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Angela Smith speech in the House of Lords, Monday 21st January 2019

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement. I concur at the outset with the Prime Minister’s comments about Northern Ireland. It is an ongoing situation. As a former Minister in Northern Ireland, I know the impact that this will have on local communities.

With all the work that has gone in over the years to bring peace to Northern Ireland, this will be devastating to so many. It proves how right it was that, across both Houses and across all parties, people worked together to get the Good Friday agreement and bring peace and stability to local communities.

We requested that this Statement be taken earlier in the day and that the time for Back-Bench contributions be extended. I am sorry that the Government were unable to accept that and rejected that request. However, after reading the Statement, I think I understand why. There is not much that is new or of any real substance.

The Prime Minister made her Statement today as a direct result of Dominic Grieve’s amendment, which accelerated the timescales previously laid down in legislation, giving her three days to respond to the decision of the House of Commons.

This Statement is another reminder for your Lordships’ House of the value of the meaningful vote provisions in the withdrawal Act, which originated from an amendment passed in your Lordships’ House that required the Prime Minister to return to Parliament if her proposed deal—her “plan A”—was defeated. It was—overwhelmingly. But while Brexit remains Brexit, plan B does not mean plan B. It does not even look like an A+, perhaps more like an A-.

Following a historic and unprecedented defeat for the Prime Minister’s agreement, Mrs May offered to talk to MPs from all parties, with the Government approaching those meetings in what she called “a constructive spirit”. Yet it appears that the constructive spirit lasts only as long as it takes to agree with the Prime Minister.

Despite having been challenged by the parliamentary leaders of all opposition parties—excluding the DUP, of course—to take a no-deal exit off the table, Mrs May has held firm and refused to do so.

We know that, under Article 50 and the withdrawal Act, no deal is the legal default, but the Government can change that. The Prime Minister should certainly acknowledge that it would be a calamitous outcome for the UK and therefore that it is of no value at all as a bargaining position.

If the threat of a no-deal exit was being used by Mrs May to shore up support for the plan A deal, it was a spectacular misjudgment and failure. She rightly promised a change of approach, including a greater role for Parliament in setting the mandate for future trade negotiations. But, once again, within days we find out that nothing has changed. The Prime Minister said in her Statement that she had, “listened to colleagues across Parliament from different parties and … different views”. She might have listened, but she is clearly not truly hearing what people are saying.

A constructive spirit means willingness to compromise from all parties. In any negotiation that must be the starting point or there is simply nothing to be gained. It is no good the Prime Minister meeting the hardliners in the European Research Group and the DUP while sending her de facto deputy and her chief of staff to meet others on the other side of the argument. It is no good ruling out an option—an EU-UK customs union—that the Opposition support and the EU appears to be willing to negotiate while continuing to risk a chaotic no-deal exit that would leave citizens, businesses and communities with no certainty whatever.

Yet, rather predictably, the Prime Minister has today presented a so-called plan B that, as I have said, looks extraordinarily similar to her plan A: go back to Brussels for further talks, even as the clock ticks down; ask again for concessions on the backstop, even though the EU has been clear that it is not up for renegotiation; and then blame others for holding up Brexit, even though it is the Government who have negotiated an agreement that has been comprehensively rejected by all parties. In this House, we passed a Motion by an overwhelming majority, believing that the agreement would weaken our prosperity, security and global standing.

I do not know whether the noble Baroness can confirm this, but according to media reports on Friday Mrs May held a series of crisis phone calls with EU leaders, including Chancellor Merkel, in the wake of her historic defeat. Despite her offer to hold talks with opposition parties and build a cross-party consensus behind a new deal, EU diplomatic sources said that the Prime Minister’s demands were in fact completely unchanged—something that was “greeted with incredulity”.

She has clearly made a conscious decision to reject common-sense solutions that could bring politicians and voters of all colours together in order to have another attempt at securing concessions and assurances that she has already failed to win back in December. It appears that this is simply an effort to keep her premiership alive—or, if not alive, at least on life support.

The Prime Minister ignores at every step of this process the fact that her hardliners have shown that they will not be swayed. They have undermined her authority at every turn and taken her right to the brink. Their opposition to the deal is as strong as Mrs May’s stubborn determination not to cede any ground to others, even if this could gain wider support and prevent a no-deal or a blind Brexit.

This was highlighted at the weekend when a former Downing Street adviser was asked by Andrew Marr whether he had ever seen Theresa May compromise. His response? “I can’t think of one off the top of my head”. In other words, everyone—the Opposition, the EU 27, Cabinet members and Back-Benchers alike—has to shift position: everyone except Theresa May.

That is no way to run a Government or a country and it is no way to conduct one of the most important and complex negotiations that a UK Government have ever participated in. If the Prime Minister’s objective is to deliver a Brexit that can bring the country back together, I have to say to the noble Baroness that that approach is doomed to failure.

