My Lords, having been contacted by someone intimately involved in the case of a powerful businessman using non-disclosure agreements and substantial payments to conceal the truth about serious and repeated sexual harassment, racist abuse and bullying which is compulsively continuing, I feel that it is my duty under parliamentary privilege to name Philip Green as the individual in question, given that the media have been subject to an injunction preventing publication of the full details of a story which is clearly in the public interest.
The Minister offered hope for the severely injured after I moved this amendment
Amendment 3, Moved by Lord Hain
3: Clause 3, page 3, line 7, at end insert—
“( ) The guidance must direct senior officers of Northern Ireland departments, giving due regard to advice from the Northern Ireland Commission for Victims and Survivors, to prepare a scheme to provide a pension to those who are regarded as seriously-injured arising from an incident associated from the conflict in Northern Ireland.
My Lords, Amendment 3 is in my name and that of the noble Lords, Lord Bruce and Lord Cormack, and, I think, the noble Lord, Lord Bew, indicating Cross-Bench support. I will also speak to Amendment 13A in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Bruce.
When I spoke in March, I raised the plight of the 500 or so people severely injured because of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The overwhelming majority were injured through no fault of their own, and face growing into old age desperately unsure about what the future holds for them. Because of their injuries, most of them were unable to build the kind of occupational pensions that they would otherwise have had. Just recently, one of the WAVE Trauma Centre’s injured group, which has been campaigning for a special pension, received a final settlement on her pension contributions in the form of a lump sum. It was taxed at 20%. She received a magnificent £25.39, which, frankly, is an insult to somebody in her situation.
Jennifer had her legs blown off in a no-warning IRA bomb in 1972, when she was 21 years of age. Paul, who was 21 when loyalists shot him six times because their target who lived next door did not turn up, is paralysed from the waist down. He describes the constant pain he lives with as like,
“sitting in a pool of lava”.
Every two days his carers—his wife and his brother—have to use a colonic irrigation system to empty his bowels into a bucket. That is Paul’s reality.
This especially vulnerable group of victims have had to deal with much more than the physical damage inflicted upon them. Peter was 26 when he was shot and paralysed in a case of mistaken identity in 1979. His wife, his childhood sweetheart, was tormented by misplaced guilt because she opened the door and,
“let evil into their home”,
as she described it. Peter had to watch her drink herself to death by the age of 51.
Mary was 17 when she was paralysed in a drive-by sectarian shooting. She was told that a realistic life expectancy was that she would not see her 32nd birthday. More than 40 years on, she is still here. She has had three shoulder replacements because of the strain on her upper body, being confined in a wheelchair. She has had to pay for these privately because if she joined an NHS waiting list she would be immobile.
Those who suffered severe physical injuries during the Troubles in Northern Ireland are, in many ways, the forgotten victims of the conflict. Perhaps there was an assumption that they had been looked after at the material time with generous compensation payments that would see them financially secure for the rest of their lives, but that simply did not happen. Many of the severely injured have lived much longer than the life expectancy assumptions made at the time. Most of the severely injured sustained their injuries during the 1970s and 1980s. Many predated disability discrimination legislation so, even if they could have found work, the chances that the workplace would have been adapted to their needs—for example, for those confined to wheelchairs—were more than remote. All they want is a degree of modest financial security so that they—and in many cases their carers—can live the rest of their lives with as much independence and dignity as possible.
To that end, I urge the Government to act swiftly to address this cruel legacy of Northern Ireland’s violent past and provide support for the severely injured through the provision of a special pension. Getting the Government both to recognise and to act upon that obligation is the purpose of these two amendments. In terms of the level of pension, the then Victims Commissioner for Northern Ireland suggested a figure of £150 per week or around the current state pension provision. Given the age profile, a lump sum for those aged over 75 would probably be more appropriate.
In any event the cost, including the administration of the pension, either by the Northern Ireland Civil Service or through the DWP, would not be prohibitive. This total cost has been authoritatively estimated to be between £3 million and £5 million annually. These figures clearly indicate that the pension commitment will diminish through the passage of time, even allowing for some provision for a proportion of the pension to go to the carer when the injured person dies. But for the pension to make a real difference to those who need it, it cannot be counted as income for the purposes of qualifying for existing benefits. That is a very important point. It must be “as well as” and not “instead of”, and be in addition to any other pensions and/or benefits that the injured person either is, or will be, in receipt of.
There is a subsidiary issue to be dealt with in relation to the relatively very small number of people who were severely injured by their own hand, but it is quite wrong that the vast majority who were injured through no fault of their own should be denied support because of a specific political blockage that could and should be resolved. These were not people in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were at work. They were at home with their family. They were having a coffee in a café. They were walking home after an evening at the cinema. They were in the right place, where they should have expected to be safe and secure.
