Mr Redwood’s contribution to the debate on Exiting the EU and Workers’ Rights, 8 November 2016

John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): I admire the passion and enthusiasm of the hon. Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis), but I would like him to reflect a little on what I put to him in an intervention: this is a unique moment in the House of Commons where Government and Opposition are completely united on something very fundamental. I strongly believe my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Government he speaks for when they assure us that every right directly deriving from European law into the United Kingdom will be faithfully transferred into UK law and will be safe all the time they are governing this country from this Front Bench—and should the public decide at some point in the future to replace this Government with a Labour Government, I am quite sure they will offer exactly the same assurance.

It seems to me that we have for once got a wonderful understanding or agreement between the two parties. So I just ask the Labour party to understand that sometimes they have won—that sometimes they are in agreement with the Conservatives, and, as disagreeable as they may find that, surely it is cause for celebration that both main parties wish to advance employee rights, and have absolutely no wish to undermine employee rights that currently come from the EU and wish to offer the legal framework to protect them. So I repeat again: will the Labour party now agree to welcome and support the great reform Bill when it shows on the face of the Bill that all those crucial rights—not just the worker rights, but the environmental rights and the others they have mentioned—will be transferred?

Geraint Davies (Swansea West) (Lab): But does the right hon. Gentleman not accept that if businesses face higher costs through tariffs and Britain wants to attract international inward investment platforming into Europe, it will move towards reducing costs in respect of public health and the environment and, in particular, workers’ rights, which are currently guaranteed through the European Court of Justice but will no longer be guaranteed other than in a sort of gentleman’s agreement here which is not sustainable in law?

John Redwood: I think this high court of Parliament—this great legislature of ours—is quite capable of defending workers’ rights, and I do not believe the Government will get very far if they first promise the British people that they will guarantee all those rights and then a year later turn around and say they are not going to. I have got some pretty difficult colleagues on this side of the House who would also object rather strongly to that. If I have given my word to my electors that all those rights will be transferred, the Whips are not going to find it very easy to get me to vote against them, but I do not believe I am going to have to, because I am quite sure I believe the Secretary of State and there is absolutely no reason to assume something else is going to happen.

I would like to begin, Madam Deputy Speaker, in an uncharacteristic way by praising both the Speaker and the Deputy Speakers of this House for having shown in the run-up to the referendum that they have been able to grant time and make sure the voices of the minority were heard over a very sensitive and explosive public debate. As part of the leave minority in this House—we were rather a modest minority in terms of numbers; we were very outgunned in terms of weight of office and numbers of votes and the amount of material coming forward from both the Government and Opposition Front Bench—I am very grateful for the way the Speaker and the House authorities made sure we had our chance to make our case. If that had not happened, I think the public would have felt their Parliament was completely out of touch, because we now know that we on the leave side spoke for 52% of those voting in the referendum, a massive 17.4 million people, and it is important that our Parliament stays topical and is able to take the minority view in here because it might be the majority view out there.

I am equally sure, Madam Deputy Speaker, that you and the Speaker will make sure, now that the tables have been turned and we know the majority in the country is with the leave side, that there will be plenty of opportunity for those who wish to represent the views of the significant remain minority and make sure their legitimate worries are considered and taken into account in the longish process that will follow as the Government, after sending in the article 50 letter, start the negotiations on our future arrangement once we are again an independent country having a series of crucial working relationships, collaborations, agreements and trade arrangements with our former partners in the EU.

We hear from Labour all the time that the Government are not coming clean about the negotiating aims. I find that very difficult to understand. We have heard tonight, on the matter that most concerns Labour MPs, an absolutely definitive statement. Question: “Are our employment rights at any risk?” Answer: “No, they are not if you vote for the repeal Bill.” Question: “Are other rights at risk?” Answer: “No, they are not because they are all being transferred by that same repeal Bill.”

Turning to the question of the high-level aims, Labour have a perfectly reasonable point when they say, “Of course the Government must explain the high-level aims” while also agreeing that the Government cannot provide a running commentary or give the intermediate or fall-back positions in a negotiation as that would be crazy. But Labour always say they have not heard the high-level aims, yet I think we have already heard them so let me have another go at explaining them. The aim is to take back control. The aim is to make sure all the laws that apply to UK citizens are made in this Parliament, not in Europe. The aim is to ensure legal continuity with all current laws that come from Europe being transferred, for obvious reasons. The aim is to make sure we control our borders. The aim is to make sure we control our own taxes and spending plans. The aim is that we take back those controls so that we can again be a sovereign Parliament representing a sovereign people. What is so difficult to understand?

