Skip to main content

Civil Society Forum: UK Delegation

Volume 813: debated on Thursday 24 June 2021


Asked by

To ask the Minister of State at the Cabinet Office (Lord Frost) when Her Majesty’s Government expects to establish the United Kingdom’s delegation to the Civil Society Forum set out in the United Kingdom-European Union Trade and Cooperation Agreement.

My Lords, we are absolutely committed to working with a broad range of business and civil society groups on the implementation of the trade and co-operation agreement. At the 9 June Partnership Council, we agreed that we and the EU should begin to work and to agree, we hope, on the operational guidelines for the civil society forum in good time so that it can meet this year as required. Obviously, we will draw on the network of business and civil society groups we talk to domestically to make sure we have a balanced representation at that forum.

My Lords, in the Minister’s reply to my noble friend Lady Hayter of Kentish Town, which he sent eventually—interestingly, just after I tabled this Question—he did not answer a question that Mr Gove also failed to answer in the other place the other day. Could he now, as the Minister ultimately responsible, give us an assurance that representatives of charities, social enterprises and trade unions will be included on the civil society forum?

My Lords, we will obviously seek to have a balanced representation on the forum. I would personally be very surprised if that did not include at least some representation for charities, trade unions and the sectors the noble Lord mentioned.

My Lords, the Minister went a long way to addressing my question. However, is not the right messaging that civil society engagement across the board is a key strand that would serve to deepen our relationship with all EU regions by identifying common interests, bringing greater understanding and generally enriching our lives, building on our recent association to include that of Northern Ireland and the Republic, for example? When operational guidelines to the Partnership Council are being determined, will the Government go beyond that of the Brussels-centric forum on interparliamentary exchange and advocate that any civil society networks created be EU-wide and meet on a regular basis, possibly using our APPG movement as a working model?

My Lords, we will certainly reflect on the issues that the noble Viscount raised. There is, of course, a provision in the agreement for a partnership forum between Parliaments, work on which is also moving forward effectively. It is the nature of civil society that it does not need the Government’s permission to develop such links and to work effectively with fora established under the treaties. We certainly hope that that would happen.

My Lords, it is six months since the noble Lord’s Brexit deal and this institution, like the border arrangements in Northern Ireland, still is not functioning properly and may never do so. Has he had the chance to reflect on the evidence he gave to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee earlier this week, where he said that he could not have been expected to foresee the problems with the Northern Ireland border, only to have the chairman point out that almost everybody else had foreseen them, including the noble Lord, Lord Barwell, who was Theresa May’s chief of staff, and almost everyone who commented on this issue in the House? Does he appreciate that he is coming to look a bit like Anthony Eden in the Suez crisis in perpetrating an escalating crisis, and undermining our foreign policy and our standing in the world, which is apparent to everybody except himself?

My Lords, obviously I do not accept the conclusion. The noble Lord is oversimplifying what I said at the Foreign Affairs Committee. It is precisely because we knew we had agreed something exceptional, complex and difficult that we built in consent arrangements, and why we had a reasonable expectation of the arrangements operating pragmatically. That has not turned out to be the case. There has turned out to be a very significant chilling effect on Great British businesses moving goods to Northern Ireland. We knew that there would be such an effect. It has turned out to be very much stronger and much more rapid. I do not think there is anything unreasonable in learning from experience when we deal with such a sensitive and delicate situation and trying to find a more reasonable balance as we go forward.

My Lords, given that the civil society forum must bring a wide range of experience to collaborate with government and business leaders in finding and advocating solutions, would my noble friend agree that engagement with civil society representatives from a wide range of experiences, including the recreational and active lifestyle sectors, could benefit government by drawing together expertise from across government and the recreation sector to ensure the success of the recently announced office for health promotion in the Department of Health, which in turn would focus on how an active lifestyle could benefit our population, tackle obesity and mental health challenges, and enable us to emerge stronger as a nation from Covid-19, as well as sharing all our experience with the UK-EU civil society forum?

My Lords, I certainly agree that the civil society forum, when it is up and running, should seek to draw in as wide a range of expertise and ideas as it possibly can. I certainly agree that it is also important that the Government meet as wide a range of civil society organisations, broadly defined, as possible. I certainly meet business representations weekly from sector to sector. I have met a wide range of civil society representatives in Northern Ireland, and we continue to do so.

My Lords, we know that this was discussed at the beginning of the month in the Partnership Council. Indeed, I raised it at the previous Questions to the Minister on 27 May so, as my noble friend just described, it was very nice to get the letter last night. We have a habit of getting letters from Ministers late at night—one of the Minister’s colleagues does the same thing. I know that time might move a bit slowly for the Minister, but can he confirm two things? First, is there beginning to be a list, on paper, about who might sit on the forum? Secondly, does he agree that the domestic advisory group, which should feed into the forum, needs to be up and running before the forum so that that group—in other words, the British section of the forum—can begin meeting, thinking and preparing, so that when it meets its EU counterparts it is equipped to do the job that the forum will be set up to do?

My Lords, obviously, a prerequisite for moving this forward has been the first meeting of the Partnership Council to kick it off, which happened only two and half weeks ago, so we are in the early stages of identifying the possible UK representatives. It is for departments to do that, and departments are engaging very actively with the civil society groups they meet. Our intention is absolutely to establish a collective capacity on the UK side to begin the discussions with the European Union. We are at rather an early stage of that process.

My Lords, Article 14.3, which deals with the establishment of the forum, states:

“Each Party shall promote a balanced representation, including non-governmental organisations, business and employers’ organisations and trade unions”.

I remind the Minister that between one-third and 40% of trade unionists support the Conservative Party and a number support other parties. It is doubtful that the Labour Party even has a majority of TU support these days. Will the Minister ensure that, when the government departments appointing people to UK places are appointing representatives of the trade union movement, they take steps to ensure that they reflect the political balance of the members of trade unions, not just the leadership?

My Lords, my noble friend makes a very good point about the possible gap between the views of trade union members and the views of those who speak in their name. This has been a feature of British politics for some time. It is absolutely our intention to ensure that the UK component of the civil society forum is balanced in every possible way, so that there is full representation of all shades of opinion and interest.