We Need To Ensure We Anchor The Rights Of Our Workforce In The Bill

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I spoke in the debate on the EU Withdrawal Bill about the need to amend the Bill to enshrine workplace rights and give Parliament say on EEA membership. EEA and EFTA would give unfettered single market access, opportunity to reform free movement, no European Court of Justice jurisdiction & ability to strike trade deals. 

Stephen Kinnock: I would like to speak in favour of new clause 2 and new clause 58, which have been tabled by those on the Labour Front Bench.

There is an idea that we should be giving the Government the benefit of the doubt on these issues. There have, however, been so many statements and acts from those on the Government Benches to undermine employment rights, from the Trade Union Act 2016 to many other measures, that we need to ensure we anchor the rights of our workforce in the Bill.

The Exiting the European Union Committee met Mr Barnier in Brussels last week. One point he made very clearly is that as we move towards a future relationship, the so-called deep and comprehensive free trade agreement will need to be ratified by the Parliaments of the member states, plus a number of regional Parliaments. They will not accept anything that he described as “social dumping”—they will not accept undercutting and they will not accept unfair regulatory practice—so if the Government are serious about getting a deep and comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU they will have to recognise that regulatory equivalence will have to be a critical part of it. This is about not only securing rights in this country, but the economic interests of the country if we are serious about having that future relationship.

Kenneth Clarke: I entirely endorse what the hon. Gentleman says about a free trade agreement with the European Union requiring regulatory equivalence. Actually, this is not a uniquely European thing or a malicious Brussels proposal. Modern trade agreements in a globalised economy all depend, more than anything else, on mutual recognition or regulatory convergence in the sectors where free trade is going to be allowed.

Stephen Kinnock: The right hon. and learned Gentleman is, as always, absolutely correct. We need to recognise the umbilical cord connecting the regulatory playing fields to the trade agreements because of the nature of unfair competition and unfair practice. None of the EU member states will accept such agreements without that. What was particularly interesting about what Mr Barnier said was that the comprehensive trade discussions will be on the basis of article 218 of the treaty, which requires ratification by 27 member state Parliaments and eight regional Parliaments. The level of scrutiny, therefore, will be even greater under the future relationship than under the transitional relationship, which we know will be a carbon copy of the status quo, including on ECJ jurisdiction. I think the Government have accepted that, although there seems to be an attempt to wriggle out of some aspects. The fact remains, however, that a transition deal will be a carbon copy of the status quo.​

I support new clause 22 wholeheartedly. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) made an outstanding speech outlining the virtues of the EEA. I would like to build on her remarks. Let us accept that we have to leave the single market and the customs union. I would argue that the EEA and EFTA are not in fact the single market and the customs union. It is possible to join those two bodies and still deliver on the Government’s wish to leave the single market and the customs union. The EEA does not include the common agricultural policy or the common fisheries policy. It also allows for the exclusion of free movement of labour. Articles 112 and 113 of the EEA agreement provide for an emergency brake on the basis of economic and societal issues. There is even a legal precedent for one EEA country setting industry-by-industry quotas on the free movement of labour. The EEA-EFTA model would enable the Government to square the circle between not wrecking the British economy by cutting off all our links with 500 million consumers on our doorstep while still delivering on many of the legitimate concerns expressed during the referendum campaign on the free movement of labour.

I would add that EFTA is not, of course, a customs union; it is a free trade area, and it is possible, on that basis, to do bilateral trade deals with other countries, which is not possible through full membership of the customs union. Iceland, for example, an EFTA member, has a bilateral free trade agreement with China. There is nothing to prevent EFTA countries from striking those deals.

The other argument sometimes used concerns the jurisdiction of the ECJ. Of course, hon. Members will know that the EEA and EFTA are under the jurisdiction of the EFTA arbitration court. If the UK were to join the court, it would give the court considerable extra clout, which would help to rebalance the relationship with the ECJ. The court does, of course, take much steer and guidance from the ECJ, but it is not slavishly attached to it, and if the UK were to be in it, it would provide a significant degree of autonomy.

Sir William Cash: I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman could explain how often, and in what circumstances, the arbitration court has departed from the decision making and precedence of the ECJ.

Stephen Kinnock: This is a clear case of a “before and after” conversation. The court would be substantially altered were the UK to have judges on it. It would be a category shift in the role of the court. It would require negotiation, of course, but I am offering an opportunity to square the circle in terms of the many contrasts, conflicts and competing agendas around the delivery of a Brexit that works for the whole country and delivers for the millions of people who voted in the referendum and who are not ideologues on one side or the other. They want this Parliament to get on with the job and to deliver a Brexit that works for the whole country, and indeed helps to reunite our country. In that spirit, new clause 22 is so important and offers so much.

There is much conversation about models. The Canada model does not include services, while the Ukraine model is new and untested. The EEA/EFTA model is ​well established and well understood. It would give our business community and our economy the certainty that they so desperately need.

Sir Desmond Swayne: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Stephen Kinnock: I will not, as so many Members want to speak. I am afraid that I must make progress.

I want to close my remarks by saying that we are in a hiatus that is deeply damaging to the British economy. We are drifting and rudderless. We are floating in a mist of ambiguity and indecision on the part of the Government, because they refuse to set out the road map to our future relationship. We know that there is not time to do that bespoke deal and that we need a well established and well understood deal off the shelf. We also know that it is necessary to trigger article 127 of the EEA agreement to leave the EEA, because we signed up to that agreement as a single and sovereign contracting party.

Legal opinion is divided on the issue. Therefore, it becomes political. It is time for the House to show some leadership, have the debate about our future relationship with the single market and take back control in this sovereign Parliament. I therefore commend new clause 22 to the Committee.