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House of Commons Hansard
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Exiting the European Union
07 September 2017
Volume 628

The Secretary of State was asked—

Membership of the European Economic Area

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1. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on plans for the House to vote on continued UK membership of the EEA. [900639]

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The United Kingdom will no longer participate in the EEA agreement once we leave the European Union. The United Kingdom is a party to the EEA agreement in its capacity as an EU member state, so on exit day the EEA agreement will cease to operate in respect of the UK. It will no longer have any practical relevance to the United Kingdom. We are considering what steps, if any, we might need to take to confirm formally our withdrawal from the EEA agreement as a matter of international law.

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I thank the Secretary of State for his answer, but I am afraid that article 127 of the EEA agreement, to which the United Kingdom has been a signatory since 1993, clearly states that any country wishing to leave the European economic area must give formal notice of at least one year. Will the Secretary of State therefore please confirm that such notice would have to be given to leave the EEA and that, given the fundamental constitutional, political, legal and economic importance of such a decision, the decision to leave the EEA would be subject to a debate and a vote?

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There is actually agreement that when the UK ceases to be a member of the EU, the EEA agreement will no longer operate in respect of the United Kingdom. As such, the Government’s legal position is clear: article 127 does not need to be triggered for the agreement to cease to have effect, but we are looking at it just to make sure, for clarity purposes, that we meet its requirements.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that continued membership of the European single market, which some Opposition Members seem now to be advocating, would negate many of the advantages of leaving the European Union, while requiring us still to accept decisions that we could no longer influence? To that extent, it would actually be worse than continued membership as a full member.

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Yes, my right hon. Friend is quite right. The simple truth is that membership of the European Free Trade Association, for example, which would be one way to retain EEA membership, would do exactly that: it would keep us within the acquis, and it would keep us within the requirements of free movement, albeit with some limitations, but none of those have worked so far. In many ways, it is the worst of all outcomes. We did consider it—I gave it some considerable thought, maybe as an interim measure—but it seemed to me to be more complicated, more difficult and less beneficial than other options.

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The Secretary of State has given an equivocal answer on whether there might need to be a vote on the EEA. Will he consider whether we should also have a vote on the settlement bill and, indeed, on the cost of the Nissan deal set out in the rather heavily redacted letter I have here?

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Well, the heavily redacted letter was not from me, so I am not entirely sure what the right hon. Gentleman is referring to, but the answer, generally, is no.

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Does the Secretary of State agree that we have already had a vote, and that was on 23 June last year? The British people decided to leave the European Union. Does he agree that one of the things we can now look forward to is being able to do trade deals with a number of countries throughout the world, which we are now constrained from doing as members of the European Union?

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My hon. Friend makes exactly the right point: we are able to make trade deals once we leave the European Union, and that will give us enormous benefits, because as the European Commission itself admits, 90% of world trade will be outside the EU, not within it, in the coming decades.

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The Secretary of State set out his position on the EEA. On 15 August, he told the “Today” programme that transitional arrangements should be

“as close as possible to the current arrangements”.

Two days before that, the Chancellor and the International Trade Secretary said in a joint article that Britain would leave the customs union and leave the single market. Both positions cannot be right. Will the Secretary of State step up to the Dispatch Box and tell us what form of transitional arrangements the Government are seeking to negotiate?

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I did that only a couple of days ago. I will come back to the point, but for the House’s interest, I will read a small part of a LabourList article—I read LabourList all the time, of course—by the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), who opened this question. He said:

“On Sunday Keir Starmer used an article in The Observer to call time on the ambiguity that had come to define Labour’s approach to Brexit since the referendum”—

the ambiguity, right? He said, “It was an approach”—this is the best bit—

“that…served us well on 8 June”.

What was that ambiguity? Tell leavers you want to leave; tell remainers you want to remain. That ambiguity, of course, could not last, and, as the hon. Gentleman said, it was never sustainable. That is the ambiguity of the right hon. and learned Gentleman who has just asked his question.

Now, our position is very clear. The transition arrangements will meet three different requirements: to provide time for the British Government, if need be, to create new regulatory agencies and so on; time for companies to make their arrangements to deal with new regulation; and time for other countries to make arrangements on, for example, new customs proposals. That is what will be required. That is why we need to be as close as we are to our current arrangements. It does not mean that, in the long run, we are in either the customs union or the single market.

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There is plenty of material for colleagues to include in their Second Reading debate speeches if they so wish. The material might be better located there.

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I asked the Secretary of State his position and he started with my position. If he wants to swap places—any time.

Given the progress to date, and knowing that we will go back to this answer, what prospects does the Secretary of State genuinely believe there are for bespoke transitional agreements being agreed, negotiated and implemented by March 2019? Knowing how anxiously businesses are looking at this, when does he anticipate being able to tell them what the arrangements will be, because they need to make arrangements?

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That is a very legitimate and sensible question. I believe that the benefits of a transitional arrangement go both ways—they are symmetrical. They apply equally to France, Holland, Germany or Denmark as they do to us. That is some of the read-back we have been getting. I know that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has been travelling around Europe himself and he will no doubt have picked up that same read-back. We are finding that the Commission is open to discussion of transition. We have raised it only briefly at each of the last two meetings because it does not fit within the current four groups of negotiation, but I think there is a very good prospect.

European Union (Withdrawal) Bill

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2. What assessment the Government have made of the potential effect of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill on (a) workers’ rights and (b) environmental protection. [900640]

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The UK already goes beyond EU minimum standards in a number of employment areas, and similarly we have a long history of environmental protection. We are committed to safeguarding and improving both. The EU Withdrawal Bill will ensure that EU-derived workers’ rights and environmental protections that currently apply will continue to be in place in domestic law on exit, and will enable those laws to continue to function effectively. It will then be for Parliament and, where appropriate, the devolved legislatures to make any future changes to EU-derived law.

