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Article 50

Volume 617: debated on Thursday 1 December 2016

At home, we are carrying out an extensive programme of sectoral analysis on the key factors that affect our negotiations with the European Union. We are working closely with the devolved Administrations, Parliament and a range of other stakeholders, as we have already heard from the Minister of State. The House should understand that we are also working with every Department to ensure a full range of opportunities.

In Europe, we are undertaking wide-ranging engagement, led by the Prime Minister. I have met representatives of the European Commission and the European Parliament, as well as Ministers and other officials from several European member states.

I am not entirely sure how that answer related to my question, but it was certainly full of flannel. It seems that we are no further forward with a plan to leave the EU than we were five months ago. Will the Secretary of State tell me when the Government are going to drop the pretence that Brexit can mean continued tariff-free access to the single market and an end to freedom of movement? The British public deserve better than that embarrassing charade.

I am interested to hear the hon. Lady’s supplementary question, which she obviously prepared earlier—[Interruption.] This has been the Labour line for some time. It is really interesting that Labour Members cannot agree among themselves on whether they agree with their Front-Bench spokesman or with their shadow Chancellor. We are four to five months from the triggering of article 50. That will be point at which the negotiations start and it will be clear where we are going.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is quite a bit of room between the phrase “Brexit means Brexit” and a full detailed dossier of negotiation? Does he note that more than one witness to the Exiting the European Union Committee and several Members of Parliament believe that, in order to provide some clarity and deal with some of the current uncertainty, there is room for the Government to publish in advance something on their high-level objectives, which will be known to the EU and to all of us the moment article 50 is triggered? Will he consider that with great urgency?

Of course I will consider anything my right hon. Friend comes forward with in this area; I know it is a matter of great importance to him. Let me say this: “Brexit means Brexit”, an interesting phrase at the beginning of this exercise, is a long way short of what we have already said, which is that we are aiming to achieve the maximum possible free access to the market and that we need to respect all the implications of the referendum. In between those things, in an important area that nobody seems to talk about, justice and home affairs, we have made it very clear that we want, as far as is possible, to replicate what we already have. We have had a great deal of parliamentary discussion about this matter already and we are going to have a great deal more between now and the triggering of article 50, including the appearance before the Select Committee and so on. So he can expect to know a very great deal about this at the time we get there. I made one particular undertaking at the first Select Committee I attended, the Lords one, which was that this House would be kept at least as well informed as the European Parliament.

It could be argued that we have made some progress on what the Government’s plans are this week. Once the Secretary of State gets round to moving on from scribbled notes to typed-up notes, will he pass them to the House? Will he tell us whether he briefed the Foreign Secretary before his latest trip, and is freedom of movement still a priority for this Government?

Let me pick up on the last point first. What I have seen in the papers this morning strikes me as completely at odds with what I know about my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary’s approach to this matter. He believes clearly—he made this clear during the leave campaign, which he was a much more major part of than I was—that some immigration is useful. We all agree on that, but it is not the same as thinking that free movement of people as it now stands is a good idea—it is a problem. On the other aspects of the forward planning, the hon. Gentleman should know—I assume he talks to his opposite number on the Joint Ministerial Committee EN, the Committee that co-ordinates the approaches of the three devolved Administrations—that a great deal of work has been taking place on these matters and all of it is in typed script; none of it is scribbled on a bit of paper.

So what we take from that is: yet more bumbled diplomacy from the Foreign Secretary. On what the Minister of State said about regions being European constructs, I hope he was not referring to the ancient European nation of Scotland or the ancient European nation of Ireland. The Secretary of State will be aware of the First Minister’s successful trip this week, so what lessons does he take from Ireland and the fact that the number of passport applications has gone up by 50% in that country?

One lesson I take from it is that if the parties on the Opposition Benches—all of them—continue to frighten people, that is what the response will be. The hon. Gentleman should know, in terms—we have said this over and over again—that we wish to provide the maximum protection for both European citizens here and British citizens abroad. Just so he does not forget this, let me say that the Polish Prime Minister—not just the British Prime Minister—accepted earlier this week in public that both of those matters matter.

We need to speed up, as progress is very slow. I want an extremely short, one-sentence question from Mr Michael Tomlinson.

On article 50, does the Secretary of State agree that it is right to appeal from the High Court, that it is inevitable that this would end up in the Supreme Court and that this constitutional point needs to be resolved?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: this point is wider than just the issue of article 50; it goes right to the heart of the operation of the Crown prerogative.

The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have repeatedly said that there will be no running commentary on their article 50 plans, yet there is one. It is being provided by leaked memos, notes caught on camera and the near-constant comments of the Foreign Secretary to anyone who will listen to him. This is serious because it is damaging the prospects of the negotiations getting off to a good start. The Secretary of State must realise that this is going to continue throughout the two years unless and until he discloses to this House the basic plan the Government are adopting. So my question is simple: when is he going to do so?

The answer is the same one I have given the hon. Gentleman before to exactly the same question, which is that we have already set out the strategic aims—he knows that. He is also aware that we do not want to cut down the options available on things such as the old issue of market access. At this stage, we do not wish to go into great detail on the justice and home affairs front, on which I suspect that we absolutely agree, because we want to get the best possible outcome for Britain. The dominating factor here is not what is in the newspapers, but what is the best outcome for Britain in the long run.

The question was when will we see the plan. On 7 November, when the Secretary of State was last at the Dispatch Box, he was asked whether the Government were intending to keep the UK in the customs union. He answered by saying:

“We will make that judgment in due course and make it public in due course.”—[Official Report, 7 November 2016; Vol. 616, c. 1269.]

There are now just 121 days left until the end of March next year. Time is running out. Another simple question is: when does the Secretary of State intend to honour his commitment and make the Government’s position on the customs union clear?

One hundred and twenty one days is a long time in policy terms, I am afraid. The simple truth is that there is one chance in this negotiation. This is unlike almost anything else that comes in front of this House. With everything else, we can come back and repeal it, change it or amend it later. This is a single-shot negotiation, so we must get it right, and we will get it right by doing the analysis first and the notification second. I will do that. I will meet my promise to the hon. and learned Gentleman—there is no doubt about that—but he will just have to wait until the analysis is complete.