House of Commons
Thursday 24 January 2019
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Exiting the European Union
The Secretary of State was asked—
Devolved Administrations: Discussions
The hon. Lady asks about recent discussions. Having been in post for just over two months, all my discussions seem fairly recent. She will be aware that on my first day in post I met the devolved Administrations as a priority. I have had meetings with the Prime Minister and the First Minister of Scotland. Indeed, the Prime Minister met the First Minister again yesterday, and they had a phone conversation last week.
This week’s report from the Institute for Government suggests that Whitehall Departments are not yet prepared for Brexit, deal or no deal. The UK Government started talking last summer about stockpiling, so why was the list of critical drugs not shared with the Scottish Government until just before Christmas?
I think that the assessment in Whitehall is that Whitehall is more prepared than the devolved Administrations. We are looking to work closely with the devolved Administrations. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has been very clear that medicines and medical products are our No. 1 priority for the supply of goods, and the extra ferry capacity has been purchased with that very much in mind.
If the discussions were about the maintenance of frictionless trade, a customs union of itself will not deliver that, will it?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is not just about what tariffs apply; it is also about what regulations apply on non-tariff barriers. Much of the debate in this place is about tariffs, but standards and regulations are also relevant.
The Secretary of State will know from his discussions how concerned the Welsh Government are about the prospect of a no-deal exit—the Prime Minister was told that last night. The Secretary of State will also have seen the comments from the chief executive of Airbus this morning, and his stark warning about no deal. Will he therefore take this opportunity to condemn the comments of his Conservative MEP colleague David Bannerman, who described Mr Enders’s warning as
“a German CEO putting EU interests first before his own employees”?
I take very seriously the warning from the chief executive of Airbus, but I remind the hon. Lady that he supports the Prime Minister’s deal. Many in business regard the deal as the way of delivering certainty through the implementation period. There is a lot of positivity with Airbus. If I look at the work that my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) has done to champion the “wing of the future” at the research and development centre there, I see that there is huge opportunity. What the chief executive and others in the business community are clear about is that they want a deal in order to avoid the uncertainty of no deal, and that is why they are backing the Prime Minister.
Welsh lamb producers send 90% of their exports to the European Union. In the event of a no-deal Brexit, they will face an effective tariff rate of 46%, so how are the UK Government working with the Welsh Government to support our farmers in this very serious situation?
We are talking closely with the Welsh farming community, as are Members on both sides of the House. The Prime Minister was at the Royal Welsh Show last year as part of that engagement. The hon. Gentleman will know that the National Farmers Union in Wales, and indeed across the United Kingdom, has made it clear that the best way of supporting farmers is by backing the deal.
The Prime Minister has promised that her discussions with the devolved nations and the Opposition parties will be without preconditions, so clearly she will not refuse even to discuss the prospect of extending article 50, because that would be a precondition; she will not refuse even to discuss the prospect of taking no deal off the table, because that would be a precondition; and she will not refuse even to discuss the possibility of giving the people another say, because that would be a precondition. Can the Secretary of State therefore confirm on the record that all those topics will be available for discussion, in honour of the Prime Minister’s promise that there will be no preconditions?
The Prime Minister was clear in her statement to the House on Monday that there are no preconditions. That is why she is engaging not just with the devolved Administrations; today I will be joining her for meetings with trade union leaders as part of that engagement. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the extension of article 50 is not a unilateral decision—it requires the consent of the other 27 member states. However, the main issue, and in fact, probably the only precondition that one could apply, is the fact that we need to honour the referendum result, and that is what the Prime Minister is committed to doing.
The Prime Minister was very clear in her statement to the House that there were no preconditions. She has been equally clear in a letter to my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) that there are preconditions. The Secretary of State, and indeed the Prime Minister, will be becoming only too well aware that within probably a fairly short time the UK Government will be bombarding Scotland with promises about how much they love us, how equal a partner we are, and how much they want us to stay. Can I suggest to the Secretary of State that if he expects the people of Scotland to be conned by those false promises again in 2019, he should at the very least make sure that his Prime Minister stops breaking the promises she made to the people of Scotland last week?
Let me just say very gently to the hon. Gentleman that the con is to have a referendum and then say that one will not honour the result. We had a referendum on independence in Scotland. The Scottish people spoke very clearly in that. I suspect that one of the reasons for that was that the trading relationship within the United Kingdom is the most economically beneficial to them. Having taken that decision, the next referendum was on a UK-wide basis, and it needs to be respected on that basis.
Support for Farmers
I continue to have regular conversations with ministerial colleagues across Government on all aspects of exiting the EU, including support for farmers. The Agriculture Bill will allow us to break free of the common agricultural policy and help our farming sector to become more profitable while sustaining our natural environment.
I, too, want to ask about sheep farming, which is economically very significant in my constituency. It is an industry that, for many decades, has been underpinned by an EU payments system. There is major concern that this support system will be changed too abruptly for the industry to cope as the UK leaves the European Union. What reassurances can the Secretary of State give to the sheep farmers of Montgomeryshire that that will not be the case, and that changes will be gradual and manageable and not destroy the industry?
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. One of the main reassurances to those farmers, I suspect, is knowing that they have such a champion of their interests in my hon. Friend. In terms of the policy, the Government have pledged to commit the same cash total in funds for farm support for the duration of this Parliament, providing much needed certainty to farmers and landowners. The Agriculture Bill includes a seven-year transition period for direct payments to provide further stability for farmers, giving comfort to them as they look to a brighter future.
Farmers in my constituency tell me that the majority of grain exports go to the European Union, and they are very concerned about the risk of the imposition of tariffs in the event of no deal, or indeed after the end of the transition period, when arrangements are very uncertain. What assurances can the Government give them?
We have already covered the fact that there is an issue for the farming community in terms of tariffs. That is why I advocate a deal and those voting against a deal need to explain the impact of that issue to farmers. However, polls are obviously selective, but a poll taken in Farmers Weekly showed that a majority of farmers supported leaving the EU. I suspect that that was because they see a brighter future where we can have high animal welfare standards and good environmental standards, building on the reforms set out in the Agriculture Bill. So instead of talking down the opportunity of Brexit for farmers, this House should be looking at the opportunities that a green Brexit will deliver.
The Minister might know that as the chair of my party’s Back-Bench DEFRA committee, I think there are at last real signs that preparation for farming and farmers has been quite significant. However, that contrasts distinctly with what has been happening with the Secretary of State for International Trade. Has the Brexit Secretary seen the disgraceful remarks that his colleague made in Davos yesterday? Has he seen the front page of The Times, which says that 100 companies are going to the Netherlands, to Ireland and to France? What is he going to do, talking to colleagues, actually to get things moving?
The hon. Gentleman talks about disgraceful comments from Davos, but I do not want to dwell too much on what Tony Blair may or may not have said. The hon. Gentleman makes a serious point, which is that timing is of the essence for the business community. Businesses face decisions about their no-deal planning, and they want the certainty of the deal that the Prime Minister has to offer. Opposition Members who have tabled amendments that seek to delay the level of uncertainty need to ask themselves how that uncertainty and delay is helping the business community, who need to get on in the real world and make those decisions.
With special reference to the farming community in Northern Ireland, what discussions have been held with the permanent secretary for the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs at the Northern Ireland Assembly regarding the transport of livestock beyond March?
I know that the hon. Gentleman has considerable expertise and takes a deep interest in that issue. He will know that there have been extensive discussions within the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on that very issue, and I am happy to liaise with him and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on it.
