– in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 24th April 2023.
Before we start, Mr Speaker has asked me to say that Members who are able to bob to indicate that they wish to speak during the debate should do so. Obviously, if you cannot, we will take that into account. I should also say that about 13 Back Benchers are down on the list to speak in the debate. I know we have about three hours, but that probably means we will have to impose a time limit. At the moment, as guidance, Members might want to look to take about seven minutes, or something like that, given there are likely to be some interventions.
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered e-petition 628226, relating to the impact of the UK’s exit from the European Union.
It is, as always, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe.
The petition, as at 11 am today, had attracted more than 178,000 signatories. The number was changing by the minute, so it will be even higher now. I highlight that it remains open until
I am delighted to be leading the debate, not least because I wholeheartedly agree with the grounds of the petition and its request:
“The benefits that were promised if the UK exited the European Union have not been delivered, so we call upon the Government to hold a Public Inquiry to assess the impact that Brexit has had on this country and its citizens.
It is time that the people of this country were told the truth about Brexit, good or bad. We deserve to know how Brexit is impacting on trade, the economy, opportunities for young people and how it has affected the rights of individuals. This can only be done by an independent Public Inquiry, free from ideology and the opinions of vested interests.”
Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting Peter Packham, the man who started the petition. An elected member of the European Movement’s national council and a manager of one of its local branches, Leeds for Europe, Peter is a passionate pro-European campaigner, and I am delighted that he is able to join us in the Public Gallery today. I thank Peter and Leeds for Europe for their petition urging the UK Government to hold a public inquiry into the impact of Brexit, as well as everyone who signed it, because those actions brought us here for what I am sure will be an informative debate.
Concerns have been expressed that no impact assessment has been carried out to assess the damage that Brexit has created, despite the chairman of the Office for Budget Responsibility saying:
“In the long term, it is the case that Brexit has a bigger impact than the pandemic.”
The hon. Member is making a very good start to this important debate. Does he agree that one of the worst-affected sectors is the creative sector? Many musicians across the UK have been in touch with us as their representatives to say how they have been negatively affected by the lack of agreement between countries. I hope that he and others will refer to that in their speeches.
That is a good point well made. The problem we have with the debate is that so many areas have been adversely affected that even with the best part of 20 minutes, I will struggle to touch on them all. I look forward to other Members extrapolating from the points we start with.
A public inquiry has been set up to look into the UK’s pandemic response, so it is reasonable—I would suggest sensible—to also hold one on the impact of Brexit. The public have a right to know. Putting aside the fact that support for Brexit is at its lowest since the referendum, the impact of leaving the EU on the UK needs to become common knowledge. We need to know where we are before we can plot our way forward to where we want to be.
Some of those who felt the impact of Brexit most keenly were not old enough to vote. Children and young people have lost access to schemes such as Erasmus. Schoolchildren were stuck for many hours on coaches at Dover over the Easter holidays, and we had Conservative Ministers telling us that that had absolutely nothing to do with Brexit. Furthermore, the Tourism Alliance tells us that the number of schoolchildren coming from the European Union on school trips has halved because of bureaucracy around group visas and the inability to travel without a passport, whereas it used to be possible to travel on an ID card. Does the hon. Member agree that children and young people have fared the worst and that many people were not aware of that when the decision went through?
I thank the hon. Member for that point. I agree that young people have lost the most, but I hope that we can regain some of that for them in the future.
To put it simply, can we make Brexit work? I very much doubt it, but can we move on without knowing what the foundation is? The UK Government opened its response to petitioners by saying:
“The UK’s departure from the EU is the result of a democratic choice”.
For that reason, at the outset of the debate, it would be remiss of me not to point out that 62% of those who voted in Scotland did not want to leave the EU, with every Scottish council returning a remain majority. Just under 56% of those who voted in Northern Ireland did not want to leave the EU either.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that transparency is the key to all good governance and that, without knowing the impact of leaving the European Union, we will never be able to resolve the issues we have at present?
That is a very good point and one that I will also make.
It will come as no surprise to anyone that, as a citizen of one of those nations, those figures do not seem very democratic to me. It is not my place to comment on the Northern Ireland situation—
I’ll do that. Don’t worry.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman will.
It is not my place to comment on the Northern Ireland situation, particularly pertaining to the added complexities of what was the Northern Ireland protocol. However, I can say that the whole Brexit saga lays bare why Westminster is unfit to govern in Scotland’s interests. Indeed, not only has the Brexit debacle blown apart the case for Westminster control, but the ensuing debate has shown beyond doubt that the two major Westminster parties are committed to the damage that leaving the EU is having on trade and the economy across the UK, as well as on opportunities for our young people and the rights of individuals.
I apologise for jumping in on the hon. Gentleman quite so quickly, but he is making lots of really important points. Does he agree that one of the most valuable features of a democracy is that it has the potential for error correction? In other words, does he agree that, if people change their minds—as is increasingly the case with Brexit—the only logical thing to do is to change the decision that caused people to change their minds?
The hon. Lady makes a very good point. In a democracy, people always have the right to change their minds and we should bear that in mind at all times.
Before moving on to some of the evidence of the negative impact of Brexit, I want to mention that the UK Government’s response also said that
“the UK-EU institutions are functioning as intended.”
If that is the case, considering that the democratic will of the people of Northern Ireland was not met, it prompts the question of why it took so long for the UK-EU institutions to reach agreement on the Windsor framework. That breakthrough was surely not “intended” to take nearly seven years.
It is disappointing that a similar deal to Northern Ireland’s has not been afforded to Scotland, but that is not for this debate. I am sure that we can have fun with that issue in months to come. However, given the length of time it took to negotiate such a critical agreement, can the Minister tell us what progress has been made on negotiating re-entry to European projects that all four nations were removed from, such as Horizon Europe, Copernicus, Euratom, the European arrest warrant, Europol and the Schengen information system? It would be helpful if the Minister could also take the opportunity to explain why both the European Scrutiny Committee and the Lords European Affairs Committee are currently holding inquiries on the new UK-EU relationship. Perhaps he could suggest when those findings will be published to evidence the UK Government’s claim that UK-EU institutions are indeed functioning as intended.
Moving on to how Brexit is affecting trade and the economy, the Trade Secretary recently announced that the UK had reached agreement to join the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership—sometimes referred to under the acronym CPTPP or otherwise known as the Pacific rim trade deal—which will allow zero tariffs for 99% of goods exported to the bloc. Although the agreement has not yet been signed, the Trade Secretary claimed, in her excitement, that it would “open up our economy”. Good news, we might think—but, in the course of the announcement, she also said that we should “not keep talking” about Brexit. Well, this debate might disappoint her, as it shows that Brexit remains a live political issue. I align with the opinion of the petitioners that it will continue to be so at least until the facts are known, and probably for some time to come afterwards.
On the subject of Brexit being on everyone’s minds, for my constituents in Battersea it remains an issue and, for them, it has been an unmitigated disaster. Our economy is not growing, our rights and protections are being infringed and, more importantly, Britain’s standing in the world is also challenged. I have called on the Government to produce a cumulative impact assessment on the impact of Brexit. Does the hon. Member agree that any public inquiry must look at the cumulative impact of Brexit on our constituents?
I am happy to agree with that. The more I learn, the more I realise that there is no such thing as a good Brexit. I think we are all seeing that clearly.
The Trade Secretary’s reason for saying what she did could be that, according to the UK Government’s own scoping assessment, the shiny new CPTPP trade bloc deal will bring an increase of only 0.08% in GDP over a lengthy 15 years. The House of Commons Library reports that the economic benefits of CPTPP membership “appear to be small.”
The hon. Gentleman mentions the 0.08% boost to GDP promised by access to the CPTPP. Surely, in all honesty, for the sake of our economy the time has come to stop burying our heads in the sand. We cannot just multiply excuses; we have got to face the reality that Brexit is part of the problem. With that, from Plaid Cymru’s point of view, we should be looking to move towards rejoining the single market, but the first part is to recognise that there are multiple causes and that Brexit is a critical one of them.
I thank the right hon. Member for that intervention. It is fair to say that the economic impact of Brexit falls well short of the benefits that the UK enjoyed with EU membership; the OBR expects our withdrawal from that to reduce the overall trade intensity of the UK economy by 15% in the long term. The OBR’s latest Brexit analysis assumes that the trade and co-operation agreement, which sets the terms of the post-Brexit trading relationship between the UK and the EU, will reduce the potential productivity of the UK economy by 4%, largely due to the increase in non-tariff barriers.
In rebutting those figures during the CPTPP announcement, the Trade Secretary pointed out that the OBR’s forecasting was speculative. However, the OBR’s economic and fiscal outlook last month highlighted that it had been reviewing and refining its assumptions about the economic impact of Brexit as new evidence arrived and that, two years into the trade and co-operation agreement, the trends on UK trade volumes remained consistent with its assumptions. Additionally, the OBR forecasts stem from out-turn data published by the Office for National Statistics. The latest data from the third quarter of 2022 suggested that UK trade volumes remain 3% below their 2019 level, while there has been an average increase of 5.5% across other G7 countries. Similarly, trade intensity is 2.6% lower than its pre-pandemic level in the UK, yet it is 3.6% higher in the rest of the G7.
A recent study estimates that UK goods trade was 7% lower in June 2022 than it would have been were we still in the EU. All in all, in terms of trading, the Pacific rim trade deal, along with the already-signed agreements with Australia and New Zealand, which have yet to come into force, has limited positive economic impact to compensate for what we have lost due to the UK Government pushing through a hard Brexit deal outside the EU single market and customs union.
In December 2021, the National Audit Office predicted that the macroeconomic benefits of free trade agreement negotiations being carried out by the UK Government at the time would only increase the UK’s GDP by between 0.33%, at best, and 0.17%, at worst, after 50 years. From those projections, the USA was the biggest potential FTA partner. However, although negotiations started nearly three years ago, there is no trade agreement with the USA, and neither is one expected any time soon. The relatively modest economic benefits projected from the secured and proposed agreements by the Department for International Trade have therefore further decreased.
Compare that with where we were: part of the second largest and most-integrated world trading blocs, which also happens to lead the way in global standards and regulations. Maybe the Prime Minister’s idea about mandatory maths for everyone up to the age of 18 holds some credence after all, as the sums certainly do not add up. The Pacific rim trade deal also has wider negative impacts, such as its inclusion of investor-state dispute settlement clauses, which I am totally against, and environmental costs. For example, the UK Government’s own analysis stated that joining CPTPP is estimated to increase the UK’s domestic greenhouse gas emissions. How that complies with the UK Government’s net zero ambitions escapes me; perhaps the Minister can enlighten us on that point, too.
Like the Pacific rim trade deal, Brexit is causing damage on multiple levels, but I will try to confine my remarks to the specific issues that the petition mentions, and move on to how Brexit is impacting on opportunities for young people and on the rights of individuals. Before doing so, let me point out the obvious: the damaging impact of Brexit on trade and the economy undoubtedly has ripple effects on opportunities and rights. That said, I will start with the removal of the right to free movement—not just for work purposes—which puts barriers in place for both UK and EU citizens and causes workforce shortages in key sectors, including the crucial health and care sector, due to the simple matter of travel, which is now much less straightforward and flexible.
We have only to look back a couple of weeks to see the delays at Dover over the Easter break, which were caused by new passport stamping requirements, and we can look forward to worse delays to come when the EU’s post-Brexit entry-exit system, or EES, comes into effect next year. This new border control for non-EU travellers, which Brexit has made us, has been described as “anticipated chaos”—another Brexit benefit for us all to look forward to. Delays at customs are also a major headache for manufacturers, with 31% predicting that owing to new trading rules, customs delays will be the biggest risk to their company’s competitiveness in 2023, and 36% of small and medium-sized businesses are still struggling with the new customs procedures and paperwork.
There are also privacy rights, with the EU’s general data protections regulations thus far serving us well in protecting our personal data. To replace them, the Science Secretary has recently put forward the new Data Protection and Digital Information (No. 2) Bill to supersede its predecessor, which was repeatedly delayed. However, I have serious concerns that the Bill will, first, erode the high standards of data protection rights that UK citizens held as part of the EU GDPR and, secondly, further negatively impact on any review of the UK-EU trade deal if it fails to protect EU citizens. I want to see a commitment to robust data privacy protections and world-beating data protection regulations being maintained. However, on the Bill’s Second Reading last week, my hon. Friend Carol Monaghan put on the record that, with regards to how this piece of post-Brexit legislation will affect individuals’ rights, the Open Rights Group has said:
“The government has an opportunity to strengthen the UK’s data protection regime post Brexit. However, it is instead setting the country on a dangerous path that undermines trust, furthers economic instability, and erodes fundamental rights.”
Back in 2016, the Vote Leave campaign described EU regulations as excessive red tape. Like it or not, regulation is essential not just for the EU single market to function, but to protect workers. The UK Government’s Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill, which was brought forward despite it not being known exactly how many regulations it would affect, will enable the UK Government to abandon vital legislation that has protected people’s rights for almost 50 years. In Committee in the House of Commons, my hon. Friend Brendan O’Hara tabled many amendments that targeted multiple issues in that Bill, including about workers’ rights, food standards, consumer safety and the uncertainty facing businesses. It is a disgrace that those concerns were ignored by the UK Government and that all SNP amendments were voted down by Conservative MPs.
