Hilary Benn interview: We can't rest until divisions of opportunity in city are healed

He is playing a central role in the scrutiny of the fraught Brexit process, but Leeds Central MP Hilary Benn is also focused on issues closer to home. Political Editor Rob Parsons reports.

Hilary Benn is chairman of the Brexit select committee of MPs

WHILE most of his Parliamentary colleagues were on their way back to their constituencies after another busy week in the hubbub of Westminster, Leeds MP Hilary Benn was spending his Thursday rather differently.

Along with his colleagues on the Existing the European Union Committee, the former Labour Cabinet Minister was on the Brexit front line, speaking to locals on the 310 mile border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

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With relics of the past such as watchtowers and decaying customs posts providing the backdrop, it was a chance to see at first hand the dangers posed by the dreaded hard border that politicians of all colours have been seeking to avoid during Brexit negotiations.

Hilary Benn, MP for Leeds Central. Picture Tony Johnson.

Speaking to The Yorkshire Post the following morning from his Leeds constituency office, Mr Benn bangs his hand on the table for emphasis as describes the desire of locals not to return to the divided Ireland of years gone by.

“Their message is ‘we don’t want to go back in any way’ and therefore concern about anything happening on the border is a lot more than just about trade, it is about people’s lives, it is about their identity.

“That is what really came across. You won’t meet anyone who say ‘I really fancy having a border once again in Northern Ireland and the Republic’.”

Hours after his visit to Armagh, a breakthrough was achieved by Theresa May and her European counterparts that allowed the vexed Irish border issue to be put on hold, at least for a while.

Hilary Benn, MP for Leeds Central. Picture Tony Johnson.

With European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker agreeing that sufficient progress had been made to move Brexit negotiations past the initial phase, thoughts now turn to the UK’s relationship with the EU.

Mr Benn, elected last October as chair of the so-called ‘Brexit committee’ formed to scrutinise government policy on the UK’s exit from the EU, welcomed the overdue progress but warned the clock was ticking on the next stage of talks.

If things go well, he suggests, by March 2019 and the end of the process started by the triggering of Article 50, the deal will contain a political declaration that the UK and EU member states will continue to negotiate on the issues that could not be settled in the time available.

Referring to Liam Fox’s claim that the post-Brexit trade deal will be the “easiest in human history”, he points out that the deal between Canada and the EU took seven years.

“Now it may be a shortlist or a long list, it may be less detail or more detail, depending on what they have been able to agree”, he said. “The negotiations are due to end in October, November next year, that is the deadline [European negotiator] Michel Barnier set, because you have to allow time for a proper consideration by the UK Parliament, the European Parliament, the states, a meaningful vote, all those things.

“We said that very clearly in the select committee, it would be unacceptable for Parliament to be asked to approve it after we have left the EU in March 2019.

“There is not a majority in Parliament for leaving with no deal, there is not. And in those circumstances, people ask ‘what can you do, you have got to accept it’.

“I say no, no, no, Parliament could in those circumstances just say to the Government, we are giving you fresh negotiating instructions, Parliament is telling you what to go in and seek.”

At a local level, Mr Benn, who was elected as Leeds Central MP in 1999, said Brexit barely came up on the doorstep as he campaigned during this summer’s General Election, “I think because people felt the decision had been made”.

Of more interest to his Leeds Central constituents is the daily struggle to get by amid the yawning gap between those with an opportunity and income and those without in an otherwise thriving city.

He cites the lack of council housing, the cost of private rented accommodation and changes to the benefit system as frequent complaints made by visitors arriving in a ‘state of despair’. “I will never forget the day a woman came to see me with a letter and her entire world had been turned down by the letter she received”, he said.

“They said ‘we haven’t assessed you for the higher rate, you can’t have your motability car any more. She said to me ‘I am disabled, I go to work. If I haven’t got my car, I can’t go to work, if I can’t go to work I will lose my job, if I lose my job I can’t pay my mortgage and if I can’t pay my mortgage I will lose my home’. One letter, one morning, has turned her life upside down.”

Mr Benn recently attended St George’s Crypt in Leeds to meet Yorkshire Water staff who had brought in food for the homeless, a visit that prompts him to reflect on the increased use of food banks in the city.

“It is not right that people find themselves in those circumstances and it means there is a city where there is division in terms of aspiration and opportunity and we should not rest until we do something about that,” he said.

“I have always said the businesses in the city have a responsibility to make sure that all of our citizens have a chance to participate in that wealth, because some people look at the city centre and think that’s nothing to do with my life, but it is our city, we share it.”