Last week I held a public meeting to give Bristolians the chance to share their views, and to give them the chance to hear from me and others working to reduce the negative impact of the Brexit result.
The meeting was an important first step in making sure that my constituents are heard in the national debate.
More than any other question, people asked whether the referendum vote could be annulled, or whether Parliament could vote against triggering Article 50. This is unsurprising given that Bristol West voted overwhelmingly for the UK to remain in the EU, and I do really feel for this position.
Triggering Article 50 of the Luxembourg treaty is the way the government formally gives notice that the UK intends to leave the EU. From the moment it is triggered, there is a fixed time of two years until we leave. It is clear to me that, at the very least, the triggering of Article 50 needs Parliamentary oversight. I also feel strongly that there should be a Parliamentary vote (as a minimum) on the exit deal that’s reached. Throughout the campaign, both sides argued that Parliament should be sovereign, and that needs to be heeded now more than ever.
It would be nonsense for Brexit to be triggered unilaterally by the Prime Minister. We can’t let Theresa May, Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox be the only people who get to decide what Brexit looks like for the rest of us. The ‘Leave’ slogan ‘Taking Back Control’ shouldn’t mean giving power to just four people. Personally, I can’t imagine a deal good enough to persuade me to vote to trigger Article 50, but having a vote will incentivise the PM to fight for a more progressive deal than we might otherwise get from her and her colleagues.
Others at the meeting pointed out that the ‘Leave’ campaign consistently misled people, with the now-retracted NHS funding pledge being the most memorable example. Many people felt strongly that the result wasn’t legitimate as a consequence, and that we shouldn’t stop campaigning for ‘Remain’ – we know that ‘Leave’ wouldn’t have given up if the outcome had been different. On the other hand, even some of the most diehard Remainers feel that we should respect the outcome of the referendum – it isn’t fair or possible to ignore the concerns of people who want to see serious changes made to the way we are governed. It will be hard to balance pushing for a progressive Brexit and making sure that Leave voters feel heard and respected. But if we can’t strike this balance, many will feel more disillusioned with politics than ever.
There were also questions about free movement of people within the EU, both for Europeans living here, and for ‘casual ex-pats’ who spend some of their time living and working in Europe. There is a general view that membership of the single market will be granted or denied based on free movement, and changes to both will affect thousands of jobs in our city. Chuka Umunna MP pointed out to me at the Labour Party conference that the phrase ‘free movement’ is misleading and that maybe this has been part of the problem. We are not part of the Schengen agreement, so people still have to go through border controls. EU citizens have to undergo a habitual residence test before accessing benefits. Perhaps we should rename free movement ‘reciprocal movement of people’ for clarity!
It was particularly interesting at the Bristol West meeting to hear from Nicholas, the founder of the group the3million, which seeks to give a voice to the European citizens who live in the UK and who were not allowed to vote in the referendum. Nicholas had polled his members about what to ask, and they had said they were particularly concerned about the status of carers. Carers risk being in a very difficult position following Brexit because they aren’t protected with ‘working’ status, even though they make an invaluable contribution to society.
As I said to Nicolas at the time, I’ll do all I can to make sure that the rights of European carers in the UK are guaranteed as soon as possible.
Moreover, I want EU citizens in Bristol West to feel that they can still contact me as their representative. It is deeply unfair that EU citizens who may have spent several decades in the UK were unable to vote in the referendum, and I consider representing your voices on this matter to be integral to my role as your MP. I’ll be meeting Nicholas this week to talk about how we can best work together.
The last thing I want to touch on from the meeting was the concern about what would be lost. From key environmental protections, to cyber security, to funding for young people, to our European allies, people were worried that vital aspects of our current lives would be taken away. I share these fears. I can’t say, for example, whether young people will still be able to take part in the Erasmus scheme – it has been guaranteed for British students until 2017 but not beyond that. But I can say that I’ll fight hard to keep as much as we can.
I would like to thank Clare Moody, Member of European Parliament, and Superintendent Will White from the police, Alex Raikes MBE from SARI, and Will Stone from Avon Law Centre for sharing their thoughts with the meeting. It was wonderful to hear clarification on how the referendum campaign affected hate crimes in Bristol, and to learn more about the Brexit process from Clare. I was pleased to hear that for every act of hate in Bristol there have been hundreds of acts of kindness – a really Bristolian upsurge in people wanting to show people they are truly welcome here and to alleviate the few very sad acts of hate that have been committed.
Thank you to everyone who came. For many Remainers, finding out that ‘Leave’ had won was very isolating. The opportunity to speak to and hear from each other reminds us that the fight isn’t over. Please do keep in touch with me as negotiations progress. If you want to hear about what I am doing, sign up to my Brexit mailing list here.