Now is the time for the Government to act swiftly, with I hope wide parliamentary backing, after years and years of this case having no response. That is why I speak to this amendment, which simply seeks that the guidance referred to in Clause 3(3) must direct or, as Amendment 13A puts it, provide for,
“senior officers of Northern Ireland departments, giving due regard to advice from the Northern Ireland Commission for Victims and Survivors, to prepare a scheme to provide a pension to those who are regarded as seriously-injured arising from an incident associated from the conflict in Northern Ireland”,
and for that to be backdated, as Amendment 13A requires, to 1 January 2018. I say that because, if this takes some time to implement—if it requires legislation, as I understand may be the case—there must be certainty that this will happen and that, however long it takes to process, it will be backdated so that at least these victims can have something to look forward to.
This is an opportunity for the Government to show some real compassion for those who have suffered most. I know from conversations that I have had with the Minister that he is on the side of the angels on this matter. I respect him for that. I think that he is trying to do his best, and I hope that in his response he can take this matter forward. I do not want to make his life more difficult by anticipating and rebutting the Government’s likely official response, at least so far as it has been stated in the other place and elsewhere.
However, we have been told that this is a devolved matter and that the Government cannot undermine the devolution settlement by interfering or, as I would prefer to describe it, intervening. I will come back to the question of whether the plight of the severely injured is in fact a devolved matter or whether it should properly be treated as a reserved matter for the UK Government, like other legacy issues. However, there are precedents for the Government intervening in devolved areas because it has been the right thing to do. Health is devolved to Northern Ireland. Thanks to the amazing work of Charlotte Caldwell, literally arguing for the life of her son Billy, who suffers from life-threatening epilepsy, the Home Office was forced to move on the use of medical cannabis, which is absolutely essential for his and other sufferers’ treatment. The use of medical cannabis is now permitted in Northern Ireland. Did that interfere with the devolution settlement? Presumably not or it would not have happened.
Recently, the Independent Reporting Commission, set up to bring an end to paramilitary activity and to tackle organised crime in Northern Ireland, reported for the first time. Twenty-five million pounds to back the IRC came from the British Government, not from devolved budgets, to pave the way for those involved in paramilitary activity to make the transition from mafia-style gangsterism to being ordinary law-abiding citizens. Apart from a small but highly dangerous number of dissident republicans, the paramilitary activity that the IRC is focused on is pure gangsterism. Indeed, the highly respected former assistant chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and now chief executive of Co-operation Ireland, Peter Sheridan, argued that these groups should be called paramilitary no longer, but criminal gangs, and I agree. However, this is not a national security issue. Primarily it is a matter for the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland. It is a devolved matter. Criminal justice is devolved yet the Government intervene—absolutely rightly, in my view—to the tune of £25 million. Did that interfere with the devolution settlement? Presumably not.
Injured victims recognise that the paramilitaries who so grievously damaged them have to leave the stage and they do not begrudge this money being used to help Northern Ireland transition, but they wonder how the Government could find this money so quickly when they are told in effect, “Your case is nothing to do with us. Wait for the local politicians to finally bring themselves to discharge the responsibilities for which they were elected, whenever that is—next year, the following year, maybe whenever, if ever”. The reality is that the Government already intervene in devolved matters when it is the right thing to do in the absence of functioning devolved government and a functioning Assembly, and that is as it should be. Indeed, this Bill is a form of intervention.
The Secretary of State made a welcome move in May when she asked the Victims Commissioner to revisit and update her advice on this claim for a pension, and I thank the Minister for his role in that. I have absolutely no doubt that the Victims Commissioner will produce advice that is rigorous, objective, costed and workable, and I hope she produces it soon. No one will be plucking figures out of the air. There will be a template that can and should be speedily implemented.
When the Bill was debated in the other place last week, the Secretary of State said that the Victims Commissioner’s advice would sit on a shelf until devolution was restored. That is, in effect, telling those injured victims that they will not be assisted. Instead, they will be abandoned, as they have been for a very long time. An unarguable case for recognition and reparations has been made for nearly eight years now. For most of that time, there has been devolution in Northern Ireland, and all they have got is tea and sympathy because the question of eligibility in relation to the very small number of those “injured by their own hand” is just too difficult for the local parties to resolve. That is why it should and must be done by this Parliament.
