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Topical Questions

Volume 640: debated on Thursday 3 May 2018

Since the last departmental questions, the Government have been making progress towards our aim of securing a deep and special partnership with the European Union. Our aims and objectives for this agreement our clear: respecting the referendum and the need to keep control of our borders, money and laws; ensuring that our relationship endures and does not need to be constantly revisited; protecting jobs and security; demonstrating our values and the kind of country that we want to be; and strengthening the union of nations and the people who make up the United Kingdom.

The joint report in December talked about a mapping exercise with regard to cross-border co-operation. I asked the Prime Minister, and I have written to her, to understand what this mapping exercise demonstrated. I have had a letter this week from Minister Baker telling me that I cannot have the list of those 140 areas in the mapping exercise. Mr Speaker, what do I, as a Member of this Parliament, have to do to understand what those 140 areas are? I could go to the EU, I could go to the Irish Government, and I could perhaps even stand on the border and conduct my own survey. It is absolutely unacceptable for me as a Member of Parliament to receive this letter.

The hon. Lady should have kept up with some of the events that have been happening over the past week or two. The Chairman of the Brexit Committee wrote to me and asked—and indeed asked me again when I appeared in front of the Committee—whether the Committee could have that list and the support for it. We have said, yes, as soon as it is complete, as soon as we have cleared the release of it with the European Union—which has, by the way, turned down freedom of information requests on the subject. That list will be available as soon as it is complete.

T3. As this country will be an independent coastal state managing and controlling access to our own waters with effect from 1 January 2021, is the Minister able to provide an assurance that such access for EU fishing vessels will not be part of the Brexit negotiations? (905134)

My hon. Friend will have heard my earlier answer. We are clear that future negotiations over trade must be separate from negotiations over access to waters. There would be no precedent to link the two, and we will continue to take this position in our negotiations on the economic partnership with the EU. The joint statement from the SFF and NFFO that was mentioned earlier made the normal position clear—that total allowable catches, quota shares and access arrangements should ordinarily be agreed through annual bilateral agreements.

When I was reading the Sunday newspapers over the weekend, I was not entirely sure that we would see the Secretary of State in his place today. This morning he says that his resignation is not imminent—I am not sure what message he is sending to his colleagues—but can I assume that his presence signals that he thinks that he won the argument with the Prime Minister yesterday and that a customs partnership with the EU has now been taken off the table?

My first advice to the right hon. and learned Gentleman is not to believe everything he reads in the papers—even about himself, let alone about me. Secondly, I made it clear earlier that the Government are spending some time, rightly, on ensuring that we get absolutely the best outcome that will preserve the United Kingdom without creating internal borders, and that will deliver the best outcome in retaining the trade that we have with the European Union and opening up opportunities with the rest of the world. That is why we are taking time to get this right.

Let me take that discussion to Northern Ireland. In December the Prime Minister made a solemn promise that there would be no hard border in Northern Ireland. That was spelled out as no infrastructure, no checks and no controls, and I know that the Secretary of State and his team take that seriously. If, on serious and sober analysis, the only conclusion is that delivering on that solemn promise requires the UK to be in a customs union with the EU, does the Secretary of State agree that that would therefore be the only position for any responsible Government to take?

The Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), gave Labour Members some guidance on that earlier when he cited their former leader, who has taken a lot of interest in this issue, bearing in mind that he oversaw the last part of the peace process and takes it very seriously. In March this year, he said of the customs union:

“the truth is that doesn’t really resolve your problems. By the way, it doesn’t really resolve your problems in Northern Ireland, either.”

David Trimble, who was made Nobel laureate for his part in the peace process, also said that in pretty stark terms.

T7. As the Minister will know, one of the opportunities of leaving the EU is the chance to explore potential UK membership of the Trans-Pacific partnership. Can my hon. Friend confirm that the exit deal that the Government are seeking to negotiate with the UK will allow that? (905140)

As we design our independent trade policy, we have the chance to explore many options all around the world. Asia-Pacific is a region of great economic importance for the UK, and the Department for International Trade is closely following the progress of the comprehensive and progressive Trans-Pacific partnership.

T2. The United Kingdom will have no role in approving new drugs through the European Medicines Agency during the transition period. Will the Minister confirm that that will have no impact on regulatory standards or patients’ access to vital medicines? (905133)

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s first statement. We have negotiated to ensure that we will be able to continue to work with agencies including the EMA during the implementation period. The EU has included specific language about being able to call on UK expertise, so we intend to continue co-ordination. As the Prime Minister has also set out, we are seeking, as part of our future partnership, a strong relationship with the EMA beyond our exit from the EU.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that when the so-called WAIB—withdrawal agreement and implementation Bill—becomes law, we will be committing ourselves to a financial settlement that will be binding in international law? Does he therefore agree that we should seek to obtain as much detail as possible in the political declaration while we still have that leverage?