While I disagree with much of the Prime Minister’s approach on Brexit, I welcome the clarity offered on the Good Friday agreement. I am sure I am not the only noble Lord who was concerned—we heard earlier that many noble Lords were—by the comments reported over the weekend. It surely must always be inconceivable that the Government would seek to reopen that agreement as a way of trying to break the impasse on the EU issue. Doing so would be completely unacceptable. It will be good if the noble Baroness could reinforce that in her comments.

I also welcome Mrs May’s announcement relating to the waiving of fees for EU citizens applying for settled status. That is another issue on which your Lordships’ House spoke early in the Brexit process and the Government should have acted months ago.

We also welcome the commitment that we have asked for before that Ministers will brief Select Committees in confidence, rather than the only option being for MPs to force an issue by action on the Floor of the House of Commons.

Could the Leader of the House confirm that this briefing will extend to our own EU committees and that they will also be briefed in confidence? I welcome the belated recognition that the Prime Minister needs a negotiating mandate from Parliament.

With each Statement and each vote, we continue edging towards 29 March and the disaster that would be no deal. I have a couple of questions for the Leader of the House. First, if, when the House of Commons has its debate next Tuesday, it instructs the Government to take a no-deal outcome off the table, how will the Prime Minister respond?

Secondly, however Mrs May responds to next week’s Commons votes, can the Leader of the House confirm that there will be the opportunity to consider the outcome in your Lordships’ House?

I know that a formal Statement will be repeated, but she will recall that last week the Prime Minister made a point of order at the end of business. However the Statement is made, it would be helpful if this House could consider the outcome and Mrs May’s comments.

Finally, with so few legislative days available between now and 29 March, will the Government build on their commitment to engage with Select Committees and release the relevant clauses of the draft EU withdrawal agreement Bill to the Constitution Committee to enable some form of pre-legislative scrutiny?

When the noble Baroness comes to answer those questions, I urge her to bear in mind her oft-repeated assurance that the Government are planning for all eventualities.

As always, the House remains ready to be helpful to the Government, but we have stressed time and again that that can happen only if we have the relevant information at our disposal. 

-Ends-

 

Response to the PM's statement on the Government’s Brexit deal

Angela Smith speech in the House of Lords, Monday 21st January 2019

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Angela Smith speech in the House of Lords, Monday 21st January 2019

My Lords, as we start the Committee stage of the Trade Bill, my motion seeks to be helpful to YLH in providing a constructive framework for further scrutiny of this Bill following Committee.

It’s now well over a year since the Bill was introduced in the House of Commons and 132 days since the Second Reading in YLH, which may be a record.

Following consideration in the Other Place it was passed to us to undertake our responsibility of scrutiny in the normal way and we will fulfill that obligation.

My amendment recognises that whilst in 2017 it was perhaps understandable that the Government introduced a skeleton bill. However, as time has moved on it is essential that we conclude our deliberations within a clearer policy framework, before this Bill returns to MPs for further consider.

There are 3 key reasons I ask the Government to accept my amendment today.

First, at its core this is “no deal Brexit” Bill, dealing with a situation which only very few want to see happen, and indeed which the Other Place has already indicated its clear intent that it must not happen. 

MPs from all parties are urging the Prime Minister to take action to rule out such a catastrophic outcome, as indeed has YLH in the motion passed last Monday by an incredible majority of 169. That alone makes it hard to justify taking this Bill in its current form.

Second, when first introduced, the Government presented this as a short and uncomplicated Bill, dealing with issues related to a possible no deal scenario.  Indeed, the NL the Minister, described it as “pragmatic” and “technical”.

We were informed that the substantive issues about how Government would deal new international trade agreements,  once the UK was in a position to do so independently of the EU, would be in a second Bill. 

I am aware that the Government is consulting, but no further legislation has been introduced - not a White Paper, or even a Green Paper, and time is running out.

It is not unreasonable that, before we complete our consideration of this Bill, we should have more information about, and proposals on, such an important policy issue. Also, I have carefully read the Report of our Constitution Committee, which refers to this Bill as a “framework” measure providing Government with extensive delegated powers to effect new trade policy. They raised several issues of concern.

At the time the Government justified the loose drafting because it claimed the need for flexibility given the uncertainty over the withdrawal agreement. My Lords, with no second Bill the time for flexibility is disappearing fast. Decisions have to be made and mechanisms and processes have to be in place.

Third, we should welcome that in recent months we have seen a growing public interest in how and on what basis we should be negotiating and operating our trade policy in the future. That is partly due to recognition of the misplaced and misleading optimism by ministers and others, who told us all how easy trade agreements were going to be.

This isn’t an issue that ministers can just make up as they go along. It needs serious forensic, evidence-based policy making.

We know that terms of future trade with the EU remain unclear. And now, the true picture of the lack of progress in securing the ‘roll over’ deals to replace those we currently have with non-EU countries -  through our membership of the EU - has also been exposed by the Financial Times.

The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, is on record telling us how easy it was all going to be: "The free trade agreement that we will have to do with the European Union should be one of the easiest in human history." And he said that all agreements would be ready and in place one second after Brexit,  with no disruption to trade. So not only were these statements irresponsible – they were also gravely wrong. 