Secretary of State for Scotland: Discussions
The Secretary of State has regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues and has discussed EU exit with the Secretary of State for Scotland on a number of occasions, including at the Joint Ministerial Committee on EU negotiations, the most recent meeting of which was on 19 December. We also regularly engage with the Scottish Government, including through the Ministerial Forum on EU negotiations, and I look forward to attending the next meeting of that in Edinburgh next week.
I thank the Minister for his response. Thousands of jobs in my constituency and beyond rely on programmes such as Horizon 2020 and Erasmus and the freedom of movement on which universities depend. Given the short timescales, what reassurance can he give to universities that those programmes will continue and that we can fully participate in them?
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. I have met a number of the Scottish universities to discuss that issue. It is right that universities in Scotland and across the UK are at the forefront of programmes such as Horizon 2020, which is why we have negotiated a deal that specifically envisages participation in them. We have had a positive reaction from the European Union to that. Of course, we need to secure the deal in order to secure the next round of talks and ensure we can take that forward. In the meantime, the Government have guaranteed Horizon funding until the end of the current multi-annual financial framework.
Has the Secretary of State for Scotland told the Minister whether he supports the statement from other Scottish Tory MPs, none of whom could be bothered to be here today, that they will try to block any attempt to include Scottish Government representatives in future negotiations with the EU?
The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union have been clear that we are committed to giving the devolved Administrations, including the Scottish Government, an enhanced role in the next phase of negotiations. My Scottish Conservative colleagues have been strong champions of the devolution settlement and Scotland’s place in the Union.
Scientific, Cultural and Educational Programmes
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has regular conversations with Cabinet colleagues on all aspects of EU exit, and in particular science, culture and education. The best way for our universities and researchers to continue to benefit from the partnerships we have built with European counterparts is a negotiated deal. The political declaration makes it clear that the UK and the EU intend fully to establish terms and conditions regarding UK participation in EU programmes.
When Southend-on-Sea becomes a city, I am keen that we are seen as a centre of excellence for learning. Will my hon. Friend tell the House how the Government intend to replace the funding for the Erasmus+ programme, which is increasingly popular with university students, if we leave the European Union on 29 March without some sort of agreement?
Of course, we are seeking to reach an agreement with the EU so that UK organisations can continue to participate in Erasmus. We are committed to that. As my hon. Friend will know, a number of countries participate in the Erasmus scheme that have never been members of the EU—I believe Israel is one such country—so there is no reason why we cannot have a similar arrangement.
Organisations such as Sadler’s Wells and the Royal Ballet and many other cultural organisations recruit people from around the world, and some of them come from Europe. What protections will there be for people such as the excellent dancers we need to come to this country to promote tourism?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who is a cultural ambassador for this country, for the great work she does in promoting the performing arts. It is absolutely the intention of Her Majesty’s Government to support the great range of talent that comes into this country, and there is no reason why that should be in any way impaired as we go forward.
The hon. Gentleman knows all about science, culture and education because he represents Cambridge.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. The political declaration makes it very clear that the Government want to maintain a close involvement with EU programmes in future. Will the Minister have a word with the Secretary of State, who is a fellow east of England MP, to see if he shares my disappointment at the reports that the long-established and well-regarded East of England Brussels office faces possible closure? Will he join me in making representations to the East of England Local Government Association?
I would of course be very happy to undertake conversations with my right hon. Friend on the hon. Gentleman’s behalf, and I suggest that perhaps the hon. Gentleman takes part in them, too. The principal issue is obviously about scientists; offices in themselves are not what this relationship is about. As a fellow graduate of Cambridge University, I applaud his efforts in representing the town and the university in this place.
It would be good to hear the voice of Ceredigion as well.
Diolch, Mr Speaker. In addition to ensuring participation in the European Union framework programme for research and innovation, it is just as crucial that immigration policy facilitates and, indeed, supports research conducted by teams consisting of members from an array of European countries. What discussions have there been with the Home Office to ensure that UK immigration policy aligns with the Government’s priorities in this regard?
We have a labour mobility framework that especially ensures that highly skilled people are able to come into this country. There is a lot of doom-mongering and fear-mongering on this subject. It is absolutely the intention to keep an open policy for highly skilled, highly talented people to come into this country and contribute enormously to our society.
Contingency Planning: EU Member States
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. It is in the UK and the EU’s mutual interest to continue discussions regarding interdependencies in our respective contingency plans. We are pleased to see EU commitments to step up preparations for all scenarios and its recognition of the bespoke preparations needed in different member states. Progress continues to be made. On citizens’ rights, we have called for member states to protect UK nationals’ rights, and countries such as France, Italy and Spain have already taken such action.
Is the Minister as concerned as I am about the EU’s no-deal planning relating to the aviation industry, which would put limits on new flights and new routes by UK airlines and put in place ownership restrictions? Is it not obvious that this is not in the best interests of the EU or the UK? It would, for example, limit the growth of tourism across Europe.
My hon. Friend is extremely knowledgeable in this area, and he is correct to point out that the Commission has indicated exactly what he said. Obviously, we are seeking an ambitious and comprehensive air transport agreement with the European Union in all areas. My hon. Friend should note that nothing has yet been agreed on the Commission’s draft regulations, and we look forward to engaging with the Commission and other member states on the detail of these proposals to ensure that they deliver continuity. The UK has the third largest aviation network in the world. Air travel is vital for both the UK and the EU in connecting people and businesses, and he needs no pointers from me to the statistics demonstrating how important this matter is for many EU destinations for UK tourists.
In a week in which P&O has announced that it is reflagging its entire cross-channel fleet in Cyprus, Sony is following Panasonic in moving its European headquarters from the UK to the Netherlands and Airbus has warned of potentially very harmful decisions if the UK crashes out without a deal, including future investment going elsewhere— I would definitely describe that as sub-optimal— when are the Government going to make their own announcement that under no circumstances will they allow the UK to leave without a deal, so we can stop this slow and damaging haemorrhage?
I thank the Chair of the Exiting the European Union Committee for his question, but it prompts me to ask in reply why on earth he is not backing the deal that delivers the certainty that all the businesses that he named have asked for. He needs to look once again at the deal, and deliver the certainty that businesses across the UK require.
When the Minister meets his opposite numbers in individual member states, does he take the opportunity to stress that they could stand down their plans for a no-deal scenario if the EU collectively showed some flexibility regarding the Irish backstop, so that a deal could then be settled?
Obviously, I look forward to getting a deal over the line, and as the Chair of the Exiting the European Union Committee knows, I believe that leaving without a deal is “sub-optimal”. In all conversations that every Minister has with representatives and Ministers from member states, we are pushing exactly the case that my hon. Friend mentioned.
The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders has said that no deal would be “catastrophic”, and that plants will close and jobs will be lost. I do not understand why the Government do not rule out no deal, but if they will not, why not hold a series of indicative votes, as recommended by the Exiting the European Union Committee, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), on the different options for going forward, such as staying in the customs union? The Government know that their deal does not have a majority and that we must now move to the next stages. Why will they not do that?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. She and I co-existed in the European Parliament for a time, back when I was younger and she was the same age as she is now. She will understand that her constituents voted to leave the European Union, and they expect us to deliver on the result of that referendum. The one way of doing that is by having a deal. Over the course of the referendum she and I have debated all the different difficulties that there will be in getting a deal across the line. We have a very good deal on the table—she should vote for it.
Earlier this week the chief executive of the civil service publicly confirmed what Ministers know and the public suspect, which is that despite the huge amounts of money being thrown at it, the Government will not be fully prepared to exit the European Union in 64 days’ time without a deal. Will the Minister finally come clean with the public and admit that a no-deal exit on 29 March is not just “sub-optimal”, it is simply not a viable option?
