Angela Smith speech in the House of Lords, 7th September
My Lords, I thank the Noble Lady for repeating the statement today.
It was always going to be difficult following the Brexit vote, but as a new Prime Minister Theresa May appeared confident. She met with most of the other world leaders who were interested to meet her, partly because they are keen to understand what the post-EU era means for them and their relationship with us in the UK. This was, by any standard, a crucial summit.
We are all aware that the vote to leave the EU has created considerable uncertainty here in the UK; but in paragraph 42 of the communique the international uncertainty is very clear. And despite some promising manufacturing statistics recently, the long term uncertainties remain.
My Lords, what is clear is that the Government is still thinking through the implications; still thinking through what our negotiating position is; and still thinking through what outcomes we are seeking. And it’s now common knowledge that no advance preparation had been undertaken. That makes the job of this Prime Minister even harder.
She had to attend this summit, knowing that she would be expected to discuss with other world leaders how the decision would affect them and their relationship with the EU and the UK. Countries like Japan were seeking some degree of predictability for their investments and businesses in the UK. But she was unable to provide reassurance or answers. Not because she doesn’t want to be helpful and make the best case for the British economy – but because we are still in the ‘don’t know’ zone.
And My Lords, whilst I understand what lies behind the statement – ‘Brexit means Brexit’ – I have to admit, I don’t know what that means. And neither apparently, do other members of the G20.
Following the Prime Minister’s meeting with her old university friend, the Australian prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, I think we were all left with the impression of exciting new trade and economic agreements. But the clarification from Mr Ciobo, the Australian Trade minister has dampened that excitement. It almost sounded like a Yes, Prime Minister sketch as we heard him say on the Today programme that a UK-Australia deal could only happen “when the time is right”. As Sir Humphrey might have added, “in the fullness of time”….or “in due course”
We can’t sign deals with other countries whilst still in the EU. We don’t know when we’ll be leaving. Meanwhile, negotiations between Australia and the EU will be completed – probably before we even start. And heaping humiliation upon embarrassment, the Minister added that because the UK has no trained negotiators of our own he’s offered to lend us Australian experts for the initial talks.
Can the Noble Lady confirm that what is really on offer is talks about talks, and will we accept the kind offer to use their experts for our discussions with them?
Is she also able to say anything more about the meeting with the Japanese Prime Minister, following his 15 page memo on their specific concerns and whether they discussed car manufacturing remaining in the UK whatever the Brexit terms?
But My Lords, we do understand why our allies are uncertain. And I fear that there is a danger of us becoming marginalised. Meetings took place, without us, that in the past we might have expected to be part of - such as President Obama’s meeting with Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande.
What is encouraging though is that these countries aren’t hostile. I think they genuinely want to make their economic relationship with us work but we have to get moving to create clarity and certainty they need.
It’s not just our international friends that are uncertain. So are we – even, it appears members of the Cabinet. It would be helpful if the Noble Lady the Leader is able to clarify the position today.
On Monday, the Secretary of State for exiting the EU, David Davis, responded to a question from Anna Soubry MP about whether, in light of the concerns raised at the G20 about the impact on the economy, “the Government were prepared to abandon membership of the single market”.
He then told the House of Commons: “… the simple truth is that if a requirement of our membership is giving up control of our borders, then I think that makes it very improbable”. That’s the Secretary of State’ words: “very improbable”.
Now, I’m not clear how he defines ‘giving up control of our borders’, but he was quickly slapped down by Number 10 that this was his ‘opinion’ not a ‘policy’. Yet, in Your Lordships House, the Noble Lord Bridges responded to my Noble Friend Lord Wood, that the Government “was not in a position to go into detail other than to say that we are not looking for an off the shelf response”.
I’m confused and I don’t think I’m the only one. I thought that the Secretary of State was articulating Government policy from the Despatch Box – but apparently not.
Can she confirm whether or not, when Ministers make statements in either House, they should be regarded as Government policy – or can we now expect to hear private ‘opinion’ as well? And how will we be able to tell the difference?
Finally, My Lords, the summit also discussed other issues=, included terrorism and refuges as referenced in the statement. Para 44 of the communique, deals with the issue of refugees and I welcome that the Government signed up to this including: “We call for strengthening humanitarian assistance for refugees and refugee resettlement”.
The Noble Lady will have heard the exchange in Your Lordships House yesterday and again today about the grave disappointment with the Government’s actions to date on resettling those unaccompanied children who qualify to come to the UK, under family reunification laws, yet remain in the camps in Calais – the ‘jungle’.
Is she aware of the UN report today from UNICEF – highly critical of the UK Government - regarding the danger these children are in? They are often traumatised from both the journey from their home country and what they have witnessed or suffered there. And, as the report’s author states they are “at risk of the worst forms of abuse and harm and can easily fall victim to traffickers and other criminals”.
My Lords, what can be more important than ensuring that these children – who are legally as well as morally entitled to safety and refuge in the UK – have that refuge?
So can I ask the NL, whether she considers that the Government now needs to take faster and more effective action to fulfil both the Dub’s amendment passed by this House on child refugees, whilst Theresa May was Home Secretary, and the agreement reached at the G20 summit?
I hope that she is able to address these questions – and that the Government understands how important clarity is, and that uncertainty is the enemy of good government.
Baroness Angela Smith of Basildon is Shadow Leader of the House of Lords. She tweets @LadyBasildon
Published 7th September 2016