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Topical Questions

Volume 615: debated on Thursday 20 October 2016

Last week I updated the House on our progress towards leaving the EU. I have been clear that the Government’s overarching aims are bringing back control of our laws to Parliament, bringing back control of decisions over immigration to the UK, maintaining the strong security co-operation we have with the EU, and establishing the freest possible market in goods and services with the EU and the rest of the world.

The great repeal Bill will end the primacy of EU law. It will minimise uncertainty and return sovereignty to the institutions of the United Kingdom, because that is what the referendum was all about—taking control.

We will work to ensure the UK’s exit from the EU serves the interests of the whole country, from citizens to businesses. We will reap the opportunities exit provides all over the world and deliver an orderly and smooth transition, but I have been clear, as has the Prime Minister, that we will not be providing a running commentary on the negotiations; that would not be in our interests. Parliament will however be fully and properly engaged, as will the devolved Administrations.

We want to build a national consensus around our position and discuss our options with a range of stakeholders. Last week, I committed to a series of debates so that the House can air its views and we look forward to engaging with the new Select Committee. I congratulate again the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) on his election as Chair of that Committee.

From the Mill bakery next door to my constituency office to the wards of Kingston hospital, thousands of EU citizens work and live in Kingston, and they are very welcome. What process does my right hon. Friend have in mind for ensuring their rights are protected post-Brexit, as well as the rights of British ex-pats living in the EU, something that none of the 27 Heads of State is yet to guarantee?

As the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) has made clear already, we want to be able to guarantee the rights of all those European migrants in the UK. Many of them are already in the position of having indefinite leave to remain, or will have by the time we leave in two and a half years’ time or thereabouts, so we are talking about a small fraction of those people, but nevertheless we take this incredibly seriously and we will seek to get the agreement with the other European countries that we will uphold their rights and British citizens’ rights abroad as soon as possible.

I don’t know about you, Mr Speaker, but the British people have had enough of being misled over these issues. Will the Secretary of State tell the House and the country whether his plan—as it evolves—will involve this country agreeing to continue to make payments to the European Union after we have left it?

The hon. Lady had a great deal of trouble keeping a straight face while she was asking that question. That is because she knows it is one that I am not going to answer.

I look forward to being able to ask the Secretary of State a question with a straight face in anticipation of getting a straight answer. Could he perhaps try to tell the House and the country how much he estimates will need to be spent on settling legacy commitments prior to the completion of Brexit? The Financial Times estimates—this is not a leak; it is an analysis—that our historical liabilities could cost up to £20 billion.

I have no trouble keeping a straight face when dealing with the Opposition. I am afraid that, from time to time, they do things that are seriously not in the country’s interests. Let me quote a rather more authoritative source than the Financial Times. The European Commission has guidelines on how it handles negotiations and what it puts in the public domain beforehand. It states:

“The negotiations and their texts are not themselves public. This is entirely normal for trade negotiations, not just those involving the EU. There are several reasons for this. A certain level of confidentiality is necessary to protect EU interests and to keep chances for a satisfactory outcome high. When entering into a game, no-one starts by revealing his entire strategy to his counterpart from the outset: this is also the case for the EU.”

The Opposition are trying to put us in a disadvantaged position with the European Union, and that is not in the national interest.

My right hon. Friend raises an important point. Many hon. Members are seeking to identify the challenges associated with exiting the European Union, but there will also be a great number of opportunities, not least because we will be in charge of our own affairs and our own trade policy. For that reason, my Department and the Department for International Trade are engaging regularly with businesses not only in the United Kingdom but around the globe.

T4. In Camden, where I live, the Back to Business and FastForward programmes benefit enormously from the European social fund. Those programmes create a more inclusive labour market employing 400 people in my constituency, many of whom are disabled. Will the Minister outline what plans he has to protect the funding for such programmes, which promote social inclusivity? (906680)

Most EU funds will be guaranteed post-departure by the Treasury, as we said in August. After that, the decision will be one for the British people, the British Parliament, the British Government and the relevant Department. I am sure that they will take on board what the hon. Lady has said.

T5. Does the Secretary of State agree that the UK will continue to be a leading global finance centre outside the EU? (906683)

Absolutely. We do not think that there is any doubt about that. London has once again been ranked as the No. 1 global finance centre in 2016. The next highest ranking EU location was not even in the top 10. Being part of the EU market is partly responsible for our ranking, and we are looking to maintain the best possible terms of trade with the EU market, but that is not the only factor. London clearly leads the world with the depth and expertise of its labour force, the breadth of its knowledge, services and infrastructure and its wide array of links to markets around the world. It is in the interests of the UK and the EU that that should continue.

T7. I did not quite catch the Minister’s response earlier, so will he tell us again what priority he is giving to ensuring that universities and research funding more broadly will not be adversely affected by Brexit, and that current research protocols will be protected? (906685)

The hon. Lady makes an important point. As I said earlier, we want the UK to remain a scientific superpower. We have already seen significant guarantees from the Treasury in the lead-up to 2020. It will be in the interests of future UK Governments to ensure that we remain one of the world’s scientific leaders.

