All Baroness Blackstone contributions to the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020

Thu 16th January 2020
European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill
Lords Chamber

Committee: 3rd sitting (Hansard continued)
Committee: 3rd sitting (Hansard continued)
Committee: 3rd sitting (Hansard continued): House of Lords
Department for Exiting the European Union
3 interactions (91 words)
Mon 13th January 2020
European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill
Lords Chamber

2nd reading (Hansard)
2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords
2nd reading
Department for Exiting the European Union
3 interactions (705 words)

European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill

(Committee: 3rd sitting (Hansard continued))
Baroness Blackstone Excerpts
Thursday 16th January 2020

(1 year, 9 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department for Exiting the European Union
Lord Agnew of Oulton Portrait Lord Agnew of Oulton
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I entirely accept what the noble Baroness says but the key principle here is that we cannot offer a blank cheque in the withdrawal Bill to say that we will automatically join a new programme where the details have still not been agreed. However, none of the mood music coming out, including what the Prime Minister said only 24 hours ago, suggests that we are going to turn our backs on the educational institutions of Europe. We want to be part of it. We are in a rapidly globalising world but the point that I want to make to everyone is that we cannot continue to slavishly focus on the EU. This is why we had the referendum and why, at the 2017 election, the manifestos of 85% of MPs supported leaving. We then had three years of chaos in Parliament and now we finally have a decent mandate to do it. That does not mean that we flounce out of Europe, or that we leave the culture and institutions of Europe. I am sure that we will work proactively to maintain close links.

Baroness Blackstone Portrait Baroness Blackstone (Ind Lab)
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Does the Minister accept that the Chevening scholarship scheme has absolutely nothing to do with Erasmus? As a former Minister responsible for all post-school education, I am familiar with these schemes. The Chevening scheme is for master’s degree-level programmes and for students coming to the UK; it is not for British students going out to other countries, whether in Europe or elsewhere. Why the Minister’s officials have put this in his speech, and why he does not realise that it has absolutely nothing to do with Erasmus, I simply cannot imagine.

Lord Agnew of Oulton Portrait Lord Agnew of Oulton
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I can answer that. The point is that nearly every Peer who joined the debate on this amendment was mourning the leaving of Europe. Many of them just said, “We are very sad to be leaving the EU”, but we have got to get beyond that. In two weeks’ time, we are going to be an outward-facing country looking to the rest of the world. The reason that I mentioned Chevening—I put it into the speech, not officials—is because I had direct experience of it recently. I was sent to the OECD conference on education in Argentina about 18 months’ ago. I met the Education Minister, and it is those sorts of contacts which will help the future of this country. I accept that Chevening is a master’s degree programme and that it is for high-potential future leaders, but it is about the connection between institutions in our country and other countries.

European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill

(2nd reading (Hansard): House of Lords)
Baroness Blackstone Excerpts
Monday 13th January 2020

(1 year, 9 months ago)

Lords Chamber

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Department for Exiting the European Union
Lord Cope of Berkeley Portrait Lord Cope of Berkeley (Con)
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My Lords, I support the Bill although I was pro-European for a long time. Following the referendum and all that has happened since, I am now convinced that withdrawal is not only inevitable but in our country’s best interests—and the sooner the better, so that business and the rest of us can adjust our lives and plans to the new situation.

As my time in Parliament draws near its end, I reflect more on how one’s perspective changes. I had three Minister of State jobs several decades ago, which involved negotiating with the EU. The first was on health and safety and all that. The next was on regional matters from Northern Ireland. Then, when I was Paymaster-General, I had detailed responsibility for, among other things, negotiating the annual EU budget, including a spell as president of the EU budget council. I came to appreciate the expertise of the UK representative and the importance of the Committee of Permanent Representatives, as well as similar things.

Throughout that time, some in Europe worked continually towards a united states of Europe in various ways, which we were always against. During my time as a Minister, there were 12 member states but it turned out that widening, which we often discussed, did not rule out deepening, as we hoped at one point. The EU is all about such negotiations happening every day. It is important to realise that the various councils are representative of diverse nations. Some are large like us, but Luxembourg, for example, is smaller than Leeds, as we heard today in a couple of good speeches.

