On the 11th December, Parliament will vote on the framework for Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. It is utterly extraordinary that two and a half years after the referendum and with only 18 weeks until the end of the Article 50 period, we find ourselves in this mess. To crash out of the EU with ‘no deal’ would be a disaster, yet the deal on offer is unacceptable and will leave Britain poorer. Yet these are being presented as the only alternatives. I don’t think this is acceptable and that, first Parliament, and then the public need to have the opportunity to choose a different way forward.
How we got here…
Most of my constituents know that I have always believed that Brexit would be a disaster and that no possible deal could replicate the advantages of our remaining in the EU. That is why I campaigned for a ‘Remain’ vote and voted against the triggering of Article 50, which locked us into a ridiculous timescale for the complicated process of negotiating withdrawal. And whilst I respect the deeply held views of many people who voted to leave, the fact remains that the ‘Leave’ campaign was based on a raft of promises which could never realistically be delivered, and a false prospectus was put before the British people. There was the possibility, in the aftermath of the referendum, that we could aim for a ‘soft Brexit’, which kept us in the Customs Union and Single Market, for example. But this was never the aspiration of the ‘hard Brexiteers’ who now have such dominance on the Government’s side. So two years have gone by whilst they tried to square the circle of avoiding damaging the economy whilst ‘taking back control’ from Brussels, and without ever being clear what that means. It is now obvious that they have failed.
The Withdrawal Agreement we have before us exposes all those contradictions. It is, of course, only the first stage of the process, so it has always been essential that it sets out a firm framework for the future relationship. It does not do this.
The ‘Political Declaration’ governing the future relationship, which is not legally binding and has to be taken on trust, was initially just 7 pages long, revised to 26, but still incredibly vague- which is why it is asking us to agree to a ‘Blind Brexit’. So it lays open the prospect of the hardest of Brexits at the end of the transition period, which does not protect jobs, rights or living standards. Despite the considerable length of the ‘Withdrawal Agreement’, it is asking us to take a leap into the unknown.
So what is wrong with what is on offer?
It won’t protect jobs or the economy
It won’t deliver frictionless trade. It does not include plans for a permanent customs union – which is vital to protect manufacturing. It is vague on the issue of services, which are the larger part of our economy, the political declaration only seeks the bare minimum – (“beyond…WTO commitments”) and on areas such as financial services it offers no firm mechanism to protect the industry.
In the backstop period there will be significant barriers to trade for firms in Great Britain. This is because Great Britain (though not Northern Ireland) will be out of Single Market regulations for goods, and the whole of the UK will be out of the Single Market for services.
We now have the latest assessments of the economic impact of the deal, as well.
It will weaken rights and protections
It only provides for a’ no-worsening’ clause for workers’ rights and the environment, which means that we can fall behind the EU as rights develop in future; that a future government could strip away important EU-derived rights and protections – such as TUPE, equal rights for agency workers and paid holidays – so long as the UK Government can argue that the overall “level” remains as per the moment of exit, and it will be very difficult to enforce. Claimants would no longer be able to argue that a specific right or protection has been violated, but instead would need to make a more abstract argument that a “level” had been reduced.
As the TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said:
“The Government has failed to achieve a Brexit deal that delivers for working people in this country. What’s on offer is a blindfold Brexit. It doesn’t guarantee jobs or rights at work into the future. And it leaves the door open for extreme Brexiteers who want to strip away the protections we already have.”
It undermines the integrity of the United Kingdom
The backstop proposes a different constitutional settlement for the UK to the rest of Great Britain, which inevitably raises the potential of further pressure to break up the union from elsewhere, particularly in Scotland.
It doesn’t contain the measures we need to ensure our security
There is no separate security arrangement proposed for the backstop period. That means that following transition (proposed to end on 31st December 2020), existing security arrangements would fall away.
The Political Declaration also suggests that the Government has given up on key common EU security arrangements – including the European Arrest Warrant arrangements (it speaks only of negotiating “swift and effective arrangements” on extradition, not remaining within the EAW) and it makes no clear commitment to main current arrangements in Europol and Eurojust.
It fails to keep the UK in common EU agencies and to ensure close cooperation
The Political Declaration relies on incredibly vague aspirations such as achieving “dialogue and exchange in areas of shared interest” and “consideration of appropriate arrangements” – not firm commitments to retain membership or equivalent arrangements in a whole raft of agencies and programmes we would want to remain in (e.g. Erasmus, the EMA, EASA, Horizon 2020).
