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Angela Smith speech to House of Lords, 19th October 2019

Twelve hundred and twelve days after the outcome of 2016 referendum vote, few could have foreseen how Brexit would lead to our politics and our country becoming so uncertain and bitterly divided. And nobody could have predicted that Parliament would be sitting on a Saturday to debate the merits of a ‘new’ Brexit deal inferior to that previously rejected by an historic margin.

I had hoped that honouring the referendum result meant more than just one side saying: “we won, you lost, get over it”. I hoped that there would be recognition that, in this huge democratic exercise while 17.4 million people voted to Leave, over 16 million made it clear that they were very much against the idea.

A mandate yes, but not one to ignore the wishes of almost half the voting public. And the real challenge for the Government was not just to leave the EU, but to do so in a way that respected the votes of all its citizens and seek to unite our country rather than help foster division. In that challenge the Government has failed – and spectacularly so.

Our politics is not built upon a ‘winner takes all’ system. When one party wins a general election, they don’t take every seat in the House of Commons. Our system and constitution ensures a voice and a role for Opposition, as well as a clear scrutinising and advisory role for YLH.

Power in our politics, as we know, ultimately lies with Parliament as a body – not just the Prime Minister or the Executive. It was YLH, that ensured a role for all MPs in reaching the final decision on how we leave the EU, with our amendment on a ‘Meaningful Vote’ for the elected House.

The way Boris Johnson is trying to portray his-deal is reminiscent of Theresa May’s own Brexit offer when she also claimed that it was ‘taking back control’ and the ‘best and only deal possible’.

And, as it was previously, the route to the deal before us today has been a rollercoaster ride. Although I admit to some cynicism about how much of that has been stage managed. Deadlines were imposed and missed. Expectations were ramped up, only to be dampened down. And as ever, with this government, sabres were rattled and put away again. Then, all of a sudden, the proverbial white smoke emerged.

I do want to put on record that we should all be immensely grateful to the negotiating team officials for their hard work and dedication throughout the entire process. It has been a huge challenge.

Other than to debate matters of war, the last time this House sat on a Saturday was in 1949. At that time, the very concept of some kind of Europe-wide union was a hope held by some men and women, who having lived through terrible conflict sought to forge a path to a sustainable long-term partnership of peace and prosperity. Here we are, 70 years later, examining a revised withdrawal agreement and political declaration for our departure.

Despite the assertions of No.10, let us remember one thing: it was not the current Prime Minister who forced Brussels to reopen the withdrawal deal. But given that a majority of MPs rejected the previous agreement three times, the EU heard the very clear message that Mrs May’s deal could not be ratified. For many Conservative MPs the issue was the backstop. But it was, after all, only ever intended to come into force if all else failed.

Jonathan Powell, who at Downing Street with Tony Blair did so much to bring about the Good Friday agreement,  said that whilst some “claim that they have got rid of the backstop, they have in fact transformed it from a fallback into the definitive future arrangement for Northern Ireland with the province remaining in the Single Market and Customs Union.”

Instead of leaving the future status of Northern Ireland up for negotiation in the next stage of talks, a set of new arrangements will be in place until at least 2024, with a further two-year wind-down period if consent is withdrawn. Even the DUP, who have kept this Government afloat, reject this. These proposals introduce a border down the middle of the Irish Sea – despite the previous derisions of the Prime Minister and his ERG allies.

Our concerns with the original deal was that Mrs May had failed to provide enough clarity over the UK’s future relationship with the EU in areas that we consider crucial. It was unclear what form of trade relationship she envisaged, beyond cross-border trade being ‘as frictionless as possible’. That meant little certainty for businesses, preventing industry from planning ahead and preventing unlocking new investment.

And there were no concrete commitments on UK participation in EU agencies, nor the extent of future cooperation on security matters. That potentially left consumers getting a worse deal and our security services facing significant gaps, putting UK citizens at risk.

The Political Declaration is aspirational, and it is of major concern that it now contains issues previously nailed down in the legally binding Withdrawal Agreement. For example, the level playing field for social rights. Now only in the Political Declaration, this merely references maintaining present standards “at the end of the transition period” but notes that “the precise nature of commitments should be commensurate with the scope and depth of the future relationship” – which is uncertain. So, there are no guarantees on employment and environmental protections beyond the end of the transition period.

Paragraph 25 of the original Declaration, which committed the UK to considering long-term regulatory alignment, has just vanished. And there are other indications that the Government will be able to pursue wholesale divergence – to the detriment of businesses, employees, consumers, and the environment.