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Britain already has one of the most competition-friendly economies in the world, according to the OECD, but some Conservative Members want to use Brexit to dismantle workers’ rights and erode environmental protections. [Interruption.] The EU brought us—[Interruption.]

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Order. I am sorry, but there is huge pressure of time today, and we do not have time for descriptions. What we need is short, pithy questions, preferably not heckled extensively, so that we can get down the Order Paper.

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The EU brought us parental leave for families, it brought us—

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Order. I am sorry, but I explained that what I need is a single-sentence question, not a series of descriptions.

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Will the Minister assure the residents of Stockton South that their rights will not be eroded and that workers and the environment will not end up paying the price of Brexit?

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Yes, I am happy to reassure the hon. Gentleman and his residents. I can reassert the Government’s commitment not to roll back workers’ rights. As I have said, the UK already goes beyond EU minima, and it will be for Parliament in future to determine the future course of the law.

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First, may I welcome my hon. Friend to the Dispatch Box? In the course of the debates about the so-called Henry VIII powers, will he remind everybody that section 2 of the European Communities Act 1972 actually, for 40 years, gave a British Government the kind of Executive authority that was never granted before, and that in leaving the European Union we will be giving Parliament back its power to scrutinise?

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I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend; of course I agree with him. I am invigorated and excited to find that Parliament is reawakening to the need for full and proper scrutiny of secondary legislation.

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Does the Minister recognise the risk of an impending governance gap with regard to environmental legislation? At present, the Commission and the European Court of Justice perform the vital role of both monitoring and enforcing laws. Domestic mechanisms like judicial review simply do not go far enough. What new institutional mechanisms is he going to look at to make sure that he leaves the environment in a better state than he found it?

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I am grateful to the hon. Lady for reminding the House that we are committed to leaving the environment in a better state than we found it.

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How will you do it?

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She asks how we will do it. The Bill makes provision for Ministers to bring forward statutory instruments that will correct deficiencies that would otherwise arise as we bring EU law into UK law. I very much look forward to the debate on the particular instruments.

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May I also welcome my hon. Friend to the Front Bench? I welcome his comments to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), who is completely wrong, because leaving the European Union will enable us to take our full role on international bodies such as the International Plant Protection Convention, the World Organisation for Animal Health and the Codex Alimentarius Commission. We will be able to adapt the world conventions Ramsar and Bern to our own environment, our own landscape, our own flora and our own fauna. Does my hon. Friend agree?

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I do agree with my right hon. Friend, and I am most grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to put on the record again that we will uphold all our commitments to international law in relation to the environment.

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Despite the Minister’s assurances a few minutes ago, clause 9 as it stands will give the Minister the almost unlimited right, with minimal parliamentary scrutiny, to wipe out any workers’ protection that he chooses. Given that they are promising not to do that, will the Government commit today to amending that clause at Committee stage so that the erosion of workers’ rights is explicitly excluded from the powers that that clause will bring?

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The powers in the Bill have been drawn widely in order that this country and this Parliament can meet the imperative of delivering a working statute book on the day we leave the European Union, to deliver certainty, continuity and control and, on the area that the hon. Gentleman raises, in order to implement the withdrawal agreement in a way that allows us to leave the European Union smoothly and successfully.

I will not give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he is looking for today, but I will say to him that as the junior Minister responsible for the Bill on behalf of the Secretary of State, I will look with the utmost seriousness at the amendments that are tabled. What we will not do is accept any amendment that compromises the fundamental purpose of the Bill, which is to deliver certainty, continuity and control as we leave and to allow us to make the necessary changes to UK law to implement the necessary withdrawal agreement.

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The Government believe that clause 9 is necessary because of the huge volume of legislation that will have to go through simply to tidy up potential anomalies in legislation. I am offering them a way out. Why are they so determined to bring in legislation that they do not intend to use, when they will have their work cut out for them to bring in the legislation that they do need? Why will the Minister not commit to putting into legislation the promise that he has just given to the House at the Dispatch Box?

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With respect, the hon. Gentleman may be confusing clauses 7 and 9. I look forward to the fullest debate on these matters on the Floor of the House when we come—I hope, Parliament willing—to Committee stage.

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May I add my congratulations to my colleague on his appointment to the Front Bench? It is very well deserved. Is not the right way for the hon. Member for Stockton South (Dr Williams) to secure the rights of workers, and to secure the environmental protections that he wants, to vote for the EU (Withdrawal) Bill? If the Labour party succeeds in blocking the Bill, those protections will no longer exist.

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I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for his congratulations and his support, and I look forward to his support in future. He is absolutely right: the best way for Members of this House to ensure that they serve their constituents by delivering a working statute book, and delivering the continuity of the rights and protections currently in EU law and applying to the UK, is to vote for this Bill and to support its passage through the House.

Citizens’ Rights

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3. What assessment he has made of the progress during negotiations on reaching agreement on the future status of EU citizens in the UK and UK nationals in the EU27 after the UK has left the EU. [900641]

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As the House will be aware, and as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has set out, our Department has prioritised this strand in negotiations. We recognise the importance of providing swift reassurance to 4 million people—EU nationals living in the UK and UK nationals living in the EU. In August, we agreed to protect the rights of frontier workers, cover future social security contributions and protect existing healthcare rights and arrangements for EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU.