On the impact of Brexit on opportunities for young people, it is no exaggeration to say that it has removed their access to a European, if not global, labour market. Instead of prioritising young people, enhancing their opportunities and widening access to positive destinations to ensure that they get the best possible start in life, Brexit has stolen those prospects for success.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the particular impact on school trips has been enormous and that that does not just have a knock-on effect on our local economy here in London and across the UK, but tends to narrow the horizons in terms of friendship forming and all those other important and intangible benefits of doing school trips abroad?
I agree wholeheartedly with that. As a person who has benefited from town twinning and sister city deals over the course of my life, I can say that it weakens our soft power and our influence in other countries as well.
On top of all that, removing freedom of movement means that our young people can no longer study in EU countries without a visa, never mind gain experience of travelling or working in Europe. Additionally, there has been the UK Government’s decision to leave the Erasmus programme and all its related benefits, which have not been replaced by its UK replacement, the Turing scheme. Likewise, there has been a sharp drop in the number of new EU students enrolling in universities across the UK. Indeed, it was reported in January that the numbers had “more than halved”, with Brexit seen as the “primary deterrent”. Universities UK said that the increase in students from outside the EU had failed to
“offset the exodus of EU students at undergraduate level, weakening financial stability in some third-level education and reducing diversity across some subject areas.”
The head of global mobility policy at Universities UK said that the figures show
“very clearly the impact of the sort of loss of freedom of movement”.
This is impacting on research talent for the UK. My hon. Friend Owen Thompson raised concerns just last week in a debate entitled “Research and Development Funding and Horizon Europe”, pointing out that since 2014
“Scottish and UK universities have lost almost £1 billion in structural EU funds for research”.—[Official Report, Westminster Hall,
Vol. 731, c. 105WH.]
The manufacturers’ organisation, Make UK, has advised that Horizon Europe is a key area of funding for innovation in the UK manufacturing sector and will be important for growth in areas such as advanced manufacturing and digital processes. Yet, due to discussions still ongoing, UK-based researchers have been unable to access Horizon Europe funds.
I will conclude my opening remarks by saying that nearly seven years on from the Brexit referendum, the UK public are still waiting for the elusive “Brexit benefits” that were promised. It seems to me, having raised just some of the areas where leaving the EU has impacted on the UK, that the benefits of Brexit are pure fantasy. The economic fallout from Brexit is stark and it has been made starker by the current cost of living crisis that is being inflicted on households up and down the country. From my perspective, Brexit has been an unmitigated disaster—politically, economically and socially, for Scotland and the rest of the UK. The UK Government, of course, have a means to refute this. When major events occur, public inquiries can be held into matters of public concern to establish facts, to learn lessons so that mistakes are not repeated, to restore public confidence and to determine accountability. I do not think anyone here can deny that Brexit was a major event, and this petition shows that it is still a matter of public concern and that we will not stop talking about it—despite the Trade Secretary’s request. I am sure that I have barely scratched the surface of this matter. I look forward to hearing the other contributions to the debate, particularly the Minister’s response to the points that are made. I am sure we are all interested to hear about how the Government do not believe the UK’s departure from the EU is a subject for a public inquiry, which it clearly is.
Given the number of people who want to speak, we will opt for a time limit, starting with eight minutes. I call Adam Holloway.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe.
When 65% of the people in my constituency of Gravesham voted in the 2016 referendum, they cast their votes in favour of leaving the EU. They did so in the expectation that their views would be respected and in the hope that the Government would have the guts to make a success of it. In those ambitions, my constituents have not been well served. Their clear instructions to us here in Parliament were not respected. For years the Government, with the collusion of the civil service, treated Brexit as a gigantic, strategic mistake by the people of the United Kingdom, and they saw their role as one of damage limitation. But in 2019 the electorate had the chance to speak again, returning my right hon. Friend Boris Johnson with a huge majority, and he respected that mandate and was finally able to deliver Brexit.
It is faintly depressing to be here again ostensibly debating whether the benefits of Brexit have been delivered and whether there should be a public inquiry. In reality, we are arguing today about whether we should have voted to leave the EU or whether we should rejoin. For me, the single most important benefit of Brexit has been realised, leaving aside some slightly unhappy compromises in the Windsor framework, because our sovereignty has been repatriated. Many remainers seem to view our desire to govern ourselves as at best an outmoded and abstract concept, and at worst a front for baser impulses.
I will not. I came in here earlier, took one look at all the articulate advocates of remain or rejoin, and I thought that in the interests of my blood pressure, which I tested this morning, I would not give way—[Interruption.] I am sure the hon. Lady can address that in her speech: we have heard a lot from her on the subject already.
It is easy to undervalue sovereignty if the areas in which it was surrendered to the EU do not actually impact one’s life. It is easy to disdain patriotism if someone is economically and socially mobile and derives their self-worth from a well-paid job, or if their life is made easier by cheap labour as a result of free movement. In my constituency, EU membership has brought social problems, pressures on housing in the social and private sectors, enormous stress on public services and a sense of disenfranchisement. My constituents are not crazed nationalists. They are hard-working people who voted to take back control over the laws that directly affect their quality of life, and to have the right to vote out politicians who make laws that do not work for them. That power is important to them, and it is important to me that we deliver on that promise.
On the economic benefits of Brexit, we should have the courage of our convictions and stop being so cautious. It was encouraging to hear the Chancellor of the Exchequer, my right hon. Friend Jeremy Hunt, unveil his post-Brexit reform of financial services, which aims to give us a regulatory framework that meets the needs of our financial services industry and can respond effectively to emerging trends. With the freedom to diverge from EU law, we can now make substantial changes in many areas—for example, in the regulation of insurance firms. The risk margin, the capital buffer that insurance companies must hold, will be cut by 65% for life insurers and 30% for general insurers. The eligibility of assets that life insurers can use to match their liabilities will therefore be broadened. That will free up capital for investment in the UK economy and improve the competitiveness of the important financial services industry, bringing benefits to consumers.
The Government must stick to their promise to make substantial legislative progress in this area during 2023. Reform of the financial services regulations is just one area where we now have the freedom to extricate ourselves from a regime that was not designed with our best interests in mind.
There are a host of opportunities we must now seize. We must make progress with the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill, and we must take advantage of our freedom from EU control of state aid. We must make sure that our immigration system works for the people of this country. It is a difficult task to disentangle ourselves from a heap of legislation that we did not choose, but it is a vital job. We should be bold and move quickly.
I congratulate those who have made sure this petition has come to this House for debate today. I also congratulate Martyn Day on his excellent opening speech.
In Bath, 70% of my constituents voted to remain, and we remain proudly pro-European. Bath is an open, welcoming and international city. We understand that in our modern, interconnected world, wanting to just cut ourselves off and float into the Atlantic ocean is entirely unrealistic and, indeed, undesirable. Most of my constituents feel a deep sense of loss at our exit from the European Union, and many in our community are now paying the price.
Discussing Brexit has become a bit of a political taboo, shall we say. An inquiry into Brexit’s impact would help us face up to reality and it would give a true picture of the impact on people, business and the whole economy. We need evidence, not Government propaganda. There is now a large amount of data on the damage Brexit is inflicting on our economy, however it needs to be put out into the open, and that is why an inquiry into the impact of Brexit is so important.
We are the only G7 nation with an economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The OBR has said that leaving the EU will reduce the UK’s long-term GDP by about 4%. The OBR assumes that UK imports and exports will both be 15% lower in the long run than had we remained in the EU. It will leave a larger scar on the economy than the pandemic.
We should be making it easier for British small businesses to trade abroad, but instead they are now tangled up in red tape. Supply chains are drying up as EU businesses are voting with their feet. Why bother with the UK when other businesses across the EU are happy to take over? Brexit was always going to restructure our economy. The blunt reality is that fine-tuning and tinkering on the edges of our trading relationship with Europe will not be enough. Without a relationship based on trust and respect, we cannot provide long-term stability for businesses or the economy. That is at the heart of our debate today. Not only do we need an inquiry to show the evidence of the impact of Brexit, but we also need to restore our relationship with the EU.
Brexit has made this Government’s hostile environment even more hostile. EU citizens who had built their lives here were made to feel unwelcome. It is no wonder that so many have left. Among those were vital NHS workers, and the Government must face up to their role in forcing out the staff we desperately need. I am a European migrant who became a British citizen in 2007. No Minister can reassure me that Brexit was not meant to make citizens who were born in the EU feel unwelcome. I do feel that. It has had this effect, and it still does, and no amount of reassurance from the Government will change this.
Vital workers in vital professions are leaving. The Nuffield Trust has argued that EU-trained medics now face extra bureaucracy and higher costs. If pre-Brexit recruitment patterns had continued, the NHS would have 165 more psychiatrists, 288 more paediatricians and 394 more anaesthetists.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. Does she agree, however, that we are seeing that gap appear in employment across the board, because we have lost so many European members of our workforce? Before Brexit, in my city of Edinburgh, 50% of the workforce in hospitality—a vital industry—came from other European countries. Week after week, those same employers tell me that they now cannot fill those jobs. Does she agree that we are suffering that cost?
I am happy to agree. I could fill hours and hours with examples, but we have only a limited amount of time, so I am picking up on the NHS. Yes, absolutely, that is the picture across the board.
Each vacancy is hurting communities, as NHS patients face painful delays and waiting lists. Only one in three adults in Bath has been able to secure an appointment with an NHS dentist, and yet the Government refuse to recognise EU dentists’ qualifications.
Brexit is also destroying our cultural links with the European Union—that is one of the most painful things that I can talk about in a city such as Bath, where not only hospitality but entertainment and culture are such vital sectors. The UK music industry is world-renowned, deservedly so, and we should be proud of that, and do everything possible to promote it. That vibrant sector, however, is hamstrung at every step, with both EU and UK artists struggling to tour.
Visa and work-permit rules often vary between EU member states. Musicians are now forced to spend much of their time and money figuring out how to meet different standards for different EU countries. It is a devastating setback for artists who want to perform, not to battle bureaucracy.
Cabotage rules restrict UK hauliers over 3.5 tonnes from going to more than three different EU countries. The Association of British Orchestras says that those rules are increasing tour costs by up to £16,000 per day for orchestras using their own vehicles. That seriously restricts the viability of touring.
Another consequence of Brexit is more complicated customs rules. The ATA carnet required for moving unaccompanied instruments from the UK to the EU costs up to £310 plus VAT, plus a deposit of 30% to 40% of the value of the items. The carnets are also time-consuming to prepare and cause customs delays and concert cancellations.
Such barriers limit our cultural reach and stunt our £5.8 billion music industry. An Encore Musicians survey shows that 76% of musicians agree that it is likely that Brexit travel restrictions will stop them performing in Europe. We must establish exactly what difficulties our arts sector is facing.
I could point out more industries and more difficulties, as I said, but there is no time. Those are the realities that everyone in this country now faces. An inquiry would not be intended to go over old ground from the years of Brexit debates; it should focus on the here and now, without prejudice. The Government want to ignore the many difficulties created by Brexit and concentrate on what they class as our Brexit freedoms, but let us compare what was promised and what has not been delivered. Covering up problems will not make them disappear. We urgently need an inquiry to establish the truth about our exit from the EU. If we are going to solve the problems, we first have to acknowledge that they exist.
I thank Martyn Day for introducing this hugely important debate, and Peter Packham for starting the petition and organising it across the country.
More than 180,000 people have signed the petition, including 439 in my constituency. The numbers are rising all the time. That is a clear indication that the public’s patience with this Government’s botched Brexit deal has evaporated. The public want answers. Last week, an online poll of 1,340 voters by Omnisis showed that 59% thought that an inquiry should probably or definitely be launched, with just 25% against. We know why—because the Government are not giving answers to the questions. It should not take an inquiry to get the answers. Week in, week out, Labour has been raising the issues of the impact of Brexit. I understand the frustration of the public and why an inquiry is being called for.
An inquiry would be hugely expensive and it would take a long time, but people want answers now so that we can mitigate the damage being caused by Brexit. If, as Adam Holloway said, it is so wonderful, there has been a Brexit dividend and we are seeing the success, we would love to know where it is. Whatever people think about Brexit—whether they think it has been good for the country or not, and whether a Brexit dividend may come in time but just not yet—everyone should support an assessment being made of the outcome so far. Brexit has been such a defining political moment of our time and we need answers about what the result has been—importantly, to mitigate any damage being caused.
In December 2021, I called for a debate on the impact of Brexit and a region-by-region report. The then Leader of the House, Mr Rees-Mogg, gave me this response:
“We can start Prayers every morning…with a celebration of Brexit. We should have the Brexit prayer and perhaps even the Brexit song…because it has been a triumph for this nation in reasserting its freedom.”
I am not doing a very good impression of his accent. He said that we now have “happy fish” and that across the country
“there is general celebrating and rejoicing”.—[Official Report,
Vol. 705, c. 591.]
That level of delusion, flippancy and not taking the issue seriously is very frustrating for people across the country, and it is why they signed the petition in such large numbers. This cannot be the last word—just writing it off and saying that Brexit has been a success without giving evidence.
We need to know the impact because of the enormous political cost to our country of the Brexit debate. Big promises were made to voters before the referendum. Are those promises being delivered? We need to disentangle the impact of Brexit from that of covid, the energy crisis, the cost of living crisis and Ukraine, so that any problems that we face as a country cannot be written off as consequences of them. We need to find out the cost of Brexit and who is being impacted by region, age and sector. So many different places within our country are impacted—environmental standards, food standards, financial services, agriculture, fishing, the construction industry and the creative industries, including musicians. There is the impact on the workforce, especially in the NHS and health services; on education, educational opportunities, scientific research and school trips; on security and the loss of businesses—all those things are never brought together by the Government, so we cannot see the cumulative impact in all those areas.