Of course, what will be binding in international law is what is written into the withdrawal agreement, and I would therefore expect Parliament to have views on what conditions should be in it.

T4. As we have heard, 60 Tory MPs have delivered an ultimatum to the Prime Minister threatening to bring down the Government—although I do not think the Government need any assistance in that regard at the moment—if they continue to seek a customs partnership with the EU countries. When did the Secretary of State first become aware of that document? (905135)

I wonder whether the Secretary of State has ever reflected on the fact that if David Cameron had kept his promise of staying in office, implementing the views of the British people and triggering article 50 immediately after the referendum, we would nearly be coming out of the EU now, and I would probably be arranging having a statue of David Cameron in my constituency. Does the Secretary of State get the feeling that the public are fed up with how long this process is taking and wish we could just get on with it a bit quicker?

I have been asked today to give careers advice to myself and now to past Prime Ministers, from which I will demur. Had we triggered article 50 immediately after the referendum, we would have had to absorb 40 years of European Union law into British law almost in a geological nanosecond—a very, very short time. It would not have been easy to do. Although my hon. Friend is right about the departure date, it might have been a lot more uncomfortable than it is going to be.

T5. Currently, less than 1% of our non-EU exports and imports are manually checked. That means that over 99% are processed with technological and electronic solutions. Does the Secretary of State agree that this is the way forward post Brexit, despite the cynicism of some, including about the Irish border? (905136)

The hon. Lady makes a very important point. It is important that we continue to look at all the investment in technology that we can make to ensure that our trade with the wider world is as frictionless as possible, and we need to look at these solutions with regard to the deal between the UK and the EU as well.

The amendments passed in the other place on Monday night were those of a wrecking Chamber and not a revising Chamber, were they not?

No; the House of Lords is a revising Chamber and it does a very important job that I have, in my past, depended on from time to time. I agree, however, that some of the proposals—for example, to put timetables into the negotiating arrangements, at which point control is taken away from the Government—would be a gift to the negotiators on the other side.

T6. The3million is an organisation representing EU nationals living in the UK. Last month it submitted 128 questions to the Home Office concerning the UK Government’s proposals for settled status. I realise that things are pretty chaotic at the Home Office at the moment, but what discussions has the Minister’s Department had about responding to the very real concerns of the 3 million EU nationals living in the United Kingdom? (905137)

The hon. and learned Lady raises an important point. There has been extensive consultation, dialogue and discussion between Ministers at the Department for Exiting the EU and diaspora groups. I met members of the Romanian diaspora at the Romanian embassy, and the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), has recently met members of the French diaspora. We have this engagement, and it is important. People can rest assured that the position of EU citizens will be safeguarded through the legislation due to come through Parliament in the autumn.

I declare an interest as a trustee of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. Post-doctoral research fellows are a vital part of this country’s research base, and they come from all over the world, including from the EU. What discussions are my right hon. and hon. Friends having with the Home Office to ensure that our future immigration policy is based not on salaries—post-docs often receive pretty miserly salaries compared with their qualifications—but on the skills that we really need in this country?

I regularly attend the higher education and science working group chaired by my hon. Friend the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, where we discuss these issues, and we have been feeding into the work being done by the Migration Advisory Committee and the Home Office on that front. The Prime Minister made it clear that we will want to continue to attract key talent from around the world, and Britain will want to continue to be a scientific superpower in the years to come. It is essential that we get our policies right on this.

The Government’s own analysis shows that if we leave the customs union, unemployment in the north-east will go up to 200,000, so why did the Secretary of State argue against a customs partnership yesterday afternoon and what is he going to say to the 160,000 people who lose their jobs?

I have two points in response to that. First, the hon. Lady is presuming what my arguments were yesterday at the Cabinet Committee. As far as I am aware, the minutes are not published. Secondly, what she refers to is not Government policy or indeed Government estimates.

Jaguar Land Rover in my constituency employs 9,000 people. Will the Minister assure me that securing the supply chain will be at the centre of our post-Brexit trading relationship with the EU and beyond?

Of course I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. We are seeking a deep and special partnership with the European Union, including trade that moves with the least possible friction. I look forward to Jaguar Land Rover’s future success.

To follow on from the previous question, the thousands of families in my constituency whose income and prosperity rely on the Ford engine plant are also deeply alarmed about the refusal to remain in the customs union. A large number of parts come in from Europe to create the engines built in Bridgend, which are then exported to Europe. How does the Minister envisage those supply chain needs and Ford’s just-in-time policy being met?

Both sides have agreed that we wish to have tariff-free access to each other’s markets. The hon. Member for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly) referred to the tiny proportion of our imports that need to be physically checked. With a degree of mutual recognition, which has been outlined by the Prime Minister, these things can be delivered through the terms of our future economic partnership, and I am confident that it is in both sides’ interest to ensure that supply chains can continue uninterrupted.

Businesses in my constituency tell me that they need the preferential trade rates with 88% of countries in the rest of the world that they currently enjoy as part of the EU. How do the Government propose to equal or exceed those preferential rates before our businesses lose contracts to EU competitors?