In some areas though, Mr Johnson’s Brexit does provide a greater degree of certainty – but not in a positive way.

The Government’s ambition is limited to negotiating a free trade agreement, rather than seeking a closer arrangement such as an Association Agreement. The Treasury’s own analysis predicts a loss of over 6% of potential GDP growth in the next 15 years, equivalent to each household losing well over £2,000.

The Political Declaration confirms that the agreement will include rules of origin requirements, thus selling out the UK car industry.

The level playing field commitments that remain in the Declaration are vague. That’s why the TUC’s Frances O’Grady warns that the deal is “a disaster for working people” and one that “would hammer the economy, cost jobs and sell workers’ rights down the river.” Meanwhile, the National Farmers’ Union is concerned about British standards being undercut, with our market potentially opened up to products which could not be legally produced here.

So, what is before us seems to take us a step closer to the hardcore Brexiteers in the ERG, rather than a common sense Brexit that could have benefited our citizens and the economy. That does not strike me as, a “great new deal” – as the Prime Minister suggests. And it doesn’t seem to have struck others as great either.

The CBI’s Carolyn Fairbairn speaks of business having “serious concerns about the direction of the future UK-EU relationship”, with the new deal “inadequate” for the service sector which makes such a significant contribution to our economy. And the Institute of Directors, whilst admitting some “guarded relief” at recent progress, says “if a passable deal is in touching distance then politicians on all sides should be pragmatic about giving us the time to get there.”

And this, my Lords, is key. The deal is unsatisfactory. I’ve always thought that the Withdrawal No. 2 Act – the Benn Act, could have been a lifeline for a Prime Minister close to a deal, but without the final details.  He should use that time available. No ifs, no buts and certainly no second letters.

But everyone is losing patience. An extension will only work for somebody willing to compromise to gain a majority in Parliament, or to seek a public mandate. If MPs do not accept the deal today deal, then the impasse cannot continue.

We’ve moved on from abstract views and opinions. Nobody who voted in the referendum could have imagined the deal presented by the Prime Minister today.

At the beginning of this process when Article 50 was invoked, I argued against a second referendum. We had barely started dealing with the outcome of the first. But now, with all that has gone before us and the incompetent way in which Brexit has been handled by the last three Prime Ministers and their Governments, we have a responsibility to put the real choice – the actual choice – to the public. 

If this is the best Brexit that a Brexit-believing Prime Minister considers can be delivered, then why not seek that public mandate for it.  Anything less would be a dereliction of duty.

-Ends-

Baroness Angela Smith of Basildon is Shadow Leader of the House of Lords. She tweets @LadyBasildon

Response to Prime Minister’s statement on the ‘new’ Brexit Deal

Angela Smith speech to House of Lords, 19th October 2019

Dianne Hayter on the likely next steps in UK/EU relations

While attention is very much focused on this week’s EU Council, Brexit negotiations should really be considered in the wider international context. The UK’s relationship with our near neighbours, trading partners and close friends lies at the heart of our defence, security, commercial and diplomatic relations with the rest of the world.

How we see ourselves, and our place in the world, should guide how the government plans to withdraw from the EU and construct our future contact and rapport with its 27-country bloc.

The UK played a key role in the creation of international institutions and conventions – from NATO and the ILO, through post-war reconstruction and support for emerging democracies, to rules-based trade and the promotion of human rights. The EU has been a major locus for these priorities. It was created to secure European peace, aligned to increasing trade, and to embedding democracy.

After we joined, we helped harness the democratic impulse in former dictatorships: Spain, Portugal, Greece, followed by those emerging from the Soviet yoke.

It is for these reasons so many of us wept on the 24 June 2016. And yet we hoped that these same impulses – for a peaceful continent, for greater fairness, for economic and democratic growth – would steer the UK’s negotiations with the EU.

How disappointed we have been. Partly because – sotto voce at first – the government planned to break free from a level playing field for trade, initially voiced as “setting our own rules”. What this actually meant was the end of something that has helped harness the competitive and entrepreneurial instinct without jeopardising worker, consumer or environmental rights and standards.

Instead, our Prime Minister wants “a free trade agreement in which the UK takes control of its own regulatory affairs and trade policy” – shorthand for a deregulated economy. All despite this undermining our trade with 500 million consumers across the 27 and having to follow US rules; and pinning his hopes on the most protectionist President and Congress to suddenly open up their markets to our exporters.

It is all about lower food, consumer, hygiene, employment and environment standards to make it easier to make some fast money. And we know who would pay for this bargain basement approach: working people; consumers; public services; future generations.

