Before I call Sir Keir Starmer to ask his urgent question, I would emphasise to the House that the purpose of my selecting this urgent question today is to give an opportunity to the Minister to explain to the House what action the Government have taken in response to the order of the House and an opportunity for other Members to question him on those matters. It is not an occasion for the House to debate whether or not a contempt of the House may have occurred. There may or may not be later occasions for that matter to be discussed. This is the correct procedure, and I know the House will trust me to know of what I speak.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union if he will make a statement on the release of the impact assessments arising from sectoral analysis carried out by Her Majesty’s Ministers to the Select Committee on Exiting the European Union.
This House passed a motion on 1 November asking that impact assessments arising from sectoral analyses be provided to the Select Committee on Exiting the European Union. This Government take very seriously their parliamentary responsibilities, and have been clear that they would be providing information to the Committee.
In the past three weeks, Departments have worked to collate and bring together this information in a way that is accessible and informative. I am glad to be able to confirm that this information has been provided not only to the Select Committee on Exiting the European Union but to the House of Lords EU Select Committee and, indeed, to the devolved Administrations. I can also, Mr Speaker, with your permission, inform the House that we have initiated discussions with the parliamentary authorities to make this information available to all colleagues through a reading room.
We were clear from the start that we would respond to the motion, but also that the documents did not exist in the form requested. Indeed, I made it clear to the House during the debate on the day that
“there has been some misunderstanding about what this sectoral analysis actually is. It is not a series of 58…impact assessments.”—[Official Report, 1 November 2017; Vol. 630, c. 887.]
As I said, the sectoral analysis is a wide mix of qualitative and quantitative analysis contained in a range of documents developed at different times since the referendum. The House of Commons itself has recognised that, although Ministers should be as open as possible with Parliament, the Government also have an obligation to consider where it will be in the public interest for material to be published.
Furthermore, it is important to recognise that, in some cases, there is commercially confidential information in the analysis and that, in many cases, the analysis was developed to underpin advice to Ministers on negotiation options in various scenarios. It is well understood, as has been the case under successive Administrations, that such advice to Ministers must remain private.
In the light of all that, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union made a statement on 7 November in which he explained that, given the documents did not exist in the form requested, it would take
“some time to collate and bring together this information in a way that is accessible and informative to the Committee.”—[Official Report, 7 November 2017; Vol. 630, c. 1333.]
He committed that the reports would be provided within three weeks. In providing the information to the Committee yesterday, we have met that commitment. Parliament has endorsed the responsibility of Ministers not to release information that would undermine our negotiating position. Contrary to what has been asserted in some places, the Committee did not give any firm assurances that what was passed to it would not subsequently be published in full. Where there are precedents for Government agreeing to pass information to Select Committees in confidence, these have been on the basis of assurances received before material is shared or a clear set of rules, such as those governing intelligence material.
When he met the Secretary of State, the Chairman of the Select Committee did say that he was willing to enter into a dialogue—after the Select Committee had received documents from the Government. But that is not the same as an assurance that, if we provided confidential or sensitive material, it would not be published, and it is not in keeping with the usual practice of Committees on these sensitive issues. As such, the sectoral reports provided do not contain information that would undermine the UK’s hand in negotiations or material that is commercially or market sensitive. But the House should be in no doubt that this has been a very substantial undertaking. We have been as open as possible, subject to the overwhelming national interest of preserving our negotiating position. We have collated more than 800 pages of analysis for the Committees, less than a month from the motion being passed, and this covers all the 58 sectors. We now consider the motion of 1 November 2017 to have been satisfied.
“Transparency” and “accountability” are two words this Government do not understand. On 1 November, after a three-hour debate, this House voted in favour of a Humble Address requiring all 58 sectoral analyses to be passed to the Brexit Select Committee—not some of the reports, not redacted copies, but the full reports. The Government did not seek to amend the Humble Address, nor did they vote against the motion. After your advice to us, Mr. Speaker, the Government accepted that the motion was binding. It is simply not open to the Secretary of State to choose to ignore it and to pass to the Select Committee the documents he chooses. Whether he is in contempt of Parliament is a matter we will come to at some later date, but he is certainly treating Parliament with contempt.