The EU currently has many international agreements with third countries, and it is the policy, agreed in the withdrawal agreement, that we will adopt a continuity approach, so that all those international agreements to which we are party by virtue of our membership of the EU will continue to apply after we leave the EU.

In Corby and East Northamptonshire, people voted overwhelmingly to leave and therefore to control our own borders, spend our own money, make our own laws and determine our own trade destiny. At this stage, how would my right hon. Friend judge the negotiations against that scorecard?

What my hon. Friend has described is the exact purpose of the negotiations. We are seeking to retain as much as possible of the existing European market, and at the same time open up all the rest of the world. If I may, I will refer back to the question asked earlier about Ford. One of the companies that we visited in North America, on the Canadian border, was Ford, because it is state of the art in dealing with cross-border component traffic to support car manufacturing. It is very good at that, and it will be in Europe too.

Can the Secretary of State explain to the House how the transitional arrangements he has negotiated for our fishing industry will work in relation to the renegotiation of the EU-Norway-Faroes deal on mackerel? Can he tell the House who will lead the negotiations and when that will happen?

During the implementation period, for the whole of 2019, we will apply the agreement reached at the Fisheries Council in December 2018, where we would be fully involved in that agreement as a former member state. For the 2019 negotiations, which apply to 2020, we have agreed a process of bilateral consultation between the UK and the EU ahead of negotiations with coastal states in the Fisheries Council. From December 2020, we will be negotiating fishing opportunities as an independent coastal state.

In my constituency, there are three universities and tens of thousands of students. We could remain a member of Erasmus+ when we leave the EU. Will the Minister confirm that we will do so?

The Prime Minister has set out that she believes there are great opportunities to continue to co-operate together on education and culture. We will of course need to look at what the next stage of the Erasmus+ scheme covers, but we see enormous benefits from it for students from the UK, so it is an area in which we are likely to seek further collaboration.

British Governments have repeatedly, and quite rightly, gone to European Council meetings and come back having persuaded their colleagues in other countries in favour of strong sanctions against Russia and the Putin regime. How will we be able to do that in the future when we are no longer sitting at the table or in the room?

As the Prime Minister made clear in her speech in Munich, our commitment to collaboration and partnership with our European partners on security and defence is unwavering. We have made it clear that we want to develop a new framework with the EU that ensures we can continue to work together to combat the common threats that we face. Our position in NATO obviously remains unchanged, and that underpins our worldwide influence in security and defence.

One of the key players in discussing and settling the EU financial settlement is the European Court of Auditors. As a member state, we have Phil Wynn Owen as our representative, but as it stands, he is set to leave the European Court of Auditors come 29 March 2019. Will the Secretary of State add to his negotiating list the need to make sure we have a full British representative on the European Court of Auditors during the transition period?

All of the implementation period issues are currently under discussion. I am not sure, frankly, that we will put the hon. Lady’s proposal at the top of the priority list, but we certainly aim to cover issues such as audit in the joint committee.

Can the Secretary of State name one country that has said, “As long as you leave the customs union, we’ll give you a much better free trade agreement than you have or could have had?”

No, it is the other way around: a number of countries have made it very plain that if we are still in the customs union, they will not do a trade deal with us.

The European Union set out a very clear negotiating position at the beginning of this exercise. The Government are still being undermined by their inability to make up their mind, and the Secretary of State has told us that it is going to take a bit longer to decide about customs. The whole negotiation is supposed to be concluded by October. How many weeks longer will it be before our Government have a clear position on customs?

The clarity of the position of not being a member of the customs union is absolute, and has been since the beginning, unlike the right hon. Gentleman’s party, which has had a number of different positions on this matter. Frankly, it is incredibly important that we get this right—not just for trade, which is massively important, but for the extremely sensitive issue of maintaining the peace process in Northern Ireland—and I do not undertake to put an artificial deadline on something so important.

People from the EU27 working in my constituency and Bristol West constituents living and working in the EU27 tell me that they are worried about their pensions post-Brexit. What are the Government doing to protect my constituents’ pensions?

The citizens’ rights element of the withdrawal agreement that we have reached in its entirety with the EU covers the continuity of pension provisions and the accumulation of contributions between member states. This is an issue on which we have reached agreement, and we look forward to being able to provide full certainty to all those constituents.

The threat by the US Administration to impose steel tariffs has been robustly resisted by the EU. How will the UK work with its EU partners in the future to preserve both free and fair trade in steel?

Our future trading relations are subject to negotiation, as the hon. Gentleman knows, but I have no doubt that it is in all our interests to work together on free trade agreements, working against anti-competitive distortions and having a fair trade defence regime. One of the reasons why we need to leave the customs union is of course so that we can have our own trade defence regime, and I feel quite sure we will continue to work with our partners and our neighbours to ensure that we take care of these issues.