January Bedford Independent Column – Environmental protections post-Brexit: the race to the bottom begins

The watering down of workers’ rights, standards and environmental protections was at the heart of my concerns over Brexit.

Just weeks after our final ties with the EU were severed and my concerns are already being realised.

The Government has had discussions with select business leaders and is understood to be drawing up plans for a post-Brexit overhaul of UK labour markets to rip up worker protections enshrined in EU law, including the 48-hour week and a change in the calculation of holiday pay.

But it is on environmental protections, the Government has moved fastest to dismantle.

Three years ago, the EU introduced a European-wide ban on the use of neonicotinoids (neonics) a type of pesticide that has proved deadly to bees and aquatic life.

At the time, the UK Government supported the ban and confirmed that it would maintain these increased restrictions post-Brexit.

Just weeks after Brexit however, the Government is showing what deregulation will look like, reintroducing the deadly pesticide much to the horror of wildlife organisations.

The Government acquiesced to the demands of the Farmers Union and UK sugar who were secretly lobbying the Secretary of State for DEFRA, George Eustice to allow neonics to be reintroduced after Brexit.

In a memo to sugar beet farmers in December sharing their plans, the Union told its members to “Please refrain from sharing this on social media.”

They all know how unpopular this move will be with the public, as my postbag testifies.

Although the Government say the use of Syngenta’s Cruiser SB is for emergency, “limited and controlled” use, they also admitted that the risks to bees would not allow its use under standard approval and that “risks to birds from consuming treated seeds were not demonstrated to be acceptable.” DEFRA approved it anyway.

It’s the thin end of the wedge.

There will always be bad weather events, insects and other factors that will damage crop yields and therefore its likely many other worthy appeals will be made to use the dangerous pesticides – ‘just this once’.

Already the gate for further approvals is open.

The Government’s statement on the decision notes states that neonics may be needed for three years until 2023 despite the fact this authorisation is only for 2021.

With a cross-party group of Parliamentarians led by Caroline Lucas MP, I wrote to George Eustice deeply concerned by his decision to authorise this use.

Although we all empathise with the multiple challenges faced by farmers, including responding to this Government’s damaging Brexit policy, authorising the use of neonics is regressive and risks disastrous long-term consequences for our environment and particularly vital pollinators.

I have also supported an amendment to the Environment Bill to recognise the fact that the biggest contributor of damage, pollution, and contamination of the air, soil, water and overall environment in rural areas is from the continued use of pesticides and other agro-chemicals on crop fields across the UK.

Bees pollinate up to 3/4 of crops which makes the use of this pesticide incredibly counter-intuitive.

Neonics are known to damage bees’ brain development, immune systems and can even leave them unable to fly.

With 40 percent of insect species in danger of extinction and bee populations in severe decline it presents a disturbing picture for pollination and crop yields.

Instead of taking the easy option, allowing only recently banned pesticides, the Government must invest in innovative and non-chemical alternatives to pest management.

When the UK pledged to back the ban, Michael Gove, then the environment secretary said: “The weight of evidence now shows the risks neonicotinoids pose to our environment, particularly to the bees and other pollinators which play such a key part in our £100bn food industry… We cannot afford to put our pollinator populations at risk.”

Yet that’s exactly what his Government has done.

Another deceit to be added to the pile of broken Brexit promises.

July Bedford Independent Column: A national disaster is unfolding

Coronavirus has claimed nearly 650,000 jobs since March. Sectors that were already struggling, like retail and hospitality, have little resilience to take such a blow.

A national disaster is unfolding, with vacancies at an all-time low and more jobs lost every day. Although the Government schemes have saved jobs, a cliff edge is only months away.

Instead of saving jobs with targeted support for the hardest-hit sectors like retail, manufacturing, aviation and a flexible furlough to save jobs, the safety net will be gone and mass unemployment, the like we haven’t seen for decades, will grip the nation.

And it’s not the only cliff edge.

We are five months away from Brexit and we still do not know what the future holds for us.

It was not supposed to be like this. Remember the election campaign? The Prime Minister told us as often as possible that he had an “oven-ready deal”.

But the Prime Minister doesn’t like the deal he baked. He didn’t even turn the oven on!

Leaving the EU on 31 January was only one part of the deal. The other was a future relationship set out in the Political Declaration negotiated by Boris Johnson with “no tariffs, fees, charges or quantitative restrictions across all sectors”, that will safeguard “workers’ rights, consumer and environmental protection”, keep people safe with a “broad, comprehensive and balanced security partnership” and to ensure the protection of the Good Friday Agreement through proper implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Commitments the Prime Minister made to a level playing field, to a non-competitive aspect is now something he seems baffled by.

