Many of you have written to me in relation to the votes on the EU (Future Relationship) Bill which was rushed through Parliament on 30th December 2020.
First of all, this is a very sad time for all of us who value the closest possible relationship with the EU – that of full membership obviously being the closest.
I campaigned for us to stay in the EU as did so many people across Bristol West in 2016. Since then, I’ve kept in close touch with constituents about the various votes and processes of the tumultuous years since then. I’ve always valued the high level of engagement the people of Bristol West have maintained with this often-difficult process and with me as your MP.
As a Labour whip for most of that time I was instrumental in helping to defeat the previous government repeatedly, including to delay the departure, to bring in the indicative votes, to try to pass the confirmatory vote option (sometimes called the People’s Vote or second referendum), to successfully pass various pieces of legislation and emergency motions used to try to prevent us leaving with no deal such as the Benn Act and the Cooper-Boles Act. I was very proud to do so.
However, the general election last year changed everything and the current Prime Minister took the UK out of the European Union on 31st January 2020.
I mourned the departure along with so many of you. By a grim coincidence, that day was the day the UK had its first confirmed case of Covid-19, which has now dominated the rest of the year with its consequences.
The Prime Minister then failed to negotiate a deal for the future relationship between the UK and EU. Securing such a deal was not only was a major promise from the current Prime Minister at the last election, but absolutely crucial for the future of our country. The Prime Minister should have prioritised this. His failure recklessly put at further risk businesses, jobs and livelihoods already suffering because of the Covid crisis.
Leaving it to the last minute meant businesses have had to prepare for the UK leaving the transition without a trade deal with the EU. Even now, being told on Christmas Eve what the trading conditions are from 1st January is utterly inexcusable.
From protecting our industries and supply chains, ensuring the highest standards in agriculture and the environment to maintaining our current security measures and fulfilling our obligations under the Good Friday Agreement, there were many areas where a ‘no deal’ exit would have fallen far short of what our country needs and deserves.
The deal they have finally secured does fail to meet the needs of this country on several counts. These failings have been highlighted in numerous briefings I’ve read over the last few days, alongside the 1,256 page agreement, the Bill and the guidance notes.
These flaws were also the content of Labour’s amendments to the Bill. Together, theyindicate what we would do if we were in power and what we will remedy when we are once more. This deal is nothing more than a baseline to be urgently improved.
Creative and similar touring industries
The deal means musicians do not come under the exemptions for short term business visitors, and there are problems with the rules on haulage which will also affect artists’ tours. Individual states could make their own rules. That means higher costs and less opportunity to platform British talent in Europe. This comes after one of the most awful years for the creative industries. This is something we sought to remedy with an amendment to the Bill. We will continue to push the government on this – it’s also something I’ve campaigned hard on for the last four years. At one point I secured support from the relevant government Minister, who has unfortunately since moved to another department.
80% of our economy trades through services yet the government failed prioritised the sector. Shamefully they’ve decided that many professional qualifications will not be valid across the EU, including in accountancy, the arts, finance, media, law and architecture. That will make it harder for British businesses and individuals to win contracts abroad and will increase instability and uncertainty in sectors like our financial services. We put forward an amendment to deal with this and will push government to prioritise it urgently. If they don’t, we will.
The government did not achieve the “security partnership of unprecedented breadth and depth” that they promised. The UK will no longer have access to EU databases which allow for real-time data sharing such as the Schengen Information System of missing persons or objects. Until last week, police officers were using it on a daily basis to try to trace people with warrants issued against them, defendants or witnesses absconding from court, stolen cars, missing people or those under surveillance. This database was consulted 600 million times by UK police forces in 2019. We put forward an amendment to remedy this and given that it was not incorporated, we will push the government to deal with this gap urgently. We will take this up if the Tories don’t.
The government didn’t manage to get the agreement they said they would on mutual recognition – nor one similar to the arrangement New Zealand has with the EU on agricultural exports which includes only 1% of extensive checks. That means that British exporters will have to go through two regulatory processes. This is ironic for those who voted leave because they were promised less bureaucracy. Sadly, it was all utterly predictable and again, something Labour will try to remedy.
