Brexit: Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration - Motion to Take Note (1st Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:53 pm on 5th December 2018.

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Photo of Lord Monks Lord Monks Labour 8:53 pm, 5th December 2018

My Lords, this morning my noble friend Lady Smith recalled that during the debates on the EU withdrawal Bill in April, a cross-party group of us moved an amendment calling on the Government to seek a parliamentary mandate to guide their negotiating stance with the EU, with the object of promoting some kind of common purpose in this country while there was still some time to try to work that out. I am pleased to say that this House supported that amendment while the other place narrowly did not—at least until last night when Parliament claimed a measure of control over a stumbling, fumbling Cabinet which, it should be remembered, could not produce a plan until the ill-fated Chequers arrangements were unveiled to a sceptical world. I now look forward to the view of the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, on last night’s developments, and inquire whether the Cabinet will now accept the fact that Parliament should do its job and sort out a mandate if, as is widely expected, the deal is voted down next Tuesday.

The Prime Minister has spent two miserable years trying to make sense of the decision to leave the EU. She has been trapped by her own red lines and the politics of her own party. We can now see the result: a deal with no clear position for the UK after the end of the transitional period; a deal wreathed in uncertainty about the medium-term future; a deal with humiliating supplicatory features. The Prime Minister’s determination has been admirable, her political skills—I am afraid—less so. As my noble friend Lady Smith put it, we are heading for a blindfold Brexit that offers no certainty after the implementation period for the working people and businesses of our country.

The best that can be said about the deal is that it is better than no deal—that disruptive act of self-harm, which still, rather surprisingly to me, has its adherents in this Parliament. On its own merits, however, the deal does not pass the awkward exam the nation posed to the Government in June 2016. What we need now is greater clarity about the future. The political declaration, in effect, just sets out a long difficult agenda of complex issues for further work and negotiations, all to be tackled in the transitional period. Much weight would rest on the phrases “best endeavours” and “good faith”, which are in the agreement.

I do not doubt the initial good intentions and good faith on both sides, but they are not certain to win through, and after a row on, say, fishing rights or Gibraltar—or it could be one of many other things that we cannot yet see—the whole negotiation could be blown way off course. The Swiss arrangements with the EU mean that the Swiss are involved in complex continuing negotiations as they chafe at the agreement they originally made. That is some kind of vision of hell for the future of this country—tied into perpetual negotiations trying to sort out problems with 27 countries from the position of an outsider. The only certainty is that this deal will leave the nation poorer than we are now, as the Bank of England tells us on a regular basis.

I want to touch on concerns about workers’ rights, which the TUC has expressed to Members of this House. There is a risk that during the transition period, rights in the UK would start to fall behind, despite the welcome assurances about UK employment rights mirroring those in the EU. This is because EU rights develop rather slowly, time is taken to secure an agreement, and then time is added on for national parliaments to implement them. Measures on the work/life balance, the gig economy and handling migration better are in the pipeline, but may not be ready until the transitional period ends, so British workers could well miss out—unless the Government commit themselves to mirror those rights in the longer term in UK law.

There are also problems with rights during the period of any Irish backstop, and with not being able to secure enforcement of rights once access to the ECJ ends. That, taken together, does not look like the basis for a level playing field for British workers to me. A temporary customs arrangement would help to avoid an immediate resurrection of a harder Irish border—although not necessarily for the medium or longer term; that is why the Irish backstop is there, after all—but how would a temporary customs arrangement help the UK to handle the movement of labour from the EU coming through Ireland to the UK? How would we combat the people traffickers who would stop unfettered access for all EU citizens to the UK via Irish airports and ports? The customs union alone does not tackle this major problem.

I agree with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, which said recently that,

“there is no such thing as ‘a good Brexit for working people’ in Northern Ireland or in the Republic of Ireland”.

I cannot see a good outcome for working people in the UK. I therefore live in hope that we can find a way to reconsider our approach to Brexit. The road to another popular vote, with a remain recommendation, is difficult to see. As a precursor, it would need determined leadership from Parliament and the Government and a degree of common will, which is not evident at present. If we cannot get there, we should look again at remaining in the European Economic Area and rejoining EFTA, not as a temporary arrangement but on a long-term basis. We should look to a revived and strengthened EFTA, exerting greater influence than it can at present.

I do not accept the characterisation of Norway as supine to the EU, as was made by the noble Lord, Lord Newby, and others. We could make that option work if my preferred option—to remain—proves elusive. In the meantime, I ask the House to back the Motion in the name of my noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon. Let us start again and go down a different path.