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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:34 pm on 12th May 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Labour), Shadow Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Charities), Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office, Constitutional and Devolved issues) , Shadow Spokesperson (Wales) 6:34 pm, 12th May 2020

My Lords, this was a farsighted report. It was produced over a year ago, and although today the world feels quite different—we have left the EU and we see the impact of the virus on both our economy and the talks, which were delayed and have now become virtual—nevertheless, the thrust of its analysis remains pertinent, despite the Government having dropped their plans for

“an ambitious, broad, deep and flexible partnership”,

and a move away from the October political declaration, signed by the Prime Minister, of which we have heard today. Furthermore, many of the 2019 report’s actors have changed, so it was David Frost, not a Minister, who was at the Zoom conference today negotiating the UK’s diplomatic, security and trading future.

The pandemic reminds us how global our future is and how important international co-operation needs to be. The historian, the late Michael Howard, said that

“all difficult problems must be addressed with partners and allies”,

while, in one of the most moving moments on VE Day, the German President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, looking back 75 years to when Germany was so alone, said,

“for us Germans … ‘never again’ means ‘never again alone’ ... We want more cooperation around the world, not less”.

As the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, said in introducing the debate, this is no time to pull up the drawbridge. Although social distancing is important, conscious political self-isolation will never be a long-term goal. The report that the noble Lord chaired urged the Government to engage with the remaining EU member states to seek to establish mechanisms for regular bilateral dialogue. Perhaps the Minister can tell us whether this has happened.

Britain stands on the brink of the worst recession since 1709, with huge implications for the type of deal that the Government should be negotiating, perhaps with a different trade deal from that envisaged a year ago, especially as the US—the potential market identified by the Prime Minister—becomes ever more protectionist, as noted by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell. We want to hear that our approach to the future deal is pragmatic and jobs- and economy-oriented, taking account of the likely reduction in air transport to the US and other distant markets. Can the Minister reassure us on that?

I do not need to repeat that one of the thorniest issues of Brexit—how to keep the Irish border free of checkpoints after Britain leaves the single market— has not been resolved. Throughout the UK, it is the implementation as well as the content of the final deal that is alarming business, farmers, lawyers, accountants and consumers.

With our EU exit having been moved from March 2019 to January this year since the report was written, the preparations for the agreed term is therefore shorter than the two years initially foreseen. The current deadline is not simply, in the Government’s words, June to start preparing for no deal but 31 December, when all the customs posts and tariffs must be in place, to say nothing of the paperwork. The Government, we hear, are training 50,000 form-fillers via Mr Gove’s customs agent academy.

The previous Secretary of State promised full and proper accountability to Parliament. He said that Parliament rightly expects that Ministers will be fully accountable to Parliament in the exercise of their duties on the future relationship joint committee. However, since the Prime Minister has taken political control of the talks, he has shown precious little inclination to report back and has failed to share the Government’s drafts either with Parliament as a whole or with a limited, confidential grouping of Parliament, or even, as the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, reminded us, with the 27 member states.

The Prime Minister also has failed to accord the devolved Administrations their proper role, as my noble friend Lord Foulkes and my noble and learned friend Lord Morris said. Despite a Written Answer I received from the Minister yesterday committing the Government to

“working closely with the devolved administrations throughout negotiations to secure a future relationship that works in the interests of the whole of the UK”,

I am told that engagement with the devolved Administrations has been superficial and tokenistic. They have not had sight of the legal texts and have had no opportunity to feed in meaningfully to the negotiating positions, even on issues which will fall to them to implement. Jeremy Miles, for the Welsh Government, called the engagement “deficient”, and while a meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee on EU Negotiations will take place later this month, it will be the first such meeting since January, and this at a time of supposedly intense negotiations.

Gibraltar also raises big issues at this stage of the negotiations. It has already faced having to make seismic and costly adaptations with only a very short transition period, but this is now compounded by the huge impact of Covid-19. It will be critical for Gibraltar to have some sort of cushion or breathing space, given it has had to borrow vast sums to handle the crisis. Indeed, should the 14-day quarantine cover Gibraltar, unlike Ireland, there could be added tensions with Spain or about the future deal.

In addition to Parliament’s role vis-à-vis government is the call by the new chair of the EU Committee, the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, for a structured inter-parliamentary dialogue as part of the future relationship. We look forward to the Minister’s response as to how the Government and Parliament can work to establish such an inter-parliamentary body.

We hear that the talks are not making good progress, with substantial differences between the two sides on the level playing field, fishing and much else, and with EU officials wary of British efforts to make rapid headway on securing a trade agreement, retaining access to the aviation market and other core UK concerns, while leaving fishing and other issues in the slow lane. Yet again, the Government seem to be scaling back their ambition for a UK-EU trade deal. First, we were promised the “exact same benefits” as EU membership, then Canada-plus-plus-plus, and now Michael Gove has confirmed that the aim is any deal which gives them the power to reduce employment and environmental standards. This approach puts ideology before jobs and our economy, as well as straining our ability to secure a good deal by December. A deal with tariffs on some goods would be significantly more complex to negotiate than the status quo of zero tariffs and zero quotas, and raises serious issues for the Northern Ireland protocol.

Therefore, can the Minister assure the House that, whatever it takes, our exit from the transition will be on terms that benefit our whole economy, our security and—vitally—our future relationship with the EU and its member states?