I beg to move,
That this House has considered the process for the UK to leave the EU.
I am pleased that you are chairing the debate, Mr Bailey. I drafted the wording of the motion with a purpose. We have come to use Brexit as shorthand for our country’s extricating itself from the EU, but Brexit does our friends and neighbours in Northern Ireland a grave disservice. It is not Britain that will be leaving the EU, but the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Technically, if we are to use a shorthand at all it should be “UKexit”.
I applied for the debate before the Prime Minister’s excellent speech yesterday, in which she set out her objectives for the negotiations that will take place with the EU during the next couple of years. I wanted a debate because some of my constituents are confused. Like me, they are simple souls who believed that they knew exactly what they were doing when they voted to leave the EU in June 2016. The more knowledgeable among them even knew the process for achieving our withdrawal.
However, they are now confused, because they see certain hon. Members who apparently do not understand what is meant by democracy, such as the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), who seems to think that a referendum result is only democratic if he is on the winning side. My constituents do not understand why, having voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU, their wishes are dismissed as only “advisory” by many remainers. They also do not understand why some MPs do not themselves seem to understand the process for leaving the EU, so I called the debate to allow the Minister to clarify that process. Let be me clear: that does not mean I want him to reveal any of the Government’s negotiating plans. I will explain more on my reasoning for that later.
My understanding of the process of leaving the EU is probably an oversimplification of the situation, although, as I said before, I am a simple soul. I believe that the first step is to notify other EU members that we intend to leave, by invoking article 50, and that nothing can be done until that happens, including negotiating with our EU partners. Article 50 is also bandied about as shorthand for setting the ball rolling, but I wonder how many people have actually read what it entails. I will enlighten those who do not know by reading it out:
“1. Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.
2. A Member State which decides to withdraw shall notify the European Council of its intention. In the light of the guidelines provided by the European Council, the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with that State, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union. That agreement shall be negotiated in accordance with Article 218(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. It shall be concluded on behalf of the Union by the Council, acting by a qualified majority, after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament.
this is important—
“The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification referred to in paragraph 2, unless the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned, unanimously decides to extend this period.
4. For the purposes of paragraphs 2 and 3, the member of the European Council or of the Council representing the withdrawing Member State shall not participate in the discussions of the European Council or Council or in decisions concerning it.”
That seems pretty clear to me: the United Kingdom will leave the EU two years after invoking article 50, whether or not an agreement has been reached. That is my understanding of the process. I would like confirmation that I am right, and that article 50 of the Lisbon treaty will be triggered by the end of March.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree with my interpretation of the triggering of article 50: once triggered, it is an irrevocable process that nothing—not even Parliament—can stop either that being completed or Britain’s leaving the European Union?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, because it allows me to emphasise again that not only is that his interpretation and mine, but it is the EU’s interpretation. What he says is quite true: once we have invoked article 50, that is the end of the matter —we will be leaving the EU. That is my understanding of the process, and I would like confirmation that I am right.
I would also like the Minister to clarify what will happen should the Supreme Court uphold the High Court’s ruling that Parliament should have a vote on any decision. As the Prime Minister made clear yesterday, leaving the EU will entail divorcing ourselves from all of the EU’s institutions, rules and regulations, including the single market, the customs union and the free movement of people—except under terms negotiated between the UK and the remaining member states. That is what my constituents understood, and it is what they voted for by a large majority in last year’s referendum.
Nationally, the United Kingdom voted by a margin of 52% to 48% to leave the EU. Some Members have said that that result is indecisive and should be ignored, but most of those Members were elected to this place with a lower percentage of the vote than 52%. Does that mean that we can ignore their opinion? I should add that, in my constituency of Sittingbourne and Sheppey, the margin in favour of leave was 62% to 38%.
I also add that my constituents who voted to leave are absolutely livid that some professor at Cambridge University called Nicholas Boyle is reported to have said:
“The referendum vote does not deserve to be respected…Like resentful ruffians uprooting the new trees in the park and trashing the new play area, 17 million English, the lager louts of Europe, voted for Brexit in an act of geopolitical vandalism.”
That is a disgraceful slur on my constituents and the rest of the 17 million decent people who voted to leave the EU—many of whom were Irish, Welsh and, indeed, Scottish.
The hon. Gentleman may have anticipated my point. I was going to say that, although he correctly pointed to the respective statuses of the United Kingdom and Great Britain earlier, there is clearly a massive flaw in the quote he read out. It was not 17 million people only from England; sadly, there were some in Scotland who voted to leave as well—although not very many.
It was not my quote; it was by a professor of German from Cambridge University. He is a far more intelligent person than I am, but I understood that it was not only English people who voted to leave. I should add—the hon. Gentleman will probably realise this from my name—that my father comes from Glasgow. He is a proud Scot, but has lived in this country for 69 years. He is first and foremost British and considers himself so. Not only are those people called lager louts and vandals by this two-bit academic, but they are accused by other remainers, including Members of this place, of not understanding what they were voting for last June and of not being aware of the implications of an out vote. In addition to being insultingly patronising, that accusation simply does not stand up to even the flimsiest scrutiny.