It offers no certainty over future immigration rules
The Political Declaration contains just two vague sentences and no detail beyond committing to “reciprocity”. This is an extraordinary lack of detail on what was a central issue during the referendum.
This is why I raised my concerns during the Prime Minister’s Parliamentary statement on November 22nd
Please find the link to the video clip here
This is not a deal I can accept.
And, although this is an incredibly fluid and fast moving situation, it doesn’t seem as if the Government has any chance of getting a majority in Parliament.
What other options are there?
I also know that leaving with ‘no deal’ would trigger the greatest crisis for this country in modern times – the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, has even said he can’t guarantee people would not die as a result! This cannot and must not be regarded as a serious option. (This BBC guide to what ‘no deal’ means in practice is very useful)
Some constituents have written to me to say that ‘the public voted for a ‘no deal’ Brexit when supporting leave at the referendum
I don’t accept that. People voted ‘leave’ for a number of reasons, to do with Europe itself, concerns about immigration, worries about a loss of local and national identify and (as new research from the LSE has confirmed) as a response to austerity and public spending cuts having a severe negative impact on their communities. None of these concerns should be dismissed and all must be engaged with. But, even setting aside some of highly misleading information put out during the campaign, messages were very mixed about what leave would mean. Boris Johnson was only one amongst senior ‘leave supporters’ who insisted that Britain could and should remain in the Single Market.
We can’t accept that this is a straight choice between a bad deal and no deal
The deal in front of us represents the worst of all worlds- a loss of say and of influence for an uncertain future. Leaving without a deal would be a catastrophe. We need to reject these two options, seek a much stronger relationship in the future than the vague ‘political declaration’ offers- such as retention of the Customs Union and Single Market (‘Norway+) and let the public have their say.
If Parliament does vote this down in a few weeks, the only and right option is to give the public the final say on Brexit in a People’s Vote, in which the choice includes staying in the EU.
I believe people are much better informed about the options and the constraints than was the case in 2016. Of course there is a risk involved, but no options now are risk free and I believe this is the only way forward. This doesn’t mean it is an easy option-it isn’t. It doesn’t mean the result is certain- it isn’t. And there will also be important issues of timing and sequencing to consider which MPs may have to consider during the voting process in early December. I will do my best to navigate these in accordance with the principles I have set out here, and to report back to constituents as soon as possible.
Also in Parliament
Over the last few weeks I’ve continued to raise other issues in Parliament, as well as meeting constituents, dealing with problems raised with me, and liaising with the agencies delivering services to the community.
Here are some of the debates I have taken part in, and questions I have asked
As the Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid, access to justice is one of my key concerns. You can read my contribution to the debate on Legal Aid in late October here.
Human Rights Committee
This is the major Parliamentary committee I sit on – you can read all about our current work here.
We’ve been looking at the use of restraint and solitary confinement in Youth Detention.
We are also now taking evidence on immigration detention, which follows up from the work done in response to the Windrush scandal earlier this year.
I was very pleased to take part in a public meeting/discussion on the action we must take to tackle the air quality crisis, held at Imperial College at the end of October.
We covered a number of issues, from the Low Emission zone and the importance of promoting alternatives to cars in the city, to diesel scrappage schemes. You can read the highlights of the debate here.
Ultra Low Emission Zone
As one of the essential steps towards improving air quality, Sadiq Khan is introducing a new ‘Ultra Low Emissions Zone’ which comes into effect in central London in April. Drivers will need to be prepared for it- here is some more information:
Final preparations are being made to launch the central London Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) in four months’ time.
The ULEZ will require vehicles driving into central London to meet new emissions standards or pay a daily charge. The scheme will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, within the existing Congestion Charging Zone, in addition to the existing Congestion Charge. London’s toxic air is one of the biggest health challenges of this generation. Around half of London’s air pollution is caused by road transport and the ULEZ is one of a range of measures to clean it up.
This week, the first signs on the zone boundary have been installed and a total of more than 300 will be fitted in total. We are working behind the scenes to ensure our systems are tested and ready to support a seamless launch.
Our other priority is to ensure that anyone affected by the ULEZ is aware of their options and able to take appropriate action. We have a major pan-London marketing campaign underway and are using all the channels at our disposal to reach drivers.
Today we are sharing a new leaflet as a simple guide to ULEZ for stakeholders, businesses and individuals. A PDF version is attached and we have hard copies available.
We particularly want people to visit our online vehicle checker at tfl.gov.uk/ulez to see instantly if their vehicles comply with the new standards.