Now the International Trade Secretary only says that he ‘hopes’ they will be in place but it depends on whether other countries are “prepared to put the work in”. Apparently, he has signed a ‘mutual recognition agreement’ with the Australian High Commission in London to maintain all current relevant aspects of the agreement it has with the EU.  But the EU doesn’t have a free trade agreement with Australia.

When this legislation was going through the Commons, we argued that legally distinct new trade agreements were required.  The Government claimed they could simply ‘roll over’ the existing agreements, but that it clearly not the case.

Our country needs a sensible and appropriate scheme for trade, rooted in reality - not fantasy.

Trade negotiations are complex and difficult, requiring a proper and effective system involving Parliament and the devolved administrations -  in relation to both a negotiating mandate and final agreements. And ML, we should also engage civil society, feeding in the views of consumers, trade unions and companies.

In conclusion, we will be unable to fulfil our obligation of scrutinising this Bill effectively without further information on how the government intends to provide proper accountability and scrutiny of current and future trade agreements. 

We need to know how the devolved administrations will be involved. We need to be assured of the mechanisms for ensuring that our trade policy is compliant with our international obligations. And we need legal commitments that in any future independent trading policy there will be no reductions in employee rights, or consumer or environmental standards for example.

One way the Government can do this by tabling amendments to the Trade Bill. There may be other mechanisms.

My amendment doesn’t dictate what those should be but merely states that this House should not receive the committee’s Report on this Bill until both Houses of Parliament have received proposals for a process for making international trade agreements, once the UK is in a position to do so independently of the EU.

As report Stage is expected by the end of February, and the leave date is 29th March, it is not unreasonable to expect the policy framework by then.

My Lords, my amendment is designed to assist this House in its deliberations. I hope that the Government will accept it.

If the Government is unable to do so, given the seriousness of the issue, I will seek the opinion of the House.

I beg to move.

- Ends -

The Government's failure to outline how trade policy would work, post-Brexit

Angela Smith speech in the House of Lords, Monday 21st January 2019

Philip Hunt on the government’s failure to get to grips with the UK’s widening health inequalities

Nearly 40 years ago, the Conservative government was rocked by a report warning of the huge scale of health inequalities in the UK. Sir Douglas Black, President of the Royal College of Physicians, pinpointed the unequal distribution of ill-health due to social inequalities in income, education, housing, diet, and conditions of work.

Sir Douglas’s seminal work was so embarrassing for the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher and her ministers that very few copies were ever printed. Indeed, the very word ‘inequalities’ was banned from use by civil servants.

Now another Conservative government is presiding over a similar challenge. The Chief Medical Officer (CMO), Dame Sally Davis recently produced one of the most hard-hitting public reports ever seen, laying out not just the scale of health inequalities that exist in our country but the need for action.

Shockingly, these inequalities have worsened in recent years. In 2016, life expectancy for women at birth ranged from 78.8 years in the most deprived areas compared to 86.7 years in the most affluent. For men the range was 74.0 years to 83.8 years.

Significantly, the CMO pointed to the emergence of working poverty as a prominent issue – a result of the combination of higher employment and poor pay growth. This has contributed to 1.5 million people experiencing destitution and a substantial rise in child poverty, because families with kids (and especially those with lone parents) have been particularly affected by cuts to benefits.

Combined with the impact of austerity, it is little wonder that poorer people’s health has been so badly affected. Children centres and other sources of social support for families have been drastically reduced. And this has been matched by the slashing of public health budgets by £700 million over the same period. Some 85% of local authorities plan to reduce their budgets over the next year. Programmes that support smoking cessation, the tackling of obesity and sexual health will all also suffer.

Looking ahead to 2040, the CMO concluded with a seismic warning that if current trends continue or get worse, we could end up with a society where the most deprived are cast adrift from the rest of society. The gap in life expectancy and healthy life expectancy could worsen substantially.

Alternatively, we could prioritise health as one of our nations’ primary assets. The CMO makes a compelling case for a combination of high and continuing rising taxation on tobacco and alcohol. Dame Sally also wants to see the use of fiscal disincentives for foods high in sugar and salt, alongsides incentives to increase fruit and vegetable consumption.

The government’s ten year long-term plan for the NHS, published earlier this month, was an ideal platform for ministers to show they had got the message. Sadly, the plan is almost entirely focussed on the NHS and ducks many of the questions raised by the CMO. There’s far too much focus on individual interventions and an ignorance of the wider societal measures (including fiscal policies) that are so essential.

I’m convinced there is a majority in Parliament for decisive action. My oral question in the House of Lords this afternoon will test this out and make clear to ministers that the CMO’s report on health inequalities must not be swept under the carpet.

Lord Philip Hunt of Kings Heath is a Labour Peer and a former Health Minister. He tweets @LordPhilofBrum

Published 21st January 2019

Fault lines

Philip Hunt on the government’s failure to get to grips with the UK’s widening health inequalities

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