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Negotiations

Volume 640: debated on Thursday 3 May 2018

Clearly, great minds think alike today, Mr Speaker.

We have made significant progress in negotiating our exit by agreeing on the terms of a time-limited implementation period and locking down entire chapters on the financial settlement and citizens’ rights. Negotiations are ongoing. My officials are in Brussels this week, discussing a number of issues, including issues in the agreement such as Euratom, data and intellectual property rights and the future partnership. They are discussing how we should progress the future economic partnership and how we can progress the negotiations swiftly and in parallel. Northern Ireland—particularly human rights, state aid and, to some extent, agriculture—is also being discussed. Today, in Brussels my officials are discussing the future of the security partnership.

There is now a clear consensus in this Parliament that, at the very least, the United Kingdom should enter into a customs arrangement with the EU post Brexit, but after another indecisive Brexit Cabinet Sub-Committee meeting, the Government, after two years, have still failed to reach an agreed position on the customs issue. Every 42 days, the Government lose a Cabinet Minister, and the Secretary of State is 6:1 third favourite to be the next to go. Those are good odds, if you ask me. If the eventual will of the Cabinet and the Prime Minister is to seek a customs arrangement with the EU, will the Secretary of State resign?

I am not sure whether it is constitutional to discuss my resignation, but I will say that I do not take it to be imminent.

The simple truth is that this is a complex and important issue, which will affect our country for generations. It has a direct effect on the sensitive issue of Northern Ireland and the peace process there, which we are committed to protecting at all costs. It is therefore no surprise that it will take some time to nail down the policy.

Conservative Members are confident that my right hon. Friend will achieve the best possible outcome for this country in the negotiations and will continue to serve this country for a long time thereafter. Will he confirm, however, that his task will not be made any easier—indeed, it will be made considerably harder—by some of the amendments to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill that have been passed in the other place? Does he agree that they will need to be repealed when they come back to this House and that the Lords will press them at their peril?

I have some much more pertinent things than that to frame, Mr Speaker.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill is essential and is in the national interest. Some of the amendments passed in the upper House—and the upper House does a very important job, as a reviewing House, in improving the quality of legislation—could have the effect of undermining the negotiation. That is a matter of critical national interest, and we will have to deal with it accordingly.

Does the Secretary of State agree with the finding of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that there is currently no technological solution to the problem of the Irish border?

We have said categorically that there will be no physical infrastructure or related checks and controls at the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. We have set out clear commitments in relation to the border and have put forward two potential customs models, to which the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) alluded.

I have always said that the best solution to the Northern Ireland border issue will be reached through the deep and special partnership between the United Kingdom and the European Union, recognising the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland. As the European Commission has itself acknowledged, solutions to the border issue cannot be based on precedent.

Given the fankle that the Secretary of State and the Government have got themselves into in the other place, have not the EU negotiations now descended into a game show parody? The question is, is it “Deal or No Deal”, or has the whole situation just become a bit “Pointless”?

The hon. Lady clearly memorised her question before she heard my answer. A huge amount of incredibly important work is under way, most notably on Northern Ireland. I would not reduce that to a parody.

The Secretary of State will be aware that universities in the UK punch well above their weight in terms of research funding, not least the universities of Dundee and St Andrews. Given that universities across Europe are planning for the next framework programme, what plans has he to ensure that those in the UK will have access to the same levels of funding on 1 January 2021?

The Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), has visited Dundee and is very much across that issue. We have given undertakings in relation to guaranteeing the funding of the universities, but if the hon. Gentleman is interested, he can certainly discuss this with me explicitly, so that we can deal directly with the issue of the universities in his constituency.

With what level of confidence does the Secretary of State estimate the probability of our leaving the customs union on 31 December 2020?

Let me make a serious point here. The issue of leaving the customs union plays directly to the issue of how we manage our future export and trade arrangements. Almost 60% of our exports are now going to the rest of the world. That is not surprising because both the International Monetary Fund and the European Commission itself have said that the vast majority of growth in world trade will come from outside the European Union. It is our explicit aim to make the most of that, and that means we have to leave the customs union.

Will the Secretary of State set out for the House the characteristics of the customs partnership that he is discussing with his right hon. Friends, and given that according to reports that is the Prime Minister’s preferred way forward, what are the reasons for holding back on it?

There are two models. The streamline model essentially uses conventional techniques used around the rest of the world, including electronic pre-notification, the use of authorised economic operators and a whole series of other technical mechanisms. The alternative proposal—the new customs partnership—is a brand-new idea; it has never been tested anywhere in the world and involves, essentially, charging the common external tariff when goods enter the country and then rebating that. Both approaches have merits and virtues, and both have some drawbacks, and that is why we are taking our time over this discussion.

Given that membership of the European Union necessarily means being in the single market and the customs union under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, does my right hon. Friend agree that, to keep faith with the British people, this Parliament has a positive duty to ensure that upon withdrawal we cease to be subject to all those arrangements?

My right hon. Friend is correct: what we are doing, after all, is carrying out the judgment of the referendum, which was to take back control of borders, laws and money. During the referendum, both sides made it very plain that real removal from the EU means real removal from the customs union and the single market.

They might be over-represented in the Secretary of State’s ministerial team, but supporters of the European Research Group constitute less than 10% of the membership of this House. Why are the Government putting their red lines before the interests of the country?

I wish the hon. Gentleman a happy May Day this week, but he is basically putting—how can I express this in parliamentary language?—a non-fact in front of the House. The case is very simple: the Government are deciding on the future customs arrangements on the basis of the best interests of the United Kingdom.

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s May Day wishes, and I am sure that he will be celebrating as well. The Engineering Employers Federation says that being outside a customs union

“would condemn the manufacturing sector to a painful and costly Brexit.”

Does he really think that is a price worth paying to keep the ERG happy?

I am not going to take lectures from a party that has had 11 different positions on this so far and whose own—[Interruption.] I am speaking through the Speaker, thank you very much. And a party whose own policy has been roundly criticised in singularly unparliamentary language by its own shadow Secretary of State for International Trade, the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner).