Many constituents have been in touch about Britain’s departure from the European Union, following the outcome of the EU referendum on 23rd June (the result of which I respect).
It is clear that this issue remains very divisive, with strongly held views on both sides, with 52% of those taking part in the referendum voting to leave the EU, and 48% voting to remain. The result in Newcastle was even closer – with our city voting to remain within the EU by a margin of 50.7% to 49.3%. And it is also worth highlighting (despite some claims to the contrary on the internet) that there is no figure for how Newcastle North voted, as the ballots were counted on a city-wide basis.
I have therefore thought extremely long and hard about this issue since June, listening very carefully to the concerns of constituents, local businesses and employers, whilst also working to hold the Government to account on its lack of planning for, strategy, and approach to Britain’s departure from the EU – and most particularly on how Ministers intend to ensure that that this process will not damage the economy and jobs in Newcastle and the North East, nor weaken hugely important EU-derived protections we all benefit from – such as employment rights, environmental legislation or consumer standards.
As a member of the Education Select Committee, I am also taking part in an inquiry into how leaving the EU will affect the UK’s universities; and as the Chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party’s backbench group on International Trade, I have been looking very closely at the implications of exiting the EU for Britain’s exports – an issue of crucial importance to the North East, particularly when 58% of our region’s exports currently go to the EU. Links to examples of my work are available here:
https://goo.gl/bv8QvV (a contribution made to yesterday’s debate)
Despite the fact that seven months have now passed since the referendum result, I remain hugely concerned about the lack of transparency around this monumentally important and historic process; about the Government’s proposed approach to the negotiations – including ruling out, before the negotiations have even begun, remaining within the Single Market (which will have an enormous impact on the North East’s economy); and about the Government’s continued failure to explain how they will engage with the North East to ensure the issues which will particularly affect our region will be taken into account as part of the negotiations – despite making clear commitments to do so for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Furthermore, despite promises to Parliament that a White Paper would be published by the Government to set out a formal plan and strategy for leaving the EU, this is still to materialise – and MPs were therefore asked to vote this evening on the Second Reading of a Bill which would effectively give the Prime Minister a blank cheque to press ahead with leaving the EU in a way that I believe could be enormously damaging for Newcastle, the wider North East and indeed the country. As I said, I accept and respect the outcome of the referendum on 23rd June, but the way in which the Government chooses to conduct these negotiations – and agree the terms of our departure from the EU – will have enormous implications for our country for decades to come.
As the Supreme Court ruled last week that when and whether the Prime Minister should be able to trigger Article 50 is for Parliament to vote on, I had to make a decision on what I felt was right at this stage, in my role as the elected representative of Newcastle North. I therefore took the decision that I should vote against the Government’s Bill enabling Article 50 to be triggered at this stage, before we have a significantly more detailed plan and strategy in place and before we head down a – potentially irreversible – path that could do irreparable damage to our area and the country. This was not a vote against triggering Article 50 altogether – just a vote against triggering Article 50 at this stage without what I believe to be much needed clarity and safeguards in place.
As the vote was passed, I have now tabled an amendment to the legislation for consideration at Committee stage in the Commons next week (the next part of the Parliamentary process), which calls on the Government to set out how it intends to engage and consult with regions in England – including the North East – throughout the Article 50 process. I simply do not think it is acceptable for the Government to pursue these negotiations without consideration of how their strategy will affect different parts of the country, and nor is it good enough that this assessment should be made by civil servants in Whitehall. I have also signed a number of other amendments tabled for Committee stage, covering some of the concerns I have raised above, in the hope that the legislation as it stands can be improved and provide the reassurances I believe are still required.