My vote on the Brexit Deal

My vote on the Brexit Deal

I was visiting refugee camps in Kenya when the Cabinet meeting was called to discuss the negotiated Withdrawal Agreement. So I quietly read a copy of the Agreement thousands of miles away from the febrile atmosphere in Parliament, dipping in and out of the media coverage when I had WiFi. This meant I was able to concentrate on the detail; the facts rather than the gossip and speculation. This is way more complicated than the empty hackneyed phrases vassal state and cliff-edge tripped out by the people chasing a perfect Brexit that doesn’t exist and those who want to wake up and pretend the referendum never happened.

I campaigned and voted to leave. I take my responsibility very seriously to ensure that the UK sees this through and leaves but in the most orderly way possible. I had already come to the conclusion that I would vote for this imperfect deal, one that is at the very cusp of what I could support, but the vote in Parliament at the beginning of the five days of debate has cemented in my mind the fact that if this deal does not go through then Brexit itself is at severe risk. It is clear that the division runs through the country and in the constituency. That means I’ll lose the support of plenty of people whatever I do next week. My sole thought process is for the good of the country – not my career, not my party or the Prime Minister – although a Jeremy Corbyn-led government will also have a hugely negative impact on the country as a whole. This deal is going to be tough if not impossible to get through Parliament but the likely alternatives are so much worse, mainly because of Parliamentary arithmetic. As US President, Lyndon Baines Johnson said, the first rule of politics is to be able to count. The arithmetic if this deal doesn’t go through leads to an end point that in no way respects the referendum result.

I’ll try to go through my reasons in turn, though this may quickly become dated if the pace of events continues at the same speed until the vote on Tuesday.

There are a key list of factors as to why I and 17.4 million people voted to leave the EU in June 2016, some of which mattered to people more than others. Just about all to my mind get sorted within the deal on the table

  • Leaving the political institutions of the EU – We won’t have the EU Commission, the EU Parliament, the European Central Bank looking over us in the future. We will leave the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy. The European Court of Justice will not have an effect on people in the UK apart from having a say on citizens rights for the next 8 years and interpretation of EU law in disputes. Politicians in Westminster will be the ones that will remain accountable for UK laws.
  • No more huge membership fees – These end when we leave on 29th March 2019. Neither will we be under threat of having to contribute to bailouts within the Eurozone – something which we should not have been having to do anyway but still ended up paying.
  • The end of Freedom of Movement of People – This ends with the implementation period so we will be able to move towards a fairer, better controlled immigration system.
  • The ability to strike our own independent trade deals – We will be able to negotiate trade deals but crucially we will not be able to implement them until we leave the implementation period and eliminate the Irish backstop

So to my mind the deal satisfies the vast majority of tests to respect the referendum result. But there are clearly drawbacks.