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Businesses across my constituency and throughout the country are worried, not just about retaining staff but about attracting the brightest and the best. Heathrow, which is just outside my constituency, employs thousands locally, and medical research firms contribute massively across the country. What can the Minister say to assure them that Brexit will not destroy their competitiveness?

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The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We do want to make sure that as we look towards the future and towards a new immigration policy after we have left the European Union, we can meet the needs of business and our economy. I am glad that the Home Office has commissioned work from the Migration Advisory Committee looking at all sectors of the economy and all parts of the UK, to make sure that we can continue to attract the brightest and the best.

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Will my hon. Friend reiterate and emphasise the Government’s commitment to settling the question of EU nationals, giving them the stability they need through securing their rights, including keeping families together?

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Absolutely. My right hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. We have set out in our paper a fair and serious offer to maximise certainty for people— individuals and families—and it is important to remember that this applies equally to EU nationals living in the UK and many of our own nationals living across the EEA.

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Some of the proposals the Government have apparently been considering on the future of EU migration may apply from the day on which we leave the European Union. Irrespective of the status of any leaked document, does the Minister agree that the Government should not make any changes that would prevent them from securing a transitional deal to protect jobs and the economy?

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As the hon. Gentleman knows, I will not comment on any leaked documents, but of course it is important that we secure certainty and continuity for citizens in this process. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has set out very clearly our commitment to establishing interim arrangements, and we look forward to discussing those issues in the context of the future partnership, which will be crucial to securing results on both.

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Does my hon. Friend agree that striking a positive position with respect to future migration from the EU will be really important not just for the labour market, where we have skills shortages at all skill levels in the economy, but as one of the keys to help secure the best possible final trade deal with the EU?

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My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. It is very clear from what the Prime Minister has said that even after we have left the EU we will continue to want to seek talent from Europe. We will continue to strike that positive attitude, but it is important in the interests of both UK and European citizens that we get on with the discussions, proceed at pace and secure a deal that provides maximum certainty.

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Perhaps I have given the Minister time to think about actually answering my question about making a commitment not to introduce any new migration rules from 2019 that will impact on a transitional deal. Looking beyond 2019, let me also ask: given that the Government are committed to the principle of reciprocity in any deal on citizens’ rights, would he be happy for UK citizens living and working in the EU to be subject to biometric screening and fingerprinting?

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The hon. Gentleman has asked very theoretical questions about future policy, and I am not going to get into commenting on other Departments’ policies that have not yet been published. What is important is that we negotiate in good faith to secure the best outcome for UK citizens and for EU citizens, and that is exactly what we are doing.

Support for Farmers

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4. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on support for farmers after the UK leaves the EU. [900642]

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We have been working closely with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on support for farmers. The Government will provide the same cash total in funds for farm support until the end of the Parliament. We are working closely with a range of stakeholders, as well as the devolved Administrations, to maintain stability for farmers. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will introduce an agriculture Bill to support our vision for a thriving and self-reliant farming sector that is more competitive, productive and profitable, as well as to protect our precious natural environment for future generations and to deliver on our manifesto commitment to provide stability for farmers as we exit the EU.

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I thank the Minister for that comprehensive response. He is aware that the UK farming sector is highly reliant on EU labour. What discussions has he had with DEFRA and others about the potential reintroduction of a seasonal agricultural workers scheme?

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I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that the Government keep our position on seasonal workers under review. Until we have left the EU, employers in the agricultural and food processing sectors are free to continue to recruit EU workers to meet their labour needs. It remains the Government’s policy not to operate migration schemes for non-EEA nationals coming to fill vacancies at lower skill levels while employers have unrestricted access to labour from elsewhere in the EU. I note, however, that the Home Office told the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee earlier this year that a new SAWS could be introduced very quickly—in five or six months—once the need for such a scheme has been identified. I hope my hon. Friend is reassured that we will have the agility to meet those needs.

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I hope that Ministers are listening to the people who gave evidence to the EFRA Committee that food will end up rotting in the ground if we do not have the labour force to dig it up. May I urge the Minister to accept that this is not just about subsidies for farmers, but about access to the market—and tariff-free access to the market? Unless that is resolved, our farming industry will collapse.

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Of course we wish to secure tariff-free access to European markets, and indeed to markets across the world, but these are matters for negotiation. I am sure the hon. Lady would join me in saying to the EU that it is in all our interests to move swiftly to discussions on our future agreements.

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British farmers are among the most efficient in Europe. Will Brexit not give us a chance to design an agricultural policy in their interest, not that of inefficient farmers in Europe?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is a unique opportunity for the UK to craft agricultural policies that suit our unique needs, which I hope will be to the benefit of the UK and our farmers.

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13. Welsh farmers and fishermen need assurances now that the UK and Welsh Governments are working together. How often will formal ministerial discussions on agriculture and fisheries take place in the next three months, and will these meetings be open to formal scrutiny? [900653]

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I am very grateful for that detailed question, and I look forward to answering the hon. Lady in writing.

Leaving without a Deal

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5. What recent assessment he has made of the potential effect on (a) the economy and (b) employment levels of the UK leaving the EU without a deal. [900643]

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A future partnership between the UK and the EU is in the interests of both sides, and I am confident that we will secure a good deal for the UK as a whole. A responsible Government, however, should prepare for all potential outcomes, including the unlikely scenario in which no mutually satisfactory agreement can be reached. The Government are undertaking a comprehensive programme of analytical work across a range of scenarios to assess the economic impacts of exiting the EU. As the House has agreed twice, however, we will not be publishing any information that would prejudice our negotiations.