T6. My right hon. Friend may be aware that according to Cornwall Council’s own figures, only 1,300 jobs will be created from a £350 million EU spend between now and 2020. Does he agree that a much more tailored approach to regional funding could create more jobs more quickly for Cornwall? (906684)

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. As I indicated previously, the Chancellor has effectively guaranteed structural funding to 2020. It is important that such programmes deliver value for money and to that end the Government will liaise closely with the devolved Administrations and local authorities such as Cornwall Council.

Given the Secretary of State’s answer to Question 1 on financial services, I am sure he is well aware that Merrill Lynch has 1,000 staff in Chester and that Santander has more than 1,000 staff in Bootle. However, he has staff only in London and Brussels. Will he therefore commit to base staff from his Department in every region of England so that businesses can share their views directly with them?

This is not about the allocation of staff. If I put one staff member in every region, only one will be left in Whitehall. The simple truth is that we have been around from Belfast to Blackburn to the port of Tilbury and many other places in the UK and will continue to do so throughout the process, both up until the point at which we trigger article 50 and thereafter.

T8. Yesterday’s employment figures show that this Government’s successful policies are leading to more people being in employment than ever before. The NHS relies on thousands of EU nationals, not only highly skilled individuals, but cooks, consultants, cleaners and porters, so does the Secretary of State want to reassure the NHS that it will be able to continue to employ those EU nationals after Brexit? (906686)

I reiterate that my Department’s task is to bring decisions back to the United Kingdom so that the British Government and the British Parliament can make them in the interests of the United Kingdom. My right hon. Friend can be absolutely sure that those interests will not be interpreted into somehow denying staff to the NHS—just the reverse.

The Secretary of State said yet again that there will be no running commentary on the negotiations. Yesterday, the Chancellor announced plans to protect financial services workers over other EU nationals. Did the Secretary of State agree that strategy with the Chancellor or is it just proof that the Government do not have a clue what they are doing?

As I have said several times in debates that the hon. Gentleman has attended, I will make as much information public as possible without prejudicing our negotiating position. That is what he is witnessing.

The hon. Member for Stafford looks very happy. Presumably, like me, he is celebrating Arsenal’s 6-0 victory last night.

I am, Sir. Will the Secretary of State reassure many factories in the west midlands and my constituency that the smooth, tariff and hassle-free operation of supply chains is of the utmost importance to him?

I will indeed. We have been studying in some detail the effect on integrated manufacturing operations across borders to ensure that they are not jeopardised, whatever the outcome.

In a written answer to me yesterday, the Secretary of State for Wales talked about the full engagement of the devolved Administrations in Brexit negotiations. The best way to protect Wales’s interests would be to put the First Minister in the Government’s negotiating team. What good reason is there not to do so?

I met the First Minister and the Finance Minister on Tuesday to talk about Wales’s interests. That is how we will do it.

Companies in the supply chain to the motor industry, such as Automotive Insulations in my constituency, have benefited from multinational investment in the sector in recent years. What recent discussions have taken place to reassure the sector that the UK is a great place in which to invest?

The Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) was with sector representatives just a day or two ago and Nissan went to see the Prime Minister just this week.

People in Scotland are scared about being left on a relatively small island without the protection of the EU and with perpetual Tory Governments in charge of employment law. Will this Government commit to fully devolving employment law so that we can better protect our workers?

I have to say that it was this Minister who gave the commitment that we would not undermine or in any way reduce the protection available to British workers’ employment rights in all the nations of the United Kingdom. Tomorrow, I am meeting Mike Russell, the Scottish National party’s representative, in Glasgow to discuss this sort of thing.

Will Ministers reassure farmers in my constituency that in reviewing agricultural and environmental regulations they will have at the forefront of their minds the need for our farmers to produce the high-quality food that they do in a profitable way, just as any other business does?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point, and of course one benefit of leaving the European Union is that not only will we be able to adhere to stringent environmental requirements, but we will be able to design those so as best to suit the needs of this country and the agricultural industry.

Both Nissan and Jaguar Land Rover have made it clear that access to the single market is crucial to their future investment decisions in this country. What discussions has the Minister had with those companies to give them reassurance that access to the single market is the Government’s highest priority?

More important than me, the Prime Minister had a meeting with Nissan only this week, and the communiqué that came out after it was extremely positive on both sides.

Brexit has been widely welcomed by leaders of the fishing industry in the Grimsby-Cleethorpes area. The industry was badly let down in the original negotiations in the 1970s. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that that will not be the case on this occasion?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. The interests of the British fishing industry are at the forefront of the Government’s mind. Indeed, we have already had meetings with the Scottish fishermen and had round-table meetings at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

In Northern Ireland, my constituency has some of the best export businesses in agri-food and fishing, and they need attention. Minister, may I invite you to my constituency to hear what they have to say?

I would be delighted to visit, as I would be to go to other parts of the country that have an important fishing industry.