  • The Irish Backstop – In order to satisfy the argument that has arisen about the EU being able to protect the integrity of its Customs Union, it is insisting on an insurance policy to make sure that if a future trading agreement cannot be thrashed out with the UK, goods can’t be imported without checks from the UK. Some people are saying that we should not have a backstop at all. The political reality is that after a year of both sides whipping up the Backstop, there is no way that suddenly Michel Barnier is going to say, yes the UK is right, let’s forget all the stuff we have been talking about for the last year. The Irish Taioseach, Leo Varadkar has no majority in the Irish Dail. If the backstop is removed, his government will almost certainly fall so his domestic agenda dictates that he takes a hard line on this. All of this despite the EU, the Irish and the UK saying that they do not want to erect a hard border between Ireland and the UK.
  • Bringing an end to the Irish Backstop – The only way to get rid of this insurance policy is through a Joint Committee made up of equal numbers of representatives from the UK and the EU who will decide when circumstances are such that it is no longer required. This will be likely through a new Free Trade Agreement which uses a combination of technology and other methods to satisfy both sides that rigorous border checks are not needed. The UK cannot unilaterally decide to leave (neither can the EU) as it would no longer be an effective insurance policy. They cannot put an expiry date on the backstop because again, this would not work as an insurance policy so it has to work on trust and negotiation. It’s clear why the UK would want to get out of the Backstop as soon as possible but less known is why the EU find it unpalatable and will want to negotiate in good faith to move on and scrap it. The Backstop means that Northern Ireland gets full access to the EU market but unlike its Southern neighbour, it doesn’t have to pay a membership fee for the privilege nor allow the Freedom of Movement. This breaks one of the four key pillars that until now have been sacrosanct for the EU (Freedom of Movement of goods, services, capital and labour). The EU do not believe that the backstop would stand up to scrutiny in a court after a couple of years, as it would have been set up under Article 50 which only deals with withdrawal terms, thus only temporary measures, not permanent solutions. Therefore the backstop cannot be open-ended. Actually it may be illegal in itself even on day one should it be tested in court. UPDATE: A couple of interesting articles that go into this in more detail are from Stephen Booth of Open Europe and Bruno Waterfield a Brussels-based journalist writing for the Times. The Attorney General’s legal advice states that the Protocol does not contain a mechanism to ensure that the backstop doesn’t keep the UK in the Customs Territory indefinitely but this is advice on a narrow point. It is clear to everyone that the Protocol itself does not cover this point so as to protect the comprehensive cover for both parties. It does not cover the aspect of the issue regarding how to deal with permanent conditions imposed via a clause meant only to cover temporary transitional arrangements.
  • Common rulebook on goods – The Political Declaration suggests that our future relationship with the EU will have many of the hallmarks of Chequers which would tie us down to adhere to the EU rules on goods and agrifoods crossing UK/EU borders. This will undoubtedly limit some of the trade deals that we can do but the rules and regulations within this area are quite mature. The rulebook has not changed in a meaningful way for the last thirty years and many major multinational companies have indicated that they will be unlikely to diverge anyway. Most companies will see no negative effect and some may be left with the status quo.
  • Agreeing to the £39bn divorce bill up front – This will have an impact on our negotiating position as our money is a significant hand for us to play. However it’s not quite as strong as might be thought on first sight. Part of this is made up of the amount that we will be paying during the transition period. Based on current membership fees, that’s an estimated £16bn or 40%. Much of the rest is made up of what the UK agrees are its financial obligations which we will almost certainly pay anyway so as not to be seen as an unreliable partner. Failure to do so will clearly have a big effect on our ongoing relationship with our biggest trading market and other countries looking in.

So what are the other options rather than this imperfect deal?