Many different think-tanks and researchers are giving us the costs of Brexit, but we are not hearing definitive answers, despite Labour asking for them again and again. Bloomberg says that it costs the UK economy £100 billion a year. The International Monetary Fund forecasts that ours will be the only leading economy to shrink. The Office for Budget Responsibility concludes that Brexit will reduce long-run productivity by 4%. The Centre for European Reform said that by the end of last year the economy was 5%, or £31 billion, smaller than it would have been had we stayed in the EU. Surely with those figures, we need a better, clearer independent assessment of the facts.
The red tape faced by businesses is at a record high. Export declarations that businesses must fill in when moving goods from the UK more than tripled after the UK left the single market and customs union, while import declarations have increased by 50% during this time. Several businesses in my constituency of Putney have reported exactly that. We have lost 300 businesses in Putney, Roehampton and Southfields since 2021. I would like to know why, what part of it is owing to the impact of Brexit, and how we can course-correct right now to stop the damage.
The music industry has been mentioned already. The failure to secure ease of access for touring bands across the EU is embarrassing and ludicrous. Surely that can be changed. School trips from and to the European Union have been reduced. The School Travel Forum reported a reduction from 13,000 overseas trips in 2019 to just 2,500 in the first eight months of last year. Obviously, part of that is the impact of covid, but a huge part is the change in passport requirements and the increase in visa costs for parents, which has increased the administrative burden. That can also be changed right now.
Then there is the impact on the workforce. Many EU citizens who have left were key workers, and the backbone of our public services. All working people deserve to know the impact on our healthcare facilities. Every healthcare facility I visit tells me that Brexit has a clear impact on recruitment and the delivery of healthcare. Labour keeps asking about and exposing the impact on working people, and the Government must answer our questions.
I hope that the Minister shows more humility in his response to this debate than the former Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for North East Somerset, who I quoted at the beginning of my speech. The Government cannot run from scrutiny on Brexit forever. The public deserve answers. They deserve honest reflection, hard facts and figures, and a plan to put right some of the worst damage of Brexit. I hope to hear that from the Minister.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr McCabe. The people of East Dunbartonshire voted overwhelmingly—71.4%, to be precise—to remain in the European Union, as did people right across Scotland. The desire to remain in—now to rejoin—the EU has only risen in the years since Brexit, as each impact has cut deeper. A public inquiry into those impacts is not an unreasonable request; I support it. If the Government truly believe in their Brexit benefits, they should put them to the test with a public inquiry.
The impacts of Brexit—everything that the people of Scotland have lost out on—have not been inflicted in our name, nor apparently under the banner of Brexit. This Government have been taking great pleasure in denying that much of what we are debating today has anything to do with Brexit. In their response to the petition, the Government stated that leaving the EU was a “democratic choice”. Yes, the Government exercised a referendum and put the decision to the people, but leaving the EU was not the democratic will of the people of Scotland. If the democratic will of the people is the Government’s trump card in this debate, why do they continue to deny the people of Scotland the right to hold an independence referendum? This is not a British Government that we voted for. To be clear, the impact of this Government’s policies, from Brexit to austerity, is not representative of the progressive values of the majority of people in Scotland.
Let us think back to all we were promised if the UK left the European Union: increased trade with the whole world, saving £350 million a week to spend on public services, and controlling immigration and our borders. In the years since Brexit, Britain has become far more insular; trade is down across the board, and neither of the Government’s plans to turn that around will have much impact, even by their own assessment. That is all while trade has soared across Europe. England’s public services are a mess, and they are underfunded.
A hostile environment to immigration has left us with significant skills gaps and certain sectors with large-scale recruitment issues. Those include, but are not confined to, the culture sector, the hospitality sector and our public health services across the UK. Others have expounded on some of those issues; I will focus on the NHS. Staff shortages in the NHS are one of the biggest issues we are facing at the moment, due to people from European countries being unable to live and work here with ease. Participation in Erasmus+ was ended when EU membership was not a barrier to that opportunity, and Scotland has certainly not seen any of the money that was going to be saved.
This Government will continue to deny most or all of what we are debating, but the long and short of it is cold, hard facts, with an evidence base that cannot and should not be denied. Take the UK’s economy as an example; it is the slowest growing economy in the G7. The former deputy governor of the Bank of England, Sir Howard Davies, stated that Brexit is
“one of the reasons why we are now at the bottom of the growth table in the major industrialised countries.”
That is on Brexit, and it is on the Tories. The OBR chair, Richard Hughes, has said that the UK’s economy is 4% smaller in GDP terms because of Brexit. The Government deflect and try to blame our shrinking economy on the war in Ukraine. It is shameful to blame that illegal war instead of acknowledging that it is a mess of their own making. Again, that is on Brexit, and on the Tories.
There is now unnecessary red tape when travelling to the EU. Those wanting to visit for 90 days or longer must apply for a full, long-term immigration visa, with associated costs and hassle. UK travellers have lost the automatic right to fast-track passport and customs queues in EU member states, and may be asked for proof of funds and a return ticket when entering an EU country. To what benefit? Again, that is on Brexit and the Tories.
Leaving the European Union is not what Scotland wanted, and the impact of being dragged out shows exactly why. Life is hard enough, and leaving the EU has only made it harder. Life post Brexit has only been made worse by our Government denying what was promised to the people across these four nations who voted to leave in good faith. There is a shrinking economy, understaffed public services and no freedom of movement —stick that on the side of a bus. Where Westminster continues to fail us, the people of Scotland will look ahead to a bright future, one without this place, without austerity and without a Tory Government we did not vote for—we will be an independent nation within the European Union.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I will make some specific comments in relation to Northern Ireland shortly, but I will first make some common points that apply UK-wide. Before getting to those, outside the Northern Ireland issue, which has been prominent in recent months and years, it is rare that we have a more general debate in this place about Brexit itself. Brexit has fundamentally changed so much in relation to the UK economy and our ability to influence transnational issues, such as crime and the environment. It has diminished the UK’s international standing. The UK is not as powerful a voice on the world stage as it was previously, when the European Union served to amplify that voice.
It is useful to drill down into the notion of sovereignty. For me, sovereignty is about the ability to do things, rather than some abstract concept. But even if we look at the abstract concept of sovereignty, that the UK was able to enter the European Union and also leave it proves that the UK had sovereignty all along. It was through pooling that sovereignty within the European Union that we were able to deliver collective outcomes for people right across Europe and, crucially, for people within the UK.
On that point, Adam Holloway mentioned that the laws that the EU created were not ones we chose. The fact is that we had MEPs who were on those commissions and the committees that decided those laws. Actually, the British voice was a leading light in many of the changes that were enacted. There were certainly changes that needed to be made in regards to the processes, but we had a seat at the table.
I agree. We will soon discover that in many respects, by design the UK will have to be a rule taker. It is in the fundamental interest of the UK economy to follow rules that are essentially set at the European level, but we will not have the important say that we had previously.
Like Layla Moran and many other colleagues in today’s debate, including Hilary Benn, I sit on the UK Trade and Business Commission. Almost every week we hear evidence from a range of experts and other stakeholders who set out huge concerns about the impact of Brexit on their sectors. It is accurate to say that the UK economy has seen seriously constrained growth as a consequence of Brexit. Of course, there are other issues, but Brexit is by far the major stand-out factor that differentiates the UK from its main competitor nations in the developed world.
The trade deals that are happening around the world will never compensate for the increased trade barriers that we have erected with our closest and biggest external trading partner. It is one thing to say that the European Union is not growing at the same rate in terms of international trade; having a trading partner that represents 30% to 40% of our international market compared with a partner that grows from 0.1% to 0.2%, while maybe a radical change in the level of trade on the surface, does not amount to the same impact on UK business. Also, we have discovered that freedom of movement applies in two directions. Who knew? Constraints on the ability of others to come here applies to UK citizens seeking to move overseas.
I want to focus on the impact on Northern Ireland. In some ways, I feel slightly humbled in this respect because we have had, at the very least, the benefit of the Windsor framework. I put on the record again my appreciation for those who were involved in reaching that agreement, both on the UK side and in the European Commission. At best, the Windsor framework is a soft landing for Northern Ireland, but Northern Ireland will still suffer many of the same problems that the UK as a whole is facing from Brexit, as well as some further particular challenges that are unique to our own geographical situation on the island of Ireland.
Perhaps the most apparent consequence is seen in our governance. I have no doubt that my colleague, Jim Shannon, will express a different view on this when he speaks, but for me our governance worked based on sharing and interdependence. It relied upon the joint membership of the UK and Ireland within the single market and customs union, and that in turn allowed us to have those interlocking relationships, within Northern Ireland, on the island of Ireland and within the UK, allowing a balance of different identities to be expressed without that much encumbrance. Brexit—particularly a hard Brexit—will threaten some people’s sense of identity and create some degree of economic friction. The Windsor framework has gone a long way to mitigate some of that, but it only applies to goods and not to the other fundamental freedoms around services, capital and the freedom of movement.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful point about how important the Windsor agreement is. Does he therefore agree that one of the egregious things about Brexit is pushing things such as the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill, which, in and of itself, fundamentally undermines the Windsor agreement by removing all those alignments of laws around goods and indeed services on which the Windsor agreement is based? It just reflects how Brexit has blinded people to what is in the best interests of people, whether in Northern Ireland or the rest of the United Kingdom.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for those comments. I had hoped that wisdom would eventually prevail in relation to that piece of legislation. It is not just pointless but needlessly self-destructive, and it will pose particular problems to Northern Ireland, given that we do currently do not have a functioning Assembly, and if the current sunset clause—at the end of this year—still applies, we do not actually have the space to put in place successor pieces of regulation to cover for all the gaps that may or may not emerge. There is also a very particular challenge to the fundamental freedoms that are set out in the Good Friday agreement, and transposed in terms of article 2 of the protocol, which has now itself become the Windsor framework.
It is important to recognise that we are making these comments today in the context of the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement, which happened earlier this month. Last week, there was a major conference at Queen’s University in Belfast. We had the Prime Minister over there, pledging his ongoing support for the agreement and praising all those who have got us to this particular point, without at the same time recognising that some of the policies that the Government are pursuing in relation to Brexit, including retained EU law, pose a major threat to people’s rights in Northern Ireland.
Beyond the issue around the movement of goods, there are issues in terms of access to labour and skills, which are particularly problematic in our economy. Like everywhere else in the UK, services are by far the largest aspect of our economy. The contrast on the island of Ireland is now becoming incredibly stark. Northern Ireland is going through major difficulties, not least due to our lack of a functioning Assembly and Executive. We are also facing into a budget crisis and we have very sluggish economic indicators. By contrast, our friends on the other part of the island are actually expecting a massive surplus, potentially as much as €20 billion, over the next couple of financial years. They have much higher growth than Northern Ireland; their productivity levels are much higher. And that is creating a major tension for an economy that competes in that all-Ireland context as well as in a pan-UK context.
I want to put another point on the record, Mr McCabe. I have no doubt that other Members will wish to pick up the loss of European Union funding, which was so crucial for some of the more marginalised parts of the UK. I appreciate it is a particular factor in Wales, but also in places such as Merseyside and Cornwall. What has replaced it through the shared prosperity fund simply cannot compensate for what has been lost. It is undoing what the Government are notionally trying to do in terms of levelling up because the money simply is not there.
The same applies to research funding. The UK is internationally renowned for the quality of our research and development, our universities and how we innovate. Again, through not being part of Horizon Europe, we are losing opportunities. It is a matter not simply of funding, as important as funding is, but of the international collaboration and the networks. Speak to any scientist—they will say that all this has to happen at scale, and we have to be part of those networks. The UK is going through a process of needlessly marginalising itself. I very much welcome this petition and would embrace an inquiry. It is only through proper discussion of these issues and having an honest conversation that we can begin to undo the damage that has been done over the past few years. I look forward to a mature reflection on what needs to happen to restore the UK’s place in the world.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. For many of us, the impact of our exit from the European Union is painfully clear: business owners have struggled to navigate a new and confusing trade landscape; holidaymakers have been met with queues at Dover; and shoppers have struggled to cobble together the produce to create a salad. Yet the Government continue to deny that these issues have anything to do with their Brexit deal. Their insistence on avoiding the obvious is deeply frustrating, and it is undoubtedly this sense of frustration that has led so many people to demand the inquiry we are here to discuss today.
I want to focus on areas where there can be little doubt that Brexit has had a negative impact: on businesses, artists and musicians, and the care sector. Business owners are facing additional costs directly because of Brexit. Many have made their feelings on this clear to me, with one expressing his frustration at the amount of time and money he now spends specifically on completing additional paperwork that did not exist prior to our exit from the European Union—and he was not the only one to describe the heavy bureaucratic load imposed on him by Brexit.
The quarterly Buckinghamshire Business Barometer shows that a significant number of businesses in my area are facing these increased costs. One of its reports states that 42% of businesses in Bucks face higher costs as a result of increased red tape, nearly a third are paying extra tariffs or taxes and a quarter are paying the price for changes to their supply chain. For small businesses who cannot afford to outsource or employ someone to deal with the additional red tape, the strain can be immense. More than one small business owner locally told me that they were on the brink.
Chesham and Amersham is also home to a significant number of artists and musicians who previously drew a chunk of their income from touring in Europe. As other Members have alluded to, in sharp contrast to the freedom these artists previously had to tour, they now have to apply for visas and work permits, and the instruments and equipment they need also often require additional paperwork and permissions. One constituent who works for a prominent opera company told me that the extra burden they now face makes it much harder to put on a show—potentially prohibitively so.
I will finish by sharing the experience of a care company that serves my constituents. Its owner told me recently in emotional terms how most days he has to tell someone that he cannot provide the care they are seeking for a loved one because he just cannot find the staff. The loss of skilled workers from the EU is having a direct impact on our ability to care for the sick, elderly and vulnerable. Our health and social care sector needs more staff, and while we should certainly invest in training more workers here in the UK, that will not address the immediate shortages we are facing today.
The impact of our exit from the European Union has been wide-ranging, and the many members of the public it has affected both personally and financially deserve honesty and accountability from the Government. We cannot begin to fix things until we have an honest appraisal of Brexit’s impact, which is why we need an independent inquiry.
I am not sure whether everybody on this side of the Chamber will be cheering as much when I am finished, but that is by the way. We hope to have an engaging debate; hopefully, we can agree to disagree on some things. There are probably some outstanding things to mention, but I thank Martyn Day for introducing the debate, which he did in a very balanced way. We have some differences of opinion in relation to where we are, but I am a strong believer in democracy and the democratic process. Whatever the process and whatever the outcome, I believe in democracy. It is the foundation that my party, the DUP, was built on, so I wholeheartedly believe in the result of the Brexit vote.
I voted for Brexit and, just for the record, my constituency of Strangford voted 56% to leave and 44% to stay. Over 90% of people in the fishing village of Portavogie endorsed Brexit, so there is a wish in my constituency to see Brexit delivered. I am the first to say that my full support lay with exiting the EU and the repercussions that have come from it. Unfortunately, we are seven years on from the referendum, yet there is still outstanding work to be done on how we can make the best out of the cards we have been dealt.
Why did Portavogie, in my constituency, vote so wholeheartedly for Brexit, as I and many others did? It was because they saw opportunities for a sector that would not be restricted by Brussels when it came to fishing issues. They saw job opportunities and the potential to invest, and they wanted the total allowable catch to be in the hands of Westminster rather than Brussels. All the red tape over the years is an issue that we felt particularly strong about. For that reason, Portavogie and my constituency felt that it was important to move forward.
I am conscious of the time, and I will probably have to curtail some of my speech. The agricultural sector—not just the factories we have, but the farmers who sell their dairy produce—is so important to my constituency of Strangford. An example is Lakeland Dairies, which has somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000 workers in factories and on farms. Brexit gave Lakeland Dairies the opportunity to gain other markets across the world. The company has advanced that with zest, enthusiasm and energy, and I am very supportive of it, as I know others are. It has the opportunity to sell its products in the far east, South Africa and South America, and its European markets have still been retained.
I do not think it is possible to have a discussion about the UK’s exit from the European Union and not discuss Northern Ireland. We all have different opinions—rightly so—and today we will have to agree to differ about what is best for the UK and, more importantly, for our constituents. I am no stranger to saying how wonderful my Strangford constituency is; I think it is the most beautiful constituency in the world, which is just the way I feel. I will maintain that as long as I can. It is so important to me. I will always work to ensure the best for my constituents, including single-parent families, local dairy farmers, working-class families of four, local business owners and many more.
It became blatantly clear to me and many of my constituents that the many plans and policies that the UK Government had set out for Northern Ireland—whether that devised by Mrs May at Chequers, the Northern Ireland protocol Bill or, indeed, the Windsor framework, which Stephen Farry referred to—were simply not going to work. We have a difference of opinion, but we are still friends. There is no harm in having a difference of opinion.
Northern Ireland is still not where it needs to be. For me and my constituents, that is simply not good enough and there is still work to deliver. When the protocol was introduced in 2021, it meant a significant change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, because article 6 of the Act of Union (Ireland) 1800 was suspended. For me and my constituents, the constitutional position is really important. We may have a difference of opinion on that here, but it is really important for the constituents I represent. It was supposed to protect the integrity of a new regime in Northern Ireland.
The burden on local businesses in my constituency has proven to be instrumentally damaging to them, and it often still feels as if we are no further forward. On paper, the Windsor framework did sort out some of the green lane issues, but it has not sorted out all the outstanding issues. For example, I make the point about the agricultural sector. In my constituency of Strangford, as well in the Mid Down, North Down and South Down, in Stirling across the water and in north-west England, cattle sales are so important, yet we are still subject to some of those rules under the Windsor framework. Indeed, if people do not sell their cattle, they have to put them under quarantine for three months. That is just one example.
The other outstanding issue, which again is not a Brexit issue but is certainly a framework issue, is the legal opinion of the Stormont brake. All the legal opinion that we have gotten back tells us that the Stormont brake is not binding. The legal opinion that others have gotten back—be it the Orange Order individually, the Loyalist Communities Council across the water or even the European Research Group here—is not binding. One classic example of how it is still not good enough was released in the News Letter just last weekend. A haulier from Randalstown spoke to News Letter on the impacts the so-called green and red lanes are having on Northern Ireland trade. He stated:
“The notion of a red and green lane is very binary. As far as haulage is concerned, there is no green lane between GB and Northern Ireland—none whatsoever. The only green lane is actually between the EU and Northern Ireland via the Republic.”
This is the reality for Northern Ireland, and it must be recognised by the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister. The haulier added:
“in many cases, it could mean the business asking ‘can I actually do this work’” and that
“It could ultimately come to, ‘can I actually survive’”.
That is a question on the lips of Northern Ireland hauliers. They are not seeing the benefits yet.
We have witnessed other impacts, such as on visa holders and on young people, especially regarding UK participation in the Erasmus programme. There is no doubt that constituents from across the entirety of the United Kingdom have felt some impact from Brexit, but, as a Strangford MP, I stand here in defence of my local business owners and constituents who simply say, “It is not good enough.” While the decision of any vote must be respected regardless of the outcome, we must not allow the people who voted to get us here in the first place to be under any kind of pressure, hence my frustration at this process.
I hope these conversations do not end and that reassurance can be provided to our electorate that, no matter what the outcome of a vote is, we will always do right by them. At the moment, Northern Ireland has not had the Brexit that it voted for, and that has to be addressed.
The question in this debate is a simple one: what has been the impact of leaving the European Union? I was much struck reading the Government’s response to the petition, which was quite dismissive and defensive. In essence, they said, “It was a democratic decision so there is nothing to look into here. Nothing is happening.” Of course, a democratic decision has been made and we remainers—with the exception of Jim Shannon and the Minister—lost.
Adam Holloway made the point about sovereignty. I met many people during the campaign who made that argument. Indeed, they said, “I don’t care about the economic impact. My sovereignty is more important.” I respect people’s right to hold that view; I fundamentally disagree with it. But what was unforgiveable was to claim that we could have all our sovereignty, keep all the benefits of being a member of the European Union and get further benefits on top of that. It simply was not true, and we now know it was not true. Therefore, those who argued for us to leave the European Union are now in a state of confusion and denial. That is what is going on, particularly around the economic consequences. If we do not understand what those are, how on earth are we going to build a different relationship with our European colleagues over the months and years ahead?
It is interesting that a number of hon. Members present have been on the UK Trade and Business Commission, reference to which has already been made, and I have had the pleasure of serving with them. We felt it was important to ask the question and then let the evidence speak for itself. If people want to come before the commission and say, “It’s wonderful—look at these opportunities”, I would love to hear from them. Not many have done that.
The truth is that Brexit has had a bad impact on the economy. I was really struck by the statistic that showed that the number of small businesses trading goods with the European Union declined by one third between 2020 and 2021. That is not entirely surprising, because it is small businesses that find it most difficult to cope with the burden of cost, bureaucracy and red tape. Brexit was sold as getting rid of cost, bureaucracy and red tape, but it has dumped the biggest load of those three things on British businesses that we have seen in our lifetime.
We will be the worst-performing large economy in the world this year, and business investment as a percentage of GDP has stalled since the referendum in the UK. It is worth reminding ourselves that the Office for Budget Responsibility said that Brexit
“will result in the UK’s trade intensity being 15 per cent lower in the long run than if the UK had remained in the EU. The latest evidence suggests that Brexit has had a significant adverse impact on UK trade, via reducing both overall trade volumes and the number of trading relationships between UK and EU firms”
Ironically, while all these costs have been imposed on British companies exporting, the Government have not yet introduced full checks on goods coming into the United Kingdom from the European Union. Why? Because they are afraid of shortages and delays. So the sovereignty that has been gained is not being used to apply the same checks going one way as we are facing the other way.
The trade deals have been referred to. I was struck when the former Environment Secretary, George Eustice, described the Australia agreement as being
“not actually a very good deal”—[Official Report,
Vol. 722, c. 424.]
because we had given far too much away. We all know that is the case. What of the promised trade deal with the United States of America, which was the biggest argument we heard? It is absolutely nowhere to be seen. It is not happening; it is not coming. The fundamental truth is that if we make trade with our biggest trading partner more difficult—that is what we have done—we should not be surprised if it has an adverse effect on the British economy, at a time when we need all the growth we can get to help our constituents.
We have heard about employers finding it hard to get workers. When the commission met people at a fruit farm in Kent, I was struck when the owner said, “Last year, I couldn’t pick 8% of my crop because I couldn’t find enough workers. Do you know what I am doing this year? I am planting less crop and I am going to import more fruit from the rest of the world.” What a wonderful advert for British economic growth if that is the conclusion that farmer came to!
As I look at these issues as a member of the shadow Environment, Food and Rural Affairs team, it is really ironic that we are finding less UK production and more imported directly from the EU. That is a negative impact of Brexit, rather than a positive impact of us being able to trade out. That is exactly the opposite of the claims made and exactly why we need something like the petition suggests.
Indeed, that is the case. We want as much export opportunity as possible, but if we make it more difficult for our businesses, we should not be surprised if it damages people.
The other irony about sovereignty is that the Government said, “We will use our sovereignty to introduce a British version of the REACH chemicals regulation,” but they have just postponed that for the second time, not least because the British chemical industry has said, “You know it’s going to cost us about £2 billion for absolutely no purpose whatsoever—to get us back to where we were when we originally got our chemicals assessed under REACH.” The UK conformity assessed mark, which is meant to replace the CE mark that we find on the bottom of many goods, has been postponed by the Government again because a lot of British businesses say, “What is the point of doing this?”
On the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill, which is an artificial mechanism to try to force through changes to retained EU law, I remain of the view, despite the concerns expressed, that by the end of the year we will still be in alignment with a lot of EU law. That is partly because we argued for a lot of it in the first place—it was not imposed upon us; we were part of the decision-making process—as well as because a cost comes to the economy from diverging from the rules applied by our biggest trading partners. Every company that exports to Europe will make their goods to the standards set by Europe, whatever the British Government think, because that is what they will do if they want to continue to trade.
It is striking that for those who argued so strongly for the benefits—no “downside”, only “upsides”—all those quotes have come back to haunt them. They find it difficult to know what to say, so they try to blame remainers. It is like all revolutionaries, if I may use the analogy. When the revolution does not quite work out, they say, “But comrade, it was not applied with sufficient vigour and purity”—an argument that some Members in the Chamber might be more familiar with than others.
The truth is, and this is the hard part of the debate, that we cannot simply reverse what has happened. When I look not at the governing party, but at the other major parties represented in the House—with the exception of the SNP, which wants another referendum for another purpose—none of those parties is saying we should have a referendum after the next election to see whether the British people want to change their minds. We know that we cannot reverse it just like that.
The Green party wants to rejoin
“as soon as the political situation is favourable and the right terms are available.”
That is interesting. I understand the Lib Dems want to rejoin the single market once
“the ties of trust and friendship are renewed.”
The truth is that we will have to build a new but different relationship with the European Union, which will take time. Who knows what it will look like or what this country will look like in 10, 20 or 30 years? We have to be honest about the effect that the change has had on our country and our economy. That is why the question needs to be asked.
It is a pleasure to follow Hilary Benn, who chaired the Brexit Select Committee so effectively when I was a member. As we have heard, 178,000 people signed the petition. I thank each and every one of them, and I thank Martyn Day for presenting the debate.
It appears the UK Government do not believe that Brexit is an appropriate subject for debate. People watching at home will have realised that we are holding the debate in Westminster Hall, not in the main Chamber. We are not holding it in Government time. It seems the Government do not believe that Brexit is a subject for a public inquiry. I appreciate that many Government supporters will want to leave the division of the Brexit years behind. They say, “Brexit is done and dusted, so let us put the tensions of the past few years behind us and get on with reaping the benefits of Brexit.”
I opposed Brexit, as did my right hon. Friend Liz Saville Roberts and my hon. Friend Ben Lake, as well as my party and my constituents. I concede that not everyone in Wales did—we lost by a short head—but a recent poll by Focaldata shows that people who regret their decision to leave outnumber remaining Brexit supporters in every constituency in Wales. Apparently, every constituency in Wales is now of that opinion.
As to Brexit’s benefits, I would dearly love to see some benefits. They would suit the people of Wales just fine, but as yet the benefits are singularly elusive. The Government face at least two ways on this. They say that Brexit is an event that is over and done with, setting us upon the sunlit uplands, so let us get on with it. Or they say it is an ongoing process, and at some undefined point in future the benefits will appear. Well, they cannot have it both ways. They cannot have a process and an event. It is one or the other and, quite obviously, Brexit is a process that, at the very best, is bogged down and not delivering or, at worst, a process that will deliver nothing but further chaos, decline and poverty.