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The CBI president, Paul Drechsler, has said that the implications of falling back on to World Trade Organisation rules and a no-deal scenario would open up a

“Pandora’s box of economic consequences”

and that the UK could face tariffs on 90% of its EU exports by value. Will the Minister reassure business, therefore, that the UK will not walk away from these negotiations with no deal?

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It is our intention to do what is in all our interests—the mutual interest of all the nations of the EU and the UK—which is to secure a deep and special partnership, including a broad and deep free trade agreement, and I look forward to doing so. I think, however, that the WTO is one of the great achievements of liberalism against the forces of economic nationalism, and I look forward, in whatever circumstances we leave, to the UK playing the fullest part in the improvement and development of the WTO.

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I thought that the hon. Gentleman was about to refer to Ludwig von Mises, but no doubt that awaits another of his answers in due course.

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I hope that the Minister still believes that no deal is better than a bad deal.

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I agree with my right hon. Friend and refer him to what the Chancellor famously said on “Marr”: what we cannot do is accept some kind of punishment deal. An environment in which the UK trades with the world while having control of our own tariffs, taxes and domestic regulation is one of which we should not be afraid.

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Does it remain Ministers’ ambition to secure barrier-free access for the UK to the European single market, and is not the only way to enjoy the benefits of the single market to comply with the rules of the single market?

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We recognise that the freedoms of the single market are indivisible and that the people of this country wish for Parliament to set its own laws and for a UK migration policy that meets with their democratic consent. It is the ambition of Ministers to secure trade with the absolute minimum of frictions, and I hope and look forward to doing so.

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19. The potential of not having a deal raises the issue again of a transition, and the Secretary of State said earlier he thought that there were very good prospects on that point. Given that the purpose of a transition is to give certainty to business, is not the only logical timeframe for a transition one that runs from when we leave to when a new comprehensive deal is signed? [900661]

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The Government have agreed that the country would benefit from a period of implementation, but how that works and the destination to which we will be heading remain matters for negotiation.

Dublin III Regulation

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6. Whether the Government plan to continue to apply the Dublin III Regulation after the UK leaves the EU. [900644]

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20. Whether the Government plan to continue to apply the Dublin III Regulation after the UK leaves the EU. [900662]

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The Prime Minister has been clear that we will continue to co-operate with our European partners on migration and asylum as we leave the EU. In our negotiations, we will discuss the exact nature of this co-operation as part of our future partnership, but as the Secretary of State said in his statement to the House on 5 September,

“We are a country with a strong tradition of tolerance and generosity, and if anything, I expect that to grow after we leave, not diminish.”—[Official Report, 5 September 2017; Vol. 628, c. 64.]

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Will the Minister guarantee that unaccompanied children who are orphaned or have no idea where their parents are will still have the right to be reunited with family members—whether they are brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts or grandparents—who are living in the United Kingdom once we have left the European Union? They are, after all, the most vulnerable children: the most vulnerable to traffickers and to others who seek to abuse them.

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The right hon. Gentleman is right: we should absolutely seek to continue our policy of generosity towards those children and ensure that our family reunion policy remains generous. We have reunited, and continue to reunite, many refugees with their immediate families: we have granted more than 23,000 family reunion visas over the past five years. Obviously, I cannot set out the details of what we will agree with the EU, but we intend to agree on significant co-operation in this space to ensure that we can continue to bring families together.

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I would call the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr Campbell) if he were here, but he is not, so I will not—but we will hear Mr Andrew Slaughter.

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The problem with Dublin III, apart from the fact that we do not implement it very well, is that unaccompanied children have to get into the EU, often making perilous journeys, to apply under its provisions. Will the Government consider extending the provisions if we leave the EU, so that wherever people are in the world, they can apply under those terms?

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I think that the hon. Gentleman’s question will have been heard. It is not really a question for my Department, but we certainly intend to establish co-operation with the EU on these matters and to continue to have as generous a policy of family reunion as we have had to date.

UK Food Safety Standards

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7. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the maintenance of UK food safety standards after the UK leaves the EU. [900645]

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The UK Government are committed to maintaining food safety standards and ensuring that the UK has an effective food safety regulator. The Food Standards Agency is a science and evidence-based Department, responsible for protecting public health and consumers’ other interests. Any proposed changes in UK food safety rules once we have left the EU and are no longer subject to EU regulations would be subject to a rigorous risk assessment by the agency. Our absolute priority is to protect public health and consumers’ other interests in relation to food, and we will continue to base that on the best scientific evidence available.

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Does the Minister agree with the Secretary of State for International Trade, who is on the record as having said that he is “relaxed” about the diminution of food safety standards post-Brexit, or will he now distance himself from those remarks?

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The Government are committed to maintaining food standards, which will be a matter for the House of Commons to decide in future. I remind Members that the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill will bring EU law, as it applies to the UK, into UK law, so that it will continue to apply.

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The Government know that the UK relies on the EU for 25% of our food and that we grow just 15% of our own fruit and 55% of our own vegetables. The Minister is nostalgic for decades past, but—assuming that the Government do not intend UK households to return to consuming Spam and tinned peaches—can he assure us that he is not considering imposing tariffs on EU food imports?

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The House has heard the word “fantasy” since it reconvened after the recess, and the hon. Lady has now put before it a fantastical proposal. We will ensure that the UK continues to enjoy the widest range of products available in our shops.