Before the EU referendum campaign even started, the then Government sent every household an expensive leaflet, funded by taxpayers, setting out why people should vote to remain in the EU. Let me quote verbatim from that leaflet. It said that voting to remain would
“protect jobs, provide security, and strengthen the UK’s economy for every family in this country—a clear path into the future, in contrast to the uncertainty of leaving.”
That was a pretty clear warning, but still 17 million people voted to leave the EU.
The remainers also tell us that although a majority voted to leave the EU, they did not vote to leave the single market. Let me quote from the Government leaflet again:
“Remaining inside the EU guarantees our full access to its Single Market. By contrast, leaving creates uncertainty and risk.”
That, too, was pretty clear: a vote to leave the EU was also a vote to leave the single market. But still 17 million people voted to leave.
Having lost the referendum, some remainers are attempting to change the rules of the game. They are now saying that the referendum was only advisory. That is twaddle. Let me read another couple of quotes from the Government leaflet. The first is this:
“This is your chance to decide your own future and the future of the United Kingdom. It is important that you vote.”
That is reinforced by a second quote:
“This is your decision. The Government will implement what you decide.”
Voters in the United Kingdom as a whole decided to leave the EU. It is now for the Government to deliver what was promised and get the process started by invoking article 50. They should not be preventing from doing so by those remainers who are unable to come to grips with the result of the referendum.
Some remainers argue that article 50 should not and cannot be triggered without first obtaining the approval of Parliament. I do not remember those people pointing out during the referendum campaign that the Government’s promise to implement any decision taken by voters was illegal. Instead, it is only now that they are trying to subvert the will of the people.
On a point of order, Mr Bailey. I do not think I have ever raised a point of order since becoming a Member of Parliament. Is it in order for us to comment on the merits of a case that is sub judice before the Supreme Court? Should we not wait for the Supreme Court to decide before we comment on whether or not article 50 needs parliamentary approval?
Thank you, Mr Bailey. My comments were in no way designed to influence whatever the Supreme Court decides, but it is fairly common knowledge that it will give its ruling. My views are irrelevant to it.
The people I was talking about dress up their subversion with weasel words that would do credit to a used car salesman. They claim not to oppose UK exit, but their actions belie those words. I have no respect for those who say they want to abide by the referendum result but are desperately trying to find ways to somehow delay triggering article 50, in the hope that a way can be found to have a second referendum or a general election. As it happens, I think they are clutching at straws if they believe that voters would change their minds. In my view, if there was another referendum, the result would be an even more resounding vote to leave, because the “Project Fear” fox has been well and truly shot. In addition to realising that they were lied to by some remainers, the voting public do not like cheats and whingers, as those with a long political memory will know.
There is a point of view—I think a legitimate one—that as it took us passing an Act of Parliament to enter the European Union, Parliament will also legally be required to pass an Act of Parliament to take us out. That does not mean those of us who take that position in any way want to override the desire expressed by the British people to leave.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s intervention, but he will not be surprised to know that I do not agree. I believe that when the Government hold a referendum in which they make it clear, as the then Government did, that the will of the people will be listened to, and when this Parliament—of which he and I were both Members at the time—decides to allow a referendum and for the British people’s view to be heard, we should hear it.
I talked earlier about those of us with a long political memory, and I want to remind people what happened in Winchester at the 1997 general election. The Conservative candidate lost by two votes to the Liberal Democrats, but after a successful petition, there was a rerun of the election, at which the Lib Dems won by a majority of more than 21,000. It is ironic that it is the Lib Dems leading the charge for another referendum. They appear not to have learned anything.
I mentioned the Government’s negotiating position. There are repeated calls from all sides of the House for Ministers to allow Members to scrutinise their plans in advance and vote on them. In my view, that would be quite ludicrous and could only be suggested by people who have little experience of business or absolutely no experience of negotiating. I have experience of both.
I left school at 16 and worked in the real world of business and commerce for almost 50 years before being elected to this House. For some of that time, I worked as a senior contracts officer for GEC-Marconi Avionics, which was then bought by British Aerospace. In that role, I negotiated with various customers, including the UK Ministry of Defence and McDonnell Douglas in America. There are no circumstances on earth that would have enticed me to reveal to those with whom I was negotiating information in advance about my negotiating stance. To have done so would have been akin to committing commercial suicide, so why should Ministers let our European neighbours know in advance what the Government’s strategy is? That would be stupid.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. I am listening carefully to the great detail he is going into and, indeed, to his business experience. Could he tell us whether, in making any business decisions that would mean going through a significant period of change, the companies he worked for consulted the board or its employees? How would he compare that to how the UK Government consulted people on the detail of their plans in the run-up to the Brexit vote?