  • Leave on WTO terms (No Deal) – This is the default position according to Article 50 if we cannot reach agreement with the EU about our future relationship. I am comfortable with this as a Plan B as long as we have properly prepared. Some people have wanted to do this from day one but that doesn’t stand up intellectually. Why would we be in a mad rush to arrange Free Trade Agreements around the world but not even try to do one with our nearest and biggest trading bloc. It is a different matter if we have tried and fail to reach an agreement. I believe that should the Government fail to pass the Withdrawal Agreement next Tuesday, we need to go back to Brussels on Wednesday and not only escalate the contingency planning for leaving with no deal but start talks with the EU on bilateral agreements in plenty of time, on such matters such as the Open Skies agreement to keep our planes flying in and out of EU airspace and suchlike. I have no truck with the millenium bug style doomsday talk but we do need to get on with this if it is to remain a viable option.Leaving without a deal, if planned correctly, will be fine in the medium to long term and may bring a more equitable approach to negotiations with the EU likely to come back to the table to address the competitive advantage that we could gain in trade with other countries.However it will cause short term turbulence however well we plan. I remember the year that we left the ERM was also the year I bought my house which lost one-third of its value within 12 months. I’m still in the same house so it has had no effect on me whatsoever but others were devastated in the resulting turmoil suffering increased debt and repossession. It’s all very well for people to say it will be okay in the end but I have to vote on what is best for the country across the board and will ensure my thought process keeps people’s jobs and families very much in my mind. Therefore I have it as an option but nowhere near my default position. It would seem that this possibility has been diminished anyway as a result of votes in Parliament just this week.On Tuesday an amendment that was moved by Dominic Grieve and passed by Parliament, thus defeating the Government, made a No Deal scenario far less of a possibility in my view. If the deal on the table is voted down next Tuesday, any successive vote on that or another deal can be amended. Basically this means that a largely Remain supporting Parliament can start to take the initiative on Brexit including pushing hard for No deal not to be on the agenda. It’s not straightforward by any means but there is a thumping majority in Parliament to move against a No Deal scenario.
  • EEA/EFTA (Norway) – Nick Boles MP has pushed the idea of the UK moving into the existing economic model called the European Economic Area which is a looser arrangement than that of the 28 member states. However in recent days he seems to have changed his proposal from being a temporary measure whilst negotiating our own bespoke trading arrangement to one that we will be in for the long term. This is a much softer Brexit than the current deal, taking rules from the EU for the long term; paying a membership fee and still having to keep Freedom of Movement of People.
  • Canada +++ – This is a much looser free trade agreement which is my preference in theory where we don’t have equivalence in standards and qualifications which need to be checked. Instead there is mutual recognition, a level of trust between two mature economies that each have similar standards, perhaps through different methods. However at this particular point in time, I do not believe that we are in a position to step into such an arrangement. This deal does not exclude moving our negotiating position for the future relationship to such an ambitious approach. I said that this was my preference in theory but this is real life. I have to be pragmatic. The EU are nowhere near this as an option. The President of the European Council, Donald Tusk claimed he would offer us Canada +++. What he omitted to say was that this would only be for Great Britain, not Northern Ireland which would then need to be carved out and treated separately whilst this arrangement was in place. What he was claiming was Canada+++ was very different from the expectations of many here in the UK.
  • A Second Referendum – I led a Petitions Committee debate on this last Monday which you can watch here. We had a clear decision taken on a simple and clear question. The referendum had a high turnout and 17.4m voting to leave was the highest number of people voting for anything in a UK plebiscite in our country’s history. It’s just not acceptable to keep revisiting the same point – one reason why many voted to leave the EU in the first place after they pushed Ireland twice to vote again on the Nice and Lisbon Treaties and Denmark once on Maastricht because they didn’t get the result they wanted. The vast majority of those wanting to hold a second referendum are not seeking clarity, they are seeking to reverse the result as borne out by the LibDems twitter hashtag #ExitfromBrexit. It’s incredibly disingenuous for them to claim otherwise. Campaigners are the same people who claimed the original referendum was divisive, yet here they are wanting to do it all again as if it was suddenly a healing exercise. The government stated during the referendum that they would respect the result of the referendum, 499 MPs voted to invoke Article 50 and 80% of the electorate that voted in 2017 voted for parties whose manifesto commitments included respecting the result and leaving the Single Market and Customs Union. We have moved on a long way since the view that the referendum was only advisory. Failing to respect the will of the people would be disastrous. Too many people have spent time trying to unpick the original result and point fingers elsewhere rather than understanding why people felt so strongly about wanting to leave.There are obvious problems with the process of arranging a second referendum. There is no realistic prospect of getting the legislation through Parliament to then put the arrangements in place to have a referendum before the 29th March. If Article 50 was to be extended to allow for this, the European Union (Withdrawal) Act would also need amending as it states that the Treaty of Rome would have no place in UK law after 29th March. There is no agreement on what the question might be. One school of thought is that it could be a two answer question without Remain on the ballot paper as the fact that we are leaving was determined back in 2016. This has a certain logic but doesn’t suit the campaigners who just don’t want to leave at all. Another is to have three answers to choose from – Government Deal, No Deal or Remain. Now imagine what might happen should Remain win with 40% of the vote. 60% of the votes will have gone to the two leave options but the clear majority of people will have been trumped by a minority. The constitutional bear traps are huge. Before we even get there, the ill-will that so many people will feel that their voice has been ignored the first time around will be palpable as articulated by the Archbishop of York this week who expressed concern that it could lead to civil unrest.
  • No Brexit – Until this week, I had thought that the only way that this could be achieved would be to extend Article 50 to a point in the future far enough ahead to make it all but staying. However this week, an Advocate-General of the European Court of Justice gave his opinion that Article 50 could be unilaterally pulled by the UK, thus cancelling Brexit entirely. It is only an opinion but the ECJ tends to follow this in its judgement. Therefore, in the unlikely but possible scenario of another quick General Election and perhaps a change of government, withdrawing our Article 50 notice is a possibility, thus leading to Brexit being cancelled entirely, another domesday scenario in terms of our democracy.

As you will have noticed, I don’t find any of the above particularly palatable with only the No Deal scenario being vaguely acceptable which leaves us back to the deal on the table, realistically the only game in town. I would rather there be no backstop. I would rather we could find another way to have a more liberal approach to goods so as to have more extensive trade deals with other countries. The former is just not realistic at this point of the negotiations. The latter is still possible as we haven’t even started our trading arrangement talks yet beyond the broad points included in the Political Declaration. That is because we accepted the EU’s sequencing of talks a full two years ago. So we have had to get our divorce arrangements in place first and have to wait until we are out and considered a third country until we can start our trade talks.