The Secretary of State says, and the Minister has reported, that he did not get assurances from the Select Committee about how the documents would be used. The Minister therefore had better answer some pretty blunt questions this afternoon. What assurances were sought that were not given? He had better tread carefully, because there will be an audit trail here and if he cannot answer that question, if he did not pursue the assurances, if he did not suggest a course that was rejected, his cover for not disclosing these documents will be blown.
This is not a game. This is the most important set of decisions this country has taken for decades and they need to be subjected to proper scrutiny. In my experience, the biggest mistakes are made when decisions are not tested.
May I remind the Minister and the Secretary of State that, until this House passed the motion on 1 November, Ministers routinely claimed that these analyses were extensive and authoritative? They say that they have now put the documents together. In September, they answered a freedom of information request. The first question was, “Do you hold the material?” to which the answer was, “Yes.” That calls into serious question the explanation now being put before this House.
Finally, I am deeply concerned that the sum total of documents generated by the Government’s work on the impact on the economy of their approach to Brexit can be squeezed into two lever arch files. That is the volume of paperwork I would have expected for a pretty routine Crown court trial in my old world. If that is the case, we should all be worried. Is that the extent of the analysis? Either way, this a very sorry state of affairs.
Let me address some of the misconceptions in the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s statement. We have not edited or redacted reports. At the time the motion was passed, and subsequently, we were clear that the documents did not exist in the form requested. We have collated information in a way that does not include some sensitive material, but the documents, which he freely admits he has not seen, do not contain redactions. It is noticeable that the original suggestion of redactions in the debate on 1 November came from him, speaking from the Front Bench for the Opposition. He also said in the debate that he had
“accepted all along that the Government should not put into the public domain any information that would undermine our negotiating position”—[Official Report, 1 November 2017; Vol. 630, c. 881.]
He accepted that there is a level of detail, and confidential issues and tactics, that should not be discussed. Those were statements he made in the debate itself.
Let me tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman the logical consequences of that position. He has suggested that mechanisms are available that allow for the sharing of material in advance for Select Committees, and he is of course right—I addressed that in my opening statement. My Secretary of State met the Chair of the Select Committee and discussed these terms. It was very clear that, as the Chair has himself said in Parliament, he wanted to receive all the documents first before he would give any assurances as to the way in which they would be treated. On that basis, we had to be clear that we had to protect commercially sensitive information.
In the absence of any restrictions on what the Select Committee might do with the documentation, the Government had to be mindful of their obligations not to allow sensitive information to be public, but let me be clear again: we have been as open as possible within those obligations. The material we have provided to the Select Committee is very substantial. It is bizarre for the right hon. and learned Gentleman to dismiss it without having yet seen it. When Committee members have had an opportunity to consider it fully and to reflect on it, I think they will reasonably conclude that the Government have fully discharged the terms of the motion.
We have shared more than 800 pages of analysis with the Select Committee. The analysis describes the activity in each sector and the current regulatory regime for the sector. The report set out existing frameworks from across the globe for how trade is facilitated between countries in the sectors, as well as sector views, which cover a range of representative cross-sector views from businesses and organisations throughout the UK. We have taken care to incorporate up-to-date views from stakeholders, such as views on the proposed implementation period.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked: does this represent the sum of the Government’s analysis? Of course it does not. The motion referred to sectoral analyses and we have responded to that motion by sharing those sectoral analyses. I note the Select Committee’s statement following its meeting this morning and I welcome the fact that arrangements will be made for Committee members to view documents in confidence. When they do, I think they will find that there is a great deal of useful and valuable information here. I assure the House and the Committee that the Secretary of State will also be accepting their request to discuss the content.
I assure the House that my Department takes its responsibilities to Parliament extremely seriously. We have provided a vast amount of factual information to help the Committees and this House in their scrutiny. I am confident that we have met the requirements of the motion, while respecting our overriding duty to the national interest.