These choices are not just about Brexit, but about what sort of country we want and our role in the wider world.

Should Mr Johnson negotiate a deal, Labour will insist it is put to the people in a referendum. Voters need to hear and debate not just the divorce arrangements (the Withdrawal Agreement) but also the vision for our future relationship with the EU (the Political Declaration) and decide whether that is the right way forward. Should the Prime Minister fail to secure a deal, we will ensure he obeys the law by seeking to extend the negotiating period to allow one to be reached.

Deal or no deal, an extension will probably be necessary. A withdrawal bill to implement any deal must be completed ahead of the treaty ratification. Plus, the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act requires 21 sitting days after the treaty is laid before it can be ratified.

Labour also wants to see the reintroduced Trade Bill maintaining a crucial amendment to the earlier bill which gave Parliament a role in approving trade agreements.

Future historians might conclude that these coming days and weeks might have been instrumental in determining the UK’s economic, security, social and cultural future, with a key role in the hands of a government-led – according to The New Yorker’s Sam Knightby somebody with “a complicated relationship with the truth.”

The same author writes that “Brexit has caused an intricate, wicked crisis in British politics”. So, our challenge is enormous. To keep the public focus on the significance of choices being made in Brussels and to allow Parliament then the people to determine our European future. And to also ensure the blind belief in a US-UK trade bonanza is shown up for the nonsense it is – not only because it is unrealistic but the cost it would have for workers, consumers and the environment.

Baroness Dianne Hayter is Shadow Brexit Minister and Deputy Leader of the Labour Peers Group. She tweets @HayteratLords

Published 15th October 2019

 

Role play

Dianne Hayter on the likely next steps in UK/EU relations

Angela Smith speech to House of Lords, 14th October 2019

My Lords, this is my third Queen’s Speech debate as Leader of the Opposition, though it’s been a while since the last one. Three Queen’s Speeches, three debates – and three different Prime Ministers. And the dire state of national governance means I can’t rule out taking part in a fourth, or even fifth, debate in the coming months. It could be a bit like the proverbial number 9 bus – you wait for ages and then three come along at once. And on recent form who knows how many Prime Ministers we could see in that time. So, it’s surprising that the first Bill of this session isn’t the Fixed Term Parliaments Act (Repeal) Bill.

As always, our proceedings started this afternoon with two memorable speeches.

The NL Anelay has always enjoyed the respect of YLH both as fearsome Chief Whip and softer, highly regarded Foreign Office Minister. That softer side was evident in a friendship she established at the Foreign Office with Palmerston, otherwise known on Twitter as @Diplomog – the Foreign Office cat.  Such was the affection between them that on the day the NL left the Government from DExEU, Palmerston left the comfort of the Foreign Office and unexpectedly walked purposely across Whitehall, just to bid farewell.

On her introduction into YLH in 1996 she went through the same process as us all in choosing her title, but hers turned out to be slightly more expensive.  After being told she couldn’t have ‘Woking’, she selected Baroness Anelay of ‘St John’s’ after the village (with an apostrophe). Garter, King at Arms informed her that was ok, but on checking through historic and ancient documents regarding the village, he declared it had no apostrophe.  So, all the road signs had to be changed.

Few could match the NL Dobbs theatrical style and the flourish of his speech.  I hope in future to see him in cameo roles when his books are filmed. He could be the Colin Dexter or Alfred Hitchcock of YLH.

The NL has an enviable reputation as both a writer and politician having worked at the highest levels of the Conservative administration for many years – leading one newspaper to describe him as “Westminster’s Baby-Faced Hit Man”. 

A few years ago, the NL told me, as we toured the bowels of the building, that he was writing a new book based, once again on the political machinations of Westminster. So, you will understand my nervousness that he promised, or perhaps threatened, that I would be a character in such a future book. Ever since then I’ve always treated him with the utmost respect and have laughed at all of his jokes.  I hope he saw sufficient amusement from me today.  The book hasn’t appeared yet, but he’s probably hampered as no fiction could be as bizarre as the reality. He could respond “you may think that but I couldn’t possibly comment”.

This is an unusual Queen’s Speech. We were expecting great things given that Prime Minister Johnson tried, and failed, to have an unprecedented five weeks preparation time – rather than the usual five days. Normally, it comes after an election and is an opportunity for a Prime Minister to put their mark on the forthcoming programme of Government for at least the next year. But with Mr Johnson clearly desperate for another election, this Queen’s Speech can be little more than the market testing of his Manifesto for the next election rather than a serious programme for the next session.