We rightly praise politicians in Northern Ireland who are trying to take it to a better place than it was in when I and other noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Murphy, were charged with building new political foundations out of the wreckage of a violent past. At the same time, we have to call them out when they dig in behind their entrenched or sectarian positions and refuse to compromise for the greater good of victims, such as those severely injured. So far, the DUP and Sinn Féin remain deadlocked on this issue, and nothing has moved. That is why we must do it for them, so that justice for this most vulnerable and desperate group of citizens can prevail, and when I speak about them I mean the vast majority who were not “injured by their own hand”. The latter can be dealt with separately.
Nevertheless, I firmly believe that the Government’s insistence that this is solely a devolved issue is misplaced and simply wrong. Those campaigning for a pension who were injured through no fault of their own are as much a part of the legacy of Northern Ireland’s violent past as anything else, and the Government are trying to address this. Indeed, it would be hard to find a more physical manifestation of that legacy than Margaret, who has no eyes, pushing the wheelchair of Jennifer, who has no legs. Has the Secretary of State so little compassion for her plight that she will not put the local parties to shame by providing a pension, and quickly? The Government have an overarching responsibility for legacy issues. That is why they are considering responses to their recent consultation paper on legacy issues, for which they have set aside £150 million. It would be absolutely shameful if the people who have suffered so much were told, “We feel sorry for you, but not sorry enough to do anything about it”.
Finally, I wish to say something about the Bill before us that relates directly to the amendment but has wider and deeply worrying implications. I could have made this point at Second Reading, but I make it now. The Government want us to focus on the narrow issue of the supposed clarity given to civil servants in Northern Ireland, in relation to their capacity to maintain public services and keep the business of government ticking over in the absence of an Executive and Assembly. What is seriously concerning is how long the Government envisage this democratic void persisting before anything happens. They do not envisage any movement before March next year, and then an additional five months is built in. It is shocking that the Government do not seem to realise that hoping something will turn up is nothing approaching a coherent political strategy to restore devolution. Sadly, while the Government procrastinate, the condition of severely injured victims deteriorates daily, and many fear that they will die before their plight is acknowledged and support given. Time is not on their side. The Government must show that they are prepared to act in the name of justice and decency, and I appeal for support for this amendment if the Minister resists it.
My Lords, I am sure all Members present would wish to endorse the Minister’s final calls at the end of his wide-ranging speech.
We have grown used to pogroms against minorities at various stages in our history as a country: against Jews intermittently and sometimes continuously over the millennia; against the Irish in the nineteenth century; against Jews again in the 1930s; against black and Asian Britons from the late 1950s until today; and against Muslims in the first two decades of this century. But what is entirely novel today is a toxic convergence of attacks on Jewish, black and Muslim British citizens all at the same time. I am not aware of any period in our history when this has occurred before. It is deadly serious, with many of our citizens living in fear or terror simply because of their religion, race or skin colour. This is not just scandalous, it is criminal.
Let us touch on the sheer scale of the problem, turning first to attacks on Jews and synagogues. The number of anti-Semitic incidents in Britain reached the highest level on record last year, including a 34% increase in the number of violent assaults, according to the Community Security Trust. It stated that in 2017 there were nine incidents involving the,
“desecrations of, or anti-Semitic damage to, synagogues”,
in the UK. In the previous year, there were 11 such incidents. The most recent CST report for the period from January to June 2018 states:
“There were 43 incidents of damage and desecration of Jewish property recorded by CST in the first six months of 2018 … Three of the incidents in this category in the first half of 2018 involved the desecration of Jewish gravestones, eight affected synagogue buildings and 18 happened at people’s homes. All involved some element of anti-Semitic targeting, language or imagery in order to be recorded as anti-Semitic by CST”.
There have been other attacks on Jewish citizens, including on fellow parliamentarians; notably, Luciana Berger MP has been subject to abuse, intimidation and attacks of the vilest kind, not just by fascists, but, I am ashamed to say by a tiny hard-left sect comprising members of the Labour Party backed up by the far left outside. One shouted “traitor” at me when I attended the “Stand Up to Anti-Semitism” rally in Parliament Square in the summer. These people seem to imagine they are promoting Palestinian rights by such attacks; as a robust supporter of justice for the Palestinians since the early 1970s, I can tell them flatly that they are damaging, not enhancing, that vital cause—a message that my party leader might heed as well.
Ironically, the Labour Party has long allied itself with our Jewish citizens and it is the Tory Party that has over the decades given shelter to anti-Semites. Today, as brave Conservative Peers, the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, and the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, have pointed out, the Tory Party remains riddled with Islamophobia, and some Tories work with UKIP figures such as Nigel Farage and Trump supporters such as Steve Bannon, who have helped create a climate of fear for Muslims.
