am very happy to produce our policy if they do not have time to look at the Labour Party website and read Keir Starmer’s position, or indeed for us to go to the other side and take over the negotiations. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Fairfax, that neither I nor my noble friend Lord Hutton—or any of the Opposition—are sniping from the sidelines. We are trying to prevent the Government making a hash of the exit process.
It is clear to business, Parliament and the devolved Administrations that our exit from the EU is far more complicated and challenging than the Government will admit. This points to the need for a transition period, as the Minister I think acknowledged today with her description of an interim implementation period. For the sake of business, this must be within the current customs union and single market, as businesses cannot readjust their processes twice. Whatever is finally agreed, new rules, regulations and paperwork—and all the associated training and preparation—will take time to design and to bed in. Could the Government therefore commit to work for this as a priority, to provide the clarity and certainty so urgently needed?
We have already heard about summer reading. Last week, I read Alice in Brexitland by David Davis—no, sorry, by Leavis Carroll—whose only happy words were the title of the final chapter: “It Was All a Dream”. Except it is not. The referendum asked that the UK leave the EU. It did not authorise this shambles of a negotiating Government, listening neither to business nor unions, neither to the devolved Administrations nor to consumers. It did not authorise a Government without a majority to bamboozle their plan through Parliament without proper dialogue and debate. We were always likely to need a transition period. Now it is urgent to settle that, on the current terms, so that we can have what the Government want—a “smooth and orderly” departure.