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Topical Questions

Volume 622: debated on Thursday 9 March 2017

Order. I remind colleagues that topical questions need to be extremely brief if I am to be able to maximise the number of contributors.

The Prime Minister is today meeting other EU leaders at the European Council in Brussels. They will be discussing issues such as migration, jobs and competitiveness. The Prime Minister will be telling them that we remain strong advocates for free trade, and I expect her also to take the opportunity to underline our desire to see a strong and stable European Union even after we leave. Indeed, that has been a centrepiece of my message during my recent trips to meet counterparts in Europe. We want to see a strong UK and a strong EU. Rather than aiming to divide and conquer, as some have suggested, we want the EU to be strong and successful. That is why we are aiming for a comprehensive new partnership between the UK and the EU, which we are clear will be beneficial to all.

Can the Secretary of State update the House on what response he has had from across Europe to the Government’s recent Brexit White Paper?

Yes, I can. I went to—I think—nine of our fellow member states in three weeks, and others have come to see me. The overarching response has been a positive one; it has been one of support for the general approach, and it has been one that seeks a constructive outcome, not the penalty outcome that was talked about by some earlier. It is certainly true that they also think of our approach as very logical, so I think that gives us great cause for optimism in the negotiations.

Clearly, the Government want to trigger article 50 next Wednesday or next Thursday. They will then have to set out their proposals in detail so that the EU can respond. For months, they have hidden behind the bland phrases “frictionless borders” and “frictionless trade”. This is the last opportunity before triggering for the Secretary of State to spell out what those phrases actually mean.

The hon. and learned Gentleman is a very erudite chap and I would have thought that he would know what “frictionless” meant. It means trade with the minimum possible barriers and the minimum possible impediment, and that is what we will seek to achieve.

The Prime Minister has said that the approval of Parliament will be required for the final terms of our withdrawal agreement with the EU. She has also promised that that will occur before the withdrawal agreement is sent to the European Parliament for its consent. The House of Lords has now voted by a large majority to amend the article 50 Bill to reflect those commitments. All very straightforward. If the Prime Minister intends to keep to her commitments, why would the Government not support that amendment when it returns to this House on Monday?

T8. Businesses and individuals in my constituency are eager to see the greatest degree of certainty possible about the Brexit process. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that amendment 3 to the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill passed in the other place risks adding further uncertainty and further complexity—the exact opposite of what my constituents want? (909168)

My hon. Friend is right. Indeed, I go further. This House made an undertaking, without opposition at all, on an Opposition day, to do nothing to undermine the negotiating capacity of the United Kingdom, and I am afraid that that is what the amendment would do.

T2. In response to the question from my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), the Secretary of State implied that there was some difference between frictionless trade arrangements and tariff and barrier-free arrangements. What exactly are those differences? (909162)

It is pretty straightforward. If we have a comprehensive free trade agreement, then there will be no tariffs, one hopes, and very few non-tariff barriers, certainly no new ones. That makes it easier for the customs arrangements—the administrative arrangements —to be straightforward and simple.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that reform of the common agricultural policy represents a positive opportunity for the farming industry. Does he agree that, among other measures, rewarding farmers with payment for acting for the public good—for example, storing water on land as a flood resilience measure, which would be very beneficial in Somerset—would be very helpful?

My hon. Friend has highlighted how much of an advantage it will be to the UK to be in a position to design its own agricultural and environmental policies.

T3. The Secretary of State will be aware that the principle of consent was the cornerstone of our Good Friday agreement and settlement in Northern Ireland. What assessment has he made of the Taoiseach’s comments recently in Brussels when he said that that consent principle would have to be embedded in any future agreement between the UK and the EU? (909163)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for inviting me to speak to the London Irish Construction Network, which is an opportunity to stand alongside a Republic of Ireland Minister and show the commitment from both sides to the Belfast agreement and the common travel area. We remain absolutely committed to the Belfast agreement and all its successors, including the principle of consent.