This House voted to activate article 50, and the legislation before us means that we will leave the European Union on 29 March. I would very much prefer to leave with a deal, as would the hon. Gentleman, and I think he should vote for it.
We continue to have regular conversations across the Government and with ministerial colleagues on all aspects of exiting the European Union, and agricultural policy is a key part of that. The Agriculture Bill is part of the Government’s programme of legislation to deliver a smooth exit from the EU, and as the Secretary of State said, we must seize the opportunities of a green Brexit and break from the EU’s common agricultural policy.
Does the Minister agree that the Agriculture Bill presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help our farmers, protect our environment, and be part of the fourth agricultural revolution?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right—I am still trying to work out what the first three agricultural revolutions were, but I fully support his sentiment. The Bill constitutes the first major agricultural reform in the UK for more than 70 years, and we will support our farming industries, as we have done as a Government since the 1920s and long before we joined the European Economic Community. The Bill will also allow us to break from the EU’s common agricultural policy, and it is an incredibly positive and dynamic step forward.
A no-deal Brexit would mean that the UK would not be listed as an approved country for agricultural exports to the EU. Gaining that status could take months to negotiate. Given that almost a third of sheep production in the UK goes to the EU, what discussions has the Minister had with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about compensating sheep farmers for the potential loss of that market?
We are absolutely focused on delivering the deal. The hon. Gentleman has expressed very clearly the dangers and pitfalls of no deal, while at the same time people in his party are complaining about the dangers of no deal, yet refusing to back the deal. That is completely irresponsible. I urge the hon. Gentleman to encourage his colleagues to back the deal.
We do not allow two bites of the cherry at substantive questions, but if the hon. Gentleman wants to chance his arm at topicals, he might be successful. We look forward to that with eager anticipation.
There is a real danger in looking at farming policy dissociated from what happens further along the food chain. This week, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee took evidence from the National Farmers Union and the Food and Drink Federation. Those organisations are obviously concerned about things like tariffs if we exit without a deal, but they are also really concerned about packaging, machine parts and so on—everything that is involved in food production.
Of course, the modern economy means that all these issues are integrated. As we said, the Agriculture Bill offers the possibility of a more bespoke policy. That is what Brexit can potentially deliver. So we are completely aware that a lot of these industries are integrated, and have a wide range of problems to solve. That is something that we are fully prepared to deal with.
Is the Minister aware that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs told me two weeks ago that he believed other European countries would be looking enviously at the UK’s deal? Is that officially the Government’s position, and if so, are they not concerned that it puts the entire European project at risk, because everyone will want an identical deal, and there will be no European Union left?
Of course, my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) has said a lot of things in the last three weeks—I am not particularly aware of them. In terms of the sentiment, the hon. Gentleman will understand that agriculture is a devolved issue. As a Government, we still view Brexit in a very positive light. I think there are lots of opportunities, as things like the Agriculture Bill would suggest, for this country going forward. What other countries do is up to them. I do not know what moves there are for other countries to leave the EU, but that is exactly what we intend to do: we want to deliver the deal, and we are leaving the EU on 29 March.
EU citizens will be able to stay in all scenarios under the EU settlement scheme. As the Prime Minister announced this week, we will waive the application fee, removing any financial barrier for them to do so. We are working with member states to understand how they will protect UK nationals in all scenarios. I am pleased that some, like Cyprus and the Netherlands, have published such plans.
That will clearly be good news for the 13,000 EU citizens that live in my constituency, providing certainty going forward, but will the Minister make further efforts to ensure that the European Union provides reciprocal rights to all UK citizens that live in the EU?
Yes, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right: not only are the EU citizens in all our constituencies valued members of our communities, but of course the UK nationals in other EU member states are also valued members of their communities. This is really important. We shall be urging our EU counterparts to echo the reassurances that we have given for UK nationals living in their country, and to provide reciprocal protections.
Although waiving the £65 charge is, of course, very welcome, it still leaves EU citizens as second-class citizens in a country they have chosen to make their home—if not the citizens of nowhere, in that disgraceful phrase used by our Prime Minister. Would the Government consider covering any reasonable costs that EU citizens might incur in securing their settled status, beyond the £65 charge that has been waived?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s welcome for the Government’s decision in this respect, but it is important to say that this is a simple digital scheme—one that should be easy and straightforward to apply to. The Government are providing help and assistance, ensuring that we invest substantial resources in making the scheme work for EU citizens.
I wrote to the Minister immediately after the no-deal paper on citizenship rights was published on 6 December, seeking clarification on points that appeared to reduce rights previously granted in the withdrawal agreement, but I have had no response. One question was: why have the Government made it more difficult for EU citizens to secure their rights, by bringing forward the deadline for settled status applications, so that in a chaotic period, without a transition, applicants would have not six extra months but six fewer months to confirm their status? If the Government cannot answer such basic questions after five weeks, does it not confirm that they are simply not prepared for no deal?
I am surprised to hear that the hon. Gentleman has not had an answer, because I have certainly signed one off. I am sorry if it has not reached him. I shall investigate that matter and check.
In the unsought-for event of no deal, there would be 21 months after we leave the EU for people to register for the scheme. Obviously, the same implementation period would not be in place, so that actually offers a longer period after the change in circumstances than the six-month grace period on offer in a deal scenario.
The Department has engaged extensively with the automotive sector to understand its priorities as we leave the EU. We met leading manufacturers in summits at Chevening House last year. Those were held with the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. It is a dialogue that we are keen to pursue.
Over 800,000 people are involved in the automobile industry. What views did they pass on to the Minister, and what concerns did they express to him, about the Brexit deal? Can he answer that question?
Absolutely. It is a very simple question to answer: people in the automotive sector, the businessmen we talked to—as across many other industries—have all said that they want to see a deal. They want certainty, and they want to be able to plan for the future, which is why, as I have said many times, we want to land the deal—we need a deal.
The Government are pretending that they would take this country out without a deal at the end of March. This morning, the CEO of Airbus said:
“Please don’t listen to the Brexiteers’ madness which asserts that, because we have huge plants here, we will not move and we will always be here. They are wrong.”
Airbus alone employs 14,000 people in the UK. The Prime Minister is using hundreds of thousands of UK jobs as leverage with her own MPs. Is it not now time for the Prime Minister to tell the truth, that she will not take the UK out of the EU on 29 March without a deal?
The hon. Lady will understand that the current legal position is that if we get to 29 March without a deal, we will leave without a deal. That is the legal position. The hon. Lady will have read the remarks of the CEO of Airbus and she will have noticed that further on he says very explicitly that he, his industry and his business need clarity. We have to vote for a deal. We have always said that the deal is our favoured option, which is why we want to see it over the line.
If the hon. Gentleman insists that his Government are ready to take us out without a deal in nine weeks’ time, what will he do to support the hundreds of thousands of manufacturing workers whose jobs would be threatened?
We are committed to investing £4 billion in the industry over the next few years. There is no doubt that a deal is our favoured option—that is why we encourage Labour Members to support the deal. It seems ridiculous to me that they complain about no deal while at the same time opposing the deal. That is like complaining about the rain and then rejecting the use of an umbrella when we offer it to them. It is absolute madness. That is why I urge the hon. Lady to back the deal.
Ministers and officials engage extensively with the university sector to understand their issues with and priorities for EU exit. I have held a number of bilateral meetings with university leaders and, later this afternoon, I will join the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore), for my regular EU exit meeting with the sector.