As European Parliament Member Claude Moraes wrote in the Guardian in June after about 15,000 supporters of Tommy Robinson, the fascist former leader of the English Defence League, had marched in London:
“Make no mistake, this is an attempt to build an ‘alt-right’, pro-Trump movement in Britain. Saturday’s demo included chants of ‘Make Britain Great Again’”.
That march was organised by a former editor-in-chief of Bannon’s Breitbart, and an ex-EDL deputy leader; it was backed by Bannon, with forces to the right of the Conservative Party in Britain from UKIP as well as ex-BNP and National Front supporters and the Football Lads Alliance.
Then there are the attacks on Muslims and mosques. The latest report of the organisation Tell MAMA—Measuring Anti-Muslim Attacks—recorded a total of 1,330 reports of Islamophobic attacks in the United Kingdom in 2017, representing a 30% rise when compared to the previous reporting period. In the same year, Tell MAMA recorded 54 incidents that were,
“perpetrated against mosques, Islamic schools and Islamic cultural centres. They include Islamophobic graffiti, threatening letters, the dumping of pork products outside a building, or interpersonal attacks against people attending a mosque”.
Turning to racist activity, in 2017-18, 94,098 hate crime offences were recorded by the police in England and Wales, an increase of 17% on the previous year. Of these, the great bulk—71,251, or 76%—were race hate crimes and 8,336, or 9%, were religious hate crimes. A lot of this extremism is being orchestrated by, or follows the activity of, far-right groups, such as the racist fascist English Defence League and the Football Lads Alliance, as well as, now, the Democratic Football Lads Alliance, or DFLA—a contradiction in terms, I would think—set up in the wake of the London Bridge terror attack in 2017, which has been supported by Tommy Robinson.
On 18 June 2017, Darren Osborne from Wales drove a van into a crowd of people gathered outside a north London mosque—the one referred to, I believe, by the Minister—killing one man and injuring 12 people. He had also intended to murder the leader of the Opposition and the Mayor of London. He had no history of extremism but his ex-partner claimed he had been radicalised in just three weeks by devouring anti-Muslim extremist propaganda online, after which he was ready to kill innocent people. Eyewitnesses reported that he shouted, “I want to kill all Muslims!” The judge said that Osborne had been,
“rapidly radicalised over the internet by those determined to spread hatred of Muslims”.
Evidence showed that he was infatuated with Tommy Robinson and the Nazi-like Britain First organisation.
Then there is Britain’s Young Right Society, run by a Breitbart journalist who is an associate of Trump adviser Steve Bannon. HOPE not hate revealed that the group was “frequently awash with appalling racist” content, white supremacy, jokes about the Holocaust and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. It was also used to organise the members for events. Because it was formed secretly, it was exposed only when one member alerted HOPE not hate to its existence.
Let us take just a few recent examples of the effect in our communities of these groups’ extremist activities of religious persecution. A mosque and a Sikh gurdwara in Leeds were attacked in the early hours of a Tuesday morning in early June in what police treated as hate crimes. The assaults followed a march in Leeds the previous Friday in defence of jailed fascist and anti-Muslim extremist Tommy Robinson, who has a long record of far-right activity, criminality and violence. Police said the main door at Jamia Masjid Abu Huraira Mosque in Beeston, Leeds, was deliberately set on fire at around 3.30 am. Police were called to the nearby gurdwara in Beeston, at around 4.20 am, after someone had set the door on fire. Councillor Gohar Almas, a local Labour councillor was reported as saying:
“Somebody tried to set the mosque and the gurdwara alight. The mosque is bang opposite a primary school. What kind of message is this sending to the children?”
One person at the gurdwara spoke of a “sentiment of fear” among people following the attacks, especially the half dozen who live in the gurdwara, including two elderly couples. A volunteer at the gurdwara told “Leeds Live”:
“It is a big concern. I have got sadness with me. This is something which should never have happened”.
Rafaqat Ali from the mosque told local media that he was “upset and shocked”. Another mosque member added, “My kids go there and are scared now, because of this attack”.
The timing was significant—this is a point I want to emphasise—because these attacks followed Tommy Robinson’s supporters demonstrating in Leeds after he was jailed for breaching a court order. Various fascists had organised protests to defend his so-called free speech. However, as local councillor Gohar Almas said, allowing Nazis free speech is dangerous. He said that the only thing that should not be tolerated is intolerance; spreading hate speech, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and homophobia should not be tolerated. He added that the march by Tommy Robinson supporters had “absolutely” given racists more confidence. Gohar said, “We have fought this before. We are a united and resilient community—a community of communities. We are here to unite people, not divide people, and we will not let people divide us”. Let us send a message of solidarity to him and his mosque, and to other local religious institutions.