Government Negotiations

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8. What steps his Department is taking to ensure a flexible approach in the Government’s negotiations on the UK leaving the EU. [900646]

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Both sides in the negotiation are clear about the fact that we want to achieve the best possible outcome and the strongest possible partnership. We have said repeatedly that, to achieve that end, both sides must demonstrate a dynamic and flexible approach to negotiations. In papers published by the Government, for instance, we have made it clear that we stand ready to protect the voting rights of EU nationals living in the UK. There will be give and take as the negotiations progress, but the destination is clear: a deep and special partnership that sees both parties emerge strong and prosperous, capable of projecting our shared values, leading in the world and demonstrating our resolve to protect the security of our citizens.

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Given that a transitional arrangement is likely to be required, and if the Government are to be flexible, a simple solution to consider is an off-the-shelf arrangement with some modifications. Would the Government be willing to consider rejoining the European Free Trade Association and then the European economic area, with suitable and appropriate amendments and modifications?

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As my hon. Friend will understand—he heard me say this earlier—we considered that in some detail before the Lancaster House speech. We concluded that it did not meet the requirements for which the British people voted and that it would not be as easy to negotiate as an alternative bespoke transitional arrangement might be.

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Now that the Secretary of State has accepted that there will need to be transitional arrangements, is it the Government’s policy that the UK will continue to make payments into the EU budget for that period, however long it lasts?

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I think this must be the 20th time I have said to the right hon. Gentleman that I am not going to negotiate from this Dispatch Box, and he should know that. What I will say to him is that the transitional arrangements as we have described are an implementation period—or phase, or any of all the other different words used for it—and are there for one purpose: to ensure, in his words, that we avoid a cliff edge. That is not just true of us: it is not just the UK that has come to this conclusion—some time ago as it turns out—but so have the other members of the European Union, and one of the things we have been doing in the past six to nine months is ensuring that they understand from their point of view precisely how valuable to them a transitional arrangement will be.

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It is right that we meet our financial obligations when we leave the European Union, but past contributions we have made have funded vital infrastructure across Europe, including eastern Europe, which will have a long-term financial benefit for the EU. Has this been discussed in negotiations and used to mitigate our final bill when those negotiations conclude?

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We have made that very plain: the words used are that we expect to respect our international obligations but also to have our rights respected. That point has been made very clear. One of the reasons why the last negotiating round was perhaps a little tenser than the previous one is that we were making it very plain what we judged the legal basis to be, and that was not always comfortable.

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What assurances can the right hon. Gentleman give to financial services companies and other firms that are seriously concerned that they now face the cost and uncertainty of three successive rule books: the single market, the post-single market transition and the post-transition agreement?

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As ever, the right hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and that does mean that we will want to ensure there is a single transition, not two different transitions in and out of the transition period. That is why, as the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) quoted me as saying, I said we want the transition arrangement to be as close as possible to the current circumstance. It will be remembered, too, that when I responded to the right hon. and learned Gentleman I said there are three effective sets of criteria: one, time for the Government to accommodate; two, time for other Governments to accommodate; but, importantly too in his context, time after the decisions for financial services and other industries to do their own accommodations.

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Last week, Michel Barnier said it was not fair that EU taxpayers should continue to pay for Britain’s obligations, but is it fair that British taxpayers should continue to pay for the EU’s obligations in circumstances where we may not be benefiting from subsidy schemes post-withdrawal?

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My hon. Friend raises a point that we have already raised with Michel and the remainder of the team. At the moment, the Union’s negotiating team are taking the approach of stressing what they term legal responsibilities, and we are challenging them. When we get to the end of that, we will make some decisions about political and moral responsibilities, and also negotiating outcomes, and that is where the decision will, I suppose, be made.

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The Government took flexibility to new heights over the summer, taking just under three weeks to jettison one of only two proposals set out in their customs arrangement paper on the basis that they represented “blue sky thinking”. Can the Secretary of State tell us how many of the other proposals set out in the various future partnership papers are effectively just creative ideas that are unlikely to survive contact with reality?

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I do not think the hon. Gentleman was paying attention the day before yesterday: I said to him then that blue sky thinking, talking to an American audience, is a description of an imaginative approach.

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May I gently say to my right hon. Friend that I would have thought that what everybody is trying to do is to form some kind of consensus? I think we all agree that we have a very, very short period to negotiate all manner of highly complex agreements, including a transitional period agreement. So may I suggest to him that, rather than keep ruling things out, we put everything back on the table and look at what we call “Norway for now”, which we would simply adopt as a transitional period until such time as we come to a final arrangement with the EU?

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Well, my right hon. Friend can be as gentle with me as she likes. The simple truth is that, before the Lancaster House speech, we went through a process of considering what the best negotiating strategy would be, in some detail. We looked at who would have to negotiate with, where the compromises would have to be made and what the gains would be. We came to the conclusion that the route we are now taking, involving discussions with the member states initially and now with the Union and a transition based on maintaining the important components of what we currently have, is the best way to do it.

VAT Rates

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9. What discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on changes to VAT rates after the UK leaves the EU. [900649]

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The Secretary of State and the Chancellor are working together to deliver the UK’s departure from the European Union. Our future relationship with the EU, including on VAT, will be subject to negotiations. Any decisions on VAT rates will be taken by the Chancellor as part of the normal Budget process.

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Our children go back to school this week, and parents are still paying a fortune for branded school uniforms. Cutting VAT on uniforms for older children would save some £200 million, but this cannot be done under current EU law. My constituents have asked me to ask Ministers to raise this matter whenever the negotiations turn to VAT.

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The hon. Lady raises an interesting point, which I know has been heard by those on the Treasury Bench and will be heard by the Chancellor. However, I would gently point out to her that VAT raised £120 billion in 2016 and provides essential funding for public services, including education.

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Does the Minister look forward, like me, to the days when these protracted discussions are concluded and the Chancellor will have the liberty, which we did not have as members of the EU, to set tax rates across the whole range?