Which is no doubt why after four rounds of negotiations, a summit between Boris Johnson and the Presidents of the European Commission, Council and Parliament, and two subsequent weeks of meetings between negotiators, there has been no significant progress.

The opportunity was there to ask for an extension to the transition period, yet the Prime Minister chose not to ask for one.

So now the Prime Minister pretends a no deal would be “a very good option”, when the reality is it would be a monumental failure of statesmanship and a disaster for the UK economy and people already staring down the barrel of a gun at a deep and dark recession.

The problem for Boris is that the truth of the difference between the Brexit he promised – voted for in good faith by millions – and the one being delivered is emerging.

We’ve been short-changed!

The Government’s recently published Brexit Border Plan has revealed that British companies trading with Europe, according to the Financial Times, will have to absorb a post-Brexit bureaucracy burden and fill in an extra 215million customs declarations at a cost of at least £7bn a year.

Far from frictionless trade, we will be getting at least 12 new customs sites, similar to the giant 27-acre site in Kent soon to be transformed into a customs clearance centre for 11,000 lorries a day.

The International Trade Secretary, and Brexit supporter, Liz Truss expressed serious concerns about preparedness at the border. Her leaked letter set out four areas of concern: that ports might not be ready and therefore not secure for preventing smuggling, that the Northern Ireland Protocol may not be ready, and UK plans could be challenged at the WTO – the very organisation whose rules we fall back on in the event of a no deal.

The Government finally confirmed there will be checks on trade between GB and Northern Ireland, but the Government are yet to publish plans in order for preparations to begin on this most sensitive border.

Research from the Institute for Directors found that only one in four businesses are ready for Brexit. How can they be when they still don’t know what they are planning for?

The UK is plunging headfirst towards a Brexit where it has no deal with the EU, no deal with the US, and ever deteriorating relations with the world’s largest manufacturing economy.

With just five months left – in which we are already facing the biggest hit on jobs and livelihoods in our lifetime as a result of covid-19 – the Government should be doing everything in its power to mitigate that damage, not to add to it.

The Government will not be forgiven if they can’t broker a good deal. That was their promise to the British people, and it is on that they will be judged.

Brexit developments this week

You may already be aware that I voted for the Letwin amendment on Saturday, and against the Withdrawal Agreement Bill on Tuesday, and then against the ‘programme motion’.  

I am clear Boris Johnson’s deal would be even worse for my constituents than Theresa May’s deal, which I, and indeed the majority of Parliamentarians, felt unable to support on the three occasions it was put before the house.

This deal risks jobs, worker’s rights, environmental protections, and puts a border in the Irish sea – something that the PM promised he would never do.

I don’t believe Boris Johnson can be trusted not to sell off our NHS. A large number of my constituents have written to me to express their grave concerns about the potential for an NHS take-over as a result of deals with the unscrupulous Trump administration. Despite the PM’s assurances, actions speak louder than words, and I was dismayed that on Wednesday the Conservatives refused to back Labour’s motion to safeguard our NHS from being sold off to US corporations in a Johnson-Trump trade deal.

Such a trade deal would inevitably lower food standards. In March the US published its negotiating priorities for any post-Brexit trade deal with the UK and the US ambassador to Britain invited us all to look again at US production methods and to drop our opposition to certain practices, such as the use of hormones in beef and chlorine washes for chicken.

I do not believe that the Prime Minister or his Government can be trusted to retain our current standards on food, environmental and consumer protections or worker’s rights. In fact, I believe the end game is to erode these long-fought rights.

I want the UK to maintain close ties with the EU, our geographically closest trading partners. Whatever happens next, we cannot ignore the largest trading bloc in the world.  This bill creates more distance and therefore more uncertainty than even Theresa May’s deal. It explicitly rules out a new customs union and a close future relationship with the single market – a key demand of industry and trade unions.

Despite promises of frictionless trade, it is now explicit that there will be new trade barriers with the EU and additional checks at borders. Provisions on services have not been improved and commitments on rights and protections are now significantly weaker. There has also been no progress on the question of our future participation in security arrangements or agencies.

