October 2018 E-Newsletter
Brexit (and why we will need a ‘People’s Vote’)
In my last newsletter I said that writing about Brexit - despite its huge importance - is incredibly hard because the situation is in constant flux. That is truer than ever as we enter these crucial few weeks leading up to a Parliamentary vote on the Government’s proposed deal. I also said that I had joined an increasing number of politicians and public figures who believe that the deal should be put to a ‘People’s Vote’, so that voters can consider whether what is on offer for our future relationship with Europe is better than what we have now. Ultimately, with so many different visions of, hopes for and expectations behind the ‘Leave’ vote, what is actually available as a trade-off between sovereignity and market access needs a public mandate. However, I seriously doubt that there is a majority in Parliament to allow this to happen. So what are the choices we face in the next couple of months?
In leaving the EU and seeking to forge a new relationship with Europe, we must now confront the trade-offs that were largely ignored or brushed aside in the run up to the 2016 referendum. EU negotiators have made clear that while an agreement tailored to the specific needs of the UK is possible and achievable, the UK will not be allowed to cherry pick between the EU single market’s four indivisible freedoms: goods, services, labour and capital. The Government’s ‘Chequers proposal’ finally demonstrated some acceptance of the inevitability of compromise but was never going to be workable, or compatible with the EU’s insistence of those ‘four freedoms’. As the EU’s Chief Brexit negotiator had already said, ‘there can be no partial membership of the single market’.
However, in proposing a future UK-EU economic relationship based on a dual-tariff customs arrangement and participation in the single market for goods alone, the Chequers plan is both unworkable and at odds with the EU27’s insistence that any future relationship must respect the four freedoms. For that reason, the EU was never going to accept it. Michel Barnier also said that the EU would not accept the customs proposals, which would allow the UK to maintain frictionless trade with the EU, while still being able to sign free trade agreements with countries outside Europe. Without significant additional compromises on the part of the UK Government, compromises that the extreme Tory Brexiteers in the European Research Group will not permit the Prime Minister to make, the ‘Chequers’ option is now obsolete.
Both the UK and the EU27 want to conclude a deal. Theresa May needs it because of the damage crashing out with no deal would do to the economy (to say nothing of the political risks), while the EU wants to maintain the exchange of goods and services with its single biggest trading partner. But that still doesn’t mean it is guaranteed to happen.
However, the withdrawal agreement upon which so much attention is currently fixed doesn’t even deal with all these issues, yet, the future economic relationship will only be addressed in a political declaration that will only be an annex to the legally binding agreement on the three core divorce settlement issues: citizens’ rights, the negotiated financial settlement and the Irish border. Much of this has already been agreed - including those sections that relate to citizens’ rights and the financial settlement. But one of the last major issues on which there remains considerable disagreement is the issue of the Irish border. That is why agreement on a legally enforceable backstop arrangement, one that will cater for the eventuality that no future economic relationship that protects North-South cooperation and avoids a hard border can be agreed post-exit, is now crucial to concluding an agreement in what little negotiating time remains.
Earlier this year the EU proposed that, unless and until the future relationship removes the need for physical infrastructure and associated checks at the Irish land-border, Northern Ireland alone should remain, effectively, in the EU’s customs union and single market for goods. The UK Government responded by making clear that this was unacceptable on the grounds that it would effectively create a customs border in the Irish Sea and put at risk the UK’s constitutional integrity. Despite a summer of talks between Barnier and the Brexit Secretary, Dominic Raab, both sides remain broadly wedded to there respective positions.
The need for the backstop to act as a legally enforceable insurance policy against any future circumstance, including the UK walking away from the negotiating table after 29 March 2019, leaves little scope for the EU to agree to substantive changes to their initial proposals. Similarly, dependent on the DUP to remain in office, May clearly feels that she has little room for manoeuvre.