With trust in the Government at such a low, the Conservatives and their friends continue peddling the patent myth that the UK’s economic malaise is the result of the war in Ukraine or the aftershocks of the pandemic, and so on. The facts of international comparisons on inflation, growth and a host of other measures are against them. As we heard from Adam Holloway, who is now inexplicably absent from his seat, finance is being favoured ahead of other sectors—certainly ahead of manufacturing. A practical example is the decline of the Welsh steel industry, which is being accelerated by a trade policy that deliberately strains supply chains.
At the other end of the scale, in my own constituency the Menai mussel industry, which was thriving—thriving on the basis of exports, mainly to Belgium—has seen its business model wrecked by post-Brexit rules and it has more or less disappeared, in the short term at least. Welsh businesses are struggling to cope with mountains of Brexit red tape just to trade with our nearest neighbours. Many have simply given up.
One example that will interest the House is that of Seiont Nurseries, which I referred to in the Chamber last week. Seiont Nurseries, which is in my constituency, exports live plants to Ireland. In my constituency, and in that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd, we can actually see Ireland in the uplands—it is just over there. We can see the lovely green hills of Wicklow, which is where the plants go. However, Neil, who runs Seiont Nurseries, has found that the only practical way of exporting his plants is not directly through Ireland, which is just over there, but rather through England, Belgium and France, down to Normandy or Brittany and over the long sea crossing to Ireland.
I raised that with the Secretary of State for Business and Trade last week, and her eventual response was that Neil could always use the green lanes. Either she does not understand that the green lanes go only to Northern Ireland—perhaps she does not understand the difference between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland—or possibly she had no answer and, in desperation, reached for the first thing that came to mind, which was green lanes. That is completely useless for my friend at Seiont Nurseries. That is just one small, practical example of a small business that is struggling with the effects of Brexit.
[Peter Dowd in the Chair]
The first step towards understanding the Brexit debacle and what needs to be done would be an independent public inquiry into the Brexit campaigns: what was said, what was promised, what was delivered, what will never be delivered, who has benefited and who has lost out—not least, as was referred to earlier, in Wales losing out on EU funding in the universities sector, which is very close to my heart. We have seen only this weekend the problems around rejoining Horizon. The Government are apparently demanding a rebate for the two years when we were unable to join it. Why were we unable to do so? I will allow hon. Members to guess, but apparently we need a rebate for those two years when we were not members of Horizon.
We can reckon up only when we have some answers to those questions. If this Government and their campaigning friends are as confident of the propriety, wisdom and value of Brexit as they seem to be, they have nothing to fear.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Dowd. I congratulate Peter Packham on starting the petition and Martyn Day on introducing it with such customary eloquence.
My Brighton, Pavilion constituency has the second highest number of signatures to this petition, with 655 of my constituents signing it. I know very well that many more than that support it, so I am pleased to be able to represent them here today. One of that number wrote in an email about the debate:
“I firmly believe that the public were misled systematically by campaigners for Brexit before the referendum. Although it is unlikely that the decision will be reversed, I believe that the record should show the truth, not a fantasy.”
That short, simple message encapsulates many of the important reasons why I think we need an inquiry and why I back the call in the petition. I believe that if a sufficient number of people over time choose it, there is a way back into the European Union. That is the virtue and beauty of democracy.
The referendum campaign and the subsequent narrative about Brexit have been a litany of misinformation and disinformation. The infamous words on the side of the bus are just the tip of the iceberg, but let us start there, with whether £350 million a week has been diverted from the EU to the NHS. As we have heard several times this afternoon, the simple answer is no. The NHS budget in England alone has risen by more than £350 million a week since 2016, but that money has come from taxes, borrowing and squeezing other Departments. It most certainly has not come from savings arising from Brexit, for the simple reason that those savings did not materialise because the overall economic impact has been so severe. If the public hoped for a transformative sum for the NHS post Brexit, they most certainly have not received it.
Turning to the economy, during the Chancellor’s recent autumn statement, he spoke for almost an hour without once acknowledging the economic catastrophe of Brexit. There was no reference to the OBR’s warning that Brexit will slash productivity by 4% and lead to a 15% drop in trade intensity and an 11% drop in investment, or that it will increase food prices and deliver lower wages, workforce shortages and the highest inflation in the G7.
I, too, am a member of the UK Trade and Business Commission, which is expertly chaired by Hilary Benn. Since July 2021, we have been taking evidence about the impacts of Brexit, and, as the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk has pointed out, we have not heard of the positive impacts that were promised. To the contrary, we have heard time and again all the evidence of pain, particularly for small businesses. We have also been examining why Brexit is seen as the primary reason why we are the only G7 country that is still not reaching post-pandemic levels of growth.
While the Government keep their head firmly in the sand and continue to deny the existence of anything other than positive outcomes, they cannot begin to adapt to and resolve some of the many problems that we are hearing are caused by Brexit. Misleading the public includes wishful thinking. Who can forget the endless conjuring of sunlit uplands, the ignoring of reality, the telling of only half the story, the cherry picking and, frankly, the plain lying? It all happened during the Brexit campaign, and it has been happening since. Independent scrutiny and inquiry would help set the record straight.
The vilification of free movement by the leaders of the Leave campaign was one of the most pernicious examples of disinformation. They wilfully perpetuated a hostile narrative about immigration, deliberately conflating asylum seekers, economic migrants and refugees, and whipping up hatred and racism in the process. This was disinformation at its most destructive. No wonder they are now so afraid of light being shone on those impacts.
That brings me to democracy. In the wake of the referendum, I set up an initiative called Dear Leavers. We went around the country visiting the places that had registered some of the highest numbers of leave votes and listened to people who voted leave. The overwhelming message was that people voted for Brexit because they felt powerless. They felt unheard by a political establishment that had not listened for decades. The tragedy is that the political establishment is still not listening, and people still feel powerless.
Democracy, scrutiny, accountability and responsiveness have all been victims of Brexit. Evidence and experts were derided, Parliament was illegally prorogued and international law was trashed. We had unsettled constitutional questions and opposition to a ratification referendum. There has been an impact on the incredibly precious Good Friday Agreement, and we now have the dangerous Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill. Opposing a public inquiry into these matters only adds insult to injury.
To return to my constituent’s view that the Brexit decision will probably not be reversed, it is with great sadness that I see that the Labour leadership has capitulated to the tyranny where even to talk about rejoining is somehow judged to be anti-democratic. I want to talk about it. The Green party wants to talk about it. I think the public deserve for us to talk about it. If rejoining the EU is the right thing—for our economy, our environment, workers’ rights, young people, our public services, trade and more—we should take that step when the time and conditions are right. We should be preparing for that possibility by taking a step-by-step approach, with steps such as negotiating membership of the customs union now; full engagement with Horizon; regular adjustments to the trade and co-operation agreement to ensure that our interests are best supported; a general approach of maintaining alignment with EU regulation—that means seeing the back of the deeply dangerous Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill—and the ongoing rebuilding of diplomacy and, I hope, of our reputation as a trustworthy partner, which has frankly been trashed.
I want to talk also about the status quo in this country, because the leave vote was a howl of rage about legitimate concerns, which have still not been addressed. The social contract remains broken, and the power game remains rigged. We did not leave the EU because of anything that had happened in Brussels or Strasbourg; we left primarily because of what had happened in England, because outside the capital, every single region of England voted to leave the EU. It is meant as no disrespect to Wales—which voted by a majority of only about 80,000 to leave—to say that it was an English vote that drove Brexit.
It is significant that the highest vote in favour of leaving the European Union was recorded in Blaenau Gwent. Blaenau Gwent is the constituency that received the highest level of European funding, but it is also the poorest constituency in Wales. That reinforces the point that the hon. Member is making: it was a howl of rage against poverty, marginalisation and all the rest of it.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman very much. I believe that one reason why there was such a howl of rage in England was that, while devolution has given powers to Scotland and Wales—not enough, but some powers—there are no political institutions that represent England. There is nothing to give political expression to our complex, rich reality, and nothing to bring power to the regions of England. It is no wonder that people voted to take back control, but they want control from Westminster, so that they have the right to make decisions about their own lives here. Rethinking our constitutional settlement more fundamentally is also key to mending some of the divisions in the UK. Brexit was the result of a divided UK, and it threatens to divide us still further unless we build a democratic consensus about changing that, together, for good.
It is a pleasure to have you join us to chair this afternoon’s debate, Mr Dowd. I am sorry that Adam Holloway is no longer in his place, because in his contribution he embodied the challenge that we face in this debate. Indeed, it might be argued that in what he said, he reflected Oscar Wilde’s very famous statement that “patriotism is the virtue of the vicious”.
In the absence of the hon. Member, let us correct the record on what he said about insurance and use that as an example of why we need better information in this debate. He said that leaving the European Union would somehow mean that we could deal with the level of risk that insurance companies have to account for. Actually, the European Commission is already looking at and reforming those rules, so we could have done that work with it. As ever with the idea that the benefits of Brexit will appear, the benefit that he talked about with the matching adjustment is something that those in the financial sector have expressed caution about. Although it may benefit the shareholders of insurance companies and lead to higher fees, those policyholders and pensioners who are dependent on insurance policies may well face higher charges. That in itself embodies the difficulties that we face in this debate—the messy reality of what Brexit is doing.
I have no desire to rerun 2016, when the damage in 2023 is so apparent. The hon. Member for Gravesham talked about parliamentary sovereignty and mentioned the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill. My right hon. Friend Hilary Benn will be pleased to hear that I absolutely agree with him about the reality of what will happen to the laws, but I’ll be damned if I will take lectures about who is more patriotic! Who is better at standing up for parliamentary sovereignty than those of us who are fighting a piece of legislation that will lead to 5,000 areas of law being transferred not back to this Parliament to make decisions on them, but to the Executive behind closed doors in No. 10?
The truth is that we know what damage Brexit is doing to our country, and we have seen it for years. Members have already talked about many of the impacts, including the shortages of people working in our hospitality industry and in health and social care; the blunt economic damage; the thousands of small businesses in constituencies across this country that have just given up trading—one of the truisms here is that people can fight many battles in life, but they cannot fight geography—because being able to trade just as easily with 500 million consumers on our doorstep does make a difference; the supply chains that have been severed by our leaving the European Union; the wealth of paperwork that so many people now face; and the impact that it has had on the cost of living.
That is the second truth in this debate. The public know when they are being gaslighted. They can see that other countries have experienced the impact of Vladimir Putin but are not facing the same challenges as we are. We have higher food costs because, oddly enough, there are longer queues at the border to get things here. There are problems with production lines, as Hywel Williams articulated so well. People can see that their kids are sitting in coaches at the border for hours on end and they know that that is not going to stop any time soon.
The London School of Economics estimates that leaving the European Union added £210 to household food bills, costing UK consumers a total of £5.8 billion pounds, so we cannot be a world-beating international leader if we are only doing it in our own backyard. We cannot do competitive trade deals when we are a smaller nation—not part of a bigger conglomerate—negotiating with others. That is why the Americans are not going to put us first in the queue. Every single industry, whether insurance or manufacturing, is facing a choice between following UK regulations or European regulations if it wants to be able to trade with the bigger market.
The damage is clear. People can see the disruption. They can see the disruption in Northern Ireland. That is why I am not surprised that fewer than one in 10 among the British public claim to see a personal benefit to Brexit. When asked what that benefit is, only a third felt they could actually name something. It is the same for the national interest. We know that this is not going well, and we cannot see how it will get any better. We also know that time is of the essence and that the damage being done grows every day. Jobs that were here are going overseas. Businesses are relocating. They are retraining people in Belgium, Germany and France so that they can continue trading.
Why, then, am I frankly ambivalent about this petition and the idea of a public inquiry? First, there is no formal mechanism for following up on an inquiry. We have seen the track record of this Government when it comes to public inquiries and listening and learning, and it is not great. As of last November, there are 14 open statutory public inquires, covering everything from covid to Grenfell to the Edinburgh tram system. The inquiry into undercover policing has gone on for eight years and cost £60 million, and we still have no idea when it will make recommendations. For me, politics has always been about priorities. I cannot ask the people in my community, who are struggling with the cost of living rises that have been fuelled by Brexit and can see opportunities slipping from their hands, to wait any longer to see the benefits of Brexit.
I am a patriot. I love my country, and that is why I will fight for its future, for those jobs and for those industries. That means being ruthless about what we spend our time and effort on now, and it means absolutely holding this Government to account for their failure to recognise that Brexit cannot work; it is just a series of problems to be sorted. The sooner they are sorted, the sooner we will stand a chance of offering our kids a future.
How do we do that? We must work out how to get direct access to the single market. We must work out how we deal with the paperwork. Whether as part of the pan-Euro-Mediterranean convention or a bespoke customs union, we have got to get on and start talking to the Europeans about it rather than questioning whether they are friends or foes.
We must get on with getting the visa system sorted out, so that the creative and touring industries and our healthcare and hospitality sectors do not fall apart and so that young people do not lose opportunities. Those who work for businesses are being told, “Look, do you have a European passport? If you don’t, forget about it; we’ll go to someone else in the business.”
