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Topical Questions

Volume 642: debated on Thursday 14 June 2018

Before I turn to my departmental responsibilities, may I say that today is a sombre day, one year on from Grenfell? I am sure that I speak on behalf of the whole House when I say that our thoughts are with those who suffered bereavement and loss a year ago.

This has been an important week in our policy area. It was Parliament that gave the people a decision on our membership of the EU, by way of a referendum, and it is Parliament that is carrying out their instruction. The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill returns to the Lords as a much studied, much debated and, I think, much better piece of legislation. It demonstrates the Government and Parliament delivering what the people voted for, and I know that Members in the other place will have taken note of the decisions taken and views expressed in the Commons in the past few days.

The agricultural sector in England has had the opportunity to be consulted on the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ plans for the industry post-Brexit. As the whole UK prepares to leave the EU, does my right hon. Friend agree that farmers in Scotland would be best served if the Scottish National party, rather than continuing its tactic of manufacturing grievance with this Government, consulted Scottish famers on Scotland’s future agricultural policy?

Leaving the common agricultural policy will deliver significant opportunities for farming, as the consultation to date is already showing. My hon. Friend is right that there has been consultation with the farming sector in England, but the Government are committed to working closely with the devolved Administrations and stakeholders to deliver an approach that works for the whole UK, as I said earlier, and that reflects the needs and circumstances of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England. That being said, I agree entirely with my hon. Friend: all of us who are involved in these procedures, bar those of the Scottish nationalist party, have learned the lesson that if we actually want to make things happen, we have to turn up and deal with the issues.

May I join the Secretary of State in his comments on Grenfell on behalf of the Opposition and, I am sure, the whole House?

It is good to see the Secretary of State in his place. On the back of an earlier question, I have done a quick tally, and I think that this year he has threatened to resign more times than he has met Michel Barnier.

On Tuesday, to avoid a defeat in this House, the Prime Minister offered a series of apparent concessions to her Back Benchers. Yesterday, after a meeting with the Prime Minister, the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) told Sky News that

“we are going to get a meaningful vote on both deal and no deal. I have no doubt about it”.

Later, the Solicitor General told the “Today” programme:

“I have a problem both constitutionally and politically with a direction given by Parliament”.

Who is right?

My responsibilities are with the Government, so of course I am entirely with the Solicitor General—that follows automatically. Let me put in front of the House what I said during that debate, which is that whatever proposal is put back to the Lords, it has to meet three criteria: first, that we do not bring about the overturning of the referendum result; secondly, that we do not undermine the ongoing negotiation with the European Union; and, thirdly, that we do not change the constitutional structure that has served this country well for hundreds of years, under which the Government negotiates and Parliament passes its view at the end of the process.

Let me press the Secretary of State a little further, because this is a really crucial issue in the process, so we must get it right. Will he say clearly, yes or no—will the Government’s amendment, to be published later today, make it clear that, should the proposed article 50 deal be voted down, it would be for Parliament to say what happened next, not the Executive?

I am afraid that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will have to wait to see the document when it is published. As he says, it will be published later today.

T2. As I think my right hon. Friend is aware, I voted to remain in the referendum, and I do not think that he did. Like us, the country is split, and the leave vote won. Does he agree that unity and strength are the only way forward and that holding a second referendum would be expensive madness leading to further division and strife? (905854)

Not only would it lead to further division and strife, as my hon. Friend puts it, but it would also create an incentive for the European Union to give us the worst deal possible, and surely that must trump all other points.

T3. Most British manufacturing businesses, including businesses in my own constituency in Bath, are part of complex European supply chains. Why does the Minister think that leaving the customs union and the single market—she does not need to repeat that it is the will of the British people—is good for British manufacturers? (905855)

Since the referendum, and contrary to the predictions at the time of the referendum, we are seeing an increase in exports outpacing imports, an increase in manufacturing, and an increase in sales in particular sectors, such as the car industry. We must build on those successes. Leaving the customs union will enable us to develop an independent trade policy beyond the EU and with other countries, and leaving the single market will give us power and control over our rules and regulations.

T6. Can the Minister confirm that, as the UK will be able to sign free trade agreements during the implementation period, we will have taken control of our trade and so will be able to enjoy all the benefits that that offers from March 2019? (905858)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The green section of the withdrawal agreement includes an express indication that, during the implementation period, we will, for the first time in 40 years, have the freedom to negotiate, sign and ratify trade agreements with third countries, opening our markets for British manufacturers, exporters and businesses, which is a surefire way of generating growth, jobs and prosperity.

T4. In response to my previous question, I think the Minister said that there would be no additional Government resources for the Northern Ireland police force. Will he confirm that additional resources for any contingency would be met from within its existing budget? (905856)

I think the hon. Lady may have misheard me. I said that there would be no resources spent on going against our commitments on the border. That is the point I was making. Obviously, resources allocated by the Government are really a question for the Treasury and the Northern Ireland Office.

T7. Does my hon. Friend agree that coming up with a plan soon to enable seasonal or short-term labour from the EU or the wider world in the form of, say, a seasonal agricultural worker’s visa or seasonal worker’s visa would be really helpful to businesses? We do not necessarily need to keep them waiting until we actually exit the EU, and it would mean they could plan. (905860)

We have been engaging with businesses up and down the country to build a strong understanding of the challenges and opportunities that Brexit brings, particularly in relation to immigration, and that will help us to design a new immigration system that ensures that employers have access to the skills they need. I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that I discussed her proposal with the Minister for Immigration very recently. The Government are alive to my hon. Friend’s arguments, and we will continue to consider them as we deliberate.