I welcome the hon. Lady’s intervention, and I have a very easy answer for her. My experience in business is that shareholders elect a board of directors. The board of directors then employs people to manage the business, including negotiators, and does not expect to be kept informed of what is going to happen. If a negotiator messes up on a deal, they get the bullet. It is exactly the same thing here: if the Government mess up on this deal, they will not get re-elected at the 2020 election. That is the deal.
One thing I learned as a contracts officer was never to enter into any negotiation without a line beyond which I was not prepared to go, and to be prepared to walk away rather than cross that line. The Prime Minister said yesterday that in her view, no deal is better than a bad deal. I hope our negotiators remember her words and are prepared to walk away rather than accept a bad deal.
We often hear remainers talking about hard Brexit and soft Brexit. No one has explained to me exactly what those terms mean. I am assuming that by “soft exit” the remainers mean we should remain in a single market, even if that means we have to accept the free movement of labour in exchange. I also assume that they are happy for us to continue paying the EU billions of pounds a year for the privilege of having full access to the single market and accepting all the obligations that come with being a full member. If that is the case, soft exit means no exit and they should be honest enough to admit it. As for me, exit means exit. Full stop.
Before I call the next speaker, I want to inform hon. Members that I have sought legal opinion on the point of order raised by Peter Grant. The situation is that even if the House sub judice resolution did apply to the case before the Supreme Court, I judge that the risk of any prejudice from this debate be so small that I would waive the sub judice resolution. Members should, of course, refer respectfully to the judges involved in the case.
Two Back Benchers have indicated that they wish to contribute to the debate. Ordinarily, the Front-Bench spokesperson would have five minutes and the Minister would have 10 minutes. If the Back Benchers are so generous as to give a little more time to the Front-Bench spokesperson, I will enable them to have more time.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate on what is a hugely important issue—the issue of our generation.
It is fair to say that, as the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) said, we should put the various political platitudes and soundbites of hard Brexit, soft Brexit and red, white and blue Brexit to one side and realise they are pretty meaningless to voters and the people who elected us. We must stop patronising the people of the UK and letting this Tory Government off the hook by trivialising or minimising this complex issue to pitiful political platitudes. It is hugely important to have debates such as this as we go through the process and to remind ourselves that exiting the EU will be hugely complex and time-consuming; in fact, to quote the now Chancellor of the Exchequer, it could take
“longer than the Second World War.”
That is why it still seems to me—and, I am sure, to many people across these islands of the UK—incredible that ahead of the EU referendum vote the Tory Government had no plans and nothing written down about the options and plans.
For a number of years before coming to Parliament, like the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, I worked in the oil and gas sector, particularly in areas of business change. Like any business, when we embarked on large-scale change we drew up a road map of where we wanted to go. We started with where we were, what we wanted to do and how we would do it. Along with that were extensive details of what departments of the business would be affected, who might lose their jobs and how we could mitigate and protect any threats to our business. I can almost see the coloured Post-it notes and the mind maps.
I am pretty certain that every business person, organisation and individual across the UK looked at the proceedings and the details that came out in the press in the run-up to the Brexit vote—or, it would be fair to say, lack of detail—and assumed that at the very least the Tory Government had a basic analysis of the impact of exiting the EU and what the processes would be. However, it seems that the nation was mistaken. The press reported:
“Civil servants will be secretly working on ‘Brexit’ plans but not writing them down”.
Can anyone imagine a CEO going to the board of a company and saying, “Don’t worry. Our company won’t fail. I have been doing lots of thinking and it’s all in my head. Success means success, it will be red, white and blue and you can all now vote on whether you are with me or against me”? They would be laughed out of the boardroom.
Even the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, thought the former Prime Minister was pulling her leg when he said that he did not have a plan for the UK if it should vote to leave the EU. However, he was not kidding, and we now know what happens to Prime Ministers who do not have a plan.
By contrast, when we held a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014, we did have a plan. We consulted people the length and breadth of the country. We even wrote things down. We may not have had all the answers, but we engaged and prepared, and presented a pretty extensive White Paper that people could read, digest and consider before they were taken to the polls on such an important issue. We felt that we had set the gold standard for referendums. When the then Prime Minister bumbled into Brexit without any proper forethought, he put the economy of the United Kingdom, people’s livelihoods and our international reputation on the line. I hope that as the Government enter into the process of exit from the EU they will reflect long and hard on how badly they have failed the people of the UK with respect to a proper planning process.
There are questions that are important to people and businesses across the nations of the UK, about the working of the process but also about what it means for their lives and livelihoods. We so often get caught up in technical jargon and doublespeak. Brexit has been the ultimate case in point. People and businesses need to be able to plan for the future, and the Tory Government need to be open and transparent about what they are doing and how they are doing it, and to ensure that, as they promised, they will consult all the nations of the United Kingdom.
