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Topical Questions

Volume 648: debated on Thursday 25 October 2018

Since I last updated the House, our negotiations with the EU have continued and the withdrawal agreement is now 95% agreed. There is one key outstanding issue, namely the Northern Ireland border. Earlier this week, the Prime Minister set out the proposals that we are discussing with the EU and, as we intensify our negotiations to secure a good deal, we are also expediting preparations for no deal just in case the EU does not match the ambition and the pragmatism that we have demonstrated.

It is clear that no deal would be a national disaster and the thousands of EU citizens living in Battersea fear that a no-deal Brexit risks causing personal disaster and their rights to be jeopardised. Groups such as the 3 million have called for the citizens’ rights section of the withdrawal agreement to be ring-fenced so that there is no change to their rights in the event of a no deal. Why will the Secretary of State not make that commitment?

The Prime Minister and I have made the commitment to secure the rights of EU nationals here. We will set out the details very shortly, and we do expect the EU to reciprocate in relation to UK expats abroad.

T2. No deal will be damaging for both sides, so does my right hon. Friend agree that, in effect, to rule out supporting any agreement that the Prime Minister agrees with 27 other EU states on the basis of contrived tests puts politics before principle and does not serve the national interest? (907284)

It is a deeply irresponsible approach. I have to say that it is one that the Labour leadership have taken, but it is one that all Members on all sides might have to think about very carefully when we bring back a good deal from the EU.

The Secretary of State has now published 106 technical notices relating to no deal. The analysis by the Institute for Government shows that, taken together, his own technical notices commit the Government before next March to the creation or expansion of 15 quangos, further legislation in 51 areas, the negotiation of 40 new international agreements either with the EU or other countries, and the introduction of 55 new systems and processes. That is a huge legislative task for any Government, let alone this troubled Government. That is his own analysis. On a scale of one to 10, can the Secretary of State indicate how confident he is that this can all be done in the next 22 weeks?

I thank the shadow Brexit Secretary. What he has set out, of course, is the concerted plans and preparations that we are rightly undertaking to make sure that, regardless of the outcome of the negotiations—and we want a good deal—we will be ready to deal with the short-term risk, which there will undoubtedly be, and make a success of Brexit.

I notice that I did not get a number between one and 10, and I notice, therefore, that the Secretary of State is not adopting the blind confidence in the face of the fact that his predecessor went in for. The truth is that it is already too late to plan for no deal. This is bluff not planning. May I ask a very simple question? Why was this legislation not introduced months ago?

There has actually been a variety of legislation, including the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which is now in place. The irresponsible thing to do is take the position of the shadow Chancellor, who has said that he would make no financial provision for no deal. That is deeply irresponsible, as it would leave us as a hostage to the negotiations and leave the UK overexposed in the unlikely and regrettable outcome that we do not get a deal with our EU partners.

T4. Torbay’s language colleges are delighted to welcome thousands of students from across Europe each year to enjoy the beautiful bay and to learn English. Will the Minister outline how the needs of that sector have been considered in our negotiations with the EU? (907288)

Studying abroad is a great opportunity for many students and we want to ensure that it continues. We have proposed a UK-EU co-operative accord on culture and education for after we leave, allowing British and EU students to continue to visit one another’s countries, and study in one another’s colleges and universities.

T3. A number of my constituents—from musicians to those in financial services—regularly travel to Europe for work, and they are worried and anxious about how the arrangements after Brexit will affect their lives and work. Will the Minister assure my constituents that plans for travel will cause no or minimal disruption to their work, and can he tell the House when the plans will be made available for scrutiny? (907286)

The hon. Lady makes an excellent point. In our White Paper, we have set out a labour mobility framework that includes visa-free travel for tourists and short-term business visits. I think that that would address her constituents’ points.

Will the Government ensure that our contingency plans reflect what we know of our European partners’ contingency plans?