If the Government wished to resist the publication of the papers that they had, they should have voted against the motion, and if they wished to qualify or edit the papers that they had, they should have sought to amend the motion. We cannot allow, post Brexit, the reduction of parliamentary sovereignty to a slightly ridiculous level. Will the Minister at least consider the possibility of sharing, at least with the Chairman of the Exiting the European Union Committee, the papers in the original form they were in when we voted on the motion, before this editing process started? The House would then no doubt be guided by the Chairman of the Select Committee on changes and omissions that are legitimately in the national interest and should be made.
I share my right hon. and learned Friend’s commitment to ensuring that the House can scrutinise valuable information in this respect, but the problem with the motion that was passed is that it referred to sectoral impact analyses. We were clear from the start that the documents it referred to did not exist in the form that was required. We have therefore pulled together sectoral analysis for the scrutiny of the Select Committee. I think that that will prove valuable to the Committee.
On a day in June 2016, the people of the United Kingdom were asked one question on one day. As a result of the answer they gave to that one question, there is no going back on Brexit. On 1 November, Parliament was asked one question, but for the intervening 27 days the Government have done everything possible to deny and defy the instruction—it was not a request—that they were given by this Parliament, to which, we are told, sovereignty is being restored by the Brexit process.
I remind the Minister that the question of what the Government will provide to the Select Committee is not for the Government or, indeed, for the Select Committee to decide. This Parliament has decided, and there is no discussion, debate or negotiation as to the extent to which that decision will be complied with. It must be complied with in full; otherwise, as the letter published recently by the Chair of the Select Committee on Exiting the European Union makes clear, the Select Committee will have to consider whether to table a motion on contempt. How is that going to look to our European partners? What will it do to the credibility of the Government, and particularly of the Brexit team, if they end up being held in contempt by the Parliament to which they claim to be returning sovereignty?
Will the Minister confirm that the resolution of the House was about not what was made public but what was provided to the Select Committee? In those circumstances, does he not accept that what must be made available to the Select Committee is everything—absolutely everything? If the Government are not prepared to comply with that instruction, they should not be in government. Will he tell us categorically whether he accepts that a decision on what to publish, within the bounds of parliamentary privilege, is for the Select Committee alone, and will he confirm that he and his Government are prepared to trust the judgment of that Committee to exercise on behalf of the House responsible judgment about what the public are entitled to know?
The hon. Gentleman asks a number of important questions. I would hope to hear some welcome from him for the fact that we have shared the information in these reports with the devolved Administrations. When I gave evidence to Select Committees recently in Scotland, we were pressed on whether we would do that. We do respect the fact that the Select Committee has the complete choice and discretion over what gets published of the information that is shared with it. That is why the Government have published the information to the Select Committee in the way that they have.
My hon. Friend has every right to ensure—as the EU has given out in its guidance—that not all confidential information is necessarily made available; otherwise, that might restrict our negotiating position. May I also urge him, however, to have that discussion with the Chairman of the Select Committee and ask him specifically what is it he was expecting that he has not got in terms of the documents?
I welcome the willingness of the Secretary of State to appear before the Select Committee—a decision that we made this morning. May I ask the Minister to convey to him our wish that he should do so very speedily indeed?
Given that it is quite clear that the Select Committee has received edited documents—in other words, they do not contain everything that is in the possession of the Government—may I say to the Minister that that is not in keeping with the motion passed by the House of Commons? I also say to him that I made it very clear to the Secretary of State what procedure the Select Committee would use to consider the reports and, if I may put it like this, I do object to any suggestion that the Select Committee, or I as Chair, cannot be trusted to do our job.
I have great respect for the right hon. Gentleman, and I will certainly communicate his message to the Secretary of State. On the point he makes about the information in the analyses, what the motion referred to was not what existed at the time. What we have tried to do is ensure that there is full information available to his Committee. When he has had the chance to scrutinise that and ask questions of Ministers about that, he will find that information very useful to his scrutiny.
As my hon. Friend has said, there are 850 pages of these documents and so far the Chairman of the Select Committee is the only Member who has actually seen them. I understand that the documents have been sent to two Select Committees of Parliament and to the devolved Administrations. As a former Chairman of a Select Committee, I can say that leaks are not without precedent. I would not want the Government to make available any information that, if it became public, could undermine our negotiating position.
