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Topical Questions

Volume 637: debated on Thursday 15 March 2018

In recent weeks, the Prime Minister has set out in more detail the two key pillars of our future partnership with the European Union. In Munich, she set out our clear desire to continue to work closely with our European partners on all aspects of our security policy, both internal and external. At Mansion House, she set out a clear path towards a comprehensive future economic partnership that recognises our unique starting point, our shared history and our common values, but that also respects the result of the referendum and ensures that as we leave the EU, we return control over our money, laws and borders to this House. In the coming months, we will be using the negotiations with the EU to deliver that.

Is my right hon. Friend able to reassure the House that, following next week’s EU Council meeting, the negotiations will be able to move beyond the transition arrangements?

On the implementation period, we have made significant progress in a number of areas, and although negotiations are still ongoing, we are confident that we can reach an agreement on that at next week’s EU Council. As my hon. Friend will be aware, article 50 is clear that the withdrawal agreement shall be agreed in line with the framework for the future relationship. We expect new European Union guidelines covering the negotiation of the terms of our future relationship to be agreed at the March Council, as set out by the EU in December. The Prime Minister has set out a vision of the breadth and depth of the future relationship in a number of speeches, and we hope that the EU guidelines will be sufficiently flexible to allow the EU to think creatively and imaginatively about our future partnership. Indeed, I say to him that at least half the effort in the past three months has been aimed at ensuring that we get those flexible, open and broad guidelines by addressing that very issue with the 27 that make up the Council, as well as the Commission.

In January last year, the Secretary of State stood at the Dispatch Box and assured the House:

“What we have come up with…is the idea of a comprehensive free trade agreement and a comprehensive customs agreement that will deliver the exact same benefits as we have”.——[Official Report, 24 January 2017; Vol. 620, c. 169.]

The Government stood by that assurance for 14 months, but then the Prime Minister’s Mansion House speech downgraded the Government’s ambitions to reduced access to European markets. What does the Secretary of State have to say for himself now?

I would say two things to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. Of course, in a negotiation, we go in with the highest possible aspirations, and that is what we intended. Incidentally, he should read his own policy, which I recall has the same aspirations—not very effectively. What we are about is getting the best possible outcome for this country and that is what we will do.

We have had a lot of non-answers this morning, if I may say so, Mr Speaker. In addition to downgrading the ambition for the final deal, the Government are also delaying vital legislation in this House. We were expecting to consider the trade and customs Bill this week on Report and Third Reading but, apparently, they have been parked until May because the Government fear losing key votes. There is no sign of other vital legislation coming down the track. This should have been a busy period in Parliament. General debates on the EU are always interesting, but meaningful votes are better. What is going on?

I thought that business questions came after this session, not now. However, if Opposition Members continue to try to thwart the will of the British people by blocking votes at every turn, that is their responsibility, not ours.

T2. Does my right hon. Friend agree that remaining in a customs union after Brexit would prevent one of the major opportunities presented by leaving the EU: taking control of our trade? (904401)

My hon. Friend is exactly right. As the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Suella Fernandes), said earlier, that is one of the great prizes that will come out of our departure from the Union. Indeed, I am rather sorry that the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) did not raise the issue of a customs union explicitly. I know that he has difficulties with his own leadership on these matters, so I thought I should find a leader of whom he did approve, Mr Tony Blair, who said:

“So the way I look at it is that the Labour party position is: it’s pulled up its anchor and it’s left the kind of, what looks like a safe port, but actually isn’t, of being in the same position as the Government…but they’d be very unwise to drop anchor at the customs union, because the truth is that doesn’t really resolve your problems. By the way, it doesn’t really resolve your problems in Northern Ireland, either.”

T3. Vital services for people suffering domestic violence, hate crime, discrimination and labour exploitation are funded by the EU rights, equality and citizenship programme. When the consultation on the UK prosperity fund eventually begins, will that programme be part of it? (904404)

I have had extensive discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government about the shared prosperity fund. I have heard the hon. Lady’s point and will take it up with him.

T4. Last weekend, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs released a joint statement with the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson, about the future of fisheries post Brexit. Does my hon. Friend agree with them that the UK must, on 29 March next year, leave the common fisheries policy and take back control of our waters, which means that the UK will decide annually who catches what, where and when in our exclusive economic zone? (904406)

My hon. Friend has become a relentless champion of the fisheries cause, as exemplified by his speech in the Chamber yesterday. He is a doughty champion of his constituents and of the fishing cause more widely. The Government share his impatience to leave the common fisheries policy. The view of the House has been made clear in questions on fisheries today. We will take that impatience to leave the CFP forward to our negotiations. As an independent coastal state, we will have control of our exclusive economic zone, be responsible for the management of natural marine resources in that area, and be able to control and manage access to UK waters, including fisheries.

T5.     The Government document that the Exiting the European Union Committee released last week stated that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is“coordinating analysis of the impacts of a potential loss of 48 hour working week”.Why are the Government seeking to use Brexit as an excuse to steal workers’ rights? (904407)

T6. Our leaving the common agricultural policy gives the farming industry a historic opportunity to take back control of our farming policies. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is essential that we protect the interests of family farmers, such as those in my constituency, by continuing the direct payment of subsidies? (904408)

The Government recognise the importance of supporting smaller farms, including family farms, as we leave the common agricultural policy. Our consultation paper sets out our detailed proposals for a gradual transition during which we continue direct payments while applying reductions—for example, starting with those in receipt of the highest payments. The Government are seeking views on the proposals and inviting all those affected to contribute to the discussion. I hope that my hon. Friend will ask his constituents to play their part.