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That is exactly right.

Universities

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10. What discussions his Department has had with universities on their priorities for the negotiations on the UK leaving the EU. [900650]

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17. What discussions his Department has had with universities on their priorities for the negotiations on the UK leaving the EU. [900658]

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As we leave the European Union, the Government are committed to ensuring that Britain remains a global hub for education, science and research. I am delighted to see this week that the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge have been ranked as the top two universities in the world. To maintain our success, the Government are listening carefully to the sector’s views. This week, we published our discussion paper on science and innovation. As the UK leaves the EU, one of our core objectives is to continue to collaborate with European partners on major science, research and technology initiatives, and the paper explores how the UK and the EU can achieve that objective together.

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This country has three of the world’s top universities, as well as a vibrant life sciences sector, as indicated by the life sciences industrial strategy. The sector needs global talent and reassurance, but I know from talking to people at the University of Suffolk and the University of Cambridge that some have sought not to give academics and students that reassurance. What reassurance can the Minister give me that the scaremongering is untrue and what assurances can he give to our university sector?

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My hon. Friend is rightly a champion for the excellent universities in her area. As the Prime Minister has made clear in the EU exit White Papers, one of our greatest strengths as a nation is the breadth and depth of our academic and scientific communities. Britain remains the second most popular destination in the world for academic study. We have already offered assurances to EU students starting a course in the 2018-19 academic year or before, and they will continue to be eligible for home fee status tuition fee loans and applicable maintenance support. I share my hon. Friend’s ambition for our university sector to act as a magnet for talent from around the world.

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The University of Gloucestershire in my constituency admits students from across the world, including the EU, benefiting the local economy and community. What steps are being taken to amplify and underscore the message that the UK continues to warmly welcome overseas students to study here, in Cheltenham and beyond?

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I refer my hon. Friend to the answer I have just given. He is absolutely right, and I would add that the Home Secretary has asked the Migration Advisory Committee to examine student migration and to report back next year. As she made clear in her commissioning letter, and has been echoed in our own science paper, international students enhance our universities, both financially and culturally, and often become important ambassadors for the United Kingdom in later life, so we will continue to welcome them long into the future.

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The Prime Minister boasted yesterday about the number of Nobel prize winners that this country had had, but the truth is that many of them were migrants who started their lives elsewhere in the world and came to this country to study in our universities. Should we not be proclaiming that fact as part of our proud inheritance?

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We are, and we will continue to do so.

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Will the Minister please reassure the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England that he values their collaboration with their EU counterparts and that he will prioritise doing everything he can to ensure that that collaboration continues?

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I refer the hon. Lady to the paper we published this week, which sets that out clearly. We see a huge advantage both to the UK and the EU in continuing that collaboration, and we look forward to discussing it as we move towards talks on the future partnership.

UK Workers’ Rights

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11. If he will include within the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill proposals for a mechanism to ensure that UK workers' rights and protections remain in line with EU rights and protections after the UK leaves the EU. [900651]

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21. If he will include within the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill proposals for a mechanism to ensure that UK workers' rights and protections remain in line with EU rights and protections after the UK leaves the EU. [900663]

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We do not need to be part of the EU to have strong protections for workers. As I explained earlier, the UK already goes beyond EU minimum standards, and the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill will not change that. In future, it will be for Parliament and, where appropriate, the devolved legislatures to decide on changes to employment law. The Government have committed not to roll back workers’ rights and to ensure that we keep pace with the changing labour market.

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That is very interesting, because the Secretary of State for International Trade wrote in the Financial Times in 2012:

“To restore Britain’s competitiveness we must begin by deregulating the labour market. Political objections must be overridden… It is intellectually unsustainable to believe that workplace rights should remain untouchable”.

Is it not the case that we cannot trust the Tories with workers’ rights?

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It is certainly not the case. I will say to the hon. Gentleman once again that this Government are committed not only to protecting workers’ rights, but to ensuring that workers’ rights keep pace with the changing labour market, as evidenced by the Taylor report, which the Government are currently considering.

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We have heard very warm words about protecting workers’ rights, something which will be tested over time, but will Ministers detail today the precise mechanism that they will use to work with trade unions and employers to ensure that Britain does not become the low-standards capital of Europe post-Brexit and to maintain workers’ rights over time?

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This Government want to win the race to the top. I think I can say that we want to ensure that this country is either at or heading towards the top of every index of human prosperity, wellbeing and happiness, and we will work towards that end.

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I join in congratulating my hon. Friend on his appointment. Whether in relation to workers’ rights or more generally, does he agree that had the British people wanted to be subject to EU law, they would have voted to remain in last year’s referendum? Does he agree that the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill actually restores powers to Parliament and that a vote against it is only a vote to ensure that the UK automatically keeps pace with EU law with no say of its own?

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Of course my hon. Friend makes an important point, for which I am most grateful. An easy way to automatically keep pace with EU law, whatever it might be, would have been to remain in the EU, but the public did not choose to do that, so Parliament will decide the law in future and it will be for Parliament to scrutinise any proposed changes.

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I warmly welcome the Minister to his place. Does he agree that the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill is not the great repeal Bill but the great continuity Bill? Workers’ rights will not be undermined by the Bill; they are already enhanced when compared with the EU.

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The original name—the great repeal Bill—was inspired by the greatness of its constitutional significance and certainly not because of any changes it makes to workers’ rights which, as we have said, will continue unchanged.

