As well as responding to the enormous number of constituents who have contacted me about almost every aspect of Brexit and the Government’s handling of this issue over the last three (and more) years, I’ve also provided regular updates at key stages throughout this historic process.
Since my last update we’ve seen the Supreme Court nullify the Government’s illegal prorogation of Parliament, the publication of the Prime Minister’s new Brexit deal, his decision to withdraw the deal due to fearing further scrutiny and finally the calling of a general election for 12 December. I therefore thought it would be helpful to try and set out what has happened and the positions I have taken on each of these issues.
In my previous update I mentioned the Government’s attempt to prorogue Parliament for five weeks. I highlighted my belief that the length of the proposed prorogation was both unprecedented and unnecessarily long if it was genuinely intended to be a short pause before a new Parliamentary session, as the Government assured us, rather than a cynical attempt to avoid scrutiny of their Brexit policy.
The unanimous Supreme Court ruling that the prorogation was illegal on 24 September exposed the fundamentally undemocratic approach of Boris Johnson and his Government.
Following the decision, I questioned the Attorney General on the advice that he and others within Government had given, and asked who would be held accountable for the constitutional crisis that it caused – to date, no one has been held accountable for this decision.
Avoiding scrutiny seems to be a recurring pattern with the Prime Minister. He did everything he could to hide from scrutiny during the Conservative leadership contest, he tried to stop Parliament from sitting and, as I will go on to set out below, attempted to rush his Brexit deal through Parliament in just three days. This is a Prime Minister who feels he should not have to answer to Parliament or the public for his actions.
Impact of the Johnson deal
On 17 October the Government published its new Brexit proposals, and it quickly became clear Boris Johnson had negotiated an even worse deal than Theresa May for jobs and our economy in the North East. It does not provide for a close economic partnership, removes even the weak commitments to workplace rights and environmental standards in the previous deal, endangers the union with Scotland and Northern Ireland and sets the UK on a course to deregulation and divergence.
As I’ve said many times before, all the evidence indicates that the North East will be hardest hit by any form of Brexit. This is hardly surprising given around 60% of the North East’s exports currently go to EU countries – trade which supports many, many thousands of good local jobs.
Yet we are now in the completely unacceptable situation – as I have repeatedly highlighted in Parliament, in the media and as Interim Chair of the Treasury Select Committee over the last two weeks – of a Government refusing to publish an economic assessment of the Prime Minister’s Brexit proposal, presumably because Ministers know just how politically damaging making this information public would be.
Independent economic researchers have undertaken the kind of analysis the Government refuses to publish. The National Institute of Economic and Social Research this week said the economic cost of a more distant relationship with Europe under the Johnson deal would outweigh any gains from ending the Brexit uncertainty. A report by UK in a Changing Europe estimates the cost to the public purse at between £16 billion and £48 billion a year. To put things in perspective, even the lower end of that estimate is more than the annual budgets of entire Government Departments like the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice. The Government is setting us up for another crippling – and completely self-inflicted – round of public spending cuts.
On 19 October a special Saturday sitting of Parliament was held to debate the revised Withdrawal Agreement. The Government no doubt intended this as a grand event in which the House would ultimately back the Prime Minister. Yet the first Saturday sitting for almost 40 years ended abruptly when the government abandoned a vote on the Prime Minister’s because MPs passed an amendment strengthening protections against no deal.
As things stood before this sitting the legal requirement was that the Prime Minister must request a further extension of EU membership by midnight on 19 October under the so-called “Benn Act” passed by Parliament in September. In the event that Parliament voted in favour of a deal or approved a no deal Brexit by 19 October, no such request would be necessary. This was to prevent us leaving on 31 October without a deal, which would otherwise have been the legal default.
The amendment moved by Sir Oliver Letwin at the 19 October sitting – which I was pleased to support – strengthened the protections of the Benn Act by requiring the Government to have its Brexit legislation pass through all its stages in Parliament before we leave, rather than just have Parliament vote for a deal in principle. This would have prevented a no deal Brexit in the event that Parliament supported a deal but did not pass the enacting legislation before the 31 October deadline. After this amendment was passed the Government decided to abandon the vote and the sitting ended.