Only the other Saturday, fascist thugs blocked a bus on one of the roads next to Trafalgar Square because the driver was a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf. Video footage of the incident showed one of these thugs appearing to give the “Sieg Heil” salute toward the bus. A photo shows a topless man holding two fingers up to the bus driver through the glass. Others on this fascist mobilisation banged on the bus windows with “Free Tommy” placards or brandished ones reading “Britain Loves Trump”.
The point I wish to stress is this: violent attacks against our Muslim, Jewish and black citizens flow from far-right mobilisations and far-right activism as night follows day. There is an umbilical link between activity by racist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic extremists and these sorts of vile attacks. Over the past year or so, the sheer scale of these far-right protests, and the numbers in attendance, is unprecedented.
In Manchester last year, 3,000 Tommy Robinson supporters were mobilised. On 24 June 2017, in London, the Football Lads Alliance mobilised nearly 5,000. On 7 October last year, the Football Lads Alliance mobilised 10,000, maybe more. On 18 March this year, at Speakers’ Corner in London, Tommy Robinson supporters numbered 500. On 24 March, in Birmingham, the Football Lads Alliance and the Democratic Football Lads Alliance mobilised up to 5,000 in total. On 5 May this year—“Tommy Robinson Day”, they called it—5,000 supporters marched in his honour. On 19 May, in Manchester, the Football Lads Alliance mobilised 300 people. On 26 May, in London, “Free Tommy Robinson” supporters mobilised 400. In Leeds, on 30 May, “Free Tommy Robinson” supporters mobilised 400. On 2 June 2018, in Manchester, the Democratic Football Lads Alliance supporters numbered around 1,800. On 9 June, in London, “Free Tommy Robinson” supporters numbered 15,000. On 23 June, in London, UK freedom marchers, made up of various far-right groups including some UKIP members, numbered 2,500. On 14 July, in London, “Free Tommy Robinson” supporters numbered up to 10,000. These are big numbers—far bigger than anything I have seen in modern decades. That is why we need actively to support anti-racist groups such as Unite Against Fascism, Stand Up to Racism, HOPE not hate, Show Racism the Red Card and Kick It Out.
When I helped launch the Anti-Nazi League in September 1977, it was to meet a growing threat, both on the streets and in elections, from the Nazi National Front. Working with Rock Against Racism to organise national carnivals and local gigs, but also by confronting the National Front whenever and wherever its members tried to march or rally, we eventually managed defeat it. Then, over 20 years later, the British National Party took its place, and again we had to mobilise to defeat it. However, the threat today of religious and racial persecution is far more insidious and dangerous.
Today’s threat is occurring right across Europe, against a backdrop of despair at neoliberal economic policies which generate massive job insecurity and hopelessness—the habitual fertile breeding ground for racism, fascism and anti-Semitism. From Germany to Greece, from Sweden to Switzerland, from Britain to Belgium, the far right is growing and succeeding, targeting immigrants and religious minorities—familiar scapegoats for collective government economic failure. It must not be allowed to succeed. We need a modern Keynesian alterative to rescue our communities from the austerity and misery of neoliberalism. As we saw so fatally in the 1930s, if that does not occur, persecution of religious and other minorities by racists, fascists, anti-Semites and Nazis will gain increasing traction.
My Lords, I, too, welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, who, I am sure, will recharge the flailing Brexiteer case in this House with her great eloquence.
This Bill could have huge significance for people’s jobs, people’s rights and the economy, because it illustrates how Brexit puts at risk not only our trade agreements with the other 27 member states of the EU, but agreements with around 70 so-called third countries around the world that collectively account for around two-thirds of the UK’s trade. In a no-deal scenario on exit day—which is enthusiastically advocated by many Brexiteers—we risk losing not only tariff-free access to the biggest single market in the world but the benefits of our participation in the EU agreements with these third countries.
It is also important that we debunk the Brexiteer myth that Britain will be freed to conquer new global trade markets if, and only if, we leave the single market and the customs union. Germany is in both, and its biggest trading partner is China. There are absolutely no barriers within the EU preventing us getting a greater share of global trade.
A further problem, once the UK ceases to be regarded as EU territory, is that for the purposes of complex rules of origin which define when a product benefits from tariff-free quotas, UK component parts and products will no longer qualify. This could have a huge impact on UK trade, especially in sectors such as the automotive industry and aerospace, where complex supply chains currently operate freely within the EU.