To use my own constituency as an example, Livingston was a new town, built in the 1950s and designated in 1962. It attracted significant EU structural funding. I have heard from people in my constituency who came from other parts of Europe to set up homes and businesses in Livingston, where business relies particularly on workers from the EU. The town is Scotland’s third major retail hub, with the McArthurGlen outlet drawing in thousands of shoppers every week. The retail sector employs no fewer than 2 million workers in the UK, many of them in my constituency; and many of them are worried about their status.
My constituents and local businesses are not the only ones with concerns. The report published by the Exiting the European Union Committee earlier this month, entitled “The process for exiting the European Union and the Government’s negotiating objectives”, warns of an urgent need to
“provide certainty and reassurance to the individuals, their families and the businesses and services that rely on them.”
JP Morgan commented yesterday, after the Prime Minister’s Brexit speech, that not to have clear details, particularly for trade, was “very dangerous”.
The Prime Minister said yesterday:
“Brexit must mean control of the number of people who come to Britain from Europe.”
In Scotland, EU membership supports more than 300,000 jobs directly and indirectly. The Fraser of Allander Institute has predicted that Scotland could lose up to 80,000 jobs.
I know from the cases that come through my constituency office that the Home Office has rules and new regulations coming out of its ears; they change every week. It is so disorganised that there are no proper, efficient systems for dealing with immigration. As the UK sets out the process for exit from the EU, I want to ask the Minister specifically, will the Government review the current processes? It is apparent that those processes are not working and therefore, instead of looking to review and improve them, they are going to close the door and not let in anyone else from the EU. The Minister shakes his head, but the fact is that people do not know what their status is going to be.
Just before we returned from the recess, both the CBI and the Federation of Small Businesses expressed serious concern about the lack of clarity as to EU workers, their status, and the impact on business. As we look forward, it is essential that the Prime Minister should stick to the commitment that she gave today in Prime Minister’s questions to work with the devolved nations. She made specific reference to the Scotland plan and gave a commitment to working with the Scottish Government on the way forward. That is welcome news but the process is complex and Scotland’s position and the result of the EU vote in Scotland must be respected.
The Scottish National party strongly believes that the best way to build a more prosperous and equal Scotland is to be a full member of the EU, and certainly advocates staying within the single market, even if the rest of the UK leaves. According to the UK Government’s own analysis, leaving the single market could lower Scotland’s GDP by more than £10 billion. Furthermore, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research suggests that Scotland’s exports could be cut by more than £5 billion if we lose access to the single market. The EU is the main destination for Scottish exports; it receives 42% of Scotland’s international exports. As the negotiations take place, it is vital that there is a more transparent process than we have seen today and that there is greater detail.
Triggering article 50 will directly affect devolved interests and rights in Scotland. The UK’s current constitutional arrangements are underpinned by membership of the EU. Leaving the EU therefore requires reconsideration of the devolution settlement. Critically, the Exiting the European Union Committee report commented on the work that the Government still need to do before triggering article 50. It stated that
“it is essential that all the devolved governments, and the different regions of England, are duly involved in the process and have their views taken into account.”
Separately, there is a need to devolve more powers to Scotland, in order to safeguard current EU rights and social protections in areas such as employment and to allow the Scottish Parliament to protect Scotland’s wider interests, including any differential relationship with Europe.
The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union told me directly in the Chamber yesterday that he wanted to ensure that there was no detriment to workers in Scotland from other parts of the EU. Yet the Tory Government have pursued pernicious and damaging policies such as those set out in the Trade Union Act 2016. Many of us wonder what they will do when the powers are transferred from Europe.
Of course any proposal to remove Scotland from the EU will need legislation from Westminster, but the First Minister of Scotland has made it crystal clear that any such legislation would require the consent of the Scottish Parliament. The people of Scotland voted, by a majority, to remain in the EU. As we go through the process of exiting the EU, the UK Government must take account of what the people of Scotland voted for. They must not take us off a cliff edge into a hard Tory Brexit. They must do everything they can to accept the will of the people of the devolved nations by considering the plans that have been put forward.
It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on setting the scene very well. He and I are of a similar mind, as are other hon. Members in this Chamber, but it is always good to give a balance to the debate, which is on a major issue for us all.
I have been vocal in my desire to see our sovereignty restored. I was overjoyed to learn that the Vote Leave campaign had been successful and that the will of the people, as demonstrated in the democratic vote, was to be followed. I have been disheartened by those, most often in the media, who have perpetuated the belief that there is still some way in which that may not happen, as the hon. Gentleman said. All the challenges that have arisen in the law courts are a vain attempt to circumnavigate the will of the people.
The same thing is happening in Northern Ireland at the moment, as Members following events over there will be aware. The will of the people was to elect a strong Democratic Unionist party team, and because the strength of that team was too overwhelming for Sinn Féin, it collapsed the institution, to take power back and change that outcome. I do not believe that that should be allowed to happen on the European question: we must stand fast on it. Our leave process must begin. Article 50 should be triggered. I congratulate the Prime Minister on her statement yesterday and on her clear and firm control of the steering wheel, which is in good hands as we move out of Europe.