That said, the EU has made clear that there is scope for further compromise and reducing the need for checks between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Of course, a customs border, if not a regulatory one, could also be prevented if the UK were to remain in a customs union with the EU after the transition period ends, either temporarily or permanently, as Labour is arguing for. But in the absence of signing up to our proposal, agreement on the issue now requires May to shift her current position, but unless she changes her approach to date – making all-UK proposals for the future relationship under the cover of a fall back solution for the border issue – it will inevitably be met with hostility by the EU27.
The big question therefore is whether May is able to give ground on the Irish backstop issue without triggering a leadership challenge. Or whether there is even a majority in Parliament to sign off on a deal that has been reached on the basis of the UK having given significant ground on the issue. My fear is that the Government’s strategy in relation to this issue is simply a form of high-stakes brinkmanship based on the belief that at one minute to midnight, the EU27 will blink first. Based on the history of the past two years, there is scant evidence that they will do so.
There is every incentive for May, practically and politically, to bring back a withdrawal agreement that contains a political declaration that is vague and ambiguous- a ‘blind Brexit’. This would potentially allow her to get the withdrawal agreement over the line without having to confront the extreme Brexiteers on her own benches.
Doing this would be unacceptable. A vague political declaration on the future framework would not be a solution to the problems that we are grappling with; it would be tantamount to avoiding those problems altogether and it would leave the UK in a far weaker position during the transition than we would otherwise be. We must have clarity on the future relationship and we therefore need a political declaration that is detailed and substantive.
Labour intend to apply the six tests that we set out back in 2017 to whatever agreement the government brings back to Parliament. However, as Keir Starmer made clear in his recent speech to the Labour conference, if May’s deal does not meet those six tests, MPs will be instructed to vote against it. Exiting without a deal would be a catastrophic error for which no-one voted, for which we are quite unprepared and for which there is no majority in the House of Commons. But we cannot be put in a position where the choice is between a bad deal or no deal.
In the event that a deal were voted down by MPs, a General Election would be a possibility, and the public could be asked who should take charge of the negotiations. Since this demands that two-thirds of MPs vote for it to take place I suspect this is unlikely considering the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act introduced by the Tory-Lib Dem Coalition Government in 2011. A referendum on the deal is another option, as I have said, and Labour would campaign for this if there is not an election - the precise form of the question put to the electorate in such a referendum would obviously depend on the circumstances, but as I’m pleased that Keir Starmer stated plainly that on the Labour side we believe it would have to include the option of remaining in the EU.
It’s going to be a challenging autumn…
Funding our local NHS
If it feels as though the NHS is under pressure, that’s because it is - and nowhere is being squeezed more than we are here in Central London.
I asked the independent House of Commons Library to analyse government spending on local Clinical Commissioning Groups- responsible for ‘purchasing’ many of the hospital and community services in each area
After adjusting for inflation, Central London CCG will see funding fall from £272 million to £259 between 2016 and 2020, which is the equivalent of an 8% cut in spending per person. The figures for West London are £360m down to £343m or 6% per person.
As so many costs are fixed ones - staff and hospital buildings, it is no surprise that this adds up to real pressure on services.
Access to Justice
I chair the All Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid, and last month I introduced a debate to tie in with the Government’s review of the impact of the legislation which saw significant cut backs in legal aid cover.
You can read my debate and the Minister’s response here.
Although intended to simplify the benefits and tax credit system and ‘make work pay’, Universal Credit has proved to be a massively complicated programme to deliver and huge cuts to its funding undermined the main objectives. This week I have spoken out twice against the freeze on working age benefits, which have left low income households, in and out of employment, worse off, and the extent to which Universal Credit has trapped tenants in escalating levels of rent arrears.
I continue to work with local agencies to try and make sure we deal with local problems as quickly and easily as possible. Do please get in touch if you need assistance.