Brexit Timetable

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12. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that the timetable for the UK leaving the EU is met. [900652]

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14. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that the timetable for the UK leaving the EU is met. [900655]

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We aim to get the right agreement for the United Kingdom and the European Union. Government officials are working at pace, and we have said repeatedly that both parties will need to demonstrate a dynamic and flexible approach in each negotiation round. Flexibility and creativity are needed from both sides, and we have already said that we are willing to meet as frequently as required. We want to reach an agreement about our future partnership by the end of March 2019. From that point, we believe that a time-limited interim period will be in the mutual interest of the United Kingdom and the European Union, allowing people and businesses in the United Kingdom and the European Union to adjust to the new arrangements.

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I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. Our future trade relations with the European Union are clearly vital, and it is good news that a queue of trade deals is potentially in the offing for when we leave. Given our unique position with the EU, it is surely perfectly possible to conclude a trade agreement by the time we leave in March 2019.

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Yes, my hon. Friend is exactly right. The Bill that we will debate later today is designed with exactly that in mind. The unique nature of the free trade agreement that we are seeking to agree with the European Union is that we all start from exactly the same standards. The previous question related to maintaining the same standards for labour law and other matters, but those standards are actually already better. My hon. Friend is right that our unique position is the key to getting a fast, effective and wealth-creating trade agreement.

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People and businesses in Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland are confident about the opportunities that lie ahead after Brexit. Can the Secretary of State reassure my constituents that he will ignore some of the ill-judged rhetoric coming out of the Commission about teaching us a lesson and focus instead on securing a deal that works for our mutual benefit?

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I think I should say, in the interest of maintaining amity across the negotiating table, that Mr Barnier clarified that he did not intend to say “educate”. He meant that he wanted to bring everybody up to speed on the benefits, as he sees it, of the single market. Both sides want to achieve the best possible outcome and the strongest possible partnership for the future, and that is what we intend to do. It is in neither side’s interest for there to be a cliff edge for businesses or a threat to stability. The UK and the EU will work together to agree provisions for an interim period that will allow people and businesses in both the UK and the EU to adjust in a smooth and orderly way to new arrangements. That will minimise disruption, give as much certainty as possible and meet the wishes of my hon. Friend’s constituents.

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Nowhere is the timetable for leaving the EU more important than in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Press reports today indicate that there will be a special relationship in how we work the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Can the Minister give us some idea of those discussions and of what has happened so far?

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At the moment, I can talk only to the discussions within the European Union negotiating group. From the beginning we were very keen to start on this as quickly as possible. We understand, of course, that the conclusion we get will be dependent, to some extent, on all the other decisions on borders. How much special arrangement we have to make will depend on how open the borders are generally. We have made very good progress. At the last round in particular, the Commission was concerned that continuing with the common travel area would impinge on European Union citizens’ rights. We have persuaded the Commission that that is not true, and it has basically accepted our argument.

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Does the Secretary of State not realise that, every time he speaks at the Dispatch Box, the key wealth-creating areas of this country feel more and more uncertain about their future? We are haemorrhaging people. We cannot recruit people to the City of London and financial services, we cannot recruit people to universities and we cannot recruit people to manufacturing. For goodness’ sake, man, get on with the job.

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Perhaps I will organise a visit for the hon. Gentleman to see Mr Barnier himself. We have taken action in all those areas. We have taken action to underpin the funding of universities. In industry, we have seen the Nissan arrangements. We have talked to the financial services sector about what we expect to happen, and we have particularly talked about an implementation period with them in mind—not just them, but them in particular. Plenty of action is being taken to improve the certainty and clarity on where we are going.

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Finally, Charlie Elphicke.

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18. It is important to be robust on the timetable, but it is also important to be robust in the face of Brussels’ demand that we send more money. We should not be bullied or blackmailed; we should be strong as a nation. [900660]

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I hear my hon. Friend loud and clear. We have been very clear that the UK and the EU will have financial obligations to each other that will survive our exit from the EU. The Commission set out the EU position in July, and we have a duty to our taxpayers, as he says, to interrogate that position rigorously, which is what we did line by line in the last round of negotiations.

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Order. We had not moved on to a new question. We were on the same question, but two different Ministers appeared at the Dispatch Box. The hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) should feel very gratified to have a dedicated Minister to attend to his particular inquiry. That is something he can tell his grandchildren in years to come.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [900714]

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Since our last Question Time, the Government have made important progress towards delivering the result of the European referendum and grasping the opportunities that Brexit can provide. In the negotiations with our European counterparts, we have found important areas where we agree—on pensions, healthcare and Northern Ireland, for example—and we are now working on those areas where we do not agree. We have provided more clarity by publishing papers on a range of issues. Finally, later today we will debate the repeal Bill, which will give effect to the result of the referendum while providing the legal certainty that will avoid unnecessary disruption. I believe the Bill should command the support of all those who believe in securing a smooth and orderly exit from the European Union.

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Leaving the EU single market and customs union would be an unprecedented act of self-harm to our economy, especially if the UK Government fail to negotiate a trade agreement with the EU. Will the Secretary of State confirm that if he fails to reach a deal within the two-year deadline, the UK will remain a member of the EU under the existing terms?

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No, I will not. The vote of the British people was very clear: they wanted to leave the European Union and take back control, of both borders and laws. That would not be possible if we simply stayed inside the single market under the current terms.

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T2. As my right hon. Friend will be aware, EU legislation giving protections to food from particular geographical areas, such as the Cornish pasty, our clotted cream and the Cornish sardine, came into force in 1993. Has his Department had discussions with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about similar arrangements carrying on after we leave the EU? [900715]

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I can assure my hon. Friend that the Government fully support the UK’s many world-class traditional food products, including those from Cornwall. We recognise the importance of protecting the name and status of high-quality UK food products, such as those currently registered under the protected food name and geographical indications schemes. We are working closely with DEFRA on this important issue. The Government are also engaging directly with producers, actively considering how best to ensure that traditional food products are protected once the UK has left the EU.

