B&H Lib Dems and Grassroots Europe put 5 key questions to Hilary Benn
Brighton & Hove Lib Dems have written a joint letter in conjunction with Grassroots to Europe, as follows:
LETTER TO RT. HON. HILARY BENN, MP, CHAIR
COMMITTEE ON THE FUTURE RELATIONSHIP WITH THE EUROPEAN UNION
Dear Mr Benn
GOVERNMENT'S NEGOTIATIONS WITH EUROPEAN UNION DURING TRANSITION PERIOD
The Government's response of 23rd April 2020 to a petition, "Extend the transition; delay the negotiations until after the coronavirus outbreak", included an exchange of letters between you and Mr Gove after he had appeared before your select committee. We appreciate the hard work on this incredibly complex issue that you and your committee have undertaken and we should be grateful if you would kindly follow up on our behalf some of the points raised in that correspondence.
Turning to Mr Gove's letter of 31st March 20201 and his replies to your queries2:
- Progress on the negotiations on the Future Relationship since you appeared before and your current assessment of the chances of agreement in all the areas that the UK wishes to have a relationship with the EU by the December deadline.
This question wasn't properly addressed. In his oral evidence on 27th April, Mr Gove speculated "that the odds were definitely better than 2:1".3 Noting that several negotiating texts were published on 19 May 2020,4 we still feel that Mr Gove should provide a detailed assessment of the likelihood of an outcome by December - would he do this?
We are pleased to see that David Front now has a confirmed date to appear before your Committee next Wednesday.
- The implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement, in particular the timetable for establishing the Joint Committee, the associated Specialised Committees including that for the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol, and the UK's policy for reporting on those discussions. We are aware of the importance of the work of the Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee, particularly to the people of Northern Ireland who will have to put and relevant decisions into practice and adapt in good time before the end of the transition period.
The UK is a parliamentary democracy and its citizens have a right to expect full parliamentary scrutiny of negotiations with the EU. In his letter, Mr Gove appears to assert that, since Specialised Committees cannot take decisions, their work is not open to review by Parliament. Almost a month later, Mr Gove told your Committee that the Joint Committee had met online for under an hour and discussed the setting up of the six Specialised Committees. As Nigel Mills commented, this implied that they still did not exist5. The proceedings of the Joint Committee are confidential. How can Parliament scrutinise the work of these important Committees in those circumstances? Will Mr Gove publish the proceedings of all these Committees in full?
- The arrangements the government is planning to put in place to identify goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland that may be at risk of entering the EU.
A specialised Committee is drafting the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol. Details of exactly how the Government will "maintain North-South cooperation, avoid a hard border and protect the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement" should be made available for discussion by your committee, at the very least. In particular, is the UK building customs posts along the border and hiring staff to determing "which goods are not at risk of moving to the EU"? How will VAT regulations be affected? What are the views of those living in Ireland/Northern Ireland on such arrangements? What are the considered opinions expressed by the police forces of both North and South on the risk of increased criminal and paramilitary activity?
With reference to your meeting of 27 April, would Mr Gove provide information as to when and how the devolved governments will be informed? It seems inappropriate that they rely on David Frost's tweets.6
- Government and business preparedness to implement the Future Relationship with the EU, whatever form it may take, and the mechanisms that are in place to enable the public and private sectors to consult and feedback as the negotiations progress.
Mr Gove writes that "This Government has a track record of preparedness on these matters. We were ready for Brexit on 31 January, and we successfully got it done. We will similarly be ready for the end of the transition period, and we will get that done too." We would respectfully remind Mr Gove that 31 January was merely the start of an agreed transition, and Brexit is yet to be done. The Future Relationship will rupture a vast number of UK laws, creating massive uncertainty, and exists only in a general Political Declaration. Yet the end of year deadline looms close.
By 31st March 2020, we would have expected concrete details of this preparedness, not airy assurances. Many citizens and businesses7 including foreign investors in the UK, have raised deep concerns. We would like to see Mr Gove's detailed assessment of the current position. When will the assessment be available? Who will be involved in a public consultation on the economics of the future relationship? How and when will this happen?
We should also be grateful if you would seek clarification of the government's position on human rights. Mr Gove told your committee on 27 April that the UK will not leave the European Convention on Human Rights but objects to "the means of policing our adherence to it". Would he clarify what he means by this?