Better than ‘no deal’
Even with these shortcomings, this deal is preferable to the extreme damage which a no deal end to the transition period would bring. Crucially, it maintains an important link with our nearest neighbour and biggest, most important trading partner.
It’s a bad deal but the alternative is even worse.
Sadly, we could not stop this situation because we no longer had the tools we had before the last general election. We had a hung parliament and time – we no longer have either.
Some of you have asked me to read the Best for Britain report on the Future Relationship Agreement, which I have done. I note that right up at the top, this report says, and I quote:
‘The immediate priority in UK-EU relations is to implement the Trade and Cooperation Agreement effectively, minimising disruption to existing flows.’
The Bill I voted in favour of today was to do exactly that – implement the Trade and Co-operation Agreement effectively. Politics in opposition, particularly on matters such as these, is unfortunately often not the choice between good and bad, but between the unpalatable and the unacceptable. This deal is unpalatable but it is a start and it is more acceptable than no deal. I cannot stand by and leave it to others to vote for the baseline we need. It is insufficient, but it is something to protect as many of the businesses and jobs in my constituency which depend on trade flows between the EU and the UK as possible.
As an illustration of this, take the consequences for universities: the Agreement sadly failed to keep us within the Erasmus scheme allowing students to study in European universities. This was one of the key issues for many of my constituents during the referendum campaign. However, the UK will remain within the Horizon 2020 scheme for research funding – critical for the University of Bristol on my patch. So it is certainly a mixed picture.
Some of you have asked me not to vote for the deal, either by voting against the Bill or by abstaining.
Having read the Agreement carefully, and also many briefing papers such as from the Trade Justice Movement, the Institute for Public Policy Research, the Trade Union Congress, UK Music and more, it is my view that not voting for the Bill would be wrong.
This deal is likely to disappoint most of you, whether you voted leave or remain – so I understand the appeal of voting against it, and I also understand that people are concerned that the Tories need to own the consequences of this deal. I will specifically address these points:
- There was no vote on the Agreement/deal itself – this was agreed by the government and we were given the opportunity to debate and vote on the implementation legislation. This may seem technical but it’s important – voting against the deal was not an option available to me and as Best for Britain said, getting the Agreement implemented is imperative.
- To vote against the Bill, given that there is no time left and absolutely no likelihood of the government extending the time for any renegotiation, would effectively be a vote for leaving without a deal implemented in law.
- To abstain, on the grounds that I don’t like this deal and can spot the flaws, would mean I would be abstaining but hoping that enough other people would vote to carry it, given the consequences of no deal. I could not do that.
- To those who say that voting for the Bill removes our right to criticise the deal, I respectfully disagree. Our leader, and our Brexit spokesperson Rachel Reeves have demonstrated this, as have many other Labour MPs in the debate and as I have laid out here. We are perfectly capable of voting for something which is deeply flawed, when the alternative is so much worse and at the same time pointing clearly to the flaws – and I will continue to do so as the consequences unfold. I don’t want the damage that no deal would cause and neither do I want the damage that failing to fill in the gaps will cause for people in my constituency and therefore I will be using all my influence to push the government to remedy these gaps urgently.
I have set out above some examples of how a Labour government would strengthen our relationship with the EU. There are many more.
While I acknowledge the strong feelings on the limitations of this deal and agree with you that it leaves much to be desired, I am sure you understand that as Labour MPs we need to act in the best interests of the country and not take unnecessary risks. I believe that first and foremost our priority should be to avoid inflicting a terrible no deal situation on the UK.
This country is still in the midst of a pandemic and one which is sadly getting worse at the moment with rising rates of infections, hospitalisations and impacts on all age groups and across the entire country. We badly need to focus on improving our response to the virus and dealing with the consequences.
Now we have the news about the Oxford/Astra-Zeneca vaccine being licensed as well as the Pfizer vaccine, there is the possibility of life getting better soon. It’s going to be a tough few months yet, but I will keep fighting for jobs, schools, health, mental health and every aspect of our lives which were turned upside down by Covid-19.
This comes alongside my work as Shadow Housing and Homelessness Secretary, challenging the government on their record and working with others to make this the best country to grow up in and to grow old in. This is Labour’s vision which takes me into the New Year with hope.