I will now turn to the importance of the freedom to work to our economy. Brexit will already reduce long-run productivity by 4%, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility. The truth is that this country was struggling before Brexit, but Brexit is like going on holiday and setting fire to the hotel room because you realised on the first day that there is no pool in the complex. It is making things fundamentally worse. The honest truth—for those of us who care about the truth and who care about this country—is that we should not let the Government get away with spending hours talking about whether the last seven years have been any good. We have to be focused on what can happen in the next seven years.
I will hold every Government to account for what they are doing to sort out access to those jobs and to that trade, and to help the small businesses that are looking at the pile of paperwork and thinking, “I just cannot cope with it any more.” It is too important not to. We can have a public inquiry—we can go down that alley—but, frankly, I would much rather solve the problems that Brexit has created. The people in this country—those of us who are real patriots—need and deserve nothing less.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I am grateful for the opportunity to debate this issue and for the petition, which has given us the time to do so. This Government may not be interested in the damage that they are causing to so many, but the public clearly are. Unsurprisingly, that includes Oxford West and Abingdon, and it is no great surprise that we were in the top 10 for numbers of signatures—I can fully understand why.
Whichever way we cut it, this Government’s botched deal with Europe has been an unmitigated disaster for this country. It has made the cost of living worse for every household in Britain. It is the reason why we are in the relegation zone in the global growth league tables for developed economies, behind Russia. It has made all of us poorer. We see it on our supermarket shelves, which have been empty at points. When I asked the Prime Minister about that he blamed the weather and the war, but he could not answer why they have not had the same problems in the European Union. There is an obvious answer for that. The fisherman and farmers who are tangled in red tape used to only have to complete one step in order to export their produce to the EU. Now, some face 21 stages. We see the effects in the NHS and social care, with doctors, nurses, care workers, and dentists. In Oxfordshire, 10% of our workforce came from the European Union and countless numbers of them have left. That has been repeated around the country.
Above all, it is small businesses that have been affected. I am also a member of the UK Trade and Business Commission—a poor member, as I do not go as often as I would like. Every time I go, or when I read the reports, it is small businesses that are hit the most. It is obvious to see why. The British Chambers of Commerce membership survey shows that more than half of respondents were facing difficulties in adapting to the new rules, because they are complex and changing and businesses do not have the resources to do it.
As important as the economy is—and it is desperately important now—the impacts are not just economic. Brexit has also stopped collaboration. That was what the European Union was always about; it was about pooling our resources, collaborating with others and sharing ideas. Nowhere was that more important than in science—I say that as a former science teacher.
It was never just about the money. Brexit has stopped crucial collaboration with European partners to do the research to beat cancer, for example. That is because the Government did not seek associate membership of the Horizon scheme at the point of the deal. Students are also missing out in that formative exchange year, with the Government’s bargain basement replacement being underfunded by more than £20 million when compared with the final year that we were in Erasmus. To the punters who were looking forward to watching German punk band Trigger Cut, I can only apologise. That band was turned away at Calais, thanks to the Government’s red tape and not having the right paperwork.
The Government’s fingers are in their ears. Despite all the extraordinary damage, this issue has become the elephant in the room of British politics. They do not want to talk about it. That is why a public inquiry is important. No one here is trying to prosecute the arguments of the past. We are where we are—regrettably. If we do not cool-headedly look at what has happened, then how on earth are we going to repair it?
Rather than trying to repair it, this Government seem intent on making it worse. We thought that the Windsor framework was a moment of pragmatism from the Government, which until that point had used Brexit as a stick to revive their dwindling poll ratings, trying to sow division when they should be looking for pragmatic solutions. It gave me some hope that we were moving on and that the Government were leading from the front—well, that seems not to have happened.
Since then, the road to Horizon Europe has been open, but Ministers are now stalling. I sincerely hope that the Minister present addresses the point: why are our Government stalling, when there is no reason at all why we cannot rejoin Horizon Europe? Time is of the essence. I have spoken to researchers who are looking at where we are now and making decisions about the next academic year—it is happening now, and we need answers immediately.
There is also the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill, which is frankly a monstrous piece of legislation, not only one that threatens comprehensively trash this country’s standards on everything from sewage to workers’ rights, but one that trashes our reputation on the world stage. I was heartened when the Government delayed the Bill in the Lords, but reportedly it is now back on the agenda. I give notice that the Liberal Democrat peers stand ready and willing to undo as much as possible of the damage that it will cause.
However, why are we still in damage mitigation? It feels like groundhog day. The tragedy is, at a time when we desperately need the economy to grow, Ministers refuse to play our trump card, which is fixing our broken relationship with Europe. That starts with getting real about the downsides.
The Liberal Democrats have a plan. Yes, we do want to seek being at the heart of Europe again. That will surprise no one, but we recognise—as many in the Chamber do—that we are nowhere near that. We have so much work that we need to do before we get to that point. Our plan has four steps. The first is the low-hanging fruit, the immediate action that we need to take. Earlier, we heard from my hon. Friend Munira Wilson, who made the point about schoolchildren, which has been echoed across the Chamber: why on earth can we not have a bespoke deal for schoolchildren on buses? How many of them will be an issue for either economy? They are just not an issue. Let us get on with the obvious, common-sense things that we need to do, which will start to rebuild our relationship.
Secondly, we need to go further, seeking co-operation agreements and, for example, a full return to Erasmus-plus or an agreement on asylum, which would make a huge difference to one of the Prime Minister’s priorities: small boats. Thirdly, we need to negotiate greater access to the single market for our world-leading food and animal products—also known as a veterinary agreement. We need to secure deals on sector-specific work visas, which would benefit the NHS in particular, and we need to re-establish mutual recognition of professional qualifications. Finally, as mentioned earlier by Hilary Benn, yes, we should be seeking membership of the single market. It might be the single market with its customs union—things will have changed slightly by then, and we would have our own deal—but we need full, unfettered access. That is the only thing that will help our small businesses and our economy in the future.
That is the future that I want to see in this country: working together, slashing red tape, boosting the economy, easing the cost of living crisis, pooling research to beat cancer, tackling international crime and trafficking, and giving young people the opportunity to study where they want. All that is on offer, so I urge the Minister and the Government to take it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd.
Historians will write in amazement about Brexit: the swagger of its proponents, the vanity, the false promises and the lies; the salutary sight of focused Brussels negotiators sitting, well briefed, at the negotiating table opposite a series of hapless, unbriefed Tory Ministers; the laughable suggestion that other EU countries would be so envious of Brexit that they would rush to emulate it; the sage advice of our friends ignored; the Brexit enthusiasts, Trump, Farage and Putin, whose malign presence alone should have served as a warning; the campaign tinged with racism and attacks on foreigners; the misplaced triumphalism; the sheer, vulgar philistinism; and the disdain shown for the people of Scotland—if you are in the European Union, you can leave, but if you are in this Union, your voice does not count.
I was on the BBC’s “Debate Night” programme recently. I was up against a Scottish Tory MSP and a member of the audience asked her what benefits she thought Brexit had brought. Do you know what she said? She said, “None at all”—full marks for honesty. However, the Scottish Tory press office went into meltdown, of course, and I am not sure that she has been since.
We all know the truth about Brexit, but we do not expect for a moment that the Tory UK Government will do as today’s petitioners demand. The embarrassment would be too much even for this apparently unembarrassable Administration. And what of my Labour friends? Alas, they are leaderless and sinking on Europe; they are now a party tethered to the anchor of a failing Brexit. There are honourable exceptions; I am talking about the party leadership.
I know that Brexit leaders have not suffered. Some were rewarded with seats for life in the Lords as unelected legislators. We know that many of them, having searched family histories or exploited the generosity of the Irish Government for passports, can skip past fellow Britons who are queuing for many hours at EU borders.
However, what of our constituents who suffer from Brexit? My constituency, Ochil and South Perthshire, straddles rural and urban areas. Brexit, which was rejected emphatically by the Scottish electorate, has impacted every single part of it. Young people have lost access to the incredible Erasmus scheme. Previously, medical students and young social workers could go on a long work placement in Germany and bring their experience back. Students from all backgrounds could spend a year in France or Spain or Romania, to improve their language skills and widen their horizons.
The replacement for Erasmus is the so-called “Turing scheme”—poor Alan Turing; how sad that his name should be associated with it. It promised worldwide advantages, but not for my constituent who travelled to Singapore via the Turing scheme. Once he was there, he was told that there was no money left in the pot to fund his continued stay. He was offered no alternatives or assistance—typical, bungling Brexit chaos. My amazing office team had to work with him to find all sorts of odd and unexpected allowances, bursaries and funds that would plug the gap.
I have the oldest distillery in the country, Glenturret, in my constituency. The boss told me last week that pre-Brexit they delivered, without impediment, all across Europe, sharing lorries with other companies for cost and environmental reasons. Now, if any other firm on the shared transport has made the slightest paperwork mistake, all their goods collectively are sent back with export and other duties. One consignment was sent back twice, the first time because the whisky was labelled “From Scotland” and the second time because it was labelled “From Britain”. The rules that we have negotiated mean that neither name is recognised. “Global Britain” is ironic, eh?.
According to the distillery boss, now it sometimes takes longer to get whisky to Paris than to Japan. That is not because it is becoming quicker to get to Japan; getting to Paris has simply become a nightmare. Glenturret has now had to design new labels for every single market within the EU—seven different labels, with all the added cost of switching a machine and switching the labels. It has had to abandon smaller markets in the Baltic states and elsewhere—
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
If only there was some way of voting electronically, Mr Dowd, that would not require us to dash backwards and forwards. Before I was interrupted, I was talking about a wonderful company in my constituency, the distillery Glenturret, and how it has had to design new labels for every market within the European Union—seven different labels—with all the added cost. It has had to abandon smaller markets in the Baltic states and elsewhere because the added costs wipe out any profits.
Then, there are firms in my constituency crying out for labour. We have heard about this before, with fruit rotting in fields across the country because EU workers cannot get visas. In my constituency, hotels cannot open to full capacity for the very same reason. One owner implored me to hand-deliver a letter to UK Ministers. “If only they knew what was happening on the ground,” he said, “they would do something!” I said: “They know. They don’t care.” Brexit zealots would have us living in caves if it meant delivering the pure Brexit isolation that so many of them crave.
So, as we wait—perhaps forever—for Brexiter Tories and Labour Front Benchers wearing Brexiter clothes that fit so badly, I suspect we can offer petitioners little hope today of a Brexit apology from Westminster. It is those of us on the SNP Benches who offer the only unambiguous pro-EU vision. We want to rejoin the EU at the first possible opportunity. Scotland, independent and within the European Union, will enjoy excellent access to trade, like our long-term ally and near neighbour, Denmark. Our ancient and modern universities and networks of colleges will reconnect with thousands of institutions across the EU to share research, opportunities and students. Young people will once more be able to live, love and work across the EU, as my generation did. We will thrive as part of a co-operative team of nations, small and large. We know we have friends across the Union—the European Union. As my hon. Friend Alyn Smith would say, keep a light on for us. We are coming back soon.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Dowd. I place on record my thanks to constituents in Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill who signed e-petition 628226. They did so because Brexit was sold to so many as an opportunity for the UK to “take back control” and become a stronger, more independent state.
However, we are not in a better position in any single area of life in the United Kingdom as a result of leaving the European Union. The economy, trade, fishing, labour force, environmental standards, structural funding, inward investment, immigration, the peace process and much more have all been harmed thanks to the realities of Brexit. The Secretary of State for Business and Trade opined recently that Tory MPs and the media should “not keep talking” about Brexit. Yet here we are, petitioned to debate the matter by a UK public already sick and tired of Brexit and its implications, and their reasons for being so are plentiful.
Scotland’s economy will be hit hardest by Brexit. Estimates suggest that it could result in a loss of £12.7 billion per year by 2030. Exports of goods from Scotland to the EU fell by over 11% in the first quarter of 2021 compared with the same period in 2020. The OBR has said that Brexit has had a “significant adverse impact” on UK trade. The latest figures show that, since Brexit, the EU’s trade intensity has increased since Brexit while the UK’s has fallen by 2.8%, and yet the UK Government are so desperately trying to convince themselves that they have the rest of the world to trade with.
The depressing reality is that the reduction in tariffs as part of our UK-Australia deal, for example, will save each UK household a pathetic £1.20. That is not even enough to buy as much as a stick of butter with today’s sky-high food prices, which are largely caused by Brexit itself. Let us remember that our economy was also recklessly decimated by the previous Tory Prime Minister and Chancellor not so long ago. They would also like us to not keep talking about that.
Analysis by the University of Sussex’s UK Trade Policy Observatory shows that Brexit losses are more than 178 times greater than any of the new trade deal gains. Each one of those losses is felt by communities across the length and breadth of Scotland. What can we do about it? The reality is that only full membership would restore all that we have lost, including our credibility. However, along with the Tories, the Labour party wants no part in that. It is just as committed to a hard Brexit as the Tories in this place, regardless of what a few Back Bench MPs have said in the debate today. The damage that Brexit has caused to Scotland will be long lasting, and it is being endorsed by the UK Labour party.
Most people in Scotland were proud remainers, and we are now proud rejoiners, because Scotland’s focus should rightly be on rejoining the European Union. Post independence, Scotland’s markets will transform and expand to be able to take advantage of a EU market seven times larger than that of the UK. The UK Labour party does not want that for Scotland. Even though its parliamentarians in Holyrood know it is right, the party leaders here in England say no. Put bluntly, they are willing to throw Scotland under that big, red Brexit bus to get the keys to Downing Street. The people of Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill do not want the same old Labour—a party that they view as a pale imitation of the Tory party today. They want people who are in touch with public opinion and who understand the impact of Brexit within and on our communities. They want people who will protect and enhance their interests; they do not want people who will barter them off.