I thank my hon. Friend for his work on no deal when he was the Minister, and the preparations that have been in place for more than two years. As he will know from his experience in the Department, we closely monitor what our European counterparts are saying. If he were to listen to our French counterparts at this point in time, he would be hearing noises about two-minute checks at the border, not longer. France is employing lots of customs guards to ensure the flow of goods and trade, and will increase the number of border posts at Calais.

T5. To mitigate any possible loss of trade following Brexit, will the Secretary of State lobby Cabinet colleagues to develop the green economy? An increased domestic demand for items such as electric vehicles that are manufactured in the north-east will help to boost jobs and develop the green economy. (907289)

Through our White Paper proposals, we are absolutely committed not just to secure and build on our brilliant trading relationship with the EU, but to take advantage of the growth opportunities globally. We are also committed—not just through the EU withdrawal Act, but through the legislation that will be coming forward—to ensuring that we leave the country in an environmentally stronger position for the next generation.

If anyone were to cut up rough at the borders, what is the significance of our being a signatory to the World Trade Organisation trade facilitation agreement?

The WTO rules provide some legal checks in relation to discrimination and other aspects, but the reality is that there would be disruption at the border. We can mitigate to a large degree, but not wholly; that will depend on the response from our EU partners and friends. The French, the Belgians and the Dutch are co-operating with us constructively with regard to Eurotunnel. My hon. Friend will have heard what the Minister for no deal planning said about the French approach. We are confident that there would be a constructive approach on both sides in the case of a no-deal scenario, but we do need to prepare for all eventualities.

It has always been the case in these negotiations that we have to agree the whole deal in order for it to apply. It is right to say that we have made a great deal of progress on that protocol, but it is linked to the overall withdrawal agreement.

Witnesses to the Select Committee on Justice on Tuesday stressed the importance of ongoing contractual continuity and certainty of enforcement. That is especially important to the financial services sector, where many of my constituents work. Will the Minister meet me to discuss progress on a number of the important technical aspects around this issue?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He will remember that I answered questions on this topic before his Committee when I was a Justice Minister. These are key aspects of the future relationship, and aspects that we continue to negotiate. We will continue to engage with him and his Committee to ensure that we get the right approach.

T7. Today we learnt that Nigel Farage could be in line for a £150,000 pay-off when we leave the EU. Our Future, Our Choice has produced a report analysing the impact of Brexit on young people, revealing that those aged 18 to 29 could lose £76,000 in earnings by 2050—or even more in a worst-case scenario. With young people hit hardest by a bad deal, will the Secretary of State agree to meet Our Future, Our Choice to discuss its findings? (907291)

Any pay-offs to MEPs are obviously a matter for the EU rather than the UK. In relation to young people, we need to be very clear on the benefits of Brexit, both in relation to trade and to the global horizons that will be the USP of this country. In relation to the mobility provisions that allow them to keep studying, travelling and taking advantage of the rich cultural and educational opportunities on the continent, we will engage with all sectors and all stakeholders.

Yesterday, at our evidence session in the Exiting the EU Committee, representatives of Northern Irish businesses made it quite clear that no deal would be really damaging for them and for the people of Northern Ireland. Does that not therefore make it absolutely imperative that the whole question of the Northern Ireland backstop is resolved, and resolved quickly?

My hon. Friend is always a very constructive commentator on these issues, and I welcomed my time serving with him on the Brexit Committee. He makes a very important point. We want to see a sensible approach to the bridge between intellectual property and the future relationship; the de-politicisation, frankly, of this issue; and making sure, which is in both sides’ interests, that we resolve this issue and get the deal done, which is good news for both sides, and particularly for Northern Ireland.

T8. We now know that the Government are drawing up plans to charter ships to import emergency food and medicines in the event of a no-deal scenario. So what level of lunacy is required before the Government actually wake up to the right solution, which is staying in the EU, the single market and the customs union? (907292)

Stockpiling is a part of what the NHS and businesses do already. We will be leaving the European Union successfully on 29 March next year, and we will be getting a deal.

