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Topical Questions

Volume 645: debated on Thursday 19 July 2018

Last week, the Government published their White Paper on the future relationship between the UK and EU. Today, I will travel to Brussels to meet Michel Barnier to discuss the negotiations, and I look forward to working with him to secure a deal in the best interests of both the United Kingdom and our European partners.

What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to bolster and emphasise the importance of no deal planning across Government?

Most of our no deal preparation has been developed internally with targeted engagement with the relevant parties, but we are now at the point at which more of that delivery will start to become more public. Over the summer, the Government will release a series of technical notices to set out what UK businesses and citizens in various sectors will need to do in a no deal scenario and to make public more of our preparations. That is the responsible thing for any Government to do.

Yesterday, the former Brexit Minister, the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), made a direct threat to the Secretary of State that Conservative MPs on his wing of the party are not prepared to vote for any Brexit deal that does not meet their demands. Talking about the White Paper, he said that 40-plus Conservative Members

“do not like this deal and are willing to vote in line with that dislike”.—[Official Report, 18 July 2018; Vol. 645, c. 489.]

Against that threat, and without just saying that it is a great White Paper, what evidence can the Secretary of State point to that suggests the White Paper could command a majority in this House?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman seems more interested in doing the job of whipping Conservative Members than in coming up with any serious, substantive proposals. We have a White Paper, and I am going to Brussels. We ought to unite the United Kingdom behind getting the best deal for this country and for our European friends.

Let me follow on. Given the threat that has been issued by the hon. Member for Wycombe, the burning question for the Secretary of State, which will be asked again and again in this House, across the country and, I have no doubt, by Michel Barnier later today, is whether he personally is prepared to face down that threat. What is the answer?

I am not interested in the media circus or in any of the drama. We have proper scrutiny in this House, and we have relentlessly and unflinchingly focused—I am sure our European partners will be doing the same—on narrowing the differences, accentuating the positives and getting a win-win deal that is good for this country and good for our European friends. The right hon. and learned Gentleman should get behind that effort.

T6. My electors expect the decision of a general election to be delivered, just as they expect the decision of a referendum to be delivered. Does my right hon. Friend agree that to have a second referendum would undermine the democratic process and that anyone calling in this place for a second referendum should perhaps step down, have a by-election and ask for a second opinion on themselves? (906565)

My hon. Friend makes his point in his usual powerful and eloquent way. Of course, when the referendum legislation was passed it was agreed by all parties that we would respect the verdict of the referendum. That was how we entered into the legislation, that was how the legislation was passed by the House and that was how we campaigned. It would be a shifting of the democratic goalposts and a breach of democratic trust to suggest otherwise.

T2. My Stockton North constituency is home to some of the country’s most energy-intensive industries, and the future nature of the greenhouse gas scheme is a key business issue for them. The Chequers agreement suggests that we might remain in the EU emissions trading scheme. When will we know? (906561)

Having sat on various Select Committees with the hon. Gentleman, I know that he takes these issues very seriously. We detailed it in the White Paper, and he has the reassurance of the detail in that extensive document. I will be going out to talk to Michel Barnier and our European friends about all these issues to make sure we can take it further forward.

T7. The repeated commitment from this Government that we are indeed leaving the common fisheries policy is welcomed by the fishing communities of Banff and Buchan and around the United Kingdom. Concerns remain, however, that the position of the European Fisheries Alliance, among others in Europe, is to maintain as much of the status quo as possible. Will the Minister commit to meeting me and representatives of the Scottish fishing industry to discuss how leaving the CFP can lead to this vital industry not just surviving but thriving and growing post Brexit? (906566)

I assure my hon. Friend that I share his and the Environment Secretary’s view that, once we leave the EU, we will be able to control access to our waters by non-UK registered vessels, which will be a matter for negotiation. Access to markets for fish products will be agreed as part of our future economic partnership, just as with other goods and food products.

T3. I understand that the Secretary of State, as a member of the campaign committee of Vote Leave—the campaign committee met weekly, according to Vote Leave’s website, to agree the leave campaign’s strategy—may not want to comment on this week’s findings of the Electoral Commission until he has spoken to the police, who are investigating those findings, so I ask him this hypothetical question instead. In a situation in which an organisation has been found to have lied about its spending and to have broken UK law in order to secure a narrow referendum victory, what does he believe the consequences should be? (906562)

Obviously we need to see any of those allegations, any of those cases, followed up by the relevant authorities. I was on the campaign board of Vote Leave. I had nothing to do with the financial implications, with donations or with anything like that. What I think the hon. Lady is really trying to do is somehow, in a back-handed way, to discredit the outcome of the referendum, which is not going to work. The country voted to leave the EU, and that is what we are going to do.