In 2014, Labour dragged Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown out of political graves to tell Scotland that independence would threaten our membership of the European Union, imperil people’s pensions and cause a currency crisis. Look where we are right now. We are out of the European Union, UK pension plans were on the brink of collapse within hours last year, the NHS has lost a quarter of its workforce, the cost of food is up 18%, 4% has been knocked off our GDP and sterling has lost a third of its value. These are the consequences, and people are paying the price right now. Brexit has only served to decimate our economy and damage our standing on the international stage.
Further hated policies of this Government such as the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 and the Rwanda policy cause Scottish people great anguish and embarrassment. Remaining in this isolated and insular UK Union is strangling Scotland’s ambition and potential. Scotland’s home is unquestionably in Europe. To coin a Labour phrase, the only road to Europe now runs through an independent Scotland.
It is a pleasure to wind up the debate for the SNP. I do feel for our Minister today—he has been the thinnest of blue lines, and I look forward to hearing his response. As much as I do not necessarily have a great deal of hope for the substance of it, I do have much respect for him personally for the position he finds himself in today.
I pay tribute to the organisers of the petition and the 178,000 people who have signed it. My hon. Friends the Members for East Dunbartonshire (Amy Callaghan), for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson), for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Steven Bonnar) and for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) all made very solid contributions to the debate, as did a number of colleagues from all parts of the House, except perhaps those on the Government Benches, though we look forward to hearing from the Minister.
On brass tacks, the SNP supports this petition. We want to see evidence-based policymaking. If we are to plot a way forward to a solution, it is important to find out how we got here. However, I voice that support with a wee note of caution. I hope I can gently express some reservation over the perspective that the petition’s wording reveals. It refers to
“the impact that Brexit has had on this country and its citizens.”
For the avoidance of doubt, my country is Scotland. The United Kingdom is not my country. The United Kingdom is a state. It is a Union comprised of four countries. Perspective is not a synonym for difference of opinion. We see this from a different place. Scotland has a very clear European perspective. My party is the most pro-European party in this Parliament.
I also have a particular neuralgia with the phrase,
“this country and its citizens.”
To my mind, the people who were most affected by leaving the EU in the way that we did were EU nationals resident in these islands. They had their lives turned upside down. They had the right to come to these islands to live, work, study and marry into our communities. They had those rights taken away and they did not even get a vote in it. I am deeply proud of my party’s ethos that if someone is in Scotland, they are one of us. It is not obligatory but people are very welcome to be one of us if they want to be.
I am deeply proud of the fact that the Scottish Parliament has legislated to ensure that voting eligibility in Scottish elections— the ones we control—is based on residency rather than nationality. That is a queer sort of nationalism in a continental, historical, European sense, but Scotland’s tragedy for 250 years was that we exported our people. It was freedom of movement from the European Union that started to get it back up again. I am deeply proud that anyone who lives in Scotland is one of us, as far as the Scottish Government are concerned. That was not the case in the EU referendum.
In the independence referendum of 2014, the Scottish Government quite specifically chose the European franchise for voting entitlement in order to broaden eligibility as much as we legally could at the time. We have since broadened it further. In the EU referendum, however, despite SNP amendments proposing to broaden the franchise, the UK Government chose quite specifically to say to 2.6 million people living in these islands, who are a part of our communities and our families, and who pay taxes here—it is demonstrably true that EU immigrants pay far more in taxes to the UK Exchequer than they take back in services—“The UK had a debate about your place in our community, your position in our economy and your role here, but you’re not getting a say in that because you’re foreign. You’re not one of us.” That is a deeply ugly, exclusive politics, which I hate. I am sure that the petition’s wording is unintentional, but I think there should be a wider perspective than
“this country and its citizens.”
I would also have liked to have seen mention of the fact that the UK’s exit from the European Union has damaged European solidarity. It has damaged sincere co-operation. The arguments for exit were based on the exclusive idea that, somehow, the UK was subjected to EU laws that we had every part in producing. I therefore support the petition, but with some reservations about the wording.
The SNP is the most pro-EU party in Parliament. I am the party’s Europe and EU accession spokesperson. Those words were chosen deliberately because it is our mission to get an independent Scotland back into the European Union. We have a clear constitutional agenda and I believe that we will thrive as an independent state in the European Union. I also say to our UK audience and those taking part in pro-European campaigns in every community up and down these islands that the SNP also wants the UK to do well. I do not want to see the UK have a bad time. I believe that the UK should be as close as possible to the EU, if not part of it, with all its programmes and all its forms. I want the UK to have a functioning relationship with the EU that secures peace in Northern Ireland and that secures trade. The UK should also be part of the EU’s research intensive industrial policy, but it risks losing out. The UK will be our closest friend and our closest market—and vice versa. I want to see the UK do well. To those who do not believe me, I say that it would make our independence project easier because the EU we seek to join would, I hope, have a deep and relationship with the UK. I am not saying that just for its own sake.
I have been struck by how backward-looking some of today’s contributions have been. I do not think that the question how anyone’s constituency voted is relevant any more. Of course, Scotland voted massively to remain—that is a matter of fact. The UK as a whole voted to leave—that is also a fact. I think we need to talk about the democratic deficit implicit in the UK right now, which is demonstrated by how Scotland was removed, against our will, from the European Union. That is not about the battles of the past; it is about the discussions of the future. A backward-looking attitude impedes us from finding solutions to the problems that we are now experiencing. I have said repeatedly in debates in this House that I want to see the UK have a close relationship with the EU, and I will work towards that with anyone who wants to do so. The Windsor framework, which I pay tribute to, is a pragmatic step in that sort of direction. Let us, for goodness’ sake, see more of that rather than backward-looking attitudes.
For the avoidance of doubt, I am also not interested in rerunning the EU referendum. That was a long time ago; the world has changed. I am not interested in overturning the result. I respect everyone who voted leave, wherever they voted and for whatever reason. People who voted leave were entitled to believe the promises that were made to them. They were entitled to believe the good faith of the politicians and others who made those promises. However, to be frank, the reality is that the promises made have not been delivered. There may be reasons why they have not been delivered, so an inquiry would be useful in ventilating discussion.
Who can forget the greatest hits? We had:
“There will be no downside…only a considerable upside”,
“Nobody is talking about leaving the single market”,
We were told that we would keep Erasmus and that
“we hold all the cards”.
In addition to all those things, we heard that the NHS would get £350 million a week. Who would not vote for that? It is remarkable that the numbers were not higher.
That needs to be ventilated, and that is why I support the aims of the petition. The vote was presented essentially as being risk free and consequence free. People were told, “Everything you like, you’ll keep. Everything you don’t like or don’t understand will recede from your life.” The reality has been really very different. I would expand the scope of the inquiry sought by the petition so that it also covers the techniques used by the leave campaign. I am concerned that we have an ongoing vulnerability to such recklessness. I would like to see a proper review of electoral law, data protection, campaign finance—in particular, the role of dark money—and the remarkable lack of a single leave campaign manifesto to hold the leave campaign to account. A variety of promises were made—some in good faith, some perhaps less so—but they have not been delivered. We also need a proper look at the powers of the Electoral Commission, and the role of broadcasters and internet providers in public information in future campaigns, because I think we have an ongoing vulnerability to recklessness.
We support this petition, but I add a word of caution. An inquiry of this sort would deliver a degree of truth, if it happens, and I would have to say that it is at the top end of expectation that it might. However, the people out there need answers, progress and solutions right now. We should establish truth—that is a good thing to do, in and of itself. We should also ensure that we fix any ongoing and future vulnerabilities. But people need answers now and I am not interested in a blame game.
The people struggling in my district, Stirling—an area bigger than Luxembourg that is the heart of Scotland—are suffering right now as a consequence of leaving the European Union. My farmers cannot get their crops planted or harvested, as we have a crippling shortage of agricultural labour; we have a crippling labour shortage in the hospitality industry, which is deeply relevant to my community; the NHS is short of staff; we have a lively music scene, but creative touring people are struggling; and young people on student exchanges are finding the process more difficult, more complicated and more expensive. Let us have specific sectoral visas for freedom of movement in and out of individual sectors to give them solutions to these problems right now.
For universities up and down Scotland and the UK that are suffering from the uncertainty over continued engagement in Horizon Europe, let us join Horizon Europe. It is on the table in Brussels right now. The Windsor framework has gone a way to building trust. Let us build it further, to everyone’s mutual advantage. I am not talking about reversing Brexit; I am talking about dealing with the problems that we have right now.
For our food importers and exporters, we need a veterinary agreement to make sure that the flow across the borders is as frictionless as it can be, and for our small and medium-sized enterprises we need single market membership to remove the barriers that have been put up by the recent events that we have suffered.
The SNP supports this petition. We support EU membership for Scotland as an independent state, but we also want to see the UK have a close relationship with the EU, because that will go a way towards not apportioning blame for how we got here, but fixing the problems that we are all experiencing. I view that as a common endeavour and will engage with anybody from all points of the compass to see it happen. We support this petition and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure, Mr Dowd, to serve under your chairmanship, as it was to have served under Mr McCabe before.
I thank Martyn Day for presenting the petition today, and acknowledge the people who have signed it—over 180,000 people in total—including a number in my own constituency.
I am profoundly aware that this is an issue about which there are passionately and sincerely held views. I thank colleagues from across the House for their contributions to the debate, although I note the stark absence of Conservative Members, with one exception; they are clearly not willing to defend their record.
In contrast, we in Labour will not shy away from engaging constructively in debates about the impact of the Government’s handling of Brexit on people, communities and businesses across the UK. Many of those effects have rightly been highlighted and exposed today, including by my hon. Friends the Members for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi), for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova), for Putney (Fleur Anderson), for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) and for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), and by my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn.
We want to focus on some of the most important tasks today: making our relationship with the EU work; growing our economy; defending our security; and tackling common challenges, from energy to climate change. We will not seek to rejoin the EU, the single market or the customs union, but it is imperative that we make our future relationship with the EU work, fix the holes in the Government’s deal, deliver stability, trust and mutual benefit in our relationships with partners across Europe—both in and out of the EU—and make use of new forums, such as the European Political Community. Indeed, I had fruitful discussions today with friends from Norway, as I know the Minister did too.
I must say from the outset that we do not believe that expending scarce financial resources on a public inquiry that would take years to complete would be the right step forward. We already expose the many impacts and failures of the Government’s policy in this area on a weekly basis in this place, and this is a topic that should rightly be the focus of robust and democratic parliamentary scrutiny, as we have seen today, whether or not we agree with all the points that have been made. I would far rather see the millions that could be spent on an inquiry being used instead to address practically some of the many flaws and holes that we have been exposed today, but this is not just about cost; it is about bringing people together and looking forward rather than dividing them once again by looking back.
We are now almost seven years on from the referendum, and the world and our country have both changed considerably since the day of that vote. The impact of our departure from the EU is, of course, a contributing factor to where we stand today. Indeed, there is consensus among economists that the Government’s poorly negotiated deal with the EU, compounded by 13 years of economic stagnation, has contributed to the UK lagging behind the rest of the G7, as we have heard today.
For seven years, we have watched the Government pick fights with our closest European allies, allowing dogma to override pragmatism. All the while, we have seen investment down, growth sluggish, 45% of businesses saying they have difficulties trading with the EU, and, as we have heard, exports down by a third. We have seen an approach that has often left us isolated, less secure and stuck in the binaries of the past at a time when co-operation was needed more than ever: on security when we face war in Europe; on energy when we face an energy price crisis and the challenge of climate change; and on economic co-operation as we face inflation, the cost of living crisis and the challenge of responding to geopolitical competition and threats to the resilience of our supply chains.
We would completely change the tone and tenor of our relationship with the EU and form the basis for an ambitious partnership based on common interests and mutual respect—clear about our position outside the EU but optimistic about what we can do together in a critical strategic partnership. Fundamentally, that is something the Conservatives are inherently incapable of delivering. Let us take the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill as an example. The Conservatives are doubling down to appease the hard-line fringes by introducing an irresponsible piece of legislation that will only prolong uncertainty for businesses nationwide. The Bill is opposed by business organisations, trade unions and environmental groups, and it undermines the proper role of Parliament by handing Ministers, as we have heard, yet more unaccountable powers, placing hard-won rights at work, environmental standards and consumer protections at the whim of power-hungry Ministers. Frankly, we do not need an inquiry to tell us that this is a grave error or to expose the wider impacts of Tory Brexit policy.
Across the country today, the questions people are asking are, “How do I pay the bills?”, “How do I secure cheaper and greener energy?”, “How do I put food on the table when prices are going up?”, “What jobs and opportunities are there for my children?” and “How do we keep our country safe?” We do not need an inquiry to answer those questions; we need a Labour UK Government. Labour has a clear plan to make our relationship with Europe work and to address the broader concerns that have been raised in the context of the petition. My right hon. and learned Friend Keir Starmer has set out a clear plan to secure this: securing a deal on the Northern Ireland protocol, which we called for and then supported; tearing down unnecessary trade barriers; supporting world-leading services and scientists; keeping Britain safe; and investing in Britain. Looking forward not back, let me touch on some of those points and address some issues that have been raised in the debate.