In taking the programme at face value we welcome legislation aimed at tackling domestic abuse, improving mental health, protecting children and young people from online harm, and dealing with the poor management of private pension schemes. Some of these important issues were already being considered by the previous Prime Minister, and indeed in previous Queen’s Speeches.  And others have been championed for some time by colleagues from across this House, including many from these benches. But there are a number of key issues missing – where is the promised Veterans Bill. There is nothing on housing. And there is more about being seen to be tough on crime than genuinely tackling the causes. We also have Brexit-related Bills on agriculture, fisheries, immigration and trade – all of which began their legislative process but were subsequently abandoned.

The government is promising legislation to Implement new building safety standards. One of the casualties of cuts to local government funding has been the enforcement of building regulations – designed to ensure high standards, including on safety and the environment.  Yet, with fewer inspectors on the ground, and Government changes in planning laws, it is easier now for the unscrupulous or the ignorant to flout the law.  While we welcome improving and monitoring standards the Government has to understand that it has already hollowed out the current system. In addressing this will want to ensure that any new regime is necessary, has real teeth and is not just warm words and another layer of bureaucracy.

We have serious concerns about the proposed Electoral Integrity Bill.  Clearly, we should do what’s necessary to stamp out any abuse of the system.  But we must take care that the scale of changes is proportionate to the problem and do not have unintended consequences.  I’m not convinced that introducing photo ID meets that test, so we need to scrutinise the detail. One of our priorities for election integrity would be to ensure that 16- and 17-year olds could also have the right vote.

And yet again we have a commitment to Outer Space. A ruse perhaps for the Prime Minister to make another hackneyed joke about putting opposition MPs into orbit. But it does sound a bit pie in the sky given the government has delayed HS2, failed to make a decision on airport capacity and can’t get its act together on lorry parks in Kent. My Lords – it sometime feels like the Government is living in a parallel universe. 

I suppose we shouldn’t have been surprised that Mr Johnson chose not to repeat David Cameron’s commitment, emphasised in the 2016 Queen’s Speech, confirming the sovereignty of Parliament and the Primacy of the House of Commons. At the time we felt it was an unnecessary reminder aimed at YLH.   But as the Brexit crisis has unfolded it is the current Prime Minister who has been forced to recognise the sovereignty of Parliament and Commons primacy.

In the last session, YLH dealt with around four dozen bills and over two thousand SIs’. Many amendments and changes were put forward – with a fair number accepted by the Government or, if voted on and sent to the Commons, agreed in full or in part.  And where the Commons disagreed with our amendments, we respected its primacy. Recognising our constitutional role, particularly in such challenging political times, we rightly also considered and passed two hugely significant Bills agreed by MPs without Government support. In our Parliamentary democracy it would have been completely wrong for this House to have rejected legislation that commanded the support of MPs, because the Government didn’t like it. The Government was also right not to, as some urged, use this House to try to wreck that legislation.

We will continue to undertake our responsibilities and obligations regarding legislation with due diligence.  It is therefore extraordinary that a Member of the current Cabinet, having previously praised us for our maturity, wisdom, learnedness and experience has now called for the abolition of YLH.  Indeed, he is on record praising the ‘great benefit’ that comes with our ‘independence’. But, it has to be said that was before we disagreed with Mr Jacob Rees Mogg.  And, that probably explains his change of opinion more than the discovery of an important point of constitutional principle.

There can be doubt that we are living through extraordinary times. None of us can predict the future. At the moment we can’t even predict what’s going to happen over the next week, with an emergency and exceptional sitting of Parliament on Saturday. And it’s not just because of the Brexit negotiations, as unpredictable as they are, but even more seriously it is a consequence of being at a pivotal and troubling point in our nation’s history.

Few that took part in the 2016 referendum, in good faith, could have imagined we’d be in such an uncertain position today – 1207 days later. The 2017 Queen’s Speech talked about providing certainty and making a success of Brexit –  it was apparently a ‘priority’ to build a more united country, yet we are more divided and uncertain than ever before. Having been told so often that Brexit would be easy, that freed from the so-called ‘shackles’ of the EU we would emerge phoenix like, stronger and better than ever, many dared to believe those promises. It’s clear now that those promises were based on little more than a wing and prayer.