T9. As we strike out into this brave new world of global trade post Brexit, can my right hon. Friend reassure me that, whatever the result of the negotiations, this Government will redouble their effort to retain cordial relationships with Europe on both trade and security? (906568)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; that is what the White Paper sets out. This is about maintaining a strong trading relationship with our EU friends; broadening our opportunity to trade more energetically, with a bit more vim and vigour, with the growth markets of the globe, from Asia to Latin America; and, of course, in those vital other areas of co-operation, including security, making sure that we retain those strong ties.

T4. The European Court of Justice rulings that deemed that on-call working should be calculated as working time have been crucial in ensuring fair pay for residential care workers in the UK. What guarantees will the Government give to ensure that this vital protection will continue after the UK leaves the EU? (906563)

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. She comes from a wonderful city that I used to live in and which voted heavily for leave. People there will therefore be surprised that she is trying to undermine that referendum result. However, I can tell her that there is no intention on this side to undermine any of those workers’ rights.

T10. More than half the scientists currently working in the UK were born outside it. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is essential that we allow scientists to continue to contribute to this country after we leave the EU? (906569)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. We are ending free movement. We want, in order to restore confidence in our immigration system, to control the numbers of people coming here. We want to make sure we have stronger checks at the border, for security purposes. But it is absolutely right to say that this country benefits from immigration, including in the way he described. The proposals we put forward on mobility will make sure we continue to do so in the future.

T5. Does the Secretary of State still believe that EU proposals to promote gender parity in boardrooms amount to “tokenism” and that “inexperienced people” will end up on boards? If not, how will he promote gender equality through the Brexit process? (906564)

I thank the hon. Lady for that question. I am meritocratic to my heart; I do not believe in any discrimination, be it against men or women. Of course we are going to maintain our strong equality standards— and indeed reinforce them. We do not need Brussels for that; we need active and energetic Members in all parts of this House.

Many Conservative party members in Chelmsford voted leave, but when I met them last week the vast majority supported the Chequers deal and the White Paper. May I urge the new Secretary of State to continue to fight for a deal that delivers for our security and protects jobs?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. She has a wealth of experience and expertise in all these different areas, and I have listened carefully to the strong contributions she has made in this House every step of the way. She will have seen the White Paper. I believe that, not just in the letter, but in the spirit, it will deliver the kind of Brexit she wants to see: one that is good for this country and good for our European friends, and one that will allow Britain to go from strength to strength.

T8. Last week, I visited a family-run company in my constituency that sells extreme sports goods to more than 80 countries. People there told me that reverting to World Trade Organisation rules would cost the company more than £1.6 million in tariffs alone. They also told me they had had overtures made to them by the International Trade Secretary and by the Secretary of State’s predecessor, on condition that when they met they did not talk about Brexit. When is the Secretary of State going to start listening to such family-run companies and hear about the impact that a no deal would have? (906567)

I thank the hon. Lady for that. She has always been powerful in her contributions, both on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill and right throughout on Brexit. As she will know from the White Paper, we have a detailed set of proposals that are not only principled, but flexible, to make sure that we not only sustain the strong trade we want with our EU friends but take advantage of the global opportunities to trade more energetically. This will be good for exporters and for cutting the costs of living in this country by reducing prices.

Following this week’s votes, which make aspects of the White Paper less tenable and certainly less likely to be accepted by the EU, has the Secretary of State had any discussions with No. 10 and within his own Department about modifying the UK’s negotiating position?

Our negotiating position is set out clearly in the White Paper. Obviously, we listen to my hon. Friend, who is a strong campaigner on this issue, with a powerful voice. We are listening to all sides, but what we need to make sure we do now is come together to deliver these proposals, get the best deal for the UK and forge the agreement with the EU. These proposals are a principled and pragmatic way of delivering that.