Starting with trade, let me be frank: this Government have no clear trade strategy. It is little wonder that the OBR forecasts that UK exports are due to fall by 6.6% this year, which is a more than £51 billion hit to the UK economy. The Government’s last manifesto promised that by the end of 2022, 80% of UK trade would be covered by free trade agreements, including an agreement with the US, but the reality is that these deals are far from complete. Indeed, the UK’s trade deficit with the EU widened to a record high in the final quarter of 2022 as imports from the bloc jumped. The shortfall in the balance of trade and goods ballooned to £32.9 billion in the three months to December—the largest gap since records began in 1997.
The trade barriers put in place by the Tory Brexit deal are accentuating the economic burden being shouldered by our businesses and constituents, and toning them down would be a priority for a Labour Government. Outside of the single market and the customs union, we need to be candid and frank that we will not be able to deliver completely frictionless trade with the EU, but there are things we could do to make trade easier, and we have heard many of them today.
We should build on the positive elements in the Windsor framework. We would expand agrifood and veterinary agreements to cover all of the UK, seeking to build on agreements and mechanisms already in place between the EU and other countries. We would negotiate a long-term deal for UK hauliers to ease the supply chain problems that are holding us back. We would put forward a supply chain working group within the G7 and use the 2025 TCA review to increase the UK’s prosperity. We would seek to agree mutual recognition of conformity assessments across specified sectors so that our producers no longer need to complete two sets of tests or two processes of certification. We would seek mutual recognition of professional qualifications to bolster our world-leading services industry and would sort out data adequacy to allow our digital services companies to properly compete.
Although we do not support the return of freedom of movement, we will seek to find flexible labour mobility arrangements for those making short-term work trips and, as has been mentioned by a number of colleagues, musicians and artists seeking short-term visas to tour within the EU.
On science and research, I want to discuss the opportunity that has been squandered by the Tory Government, about which we heard time and again during the debate. Many of our constituents feel that departure from the EU has restricted them from pursuing education and employment opportunities to which they otherwise would have had access. Of course, departure from the EU did not need to mean an end to Erasmus+ or, indeed, to Horizon. I recently met representatives from Universities Wales who told me of a triple whammy: the end of Horizon and European structural funds and the failure to replace Horizon has meant that 1,000 jobs are now at risk in crucial high-tech, high-skilled jobs across Wales.
The Conservatives made a manifesto promise that they would associate with Horizon. They have repeated that 50 times since, but we have seen instead years of delay and uncertainty, with jobs, projects and inward investment lost, and still no deal, despite the resolution of issues around the Northern Ireland protocol. We would unblock the UK’s participation in Horizon and bring about the co-operation that we need when it comes to science, technology, education and skills across the UK—in key regions and of course our nations.
Let me turn to security. Strong and smart British foreign policy has always started with secure alliances in Europe, but since 2016 our relations with Europe have been characterised by bluster, bombast and brinkmanship by the Conservative party at a time when the security of our country has faced some of its most severe threats. We would negotiate a UK-EU security pact, predicated on the defence of democracy and ensuring, with NATO as our bedrock, that we also see close co-operation and co-ordination with our European allies on foreign, defence, development and security policy, whether on sanctions, our energy resilience, our support for Ukraine, our co-ordination on cross-border crime, our efforts against terrorism, our response to instability on our own continent and near neighbourhood, or indeed our approach to China. We could have had a security pact when we left the EU, but the Tories failed to agree one. We would seek arrangements to share data, intelligence where appropriate, and best practice with our closest allies.
I understand calls from the many petitioners for a rigorous assessment into the Government’s failings when it comes to the Brexit deal that they secured and the impact that it has had on this country. The Labour party will not shirk from addressing those failings or denying their existence, but relitigating old arguments does not build a plan on which to base the future or set a new course for an ambitious partnership with our closest neighbours and allies. We have a plan to move the country forward, resetting our relationship with the European Union, and taking common-sense and practical steps to redefine that relationship to withstand the challenges of the present and the years and decades to come.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I am grateful to Martyn Day for presenting this debate, and to all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions. It has been an interesting and thought-provoking debate, and I will seek to cover the main points raised.
The UK and the EU are still hugely important allies. We are trading partners and old friends. We have left the European Union but not Europe. We want our friends to thrive, and I know—from my personal visits and many ministerial visits—that they wish the same for us. We must respect the democratic decision of our own people. The UK’s departure from the EU was a result, as has been described today, of a democratic choice by people across the nation to restore our sovereignty; and I pay tribute to the eloquent speech made by my hon. Friend Adam Holloway.
In 2015 the Government were elected with a mandate to hold a referendum. In that referendum, the British public voted to leave the EU. We must remember that the Government have since been re-elected twice with a clear mandate to pass the necessary legislation to leave the EU and negotiate a trade agreement. The resounding endorsement of that proposition in 2019, with a significant majority, is a case in point.
Parliament approved the withdrawal agreement—the terms for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU—in January 2020 and the trade and co-operation agreement in December of the same year. The Government’s policies on our new relationship with the EU are therefore subject to robust parliamentary scrutiny. We have agreed arrangements with the European Scrutiny Committee, the European Affairs Committee and the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland Sub-Committee. We have regular and extensive correspondence with those Committees, with which I am personally familiar. Under the terms of the arrangement, Ministers must regularly appear before them. Indeed, I appeared before the European Affairs Committee on
Of course, we are grateful to those Committees for their ongoing scrutiny. Both the European Scrutiny Committee and the European Affairs Committee are holding inquiries into the new UK-EU relationship, to which the Government have provided evidence that can be read online. The inquiries will be published in due course. For all those reasons, the Government do not believe that it would be appropriate to hold an inquiry into the impact of Brexit.
Let me dwell on the theme of seizing the opportunities of Brexit, which has been raised this afternoon. Restoring our sovereignty was just the start of what the British public voted for in the referendum. Britain left the EU to do things differently and make our own laws, but this was not just political theory: our laws and tax framework and the way we spend our money all make a real difference to people’s lives. The Government are committed to capitalising on the opportunities of Brexit, which is why we intend to end retained EU law as a legal category by December 2023, which will ensure that the UK’s rules and regulations best serve the interests of our country as a whole and support workers and businesses to build a thriving economy.
The Minister talks very passionately about parliamentary sovereignty and raises the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill. Whatever the whys and wherefores of how we thought the European Union listened to the UK public through its democratic processes, can the Minister explain how transferring direct power over 5,000 areas of legislation not to this place but to Ministers through the use of statutory instruments—or Henry VIII powers, as we might call them—is taking back control? I see the opposition to those measures from those who supported Brexit in the other place or this place. It does not look to me like this did what it said on the side of the bus.
The Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill will be yet another expression of our renewed democratic sovereignty. The hon. Lady’s constituents should be reassured by that, because colleagues in this House will decide which laws stand, which are absorbed and which are repealed. The hon. Lady should be reassured by this more direct expression of our democratic sovereignty.
A range of major reforms are therefore already under way, including to data protection, artificial intelligence and life sciences regimes. We are capitalising on our new-found freedoms outside the EU to attract investment, drive innovation and boost growth and recently announced the Edinburgh reforms to drive growth and competitiveness in the financial services sector. However, laws will not be abolished for the sake of it. We will not jeopardise our strong record on workers’ rights, for example, which is among the best in the world, nor will we roll back maternity rights or threaten the high environmental standards we maintain.
Turning to trade, it is worth remembering that the trade and co-operation agreement agreed in 2020 is the world’s largest zero-tariff, zero-quota deal. It is the first time the EU has ever agreed access like this in a free trade agreement. The TCA also guards the rights of both the EU and the UK to determine their own policies while not regressing in ways that affect trade between the two sides. The UK remains committed to being a global leader in those areas.
As the Office for National Statistics has previously noted, there are a number of factors beyond Brexit that have influenced global trading patterns, including the war in Ukraine, most recently, global economic forces and continued strain on supply chains. Despite this, we must remember that the UK remains an attractive place to invest and grow a business as a low-tax, high-skilled economy.
The Minister has referred yet again to the pandemic and the war, but can he explain why we are languishing at the bottom of the league table of growing economies for developed countries, behind Russia? All those countries are facing the same things, yet we are at the bottom. Why could that be?
The hon. Lady should take encouragement from looking to foreign direct investment. FDI stock in the UK increased from $2.2 trillion in 2020 to $2.6 trillion in 2021. That is the highest foreign direct investment stock in Europe and the second highest in the world, behind only the United States, up from our ranking in 2020. That is just one measure of the expression of confidence in the future. Of course, there have been headwinds, but taken in the round the economic future of the UK is one of terrific dynamism and confidence. The hon. Lady should share that confidence, and be confident in the future prospects of the British economy.
Outside the EU, we are creating the best regulatory environment to drive economic growth and develop a competitive advantage in new and future technologies, where terrific growth lies. From artificial intelligence and gene editing to the future of transport and data protection, we are building a pro-growth, high-standards framework that gives business the capacity and the confidence to innovate, invest and create jobs.
The Minister is talking about innovation and future technologies. He will have heard Members from both sides of the House raise concerns about the lack of funding outside Horizon. Even if a new deal is agreed, that will not be for a significant period. Does the Minister think that the challenges being faced by the university sector will boost growth, innovation and investment, or reduce them?
I foresee a future where we have a very dynamic innovation sector, supported by the Government but working in partnership with our European friends. I will not give a running commentary on our negotiations on the Horizon programme, but colleagues will know that they are under way. Our approach is one of buoyant confidence about the benefits of future co-operation—that is all I will say. I hope the hon. Member shares my confidence.
To give another example, we must also remember that the Chancellor’s work on financial services will see more than 30 regulatory reforms unlock investment and turbocharge growth across the UK. A new approach to regulation will make meaningful change for the British public, with, for example, faster access to new medical treatments.
On the subject of the confidence expressed in the business environment created by Brexit, it has been reported today that the number of UK chief executives quitting their jobs has more than doubled as bosses battle sluggish growth and a nightmare of EU red tape. The number of chief executives who have left their role jumped by 111%. Would the Minister agree that the business environment created by Brexit has not been entirely jubilant?
Of course, there have been choppy waters in recent times—I have not denied that. My proposition is that, taken in the round, the future growth of this country is clear to see, and the hon. Lady should share our confidence in the UK’s ability to be an agile, global and extremely dynamic economy, which no doubt we will be.
Let me make some comments on immigration, because Brexit has allowed us to move to a much fairer immigration system. The Government have introduced a points-based system to attract top talent from around the world, while at the same time activating the enormous potential of the UK workforce. The global points-based immigration system is focused on talent and skills, not where someone comes from, and makes it easier for the brightest and best to live and work in the UK. We have already introduced a comprehensive suite of new work routes and we continue to welcome and retain thousands of valuable and talented workers—scientists, researchers, doctors, nurses, engineers, bricklayers and plumbers. The points-based system is attracting worldwide talent and skills, including from EU member states, and we are grateful for it.
Turning to EU-UK cultural exchanges, colleagues will agree that Brexit was never about the UK stepping away from our proud and historic role in Europe. We continue to support cultural exchanges between the UK and the EU, such as the Turing scheme, which allows UK educational organisations to fund life-changing experiences around the world, and we will do everything that we can to facilitate a high flow rate of schoolchildren in both directions.
On our relationship with the EU, the Government are fully focused on implementing the trade and co-operation agreement, and the newly agreed Windsor framework. Both the withdrawal agreement and the TCA are functioning as intended. We look forward to entering a new phase in our post-Brexit relationships in Europe. As we set out in our recent refresh of the integrated review, the UK is committed to upholding the stability, security and prosperity of our continent and of the Euro-Atlantic as a whole.
It is our ambition to build even stronger relationships with our European partners based on values, reciprocity and co-operation across our shared interests, and we will provide leadership where we are best placed to do so. We will continue to work very closely in areas of mutual benefit, as we have in our response to Ukraine, and we are much looking forward to hosting partners from across Europe, including EU member states, at the European Political Community meeting in the UK in July 2024.
Once again, I thank all hon. and right hon. Members for their contributions to today’s debate. The Government will continue to seize the benefits of Brexit, delivering on our manifesto commitments to the British people, and we will work closely with our European neighbours, both in the EU and beyond, to uphold our shared values of inclusion, freedom, prosperity and democracy.
On behalf of the Petitions Committee, I extend my gratitude to all Members who gave up their time to take part in today’s lively and informed, albeit rather one-sided, debate, which has emphasised the strength of feeling. An Omnisis poll that was mentioned earlier suggests that 59% of the public agree that there should be an inquiry. Why should there not be an inquiry into what has been the largest constitutional change that the country has seen in my lifetime, with the biggest economic impact? Clearly, it cries out for one.
I said that Brexit has been an unmitigated disaster, and I have heard nothing today to change my mind; however, it is worth pointing out that the petitioners’ call is for a public inquiry, not immediately to rejoin the European Union. Personally, I want to be back in Europe as quickly as possible. I would like to see the UK back in Europe, but I know that Scotland has an alternate route to get there, through independence. I would be happy to grab that route as quickly as possible.
The data that we have heard paints a very bleak picture. There is simply no such thing as a good Brexit. The public increasingly can see that. It makes me wonder whether Ministers are hiding behind the democratic mandate because they know that, and because a public inquiry would highlight the tissue of falsehoods and misinformation that the whole Brexit project was built on. It still requires a public inquiry. Since we have been debating, the number of signatures has risen rapidly. Now more than 184,000 people have signed the petition, and it is still growing.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered e-petition 628226, relating to the impact of the UK’s exit from the European Union.