The bad news for those who are bored of Brexit is that we are only halfway through. However it means that it will be the result of the second half that determines whether this compromise deal becomes a good deal. Therefore we need to change our approach. I have been incredibly frustrated and disappointed by the paucity of ambition in Parliament when it comes to asserting the opportunities that lay ahead for the UK. Instead, the divided nature of the House and the fact that the government have been open to questioning and debate at length in the Chamber, means that the argument has been pulled in all sorts of directions. The Liberal Democrats and SNP just want to stay in the EU at all costs. The Labour party want a General Election rather than worrying about the pros and cons of any Brexit deal. Much of the debate has been based on fear of an independent future rather than the prospects of an agile buccaneering approach to trade that allows us to continue our work with our neighbours whilst renewing our relationships with Commonwealth countries; building up trade with the growth economies in Asia and rediscovering free trade with the US and South America. We have so much going for us here in the UK. I’ve never gone down the line of other countries needing us more than we need them. Yes trade should be a competition but sustainable trade is done best in partnership.

Therefore I want the next stage to be negotiated in a different way. Instead of carrying on the talks with a small team centred around the Prime Minister,  I believe the PM should clearly oversee and lead the process but the Brexit Secretary should have the task of negotiating all of the co-operation matters such as security, research, data protection and the Secretary of State for International Trade should be putting the extensive Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the EU in place. We have an excellent, highly-experienced trade negotiator sitting in the wings. Crawford Falconer, working for Dr Liam Fox is dealing with all of the FTAs around the world apart from the biggest- that with the EU. Having these three leading members of the government bringing together the best such as Crawford, will instill a bit more trust in the process and uses our talent much better. The Political Declaration doesn’t specify the Chequer’s option. I was concerned to read in the original Political Declaration that talks would build on the backstop as I want to see the backstop gone in time, not just rehashed but I note that the wording has changed in its second, more extensive iteration to read build on and improve. This needs to include technological solutions to avoid the need for extra checks and a border so we can concentrate on the wider matters, not just one small but important part of the country.

The deal in front of us is Brexit. It’s not all immediate but frankly it was never going to be. It’s so much more than ‘Brexit in Name Only’ (BRINO). But there is a risk in accepting this deal. We will have signed off the payment of our final payment; a backstop which requires joint agreement to end and some areas of trade where we will be limited in liberalising through FTAs but I believe this is a risk worth taking. It is certainly a lower risk than not supporting the deal and seeing a second referendum or worse still, the revocation of Article 50 leading to no Brexit at all. This can be a solid foundation as long as we keep our resolve and push on with ambition, determination and a rediscovered sense of national unity. So I ask people (especially my colleagues in Parliament) to set aside their egos, preconceptions, any sense of mistrust and come together, frankly even if it’s whilst holding your nose, to support the deal and get to the stage when we can actually leave the European Union. Then we can move on, securing our future relationship with the European Union; to start healing the divisions that we have seen across the country; restoring the bandwidth both in government and in the media to return to debating crucial domestic matters and  start bearing the fruits of this hard-earned independence.

Rebranded MANarama National League kicks off life-saving partnership with Prostate Cancer UK

Rebranded MANarama National League kicks off life-saving partnership with Prostate Cancer UK

Sutton United’s league, The National League has chosen leading men’s health charity Prostate Cancer UK as its first ever official charity partner, to unite in the fight against the UK’s most prevalent male cancer…

In a first for English football a national football league will change its branding mid-season. Vanarama, the title sponsor of the National League, has changed its name to MANarama throughout the month of September to raise awareness of a deadly cancer that kills one man every 45 minutes.

The rebranding to the MANarama National League features a striking new league logo to highlight their support for Prostate Cancer UK – and Vanarama’s own site has also been completely rebranded to reflect its commitment to a fundraising drive which will see them aim to raise £150,000.

A new captain’s armband, which will be worn by all MANARAMA National League club captains on Non-League Day on Saturday, October 13th has also been unveiled. The 34 matches, including Sutton’s away match at Bohemians will see all skippers proudly displaying the unique bright orange band, which includes the iconic Prostate Cancer UK logo, to illustrate their clubs’ united stand against the most common cancer in men.