The EU is not a team with a leader as our Cabinet is at least supposed to be and has been, at least for most of the time in history. It is therefore inclined to make continual, complex compromises reflecting national stresses and strains and special interests. Those compromises then become fixed in stone. Of course, at any given time, several member states have elections pending, reshuffles looming and so on, which affects all these negotiations. Everyone round those tables must be able to go home and say how hard they pressed their national case. That is why the last-minute culture is so strong in these areas. It is also why it is right to fix the deadline in law, as the Bill does, because it focuses minds.

Of course, the coming negotiations will be hard pounding, with many simultaneous strands. Ministers and officials will need 20:20 vision and to be dedicated, disciplined and decisive. Fortunately, the political background here now makes that possible. Our negotiating team can expect to take no holidays this year. I should imagine that August will be a time of working flat out under maximum pressure, while no doubt compromises and interim arrangements will be agreed. But let them get on with the process.

On the detailed provisions of the Bill, I commend the excellent speech of my noble friend Lord Bridges of Headley, with whom I agree entirely. For that matter, I also commend the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, which was full of common sense from his long experience in government.

Baroness Blackstone Portrait Baroness Blackstone (Ind Lab)
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My Lords, the Prime Minister has promised former Labour voters in the north and the Midlands who voted Conservative for the first time that he will look after their needs and that he will increase their prosperity. To keep to his promise, he must negotiate a deal with the EU that retains as much as possible of the UK’s trade with EU countries on the best possible terms and which commits us to EU standards on the rights of workers and on the environment. He must also ensure that our economy produces sufficient revenue to improve the public services on which these voters depend and indeed hope desperately will meet their needs.

This Bill falls short in many respects of what is required to achieve all that, including proper scrutiny by Parliament. In a parliamentary democracy, taking back control, which many of these voters saw as an outcome of Brexit, means, as many speakers have emphasised, that Parliament, which represents the people, must be able to scrutinise the process of implementing Brexit and to hold the Government to account. Brexit will not be done, as Mr Johnson would have us believe, when this Bill becomes law on or around 31 January. There will be many months of complex negotiations before it is implemented and therefore done.

Like other speakers, I ask why on earth we are setting an unrealistic target of 31 December of this year to complete the negotiations when both Michel Barnier and Ursula von der Leyen in Europe have made it clear that it will not possible, as have many experts on trade negotiations in this country. The work entailed requires patience, pragmatism and attention to detail, not silly and unrealistic deadlines. Allowing only 11 months to negotiate a deal on both trade and security makes no sense and once again we risk crashing out because that artificial deadline, written into legislation, will not be achieved. By all means have a target date, but do not legislate for one.

Will the Minister tell us a little more about the content of the negotiations? Does he accept that they must cover not just tariffs, quotas and rules of origin, but our enormously important service sector on which so much of our economy depends? That includes access to databases, in particular those relating to terrorism, international crime and other security issues, as well as aviation, the safety of drugs vital for the NHS, co-operation on consumer rights and climate change, to name but a few.

I turn now to climate change. I hope that the Minister will agree that there should be no lowering of environmental standards or protection. We must protect both current and future standards so that future generations will benefit not from any kind of weakening but, indeed, strengthening. In that way we will meet the aspirations of young people. To prevent any regression through, for example, second legislation at a later date, there needs to be a non-regression statement set out in primary legislation.

There are two other areas where this Bill is far less acceptable than the original. The first is the dropping of strong protections for workers’ rights which were in the internationally legally binding part of the deal agreed by Mrs May. Can the Minister say why these have been dropped? We would be naive to accept an assurance that they will be restored in a future trade Bill because they should be in this Bill. The second area is the weakening of protection for child refugees, for whom my noble friend Lord Dubs has fought so hard. If the Minister claims that the Government are still committed to them, why not leave those provisions in the Bill?