T5. Other than the Sewel convention, what is there to stop the Government repeating their unilateral rewriting of the constitution and devolution power grab in other Brexit-related legislation? (905857)

I am very glad that we have legislation now that ensures that the devolution system is respected. That has been recognised by the devolved Government in Wales, and I still think that there is an opportunity for the devolved Government and the devolved Parliament in Scotland to come forward and recognise that fact.

T8. Does my hon. Friend agree that ending freedom of movement will at long last give us control over who can come to this country, and allow us then to create an immigration system that works for science, without limitless immigration from the EU? (905861)

My hon. Friend, who is a great champion of science in the UK, makes a very important point. We want to continue to attract the brightest and best to the UK, particularly those looking to work in our world-leading science and innovation sector. As I said earlier, the announcement of the new start-up visas is an important step in showing that a UK immigration policy can do that.

May I ask the Secretary of State directly whether he thinks that he and his team have the right level of competencies to conduct these difficult negotiations? Is not it about time that he thought very carefully about bringing in some new talent? I would suggest perhaps David Miliband, Gordon Brown and even the former Chancellor of the Exchequer. They might actually help him to do a job that needs attention to detail and real competence.

The attention to detail that delivered the financial crisis of 2008 is precisely what we do not want.

The people of Willenhall and Bloxwich voted enthusiastically and overwhelmingly to exit the EU. Will the Minister assure them that they will get a Brexit deal that they recognise as Brexit?

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. We are determined to take back control of our laws, borders and trade policy. We will ensure that we go forward as a normal, independent country, where people know that it is this Parliament that governs their lives.

If the Government are so confident of achieving this wonderful trade deal with the EU—outwith the single market and the customs union—that they keep talking about, why are they so frightened to put that deal to the public to see whether it is the kind of Brexit that they expected?

The hon. Gentleman really must learn to pay attention during these questions. The simple truth is that creating such an incentive for the European Union would actually be the one thing that undermined the negotiations.

In any divorce, the assets are divided. Including the £39 billion divorce bill, from the day we joined in 1973 to the day we leave, we will have given £250 billion in today’s money to this organisation. What proportion of the assets are we going to get back?

First of all, I refute the idea that this is a divorce. I prefer to think that we are loving siblings who have decided to grow up and move out into the house next door. We have reached a fair financial settlement, and I am pleased that we have.

The Secretary of State will understand that the natural consequence of proceedings on Tuesday was that amendments regarding Northern Ireland, the devolved regions and the border did not get the thoughtful or considered reflection that they should have. Will the Minister use his influence to ensure that, should those amendments come back to this House, any programme motion will be framed in such a way that thoughtful and considered reflections can be made during our proceedings?

The hon. Gentleman raises a good point. We did spend quite a lot of time discussing some of these issues during the earlier stages of the Bill. I think the amendment that was eventually passed reflected some of that debate, as well as the very good debate in the Lords. But of course these are very important issues, and we will look carefully at the programme motions for any further stages.

Yesterday’s remarks by the outgoing head of the CBI are very serious and need to be taken in that context. Do the Government have any plans to provide a detailed response to those remarks, given the importance of them to the auto industry and many other industries?

We take all remarks from business and business leaders very seriously. We have to make an assessment as to what is in the best interests of the whole country. We also have to balance—for example, with respect to customs union—the interests of existing companies and companies that may make the most of opportunities in the rest of the world when we get freedom from the common commercial policy. My direct answer to the end of my hon. Friend’s question is that we will be publishing a White Paper in the near future, and the matter will be addressed in that White Paper.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that any separate regulatory alignment deal for Northern Ireland will be available to Scotland?

As we said in our proposal to the European Union, the backstop proposal was for the whole of the United Kingdom, and everything else will be for the whole of the United Kingdom, with minor variations that currently exist in Northern Ireland.

Will the Secretary of State join me in appreciating the irony inherent in the news today that even businesses set up by Members of his own party are announcing their intention to move business to Ireland and are warning their investors of the uncertainties of Brexit?

Let us also focus on the recent investment decisions that we are hearing about. We have a record number of foreign direct investment projects in the UK. We have just heard that Amazon will be investing more money to create 2,000 or so jobs in the UK. Multinational global companies in pioneering sectors are choosing the UK, after our decision to leave the European Union, to build their businesses and grow jobs.

The Dutch Government are offering advice on Brexit to Dutch businesses. The Irish Government are offering grants to Irish businesses affected by Brexit. In the absence of anything from this Government, the North East England chamber of commerce has produced a checklist. The Secretary of State seems to think it is unreasonable for businesses to demand greater clarity or progress, but could he at least offer them some advice?

We have done a huge amount to engage with business. As I said in response to earlier questions, we will reveal more of our plans in the next few weeks and months, and as we do that, we will engage in more detail with businesses right across the country.

The UK Government have long used the fact of being in the EU as an excuse for not implementing the international code of marketing of breast-milk substitutes. Will the Government make it their policy to adopt that code after we leave the EU?

The hon. Lady has raised that point before in these questions. She will appreciate that that is not necessarily a question for this Department, but she points to an area in which the UK may have greater flexibility in the future, which we should welcome.

The Secretary of State listed a series of conventions and mandates that he wants to see respected in the Brexit process. I notice that he did not mention the mandate of the 62% of people in Scotland who voted to remain and the 20-year-old Sewel convention, which determines the relationship between this place and the Government in Scotland. Does he seriously think that ripping up the 20-year-old devolution settlement on this island is a price worth paying for a hard Tory Brexit?

As I have said, we are absolutely committed to the devolution settlement. The arrangements we have reached respect that devolution settlement. In a week in which we have seen a lot of debate about meaningful votes, it is a shame that the SNP colluded in a series of meaningless votes, three times voting on the same thing twice, which ate into the time available to debate these issues.