The league’s commercial partner Vanarama has also pledged to raise £150,000 in just 43 days from a vehicle-leasing incentive that runs across September, as they tell the nation to ‘lease a van, save a man‘. Vanarama and its newly-launched car leasing platform, Motorama, will donate £50 for every vehicle leased from the start of September until Non-League Day, when a cheque will be presented on October 13th at FC Halifax Town vs Chesterfield live on BT Sport. From September 1 until Non-League day 688 men will die from prostate cancer, emphasising the need to act.

On board with Non-League Day for the fifth time, Prostate Cancer UK raised £15,000 last year as more than 50 clubs joined the fight against the deadliest opponent of all, and this year’s day is shaping up to be bigger and better than ever with clubs from across the Non-League pyramid joining forces in a jam-packed day of activity.

Soft Landing, not Soft Brexit

Soft Landing, not Soft Brexit

There has been plenty of coverage of the government position settled at a meeting of Cabinet last Friday at Chequers. Many think that this is a pragmatic starting point for the final rounds of negotiation with the EU. However most of the negative feedback cries betrayal but doesn’t really explain why the critic is against the deal, just that it is not Brexit. We have had a three page statement from the Prime Minister and now, a round of media articles and interviews but the detail comes next week in the White Paper. So rather than relying on the same journalists that both sides have been arguing are biased against remain/leave (delete where applicable), I rearranged my Saturday morning to go to a briefing in Downing Street to hear from those closest to the PM. On Monday I will attend another briefing with more colleagues and hear from the Prime Minister herself before reading with interest the White Paper when released. What I have heard so far satisfies me that whilst this approach is not where I would have wanted to be as someone who campaigned and voted for Leave, but is the most pragmatic offer that we can give at this stage.

When I was debating during the referendum campaign, the main pillars of the argument to leave were sovereignty – taking control and putting the UK parliament in control of our decisions, pooling sovereignty only when we chose to for our advantage; controlling immigration, so introducing a system that was fairer, allowing people with the skills and experience that we need and want into the UK no matter which country they were from rather than allowing unskilled economic migrants from parts of the EU with high youth unemployment to jump the queue and thirdly, to be able to expand our trade through ambitious free trade agreements with countries whose economies are booming and are predicted to become dominant in decades to come, all the time whilst keeping on friendly terms and continuing to trade with our closest partner, the 27 remaining countries of the EU, albeit their economy had been stagnating for the last decade and decreasing in size of our proportion of global trade. I was often asked what my Brexit looked like, to which I would always reply that I could tell them but that would preclude them from having a say. We were giving the government a mandate to leave and the way that we would leave would be arranged through debate and negotiation. So here is why I believe that this proposal fully meets the terms of the referendum in getting us out of the EU, rather than BRINO (Brexit in Name Only)

1. We will be leaving

Nothing changes in terms of our leaving date. We will still formally leave the EU on March 29th 2019. Assuming we reach a deal, we will have an implementation period, something that has already been agreed. This is simply to allow businesses to ready themselves for the trading arrangements that we agree. It’s not practical to reach a technical customs arrangement for example in April and expect businesses to be able to handle this just two months later. We need customs officers, particular technology in place. It’s complicated but deliverable with political will and a reasonable notice period. The agreement reached is that the implementation period will come to an end no later than December 31st 2020.

2. We will stop paying in large sums of money after we leave

The agreement that was completed last year means that we will be paying a final sum which includes the months of the implementation period and brings us to the end of the EU budgeting period that we were involved in preparing the budget for. However as we will be leaving the political organisations of the EU and will no longer be a member, there will be no huge membership fee to pay. Anything that we do end up paying will be based on our decision to buy into particular projects such as ERASMUS, the student exchange programme that comes with EU membership but is also open to third countries like Turkey and Taiwan. We can pick and choose which of these projects we join, if any. The money that we are then not spending on EU membership can be spent within the UK. Some of this will clearly replace the funding that is redistributed from the EU at present to farmers, universities and regeneration projects for example but again, we will decide where and how this is spent so it can be better targeted and spent more effectively.

3. Freedom of Movement will end

The automatic right of EU citizens to come to the UK to live will come to an end. The proposal talks about a mobility framework so that UK and EU citizens can continue to travel to each other’s territories, and apply for study and work. Travelling to each other’s territories is important so we don’t burden holidaymakers and travelling business people with a complicated visa application system, thus hindering travel. Applying for study and work is very different from having the right to walk in and study or work. There may be a preferential system for EU member states in this regard but only on the same basis as our top tier trading partners pushing for one in a free trade agreement, countries such as India, USA, Australia. So again, this is a visa system agreed as a sovereign government in exchange for preferential access to their markets and is reversable.