All these difficulties are exemplified—noble Lords will not be surprised to hear me mention it again and again—in the case of the Irish border. InterTradeIreland’s report last March, Cross Border Trade and Linkages, found that the vast bulk of cross-border trade is accounted for by ﬁrms that trade simultaneously in both directions. Although these two-way traders amount to just 18% of firms, they account for over 60% of imports and 70% of exports. The data also shows that most cross-border trade occurs in intermediate inputs—components of final products—and highlights the considerable interconnectedness of cross-border supply chains on the island of Ireland.
In addition to being exposed to costs from customs duties and increased administration, two-way trade also risks disruption from delays, particularly where supply-chain links are concentrated in perishable food products such as milk. Milk tankers cross the Irish border about 33,000 times a year. Northern Ireland produces around 2.2 billion litres of milk a year, of which some 30% is processed in the Republic. Milk and dairy products move in both directions, sometimes several times. For example, cream from Northern Ireland milk is removed in Virginia, County Cavan, in Ireland and sent back to the Baileys Irish Cream plant in Mallusk, County Antrim, in Northern Ireland. We should not think of trade across the Irish border as being confined to the island; much of it is connected to global trade as well. For example, this complex cross-border supply chain underpins global exports in powdered milk products from the island of Ireland, north and south. It is exposed on two fronts by Brexit. First, in the event of a hard Brexit, the north-south milk trade would become unprofitable due to tariffs ranging from 40% to as much as 64% depending on fat content. The second concern is that when the UK exits the EU, it will no longer be included in EU export agreements. It could take a period of years to put new export agreements into place for key milk powder markets. What is supposed to happen in the meantime to those dairy farmers and the thousands of other jobs dependent on these supply chains? The Brexiteers have absolutely no idea.
And for those no-deal zealots, in July, Pascal Lamy, the former director-general of the World Trade Organization, described as “pie in the sky” the idea that there would be no border on the island of Ireland if there was no deal. Therefore, as Labour has rightly argued, a new comprehensive customs union with the European Union after Brexit is the best way to protect jobs and the economy, as well as avoiding a potentially disastrous hard border on the island of Ireland. That is what the TUC, the CBI and major businesses such as Jaguar Land Rover and National Grid want.
For the last 40 years, when trade deals have been negotiated by the EU on behalf of its members, scrutiny has been delivered through the European Parliament’s Committee on International Trade and in the UK by the European Scrutiny Committee of the House of Commons. These mechanisms will no longer apply after Brexit. But surely trade negotiations must be transparent and open to scrutiny by stakeholders and the public. As things stand, these new arrangements with third countries which the Government call “continuity agreements” would be excluded from the Government’s new arrangements, admittedly still lacking in detail, for structured engagement with stakeholders in relation to the new trade agreements announced by the Secretary of State for International Trade on 16 July.
My Labour colleagues in the Commons successfully argued that the Government’s Bill as introduced was woefully deficient in that it accorded yet again a number of Henry VIII powers to Ministers but made no provision for parliamentary scrutiny, as takes place in other countries including Germany, New Zealand and Australia. Following an unprecedented campaign by trade unions, the trade justice movement and industry and consumer representatives, the Government, in fear of their own Back-Benchers, tabled amendments very late in the day addressing at least some of the issues. However, the Government simultaneously tabled an amendment that would allow Ministers to ignore these scrutiny provisions should they so choose. So much for taking back control. Furthermore, those provisions for enhanced parliamentary scrutiny did not extend to the clauses relating to the UK’s future membership of the WTO’s Government Procurement Agreement covered by the Bill. This is very worrying, as protections relating to public procurement need to be in place for public services such as the NHS and the public sector more generally in the UK. The Bill remains seriously deficient and still needs significant amendment to be made fit for purpose on these scrutiny issues.
I find it mind-boggling that, with the clock fast running right down, we still have absolutely no idea how, after Brexit, we will be trading with our biggest partner, Europe, or any other country outside. No wonder that investors and traders are giving up on the British economy and that Jacob Rees-Mogg has had to volunteer that we will be poorer for decades. He asserts that it is worth it because we will be free of Brussels: free, free, free at last, but poorer, poorer, poorer as well.
As they confirmed recently, Boris Johnson, David Davis, Liam Fox, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Iain Duncan Smith and the rest—and quite possibly the noble Lord, Lord Lilley—have no plan for their cherished Brexit. Meanwhile, government Ministers admit that we have no idea where we are going but we are going there anyway. What a way to run a country—no wonder the rest of the world thinks that reliable old Britain has gone barmy, with this Parliament a willing accomplice to what is rapidly becoming a national tragedy. The trade unions and others are providing a lead to rescue the country from this madness by demanding a people’s vote on the final deal. I hope that we will all support that.