- Finally, could you provide a list of the EU agencies and programmes the UK currently participates in, indicating whether the Government is seeking to continue this participation after the transition period, and on what terms?
The response to this question was wholly inadequate. Mr Gove's response failed to distinguish between EU Agencies8 and Programmes9 and gave no examples of the "existing precedents". Does he mean the Treat with Norway on the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) Agency, for instance? Norway participates in 31 EU Agencies and 12 EU Programmes.10 In light of the current situation, does te government intend to remain in the European Centre for Disease, Prevention and Conrtol - an EU Agency?11 What is the government's position regarding the PEACE PLUS Programme, which is part of an EU initiative, designed to last until 2027? We would be interested to see UK terms for remaining in this Programme and who will fund it - the EU or the UK.
Finally, we wish to raise the issue of extending the Brexit transition period beyond 31st December 2020. The UK government is indicating its intention to abandon negotiations altogether, if they cannot be tied up neatly in a red ribbon by the autumn. Hence, the UK is preparing for a dis-orderly departure at the end of 2020, i.e. a no-deal Brexit, not something that anyone voted for in 2016.
Trade is only one of the many deeply complicated areas were both sides must come to a mutually beneficial agreement. The coronavirus (Covid-19) public health emergency, and lockdown measures, have taught us how co-operation in other areas can be beneficial for the UK. The human and economic consequences of the pandemic will be immense and a majority in the UK12 would prefer the Government to focus entirely on managing these rather than inflict the additional pain of a bad/no-deal Brexit.
In his evidence on 27th April, Mr Gove makes an unsubstantiated claim that "it would cost billions id we were to extend."13 Would he justify the basis for this statement and provide a detailed estimate of the costs? We respectfully refer you to article 132 of the Withdrawal Agreement14 which details how the Transition period may be extended before 1 July 2020, by a decision of the Joint Committee, and includes provisions relating to the calculation of any payments. This will be a different calculation from the one used to calculate the UK's contribution as a Member State, and we understand it will be lower.
We trust that your committee will continue its valuable work in scrutinising Mr Gove and the negotiating team, especially on the matter of an extension to the Brexit transition period, and we hope to receive from you shortly answers to the questions posed in this letter.
Richard Wilson, Chair, Grassroots for Europe & Chair, Leeds for Europe
Caroline Brown, Brighton & Hove Liberal Democrats
Grassroots for Europe is a network of over 250 civil society groups from all around the UK, which seek to have the closest possible relationship with the European Union, and to uphold European values of democracy, human rights and rule of law.
Copy to: Members of the Committee on the Future Relationship with the EU
Office of House of Lords EU Committee
1Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to the Chair, 31 March 2020.
2Chair to Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, 20 March 2020
3As above, Oral Evidence Michael Gove 27 April 2020 Q162
5As above, Oral Evidence Michael Gove 27 April 2020 Q161
6As above, Oral Evidence Michael Gove 27 April 2020 Q218
7See for example, The Freight Transport Association https://fta.co.uk/media/press-releases/2020/march/logistics-needs-transition-extenstion-to-counter-co ; Walpole (luxury brands) https://thewalpole.co.uk/news/walpole-wanrs-6-8-billion-loss-no-deal-brexit/ ; American Chamber of Commerce in Europe Position paper - Negotiating the path to the future EU-UK partnership: a cross-sectoral view from American companies https://www.amchameu.eu/position-papers/negotiating-path-future-eu-uk-partnership-cross-sectoral-view-american-companies
8There are 48 EU Agencies - listed here: https://europa.eu/european-union/about-eu/agencies_en#type=of=agencies
9There are 52 EU Programmes - listed here: https://ec.europa.eu/info/funding-tenders/funding-opportunities/funding-programmes/overview-funding-programmes_en
12Best for Britain and Hope Not Hate poll https://www.bestforbritain.org/report-extend-transition?
13As above, Oral Evidence Michael Gove 27 April 2020 Q209
14Agreement on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from the European Union and the European Atomic Energy Community https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=uriserv:OJ.L_.2020.029.02.0007.01.ENG&toc=OJ:L:2020:029:TOC#d1e6017-7-1