‘Tell it like it is’
‘Tell it’ started out during a troubled time in the Queen’s Park area a few years ago, when gangs and serious youth violence were causing serious problems for many young people and great worries to parents. Sadly many parents, some of who were themselves isolated and vulnerable, did not feel they had somewhere to go for support, and so ‘Tell it’ filled a need. Finding funding is tough and getting tougher and after a while the organisation lost its premises. Now, and once again with help from the Octavia Foundation, 'Tell it' is up and running at 472 Harrow Road. I was delighted to go to the opening on October 5th and welcome the effective re-launch of the organisation.
Church Street police station
One of the consequences of the £1 billion squeeze on the Met Police budget has been a programme of police station closures- with Harrow Road, Marylebone and St John’s Wood stations closed by Mayor Johnson, and more recently Paddington Green closing its doors. 'Response Policing' for Westminster shifted to Queen’s Park station over a year ago, but more recently, in a positive development, a new base for Safer Neighbourhood policing in the north of the borough has opened in Church Street. This is genuinely welcome, since it means Safer Neighbourhood teams remain located in the local community and makes it much easier to keep a visible presence.
Works started on the former Chippenham pub
Work has finally started on the Chippenham pub building, which we expect to open as a shop (possibly as a Co-Op). It is obviously a relief that this has happened as the building was both an eye-sore and dangerous (with window glass actually falling out onto the street at one point).
The reconstruction of the Carlton Tavern (owned by the same company!) is also finally underway, after it was illegally part-demolished in 2015, just days before English Heritage were going to list it as a historic building.
Whilst not every pub can, or should, be saved for its original purpose owners and developers cannot be allowed to get away with leaving buildings neglected and run down, or as happened acting illegally in the case of the Carlton.
Concerned about Anti-Social Behaviour?
The Met Police are changing the way Anti-Social Behaviour (ASB) can be reported. I have been sent this information, which you may find helpful:
The new ASB online form will be available to the public from Friday 14th September.
The form can be accessed at the link here.
There will be no change to the current ASB process, other than the method that the original report is being made by. The public can continue to report via current channels, this is simply opening up a further opportunity for them.
We are still trying to find a way to maintain the London Early Years Foundation Nursery in Macroom Road, where it shares part of the site previously used (and now being sold by) City of Westminster College. It's understandable that the College wants to realise as much from the sale of the site as possible to fund its development plans, but desperately sad that more and more public buildings are being lost in the area, making it harder and harder to sustain services and affordable homes. Here’s the story.
I’ve been working with the All Starts Boxing Club as they work hard to stay in their iconic building in the Harrow Road after long-running struggles with their landlords. The club and I are hugely grateful to the Octavia Foundation for stepping in last month and we all hope this is an important step in getting them a period of calm in which to develop their services. You can find out more about All Stars at.
And if you are interested in supporting them, there’s a fund-raising dinner and boxing show on November 16th.
St John’s Wood Post Office
Despite a big public campaign, Post Office Ltd have now confirmed their intention to close the Crown Post Office in Circus Road and move the service. This will be deeply disappointing to the many residents who have put forward a range of objections and made the case for the existing Post Office over the last two years.
As I reported previously, I worked hard to try and get an agreement between Post Office Ltd and Westminster Council, who own the current building, to see if an agreement could be reached on the rent for a new lease. Sadly it proved impossible to bridge the gap. I did write to the Government Minister responsible and am happy to pass on the full reply, but this is probably the key part:
These decisions are ultimately commercial ones for the Post Office to take as a business but when proposing such changes the Post Office runs extensive public consultation processes to give local communities the chance to inform their plans I do appreciate that a potential change to the management or location of a post office can cause concern in the local community. The Post Office's rationale for franchising post offices is to ensure continued access to Post Office services for local customers in a way that is sustainable for the long term. Moving the directly managed 'Crown' offices to retail partners has been successful throughout the UK, removing significant losses of £46 million from the business and thereby reducing the burden on taxpayers.
Thank you for reading and your comments are always welcome.
Karen Buck MP
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