If they do not comply, we want to encourage them to make a plan and take action now to avoid paying the charge. This could include buying or leasing a compliant vehicle and/or changing how they make trips, for example by using public transport, walking or cycling. The scheme also has a number of discounts and exemptions for particular road users. More details can be found at tfl.gov.uk/ulez.
Universal Credit Roll Out So Far
As many people are aware, the introduction of Universal Credit nationally has been far from a seamless process and there are continued complications for many claimants. Last month I spoke out about the impact Universal Credit has had on tenants. This was following research from the Residential Landlords Association which found that two thirds of private landlords are concerned about Universal Credit tenants falling into arrears, and that the average arrears owed has doubled in the last year.
I remain concerned about elements of the online system through which claimants are required to supply information and open their claims. We have seen that opening a new claim is still the biggest problem for people using UC and this has been no different in Westminster since the roll out in summer.
There has, however, undoubtedly been progress since Universal Credit first rolled out in certain areas of the UK in 2016. What I have heard from fellow MPs and people working in the welfare & benefits sector is that effective local partnerships is one of the key ways claimants can be provided with necessary assistance with making that initial claim and complications which may arise down the line.
I am working with the Marylebone Job Centre Plus, Westminster Council’s Housing Benefit Department, Citizen’s Advice Bureau Westminster and a host of other advocacy groups and social landlords to ensure that we can flag any individual cases where further assistance is required. I am pleased with the responses we have had from work coaches and advisors so far when we have raised cases with them and I would encourage anyone experiencing difficulty with their UC claim to contact me so that we can make sure you receive help in ironing out any issues.
Changes to Housing Options in Westminster
The Homelessness Reduction Act (HRA) came into force on Tuesday 3 April 2018. During its passage through the House of Commons I spoke in favour of the measures aimed at preventing people from becoming homelessness and going into emergency or temporary accommodation.
My feeling at the time was that against the backdrop of the continued sell off of public and social housing the HRA would be equivalent to running up a down escalator. Unfortunately the struggle to provide decent social housing in London has continued without any real improvements.
However, the requirement for Local Authorities to target the causes of homelessness is a welcome step and this week saw another service open in Westminster to provide advice on prevention and assistance with homeless applications for families.
Following the introduction of ‘The Passage’ as a contact point for single homeless applicants last year, Westminster Council have now (November 28th) opened the Housing Solutions Families Service at 82 Bruckner Street. As with the other 9 outreach services currently operating at various locations across the borough, this is run in partnership with Shelter who can help to provide expert advice and referrals when necessary.
Any family who is homeless or at risk of homelessness and who wishes to make a homeless application will now be able to access Westminster Council’s new Housing Solutions Family Service and can do so in the following ways;
a. Online Self-Assessment form. This is accessed through Westminster’s City Council’s website. Once submitted, the document is sent directly to an officer who should then contact the applicant to arrange an in-person appointment.
b. Referral from a Public Authority. Under the new Duty to Refer, certain public authorities must notify the Council when they become aware of a household that is homeless or threatened with homelessness.
c. Contact Centre. Westminster Council’s contact centre team can arrange appointments for families who require assistance or who wish to make an application.
d. Visiting 82 Bruckner Street. Families are welcome to visit the new service where they will be met by a member of the team to establish how WCC can help. There are self-help kiosks available where families can access self-assessment forms and also other useful information about the service. Anyone visiting Bruckner St in an emergency homelessness situation will be seen by the duty team.
*Single applicants should still approach The Passage: 020 7592 1850, St Vincent’s Centre, Carlisle Place, London SW1P 1NL.
If anyone experiences any difficulty in accessing assistance and advice at this service or anywhere else, please do not hesitate to contact me.
Local round up
With progress finally now being made on the Chippenham pub (an eyesore for an unacceptably long time) residents have expressed understandable concerns the former Warwick Castle and Neeld Arms pubs on the Harrow Road itself. No one wants to see buildings left empty, especially with a housing crisis, and neither do we want the visual impact of dilapidated or boarded up buildings.
Councillor Roca has pursued this and says:
“In regards to the Windsor we understand the Council has accepted evidence of a demand for student housing so the developers expect to get planning permission for their current scheme. Part of the scheme is to give the ground floor front of the Windsor Castle an A1/A3 alternative use (for a shop, café, restaurant etc). When the previous freehold owner sold it, they put on a restrictive covenant preventing it reopening as a pub.
You’ll also know that sadly the Squirrel (Skiddaw) has also closed for refurbishment but we worry this will never happen. An application to have this listed as an Asset of Community Value was declined last year.