The issues that we will have to discuss with our partners are mainly about trade and future collaborations in a number of areas, and as the Prime Minister has rightly said, that will be a grown-up discussion between a country taking back control of its laws and policies and a group of other countries working together in what they wish to advance as a monetary and political union. It will be a free and fair negotiation where I think, in the end, when angers have cooled and tempers calmed down, our friends on the continent will understand that tariff-free—and reasonably-free—trade makes even more sense for them than it does for us, and that surely is the aim we are trying to achieve.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): The right hon. Gentleman refers to the great repeal Bill, which is in essence the great download and save Bill for day one of Brexit. Who controls the delete key thereafter as far as these rights and key standards are concerned? Is it, as he implies, this House? Would any removal of rights have to be done by primary legislation, or could it be done by ministerial direction? And where is the position of the devolved Administrations in this? These matters are devolved competencies; will they be devolved on day one?

John Redwood: I hope they will be devolved in good time.

Mark Durkan: In good time?

John Redwood: Why does the hon. Gentleman laugh? The Government are engaged—I think, again, in good faith—in an earnest discussion with the devolved Assemblies and Parliaments of the United Kingdom. I presume that quite shortly after the powers have returned, they will be properly devolved. As to the question of what guarantee there is that these major powers cannot be eroded, the first guarantee is that the Government have already made it clear that they have no plans to do so. They have given their word, and if they broke their word there would be very strong protests in here and there would be the usual pressures of public opinion, and then loss of seats for loss of faith should the Government proceed in that way. But as I understand it, primary legislation will guarantee all these rights and laws from the EU; these are not secondary matters, and so primary legislation will be required in order to deal with them in the future. And it may be that in the future we will want to improve these rights, which would entail amending them, and that is something we will be entirely free to do once we have taken back control; we can then do it in the way we see fit, without any complications from European law.

The 17.4 million people voted to take back control, and that was a remarkable vote. They voted to take back control despite being told by the great and the good, the Government and leading figures in the Opposition that there would be a short-term economic cost to them if they dared to vote to have a sovereign Parliament representing a sovereign people. We did not believe them, however, and I am very pleased that we did not do so. We have now had four months of growth, with more jobs, more shopping, rising incomes and all the other things that they said could not possibly happen, were we to dare to exit the European Union. Is it not good that experts are sometimes wrong and sometimes too pessimistic, and that sometimes the people are more sensible and know what is right for them?

The people also understood that this was about more than money. They did not feel that their money was at risk; they felt that something bigger than money was at issue. What was at issue was the question of who controls. Do the people any longer have their sovereign power? Can they elect a Parliament to do the things they want Parliament to do? They realised that they could not. They realised that this Parliament could not abolish VAT on tampons or green products in the way that most people would like it to because to do so would be illegal under European law. They realised that this Parliament could not amend the fishing rules in order to have a fishing industry that was good for English fishermen and English fish—or Scottish fishermen and Scottish fish—because that would be illegal under European law. They realised that both the major parties in the general election wished to make changes to the benefit rules, but that both sets of proposals turned out to be illegal under European law.

The British people said, “For goodness’ sake, we’re fed up with this puppet Parliament. We want a Parliament that can carry out our will. We want a Parliament that will take back power.” It took the people to say that, because this Parliament was incapable, on its own, of realising that it did not have enough power, that it could not carry out the wishes of the British people in so many fields, and that it ought to do something about that. A lacklustre negotiation with our former partners produced absolutely nothing of value, so the British people took the matter into their own hands.

Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con): I appreciate that the results of the referendum were declared on a local authority basis, but could my right hon. Friend confirm that the people of Wokingham actually voted to remain?

John Redwood: That is by no means proven. As my right hon. Friend says, Wokingham borough had a modest majority in favour of remain, but Wokingham borough comprises parts of four different constituencies. My own constituency contains bits of Wokingham borough as well as parts of West Berkshire. According to my canvass returns, I think it was roughly 50:50 in my constituency. [Hon. Members: “Ah!”] Anyway, it does not really matter—[Interruption.] My right hon. Friend must listen, because I think she actually agrees with me on this, although she will not admit it.

