Beyond Brexit (European Union Committee Report) - Motion to Consider

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:25 pm on 12th May 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Ludford Baroness Ludford Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union) 6:25 pm, 12th May 2020

My Lords, I, too, pay tribute to the long and distinguished leadership of the noble Lord, Lord Boswell. His committee made a very useful report a year ago, but the regrettable delay in us being able to debate its sensible proposals for governance, transparency, influence and scrutiny has meant that in the meantime the situation has been transformed—for the worse; it has become more complex, unpredictable and dangerous.

Just over 18 months ago, the then Prime Minister Theresa May agreed with the EU a political declaration on the future relationship that envisaged

“an ambitious, broad, deep and flexible partnership across trade and economic cooperation … law enforcement and criminal justice, foreign policy, security and defence and wider areas of cooperation.”

The October 2019 version agreed by Prime Minister Johnson stated the same aim, in fact, apart from adding

“with a comprehensive and balanced Free Trade Agreement at its core”.

However, the broad objective was in fact still there, including the explicit reference to it being a possible association agreement. Yet somehow, in the last seven months, the objective of the Johnson Government has shrunk to no more than a Canada-type free-trade agreement, apparently shorn even of that breadth of economic co-operation and with a series of individual agreements, as tweeted by Mr David Frost, instead of the umbrella of a broad and flexible partnership and its accompanying governance arrangements.

We look forward to these drafts being published, in the same way in which the EU published its 440-page draft text two months ago. However, whereas the EU referred in its draft to a new economic partnership, that very notion appears to have been eradicated from the thinking of the present Government. They have resiled from what they sensibly signed up to just last October, preferring a messy set of 10 or maybe more separate agreements. This is at a huge cost. A month ago, the Office for Budget Responsibility said that a typical FTA would cost a potential 5.2% of GDP over 15 years through trade friction, restrictions on migration and red tape. Higher trade barriers would cause imports and exports to be 15% lower after 10 years, and UK productivity, already not exactly stellar, would also be lower. As my noble friend Lord Purvis of Tweed pointed out, the Government refuse to publish their own economic assessment of the Canada-style deal that they want with the EU, but they have done one on the claimed advantages of the US trade deal that they want—a measly maximum 0.16% of GDP.

Mr Gove told the Commons Brexit committee that he saw economic opportunities for people wishing to work as customs agents by filling in forms to allow trade with the EU. The private sector estimates a need for 50,000 of them; that is one example of the Government’s idea of a silver lining, I suppose. What an extraordinary ambition it is for a Government to embrace—to have less than before, to erect trade barriers where none had existed and to create jobs only in the red-tape industry, all in the name of sovereignty.

Noble Lords such as the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, have spoken in this debate about level playing-field issues in the economic sphere, but, like the noble Lord, Lord Ricketts, I want to dwell on those concerning justice and security. In last October’s political declaration, it was agreed that

“the scale and scope of future security arrangements should achieve an appropriate balance between rights and obligations—the closer and deeper the partnership the stronger the accompanying obligations. It should reflect the commitments the United Kingdom is willing to make that respect the integrity of the Union’s legal order, such as with regard to alignment of rules and the mechanisms for disputes and enforcement … It should also be underpinned by long-standing commitments to the fundamental rights of individuals, including continued adherence and giving effect to the ECHR, and adequate protection of personal data”.

Elsewhere in the political declaration, it was said that:

“In view of the importance of data flows and exchanges across the future relationship, the Parties are committed to ensuring a high level of personal data protection to facilitate such flows between them.”

However, the Government now seem to want the flows and exchanges without the commitments. It has been reported that they are seeking full access to the Europol database and the Schengen Information System, but in his evidence last week to the European Union Committee, Mr Gove gave as one reason for resisting EU regulatory standards that the UK could lose “freedom of manoeuvre” for data sharing across government departments to deal with Covid. That does not sound very promising in respect of securing an EU data adequacy decision.

In the same session, Mr Gove said, rather peevishly perhaps:

“I think that everything could be agreed—it all depends on the EU. For example, it would be within the EU’s gift to give us access to the Schengen Information System, but it insists that we submit to the European Court of Justice’s jurisdiction.”

Mr Gove absolutely knows that the EU is an organisation based on comprehensive arrangements of law, rules and enforcement. Indeed, elsewhere in his evidence he expressed satisfaction that equivalence in financial regulation

“is a rules-based rather than a discretion-based process”,

which means that

“the EU would not promiscuously and whimsically withdraw equivalence”.

Yet he expects the EU to abandon its legal and data rules and promiscuously use discretion to gift us access to SIS. This is not serious; it seems to be preparation for a later complaint that the EU is being beastly to us in denying us the opportunity to have our cake and eat it—all this while the present Government and their supporters play fast and loose over whether the Human Rights Act, or even our membership of the European Convention on Human Rights, is safe in their hands. This is not the basis for a security and justice partnership.

On citizens’ rights, I was pleased to hear Mr Gove say that the Government would want to “show flexibility and humanity” to EU citizens who miss the June 2021 deadline for applying for settled status, whereas, if memory serves, the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, said recently that they would be illegal residents after that date and thus subject to the hostile environment. Can the Minister confirm that there will be flexibility and humanity, not least for the looked-after EU children to whom the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham referred? It was also notable that Mr Gove told the EU Committee last week that the “moral and social case” was “strong” for accepting the plea, most recently from Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, for physical documentary proof of status. This is a plea our committee has repeatedly made. Will the Government accept it?

In this debate, several noble Lords, including my noble friends Lord Bruce and Lord Oates, have expressed great disquiet at the Government’s lack of action to implement the Irish protocol. I can only second that. Last week, Mr Gove said that opposing an extension to transition was not a matter of ideology but because it could mean that UK could be subject to EU laws and rules in a way that would not be in our interest in a range of areas. I have already referred to my fear that the Government want to diverge from EU privacy law. Can the Minister give any other examples of desired flexibility?

Surely, in any case, the pragmatic, non-ideological thing to do is to recognise that capacity and bandwidth for Brexit have been so diminished by Covid that an extension is just a no-brainer. We certainly need to try and keep a national Parliament office in Brussels on the premises of the European Parliament and to seek a joint parliamentary committee with the latter. However, I fear that our goals will fall foul of this Johnson Government’s lack of ambition for a real partnership with the EU. This Government need to show that winning friends and influencing people is indeed what they have in mind.