I ask the Government to come up with a meaningful role for Parliament along the lines of the amendments passed in this House on the previous trade Bill. There needs to be a framework for post-Brexit trade negotiations. This should apply not only to UK/EU agreements, but to other post-Brexit deals, notably any reached between the UK and the US, about which there is considerable public concern. If the Government reject proper scrutiny through such a framework, it will mean nothing less than contempt for the parliamentary sovereignty that most of us hold so dear.

Lord Beith Portrait Lord Beith (LD)
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My Lords, I agree with much of what the noble Baroness said, and I also want to emphasise how much I agree with my noble friend who leads for us and who spoke at the beginning—my noble friend Lord Newby. He set out the broader issues very well, which enables me to concentrate on some of those that are of interest to the Constitution Committee. Noble Lords will have to wait until tomorrow to find out whether my views correspond precisely to those of the committee as a whole, when the report referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, will come out in time for Committee.

I want to start with the claim about getting Brexit done, which is manifestly absurd. It is almost as if Moses had said to the Israelites, “Stick with me and I will get Exodus done by the end of the month.” He did not get it done by the end of the month; it took 40 years and he was not actually there at the finish. That ought to be a warning. I sometimes wonder whether Brexiteers have read the Bill. Although it repeals the European Communities Act, it simply reinstates and reapplies its provisions, for the rest of this year at least and, in many cases, for longer than that. We will transfer from being a member state with a vote and a veto to colonial status—accepting rules but having no say in them.

There are reasons for this carryover of time. Extricating ourselves from 40 years of working together is difficult, and in many cases against our economic interests. It means, for example, that decisions of the European Court of Justice handed down after the end of the implementation period will continue to have effect under Clause 5. And, of course, we are only at the beginning of a negotiating process that will not be completed by the end of 2020, even if a limited agreement is reached. As the noble Baroness, Lady Blackstone, and others pointed out, this Bill drops all provisions for parliamentary scrutiny of the negotiating process.

It makes me wonder what these new MPs for the old industrial areas of the Midlands and the north are going to do when the interests of their communities start to be traded for the interests of other communities, as the sorts of decisions that have to happen in these negotiations begin to be made. They will probably discover them via the European press, then see them reported in this country, because it will all emerge in the European Parliament while nobody here is being told anything about it. This is a process that requires a sensible method of parliamentary scrutiny.

The Bill has too many Henry VIII and other ministerial powers, and in a number of cases lacks the sifting or sunset provisions that could provide some safeguards. In Clause 26, Ministers are given inappropriate power over the courts, in a proposal that opens the door to legal confusion and multiple layers of litigation. It will allow Ministers to set up a scheme allowing any court, rather than just the Supreme Court and the High Court of Justiciary in Scotland, to depart from ECJ case law. If the Government have arguments to support the creation of such a scheme, the scheme should be on the face of the Bill—but I wonder how persuaded much of the Government is about whether this is really desirable at all. I suspect that a write-around of departments that included not only the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office but also Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, along with the various other departments that get involved in legislation, would show that they are not particularly enthusiastic about it. It is a dangerous course to embark on, and one that will cause considerable confusion, with the only beneficiaries being the lawyers who take cases under it—at almost any level, right down to employment tribunals, if the Government use these powers to the full.

In Northern Ireland the Bill reverses the principle that major change should have cross-community support by allowing decisions on the customs borders in the protocol to be by simple majority. The Government have not really advanced any clear reason for that, at a time when cross-community working is, thankfully, re-emerging in Northern Ireland.

The Bill contains an otiose assertion of the sovereignty of Parliament. The sovereignty of Parliament is a fundamental principle of the constitution. It gains nothing from inclusion in this or any other Bill, and its inclusion has no legal effect at all. Among other things, of course, it means that if it becomes necessary to extend the implementation period, which the Bill claims in Clause 33 to prohibit, Parliament—if the Government so chose—could readily pass new legislation to extend the implementation period or to achieve the same effect by different words—which is the whole basis on which the Bill is constructed. The Bill is constructed on the basis that we repeal the European Communities Act but give effect to its provisions as if it still existed. The Government can do exactly the same with the supposed restriction on extending the transition period, and they might well have to do so. Those who now wish to legislate sovereignty into existence, which seems bizarre to me, seem to forget that it is already there; it was there before they were born, and they too are subject to it.