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T5. Whenever I hear the Secretary of State explaining what will replace our current relationship within the EU, whether he is on the single market, the rights of EU nationals or whatever, it always sounds like a cut-and-paste, second-best, Heath Robinson version of events. I just wonder whether he ever, even for a moment, thinks it is possible he may be mistaken. [900719]

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It would probably be a unique foray at this Dispatch Box for a Minister to admit error, but let me say this to the hon. Gentleman: I said at the beginning that this is a negotiation; it will take time and go in directions that we do not necessarily expect, and there will be give and take in it. That is as close as I can get.

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T3. Later today, this House will get to debate the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill for the first time, which, as we know is a very important piece of legislation that provides certainty and a smooth exit for this country from the EU. Will the Secretary of State set out for the House, and indeed for the country, what the consequences would be of this Bill not being passed? Does he agree that any Member who seeks to block its passing is not acting in the national interest? [900717]

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I am afraid that my hon. Friend is precisely right. The purpose of the Bill is to establish continuity, for several reasons. The first is to provide certainty for business, an issue raised by the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman). The second is to ensure our ability to carry out a free trade deal which will be unique in the world. The third is to underpin all the rights and privileges that we have promised to our country down the years, including employment rights, consumer rights and environmental rights. All those things are vital in the national interest, so he is exactly right.

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T7. How should employers in my constituency that I have visited in recent months today assess the risk of ending up with tariffs or additional regulatory barriers to exporting to the single market when we leave the EU? [900721]

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Those employers should have confidence that it is in everyone’s interests, ours and those of all the nations of the European Union, to deliver tariff-free access between our markets. I would say to those employers that they should have a great deal of confidence that we will therefore secure the deal.

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T4. The purpose of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill is to provide continuity and a working statute book on the day we leave. Will my right hon. Friend make it absolutely clear that a vote against this Bill is a vote for chaos and for uncertainty? [900718]

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My hon. Friend is exactly right about that, and she allows me to reiterate one other point: all the talk from Opposition Members has been about changing things in this Bill. The Bill is about maintaining continuity; it is about keeping in place the aims and purposes of all the European law that we currently have—and will have the day after we leave.

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The purpose of any transitional arrangement is, as the Secretary of State said, to avoid a cliff edge, and to give continuity and certainty to the UK economy. But the Chancellor and the Trade Secretary published an article last month saying that during any such period the UK would not be in the single market or the customs union. What is the purpose of a transitional arrangement that undermines the very stability and continuity it is supposed to achieve?

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The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point and I suspect it would have been in his question earlier if he had had the chance to ask it. The simple truth is, as I have said, that we are starting from the aim of maintaining as much continuity as is necessary to anything that might change in the final settlement. So we will do that. Because we are not in the European Union at that point—legally, we will not be—we will not be formally members of the single market and the customs union. We may well seek a customs agreement for that period and a similar arrangement on the single market provisions, but we cannot make that decision ourselves; there is a negotiation to be carried out with the EU.

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T6. Does the Minister agree that the system of secondary legislation contemplated by the Bill that we will be debating later today provides the best and most flexible means of ensuring that the United Kingdom is left with a coherent statute book when we leave the European Union? Does he not also agree that there will be general bemusement in this country that the Opposition are seeking to oppose that Bill? [900720]

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May I begin by paying tribute to my right hon. Friend for all the work he has done in the Department? The quality of the work I inherited is a testament to the leadership he provided in the Department. I am most grateful to him. He makes a good point: secondary legislation is a long-standing mechanism for making detailed changes to the law, with the scrutiny procedure for each instrument agreed by Parliament. Since their introduction, every Government have used statutory instruments and every Parliament has debated and approved statutory instruments.

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The Minister earlier extolled the benefits of the World Trade Organisation should there be a no-deal scenario, but there is no automatic equivalent to the single aviation market or the open skies agreement. What contingency are the Minister and his team making to protect our aviation industry?

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The hon. Lady makes a good point. The Government are well aware of those issues, and we continue to develop our contingency plans not only in those areas, but right across Government.

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T8. Constituents of mine are the bedrock of the success of world-beating companies such as Spirax Sarco. Does my hon. Friend agree that the withdrawal Bill must be the opportunity to cement employee rights, not erode them? [900722]

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I do agree with my hon. Friend, and I think we have had a good canter around the issue today. I am grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to once again say that the Government are committed to protecting workers’ rights to ensure that they keep pace with the changing labour market and that nothing in the withdrawal Bill will change that.

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I am in an indulgent mood. I call Rachael Maskell.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker. Businesses are in desperate need of confidence. When will the Secretary of State confirm that he will have the transition arrangements in place, because we will leave the European Union in just over 18 months? Businesses are making their plans now and need answers.

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I would say two things to the hon. Lady: first, we will do that as soon as is feasible within the constraints of the negotiation; and secondly, if she is concerned about business confidence, I say to her that the best way to guarantee stability is to vote for the Bill this afternoon.

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Many farms in Wales straddle the border with England. Will my hon. Friend outline how he is ensuring that the voice of cross-border communities is not being ignored in discussions over Brexit and devolution?

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My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We would be happy to meet him and his constituents to address this important issue. The Bill sets out a framework that protects common UK frameworks while we have the conversation with the devolved Administrations as to where they are needed. I think that is a sensible approach to protect the interests of farmers and businesses across the UK.