4. The European Court of Justice will no longer be the highest court in the UK

Once we leave, the Supreme Court will be the highest court in the UK, so UK courts will not refer cases to the ECJ. Clearly the EU will still have the ECJ as their highest arbiter. Ironically if the EU tried to change this at our request, the ECJ would strike the deal down as illegal under EU law. So in any trade disputes, each party will refer cases to their own court system. Our courts will keep an eye on case law set by the ECJ but will not be bound by it. They will try to ensure that they keep a common interpretation in cases where we are applying a common rulebook, such as disputes relating to the movement of goods. (Note, the European Court of Human Rights is a different body and entirely separate from the EU. It will remain.)

5. We will be leaving the CAP and CFP

We will no longer be subject to the Common Agricultural Policy or the Common Fisheries Policy. This means that although we will have some agreed restrictions on exports of agricultural products to the EU and imports, we will not have the EU micromanaging our farmers telling them which crops to grow and how. In leaving the Common Fisheries Policy we can reclaim our fishing waters.

6. There will be no hard border in Ireland, nor will Northern Ireland be treated differently from the rest of the UK

There are no Free Trade Agreements anywhere in the world that completely get over the need for checks. This proposal avoids the demand from the EU that Northern Ireland be kept within the EU Customs Union. However the proposal would bring us to near-frictionless trade with the UK and EU working together on the phased introduction of a new Facilitated Customs Arrangement that would remove the need for customs checks and controls between the two. The UK would apply our set tariffs on goods coming to stay in the UK and the EU’s tariffs on goods passing through to the EU. In the vast majority of cases businesses would pay the right or no tariff upfront and otherwise through a repayment mechanism. It is estimated that only around 4% of businesses will have to engage in the repayment process.

7. We will be able to do our own independent trade deals

By completing this bespoke customs arrangement, we would be liberated to secure our own trade deals with the rest of the world. Some of the conditions of the proposal will mean that some of the deals may not be able to be comprehensive for all sectors. Common rules on agri-foods for example will mean that we would be unlikely to be able to bring in hormone-treated beef from Australia for example, but that would likely be controversial in itself when Parliament considers any agreement. Australia would be content with increasing the amount of non hormone-treated beef that it sells to the UK. The only area that we are proposing to have ‘dynamic alignment’ with the EU is around State Aid. We are proposing to commit to not reduce environmental standards or workers’ rights and a few key areas. Apart from these, we will be free to diverge away from EU rules on the understanding that this will have a consequence on our future trading arrangement with the EU from that time on. Again it is our sovereign decision. There may come a time when we are more confident as a nation to drift away from dependency on the European markets towards the emerging markets that are predicted to grow significantly. This agreement gives us a soft landing from undoing forty years of a constrained partnership with the EU and the ability to take off again in the future when we are ready and importantly, when we ourselves decide.

8. We are stepping up preparations for No Deal

I’ve always believed that a bespoke deal is by far the best option but that we should be confident enough and prepared to walk away with no deal. This gives some steel in our negotiating position. I am pleased that the government has recognised the need to build on the work that they have already been doing to prepare for a no deal scenario. It is the responsible thing to do in continuing preparations for a range of potential outcomes. There is only a short time before we are due to conclude talks so the government has agreed to step up such preparations.

This is not a perfect deal by any stretch of the imagination and there is much more to examine and to achieve. The common rulebook means that we don’t end up with a clean break from the EU. However in talks with businesses, it is clear that many will continue to keep to the EU rulebook anyway in order to keep their existing trading arrangements in place. We are not restricting ourselves in our services-based economy which represents 80% of our GDP and the vast majority of future opportunities. We will be aiming for arrangements on financial services that preserve the mutual benefits of integrated markets and protect financial stability. Much of the pipeline of regulation of financial services markets is on a global basis. These ties are not ideal but help get formalised access and move us on. We need to keep our eyes on the prize and get this deal done. The next stage will be to see if Michel Barnier can accept this, since we are cracking open a gap on the EU’s four treasured pillars of freedoms, the free movement of goods, capital, services and labour, but he would be well advised to understand the consequences of rejection. Whereas he is the custodian of the EU ideology, the leaders of the 27 member states will have far more of a view of the effect on jobs, prosperity and the political climate in their own countries if the 6th largest economy walks away.