Both of my large universities in Canterbury tell me that they have had no communication whatever from the Brexit Secretary, his Ministers or his Department. Given that 10% of their students and 25% of their staff are from the EU, and they are heavily involved in research programmes, as we have heard this morning, will the Minister or his Department reach out to my universities? I am sure that he will be welcome in Canterbury.
I would be happy to do that. We have had contact with universities directly and through their various representative bodies—Universities UK, the Russell Group, MillionPlus and so on. I am happy to ensure that those universities have been contacted directly by our Department, because it is important that we engage with all universities on such matters.
A number of university students have been traumatised by remainers saying that they will no longer be able to participate in the Erasmus programme. Will my hon. Friend—if he is not right honourable, he should be—reassure them that the programme is open not only to students in the European Union, but to those in Canada, Israel and other countries outside the EU?
My hon. Friend has made an excellent point. The Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng), mentioned Israel in this context earlier. It is true that Erasmus has a number of non-EU participants, and it is clear that the UK has ambitions to continue its cultural co-operation with the EU even after we have left.
Contingency Planning: No Deal
The Department obviously engages closely with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to ensure that local authorities are prepared for EU exit in any scenario. On Wednesday I had an opportunity to meet the mayoral forum, and later today I shall be speaking to the Local Government Association.
Last week I met representatives of Durham County Council, who told me that central Government had not been able to give them any scenarios or planning decisions, and that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government had no money whatsoever to help local authorities to plan for contingencies in the event of no deal. Is this no-deal planning a bluff, or is it just a sign of the Government’s sheer incompetence?
I do not think we recognise the way in which the hon. Lady has characterised the Government’s engagement with local authorities. We have recognised the need for much more localised planning. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has established a delivery board and chief executive-level advisory groups. We have held four national conferences, which have been attended by 350 senior local authority officers and 200 councils. There is much more engagement, and means and money, behind our commitment to ensuring that this country is prepared in the event of a no-deal scenario.
Is it the Government’s position that if we need additional time in which to agree a deal that will pass through the House, they will crash out on 29 March rather than extending article 50 and giving us time to negotiate that position?
As I have said many times, the Government’s position is that we will land a deal and ensure that we leave with that deal on 29 March.
Second EU Referendum
The Government will not hold a second referendum, and will not introduce any legislation to enable one to be held.
I kind of expected that answer from the Secretary of State. However, the Prime Minister will return to Parliament in a week’s time and expect MPs to vote again on her deal. If it is acceptable for them to have a second vote, why is it not acceptable for the public to have one?
It seems to me that some MPs do not want a second vote. They had already voted to give the British public a say in the referendum; then they voted to trigger article 50, and then they voted to include the date in the Bill that became the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. It is not really a great look for the public for people to say, “We got it wrong three times, but give us a fourth go.”
In the light of today’s deeply concerning statements from Airbus, will the Secretary of State tell us first how many workers the Government are willing to see made redundant in order to keep the Conservative party together, and secondly whether those workers deserve the democratic right to a people’s vote?
The crux of the issue is that the industries concerned want a deal and support the deal. The hon. Gentleman’s party, and indeed he, stood on a manifesto commitment to delivering on the biggest vote in our history. The issue for those workers whose jobs are in question—and the question that the hon. Gentleman needs to answer for them—is why he is going back on a manifesto that he gave his own voters.
The Department has conducted more than 500 meetings with stakeholders, including businesses of all sizes and descriptions. Currently, after two months in the job, I am making visits around the country, and I hope to meet representatives of firms and hear their views.
Concerns have been raised with me by the road haulage industry about the burden of the extra customs paperwork that will be required in the event of no deal. What estimate has the Department made of the additional time and cost that they will incur in that event?
The businesses in my constituency include many international companies that are headquartered there, such as BASF, which produces chemicals. It wants to ensure it can continue to access EU frameworks such as REACH—the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals regulations—and the European Chemicals Agency. It faces tens of millions of pounds in costs in the event of a no-deal Brexit, particularly through migrating its EU registration. Does my hon. Friend agree that associate membership of such agencies, for which the withdrawal agreement provides, is vital to the success of these key industries?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and at this very moment we are negotiating the precise arrangements. She is right to mention the withdrawal agreement, because extensive passages in that agreement relate to exactly the type of co-operation and participation that she describes. We are focused on this, and hope that we can reach a good conclusion.
Airbus employs 14,000 people in this country, and we have a valuable and important aerospace manufacturing cluster in Wolverhampton. The chief executive of Airbus said today:
“Brexit is threatening to destroy a century of development based on education, research and human capital.”
Is it not the case that the rich men who drove this project can move their money, their investments and their corporate headquarters abroad, but it now poses a clear and present danger to valuable and important UK manufacturing jobs?
When the right hon. Gentleman spoke about “the rich men”, I thought he was referring to his friends in Davos, such as the former Prime Minister, who seems to be very focused on trying to reverse the verdict of the 17.4 million people in this country who voted for Brexit.
It is very clear where the interests of Airbus and businesses lie. They have said repeatedly over the past six weeks that they want to back the deal—they want an end to this uncertainty, and they want clarity and the ability to plan for the future. Where does the right hon. Gentleman stand on that?
We continue to work closely with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on our fisheries policy after exit. The fisheries White Paper set out the Government’s plans for a bright future for our fishing industry as we become an independent coastal state. By leaving the common fisheries policy, we will be able to make sure, for the first time in over 40 years, that our fishermen get a fairer deal.
I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Work has just started on preparing a long-term strategy to revive the East Anglian fishing industry. The foundation stone on which this renaissance will be built is taking back control of access to UK waters. Can the Minister assure the House that this right will not be traded away in any future negotiations, however difficult they may become?
My hon. Friend yet again demonstrates his dedication to help to revive the East Anglian fishing industry. Let me be clear that this deal will mean we become an independent coastal state with control over our waters. We have firmly rejected a link between access to our waters and access to markets. The fisheries agreement is not something that we will be trading off against any other priority.
The Government’s focus continues to be on leaving the EU with a deal. However, with just nine weeks until we leave, the Government are responsibly preparing for the alternative.
What impact does my hon. Friend believe that terminating no-deal preparations now would have on the Prime Minister’s ongoing negotiations with the EU?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question—and as someone who worked for me as my parliamentary researcher for five years, I thank him for no sight whatsoever of his supplementary question.
He is much better; that is absolutely true.
Anybody who has been involved in any type of negotiation—perhaps a union representative trying to negotiate a better deal on employee rights or salaries, or just anyone involved in any sort of deal—knows that they need to have the ultimate option on the table at any given time. Reducing any options basically means that you have less room to negotiate—it would be a foolish thing to do.
The best that the Government seem to be able to say about their deal is that it is very slightly less worse than no deal. That is the metaphorical gun that they are putting against our head, and I would appreciate it if they could give us a decent answer as to why they have nothing better than that.
The hon. Lady knows that I have a huge amount of respect for her, but the premise behind her question is so wrong that it is hard to believe. A whole host of employers in her constituency will doubtless have beaten a path to her door to ask her to vote for the certainty and continuity that the Government’s deal delivers. If they have not done so, I would be very surprised, because they are doing it nationally.
A customs union would not respect the referendum result. On this side of the House, we are intending to respect that result.
The statutory instrument covering the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals—REACH—regulations relating to chemical production on Teesside and elsewhere is inadequate, according to the industry. Surely a comprehensive customs union, which has been described by the director general of the CBI as a “practical real-world answer”, would solve such complex problems.
