South Wales Evening Post
‘Taking back control’ was at the very heart of the argument to leave the EU, but unfortunately Theresa May's shambolic approach means that six months on from the referendum we are still none the wiser when it comes to the type of Brexit the UK government is planning to negotiate. It is therefore high time that the Prime Minister brings her plan to Parliament. The British people need and deserve to know how their government is planning to handle this immensely complex process, arguably the most important political challenge since the Second World War.
And the only way in which we are going to get that clarity is if Parliament is given the opportunity to debate, scrutinise and vote on the government's proposals. That’s why it was right for the Labour Party to force the Government to present its Brexit plan to Parliament, before Article 50 is invoked. If we really want to take back control, then surely that has got to start with a re-affirmation of the sovereignty of our own Parliament?
Exiting the EU could have been an opportunity for democratic empowerment – a means of rebuilding trust in our politics and institutions, and of healing the wounds that this deeply divisive referendum inflicted on communities across the length and breadth of our country. Instead what we have witnessed is the unedifying spectacle of an over-bearing executive seeking to seize control by unilaterally imposing its version of Brexit on the British people.
But let’s be clear: the Labour Party's position is emphatically not about threatening to block the triggering of Article 50. We are not interested in holding the Government to ransom, we simply want to hold the Government to account. Our point is that Parliament must be fully engaged in the Brexit process because it is the democratic voice of the entire country. Parliament is not there to merely represent the interests of the 52% who voted Leave, or the 48% who voted Remain. It is there to represent the interests of the 100%.
Whilst I and almost all of my Labour colleagues in Parliament campaigned passionately for Remain, we are above all else a democrats, and we absolutely accept and respect the result of the referendum. The British people (in including 57% in Neath Port Talbot) voted to leave the EU, and leave we must. But we must ensure that in doing so we secure the best possible deal for Britain, for Wales and for Aberavon.
To achieve that we need to see three principals at the heart of the Government’s proposals:
1. Protect Markets
To mitigate the negative impact and build for a prosperous future, we will need as much access to our biggest and nearest export market as possible.
Nobody voted on the 23 June to make our economy weaker, so the Government must pursue a plan that seeks maximum access to the single market in goods, services and capital. Our economic future relies on that. After all, we know that much of the UK’s £17 billion of foreign direct investment depends on our tariff free access to a market of 500 million consumers.
2. Free Movement
Despite local immigration levels being low it didn’t stop immigration being raised locally during the campaign. The referendum had a clear message: the limitless nature of freedom of movement, despite its proven economic benefits, is not socially and politically sustainable.
What is evident is that we can no longer support limitless freedom of movement as our society doesn’t have the social, economic or political capacity to make it sustainable.
One way of doing this would be to create a preferential, three tier immigration system. Tier one would be for students and highly qualified and skilled global talent, tier two for EU citizens with specific skills and salaries well above the average, and tier three would be for low and semi-skilled EU workers, coming to the UK for jobs at the lower end of the salary scale. Tier three number requirements would be set on a sector-by-sector basis, through a dialogue between industry, trade unions and government. This ‘gap analysis’ would enable the setting of credible targets for the amount of immigration required across each sector. This strategic, needs-based framework for immigration should then be underpinned by a points-based entry system, leading to the granting of work permits through employment contracts, which would be the pre-condition for entering as a migrant EU worker.
Many believe that taking such a position on immigration would limit our ability to secure unfettered access to the single market. I do not believe this to be the case. If you look across Europe you see many governments who are struggling with the immigration issue. If Theresa May were to adopt a more creative and ambitious negotiating strategy I believe that she could persuade her counterparts to commit to an EU-wide reform of immigration, which in turn would enable us to get a good deal on single market access.
3. Guarantee Structural Funds Past 2020
For years, the EU has contributed an enormous amount of investment in Wales. All in all, EU structural funds and the common agricultural policy deliver well over half a billion pounds a year, in addition to money from other key funding areas such as higher education, culture and urban development.
Infrastructure built with EU funding is creating jobs and easier access for people and business, including through the Harbour Way road network, the new Port Talbot Parkway station and our town centre. That investment has helped to develop skills, funding 4,885 apprenticeships and 1,360 traineeships for young people, as well as programmes that have led to local people gaining 14,860 qualifications, which has prepared them for work. It has backed world-class industrial excellence in south Wales by being a principal backer of Swansea University’s bay campus. Workways+ is a project that helps long-term unemployed people and people with complex needs to develop the skills and qualifications that will help them into paid positions.
In reality, the situation in Port Talbot, Aberavon and across Wales calls for far more investment to accelerate our recovery from decades of under-investment in the face of the impact of globalisation and deindustrialisation.
Despite repeated requests for a commitment to full continued funding, so far the Government have pledged only to continue funding agreed EU-funded projects until 2020. This is only one additional year after we are scheduled to leave the European Union in March 2019. The Government have made zero assurances that funding will be retained after 2020.
If investment in Wales is not maintained, vital projects will go under, followed by businesses. People will lose jobs, and unemployment and welfare bills will shoot up. Communities will fracture. Port Talbot and its people have been through enough. That does not have to be our future.
Brexit is plainly the beginning of a new era for the UK, Wales and Aberavon. It is a huge step into the unknown. The challenges are greater than anything faced by the UK in the last 70 years, that this government has more power to re-shape our society than any before it, that it has no specific democratic mandate for the forthcoming negotiations, and no coherent strategy for securing and advancing the wellbeing of the UK.
It is therefore good news that the Government has been forced to bring its plan to Parliament in the New Year, where it will receive the scrutiny that a decision of this magnitude so desperately and urgently needs. It will also end the months of uncertainty that we have seen since June. Let us hope that by the time the government triggers Article 50 in March the UK, Wales and Aberavon will have a clearer understanding of where we are heading.