Members from both sides of the House trooped solemnly through the Lobby to put through the European Union Referendum Act 2015, and it was crystal clear from what Ministers and others were saying at the time that we were passing the decision to the British people. We are not asking their advice. We were not giving them a rather grand and expensive opinion poll. Ministers said, “You, the British people, will make this decision.” And just to ram it home, a leaflet was sent to every household in the country—at the taxpayers’ expense, which some of us were a bit worried about—repeating that message. A solemn promise was made by the Government. The Opposition were involved with this, because they did not object and they helped to vote through the money for that promise to be sent to every household. That promise was crystal clear. I feel, and I think my right hon. Friend agrees with me, that we are now under a duty to expedite the decision of the British people.

Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): I backed remain, as did my right hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), but a majority of the people of Dover voted to leave. Is it not incumbent on all of us to listen to our electors and to act on the instructions that we have been given?

John Redwood: I think it is incumbent on this Parliament to accept the verdict of the referendum that we gave to the British people and to understand that we are all under a duty now. Democracy is on trial. What would the public think if their Parliament gave them a decision to make and then tried to stop that decision being implemented? That would put us in an impossible position, and anyone who followed that course would have a very miserable time when they next faced the electors.

Once the referendum is over, we have a duty to represent all our constituents. I have to represent the remain constituents of Wokingham just as much as the leave constituents. I cannot possibly vote on both sides of the issue, but I can ensure that the legitimate concerns of my remain voters are taken into account. I can assure the House that I will be very active in lobbying Ministers when remain voters identify real problems. The main problem that they are identifying at the moment is the uncertainty. They want us to speed up, and the more Members think that delay is a good idea, the more the uncertainty will build and the more damage could conceivably be done. We all have a duty now to speak for all our constituents, but we can only have one vote. Surely MPs must now vote for the settled will of the British people, having offered them that referendum.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): Does not my right hon. Friend find it rather strange that, although the people on the remain side who do not want to accept the verdict of the electorate in the referendum want to drag out and delay the process of triggering article 50, the other members of the European Union want us to get on with it? We talk about the binding nature, or otherwise, of the referendum, but is not the person who best illustrates its binding nature none other than David Cameron? If it was just an advisory referendum, why on earth did he feel it necessary to announce his resignation the following day?

John Redwood: That is another piece of evidence—of which there is so much—that it was not an advisory referendum. We know that from ministerial statements at the Dispatch Box, from the Hansard records of the passage of the legislation and from the leaflets that were sent to every household. That was one of the few things on which the remain campaign and the leave campaign agreed. Both stressed to the voters the fact that this was deathly serious, that it was their decision and that if they got it wrong, they might not like the answer. Indeed, the whole purpose of the remain campaign, as I saw it, was to terrify people. It worked on the premise that if we voted to leave, we would be out. I remember Mr Dimbleby announcing the final result on television—the BBC was a bit reluctant to get to that point, but it eventually did so—that we were out of the European Union. He did not say, “Oh, we’ve just had an interesting advisory vote and maybe some people in Parliament will now think they ought to do something about it.”

Geraint Davies: A lot of the Brexiters I have spoken to voted for Brexit on the basis that there would be lower costs—the figure of £350 million a week was mentioned—yet we are now going to tear up the deficit plans in the autumn statement. They also voted on the basis of continuing market access, which is now at risk from tariffs, and of lower migration, which is obviously going to go up in the next two years as people run in through the door. Does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that the British people should have a referendum on the exit package when they can see whether what they reasonably expected has come to fruition? They could then vote to leave if they wanted to, and if not, they could vote to stay in.

John Redwood: There is absolutely no point in having a referendum on the exit package. By the time we get to that point, we will already be leaving. The people have decided to leave. If we had a vote on the exit package and decided that we did not like it, the rest of the European Union would not say, “Oh, we’re very sorry, United Kingdom. We’ll improve your exit package.” Absolutely no way! They would say, “We are absolutely fed up with you, United Kingdom. You can’t make up your mind, you mess us around and you dominate the agenda with things we don’t want to talk about. You are out!” We have to understand that some of our partners have only a limited amount of patience. Some of them do not have very much patience already.