I am not so simple-minded that I do not understand the massive intrinsic complexities that these steps bring with them. We need to be certain of what is achievable and how we achieve it. The bitter grapes of wrath against people who dared to exercise their democratic right by voting to leave must be put away. We must all work together to secure the best possible outcome for each and every constituent, regardless of how they voted. I have spoken at length to those who are preparing our strategies and policies for Brexit and I have been incredibly vocal about the need to ensure that the needs of Northern Ireland are taken into account, especially in the light of the events of the last week in Northern Ireland that have prevented those in our Assembly from being able to do their job and have input.
I am grateful for our party’s team here in Westminster. My right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) continues to work closely with the Government and with Ministers in a very positive and direct fashion. He recently met Michel Barnier, the EU chief Brexit negotiator, privately in Strasbourg, to ensure that he, too, was informed of the distinctive challenges faced and the special arrangements required by Northern Ireland.
There is a need for flexibility to ensure minimal disruption to existing border arrangements under the common travel area, which predates the EU continuation of trade, with the Republic of Ireland. As my right hon. Friend has said, stability around those arrangements will be key in helping to secure the continuation of good relations and the peace that the EU has assisted in fostering. Article 8 of the Lisbon treaty outlines the European Union’s desire to
“develop a special relationship with neighbouring countries”
in the interests of
“prosperity and good neighbourliness…and characterised by close and peaceful relations based on cooperation.”
Being positive about how we are moving forward and taking people with us must be the character of the Brexit process. It must be in the best interests of all the people of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
A withdrawal agreement will set out detailed transition provisions that should state the future relationship with the EU. Despite that, there are particular concerns about the UK’s trading relationship with the EU. My concerns lie in such areas as the agri-food industry. EU exporters have been known to price competitively. Those who depend on imports from the EU face higher costs for some things. Our process and negotiations must ensure that fair costs in the import and export of goods from different countries are maintained. There are negotiations in place to allow New Zealand to supply lamb with zero duty. Those arrangements are in place. They are possible and they must be made available to us. Interestingly, in the news today, we heard the Government’s statement that many countries are queueing up to sign trade contracts with us outside of Europe. That is an indication of the confidence that the rest of the world has, and it shows why we should be confident in what we are doing, too. That was good news.
Fishermen are not able to fish or work in their own waters, but Brexit will enable them to reclaim their rights to fish sensibly under sensible guidelines, with a sound business plan that will increase viability, create jobs and lead to a better future. The fishermen in Portavogie in my constituency and across Northern Ireland and the whole United Kingdom, including Scotland, want to have control. We have to have that.
There has been talk of changes to workers’ rights due to a change in regulations, but I believe that the small and large businesses in our counties often go further than the European rights, such as by making enhanced and longer periods of maternity leave available. We are doing many things better than Europe intended. I am positive about workers’ rights. I had the opportunity to meet the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in Northern Ireland. That was not by my invitation alone, but I was one of those who invited her. We had the opportunity to meet some companies to talk about workers’ rights, some of the problems they have and how the Secretary of State sees the cross-border trade working.
After hearing what the Secretary of State said, I am confident that our agri-food industry will be able to co-operate and do business in the Republic of Ireland. I am also confident about the workers we have in our factories and their futures. Many have married, integrated, bought houses and are living in our areas. I have had parents express concerns to me about university places in Europe and the availability of placements, but I point to the reciprocal arrangements that countries such as Switzerland and Norway have in place. We are already doing it. People should not get alarmed about what is happening. Arrangements are already in place that we can take advantage of.
I have raised many issues. I put it on record yesterday, and I will do so again today: I have faith and confidence in the Brexit team, in our Prime Minister and in those negotiating to deliver Brexit for us. We must trigger article 50 when our confidence in how we are achieving our goals is strong. I believe that the Secretary of State and the Brexit team are aware of that, and I have faith and confidence in their timing.
The onus on each Member in this House is to respect the democratic will of the people, to get involved in the process and to help to secure the best advantages for this country. They should stop creating roadblocks and putting up legal challenges that go against the will of the people as expressed in the referendum. We need to deliver on what the people said, and they want out. They want a constructive relationship with Europe, and that is as it should be. There are advantages to having trading partners, but there are more advantages to being out of Europe, and I look forward to that. We need the knowledge to foresee the bumps in the road and to help smooth the obstacles. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve the economy and expand our trading relationships with other countries. I am very confident about the future, and all those who voted out are also confident. Many of those who voted remain are also looking forward to those opportunities. Let us get it right and let us do it together.
I am pleased to sum up on behalf of the Scottish National party in this debate, and I commend the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) for securing it.
In his opening speech, the hon. Gentleman reminded us that the requirement of the UK Government is to deliver and implement article 50 in accordance with the United Kingdom’s own constitutional requirements. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for reminding us, among other things, of the very special—indeed, unique—place that Northern Ireland has in the constitutional requirements of the United Kingdom. I hope that, whatever else happens, nothing in the implementation of article 50 will jeopardise in any way the very fragile and tenuous peace process that is still, thankfully, just about in place in Northern Ireland.
The hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey quoted some figures and made some assumptions about the percentage of the vote that various MPs received from the electorate. I must say that my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) actually bucked the trend that he referred to, because she got just under 57% of the vote in her election. Modesty forbids me from telling the House that I got just under 60%. Members will have worked out immediately that both those numbers are higher than 52%; indeed, they are also both higher than 55%, which is a number that is quite significant for some of us. Admittedly, though, they are far short of 62%, which is the percentage that matters most to me in this debate, because 62% is how many of my people said they wanted to stay in the European Union.
I commend the hon. Gentleman for his great persuasive powers in achieving that result. I delicately remind him that I did not say 62% in my constituency; I said 62% in my country. There is an important difference.
The final comment that I will make in relation to the hon. Gentleman is that I share his distaste and despair at the tone of some of the debate before, during and after the referendum, and I certainly completely distance myself from the description that he referred to, which was used against all of the 17 million people who voted to leave the EU. I respect the right of people to take their own decisions. I may sometimes be horrified, dismayed, appalled or disappointed by the decisions that they take, but I will respect the decision that the people of England have taken and I also respect the decision that the people of Wales have taken. I ask Members to respect the views that have been expressed by the people of Scotland.
However, I gently have to remind the hon. Gentleman that it is not the first time in the last few years that opponents of change have told packs of lies to the population during a referendum, and I also have to say that I do not remember him protesting as loudly the last time it happened, which was in Scotland.
The debate is about the process for leaving the European Union, but it would be foolish to try to talk about the process without talking about where we want to be at the end of it, because knowing where we want to be can have a huge impact on the process that we choose to follow, and the way that we implement the process can significantly affect our chances of getting the results that we want.
What are the objectives and how have they been arrived at? Well, we have got some clarity on the first question, but not a great deal of clarity on the second. We now know something about the objectives. We now know that the Prime Minister’s objective is not to have free movement of people, but we do not know exactly what she wants instead. We now know that the Prime Minister does not want to be part of the single market; we just do not know what she wants to be part of instead. And we now know—well, we knew already—that when we negotiate this avalanche of new trade deals with everybody and their dog, who, according to the Foreign Secretary, are queuing to do deals with this wee pocket of land in the north Atlantic, those deals will not be subject to adjudication by the Court of Justice of the European Union; we just do not know whose jurisdiction they will come under. In other words, we know a great deal about what the Prime Minister does not want, but we are not an awful lot further forward in knowing what she does want.
Shortly after the referendum, the Liberal Democrats—yes, they do sometimes have their uses—came up with the phrase that the referendum result told us that people wanted to leave but we did not really have any idea about where they wanted to go, and I am not convinced that things have changed very much since then.
We cannot even get reliable and consistent answers from the Government about how they will decide on their objectives. Yesterday, in answer to my question about the Scottish Government’s paper, “Scotland’s Place in Europe”, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union told the House:
“I gave him”—
That is, Mike Russell MSP—
“an undertaking that we would debate that paper at the next JMC (EN), as it is known in Whitehall jargon, and that is what we will do. I have been very careful not to comment publicly on it”.—[Official Report, 17 January 2017; Vol. 619, c. 798.]
He was referring to the Scottish Government’s paper—
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on securing this important and timely debate, as well as the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) on their powerful contributions. The hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey was forceful and direct in making his argument, and I will try to be the same.
I will start by saying that Labour accepts and respects the outcome of the referendum. It was the largest exercise of direct democracy in our country’s history and more than 33 million votes were cast. It was a lengthy, wide-ranging campaign that culminated in a high public turnout and a close, but clear, outcome. Throughout, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, the public were led to expect that the result would be honoured and implemented, and it should be. Labour accepts that we are exiting the EU and we therefore have no intention, should the Supreme Court uphold the High Court’s November ruling on 24 January, of frustrating the start of that process by voting against the triggering of article 50 out of hand.
However, Labour believes that the Government have approached the matter in the wrong way by arguing, as they have done and continue to do, that Parliament should have no say in the matter. All the effort and cost that will have been incurred by 24 January could have been avoided if Ministers had simply assured the House at an early stage that a plan setting out the Government’s basic negotiating terms would be forthcoming, and had proceeded with a vote on the triggering of article 50 on that basis. That is an approach that we would have welcomed.
Once article 50 has been served there will—I agree with the hon. Gentleman—be a hard two-year deadline within which to conclude a divorce settlement. However, the question of how long reaching that settlement and agreeing a new relationship with the EU 27 will take will be determined by the complexity of the negotiations to come. I agree, in this respect, with the hon. Member for Livingston—I am staggered that the Government did not do even the most rudimentary planning prior to 23 June.