The rhetoric, the false promises, hopes and statements, that accompanied the campaign and the years since – ministerial and otherwise - have debased our democracy and our values.  As competing pressures inevitably meant that a Brexit deal was tougher to nail down, the blame game began – with parliamentarians, lawyers and others labelled ‘traitors’, and even ‘enemies of the people’ for daring to fulfil their constitutional role. And the added potency of terms such as ‘dying in a ditch’ and ‘Surrender Bill’ appear to be part of a clear, sabre-rattling attempt to create hostility and conflict between the electorate and MPs. In recent weeks, we have seen that rhetoric reach new levels of toxicity and an increasingly desperate attempt to lay responsibility at the door of others. Each time the negotiations get difficult, there’s a blame game to point the finger at anyone but the Prime Minister.

But at what cost? 

Whatever the outcome of the Brexit debacle what comes next will seal the future and the values of our country for at least a generation.  So where do we go from here?

Reflecting on the debate since 2016, it feels as if the values that have underpinned British governments since 1945 – including Conservative-led ones – have been jettisoned. That’s not about specific policies, but the conventional wisdom that it was the duty and responsibility of Government to seek to unite, rather than divide and to act for the whole nation rather than any party or narrow interest. And whilst the upping of that, at times dangerous, rhetoric is designed to win votes, the public is more dispirited and with a greater sense of disappointment, disengagement and disillusionment about Parliament and politics than ever before. They see the escalating rows over Brexit, with no unifying conclusion, ensuring that other concerns and issues that affect their everyday lives have fallen by the wayside.

The current tone of public discourse and debate means too many of our citizens, young and old, have so little confidence and optimism, that they either lose hope or would rather be cold and wet protesting outside, than ever think they could be in here making the decisions to bring about the change they seek.

I believe, I think we all do, in the power of Government for good. In its power to effect change; and its duty to provide hope and optimism for the future. The bungling of Brexit has sapped the energy, the ambition, the intellect, the creativity and the finances of our country.  The brightest and the best could have been directed towards the greatest challenges of the generation. Instead, they’ve been pulled one way, then another, in trying to cope with Brexit. Where is that strategic vision and collective national ambition?

Today for all the new technology that wallpapers our everyday lives, it can feel at times like we are in an era of ‘make do and mend’. Any government with a sense of a purpose would at least try to define – with honesty – a route to some sunny upland or other.  But Mr Johnson’s regime is sadly lacking.

It’s little wonder that today we see so little of that hope and optimism that has to be the backbone of any modern state.  Our young people have to believe there is a future with personal, professional and selfless opportunity. To be able to work, to own or rent a secure and affordable home. To be able to trust in a health and care system for them and their families.  And to be able to believe that the environment will be cleaner and better for their children – and that they will be safe and secure. These are modest desires that a good government – a good state – should enable.  If not trying to create a utopian view of the Good Society, then at least aspiring to a better one.

Given that this Queen’s Speech is a pitch to the electorate, can it deliver that optimism to bring about a better future? Robert Kennedy was inspirational when (quoting George Bernard Shaw) he said: “some see things as they are and ask why. I dream of things that never were and ask why not”. Those words are so apt. This can’t just be about government – we need to encourage others to share that dream and ask ‘Why not?’

It might sound whimsical but that’s what successful governments have done when making the case for office, rather than base arguments about the left and right of politics. They’ve been able to engage others to share an optimistic vision, and to have the confidence that Government will enable the delivery of it.

It’s hard to define what generates public optimism. But there are pivotal points in our recent history:

  • A war weary public, whilst grateful to and admiring of Winston Churchill, was enthused by the hope of a new Britain under Clement Attlee;
  • the white heat of technology promised by Harold Wilson engaged those seeking a more forward-looking, socially liberal society;
  • Margaret Thatcher gauged the temperature of Britain during the industrial strife of the 1970s, and despite my strong disagreement with so much of her programme, she initially had a vision and successfully convinced many to share it;
  • And Tony Blair’s ‘Britain deserves better’ resonated with young and old alike. Things indeed, got better.

There is no quick way of turning this dire state of affairs around. But it is incumbent on all of us to try and find a way forward. It’s not enough to have a Manifesto, or a Queen’s Speech, of promises.  It has to be about genuinely making a difference, on the issues that matter to our citizens, not about issues that matter to Westminster. The relationship between the public and the institutions of state and politics has been strained to the limit. And attempts to win votes by stretching it just a little further are doomed to a failure greater than losing elections. So that’s the big responsibility for Government today. 

And who knows, in seeking to rebuilding that trust, we may not only help heal divisions but, in time, bring about a new optimism followed by the renewed commitment in our politics to deliver the legislation and honour its promise. 

-Ends-

Baroness Angela Smith of Basildon is Shadow Leader of the House of Lords. She tweets @LadyBasildon

 

Response to 2019 Queen's Speech

Angela Smith speech to House of Lords, 14th October 2019

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