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Dianne Hayter on the government’s failure to engage Parliament on what appear to be deeply troubled negotiations with the EU

Public attention is understandably focused for now on Covid-19 and its impact on jobs, holidays, education, health, and the arts. Just below the surface, however, vital discussions are taking place in London about the UK’s future trade, security, and other relations with the EU. 

Despite the urgent need for an agreement, the noises creeping out of Downing Street are not hopeful. Not for constitutional reasons (it has to be signed off by the European Parliament and the 27 member states, as well as UK politicians), nor for the sake of business (which has to operate any new customs, form filling, tariffs, permissions etc), or indeed to help our citizens residing abroad (currently unsure of their rights after December).

Nowhere is this more important than for Northern Ireland. But we learnt yesterday that details of the protocol border operating model, which had been expected on Monday, is now some weeks off.

Ports around the UK – from Holyhead to Dover – have no certainty as to what will happen in 22 weeks’ time, with consumers unaware that supplies of fresh produce might at that point be interrupted and their health coverage affected when abroad.

As we have heard from both the EU and UK negotiating teams, major difficulties remain unresolved – particularly on fishing and state aid.  We know our government’s favoured light-touch regulatory approach would be opposed strongly by Brussels, with Michel Barnier reiterating there could be no economic partnership without “robust guarantees” on a level playing field for future trade. 

Yet every hint from the UK side is that Brussels has to do all the compromising. A rather unlikely route to progress, the absence of which will lead to our departure on WTO terms, with no agreement on tariff or quota-free trade, plus potentially devastating effects on parts of our manufacturing and food sectors.  Furthermore, as the LSE has pointed out, any such scenario would deliver a double shock across all sectors of our economy – including those relatively unscathed by the Covid crisis.

These talks are vitally important, with implications for our future. But despite the requirement for parliamentary approval prior to ratification, the government has chosen not to report back to MPs and Peers. Lead negotiator David Frost is in effect going about his business without any sense that the stance he takes will be accepted by the Commons.

I have therefore sought, and secured, an urgent question for the government in the Lords today, to ask whether a deal will be agreed before its much heralded September deadline. Curiously, no minister involved in the talks nor the Leader of the Lords (herself in Cabinet and therefore – one assumes – close to the action) will respond; and we will instead hear from the Department for Transport Whip. Perhaps that signals the direction of travel, the speed of progress, the rockiness of the road, the absence of a navigator or simply the lack of steam? Either way, it also feels inappropriate on such a vital subject.

Labour has long supported the government getting a good deal out of these talks. But the lack of transparency and openness suggests they are some way off achieving that.

Baroness Dianne Hayter is Shadow Deputy Leader of the Lords. She tweets @HayteratLords

Published 29th July 2020

Directionless travel

Dianne Hayter on the government’s failure to engage Parliament on what appear to be deeply troubled negotiations with the EU

Dianne Hayter on ensuring the new Parliamentary Constituencies Bill prioritises public interest over round figures

February 2011, and the Coalition government passed a Bill to reduce the number of elected MPs by 50 down to 600 – ignoring UK population growth and just when, despite claims this was to “reduce the cost of politics”, the Lords was being pumped up by a comparable figure of unelected Peers. 

No rationale was ever given for the 600 figure – other than the then Leader of the Lords saying it was “a nice, round number”.  But the implications for the work of MPs (with larger seats to represent), the upheaval (allied to a smaller “tolerance level” for the Boundary Commission to work around), and an increased frequency of reviews, all meant the law was never brought into force. Conservative MPs were as unhappy as Labour, and they stayed the government’s hand on the starting pistol ensuring it was never fired.

Fast forward a near decade, and the 2020 Parliamentary Constituencies Bill – arriving in the Lords on Monday from the Commons – reminds us of this this mad-cap idea while restoring a welcome commitment to the present 650 constituencies. With 73 fewer elected politicians (the number of UK MEPs no longer attending the European Parliament), any further reduction in those able to represent constituents’ interests seemed particularly inappropriate. And with no planned reduction in ministers, the power of the Executive vis-à-vis the Commons would have been larger.

The Bill does retain one shortcoming from the existing Act – permitting only a plus-or-minus 5% figure on the number of electors permitted in each seat, in an apparent attempt to ensure numerical equality of representation in every constituency.  This, however, does not work well in geographically large areas or where mountains or a river dissect a region. In parts of Wales, for example, two valleys – with a mountain between them and no transport across – could find themselves in a single parliamentary seat.