The Prime Minister then wrote two letters to the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk. One, as legally required by the Benn Act, requested an extension until 31 January 2020. The Prime Minister refused to sign this letter- which seemed a rather childish gesture. A second letter, which he did sign, contradicted the first and stated that a delay would be a mistake. This week the EU did grant the extension to 31 January 2020 requested under the Benn Act.
Were it not for the Benn Act and the Letwin amendment we could possibly be set to crash out of the EU at 11PM tonight (31 October) without a deal, with all the devastating effects that would have on our region and our country for decades to come.
The EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill
My role as an MP requires that I act in the best interests of my constituents but also with regard to those of the nation as a whole. I therefore am not willing to knowingly legislate for something that will damage jobs, industries and livelihoods in our region – damage that all the evidence suggests will take the region years to recover from – without at least the full scrutiny and debate that such a monumental decision requires.
Which is why, when the Government brought its EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill before Parliament for second reading last week – along with an accompanying ‘programme motion’ which proposed to complete all stages of the Bill in just three days – I voted against both the Bill and the programme motion.
The legislation narrowly passed its second reading. The Government’s messaging, confusingly, portrayed this as showing parliamentary support for the Brexit deal, while simultaneously continuing to insist we need a December election because Parliament is blocking Brexit.
To be clear – the Bill did not clear all the necessary stages and most Labour colleagues who voted for it did so on the assumption that it could be amended at later stages, some saying they wished to see the inclusion of a commitment to a customs union and protection for worker’s rights to make it less damaging to the country.
The programme motion, on the other hand, was decisively rejected. Three days is an incredibly short timetable for scrutiny of any major piece of legislation. For a bill that makes the most significant changes to the UK’s economic and global position in decades, it was utterly unacceptable and a fairly transparent attempt to avoid Parliamentary scrutiny. We shouldn’t forget that in September the Prime Minister assured us there would be “plenty of time to debate Brexit”, even with a five-week prorogation. It was a highly dubious claim at the time and is now completely discredited.
The Prime Minister was apparently so unhappy about the prospect of the Bill receiving proper scrutiny under a more realistic timetable that he decided to ‘pause’ the legislation and it has gone no further.
The fact that the Government’s assurances on parts of the Bill – on trade with Northern Ireland and workers’ rights – have already unravelled shows why Parliament was absolutely right to stand up for parliamentary scrutiny and vote down the programme motion.
On Northern Ireland, the Prime Minister assured us last week there would be “no checks between Northern Ireland and Great Britain and there will be no tariffs between NI and GB”, but statements from senior ministers, HMRC and its own impact assessment contradicted this. We were left with numerous different versions of what the Brexit deal would mean for Northern Ireland. Either the Cabinet didn’t understand their own proposals, or they were deliberately misrepresenting them.
That’s why I asked the Brexit Secretary how the public could trust the Government to negotiate our future relationship with the EU and the rest of the world, when they don’t even understand or can’t be honest about the impact of their deal on trade within our own country.
And leaked documents from the Department for Exiting the European Union this week highlighted the scope Boris Johnson’s Brexit plans give him and his government to tear up European protections for workers’ rights and consumer standards. The previous withdrawal agreement contained ‘non-regression’ clauses for labour and environmental protections, stipulating that standards would not drop below current levels. All of these protections have been removed from the Withdrawal Agreement and moved to the political declaration, where they do not have legal force and are not guaranteed to ever come into effect.
On Tuesday night, Parliament voted in favour of holding an early General Election on 12 December. Along with many Labour colleagues I did not support an early election and have for some time taken the view that holding a ‘Brexit’ General Election would be wrong and runs a very high risk of not even resolving the appalling Brexit mess we are in.
A General Election should be about a program of Government over the next five years, about the future of public services like schools, the NHS and social care, and about a whole range of other vital concerns – such as climate change, what we do to end the use of foodbanks, or how we invest in public transport – to take just some examples.
All these issues risk being completely drowned out in a Brexit General Election, with the public potentially not having the opportunity to vote on other important concerns for another five years.
In my view we should have had a democratic resolution to the Brexit deadlock via a final, binding, confirmatory referendum, before moving to a general election.
If – after the last three and half years – the majority of people still wish to leave the European Union with the deal that is on the table, they will have the opportunity to vote for that outcome in the confirmatory referendum. I truly believe the public should be given the final say on any Brexit deal to ensure that it is still the majority view, given the length of time this has been debated, and how far away we are from everything that was promised in the 2016 referendum.