The National Audit Office says that unless we at least agree a mutually recognised driving licence, up to 7 million licences may have to be issued in the first year after Brexit alone, and that detailed delivery plans are yet to be completed. Is that not an example of our unreadiness for falling out of the European Union? What is being done to make sure that drivers can drive on the continent if we come out without a deal?

The White Paper makes it clear that on those measures we want to reach arrangements that are in the mutual interests of the UK and the EU. Of course, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, there will be more announcements on contingency planning in due course.

On citizens’ rights, UK citizens in some EU countries may have to renounce their British citizenship to stay living in those countries. It is unclear whether any of the 1.2 million in the EU will be able to move from living in one country to living in another without making further applications. At the same time, the EU is very reluctant to secure reciprocal voting rights. It is good that our approach is generous, but is my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State concerned about the lack of reciprocity in some areas of citizens’ rights? Will he raise the issue with Michel Barnier later today?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight this issue. The Home Secretary has issued a statement that sets out his disappointment that the EU has not necessarily put into plan the reciprocal arrangements that it agreed to for EU citizens. For our part, we have made it clear that we have agreed the sections of the withdrawal agreement that provide for an exhaustive and comprehensive series of protections for EU citizens. That is on a reciprocal basis and we expect the EU to respond in kind.

This week, the Office for Budget Responsibility followed the Institute for Fiscal Studies in pointing out that there is no such thing as a Brexit dividend. Given that the OBR was set up to provide expert advice to the Government, may we have an assurance that there will be no more talk from Ministers of this fantasy Brexit dividend?

It is clear that when we leave the EU and take back control of our borders, law and money, we will not be paying the gross contributions to the EU. We will continue some domestic payments in the way that we have described, but we will of course be able to take back control of our net contribution and will pay a lot less to the EU as a result.

I warmly welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) to his new role. Will he confirm that he will continue and build on the good work of my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), and that he is by no means starting from scratch?

I can confirm that I will build on the amazing quantity of diligent work that my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) has put in place. I only wish he was still on the Front Bench to finish it off.

Famers say that crops are rotting in the ground because of a lack of European labour. When will we see a seasonal agricultural workers scheme?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of mobility. We detailed some of the proposals in the White Paper and we will of course take forward the negotiations. As he will know, I am seeing Michel Barnier later today. It is crucial that we make sure that we have a balanced approach to immigration in which we control the numbers coming here and make sure that we fill the skills shortages in the way that the hon. Gentleman has described, while also making sure that we restore public trust by having proper control over our borders and immigration policy.

Colleagues are a rum lot, I must say! I was just about to call the hon. Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) but he has beetled out of the Chamber, poor chap. Admittedly, he was not to know that I was going to call him, but had he stayed, I would have done, and I usually do. It is very odd. As for the hon. Member for Clacton (Giles Watling), we always savour his contributions but he has already spoken at topical questions so cannot do so again.

Given that HMRC makes available online the documentation for its computable general equilibrium model, will the Department follow suit so that the public can be objectively informed about the shortcomings of such models and so that the model can be fully scrutinised by interested external economists?

I thank my hon. Friend for the first in what I am sure will be a series of valuable and important forensic contributions. I shall take a good, long, hard look at the matter.

Andrew Muirhead Leather in my constituency has been in business since 1840 and relies on the EU for importing rawhides, exporting leather and chemical processing. Will the Secretary of State meet the people from Andrew Muirhead Leather to hear their concerns? They are extremely worried about what a no-deal Brexit would mean for their business.

We do understand some of the concerns relating to supply chains. If the hon. Lady looks at the White Paper, and in particular at the facilitated customs arrangement, she will see our approach and the detailed way in which we are going to resolve those concerns, not only to maintain that strong EU trade that I understand her constituents need, but to make sure that we grasp the opportunities of Brexit, particularly in respect of global trade.

I welcome the association agreement with the EU that the White Paper seeks. Will my right hon. Friend therefore also seek a category of associate citizenship for UK citizens with the EU? I think that will be welcomed both by the European Parliament and by many, many millions of people in the United Kingdom who are losing their European citizenship and would like something to replace it.

My hon. Friend raises an interesting point, and I know that it is something that is very dear to the heart of the President of the European Parliament and something that he has discussed. The EU Commission is, of course, running these negotiations with a mandate from the Council and, at this stage, there is no mandate for it to discuss the issue of associate citizenship.