Having campaigned to leave, I take my responsibility for getting through this seriously. So if you are taking a view, take the time to look at the whole picture first. It’s complicated, hence this isn’t a tweet or a Facebook post. People may be distracted (rightly) by the World Cup and getting Brexit fatigue but at this stage it’s about detail. The Prime Minister has done a remarkable job in the most difficult circumstances. There is enough in this proposal for me to back her and I look forward to the White Paper on Thursday.

Challenging Train Timetable Chaos

Challenging Train Timetable Chaos

The timetable changes across the country’s rail network was always going to be a challenge, with every scheduled train being reviewed rather than just piecemeal changes. However this was made an impossible task causing more misery for commuters by the seeming lack of preparation for this mammoth job. I raised the issue with the Secretary of State for Transport in Parliament last week but also had a chance to sit down with a representative from GTR, the train operating company that runs both Southern and Thameslink.

It would seem from both my feedback and his data that Thameslink is the service that has been particularly affected by these changes. The long term benefits to our part of the network of the new timetable were a reduction in the time to turn trains around, splitting and attaching them, especially at East Croydon. Network Rail co-ordinate all the timetabling supplied by the various operators and give final approval to the National Planning Process with around 12 weeks to go, thus allowing the companies three months to prepare. For some reason this was delayed until only three weeks before the changes. This meant that some infrastructure was not completed, some changes to depots were not in place and crucially the drivers’ programmes could not be completed in time.

This programme is completed in three stages. Firstly, the operator would work out how many drivers were needed in each depot so as to minimise travelling times at the beginning and end of shifts. Sometimes two or three drivers were being transported on a single train. Of course, if that is delayed, that has a knock-on effect on each of the services meant to be led by the drivers stuck on the train. Secondly, the drivers would have their ‘diagrams’, their overall shift routes, again to ensure they were as efficient as possible. This would be ‘optimised’, reviewed closely six or seven times to make sure they haven’t missed anything and only then would the drivers receive route-specific training should it be required. It is a safety requirement as laid down by the unions that a driver can only drive on routes that they have specifically been trained on, to familiarise themselves with signals, junctions, hazards etc. This training is typically around six accompanied trips in each direction along each route.

In trying to run a full service and train drivers, this is doubling up on the resources required, taking trained drivers off their job to bring on others so the problems are likely to go on for quite some time. New drivers are coming on stream each week, with GTR giving priority to the drivers who are already some way along their training. Whereas in previous years, GTR have had a chronic shortage of drivers, they now just about have enough, but not with the right training for the reasons explained.

GTR have been cancelling a number of services the day before which is clearly inconvenient enough. However, they are still having to cancel up to 150 services on the day itself which is causing even more frustration. My worry is that with the emergency timetable not due to be stable until mid-July, the overall situation is unlikely to improve for some time to come. One of the worst situations that affects constituents in Sutton is the total cancellation of the Wimbledon loop trains at peak times. I’ve raised this issue forcefully because it just cannot be acceptable for people whose livelihoods are dependent on getting to work on time should be put out with few realistic alternatives. GTR carry out a ‘gap analysis’ to try to minimise such lengthy gaps without a service so I will continue to push to ensure that this very significant gap is filled quickly. Because of this analysis it is always helpful when people are raising the matter of trains with me to let me know which services in particular they are most affected by. I’ve been complaining to and about GTR for some years now but in order to get each part right in the short term, the more focused I can be, the more productive the complaint I hope.

I welcome the Glaister review into how the process became such a shambles. I cannot believe that no-one decided to postpone the changes until the operators were ready, whatever the original reasons for the delay in approval. However it’s not feasible to go back to the original timetables now as all of the other services around the country that are less or not affected by the situation would be dragged into the problem. But at least we will get some answers. However as a commuter myself, I think that most people are less interested in which bit of the industry is to blame and more interested in us concentrating on getting their train running on time. I will continue to work to that end.

My conversations with Rohingya refugees

My conversations with Rohingya refugees

(This article originally appeared in the Times Red Box (paywall))

While the pressure from the international community has been intensifying on Myanmar, the border with Bangladesh remains a treacherous and congested route to safety for thousands of Rohingya fleeing for their lives.