The hon. Gentleman might see the approach to this as one of managed decline—
Well, indeed he does, clearly, so he does not see the rich opportunity of an independent trade policy that backs our businesses to go out in the world and succeed, or the opportunities that they would have through a trade policy. In a way, this really goes to the crux of the issue, because there is a lack of vision among Labour Members. They cannot see the benefits of an independent trade policy, and are therefore willing to contract that opportunity out to the European Union and have no say in it.
Like the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng), the Secretary of State has no doubt seen the comment by Tom Enders, the chief executive officer of Airbus, that the Government’s handling of Brexit is a “disgrace”. More than 6,000 good-quality jobs in Alyn and Deeside are dependent on Airbus. What share of the blame does the Secretary of State take for this?
The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that those are good-quality jobs. We see that in the potential of things such as the ring for the future, the research and development centre at Airbus and the apprenticeship programmes that we see in industries—
What about now?
The answer to that is, again, to listen to the voice of business. It is clear that business wants an implementation period, not just for the certainty that it would deliver, but because, from a regulatory position, it does not want to have to take two steps and have two changes.
Second EU Referendum
The Government have been clear all along that we will not hold a second referendum. A clear majority of the electorate delivered an instruction to the Government to withdraw from the European Union, with 17.4 million votes cast in that manner.
I thank the Minister for his unwavering commitment to that position, which my constituents will be very pleased to hear. A clear majority of people in Redditch —62%—voted to leave. That is nearly 29,000 people who voted to leave in that historic vote. Does he therefore agree that to go back on that vote and on our manifesto commitment would cause massive damage to our democracy?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend—[Interruption.] I hear some murmuring from Labour Members that they refuse to deliver on their manifesto commitments that were made in exactly the same manner. I guess that a fair question to ask those proposing a second referendum: should they not come clean and admit that they are not really after asking the British people, and that they just want to prevent us from leaving the European Union in the first place? That would be a much more honest position for them to take.
Since I last updated the House, the Government have suffered a significant defeat in the meaningful vote, and I think it is right that we recognise that. The Prime Minister has responded to that by listening and engaging—[Laughter.] Well, the Leader of the Opposition has not engaged, but the Prime Minister has. She has engaged with the leadership of the party of the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) and other parties, and today she is engaging with trade union leaders. Yesterday she engaged with the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales. The Government have also responded to some immediate concerns of the House, such as by waiving the settlement fee and responding to the concerns of the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) by looking at how we can have more targeted engagement with the House in the next phase of negotiations. We are continuing the process, and we look forward to further discussions.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. The “Whitehall Monitor 2019” report, which was published on Monday, revealed that the overall number of civil servants is up by 19,900 since the referendum, that the cost of civil servants leaving stands at £74 million a year, and that a third of the entire civil service is now apparently working on Brexit. Despite all that, the Government have passed only five of the 13 Bills necessary for Brexit, and less than a fifth of 133 major projects are likely or probably to be delivered and completed on time and on budget. Is the Secretary of State satisfied with the progress that his Department is making?
The right hon. Gentleman will recall from his days as deputy Chief Whip that a range of legislation needs to be passed for various scenarios. Significant progress has been made with the statutory instruments, with over 300 being passed, so he is cherry-picking with his comments about legislation. For example, the Healthcare (International Arrangements) Bill passed through this House this week. That key piece of legislation will enable us to make bilateral payments in the event of no deal. Considerable work has been happening over the past two years, and I pay tribute to civil servants across Whitehall for that. Significant progress has been made, but not all the issues relating to no deal are within the Government’s control, because some are reliant upon responses from business, third parties, EU member states and the European Commission.
Understandably, we have big debates in the House about goods, but 80% of our economy is services, so my hon. Friend is quite right to draw attention to that. The political declaration contains the opportunity to have a good and constructive relationship that reflects the dominance of the UK position on financial services, for example. That is why the package of the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration together is so important.
There are 64 days until 29 March, and the deal has gone down. On Monday, the Prime Minister made a statement about what she is going to do now; to put it politely, she was vague about her intentions. She said that she would “take the conclusions” of any discussions with MPs “back to the EU”, as if she is in a parallel universe in which we are somehow at the start of the process. I have a simple question: when the Prime Minister goes to the EU, will she be seeking legally binding changes to the withdrawal agreement, simple reassurances or, still less, clarifications?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is always polite, so I will reciprocate and say that there are 64 days to go but we still do not know what Labour’s position is. It appears—
He asked you a different question.
I will come on to that.
If we are talking about parallel universes and the 64 remaining days, it is worth clarifying that I genuinely do not know what the Labour position is. An amendment has been tabled that would change the operation of the House’s Standing Orders without any proper debate about the constitutional implications, which go way beyond Brexit, and extend the article 50 process until December, which would mean that elections to the European Parliament would have to happen in May. Three years after the people asked to leave, is it now Labour party policy to ask the people to vote for Members of the European Parliament? Everyone else is engaging with the process—even Len McCluskey is joining us for discussions in No. 10 today—yet the Leader of the Opposition is sitting alone in a parallel universe, unwilling to engage with anyone. We are listening to the concerns of Members on both sides of the House, including our confidence and supply partners, and we are working constructively to address the concerns of the business community. The question for the shadow Secretary of State—I hope he will clarify this for the House—is about Labour’s policy. Will he confirm that Labour is no longer committed to its manifesto?
I always listen to the Secretary of State with the keenest possible interest and attention, but I must say to him in all courtesy that he is filibustering his own right hon. and hon. Friends, who might not get in on this session. It must be clear that he is culpable, because the Chair is not.
The Secretary of State gives the definition of a non-answer. [Hon. Members: “What’s your policy, then?”] Our policy is a comprehensive customs union and single market deal—[Interruption.] It is in our manifesto, and I think that there would be a majority for it in this place, if it were put to a vote.
I look forward to tomorrow’s headlines, but I doubt they will say that Len McCluskey and the Prime Minister have agreed on the way forward. I asked the Secretary of State a question, and I would like an answer. Does the Prime Minister intend to put her deal to the House again and, if so, when?
Self-evidently, whatever deal we bring forward will need to secure the confidence of the House, and that will entail a vote. The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about his policy and actually, unlike the Leader of the Opposition, he has been quite clear. His policy appears to be to remain in the European Union by triggering a second referendum, and he has indicated his personal view that, following that vote, we should remain. His policy is not consistent with the Labour manifesto, so I ask him again: is his policy the Labour policy, or is his policy different from that of the Leader of the Opposition?
As I would expect, my right hon. Friend asks a detailed, precise and interesting question. I have looked into this issue, and paragraph 5 of article XXIV allows only interim arrangements that are necessary for the formulation of a new free trade area where the parties have “a plan and schedule” for doing so. It does not allow the continuation of previous arrangements under an agreement that no longer applies.
I say to the hon. Lady—this applies to many Opposition Members—that I do not doubt her commitment to the business concerned or to trying to protect jobs. Indeed, that is one of the driving forces that led many Opposition Members to come into politics, but part of that is about listening to what business groups are saying. What they say is that, in the withdrawal agreement, things like citizens’ rights and our security relationships matter. Above all, businesses say that the flow and supply of goods matter, and that not having two sets of regulatory changes matters. That is why the business community says that it wants the certainty of the deal. When the Leader of the Opposition will not even enter into discussions, we are happy to engage with the hon. Lady and others, but this needs a two-way process.