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My Lords, it will come as no surprise to the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, that I disagree with virtually everything he said. As the Bill confirms, the Brexit charabanc is lurching giddily along, dragging our country towards a completely unknown destination. Even at this not-quite 11th hour, no Brexiteer, and certainly not the Prime Minister, has the faintest clue how we will be trading with our biggest partner—Europe—or any other country for that matter. No wonder the pound has plummeted and businesses engaged in any way with the outside world are at their wits’ end. It is therefore hardly a surprise that, although the Bill allows for the creation of a stand-alone customs regime for the UK, there is as yet no idea what shape it will take.
Everybody knows the mantra is “Brexit, dammit”, but nobody knows yet what it means, and maybe we never will until after we crash out into the nirvana of Trumpian free trade. That does not matter a jot because we will be free of Brussels—free, free at last—but God knows what new chains will now restrict our jobs, our prosperity, our businesses and our workers. I am no historian but I cannot think of any equivalent situation our country has ever faced as a result of a conscious act of government policy which says, “We’ve no idea where we’re going but we’re going there anyway”. Has the British political class ever done anything more utterly, profoundly irresponsible? Yet this Parliament, to our utter shame, has so far simply indulged in rubber-stamping it.
It should therefore be no surprise to anyone that the Bill illustrates how neither No. 10 Downing Street nor the arch-Brexiteers in the Conservative Party are now in control of their Brexit fantasies. Neither has a plan as the clock ticks down. What unites them is that it must click down regardless of the consequences. The people have spoken—full stop. We are going we know not where, but we are going anyway. This is rapidly becoming an act of collective national madness.
With the Chequers deal based on her flawed White Paper the Prime Minister was supposed to be keeping the UK close to the single market after Brexit, with some magical thinking about customs arrangements. Never mind that the services sector, forming a mere 80% of our economy, was abandoned. The importance of the Bill and the parallel Trade Bill should not be underestimated. Borders matter. Those who fantasise that the UK can enjoy frictionless trade under WTO rules need to understand that those rules mean hard borders, including within the island of Ireland. Even under the WTO’s most-favoured-nation rules, if we did not enforce the border in Ireland, we would be in breach of our agreements with other parts of the world, as would be, in parallel, the Republic and the EU. That would be a disaster for the economies of Northern Ireland and the Republic and would gravely threaten the peace and prosperity which have flourished since the Good Friday agreement of 1998, which is a binding treaty recognised under international law to which this Government pay lip service, but which is being steadily undermined by their whole approach to Brexit. No developed country trades purely on WTO rules, and it is fantasy to suggest that Britain should be the first to give it a go. Moreover, less than two weeks ago the director-general of the WTO pooh-poohed the idea that the UK could fall out of the EU straight into compliance with WTO arrangements, pointing out that it would take quite a time to negotiate the transition.
The debates on the Bill in the Commons demonstrated that the Government are a hostage to a minority of their own Back-Benchers, who chose to table four changes as wrecking amendments. The Chequers compromise can be seen as the Prime Minister’s attempt to steer her dysfunctional Cabinet towards a softer Brexit strategy that would mitigate, to some extent, the most damaging economic consequences of a hard or, worse still, a no-deal Brexit, but it started to fall apart at the first hurdle. Rather than risk defeat and a possible government collapse, these European Research Group amendments to the Bill were accepted by No. 10 and now potentially constitute new red lines, which may hinder the conclusion of a successful Article 50 withdrawal agreement.
The amendments in question were, first, to introduce the need for primary legislation if the Government want to keep Britain in a customs union. As my noble friend Lord Tunnicliffe and the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, have convincingly argued, and as Labour has compellingly argued, the case for a customs union with the EU is overwhelming—in order, among many other things, to avoid rules of origin requirements and check whether goods qualify for preferential tariff arrangements. According to the Government’s own analysis, these rules can burden businesses with additional administrative costs amounting to between 4% and 15%.
Furthermore, once the UK ceases to be regarded as EU territory, UK component parts and products will no longer benefit from zero tariffs as EU products under EU free trade agreements. That means that if the Government’s facilitated customs arrangement does not work, the fallback position will be no customs deal at all, which would be deeply damaging for our manufacturers. This could have a huge impact on UK trade and is the reason why a customs union is absolutely necessary for the sake of British manufacturing, international trade and Northern Ireland’s peace.
A second ERG amendment accepted by the Government ruled out a customs border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. This was accepted as in line with the Prime Minister’s previous position, despite her commitment in the UK-EU joint report of 8 December 2017:
“In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the”,
Belfast/Good Friday agreement.
The purpose of the second ERG amendment seems to be to destroy the negotiating room within which discussions on such backstop arrangements could take place. However, the most substantial and visible impact of the Bill will be at the UK’s borders—seaports and airports—and on our land border with the Republic of Ireland. It allows for the Irish border to return to being a customs border between the UK and Ireland. That means that goods leaving Northern Ireland will have to be cleared for exit from the UK and for entry to the EU.
