Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 653: debated on Thursday 24 January 2019

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.

T2. My right hon. Friend has heard the huge concerns from both agriculture and manufacturing about leaving without a deal, but 80% of our economy is services. What impact would leaving without a deal have on not only services within the UK, but our services exports, regarding which we have substantial surpluses with the EU and around the world? (908770)

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—

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?

T4. In the event of the UK leaving the EU without a deal, will my right hon. Friend consider using the provisions of article XXIV of the general agreement on tariffs and trade to maintain existing arrangements until a free trade agreement can be concluded, and thus avoid any imposition of tariffs or quotas? (908772)

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.

T3. A small business owner from my constituency emailed me before Christmas. His business had won its first EU contract, requiring him to hire four extra people to deliver it. However, he has just been told by the EU that the business will lose the contract in the event of a no-deal Brexit. What would the Secretary of State say to my constituent? Will he please set out what the Government would say to my constituent, rather than what the Opposition would say? (908771)

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.

T8. Extreme weather events have cost the global economy more than half a trillion pounds over the past few years, and the scientific consensus is that, unless we halve our greenhouse gas emissions, such events will only become more frequent. Currently, EU institutions monitor and enforce how we in the UK implement our policies. Can the Minister outline his plans for future regulatory oversight? (908776)

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.

T6. When I met representatives of Doctors of the World yesterday, they told me that the EU workers on the Government’s new 12-month visa scheme will not qualify for the immigration health surcharge scheme. Will the Secretary of State confirm that that is the case and tell us what provision will be made for those people? (908774)

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.

T7. I welcome the fact that EU citizens will no longer have to pay a fee to obtain settled status, but they will still have to make an application, which implies that some may be refused, as has happened already with citizenship. After the shame of the Windrush scandal, does the Minister not think that EU citizens should be guaranteed the right to stay in their own homes? (908775)

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

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.