Baroness Angela Smith speech to the House of Lords
So now, over nine months since the result of the referendum was announced, the Prime Minister has sent the letter that starts the process of our withdrawal from the European Union after a relationship of over 40 years.
And just like any other divorce, there will be some who rejoice and look forward to new opportunities. Others though will despair for the shared past and lost love. A few will fondly recall the marriage, divorces and remarriage of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor with some hope. But throughout it all, the only people to get rich will be those trying to unravel those 40 plus years of relative harmony – the lawyers.
Throughout it all there will be one common emotion - uncertainty for the future. Because, as the Prime Minister herself has had to concede, no-one can yet know what the final deal or arrangements will look like. So we now have to focus on what comes next. And what comes next is complex. Whilst some fear the worst, we will all work for the best. And I’ve said previously, the debates and negotiations cannot be left to those who have no doubt. We have to engage the talent, experience and wisdom of our whole nation, together in the national interest.
Today’s letter specifies our negotiating position to the EU. The Labour Party has set out the six tests by which the Government will be judged on the final deal. Those tests include migration, national security and crime, employment and social rights, the need to support all regions and nations in the UK as we develop our future relationship with the remaining 27 countries in the EU.
And the sixth test is the Government’s own as set out by David Davis to the House of Commons on 24th January. That in terms of trade the Government’s aim is to deliver “… a comprehensive free trade agreement and a comprehensive customs agreement that will deliver the exact same benefits as we [currently] have”.
That’s a pretty high bar – but a bar set by the Government and one they will be held accountable to.
My Lords, today I set one further test for the Government. It’s not controversial, and I hope that it will be willingly accepted by the Government and the NL the Leader of the House. The seventh test is one that will set the tone for the debate, the negotiations and mood of the nation in accepting and understanding the outcome. And this test is the test of complete honesty.
As the Prime Minister and her team enter into these negotiations there will be good days and difficult days. There will be days when everything seems possible – and days when nothing goes right.
The Prime Minister has, on many occasions, been clear about her confidence that she can and will negotiate a good deal in the best interests of the UK. But My Lords, there are others who are confident that any deal or even no deal is better than what we have now. We totally reject that. This process must not be so ideologically driven that the Government can accept anything and claim it is a good deal.
And that’s where the honesty comes in. If the Prime Minister is disappointed, or dissatisfied with the negotiations, or the outcome of agreements, she must, in the national interest, be prepared to say so. Because, if there is to be a vote at the end of the process that is truly meaningful, it has to be undertaken with the certainty that Parliament has the information needed to make an informed decision in the best interests of the country.
My Lords, can I raise some of the specifics in relation to the statement and the letter?
On the devolved administrations, despite the Prime Minister’s warm words that she intends to strengthen the four nations of the UK, that is not how it feels at the moment. On the ‘significant increase’ in the decision making powers of the devolved administrations, I ask three questions: What discussions there has been so far? Can she give an assurance about ongoing consultation? And will any of these powers require primary legislation?
I am pleased in her letter to the President Tusk she specifically mentions Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland border. It’s right that she sets this as a priority and I believe that the issue, if not yet the solution, is also understood by the EU27. But when she refers in the letter to it being the only land border with the UK, whilst technically correct, can I remind her that we do have a land border between the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar and Spain.
I appreciate that the trigger letter could never include all of our negotiating issues. But, I was extremely disappointed at the omission of any reference to the people of Gibraltar and their concerns, either in the statement or the letter. The Prime Minister says that she will take into account the specific interests of every nation and region. Can the NL the Leader, give the House an assurance that we will not abandon Gibraltar and that their interests will also be represented?
My Lords, the commitment to seeking an early agreement to guarantee the rights of EU nationals in the UK and our nationals in the remaining 27 countries is welcome. The NL will be aware of the disappointment of YLH as our amendment to include a guarantee in the legislation was rejected by the Government and the Other Place.
The Prime Minister confirms in her letter that making this part of the negotiations is complex, and I hope therefore, given the support of YLH that the Government will accept the motion in the name of My Noble Friend, Lady Hayter, to be debated next week, that the Government should report back to Parliament before the end of the session on progress.
I also welcome the assurance in the statement of the phased process for implementation of the new arrangements and agreements. I know the Government doesn’t like talking about transition and refers to it as an implementation phase, which I’m equally happy with. What’s important here is that change is practical, workable and pragmatic, and not ideologically driven toward the cliff edge scenario. I welcome and thank the Prime Minister for her assurances on that point.
On Euratom, in the letter the Government considers that we have to come out as part of our EU exit but given the importance of this issue, I would have liked to have seen a commitment to seek an early agreement on a new practical partnership.
However, I do want to register concerns about the misleading language where the Prime Minister appears to have drawn a connection between trade and national security in her letter to President Tusk. When I first read this I wondered if she’d left out a sentence or two. On page three she makes reference to: “our deep and special partnership that takes in both economic and security co-operation” - that I wholeheartedly endorse. She then rightly points out that: “If however, we leave the European Union without an agreement the default position is that we would have to trade in World Trade Organisation terms”.
So far, it’s clear. But the very next sentence states that: “In security terms a failure to reach agreement would mean our co-operation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened”. Because it is unclear which agreement she’s referring to, the letter to President Tusk appears to state is that if we can’t reach an agreement on trade, this will have an impact on security agreements.
I’m grateful for the clarity from Downing Street that this was not the intention. But given the complexity and sensitivities of the negotiations about to start, it is essential that there are no misunderstandings or lack of clarity. Can I suggest, for the avoidance of doubt, that in future issues such as trade and security are never linked. They are both essential in the own right and a responsible agreement on one is not dependent on the other.
Tomorrow my Lords, we wait with some anticipation the White Paper on the repealing the 1972 Legislation and enshrining EU legislation, in which we played our part, into UK law. However, NL will have seen the comments from some on the Government benches about this being an opportunity for deregulation or cutting so-called ‘red tape’ – in other words doing away with protections and rights for UK citizens.
I seek an assurance from the NL, that that is not the part of the so-called Great Repeal Bill and that the Government will resist any attempts to bring in such changes by the back door – this seeking to avoid proper parliamentary scrutiny. In that she will have our support.
Finally my Lords, can I welcome both the tone of the Prime Ministers statement and the emphasis she has placed, throughout her statement, on partnership? Only the most ideologically driven have ever suggested that this process will be easy or problem free. It won’t, it will be difficult and complex. The tone of her remarks about our place in Europe may help ease that path but it will be important that the Government commits to being open and transparent with Parliament and the country.
As we move forward transparency, openness, engagement and honesty will be expected and will be essential.
Next week, the other motion we will debate, in my name, seeks to establish a Joint Committee of both Houses to work together to establish the best way to ensure that Parliament has the best information possible and the best processes to have a meaningful vote on the final agreement. My Lords, I urge the Government to support this, because as the Prime Minister makes clear, we must all work together in the national interest.
Baroness Angela Smith of Basildon is Shadow Leader of the House of Lords. She tweets at @LadyBasildon
Published 29th March 2017