I regard my views and my vote as being those of a good European. I have always understood the full nature of the European project. It is a noble ideal to unite countries around a united currency, a political union and much more collaborative working. I also know that the British people, including myself, do not wish to do that. It is too close for us. That is why the British people have made the bold, heroic and sensible decision, as good Europeans, to say, “We don’t want to join the currency. We don’t want to join Schengen. We don’t want to join the next bit, which will be the political union.” So is it not good that Britain has honestly said—

Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. As much as I am enjoying the right hon. Gentleman’s dissertation on the Brexit vote, it has been some time since we have spoken about workers’ rights. Is there anything that we can do about that?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for drawing that to my attention. I am listening carefully to the speech of the right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) and he began by speaking about workers’ rights. The title of this debate is “Exiting the EU and Workers’ Rights” and I know that the right hon. Gentleman will strike a balance between the two parts of the motion. I am quite sure that he will remain in order, but I am grateful to the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) for ensuring that I am paying attention

John Redwood: I am grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am speaking more about exiting the EU than the specific issue of workers’ rights but, as Members should understand, workers’ rights are entirely subsumed by the process of exiting the EU. We have to talk about the principles and the way in which we will exit the EU to make any sense of the workers’ rights part of the debate.

Tom Brake (Carshalton & Wallington) (Lib Dem): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way on workers’ rights?

John Redwood: I will give way on workers’ rights to the Liberal Democrat.

Tom Brake: One of the many claims made by the Brexiteers during the EU referendum campaign, and one to which the right hon. Gentleman has not referred, was the famous figure of £350 million a week for the NHS. One of the other claims was that they would support the rights of EU workers. I wonder whether he might touch on that because it directly affects the 1.5 million to 2 million UK citizens who are in other EU countries.

John Redwood: The Vote Leave campaign was clear that we want the Government to guarantee the rights of all legally settled workers in this country. The Government have said that everyone who is here legally is quite entitled and welcome to stay on the assumption that no one from our country who is living overseas is threatened. I do not believe that any of our European partner countries will threaten any of our people who are legally settled in those countries, so I think it is more or less absolutely guaranteed that everybody is welcome to stay and that the British Government have absolutely no plan to suggest that they should not be.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): The right hon. Gentleman may be aware of an EU ruling in Northern Ireland just in the past two weeks. The Northern Ireland Assembly allocated some £7 million to help fund a direct link between Belfast International Airport and New York, but that was overruled by the EU, which said that it was out of order. Is that not another example of why we should be exiting the EU right now and not waiting until 31 March?

John Redwood: I am very much on the hon. Gentleman’s side on that issue but, as he knows, that will not be possible given the delays that are now being built in as a result of various issues and processes.

This House must now rise to the challenge of ensuring workers’ rights and removing the senior powers of the European Union in the way that the British people voted for. Of course, we want to take back control of the money and, once we have, the Government will have considerable more to spend on their priorities. The Vote Leave campaign recommended health as a priority, but it will be for the Government of the day, as Vote Leave always made clear, to decide exactly how to spend the money.

Charlie Elphicke: I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way again. On workers’ rights, did he hear the shadow Minister talking about the importance of making it easier to strike and his intention and desire to roll back trade union legislation? Does he share my concern that that would not help workers’ rights but simply reduce the number of workers?

John Redwood:  I think that goes beyond the issue of European workers’ rights. All I want to say today on workers’ rights is that we must guarantee all of them as promised. I am strongly in support of the Minister.

In conclusion, we have a brave public who decided, despite the odds and the advice, that they wished to leave the European Union. They were not only brave but right. They are fed up with a Parliament that cannot do their bidding, that cannot even choose the taxes to impose on them, that cannot spend the money that all the taxes raise, and that cannot choose laws for them or amend them in the way that they wish. The issue today and in the weeks ahead is whether the MPs in this House can rise to the challenge. Can MPs at least follow the public and realise that they want a sovereign Parliament to represent a sovereign people? Where are the peace-loving Pyms and Hampdens of the modern era? Where are the champions of our liberties? Where are those who say, “Yes, we will support that great repeal Bill. Yes, we will give those powers back to this Parliament. Yes, we will make it easier to achieve Brexit, not more difficult”? That is what the public want and the Opposition should join us, welcome that view and get on with it.