I spoke in the Chamber today in support of my amendment to the Government's motion on the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement. My amendment focuses on how Parliament can protect workers’ rights, health and safety and environmental standards as we leave the EU.
Much of the Brexit debate is about what we’re against and not what we are for. There are a number of concerns about the Deal on the table. The amendment is about focusing on the reality of what we want as we leave the EU, and that Government needs to reach out and address Labour’s concerns to get a deal. Enough about second referendums - let’s negotiate.
You can read my speech in full below, or watch it here.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel).
Unfortunately, as is so often the case in this House, we have polarised views on both the leave side and the remain side, for which no deal is ever going to be good enough. I rise to speak because my approach to the nation’s decision to leave European Union is to look forward rather than debate the past, to work cross-party where possible, to be constructive rather than destructive, and to seek to unite the country, not divide it further. That is why I support amendment (p), which I have co-sponsored with my hon. Friends the Members for Bassetlaw (John Mann), for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell) and for Wigan (Lisa Nandy).
As we debate the conditions under which the UK leaves the European Union, there are legitimate concerns not only about what form the final agreement takes, but about UK Government intentions and the UK’s future direction. I am sure that this amendment is not perfect—we know that all amendments in this debate are not legally binding, and there is much discussion about that—but it does speak to the concerns of many in this House about how we can build on the political declaration and get more assurances, and maybe more certainty, from the Government on how we can protect the rights and standards that affect employment, health and safety and the environment, many of which we have taken for granted during UK membership of the European Union. We want to ensure that they do not decline after the UK leaves. Also, in keeping with the desire for the UK Parliament to regain control, amendment (p) wishes this House to be able to debate and decide on any future improvements to protections or rights implemented by the European Union. The choice would be in our hands; we would debate and vote on those issues.
As this amendment proposes, the UK’s goal post-Brexit should be to ensure that workers’ rights do not slip back—that the rights enjoyed by many British employees are protected. Likewise, UK standards on water pollution, pesticides, emissions, energy conservation and carbon reduction must all be protected, with a UK commitment not to walk backwards. Amendment (p) reflects some of the key demands expressed by Labour over the future direction.
For too long the debate in this House has been polarised, with the rhetoric too sharp and many Members on both sides of the House too quick to condemn and too slow to listen. I campaigned for remain. A majority of my voters voted leave, although many voted remain as well. I have always been honest with my leave voters that there will have to be compromise in the final deal that allows us to chart our own future and have more independence over many policy areas—the ability to move beyond the EU and deal with many of the concerns that led to their voting leave. But I have also been up front about recognising that we need a strong partnership with the European Union as we leave, and much of that strength is through co-operation.
I am also honest that life in the EU was never perfect, despite the relationship being close for good reason and despite the fact that it must remain so. We need to talk less about what we are against and more about what we are for, and I believe that our deliberations on the next steps should reflect that. The British people deserve sincere endeavour from this Parliament. The withdrawal agreement is the headline deal—the divorce. It is not the final deal. Trade-related, customs union-related talks will have to be agreed only once the UK leaves.
I welcomed Labour’s support for a transition period, which we demanded back in August 2017. We recognised that the 20-month period to which the Prime Minister signed up would be as important as the past two years have been because there are a wide range of trade and security matters to resolve. We should approach this period positively. It is unreasonable to expect all these matters to have been resolved by this point in the process, but a deal has to be agreed to get to that discussion, and there is still time for talks across this House in order to reach that outcome.
Despite the good work of the EU, I am very proud of the UK having a long history of being at the forefront of high standards when it comes to employment rights and environmental protections. It would be wrong to suggest that the rights that UK citizens take for granted—holidays, maternity leave, minimum pay and our welfare system—exist only because of the European Union. They do not. As a Labour MP, I fundamentally believe they exist because of 100 years of the Labour party and the trade union movement. Despite relatively few periods in office, Labour has made great advances in social change that have become mainstream and to which all parties now lay claim and adopt. These are achievements of this House over many decades, not imports from Brussels or Strasbourg, and not every country in the EU can claim what the UK rightly can.
I sympathise with some of that, but the truth is that LGBT rights were quite often were forced on Britain by European Court of Justice decisions and European Court of Human Rights decisions, and were not adopted even by a Labour Government. Sometimes we have had to resort to elsewhere.
I do not disagree with my—right hon. Friend?
Shame. I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, who should be a right hon. Friend, but we must not polarise this debate by saying either that the EU is all bad or that the UK does nothing without the EU’s permission.
Our minimum wage is twice that of Greece’s and more than Spain’s, and many EU member states do not have a minimum wage. Statutory maternity pay in the UK is paid for up to 39 weeks, compared with just 16 weeks in France, 16 weeks in Holland and 26 weeks in Ireland. Many people ascribe paid holidays to the EU, but the truth is that it was a Labour Government who signed up to the social chapter that led to that happening, and who added bank holidays on top. With regards to equality, same-sex marriage is legal in just 14 of the 28 member states, so the rights that our lesbian and gay citizens enjoy are in many respects rights derived from decisions of this Parliament, not the European Union.
In the coming weeks and during the transition, it is not too late to adopt a different approach—a less confrontational politics. I want the Government to begin a new dialogue across parties, as they should have done earlier. I want them to consult the Opposition on the negotiations around trade now, and to commit to doing so during the transition period. With 78 days until the UK leaves the European Union, it is too easy to talk about further delay. The task is only impossible if we in this House make it impossible. Extending article 50 would not solve anything, and neither would a second referendum. Our conduct in the coming weeks and months can either seek the best deal and heal divisions, or seek to prevent a deal and divide the country further.
I believe that our path has to be one that brings the nation together—a Brexit based on a reasonable deal that protects the standards and rights that we value and shows generosity of spirit to our European neighbours, but which gets on with the task of getting through this process and dealing with the many issues that we did not face up to during our 40 years in the EU.