The UK has the world’s third-largest aviation industry, yet there are no WTO defaults in the event of no deal. What discussions are taking place to help the aviation industry to plan for all Brexit scenarios?

My hon. Friend raises an important issue. He will have seen, no doubt, the technical notices that have been issued relating to the aviation sector, which set out very clearly that we would seek to strike the relevant bilateral agreements to ensure that aviation companies and aeroplanes have access to each other’s airspace.

We hear a lot of fighting talk from the Front Bench, but what attempt are the Government making to heal the terrible divisions that still scar our country, and what attempt are they making to listen to the concerns of remain voters such as mine in Bristol West?

It has nothing to do with fighting talk; it is to do with the professionalism and the smart approach we are taking to the negotiations, both on the substance and the detail of our proposals. The hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) is laughing, but Labour has come up with no serious alternative on the substance. We will continue to make sure that we get the best deal for the country, because that would provide the unifying effect and the healing of the divisions that the hon. Lady refers to.

When I came back from Berlin during the October holidays, I went through the blue lane rather than the red lane or the green lane at customs. What lane will I use on 30 March next year, on 30 March 2020, and on 30 March 2021?

I hope that the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) is now clear about his domestic arrangements for the future. No doubt we will get an update in due course.

Bed manufacturing contributes over £330 million to the UK economy, employing 7,000 people in over 155 companies. In Batley and Spen alone, there are 35 bed manufacturers employing over 1,000 staff. What conversations has the Secretary of State had with bed manufacturers to protect them from a no-deal Brexit?

We engage with all sectors and businesses of all kinds, both through the business advisory group, which I have gone and presented to, and the CBI’s business committee. We want to make sure that manufacturers like those in the hon. Lady’s constituency are protected in a no-deal scenario in relation to their EU trade links, but also their global ones. The best thing she can do is to get behind the Government so that we get the best deal for them.

I am grateful, Mr Speaker.

On this sitting day in 1971, by 356 votes to 244, this House voted to join the EEC. Could the Secretary of State give us the benefits of that decision?

I am not quite sure of the point that the hon. Gentleman is trying to raise, but I gently suggest to him that life has moved on a little bit since the 1970s, although some on the Labour Front Bench are a bit slow in catching up. We had a referendum in 2016. The British people voted to leave and we are going to get the best deal for them.

This morning, a family-owned business in my constituency, FreestyleXtreme, announced that it is moving some of its jobs to Bucharest because of uncertainty about Brexit, and particularly the fact that it might be hit by tariffs after exit day. It warned me several months ago that that move would have to be on the cards. What reassurance can the Secretary of State give to small companies? I can see further businesses taking the same option if they do not get more clarity.

The hon. Lady is right to point to the uncertainty at this moment in time. The best way of alleviating that is for us to get a good deal. The economy is doing well. Youth unemployment is half the level it was in 2010. Wages are rising at the highest level since the financial crash. In terms of businesses voting with confidence in the UK economy, Rolls-Royce, Unilever and Amazon recently announced fresh investment in this country, and that is the reason we should go into these negotiations with economic self-confidence.

I am sorry, but we must now move on.

Before we hear the urgent question, I wish to make a short statement about the recording of names in the Division list printed in Hansard relating to new clause 7, in the name of the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill.

I am sorry to report that there are a large number of errors in that list. Those appear to have been caused by a technological failure. The numbers recorded as voting on either side of the Division are recorded by the Tellers. Those numbers—I hope the House is following me—are correct. Moreover, the names recorded on the Commons voting app—with which all present, I feel sure, will be closely familiar—are also correct. Urgent steps are now being taken to correct the record, and the Clerk Assistant is investigating what went wrong, with a view to taking necessary corrective action. He has asked me to pass on his apology to Members concerned. I cannot identify them individually—that would be a most burdensome and lengthy task—but I hope that they will take this as an apology to all. A revised, corrected list will be printed. I hope that that satisfies the House for now.

I am always grateful for the assistance proffered from a sedentary position by the hon. Gentleman.