I remain extremely concerned that this deal isn’t sufficient to rule out a departure on WTO terms, in the event that a free trade deal is not negotiated by the end of the implementation period. It would be highly unusual for such a complex agreement affecting so many states to be agreed within a matter of months – even relatively simple trade deals take many years to negotiate. It is anticipated that negotiating the next stage of Brexit will take about 3 years, even before implementation. So, although we all want Brexit to end – I’m afraid we haven’t even completed the first stage of negotiations. The next stage will be significantly more complicated.

I have said many times that I will do all I can to avoid a No Deal Brexit, because I think this would have a disastrous effect on our economy. I believe this because I have listened to the many expert witnesses giving evidence to parliament and read the many, many documents published in Parliament on the impact of Brexit – including the Government’s own assessments. I have weighed this against what was promised my constituents and I know they have been short-changed. It is now clear Brexit will make the people of Bedford poorer. It may be the case, some are prepared to accept this outcome, but some won’t. And we need to be sure. This is why the fairest way to proceed is for the Government of the day to seek the consent of the public on the final deal.

The ‘programme motion’, which I voted against on Tuesday, would have resulted in this flawed piece of legislation being pushed through at breakneck speed. Even if I had thought that Boris Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement Bill was worthy of my support, it deserves proper consideration by MPs who can try to improve it, and a majority of MP’s shared that view. Rushing such an important Bill just to satisfy an arbitrary deadline of the 31st October was highly irresponsible and in my view a cynical attempt by the Prime Minister to pit Parliament against the People.  Parliament is doing its job – scrutinising and improving legislation. That is how laws are made. Circumventing this vital process is dangerous for democracy.

However frustrating this is, the reality is Brexit is extremely complicated. MP’s need more time to work through the bill to shape into something that does not risk jobs, living standards, our NHS, or food standards, or do untold damage to our manufacturing industries.


No deal Brexit: National Audit Office warns of risk to medical supplies

On the 5th September this year, I asked the Brexit Secretary, Stephen Barclay what level of mortality he would consider acceptable in the event of a No-Deal Brexit. He dismissed my question, answering that the medicines industry had gone above and beyond to ensure sufficient supplies. I am sure that both suppliers and our NHS have been working flat out to plan for No-Deal, but it’s not enough.

Now we’re just days before we are due to leave and we’re nowhere near ready. This report from the National Audit Office today on NHS readiness and the potential disruption to medicine supplies makes extremely worrying reading, but it’s not a surprise.

The report acknowledges that there is no way of knowing what may happen at the UK/EU border when the UK leaves the EU, with ministers asking government departments to be prepared for a ‘reasonable worst case scenario’.

This is based on assumptions that the flow of goods across the channel could be reduced to 40-60% of current levels on day one, not returning to close to current levels until 12 months after leaving the EU. Over half (7,000) of all medicines are estimated to come to the UK from or via the EU, with a further 450,000-500,000 different types of medical supplies that are used by the NHS and distributed to hospitals, care homes, dental practices, pharmacies and individuals at home.

The Treasury will be allocating £150million to the Department for Transport to secure freight capacity from October, to prioritise medical supplies amongst other critical goods, however the procurement process to employ the necessary companies to operate this service is still ongoing. I’m greatly concerned that the report warns that there is limited time available to complete the procurement process: it has started later than anticipated, and now depends on the process ‘running smoothly’. Beyond that, there is further uncertainty and risk whether the successful operators will be able to mobilise quickly enough, and it is acknowledged that only some of the service will be ready to operate in time, with much of it only ready a month after leaving.

So much uncertainty; with departments having to work on the basis of untested assumptions determined by ministers, it’s clear that leaving without a deal presents a level of risk that no competent or moral leader should ever remotely consider. A no deal Brexit could spell disaster for the most vulnerable people in Britain.

Compromise in a time of crisis

No one following events in Westminster over the last weeks and months would deny that we are in a moment of crisis. That is why MPs have been engaged in a process of indicating their preferences in terms of Brexit options going forward over two sessions, the first last Wednesday and again last night. This is, I believe, a sincere attempt to break the deadlock.

These ‘indicative votes’ were intended to establish what Parliament might consider an acceptable outcome. It is a great pity that we have waited so long to embark upon this essential process and represents a failure of Government. Theresa May should have reached out to establish a consensus before Article 50 was invoked in March 2017.