Why, when the Bank of England has published the frankly chilling implications of no deal, do the Government insist on selectively editing the sectoral reports? Is it true, as I was told by a DExEU insider, that what the Government have done is release selective sensitive documentation, while withholding the bulk of that sensitive information?
I find that I agree with the comments of the Father of the House and the Chairman of the Select Committee, but I do understand that there is a dilemma for the Government. One recent motion clearly says that all documents should be delivered. A previous motion in this House says that the Government should not produce anything that damages our negotiations. Those motions are not clear, so would it not be an idea for the Government to come back with another motion clarifying the situation?
In June, the Secretary of State said on “The Andrew Marr Show” that
“We’ve got 50, nearly 60 sector analyses already done.”
In September, that was reiterated in response to my freedom of information request. In October, the Secretary of State confirmed that to our Committee and said that the reports were in “excruciating detail” and that the Prime Minister had seen the summaries. In November, we heard that they never existed. On what basis can completed reports be uncompleted, and on what basis is it right that the Government do anything other than give the reports in full to the Select Committee, in line with the resolution of this House?
The Government have provided the reports covering the 58 sectors to the Select Committee, and I look forward to the Select Committee being able to scrutinise them in detail. The hon. Lady has been persistent in pressing for as much of this information as possible to be put in the public domain. Her Front-Bench team have also been persistent in recognising that that could not be done with all the information, subject to negotiations, without damaging our national interest.
The issue now is not whether it is in the Government’s interest to publish these documents. If the Government did not want to publish them, they should have voted down or amended the Humble Address. In all precedent, this is a binding motion, unlike the previous motion passed earlier in the year, which was not a Humble Address and not a binding motion. To meet this motion, it is not at the discretion of the Government to decide what to take out; it is at the discretion of the Select Committee. I therefore urge the Government either to meet the terms of the motion in full, or to seek to put down a new motion.
I take my hon. Friend’s expertise in parliamentary procedure extremely seriously, and I recognise the point that he is making. We do feel that we have responded to the motion in full by preparing for the Select Committee sectoral analyses. The point that I make to him is that the sectoral analyses did not exist in the form that was requested in the motion at the time.
This situation is entirely of the Government’s making. The motion passed by this House did not give the Government discretion to take this information and decide for themselves what to give to the Select Committee and what not to give to the Select Committee. The Government have not complied with the motion, which they did not resist. There is another underlying point here—apart from questions of parliamentary privilege and contempt—and it is this: do we believe that the public have a right to know the consequences of the options facing the country on Brexit? I believe that they do. Does the Minister agree?
The right hon. Gentleman knows that we have responded to the motion. We accepted that it was binding. We have therefore brought forward information for the Select Committee. We have gone further than that by bringing forward information for the Lords Committee and for the devolved Administrations, and we are now in discussions to ensure that that information can be provided in confidential reading rooms for the whole House. Of course, what is not in the interests of the public of this country is to publish information to the other side that could be sensitive to our negotiating position; that is what this House has repeatedly voted for us not to do.
Most people would accept that it is perfectly reasonable to exclude commercial market and negotiation-sensitive information but, unfortunately, that was not expressly excluded in the terms of the Humble Address on 1 November. Will my hon. Friend look carefully at the option of the Government bringing forward a revised motion that expressly excludes that information from the material to be supplied to the Select Committee?
My hon. Friend, like many of my hon. Friends, raises an interesting point. It is something that we will look into. What we have done is to ensure that the Select Committee has information on the sectoral analyses that the Government have conducted, which is an important step taken in response to a motion of the House.
In his letter of 2 November, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), the Chair of the Select Committee, wrote:
“once the material has been provided to the committee, I would be very happy to discuss with you any particular concerns you may have about publication of parts of the material so that the committee can take these into account in making its decision on release.”
On 27 November, the Secretary of State wrote:
“we have received no assurances from the committee regarding how any information passed will be used.”