The obsession with statistical numbers also overlooks the nine million potential electors missing from the electoral roll (per seat far larger than the 5% margin), as well as the fact that MPs represent communities, not just individuals.  The more an MP knows the schools and universities, villages and neighbourhoods, businesses, charities, and churches in a seat, the better they can understand and speak up for the people. Those tasked with defining constituency boundaries should do so in a way that best reflects local communities as well as numbers, and with the leeway to respond accordingly.

One new, worrying, feature has suddenly been dropped into this Bill: the removal of the final oversight by Parliament of the map drawn up by the Boundary Commission. It was this backstop that prevented the 600 seats being imposed but it will vanish in this Bill, to be replaced by a simple Order in Council without proper scrutiny. Just one more example of this government’s apparent keenness not to involve MPs and Peers. Hopefully, however, the Lords will remove this unwanted device and restore parliamentary oversight.

There are many other challenges facing our democracy – not least the need for protection against interference in UK democratic process by Russia or any other malign interference. We also need to add 16- and 17-year olds to the electoral roll and take real action to ensure everyone entitled to vote is actually registered. No one should take our democracy for granted but at least the continuation of 650 MPs will ensure there are more pairs of eyes watching closely what the government is up to.

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

Published 23rd July 2020

 

Number lines

Dianne Hayter on ensuring the new Parliamentary Constituencies Bill prioritises public interest over round figures

Richard Rosser on the likely challenges facing the government’s post-Brexit Immigration Bill, as it begins its route through the Lords

Geared towards ending EU freedom of movement rules in the UK, the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination Bill has just nine clauses and is narrow in scope. In short, and following the Brexit transition period, EEA nationals will become subject to UK immigration laws and therefore covered by a new points-based immigration system – to be introduced next year.

Almost identical to the bill which fell due to last year’s general election, the current one took just six weeks to complete its Commons stages before being passed unamended at Third Reading at the end of June. Progress in the Lords will not be so rapid, and not just because of the August Recess

The Bill does not itself create the new immigrations system, as that will be done elsewhere via the Immigration Rules. But we will need to be inventive in using what limited opportunity there is to properly scrutinise the legislation. The country, and indeed the government itself, would have been far better served if more details of the new system had been put forward and left open to amending.

One thing it does include is widely drafted Henry VIII powers that would allow ministers to bring in changes ‘connected’ to the Bill, and amended arrangements on co-operation with EU member states on social security matters for those who move between countries. To be carried out by unamendable statutory instruments, these powers include modifying both existing Acts of Parliament and retained direct EU laws.

The Lords Delegated Powers Committee believes Clause 4 of the Bill presents “a very significant delegation of power from Parliament to the Executive”, while Clause 5 means “Parliament is being asked to scrutinise a clause so lacking in any substance whatsoever that it cannot even be described as a skeleton”. In short, MPs and Peers are being denied a proper say and involvement in debating and determining our future immigration policy and the ending of free movement.

This is not about the merits or otherwise of Brexit but the government’s attitude towards Parliament and its role in scrutinising legislation, including suggesting amendments that may in fact make bills more fit for purpose. So, our House will want to make its voice heard on limiting the use of such powers.

Many issues already have cross-party support, based on work already done in the Commons and likely to attract even broader alliances in the Lords. These include a time limit on immigration detention for the purpose of deportation, the automatic granting of settled status in the UK to eligible EEA and Swiss national children in care or who are care leavers, and the continuation of the existing EU arrangements on unaccompanied child refugees and family reunification.

Plus there will be some focus on the application of the ‘no recourse to public funds’ rules in the light of an apparent promise of a review from the Prime Minister, progress on the government’s commitment to abolish the Immigration Health Charge for NHS and social care staff, and exemption from the Immigration Skills Charge for NHS employers when some hospitals are now paying nearly a million pounds a year. 

The ending of free movement and the introduction of a points-based immigration system, with its general salary threshold for coming to work in the UK at £25,600 per annum, seeks to equate low pay with low skills and value. That sends a very clear message to many of the EU nationals currently working in the UK, not least those who have been keeping our health, care and other public services going during the Covid-19 pandemic. A message that we do not value their contribution. A signal also that the government does not seem to be moving away from its hostile environment approach to migrants and immigration.

Lord Richard Rosser is a Shadow Home Office Minister in the House of Lords

Published 21st July 2020

Resumption of hostilities

Richard Rosser on the likely challenges facing the government’s post-Brexit Immigration Bill, as it begins its route through the Lords

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