While talking about Northern Ireland, the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the hon. Member for Fareham (Suella Fernandes), made the significant statement that the report by Mr Lars Karlsson did not meet the Government’s test of there being no physical border infrastructure. Will the Secretary of State repeat that statement and say that, in his view, the report does not meet that test?

That is an important question. I will certainly say to the right hon. Gentleman that it does not meet all our criteria. We want to maintain no physical structures at the border and no visible border—a very light-touch border. I remind him, however, that the border does exist as a financial border. There are different fiscal and excise policies north and south of the border, and we have to manage that now. We do so without the border being visible, and we will do that in the future.

If we leave the single market, we will also leave the passporting regime, as the Prime Minister has made clear. What steps is the Department taking to negotiate successor arrangements for UK financial services firms that access EU markets?

We are working closely with the Treasury to prepare for a comprehensive and ambitious arrangement on financial services. The Prime Minister gave an indication of that in her Mansion House speech, and we are very clear that it should be in the interests of both the UK and the EU to reach agreement in this area, not least to protect the financial stability of Europe.

I very much welcomed the Secretary of State’s most recent answer, but it would be helpful to understand whether all the Government’s requirements can be met without any infrastructure whatsoever. Last night, my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) made a generous offer when she said that she and I would take him to the Irish border so that he could see for himself how it works now. I absolutely support her in that offer, so will he join us on a visit to see how the border works?

I will not take the offer, I am afraid. The Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham, referred to my previous look at the border. The purpose then—it was around the time of or just before the Belfast agreement—was to look at the issue of smuggling. [Interruption.] That was one occasion. This is an important issue—indeed, the very last conversation I had with Martin McGuinness was about exactly this—and I will do so when the time arises. The simple truth is that this border issue is resolvable if we have a free trade agreement and, if we have a customs agreement, it is resolvable by technical means as well.

May I applaud the Government’s practical and sensible decision regarding their intention to remain part of the European Aviation Safety Agency after Brexit? Can we expect similar sensible and practical discussions around open skies?

My hon. Friend can expect similar sensible discussions around open skies. I was reassured that President Tusk mentioned that aviation was one of the key things that he wishes to address.

There are several Airbus Beluga flights every day between manufacturing sites at Hamburg and Toulouse, and Chester. That complicated manufacturing and supply chain will be put at risk unless we get regulatory certainty soon. When will we get detailed regulatory certainty on manufacturing?

This is why we wish to move quickly to agree an implementation period and to discuss our future economic partnership. As we have said, we hope to be in a position to give certainty on our future relationship by the time we get to October.

I have to confess that Broxtowe does not have many fishing men or women in the constituency. Well, it has some, but their activities tend to be confined to the Beeston canal. The fisheries and agricultural policies of the European Union are important. Will the Secretary of State confirm that Norway has complete control over its agriculture and fisheries policy as a member of the European Free Trade Association and the European economic area, and a successful member of the single market?

Well, yes, but, of course, it is a rule taker. Its economy is substantially different from our own and it is outside the customs union. We just need to make sure that we follow a path that suits our economy, and that is the path set out by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.

On what date were officials first instructed to begin drafting amendments to clause 11 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill?

We have been working on clause 11 of the Bill for some weeks and months; we have, of course, been discussing our approach with the devolved Administrations. It was always our ambition to achieve agreement on those amendments with the devolved Administrations.

Last week, I met the chief executive of the Hull and Humber chamber of commerce, Ian Kelly, who expressed support for the concept of exploring free port status for the Humber ports. Is this yet another opportunity that the Government will have after Brexit?

With my fellow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), I was pleased to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) to discuss the issue with the local port authority from his constituency. Although this is a very interesting opportunity that flows from taking control of our trade policy, it is one of many options that the Government are considering.

May I ask the Secretary of State directly whether he has seen the investigation from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy that apparently shows the disastrous effect that Brexit will have on manufacturing all over the country, but particularly in the north and the regions? Has he seen it, and, if he has, is he colluding to keep it private?

Will the Minister confirm that when we leave the European Union, it will be our policy to control our fishing waters, not to give free and unfettered access, as is currently demanded by the European Union?

As the Secretary of State and I have both said, we will be leaving the common fisheries policy and taking control of our waters. My experience of fishermen is that they do wish to access European markets. We need to approach the fisheries negotiation in the same constructive spirit as other aspects of our negotiations but, yes, we will be taking control of our waters.

Will the Government make it their policy to fully implement the international code of marketing of breastmilk substitutes following Brexit to protect our most vulnerable consumers from the predatory grasp of formula companies?

I did not quite hear the full detail of the hon. Lady’s question, but I can say that our focus on consumer protection is absolute. I spoke at the Which? conference earlier this week to show how we will put consumer rights at the heart of our approach to Brexit.

Does the promotion of leaker-in-chief and Brexit-phobic Martin Selmayr to the EU’s top civil service post help or hinder our stance, or make no difference at all?

Thank you for saving me up, Mr Speaker.

Hon. Members know that we will leave this dreadful European Union superstate in 379 days, but they might not know that that will also mark the end of the Secretary of State’s grand tour of Europe. He is in a unique position to advise the British people about which countries like us and which do not so that we will know which countries to go to after we leave. Will the Secretary of State tell us the answer?

I am very tempted to give my hon. Friend the list from the last three weeks, which would take about five minutes. Two things have struck me while talking to all my European opposite numbers: all of them are sad that we are going; and they all want a strong future relationship. They all want to stay our friends and allies, and that is what we will deliver.

Royal Assent

I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:

Finance Act 2018

Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Act 2018

Space Industry Act 2018

City of London Corporation (Open Spaces) Act 2018.