First, goods crossing the border must be covered by a pre-departure declaration, partly to offer evidence of their status for VAT-free export. Secondly, goods will be able to enter the customs territory only through a designated place of clearance—which, for a land border crossing such as on the island, usually contains facilities for customs examination and clearance, including access to the relevant customs software systems to ensure that detailed information on the goods is submitted for recording and risk analysis purposes, and that correct duties are paid.
Thirdly, goods will be subject to customs duties from both sides. Fourthly, traders are more likely to be subject to requirements for import and export licensing. As the UK leaves the EU, all businesses in Ireland and Northern Ireland that trade across the Irish border will have to be properly registered to do so. Proper rollout of any trusted trader scheme requires time and agreement with trading partners.
Fifthly, the Bill will change common experience for VAT and Excise. Import VAT will be charged on all imports from outside the UK. Sixthly, if goods have to be inspected, there has to be the facility and capacity to do so. For the movement of agri-food produce, for example, including livestock, a rigorous veterinary and plant health inspections clearance regime must be in place. All of this illustrates the importance of getting a deal with the EU that avoids the need for customs controls between the EU and the UK.
How ironic it is, then, that this Bill also now contains a provision that risks making such a deal far less likely. The addition of this proposed new clause as a result of ERG dogma has ramifications not just for the Irish border; it also has implications for the current Brexit negotiations at a macro level. This was the Government’s intention in accepting it.
The so-called backstop in the draft withdrawal agreement is intended to prevent the scenario I have outlined previously coming into effect around the Irish border. However, what the ERG amendments, and therefore the subsequent new clause, do—in a fairly crude way—is to prevent that backstop being workable. It forces a scenario in which the Irish border is a customs border in the Bill. More to the point, by making it more difficult for the UK and EU to finalise the withdrawal agreement, it makes such a scenario all the more likely. This is no imaginary problem; there are no harmless consequences.
In July, the Prime Minister made her first substantial visit to Northern Ireland. When there, she visited the village of Belleek, on the Fermanagh-Donegal border. Belleek is in many ways a typical Irish border village. It has a population of Catholics and Protestants, British and Irish citizens, cross-border families and cross-border workers. A good number of such workers are employed by one business that straddles the border, with its front door in the Republic and its back door in the UK. As Theresa May’s entourage descended on the village, that business owner described the impact of the uncertainty around Brexit in a powerful way. “Out here”, he said, “We’re cannon fodder”.
The third ERG amendment Theresa May accepted makes it illegal for Britain to collect EU tariffs at its ports unless Brussels agrees to act on a reciprocal basis. The Government insisted that the amendment was consistent with the customs policy as outlined in the White Paper, because they envisaged using a formula to govern the flows of money based on trade patterns between the EU 27 and the UK. However, the White Paper does not explain exactly how this would work, and it seems highly unlikely that the EU will accept such a plan. There are further technical problems with the proposed facilitated customs arrangement, as it would appear to breach elements of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade—GATT—which is part of the World Trade Organization rules.
It is, in any case, a complete and utter delusion that the UK, with a market of 60 million, can improve on the negotiating strength we already have as a member of the EU with a market of 500 million, as far as free trade agreements with third countries are concerned. The point is that trade will become more costly and burdensome outside the EU single market and the customs union, and our businesses and manufacturers will be at a disadvantage compared with their European neighbours and competitors.
The ERG’s fourth amendment concerned VAT. Because the authorities need to know whether goods have crossed the border to properly apply the tax, the EU VAT area is absolutely crucial to avoiding a hard border. We currently have around 25 million customs declarations requiring payment of VAT at the border. That will potentially rise to 255 million after Brexit. Either goods are checked as they cross, requiring hard infrastructure and border friction, as happens in Switzerland and Norway, or we seek to stay in the EU’s system, which operates on the basis of a paper trail to track the movement of goods and requires European Court of Justice rules to apply. If the Government adopt neither option, it opens the UK up to massive fraud where goods enter the country VAT-free and people evade tax, depriving the Treasury—and therefore our already cut, battered and overstretched public services—of crucial revenue.
In conclusion, the debates on the Bill have illustrated that, as the reality of Brexit becomes clearer, the case for it disintegrates. Instead, the case for delaying Brexit and for giving not only Parliament but the people a meaningful vote, or a people’s vote, on any draft withdrawal agreement, becomes ever more compelling. I am delighted that my own trade union, the GMB, has today supported the principle of a people’s vote.