The UK wants to continue to be at the forefront of environmental leadership and tackling climate change. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has set out plans for a green Brexit. With the environment Bill, we will make sure that we have the institutions set up to police that and to monitor our progress on protecting our environment.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to remind the House of the £20.5 billion extra that the Government are investing in the NHS. In terms of workforce and recruitment, which is key, I remind him that the Government have lifted the tier 2 visa for doctors and nurses as part of increasing recruitment. What matters is not just recruitment from the EU—we have already had an exchange about EU recruitment since the referendum—but the recruitment of doctors and nurses globally. We are very committed to doing that as part of a skills-based immigration system.
I honestly cannot give my hon. Friend the exact answer, so I will happily write to him about that. Arrangements will be needed for paying various taxes and tariffs in the event that we leave without a deal, and they are in progress.
The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) is in danger of rivalling the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne), but they both believe in healthy competition, after all.
I humbly suggest to the hon. Lady that that is what UK nationals across Europe, in just about every EU state, do when they reside there. We have offered a very generous package—more generous than that which the EU is currently offering in return regarding citizens’ rights.
I have been contacted, as I am sure many colleagues have, by UK citizens living in the EU who are concerned about their future voting rights locally after we leave the EU. Will the Minister update the House on the progress that the Department has made on that?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that this is a concern for UK citizens living across the EU. The UK sought to raise the matter in negotiations, but the Commission was clear that that was outside its competence. It agreed to let us take it up bilaterally with member states, which we have done. I am pleased to say that earlier this week, I signed the first reciprocal voting rights treaty with Spain to guarantee the voting rights of UK citizens in Spain, and Spanish citizens in the UK, in local elections.
Many businesses, particularly small ones, have yet to calculate, or do not want to publicise, the impact on them of a no-deal Brexit. Does the Minister recognise the scale of the sense of betrayal at the idea that a Tory Government should use those businesses’ balance sheets, employees and hard-won market expertise as leverage in an act of economic betrayal and blackmail?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question, although the premise behind it is completely incorrect. Small businesses across the country are getting ready for a Brexit with a deal and a no-deal Brexit. She gives me the opportunity to highlight the partnership pack that is online for all businesses to look at, so that citizens, individuals and businesses, small and large, can prepare appropriately for a no-deal Brexit. The partnership pack can be found on gov.uk.
In every answer that the Secretary of State and his Ministers have given this morning, they have declined to recognise that they lost the vote on the deal by 230 votes—by more than two to one. Exactly how are the Government going to listen to Members of this House so that we can agree a deal and move forward?
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman came in partway through topical questions, but I opened my response to the first question with a recognition of the result. I have referred in a number of answers to the engagement that the Prime Minister and ministerial colleagues are having. Indeed, in my exchange with the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), I mentioned meetings with trade union leaders today, and I spoke about meeting the SNP First Minister. Listening to the hon. Gentleman’s question, it is almost as though the last hour has not happened. We accept that the result of that vote was significant, and we are listening to the result. We have taken a number of measures as a consequence.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. At the start of today’s business, the Annunciator was showing that Question Time would be followed by the urgent question, which would then be followed by a Justice statement and the business statement. I understand that that has been corrected during questions, but for the benefit of the House, will you clarify the order of business that will follow?
Yes, I am happy to do that, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. After this urgent question, we will have the business question, and after that there will be a ministerial statement on the management and supervision of men convicted of sexual offences. That is the order, so business questions come after this urgent question. I hope that that is helpful to colleagues.
EU Free Trade Agreements
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for International Trade if he will make a statement on maintaining EU free trade agreements after the UK leaves the EU.
As a member of the European Union, the UK currently participates in around 40 free trade agreements with more than 70 countries. These free trade agreements cover a wide variety of relationships, including economic partnership agreements with developing nations; association agreements, which cover broader economic and political co-operation; and trade agreements with countries that are closely aligned with the EU, such as Turkey and Switzerland. Of course, more conventional free trade agreements are also part of the package.
Businesses in the UK, EU and partner countries are eligible for a range of preferential market-access opportunities under the terms of the free trade agreements. Those opportunities can include, but are not limited to, preferential duties for goods, including reductions in import tariff rates across a wide variety of products, quotas for reduced or nil payments of payable duties, and quotas for more relaxed rules-of-origin requirements; enhanced market access for service providers; access to public procurement opportunities across a range of sectors; and improved protections for intellectual property.
For continuity and stability for businesses, consumers and investors, we are committed to ensuring that the benefits I have outlined are maintained, providing a smooth transition as we leave the EU. The Department for International Trade, the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development are working with partner countries to prepare to maintain existing trading relationships.
With just 64 days to go, will the Minister confirm that not only is there the well-known Brexit risk of catastrophic disruption to 44% of our country’s trade, but now, on top of that, a further 12% of our trade could be thrown into chaos because of the Government’s failure to roll over our 40 trade agreements with 70 countries around the rest of the world in time for exit day?
Does the Minister recall the promise made by his Secretary of State at his party conference in October 2017, when he boasted:
“I hear people saying, ‘Oh, we won’t have any’”
free trade agreements
“‘before we leave.’ Well, believe me, we’ll have up to 40 ready for one second after midnight in March 2019”?
Was that bragging not made worse when the former trade Minister Lord Price tweeted falsely in October 2017:
“All have agreed roll over”?
Will the Minister explain why expectations were raised so high back then, when today’s reality is so dangerously disappointing? Can he confirm that the leaked memo reported in the Financial Times was accurate, and that he has been warned by his officials that most of the deals Britain is covered by will lapse because there is no transition period to keep Britain under the EU umbrella once Brexit occurs? Does he agree with the Government official quoted in the FT that
“Almost none of them are ready to go now”?
As well as the 40 free trade agreements, there are more than 700 other trade-related treaties and mutual recognition agreements, so when will we get an accurate update from the Government on how many of those will lapse in March as well? Some 2% of our trade is via the European economic area free trade agreement, with Norway and Iceland, which has still not been settled for roll-over; Canada accounts for 1.4% of our trade; Turkey, with which we currently have a form of customs union, accounts for 1.3%; South Korea accounts for 1%; and Switzerland accounts for 3.1%. All these and more add up to £151 billion of export and import markets. Will the Minister confirm that if we do not roll over the trade arrangements we enjoy by virtue of our EU membership, the full range of World Trade Organisation tariffs will start to apply?
What is the real situation in respect of Australia and New Zealand? Are the press claims that a full free trade agreement has been signed accurate, or are these just mutual recognition agreements being passed off as FTAs? On Switzerland, can the Minister place full details of the allegedly initialled agreement in the Library of the House? It is still not clear which aspects of the existing UK-Swiss relationship are due to be replicated. Will UK-based firms continue trading into Switzerland on exactly the same basis, including the free movement of people, or are there differences? For example, can he rule out tariffs on imported Swiss goods from March?
If British cars are exported, could they face 10% WTO tariffs? What will the tariffs be on Norwegian salmon, Canadian maple syrup, and food and veg from Turkey? When will the Government start telling Parliament about these things? Is it not the truth that all these countries first want to know what the UK’s relationship will be with our largest trading partner, the EU, and that we have little hope of pinning down brand new agreements until we have pinned down that agreement? Will the Minister face reality, slay these fantasy unicorn promises, and admit that Brexit is not going well and presents a clear and present danger to the free trade agreements our economy desperately relies on?
That was a pretty long shopping list, and I am not in a position to answer all the hon. Gentleman’s questions, but I will make one point. I told him in Committee back in November that there was a wide range of reasons why some of these agreements had been challenging in many instances. For example, there have been changing incentives. If this House cannot make up its mind on what Brexit looks like, it will obviously be difficult for some of our interlocutors to decide whether we will be leaving the EU on 29 March. That said, a responsible Government make plans for any eventuality, and we are working extremely hard to make sure that the 40 agreements we have in place are available to those companies that use the preferences they guarantee.