Does the Minister agree that that letter is a blatant misrepresentation of what was agreed and that the Secretary of State should withdraw that remark and apologise for it to my right hon. Friend?
It is extremely important that we understand exactly what was voted on and what the Select Committee seeks disclosure of. I am reminding myself of the motion, which was in two parts. It first referred to the list of sectoral analyses, and then went on to make it clear that it was
“the impact assessments arising from those analyses”
that should be provided to the Select Committee.
The hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) referred to the evidence provided by the Secretary of State to the Select Committee back in October. I remind myself of his answers to questions 131 and 132 in that session, in which he made it clear that those impact assessments existed “in excruciating detail” and that the Prime Minister had been provided with a summary, which she had read. Will the Minister confirm that what this House now seeks the Government to disclose are the impact assessments?
My right hon. Friend is, as always, forensic in her questioning. We were very clear when we were debating this motion that exactly what it referred to was not available at that time. Of course, there are various assessments and documents held by the Government that have been worked on over time, addressing the individual sectors. We have actually sought to provide the Select Committee with a great deal more information than existed at the time of the Secretary of State’s evidence to it, and I think that that will be valuable to the Committee in its scrutiny.
The main issues dividing the House at this stage in the Brexit negotiations are our continued membership of the customs union and of the single market. Ministers say constantly that they do not want to reveal anything that could weaken their negotiating hand, but the Government have made their position clear and the European Union has accepted that the Government want a hard Brexit, so why would it damage the Government’s negotiating position to put that information out? Can the Minister confirm that the information in the edited documents will help Members to reach a view on whether we should stay in the customs union and the single market?
I can confirm to the right hon. Gentleman that the information in the edited documents will be valuable to the House, but it is wrong to describe them as “edited documents”. I would describe them as comprehensive sectoral analyses that the Government have provided for the Select Committee and will be providing, on a confidential basis, to the House.
In response to the right hon. Gentleman’s question about the customs union and the single market, I remind him that he, like I, stood on a manifesto that said that we will respect the referendum result and confirmed that the UK will be leaving the customs union and the single market.
The Minister is making a gallant and courteous defence of a situation that is unlikely to satisfy everybody in this House because of the terms of the Humble Address, but there are two aspects of this that need to be separated. The first is the requirement to provide everything to the Select Committee, which the Humble Address did call for. The second is the fact that surely no one in this House would want our country to go into the negotiating chamber in a weaker position as a result of decisions taken here. The shadow Secretary of State himself recognised that there is a way of dealing with these things, which is to redact what would be sensitive. Unfortunately, the Humble Address did not cover that, so I believe that it is now strongly in the Government’s interest to table a motion to amend the Humble Address, which many of us in the House would strongly support.
The crucial issue is the Government’s failure to be open and transparent with the public and Parliament about the consequences of their approach to Brexit. They are not just doing that with regard to these papers, because they also refuse to give clear examples of the spending reprioritisation that is taking place in Departments as a result of the assessments in the papers and the Government’s policies on Brexit. Will the Government publish a breakdown of the funding that they are giving each Department to cope with their approach to Brexit?
The hon. Gentleman’s question strays quite a long way beyond the matter that we are discussing at the moment. We will absolutely continue to engage with Parliament and its Select Committees to support their scrutiny. We will provide them with as much information as we can, consistent with the national interest.
The Minister has mentioned the devolved Administrations on a number of occasions. I am advised by Scottish Government colleagues that the documents they have received contain nothing substantial at all about Scotland. On 24 and 25 October, the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Secretary of State for Existing the European Union gave evidence—to the Scottish Affairs Committee and the Exiting the European Union Committee respectively—that assessments of Brexit’s impact on the Scottish economy existed and would be shared with the Scottish Government. Will the Minister confirm that those unedited documents will now be shared without further delay?
I can confirm that the documents that are being shared with the Select Committee are also being shared in the usual way, with permanent secretaries of the devolved Administrations, on the same basis as they have been shared with the Select Committee. The sectoral analyses do, in many cases, contain important analyses of Scottish issues.