The new owners of Vauxhall have suggested that the takeover will be good news for the UK motor parts supply chain post-Brexit. Is it not the case that far from multinationals being deterred from using the UK as a springboard into Europe within the EU, European multinationals will be using the UK as a springboard for exports to the rest of the world?

My hon. Friend is exactly right. The comments from the head of Peugeot were fascinating in what they show about what a business that is seeking opportunity can do. We are seeking to create the maximum possible opportunities for our own companies domestically and European countries that want to come here.

T4. Last week the all-party parliamentary group on Africa, which I chair, published its report on relations with Africa post-Brexit. A recent delegation highlighted the opportunities of Brexit but also the uncertainty over the relationship with the UK and between the European Union and Africa. May I urge the Minister and the Secretary of State to read the report and ensure that our exiting of the European Union supports positive relations with Africa? (909164)

I certainly will do that. I have not read the report yet, but if the hon. Lady will send it to me or give me the contact details, I will read it. She is dead right; the departure from the European Union does open up opportunities for stronger relationships with Africa, both economic and otherwise.

The EU Commissioner for Security and the head of Europol have both made it clear in evidence to the Select Committee on Home Affairs how important it is to maintain our current policing and security co-operation with Europe. I know that my right hon. Friend is committed to continuing that co-operation. Are his counterparts in Europe as committed as he is?

After the issue of European migrants—European citizens—in the UK, that is the second issue that has come up among the Nordic and Baltic groups in particular, and with Germany and the eastern Europeans. It seems to me that we have a great deal to continue to offer the European Union, and we absolutely intend to do so, because we intend to meet our responsibilities as a global citizen and country.

T5. Given that yesterday was International Women’s Day, can the Secretary of State tell us whether his discussions in Europe have brought us any closer to seeing an end, finally, to the tampon tax? (909165)

We have not yet seen an end to the tampon tax, but the moment we leave, I am sure it will be one of the first things I have on the agenda for talking to the Chancellor about. The hon. Lady should bear in mind that we are using the funding from the tampon tax for all sorts of incredibly important causes, which she will know better than I do. We will continue with that until the moment we can repeal it.

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the Government tread warily regarding the possibility of any resurrection of the merger between the London stock exchange and Deutsche Börse while we are engaged in complex negotiations about equivalence regimes in financial services?

T6. The manufacturers’ organisation EEF last week highlighted the difficulties that manufacturers are having in filling skilled engineering posts. Manufacturers warn that if the situation is not to get worse post-Brexit, they will need the flexibility to employ and deploy people across Europe. What consideration has the Secretary of State given to the representations from EEF, and what reassurance can he give? (909166)

We have had such discussions. The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that we need an adequate supply of skilled labour in this country, and the Home Office is working on policies that will achieve just that.

The UK legal services sector is worth some £21 billion to our economy. A good percentage of that comes from legal services provided into the European Union. Will my right hon. Friend meet the Bar Council and the Law Society to discuss what they need to retain access to that key market?

The short answer is that the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), has already met them, but we will do so again. This is a very important sector. People sometimes underestimate the size of the general services sector, which is as big as the City. We have to keep that in mind.

T7. The success of our economy is riding on the successful negotiation of our exit from the European Union, but the former Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne), has told the House: “the Government have chosen…not to make the economy the priority”.—[Official Report, 1 February 2017; Vol. 620, c. 1034.]He was right, was he not? (909167)

Not at all. I cannot see how one can make the economy more of a priority than to make it a centrepiece of the negotiation. We seek a comprehensive free trade agreement, and the purpose of that is nothing but economic. Of course, out of it will flow other things, but it is economic first and centre.

Following on from that question, is it not a fact that the Office for Budget Responsibility has increased the growth forecast for this year by nearly 50%? Surely, that is a vote in favour of coming out of the EU, and not what the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) said.