I told the hon. Gentleman earlier that I believed the majority of these agreements would be in place by 29 March, and I continue to believe that, but it would not be appropriate to go into further details on an individual country basis, because these conversations are necessarily confidential, and our partners wish them to be confidential. To go into them, therefore, would not be proper. I am very happy to tell the House, however, that I believe we will have the majority of agreements rolled over, and it is absolutely our objective to have them all rolled over.
Finally, one small detail worth clearing up—it has been a matter of some press speculation—is that the Swiss agreement does not include any provisions on free movement.
It has always been very likely that the counterparties to these deals would want to keep them operable, as it is in their interests to do so, but may I highlight the stinking hypocrisy of the Labour party on this? It voted against adopting many of these deals in the first place—it voted against adopting the comprehensive economic and trade agreement in February 2017 and against adopting the EU-Singapore agreement in September 2018—and now Labour Members complain that the deals will no longer be operable next month. Does my hon. Friend agree that this shows the Labour party at its absolute worst on Brexit, with its members unable to agree among themselves, and unable to do what is in the UK national interest?
The Minister at least pays obeisance to, and I think has genuine respect for, etiquette, protocol and the principle of parliamentary courtesy, so it would not occur to him for a moment to descend into the swamp, disregard his ministerial responsibility to the House, and start prating on about the policy of the Opposition, but let us put it to the test and hear from the Minister.
First, let me pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands) for all the work that he did in preparing this country for striking new trade deals, and indeed in maintaining the continuity of our existing free trade deals. He points out an inconsistency in the Opposition’s position on this matter. I agree with him that it is a fairly pointed one, and ask them to contemplate a bit. Yes, he is correct in his assessment.
The tiger that was previously in the library has now been removed, and the immediate danger has been averted. I think the Minister will be familiar with the Merchant Ivory film in which that exchange occurs. [Interruption.] It is fairly obvious, if one applies one’s mind to it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham East (Mr Leslie) asked a very simple and sensible question. The Minister’s long and rambling answer had a simple summary—clearly, it was no. The Secretary of State repeatedly told us that it was a simple matter to roll over deals on trade with approximately 70 countries, which constitutes 13% of our exports and 12% of our imports—it would be a cut-and-paste job. The Government would be ready on day one after Brexit, he told us. That was never true, was it? Those deals are entirely separate and independent from any deal that we may have with the EU.
If we leave with no deal, can the Minister confirm that these arrangements with third-party countries will fall away, as we have consistently warned? Will he confirm that, without new agreements in place, we could, in the absence of a deal with the EU, have no basis of trade with these countries after 29 March, and would fall back on World Trade Organisation rules? That is an argument for taking no deal off the table if ever there was one.
Will the Minister confirm that many of the terms of those agreements will need to be amended, and could be changed substantively as countries seek to improve on the terms that they have with the EU? Will he also confirm that agreements with countries that have economic partnership agreements are often regarded as being not fit for purpose and are alleged to have been signed under economic duress? The Minister will do well to listen to some of this, as this is the reality of what is going on in his Department. For example, North African countries want to sell their oranges and olive oil to us in far greater quantities than is allowed by the EPAs with the EU, which protect southern European producers.
In the Trade Bill debate in the Lords yesterday, the Minister conceded that the Department had no idea how many countries were ready to roll over their free trade agreements, how many would not, how many would have to adjust their constitutional arrangements, and how long that might take. Will the Minister for Trade Policy confirm that his colleague was right to say so?
The Secretary of State is busy socialising in Davos. Is that not a reminder of the incompetence and overconfidence that he has shown over the past two and a half years?
The hon. Gentleman opened his question by expressing his view that I had given a long and rambling answer. I am pretty confident that the question was longer and more rambling than my previous answer.
Will there be no basis of trade if we fall out without an agreement? No. There will continue to be the basis of trade that exists for everybody, which is the World Trade Organisation. [Interruption.] Indeed, I do confirm that. That is why we are putting such an enormous amount of effort into transitioning these agreements. Will the terms be amended? Yes; plainly, the bilateral partners with whom we are negotiating have different motivations. That is something that I have made very clear to members of the International Trade Committee when I have talked to them. That has led to some extension of the discussions that we are having, but many of those discussions are going extremely well. I reiterate to the House that I am confident that the majority of these trade arrangements will be put in place by the time we leave the European Union.
The hon. Gentleman also treated us to his analysis of EPAs, saying that they were not fit for purpose. He gave us the example of oranges. The last time I stood opposite him in a debate, he gave us the example of the difficulty that EPAs cause Ghana and its chicken, and indeed Tanzania and its fish. On the Ghana agreement, the fact is—I remember this—that chicken had been completely excluded from the EPA. The point about Tanzania and fish is not entirely relevant to EPAs, as there is no EPA with Tanzania.
My confidence is strong on this issue. I believe that we will have the majority of these arrangements in place. Yes, some of them are challenging. One or two of them are even more than challenging; they are close to impossible. Turkey has clearly been identified as an area where the issue of a customs union makes a deal with it very difficult indeed. I have made these things absolutely plain to the House before. However, I believe that we will have the vast majority of these other arrangements in place. We will protect our consumers and our businesses, which will be able to carry on using preferences.
Obviously, behind the debate about the concept of trade are jobs. What assessment has the Minister made of the number of jobs at risk if these agreements are not put in place? Has he identified the companies that will struggle? Is he working with the Department for Work and Pensions on contingency plans for those communities that might be particularly affected by any failure to roll over the agreements?
We are in constant contact with all the businesses that trade on these preferences; we have written to them many times. We have issued technical notices advising businesses on the steps they need to take to ensure that they are prepared for that scenario. Plainly, it is much better to have these agreements in place than not, but as I have just discussed with the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson), a change in the arrangements does not mean that trade with those countries will stop; it simply means that the terms will change. I believe that we are doing all we can and should to prepare businesses for some of the deals potentially not being passed, and we continue to do that.
The EU has 14 service agreements with third-party countries and blocs, which UK professional services companies benefit from. Notwithstanding potential tariffs, non-tariff barriers and other regulatory burdens, can the Minister confirm for professional services companies whether there is even the legal basis for that trade with third-party countries and blocs to continue?
I am sorry to duck the question, but that matter should be referred to the Department for Exiting the European Union.
We trade very successfully with our largest bilateral partner, the United States. We do not need trading agreements, do we?
As we have already made clear, it is entirely possible to trade on WTO terms. However, it is far more preferable to reach trade agreements with third parties, because then we can trade on a preferential basis that allows us access to markets, the lowering of tariffs and the reduction in non-tariff barriers behind the border, which makes life much easier for our companies.
I want to ask the Minister a very simple question, to which I would appreciate a direct answer. How many of the 40 or so agreements on which an arrangement has been reached to roll them over have been signed as of this morning?
The answer is that there is not much more that I can say at this stage. [Interruption.] There are no deals that have yet actually been signed, but I want to make it absolutely clear—
Order. A question has been asked. The Minister is an unfailingly courteous fellow, and we must hear his answer.
I want to be absolutely clear with the House that although it is possible to interpret my last answer as meaning that there has been absolutely no progress on the agreements, that would be an entirely, completely and utterly unfair interpretation of where we find ourselves. There are agreements that have had initialling; there are agreements that are very close to having initialling; and there are very many agreements that we believe will have a signature at the appropriate time. There is not an agreement that has had a formal signature yet, but to focus only on that is to misunderstand, or at least mispaint, how these agreements work. I have said to the House that we believe that we will transition the majority of the agreements by exit day, which necessarily means that they will have a signature, and I have every confidence that they will.
