The Government's plan for Brexit (Opposition Day Debate)

Today I argued in favour of a motion to ask that the Government share its plans for Brexit. We desperately need to scrutinise their plans before Article 50 is invoked.

The motion read:

"That this House recognises that leaving the EU is the defining issue facing the UK; notes the resolution on parliamentary scrutiny of the UK leaving the EU agreed by the House on 12 October 2016; recognises that it is Parliament’s responsibility to properly scrutinise the Government while respecting the decision of the British people to leave the European Union; confirms that there should be no disclosure of material that could be reasonably judged to damage the UK in any negotiations to depart from the European Union after Article 50 has been triggered; and calls on the Prime Minister to commit to publishing the Government’s plan for leaving the EU before Article 50 is invoked."

You can watch the video of my speech at the bottom of the page. You can also watch the full six-hour debate.

The full text of my speech (with interventions) follows.

Thangam Debbonaire (Bristol West)

I rise to speak in support of my constituents, the people of Bristol West. Four out of five of them voted to remain, but they are all democrats. We have been dealt nothing but uncertainty by the Government, and that uncertainty cannot go on, because it is not good enough. It is already affecting businesses and individuals in Bristol West, and I will fight for them.

The big employers in my constituency—the university, the aerospace industry, the financial services sector and the healthcare system—all depend on the current free movement of labour and harmonisation of regulations across the EU. That may not sound sexy, but it is really important. The cost of imports and raw materials has gone up as the pound has sunk. The university and the tech and creative sectors have told me that they are being cut out of collaborative research and development proposals funded by Horizon 2020 and other streams. ​We do not know whether the Government will protect EU workers’ rights and environmental protection and bring them into UK legislation.

I passionately support the current free—or, rather, reciprocal—movement of people around the European Union. That provision has helped our industries, and I want it to be part of where we end up. I welcome and value all the EU citizens working in Bristol, and I know well the benefits for the UK when people from the UK are able to live, work, study and retire in other EU countries. There is complete uncertainty for all those people. They are not bargaining chips; they are people.

Young people, as the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) has said, feel betrayed by this decision. They have told me that they feel as though we have thrown away their futures. I have also heard from industry that the harmonisation of regulations between the UK and the EU for our key industries must be part of what we end up with in order for them to trade freely; that is something other Members have spoken about. I want the UK to retain its right to apply for funds from Horizon 2020, to help us to remain in our position as a place that has among the best university provision in the world.

Many of us, from all parts of the House, feel we are economically better off being a full part of the single European market than being out of it. Anyone in the world can trade with the single European market. I want us, and businesses in my constituency want us, to do that as full members without tariffs and barriers. That is a choice that the Government could take.

John Redwood

Did the hon. Lady learn anything from the referendum majority view? Does she not understand that a lot of people think that we are inviting too many people in, which makes it difficult to have good public services and decent wages?

Thangam Debbonaire

I have heard the result of the referendum, but I also know that there are 33,000 people from EU countries working in our NHS at the moment and that they face complete uncertainty, as does the NHS.

Labour has forced the Government to climb down today. Without the leadership shown by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), the Government would have continued to refuse to give this House any information about their overall aims for the UK’s relationship with the EU. Now they have had to commit to providing that information before they trigger article 50, and I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that. The Supreme Court may yet rule that the Government also have to give Parliament the right to vote on the matter, and I hope that it does so. The Government could end that uncertainty today and cut the expense of this court case by deciding to commit to giving this House full scrutiny and a vote.

My inbox is rammed with emails from constituents asking me to resist Article 50, and I believe that that is, in large part, because of the absence of a good plan for Brexit. My constituents are not unreasonable. They know that 52% of those who voted in June voted to leave, but they want the views of the 48% to be represented in this process. I will do that unstintingly, because to do otherwise would be to allow a tyranny of the majority, which I do not believe is worthy of this House. My constituents deserve to know what the plan is; whether it will help or hinder our jobs, our industries, our environment and our standing in the world; and, above all, what will happen to our reciprocal movement of people, about which people are left with great uncertainty.

When I went out of my front door this morning, I may not have been certain exactly which bus I would get, but I knew the route it needed to take me on. I knew which bus stop to start at. I did not just get on any old bus without looking at the number and checking that it was going where I intended to go. I cannot ask my constituents in Bristol West to get on an unnumbered bus, and I do not think that hon. Members representing people who voted with the majority to leave want their constituents to get on an unnumbered bus either.

Whether people voted leave or remain in June, they did not vote to lose their jobs; they did not vote to lose trans-border cooperation over terrorism; and they did not vote to dirty our beaches and rivers by removing our protection from pollution and our protection for the air. For the sake of everyone, whether leave voters or remainers, we need to see the plan—not the full negotiating strategy, but the plan.

Mike Gapes

I agree entirely with what my hon. Friend is saying, but is there not also a problem in that, in their amendment, the Government are proposing we start the process of leaving the European Union on or by 31 March? We know that there will be elections in Germany, the Netherlands and France and that real negotiations cannot start then, so the period will be limited.

Thangam Debbonaire

I understand the point my hon. Friend makes, but I believe my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras has secured a good deal for us. It is not certain, and some of my constituents will want to know why I am voting the way I am voting tonight, but I will vote with the Labour Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union because I support what he has done to get this Government to make their plan clear. If, to get that, I have to agree to vote for what seems like a very sulky Government amendment, then so be it. It is worth making such a compromise because my constituents in Bristol West deserve to know and want to know what the plan is. Local campaigning organisations in Bristol—they have campaigned strongly for and supported Europe—have created and adopted a petition with some key demands and are circulating it, and I support them in doing so.

I ask the Government to get on with answering these questions for the sake of the people of Bristol West and of the whole of the UK. This Government are trying to avoid scrutiny, but Labour are holding them to account. I will continue to stand up for the industries, the jobs and, above all, the people of Bristol West. The Opposition will hold the Government to the agreement to bring their plan to this House for scrutiny and a vote, and if that plan is non-existent or inadequate, I will vote against Article 50. I owe that to my constituents and to the country.

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