A little over half of all those who voted in the referendum in Bedford & Kempston did so in favour of leaving the EU. I am always mindful of that fact, but the problem with the referendum of 2016 was that it did not give anyone the option of indicating how they wanted to leave the EU. It is clear from the correspondence that I am receiving from constituents that leaving the EU means a lot of different things to different people. Some have changed their mind. That fundamental problem of interpreting the vote is something that all MPs have been grappling with, and as we’ve approached the withdrawal date, matters have come to a head. Those differences of opinion about what ‘leave’ means are now reflected in Parliament. I know that my constituents are exhausted with the process and just want the uncertainty to stop.

No deal is not a realistic option. Just today we learned from a leaked letter to Government from the UK’s top civil servant how bad a no deal Brexit would be for Britain: bad because food supplies and standards would be at risk and food prices would rise, bad because jobs and livelihoods would be lost and worker’s rights would be compromised, bad because it risks the fragmentation of the UK and bad because it would be a terrible outcome for our NHS and security.

For me, this process is now about being open to compromise – looking carefully at what is realistic. Whilst all of the options presented for consideration last night have positive aspects, they also have drawbacks. I am aware that there is no outcome that will please everyone, but intransigence is not an option.

It is the PM’s steadfast refusal to adopt a sensible compromise approach to negotiations that has led us to this crisis – So I cast my votes yesterday as follows:

Customs Union – Seeking a UK Wide Customs union with the EU – For

Common Market 2.0 – Remaining in the Common Market and seeking a temporary customs union with the EU – For

Confirmatory Referendum – Holding a public vote to confirm any withdrawal agreement agreed by Parliament – For

Parliamentary Supremacy – Power for MPs to block leaving with no deal, cancelling Brexit if the EU won’t grant a further extension beyond 12 April – For

The first two options represent to me a pragmatic compromise on Brexit – softer options that would minimise the negative economic impact of leaving whilst still allowing the UK many of the freedoms that would not be permitted as a member of the European Union. I am aware that both options would not represent the clean break that many leavers would like to see. I have some reservations about both, but I have never been in favour of leaving without a deal and I do not consider Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement represents a good deal. I am persuaded therefore that a Brexit pursued in terms of either of these models would be broadly acceptable to me.

This brings me to my decision to support a confirmatory referendum. I have always had concerns about going back to the people on this issue, and I am aware that many people will be unhappy about that option. But I also think that opinion is very divided on the issue of how we should proceed. Parliament seems unable to decide so asking the electorate to confirm what they think about whatever deal is finally decided upon might be the best thing to do.

Finally, I voted for the motion to revoke Article 50 if the EU will not extend beyond the 12th April. The Brexit negotiation process has not delivered an acceptable outcome for Britain, and I do not think that is in dispute. The process of extending the leave date without any clear idea of where we are headed, runs the very real risk of an accidental ‘No Deal’, and leaving without any deal in place is something that I have already said that I cannot support, and indeed will actively resist. I realise that some people in my constituency would like this to be the outcome but as a representative not a delegate, I have to act in a way I believe to be in the best interests of all of the people that I have been elected to serve. If Article 50 were to be revoked, there is nothing to say that it could not be invoked again at a later date if agreement could be reached on how our departure from the EU could be achieved.

Unfortunately, none of the options gained a majority. These are complex arguments that I have tried to condense into a relatively brief post. I appreciate that I may not have covered everything to the satisfaction of all of the people reading this, but if you are a constituent and would like to email me for more details, I will be happy to provide a more comprehensive response. Please be mindful that my office is handling an unprecedented volume of email correspondence, so it may take a little while.

Brexit Update

This is a difficult time for our country. The referendum of 2016 caused a great deal of hurt, and the negotiation process that we have been engaged in ever since Article 50 was invoked has been painful. Now those negotiations have concluded, and Theresa May has not delivered a good deal for Britain. It is clearer now than ever before that there was never a deal possible that would improve on the one we have already within the EU. Many people said at the time that withdrawing from the biggest market in the world could only bring dis-benefits. Doing so via the deal Mrs May is offering in this way would be disastrous, as would withdrawing with no deal at all.

We should not be fooled by the Prime Minister’s attempts to sell her deal to the British people as a good compromise – this is a tactic designed only to keep her Government in power. Leavers and remainers alike are at least united in their dislike of the outcome of the negotiations. The deal on the table could very well chain us to Brussels in perpetuity without any say in how we are governed and would leave us with a hefty divorce bill to settle – all without any of the promised assurances of frictionless trade, or the huge benefits of security cooperation and a strong political alliance across Europe. It is a poor offering indeed. It stands to reason therefore that I will not support it when it is brought before Parliament on the 11th December.

