European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill 2019-20

Today I spoke in the second reading debate on the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill 2019-20, which provides for the UK to leave the EU at the end of January 2020.

I pointed out that although the election of a majority Conservative Government means we will be leaving the EU next year, it doesn’t mean the anxieties of the voters we represent have gone away or that Brexit won’t put jobs and the economy in the North East at risk.
The passage of this Bill is just the beginning. The challenges of the next stage of Brexit are infinitely more complex and the timescales are unclear, the Prime Minister’s unrealistic December 2020 deadline for a trade agreement aside. I will continue to represent the views and anxieties of the people I represent in Parliament and hold the Government to account on this monumental change for this country that I fear many will come to regret.

You can read my speech below or watch it online here.

Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Labour)

During this general election I spoke to so many voters and fully appreciated the desire expressed by some, whether they voted leave or remain, to get closure on the issue of Brexit. It was very clever electioneering to paint the impression that this is simply a small foreign policy issue that can be wrapped up relatively quickly so Ministers can get on with bread and butter domestic issues. However, we are no longer electioneering – it’s time for reality to bite – and the reality is that this bill is just the start of years of uncertainty about our future and – rather than getting Brexit done – it is getting Brexit begun.

There are still so many issues to be resolved, incredibly thorny issues. The most fundamental question of whether securing a US or EU trade deal is most important to the Government. Both will want some sort of regulatory alignment and the Prime Minister needs to decide what he is prepared to concede – on food, fisheries, labour and environmental provisions, just for starters.

The Government must also decide what kind of say, if any, devolved Governments are going to have on trade agreements. If the Scottish Government is excluded from negotiations, what does this mean for our union? We’ve already seen and heard the challenges posed for Northern Ireland by placing the trade border in the Irish Sea – something that the former Prime Minister promised not to do. And asked some time ago – immediately after the referendum result came through, what the Government was going to do to ensure regional voices and concerns are also heard as part of these Brexit negotiations. The answer I got from the Prime Minister then was nothing. I have little hope that the answer will be more encouraging today.

There are some really big questions, and that’s not even to mention  long term tariffs, access to the labour market, the state aid regime, access to fishing waters, regulations across the whole economy but particularly in food, the priority given to sectors such as farming, financial services and automotive, environment and labour policy, data flows and privacy issues, intellectual property and access to diverse EU regulatory programmes and much, much more.

And the Prime Minister has committed to do all of this in just 12 months or risk another No Deal cliff edge.

And just as the election result doesn’t change the fact that Brexit will continue to dominate our politics for some time to come, it also does not change the economic reality of Brexit.

The Chancellor flatly refused to publish any Treasury analysis of the Prime Minister’s deal when I wrote to him in my then capacity as Interim Chair of the Treasury Committee prior to the election. He also refused to appear before nor send any Minister to appear before the Committee.

It’s also difficult to see how the kind of Brexit the Prime Minister says he wants to pursue is in any way compatible with the wider promises made by the Conservatives during their general election campaign.

The Government says it is committed to increasing public spending- or at least spending on the NHS, education and police – whilst also keeping income tax, national insurance and VAT either flat or falling, and reducing debt as a proportion of GDP over the course of this Parliament.

What choices the Government makes, and what promises it breaks, all remain to be seen.

But I wanted to say as well that I am truly sorry that is the case, that despite parties offering a final say on any Brexit deal winning 53% of the vote in the General Election, and all the public polling indicating that the majority of the British public think it was wrong to vote to leave the EU back in 2016, that the voting public will not get to have their say on the final Brexit deal. Indeed, that is precisely why the current PM wanted a Brexit general election, rather than a confirmatory referendum, despite getting a Withdrawal Act through Parliament on its first reading at its last attempt before Parliament was dissolved.

But we are where we are, as they say. The makeup of this Parliament has changed dramatically, and we will now be leaving the EU at the end of January. But the anxieties of the people we represent in the North East on what Brexit means for their jobs and their livelihoods have not changed. The analysis showing the North East will be hit hardest of all hasn’t changed, nor has the threat Brexit poses to the 63% of North East exporters who rely on access to EU markets.

Brexit isn’t going to be done. The challenges of the next stage are infinitely more complex than the first and the timescales. And so, I will continue to represent the views, the anxieties and the interests of the people I represent here in Parliament and hold the Government to account on this monumental change for this country which I fear many will come to regret.