It’s been a madly busy week in parliament, beginning with the Queen’s speech, when the Queen comes to parliament to read out the government’s programme for the new parliamentary session. There’s lots of pomp and ceremony, women in tiaras and men in morning suits in the House of Lords, and then 6 days of debate. I participated in the debate on Thursday, when we were discussing the climate emergency.
I’ve also been in the chamber this week to present a petition on the crisis in Kashmir on behalf of over 1500 local people who are very concerned about the situation there. India unilaterally and unlawfully cancelled Kashmir’s autonomy over its own affairs at the beginning of August, arrested opponents of the move, imposed a curfew and a communications blackout, and there are reports of human rights abuses. The right of the Kashmiri people to self-determination dates back over 70 years, and the petition I presented calls for the UK government to press India and Pakistan to begin a constructive dialogue to resolve the situation, and to ensure peace and justice in Kashmir. I’ll continue to press the case for UK government ministers to use their friendship with and influence on Pakistan and India to bring about a solution that respects the rights of the Kashmiris.
PROTECT AGAINST FLU
On Tuesday, I took a few minutes out to have a flu vaccination, and I’d strongly urge everyone, and especially those in at risk groups (if you’re over 65, pregnant, a carer, or have certain medical conditions) to do so too. You can obtain one at many pharmacies or at your GP surgery.
DISCRIMINATION AGAINST GYPSIES AND TRAVELLERS
Two important roundtables this week, one with human rights organisation Rene Cassin and The Traveller Movement to launch their new campaign against hate speech, #CutItOut, and one with Gypsy and Traveller organisations to discuss problems with government planning rules that make it more difficult for Travellers to find legal sites on which they can stop. These communities suffer disproportionate discrimination and disadvantage on so many fronts, and I’m always proud to campaign with them whenever I can.
M60 SMART MOTORWAY
I had a useful meeting with Highways England, regarding safety on the M60 ‘smart motorway’. Overall, they told me, smart motorways are safer, but they acknowledged my constituents’ concerns about what happens when a vehicle is stopped on the hard shoulder when it’s running as a ‘live’ lane. To address this, more CCTV cameras are being installed, so stopped vehicles can be spotted very quickly and action taken, and more emergency refuge areas are being created. I’m always happy to hear from constituents about your experience of the smart motorway, which I can feed back to Highways England.
I had a great meeting with Greater Manchester Citizens to hear about their work on mental health, the living wage, homelessness and food poverty.
And it was a great pleasure to welcome teachers from Moss Park Infants and St Matthews Primary schools to parliament on Monday night. The schools had won a Kids Count award for their work as UNICEF rights respecting schools, helping the children to understand their, and other people’s rights. I was sorry none of the children could make the event – hardly surprising as it took place in the evening and they’d have school the next day. But I was very proud when headteacher of St Matthews, Mr Langridge, read out a message from the children to everyone attending the event.
The rest of this blog is given over to a lengthy description of what is happening on Brexit (which I’ve also posted on Facebook). On Thursday morning we learnt the Prime Minister has agreed a new deal with the EU. It’s a new Withdrawal Agreement (the legal terms of our exit) and a new Political Declaration (the non-binding aims covering the future negotiation we’d need to have on our future trading relationship).
These look like the main differences from Theresa May’s deal:
The backstop (which kept the UK in the customs union and NI in the EU single market if we don’t agree a new trade deal with the EU) is gone, and has been replaced by new permanent arrangements.
The agreement says Northern Ireland is in the UK Customs Territory, but in reality it isn’t.
Effectively Northern Ireland is in the EU Customs regime. Goods coming into NI from Britain or Ireland would be subject to EU customs, unless it could be proved they’re not going to leave NI or enter the supply chain as a manufacturing component.
There would be no checks on the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, but a border between Great Britain and the Island of Ireland would be created. That means extra checks for manufacturers who export from the North West to the Republic or NI.
The changes are all in the Political Declaration rather than the Withdrawal Agreement, which means they’re less certain as they’re now non-binding.
We are no longer seeking a ‘close economic relationship with the EU’.
There is no mention of maintaining comparable employment rights, environmental standards or product regulation. There is also no wording even offering the discretion to do this, which the Theresa May deal had.
The so-called ‘level playing field’ is therefore gone.
It’s a very tough deal for manufacturing, with rules of origin details now being required and substantial regulatory checks at borders. Just in time supply chains would be severely disrupted.
On services it’s the same as the old deal, i.e. not very much at all.
On security and law and order cooperation it’s also broadly the same.
This looks to me worse than Theresa May’s deal. It is a softer Brexit for Northern Ireland but a hard Brexit for England, Scotland and Wales. And it stores up trouble down the road.
The Scottish nationalists will almost certainly demand what Northern Ireland would get under this deal for their own border with England, in the event they voted for independence.
And it would allow the Conservative Party to pursue an agenda of moving the UK economy from a Western European model to one much more like the United States – deregulated, low corporate taxes, fewer public services and employment rights etc. That is why the UK government cannot agree to broadly maintaining European standards, as it would prevent a UK-US trade deal.
GETTING IT DONE?
One key point to remember is that if this deal is passed, Brexit is not ‘done’. This is simply an exit agreement. If it were passed, we would enter a transition period until the end of 2020 and begin negotiating the future trade deal with the EU based on the Political Declaration. That looks very ambitious. On average trade deals take around 7 years to agree, though hopefully this would be less.
I’ll be back in Westminster on Saturday when MPs will vote on these proposals. If the deal is not passed on Saturday, thankfully the provisions of the Benn Act mean we will not crash out without any deal at all. But whether we agree a deal or not this weekend, the Brexit saga still has a long, long way to run.