May I gently suggest to my hon. Friend, for whom I have the greatest of respect, that there should be a bit of a rethink on this matter before the Secretary of State appears before the Select Committee in the coming days? I also urge my hon. Friend to recognise that the really important thing at this stage is to get a move on with the negotiations and ensure that companies up and down the country, which are currently in limbo, know what we are going to do. We have to move forward in December; we cannot stand still.
My hon. Friend makes a hugely important point. I think we all want to ensure that we have the most successful approach to the negotiations, that we move forward in December and that we talk about the implementation period, which is hugely important to companies, and the deep and special partnership that we want to form between the UK and the EU. I will certainly take his points on board.
The Brexit Committee has made the rightful assertion that it will decide what information is published, but does the Minister accept that there is a real danger that the national interest could be put in jeopardy if more weight were given to transparency than to protecting our negotiating position? Does he therefore agree that the best way forward is to seek clarification from the House that it does not wish for information that could be sensitive to be placed in the Committee’s hands, and therefore to bring forward a motion to the House along those lines?
The hon. Gentleman reinforces a point that has been made by many of my hon. Friends. As I said, we will give that due consideration. He is right that we need to ensure that we protect the absolute national interest in this process by ensuring that information that is sensitive in the negotiations remains confidential.
In all my hon. Friend’s dealings with his European Union counterparts, has he ever formed the view that they pay no heed to the proceedings of this House and, indeed, have no interest in the contents of any documents that may be produced for any of its Select Committees?
The Department has handed over some 850 pages, but the Minister has made it clear that some information has been withheld. If that additional material had also been handed over, how many pages would that have been? Would it be another couple of hundred, more or less, or has the information not actually been compiled?
It was a mistake not to amend the Opposition’s motion. As a result, the Government are skating on very thin parliamentary ice. The issue could be solved next week if the Government were to come back with a sensible motion, which every Member of this House really ought to support.
I would be rather more interested in seeing the impact assessments drawn up by the EU of the impact of Britain leaving the EU and how that is affecting the EU’s negotiating position. Does my hon. Friend share my curiosity that Opposition Members are not keen to scrutinise those documents?
Order. The trouble with the interest of the hon. Gentleman, which is of great fascination to Members of the House and many spectators beyond its environs, is that it is not even adjacent to the question before us, but I am sure the hon. Gentleman can entertain himself in the long winter evenings that lie ahead.
This is not my definition of taking back control. This huge mess that the Government have got themselves into shows the limits of their clever-clever tactic of not engaging with Opposition motions by sitting on their hands. Despite what the Minister says, the fact is that a Humble Address, which it is compulsory for the Government to act on, has been carried. It calls not for the documents to be edited and not for them to be changed—that job now goes to the Select Committee. The Government have to get on and publish these documents, and they have to publish them now.
As I made it very clear on the day we debated this issue, the documents did not exist in the form that was requested. We took the motion of the House extremely seriously, and that is why we have made sure that a great deal of information has been provided to the Select Committee.
I have made it clear to the House that this information was pulled together from a range of documents. As I have also made clear, we have to ensure that commercially sensitive information, and information that would be prejudicial to the national interest, could not be at risk of being published. But this has been a process of ensuring that there is more information for the Committee, not less.
Does the Minister share my concern about how a letter sent by the Secretary of State to the ExEU Committee managed to reach journalists at the Daily Mirror before it was considered by the Committee? Does that encourage or discourage him when it comes to sharing confidential information?
The Minister will understand that it is important that the Executive get on with policy, but there is a fundamental role in our constitution for Parliament to hold the Executive to account and to scrutinise this hugely important decision. The Secretary of State said that the information existed “in excruciating detail” and that the Prime Minister had seen the summaries. For that reason, it is hard to understand why we cannot see the entirety of the information —if so, with redaction. Can the Minister explain why that is not the case?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the balance we need to strike. We do need to get on with this role, but we also absolutely respect the role of parliamentary scrutiny in this process, which is why the information that has been provided to the Committee is comprehensive and in great detail. It goes beyond the type of summaries that he refers to and, indeed, that the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras suggested might be an answer to this. We have actually provided much more information than just summarising reports could have done.