From the speech that the Prime Minister delivered yesterday we do, at last, have some much-needed clarity on how the Government intend to approach the negotiations. I have to say to the Minister, however, that I find it extraordinary that it has taken this long, and that the Prime Minister chose to make her announcement in a speech rather than in a statement to the House. Nor does Labour view that speech as a substitute for a detailed published plan of the kind that would allow parliamentary bodies and devolved Administrations to conduct effective scrutiny. With regard to the substance of the speech, it was disappointing to learn that the Government have walked away from the single market, whatever the cost to our economy, jobs and trade, before the negotiations have even begun and, in doing so, have put at risk our barrier-free trading relationship with the EU. It was also irresponsible and counterproductive of the PM to threaten the EU 27 with the prospect of turning Britain into a deregulated offshore tax haven if she falls short in her negotiations.
However, we acknowledge that the Government have accepted many of the demands that we have been making for months, and will now seek full access to the single market, free of tariffs and unencumbered by impediments, and something short of complete withdrawal from the customs union. They are also working towards a co-operative and collaborative relationship with the EU 27 on a range of issues including security, defence, foreign affairs and science and research. However, let us be clear that in aiming for each of those objectives—the ones that we have been pressing for, as well as her own red lines on immigration and leaving the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice—the Prime Minister has set her Government and the Brexit team a herculean task. It will certainly be far tougher and more complex than the more cavalier Members on the Government Benches would have us believe.
What is more, for all the clarity that the speech did provide, it also had significant gaps. We have no idea, for example, what the basis is for the Government’s conviction that there is a middle way on the customs union that will not fall foul of World Trade Organisation rules. I do not hold out much hope, but perhaps the Minister might like to enlighten us this afternoon. Nor are we any the wiser as to where the Government will come down when confronted with the difficult choices that will inevitably arise in the negotiations. We do not know, for example, whether they will prioritise the reduction of immigration over the economy and jobs, should the EU 27 not agree to give the Prime Minister the type of single market access that she seeks and we on this side believe is essential for our economic prosperity.
We have made some progress in that Ministers now clearly recognise how complex the negotiations will be and have therefore conceded, contrary to what the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union argued for many months, that an agreement on a new relationship is not likely to be completed before the end of March 2019. As such, as we have long argued, some form of transitional arrangement now looks likely, but we are still none the wiser about precisely how long the Government expect that transitional arrangement to continue. Perhaps the Minister can enlighten us.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on securing this debate and on his excellent speech. He said that he was a simple soul, but he went on to demonstrate a grip of the facts and an erudition that rather belied that comment. He did a good job of not only representing his constituents but sharing the benefit of his commercial and negotiating expertise, which we welcome.
After the Prime Minister’s speech and the Secretary of State’s statement yesterday, I agree with the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) that it is a good thing that we debate these matters and the process of exiting the European Union. This is not the first time that I have stood in this Chamber in a debate while another debate on this process is going on in the main Chamber. That demonstrates the degree of parliamentary attention and scrutiny that the process is receiving.
On a point of clarification, I am pleased that we are now debating the detail, but I hope that the Minister shares the view—I am sure it is held by many people across the country—that it would have been great if we had had that detail in the run-up to the vote so that people had the full information about what this Tory Government are taking us into through this process.
The hon. Lady expresses an opinion about the past and the arguments that we had during the referendum. I think it is important to focus on the future and the process.
In the time that I have, I will make some brief remarks about the Government’s key objectives. First, in answer to the direct question that my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey asked, I want to clarify that the Government are committed to respecting the will of the British people and delivering on the referendum result. That is why I welcome this debate and the opportunity to focus on the process and how we can get the best deal for the UK. As the Prime Minister has said, we will trigger article 50 and begin the process of leaving the EU by the end of March. That timetable has given us a bit of time to prepare the negotiating strategy and engage constructively with stakeholders. Yesterday’s announcements about our aims were informed by that consultation, which is ongoing.
We want a smooth departure from the EU and a new, positive, constructive and equal partnership for Britain and the EU—a partnership that will be good for Britain and good for the rest of Europe. That is why in her speech yesterday the Prime Minister set out a serious and ambitious vision of a new partnership with the EU for a global Britain, including a comprehensive plan covering our 12 negotiating objectives. I will not repeat them all, because all hon. Members will have followed that speech closely, but it is important that I reiterate their importance and, with the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) in the room, say that one of the key principles is to maintain the common travel area with Ireland. In answer to the hon. Member for Livingston’s point—[Interruption.] I will not give way, because I have limited time to deliver quite a lot of detail, but in answer to one of the points that the Scottish National party has made regularly, the Prime Minister put an emphasis on protecting the rights of EU nationals in Britain and British nationals in the EU.