As part of a week of social action with the Conservative Friends of Bangladesh, I have spent time with MPs and volunteers in and around the camps in Cox’s Bazar speaking to people who have been displaced from their burnt-out villages, aid workers and Bangladeshi government ministers.

One was a 60-year-old lady in Kutupalong refugee camp, holding her grandchild. Her son-in-law had been stabbed in front of them. Village children were beheaded. Other young boys had their genitals mutilated, suggesting that this was to stop the Rohingya population reproducing. In one of many health clinics at the camp, seeing an old man being treated for a deep gash, a young man was then brought in on a makeshift stretcher with blood pouring from his head. A family member told me that they were eating earlier that morning in Burma when they were attacked by men with axes and machetes. They escaped across the border and got treatment within hours at the camp.

Three days of solid rain have made the route across the border even more perilous. When we visited the Gundhum border area yesterday, 5,000 refugees were camping on a river bank in a designated “no man’s land” between Burma and Bangladesh, able to ford the river to get food. Arriving today after 24 hours of stormy weather, we saw a body being dragged out of the surging river which had risen by at least six feet.

A Bangladeshi soldier manning the border was frank, telling us how he had seen Burmese military digging there the previous week and drones being flown over the trees filming the refugees from the Burmese side. He had video of a lady who had lost her leg after stepping on a landmine four days before.

This is what the Bangladeshi authorities are having to deal with each day. Five thousand refugees are registering in Kutapalong every day. The Bangladeshi government has just allocated another 2,000 acres for the camp to expand. The area was so big, a lady with an ill four-year-old child was refusing to seek treatment because she was waiting for her husband who had gone to Cox’s Bazar to look for work. She feared that he would not be able to find them again in the sprawl.

There are 80,000 pregnant women in Cox’s Bazar and 13,000 orphans. Doctors said that they were treating mainly diarrhoea and malnutrition but saw several gunshot wounds. The authorities had taken to driving vans with loudhailers encouraging people to register so that they could get the help they needed. We saw makeshift camps that had become flooded. Even in the camps, 100 houses had been swept away in a landslide. As the forest is cut back further to provide more land for shelter, the bare earth is exposed to the heavy rain.

The authorities and NGOs are at breaking point but are working incredibly hard. They are reacting to a fast-moving situation with 420,000 refugees descending on a small, hard-pressed region. We saw the Union flag symbolising the contribution of UK Aid through the department for international development; the UN refugee agency, the International Organisation on Migrants; US Aid as well as support from Turkey and Saudi Arabia, all trying to cope with this man-made crisis exacerbated by terrible weather conditions.

Their worst-case scenario is that all 1.3 million Rohingya come over the border, the best is that the Burmese military stops its disproportionate response to attacks from the minority militant group ARSA and support those who have lived in Myanmar for generations. There may be some instances of civil uprising. If there is, no one with any value for life can think the answer is the mass eradication of a whole community through such barbaric methods.

Although the violence has escalated, this is not a new problem. Kutapalong has been a camp for displaced people for at least two decades. We did need to hear stronger words from Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s state counsellor, in her speech this week but she is also right that the country needs to be looked at as a whole.

Terrible crimes against humanity have occurred in nearly every state in Burma over the past seven decades and the peace process is having an effect in many parts. The country has just seen the first chink of light with a return to being part of the international community once more. Side-lining Ms Suu Kyi at this stage risks that light being extinguished and a return to full military rule with little reporting of the atrocities that will surely continue.

The commander in chief, General Min Aung Hlaing, is the man who can stop this today. I hope that Britain will take a lead on drawing international attention to him with a view to bringing this dark chapter of Burmese history to an end so that the Rohingya community can return to its safe homeland and Myanmar can continue its journey of development. Alongside this, we must remember the humanity and daily struggle of these victims on both sides of the border.

St Helier is Safe now help to build a new local hospital

On Tuesday 7th September I have a public meeting in Sutton to discuss the future of local healthcare including both ensuring St Helier has a long future and the possibility of building a new specialist acute healthcare facility in Sutton.

Joining me will be Daniel Elkeles, Chief Executive of Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals NHS Trust who will outline the Trust’s vision for the coming years. We need you to get behind this. You can find out more information here.

Come along to the meeting, look at the video on the Trust’s website, Fill in one of our surveys. Please get involved and rather than just talk about saving St Helier, let’s do something together, speaking with one voice and go further.

To register for my public meeting, click here.