The question then is what should happen after Parliament have considered the deal in the ‘Meaningful Vote’ – a vote that Labour colleagues and campaigners fought so hard to secure, and which this Government did not want MPs to have. It is highly likely that Theresa May’s deal will be rejected by MPs –  and rightly so because we shouldn’t accept a bad deal because it’s the only deal on offer or because we’re worn down with the process. But we do need a plan for what happens next.

Many people have written to me urging me to support a people’s vote. A second referendum with an option to remain is one possible future option and is something I would support if the conditions were right. But I believe we need to have a very clear idea about exactly what we would ask in the event that this were possible, and we need a far greater degree of certainty than we currently have about the possible outcome of such a vote. Even the Tory Chancellor admits that Britain’s economy would shrink under any Brexit scenario. I am wary of offering my full support to any course of action that could result in a more decisive ‘leave’ mandate, because there is no leave option available at this time that would not make Britain poorer.

So while a people’s vote should not be dismissed, we should first work to safeguard Britain against a catastrophic no deal Brexit.

Alongside colleagues, I will support Labour’s Amendment to the Meaningful Vote. I shall reject Theresa May’s Brexit deal because it fails to protect jobs and living standards, workers’ rights and environmental standards and because it does not provide sufficient guarantees on national security. The amendment strongly opposes crashing out of the UK without a deal, and that must be the first priority.

Labour believe that Theresa May’s government have failed on Brexit, and that the British people should have the opportunity now to make a choice. A choice between a Tory Government who have pursued a pointless austerity agenda to devastating effect – an agenda that has decimated public services, starved our NHS, police, local government and schools of cash, and impoverished families, and now promises to shrink our economy and make us even poorer – Or a Labour Government who would begin work immediately to repair that damage and crucially would reject any Brexit scenario that would leave the UK worse off. I understand my Party’s position on this. Not to aspire to be a party in government at this time of national crisis would be to shirk responsibility. However, the Fixed Term Parliament’s Act does present big obstacle. A General Election might not happen and if it is decisively rejected, then other democratic routes to testing the better informed will of the people should be the next step.

This is a very uncertain time and there are no ideal solutions that I can see. I can assure you that I will do all I can to ensure that I represent the views of all of my constituents in the coming weeks – not an easy task in a constituency where opinion on this issue is so divided.

I hope to eventually be able to support an outcome that will secure jobs, growth and trade, keep us safe and guarantee prosperous futures for our families, our children and our grandchildren.

Brexit Withdrawal Agreement Fails to Deliver

Many constituents are contacting me to share their strong concerns regarding the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by the Prime Minister, which fails to deliver on her Government’s promises.

The government is now in chaos because of their inability to negotiate a deal in the national interest. It is highly unlikely the Agreement will get through Parliament and it’s not clear what is going to happen next but the Government is weak and unstable at this crucial time in our history when we need strong governance.

Labour have been clear that we will not vote for a deal that does not protect jobs, workers and environmental rights, the economy and living standards or a deal that does not work for all of the nations in the United Kingdom.

My party has fought for a deal which included a new comprehensive and permanent customs union, with a British say in future trade deals which would support businesses, our NHS, jobs and the manufacturing supply chains they depend on; a strong single market relationship that allows British business continued access to vital European markets for both goods and services and a guarantee that our country doesn’t fall behind the EU in workers’ rights, or protections for consumers and the environment.

The Prime Minister’s hopeless compromise offers none of this and I cannot support it. It will harm jobs and the economy, it will not deliver frictionless trade and provides no certainty over customs, immigration, security, defence, research and collaboration. You were promised Brexit would be easy and have no downsides; that we would be taking back control. This deal has considerable downsides and leaves us stuck in limbo with a loss of sovereignty and less control over our borders and laws. It is a failure after two years of botched negotiations, and it would leave us in a state of limbo.

I do not believe the Prime Minister’s deal is in the national interest – indeed it is vastly inferior to the deal we currently have with the European Union.  There have already been a number of resignations – including that of her own Brexit Secretary. There could not be more damning an indictment than Dominic Raab’s assessment of the deal that he negotiated, but now says ‘presents a very real threat to the integrity of the United Kingdom’. The Prime Minister now knows that her Withdrawal agreement cannot win the approval of Parliament as it has no support from Labour, the DUP or the SNP.

This is a critical point in our history and we need stability from the Government, not this chaos. I will be working hard in the coming weeks to act in the best interests of the people of Bedford and Kempston and, alongside colleagues, pressing this Government to put the interests of the country not the Conservative Party first.