To deliver those objectives, officials in my Department and Ministers have carried out a programme of sectoral regulatory analysis and engaged with every devolved Administration and regions across the whole UK to identify the key factors for businesses, communities and the labour force that will affect our negotiations. We are also building a detailed understanding of how withdrawing from the EU will affect our domestic policies to seize the opportunities and ensure a smooth exit process.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey said clearly, the way to start a negotiation is not to tell the people we are negotiating with exactly what we plan to do. Indeed, the House agreed without a Division on 12 October last year that nothing we do or say should undermine the UK’s negotiating position. That was supported by a majority of more than five to one in a Division on 7 December. I welcome the support of my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Strangford, and indeed that of the hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook), who sits on the Opposition Front Bench, for the article 50 process. My hon. Friend is right that we must leave the EU in accordance with the process set out in article 50 of the treaty on European Union, which he read out. That is the only lawful route for withdrawal from the EU under the treaties.
We expect the process to follow three stages: notification, negotiation and conclusion. First, we will notify the European Council of our intention to leave the EU under article 50. The Prime Minister has been clear that we will trigger article 50 by the end of March, and the House backed that timetable by a large margin in December. Triggering article 50 is the first step in making the United Kingdom a fully independent, sovereign country, free to make our own decisions. Our position remains that triggering article 50 is a matter for the Government, but as the House knows, we await the Supreme Court’s judgment, which I note is expected to be handed down next Tuesday. I do not want to comment on possible scenarios until that judgment has been made, but let me be clear: whatever the outcome, the Government remain committed to triggering article 50 by the end of March.
Secondly, once article 50 has been triggered, we will then negotiate a withdrawal agreement with the EU. Article 50 makes it clear that there are two years to negotiate such a withdrawal agreement. The Prime Minister has been clear that by the time the two-year period ends we also aim to have reached an agreement about our future partnership. Article 50 itself, as my hon. Friend pointed out, talks about taking account of that relationship in the withdrawal agreement. From that point onwards, we believe a phased process of implementation in which Britain and the EU institutions and member states prepare for the new arrangements will exist between us.
The Government’s priority is to ensure that we get the best deal for the UK. The UK is leaving the EU, but we are not turning our backs on Europe. If we approach the negotiations in a constructive spirit, as we intend to, we can build a partnership for a strong UK and a strong EU. Although we are confident that a fair deal along these lines can be achieved, we are clear that, for the UK, no deal with the EU is better than a bad deal. My hon. Friend has made his support for that approach very clear.
Thirdly, the precise timing, terms and means by which we conclude the process will be determined by the negotiations. However, the Prime Minister has confirmed that the final deal that is agreed between the UK and the EU will be subject to a vote in both Houses of Parliament before it comes into force.
The Prime Minister has made it clear that Parliament will have a vote. There will be plenty of opportunities during the process for Parliament to exert its views and to influence the process. I want to come on to some of those.
As I have already described, we have had a huge amount of parliamentary scrutiny. I do not have the time to run through all of it, but it is important to reiterate the commitment that the Secretary of State has made to keeping this Parliament at least as well informed as the European Parliament as negotiations progress. He has set out that he will provide as much information as possible, subject to that not undermining the national interest. It is clear that negotiations will be fast moving and will cover sensitive material, so we will need to find ways of engaging with Parliament throughout the process. We are working through the practicalities of that and will say more when the work is complete.
Parliament’s role will not be restricted to scrutiny and making recommendations. Leaving the EU will require legislation. In particular, the Government will be bringing forward legislation in the next Session that, when enacted, will repeal the European Communities Act 1972 and ensure a functioning statute book on the day that we leave the EU. In considering that great repeal Bill, Parliament will have a crucial role to play in determining the future legal framework of our country.
My hon. Friend made a very good point about the slang of Brexit and the fact that it should be “UKexit”, and the Prime Minister was very clear in her speech yesterday that we must deliver for the whole United Kingdom. The Government will continue to engage fully with the Scottish Government, Welsh Government and Northern Ireland Executive to get the best possible deal for all parts of our United Kingdom as we leave the EU. We will give the devolved Administrations every appropriate opportunity to have their say, and we will look at any suggestions that they put forward. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union confirmed yesterday, and as the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) said, the Joint Ministerial Committee will be discussing Scotland’s plans and proposals when it meets tomorrow.
The UK Government have made it clear that we intend to fully involve Gibraltar, Crown dependencies and overseas territories as we prepare for exit, to ensure that their interests are properly taken into account. As such, the first meeting of the UK-Gibraltar Ministerial Forum took place on 7 December. My very first debate in this Chamber was on Gibraltar. I have committed to quarterly meetings with the Chief Ministers of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man, and we meet again next week. UK Ministers and leaders of the overseas territories have committed to taking forward future engagement through the creation of a new joint ministerial council. Having those processes in place will ensure that we take into account the views of all parts of the UK and the territories whose interests we represent in the negotiations to come.
It is clear from today’s debate that there remain a wide range of views about the Government’s plans for leaving the EU. However, the process for leaving the EU is clearly set out in article 50. The Government are determined to respect the will of the people by invoking article 50 and beginning the process by March, and we must do that in a way that delivers for 100% of the people of this United Kingdom.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the process for the UK to leave the EU.