I think, frankly, the whole economics profession is beginning to take a lesson in predictions about the effects of Brexit. My hon. Friend is right. There has been a dramatic uptick in the current year’s growth, and in the forecasts for ’19, ’20 and ’21, as it turns out. The simple point is that many companies are coming here now, such as McDonald’s, WhatsApp, Google—I could go through a whole list—[Interruption.] I will not do that, Mr Speaker. Those companies are showing what they believe by voting with their feet.

T9. In the north-east, the voluntary sector relies heavily on the European Social Fund to carry out its fantastic work. As the region receives the highest per-head funding from the ESF, how will the Minister address the sector’s concerns about funding post-Brexit? (909169)

These concerns have been met pre-Brexit by the Treasury underwriting the commitments up to and through Brexit. Of course, the hon. Lady has to remember that the European Union will have a complete budgetary review in 2020. We will be giving clear attention to priorities such as this when we come to write our own budgets after 2019.

While all EU regulation will be transferred into UK law at the outset, divergence will inevitably begin over the years. What is my right hon. Friend doing to prepare British businesses so that they are aware of all the changes that will be made and can continue to export to and trade with the European Union?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the approach of the great repeal Bill, which is to ensure stability and continuity. We are of course engaging with British business and we will continue to do so throughout the process across the country and in every sector.

T10. Last Thursday, the leader of the Secretary of State’s party in Scotland described the transfer of control over farm subsidies as a “power grab”, and I do not think she meant that in a good way. Will he put her mind at rest and simply confirm that Scottish fishing and Scottish agriculture will be governed in Scotland after Brexit? (909170)

I repeat to the hon. Gentleman what I said earlier: no powers exercised by the Scottish Parliament or the Scottish Government will be taken away. We will debate with all the devolved Administrations—not simply Scotland—the level at which it is appropriate to exercise these powers after exit.

What discussions has the Department had with representatives of the tourism sector on the implications of the UK leaving the EU?

We regularly engage with the tourism industry, and we will continue to do so. Tourism is an important part of the British economy, and we fully recognise its particular concerns.

The Government have said that they want to secure the rights of British nationals living in Europe, but what about British nationals living in this country who are married to European nationals whose futures have been thrown into doubt by the repugnant position that the Government have adopted? Is it not time to end the doubt for those people?

Of course we do not want any doubt on the part of any citizen in Europe, British or otherwise, in Britain or on the continent. The simple truth is that most of the people I have seen in the decision-making tier, as it were, of European Governments agree with us: the issue of British citizens and European citizens has to be dealt with together, and will be dealt with as a matter of priority.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the huge investment by Dyson in research and development facilities in the UK is a sign of confidence in the UK economy outside the EU?

Yes, it certainly is. That is only the latest in a long line of new investments in the British economy, showing the huge confidence that the international business community has in our country.

May I push the Secretary of State further on the answer he gave my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) regarding frictionless trade? Is the Secretary of State saying that trade tariffs remain on the negotiating table?

No, what I am saying—or what I was saying to the hon. Lady’s hon. and learned Friend—is that plenty of countries around the world have very light-touch customs arrangements, which would be consistent with a comprehensive free trade agreement.

From my recent discussions with senior Members of the German Parliament, it is very clear that we are not going to get barrier-free access to the single market if we no longer operate free movement. Do Ministers yet recognise that reality?

That is not the response I am getting from the Ministers I have spoken to around Europe. What they have come back with is that they want a constructive outcome, and the only way to get a constructive outcome is to have a comprehensive free trade arrangement.

Under the common agricultural policy, some of the richest people in this country get millions of pounds in handouts from the taxpayer, which must surely be wrong. When we are in charge of our own agricultural policy, would it not be a good idea to put a cap on how much people get, just as we have a benefits cap?

I welcome a sinner who repenteth, because after 2019 the hon. Gentleman will have a say on that.

Before we come to the business question, I want to mention that today is the birthday of the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart). I am sure there will be veritable rejoicing in the streets on this happy occasion—at any rate, at least in Perth and North Perthshire. Happy birthday to the hon. Gentleman.