We are also waiting for a response from the Council on the former Neeld Arms, and (in Queen’s Park) on the state of play as regards the now closed Jubilee Sports Centre.
St John’s Wood Society and the South East Bayswater Residents Association
It was good to get along to the St John’s Wood Society AGM in late October and to talk about some of the local issues (not least policing concerns). A lovely tribute was paid to Sir Hugh Cortazzi at the meeting. Sir Hugh was a former ambassador but more recently built a deserved reputation as a scourge of the monster basement excavations which plagued the area for many years.
The South East Bayswater Residents Association shares with the St John’s Wood Society the distinction of being one of the most effective amenity societies in London (and both deservedly enjoy big attendances at their meetings as a result.
Royal Oak coaches
Concerns have been raised about the possibility of Royal Oak being a site for a new coach station when Victoria closes. Ward councillors and I are very clear that this is not an appropriate site and are in touch with Transport for London to communicate that. (Our comment is here)
The Deputy Mayor of London for Transport has responded to us this week saying:
As you may be aware, from 2023, parts of the existing coach facility at Victoria Coach Station will become unavailable to coaches as various leases expire. To prepare for this, TfL has begun looking at alternative coach facilities around London.
The Mayor’s Transport Strategy (MTS), published earlier this year, explains that Transport for London (TfL) will be working with stakeholders to identify and deliver replacement facilities for Victoria Coach Station through the provision of one or more hubs.
I can assure you that the work to replace the coach station is still at a very early stage. TfL is looking at a wide range of potential options across London that would achieve the MTS aims while providing a good service for coach passengers and operators. Given the complexities of coach operations in London, this is a substantial piece of work.
Nurseries and children with special needs
The Portman nursery in Church Street, working with the Serpentine Gallery, held a special conference at Regent’s College where parents of children with special needs spoke movingly about their struggles and how important the services were to them. I was invited to go along and do an introduction to the session, having spent a number of years chairing Westminster’s Early Years development Partnership.
This year’s Remembrance Day events were, of course, especially poignant, as they mark 100 years since the end of the horrors of World War 1. In addition to the massive and ceremonial event at Westminster Abbey, it was lovely to see the newly revived Paddington event in Lancaster Gate so well attended. Sometimes local events in Westminster are squeezed out by our position at the heart of the capital city and it is really important that we try and make sure that all our communities and neighbourhoods are represented.
Hundreds of people turn out for the annual awards ceremony of the London Tigers, which this year took place in Porchester Hall. Its always good to have the Tigers back on home turf given that they started on the Lisson Green estate, although now operate across London and beyond. I joined local councillors and others in giving out awards, not just for sport but in recognition of all the voluntary work and community development Tigers do, with women, with young people and on public health
Find out more about them here.
Latest Government figures for fly-tipping, released in early November, reveal that, despite a very small dip last year, the trend has now been upward over a number of years.
For the 2017/18 year, local authorities in England dealt with just under 1 million (998,000) fly-tipping incidents,a slight decrease of 1% from the 1,011,000 reported in 2016/17, following annual increases since 2013/14.
Westminster reported a staggering 13890 incidents last year, the 14th highest in the country, out of 325 councils (although some other badly hit areas, such as Birmingham) are much bigger. Enforcement action was taken in 7111 cases. It is estimated that fly tipping costs the country over £57 million a year, as well as making the area look unpleasant and uncared for, so it is really important that we get a grip of it.
One particularly bad site in Shirland Road has been improved by the Council after a long campaign – the bins have been moved and ‘planter’ put in place to stop dumping on a wide area of pavement where the bins stood previously. Such ideas are sensible and need to be pursued elsewhere, because what we don’t want is the problem then just to move elsewhere!
Westminster Citizens Advice Bureau
I was really pleased to host the Westminster Citizen’s Advice Bureau Annual meeting in Parliament two weeks ago. The CAB staff and volunteers do a great job, especially given the rising pressures of debt and homelessness and the problematic introduction of Universal Credit. Last year, they helped 12,050 individuals with a range of problems, with disability benefit issues being the most common.
Supporting North Paddington Food Bank
Last Saturday I joined other volunteers outside the Co-op in Harrow Road collecting for the North Paddington Food Bank- the Co-op have been big supporters and we are grateful for their help. Demand is rising and stocks are never adequate, so any help you can give to the Food Bank would be appreciated – and please spread the word.
Thank you for reading and your comments are always welcome.
Karen Buck MP