Brexit – It’s not about if, but how


high_court_2423851bLet’s get one thing straight at the start. Thursday’s High Court decision did not change or overrule the result of June’s Referendum which voted for Britain to leave the European Union.  I know that claiming something else makes for more lurid tabloid headlines but it is a fact.

The High Court decision is about who should have a say in how Britain should go about leaving the European Union, not whether we should do so. The judges expressed no opinion on whether Brexit is a good idea or a bad one. That is not down to judges to decide that anyway.  And nobody – on either side – asked them to do so.

The issue they were asked to rule on is who has the power to trigger Article 50 of the Treaty governing our membership of the EU, beginning the formal process of leaving the EU. Do Government Ministers have the power to do so alone or should that power should rest with Parliament? You would not think it is so outlandish a proposition to say that Parliament should have a say in all this. After all, this requires a change in the law and Parliament makes the laws in this country, not Ministers. Why? Because all Members of Parliament are elected by the people – in my case by the people of Birmingham Northfield. It is to them I am accountable. Ministers are hired and fired by the Prime Minister, not by the people. You would expect Parliament to have a say over what Ministers can do when it comes to your taxes or your job, so why is it any different when it comes to this? Shouldn’t Governments always be held to account by Parliament, whatever the issue?

As a country, we don’t have a written constitution but we have always prided ourselves on having an independent judiciary to uphold the rule of law whoever challenges it – yes, even when it’s the Prime Minister doing so.  Maybe this week’s events suggest that we should consider moving to a written constitution as other countries do. Whatever your view on that though, the judges did their job this week. No more and no less. And the same independent judicial system that enabled them to do so this week also allows the Prime Minister to appeal the decision in the Supreme Court.

These are not simply theoretical arguments about what the Prime Minister can do and what Parliament can do. It’s about decisions that will have a profound effect on the lives of every citizen of this country and about the future of children growing up. Why? Because the referendum result said what the British people do not want – in other words continued membership of the EU. What it did not cover is what kind of alternative future we do want for our country. What kind of trading or other relationships we want either with Europe or the rest of the world?  The Referendum decided on Brexit but it was silent on how best we can go about leaving the EU to achieve the kind of future we want for ourselves and our children.

Do we, for example, want to try to negotiate for Britain to be part of the European Single Market – still our biggest trading partner? If we do want that, how do we square that with the Single Market’s requirement for free movement of labour? Or should we try to go for less than full access to the Single Market? Maybe a customs union with Europe? But that would have rules too and who would set the rules?

In the meantime, things are going on in Europe now that affect us and will continue to affect us whether or not we are part of the EU in the future. Only this week I was debating in Parliament how to make sure that security screening equipment in airports is as effective as it can be to keep passengers safe from on-board bombs and weapons. It’s not enough to have good screening equipment at UK airports. Passengers need to know it’s up to scratch wherever the fly to, and wherever they fly from. That means international agreements and international standards. EU networks play a major role in promoting those standards and we have a say on where the EU should regulate and where it should not. We need to sort out how it’s all going to work in the future when we are no longer part of the EU. Take another example. Last week I was meeting with senior representatives of the motor industry to discuss what the Government should be doing now to ensure that Britain post Brexit can have as big a say as possible over technical and safety regulations covering the cars on our roads – including reducing harmful emissions. Thousands of people already die prematurely from poor air quality in our towns and cities. Emissions from dirty vehicles don’t care much about whether the person coughing has an EU passport or a UK one.

The way we negotiate our exit from the EU will affect our ability to tackle all these things and a lot more. We are now nearly five months on from the Referendum. When I and other Labour MPs ask Ministers about these kinds of issues we still get the stock answer: “Brexit means Brexit”. It’s not good enough. The British people have a right to know what Ministers are tackling and what they are leaving on one side. As the Government, they must do the detailed negotiations to secure Brexit but we have a right to know what their strategy is and what their priorities are. And isn’t it reasonable for Parliament – the people you elect – to have a say over whatever deal they come back with?

This is not about whether Article 50 should be triggered. It is about when and how it happens. As Keir Starmer, Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary said recently, it’s not about the 52% who voted Leave or the 48% who voted Remain. It’s about the 100% who will be affected by the actions the Government takes – or does not take – from now on. It’s our job as MPs to hold Ministers to account on these things. As I said, it may not suit the headline writers of the Daily Mail the Sun but these are the facts.

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Richard Burden

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I was Labour Member of Parliament for Birmingham Northfield between 1992 and 2019 and a former Shadow Transport Minister. I now chair Healthwatch in Birmingham and Solihull, and the West Midlands Board of Remembering Srebrenica. I also work as a public affairs consultant. I am an effective community advocate and stakeholder alliance builder with a passion for human rights. I am a trustee of the Balfour Project charity and of Citizens Advice Birmingham, and a former Chair of Medical Aid for Palestinians.

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