The UK’s transition period with the European Union came to an end on 31 December.
Four and a half years after the Brexit referendum, and after three years of detailed negotiations, the UK Government finally agreed a deal on Christmas Eve.
Parliament was recalled on 30 December to vote on a hastily drafted bill which would give force to the deal in UK law. We had a total of five hours to debate and vote on this bill before it went to the House of Lords and then finally was given Royal Assent, in the early hours of 31 December.
I could not vote to support this bill and I wanted to explain why.
The first issue was the lack of opportunity to scrutinise the deal and the bill itself. The irony is that, for some, Brexit was about taking back control of our laws (although the majority of our laws were decided by the UK Parliament) and yet we rushed through this huge constitutional change in an extraordinarily short period of time with most MPs having only 3 minutes to speak. Even a number of Conservative MPs felt the correct approach would have been to allow a more detailed analysis of the detailed implications of the bill at a later stage. The EU Parliament will not be scrutinising the deal until later this year.
The agreement document was over 2000 pages long and the bill itself was only published in the afternoon of 29 December. It is a complex bill to scrutinise at short notice because it makes many references and changes to a series of existing statutes.
I have particular concerns about the impact of the deal on Northern Ireland in both its cross-border trade with the Republic of Ireland and with Great Britain. The Good Friday Agreement took years to negotiate and deliver peace to the island of Ireland. It concerns me that Northern Ireland is facing, effectively, trade barriers with increased paperwork on goods moving to and from the rest of the UK.
On security measures the deal was woeful. As a Home Office Minister in the late 1990s I was negotiating for access to EU databases, including the Schengen Information System II (often referred to as SIS II) and other security cooperation and mutual legal aid. We now find we have no access to the more than 91 million records on SIS II, are outside the European Arrest Warrant and Europol. These all helped keep the UK more secure. It is reckless that the Government did not secure a deal on these issues. There will now be a long slow process of trying to recreate some of these partnerships in negotiation with the 27 individual member states and the EU.
There are many other areas of concern, including visa requirements for people who previously were able to easily collaborate in the creative arts from music to theatre. And, of course, the deal does not cover services only goods. Many local businesses have already been opening up offices in the EU meaning job losses in the UK. Other smaller businesses are unable to do this and so now face barriers to working in the EU.
For these reasons I could not vote for the bill. Although I did not like the deal, I was relieved that a no deal exit was not on the cards. But I could not in conscience vote for the bill, which is why I abstained.
I remain a proud European and will be seeking to maintain links with EU partners alongside other MPs.
Hackney and London are home to many thousands of EU citizens and there are multiple cultural, social, and business links between Hackney and EU member states. I celebrate these links and will do anything I can to champion cooperation with the EU in the UK’s interests. Hackney may have now left the European Union but we will always remain European.