To put this into perspective, is it not right that just five countries—Switzerland, Canada, Korea, Norway and Turkey—account for three quarters of UK exports to the 70 countries that the Minister mentioned? Does he agree that it is just a little tiresome that the Opposition are always revelling in highlighting problems and it might be more constructive if they wanted rather to help to work on some of the solutions?
My hon. Friend is correct in his analysis of the scale of these deals, and of course we are putting the most resource into the deals of the largest size. However, I want the House to be clear that we are also signatories to a great many development agreements—EPAs. While those agreements may not be of the greatest importance to the UK economically, they are enormously important to the participant countries with whom we have signed them, and we are putting effort into making sure that they are also transitioned.
I think that people outside this place listening to the Minister’s remarks will be troubled to hear him refer to a “shopping list” of countries. Many people’s livelihoods in this country rely on those countries. People will also be very concerned to hear that he has not today committed to honouring the promise that was previously made on each of these 40 trade agreements. Will he now confirm to the House that he will not be able to honour the promise of every single one being signed by exit day?
I am sorry that this is slightly like “Groundhog Day”, Mr Speaker, but I will repeat what I have said before. We are confident that we will roll over a majority of these agreements. We are working to try to ensure that they are all rolled over by exit day. There are clear indications that in some cases that is going to be challenging. Let me be absolutely clear: if I used the term, “shopping list”, and that was deemed in any way pejorative about any of these important deals, I wish to withdraw and rephrase it. It was simply shorthand for saying that there are a great many of them and they are all important to us. As I just said, EPAs are as important to us as the largest deals, simply because we understand that we have a role in the world in development and understand the importance of these deals to those countries. We also understand the number of jobs and businesses that rely on these preferences. That is another reason why we are so keen to get as many of the transition deals across as we can.
Shopping lists are actually quite important, as are people’s livelihoods. Is it not the case that these 40 roll-over countries represent just 12% of our trade? Can I tell the Minister that we are the biggest nation in Europe, and second in the world only to China and the United States, for investment, and we are the largest export market in the world for German cars and for French agriculture? Unlike remainers, who tend to be rather pessimistic sorts, I and most people are very optimistic about our future outside the European Union.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. It is interesting to observe, and the House should understand, that a good proportion—I do not have the exact number in my head—of the 12% of trade that is represented by the countries with which the European Union has existing free trade deals is not carried out under preferences in any event because the particular lines in which they trade are not covered by the agreements, so the figure is actually quite a lot less. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) says from a sedentary position, “So it’s all just fine.” No, of course that is not the case. I have tried to make the point again and again that we regard this as extremely important.
On my hon. Friend’s reference to inward investment, Deloitte recently pointed out that the UK is the leading location in Europe for foreign direct investment. In the three years from 2015 to 2017, we enjoyed £140 billion-worth of direct investment from overseas—more than France, at £44 billion, and Germany, at £50 billion, combined.
What is the Minister’s definition of the term, “majority”, which he has used several times? Does he mean 21 out of 40 or 39 out of 40?
Perhaps I am being stupid, but I do not really understand the last part of the question. A majority is more than half; we can be clear about that. I do not think I have anything more to add.
We now know that we will not have 40 of these deals ready to roll over on the stroke of midnight. Some of these deals will be worth proportionately more than others, so it could be said that we have a majority ready to go, but they might be ones of very low value. Can the Minister give us more clarity about the most valuable of these trade deals?
I can report to the House that we are making good progress on a whole range of these deals, including those of high value and those at the other end of the scale.
Donald Rumsfeld’s words spring to mind in relation to roll-overs. We have the known knowns: the countries that are up for a deal, such as Switzerland. We have the known unknowns: the countries that have said yes to a roll-over, but the Government will not give us their name. And we have the unknown unknowns: the countries that will not tell our Government whether they will roll over the deals. For the sake of clarity, is the Minister willing to publish the names of countries that fall into those three categories?
To publish an unknown unknown seems challenging. I regard the Department’s job as putting all the effort it can into rolling these deals over. That is one of the many things we do, but it is a very important part of what we do. It is equally important that we allow British businesses to understand when and if there may be a real and present danger to the preferences that they use. When we judge that we are in a situation where that information needs to be disseminated, we will do so.
The hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) was quite right to point out the seriousness of this issue. I am most grateful to the Minister for tackling this with equal seriousness. Can he clarify whether it makes a difference to the roll-overs if we leave with a deal, as I very much hope we do, or without a deal, which I could never support?
The Government policy, as my hon. Friend knows, is to leave with a deal, and I very much agree with that; it is by far and away the most sensible thing to do. I think most of the House will understand that if we have a deal and an implementation period, it takes the time pressure off and allows us to negotiate these deals in a more orderly fashion. Order has been created, and we are making progress, but if we have a deal and an implementation period, which is crucial to that, it will make negotiation of these deals a great deal more straightforward.
I feel sorry for the junior Minister. This must be one of the worst cases of neglect of duty since Nero fiddled while Rome burned. His boss is in the fleshpots of Davos, rubbing shoulders and having a lovely time, while he is slaving here at the Dispatch Box, on a day when the media tell us that many more companies are fleeing to Holland, Ireland and France. He is not trying to mislead the House—I am not saying that—but he is being very careful with his answers in terms of how many of these agreements have been signed. He is not giving any information to the House or our constituents, while his boss is having a lovely time in Davos.
I anticipated that that subject might arise, and I speculated that the timing of this urgent question was quite deliberate, for that very purpose. Let me tell the hon. Gentleman exactly what the Secretary of State is doing in Davos. Believe me, he has not taken his ski suit; he has taken his business suit. He met yesterday with the Israeli Government, from whom he elicited an agreement that our arrangements with Israel will be rolled over. He met the Egyptians, from whom he had a very positive reaction. He met with the Peruvians and the Colombians, and he further met with the South Korean Government. Today he will meet with the Ecuadorian Government, the Canadian Government and the South African Government, and later today—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman pretends to be playing a violin; I suppose he is saying that it is a sob story.
I’m fiddling while Rome burns!
What I am trying to tell the hon. Gentleman is that the Secretary of State is in Davos doing exactly what this House would want him to do. He is at the negotiating coalface, ensuring that our partners in these countries who have not necessarily taken a no-deal Brexit seriously do so. He is incentivising them to sit down around the negotiating table, and he is making good progress. Later this afternoon, he will attend the trade stewards committee, where he will meet nearly every single trade Minister in nearly every single jurisdiction where we are attempting to create continuity in our trade agreements. I hope the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his implication that the Secretary of State is not doing his job, because that is exactly what he is doing.
There is a deal on the table that the Government have negotiated with the EU, and it provides a transition period that would provide certainty for all these trade agreements to be completed in time for our exit. It is my understanding, although I have not checked his voting record, that the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Mr Leslie), who has posed this urgent question, voted against that deal.
The meaningful vote.
The hon. Gentleman voted against having a transition agreement because he voted against the deal. Does the Minister agree that it might be better for the hon. Gentleman to pose his urgent question to the leader of his own party and ask him why he did not engage in talks with the Prime Minister to get through the deal that would provide certainty for our businesses?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question, and as we have already discussed, there is plainly some very real inconsistency in the Opposition position. I point out to my hon. Friend that the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Mr Leslie) is a champion of free trade and actually spoke in this House in the debates on the EU-Japan EPA and CETA back in June, when I have to say he voted with the Government and, indeed, for the deals in that case, unlike his Front Benchers.
Businesses, including one in my constituency, are alrea