On Monday evening, I voted against the Government’s EU Withdrawal Bill, after earlier speaking in Parliament about why I would be doing so. The bill as presented is profoundly undemocratic, putting wide ranging powers directly in the hands of Ministers, away from proper Parliamentary oversight and scrutiny. It would place at risk many of the most important rights and protection that UK citizens enjoy, and that we have fought hard to secure over many years.
I am always mindful of the fact that my constituency, the City of Durham, voted last year to Remain in the European Union, although the Labour party is committed to respecting the result of the referendum and does not want to frustrate Brexit. This EU Withdrawal Bill however would be hugely damaging for our communities and the wider North East. The Bill makes no provisions to ensure that the UK remain part of the single market and customs union during any transition period, which North Eastern businesses have said is a high priority.
You can see the text of my speech below, or watch my speech on Parliament Live here. Sadly, the Conservatives were able to secure enough votes for the Bill at this stage, but I will continue to oppose this Governmental power grab at future stages in Parliament.
‘I, too, will vote against the Bill this evening, and I bring to bear two aspects of my experience in this House on my assessment of the Bill as being profoundly undemocratic and something that this House should reject. In recent years, I have served on a number of Bill Committees, and every Bill has contained centralising measures that take powers away from Parliament, or from a range of agencies, and give them to the Secretary of State. This Government, like the one before, are profoundly centralising, and Parliament should be very worried about the measures in the Bill. I also had the great misfortune to serve on the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments for five years, so I know how outrageous it is that the Government are using statutory instruments in the way they are in the Bill. The negative procedure, used a great deal in this legislation, is particularly inappropriate in terms of giving Parliament the oversight it needs over how we Brexit.
Not only does the Bill give far-reaching powers to Ministers without meaningful parliamentary scrutiny, but it allows for rights and protections to be reduced or removed through secondary legislation without any meaningful scrutiny; it fails to provide certainty that rights and protections will be enforced as effectively in the future; it provides no mechanism for ensuring that the UK does not lag behind the EU in workplace protections; and, crucially, it prevents the UK from implementing strong transitional arrangements on the same basic terms that we currently enjoy—arrangements that include remaining in the customs union and in the single market. I will say more about that in a moment or two.
From equality laws protecting women, minorities and disabled people from discrimination to workers’ rights and key health and safety provisions, the rights secured through British EU membership have greatly benefited everyone in our country. We should also not forget the proactive role of the European Court of Justice in improving workers’ rights in Europe, on matters ranging from decisions on equal pay for equal work to the pension rights of part-time workers. Equally, the EU’s environmental protections, based on the principles of prevention and precaution, such as the incredibly successful bathing water directive and the common water framework, have had an important positive influence on our environment. They need to be protected by this House and this Parliament, and not left to the whims of Ministers.
It is also important that this House is able to have a say on whether we adopt transitional arrangements and on what they are. That is particularly important in terms of the customs union and the single market, which are vital to my constituency in the north-east. Some 60% of our exports are sold to the EU, and the north-east is the only region in England to export more goods and services than it imports. Trade with the EU has delivered more than 100,000 jobs in the region—that is approximately 8.4% of the workforce. Research by the TUC has found that there are 2,500 workers from EU countries in health and adult social care in the north-east alone, so we have great concerns about what is going to happen to that workforce post-Brexit.
It is also crucial for us to maintain continuity on services sector trade, as half of north-east services exports are traded with the EU. It is therefore not surprising that two thirds of north-east businesses wish to see a transitional period lasting for three years or more, but this is not addressed in any way in the Bill. Sarah Glendinning, the CBI’s regional director in the north-east, has said:
“Europe remains the UK’s biggest export market by some distance, so it’s little wonder that businesses here in the North East see maintaining access to the market of our nearest neighbours as a priority.”
Perhaps Ministers would like to say something this evening about how they will address those concerns.
The north-east also receives more EU funding per capita than most other regions; we receive more than double the national average, through the EU structural and investment funds, the European social fund and the JEREMIE—Joint European Resources for Micro to Medium Enterprises—programme, to give just a few examples. I also want to hear from Ministers what they will do, through this Bill, to ensure that the money that the north-east gets from the EU will be maintained or increased. We are debating a really important matter for the north-east; Ministers must address the concerns they are hearing from Opposition Members and bring in proper measures that are truly democratic.’