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Topical Questions

Volume 655: debated on Thursday 28 February 2019

Since the last departmental questions, this House has given a clear indication of what it needs to support a deal with the EU. The Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the Attorney General and I have held discussions with key EU figures, and the Prime Minister made it clear in her statement on Tuesday that we are making good progress and remain committed to leaving with a deal on 29 March.

The threat of a no-deal exit from the EU means that the ability of businesses to use 2019 emissions trading scheme credits to address 2018 ETS costs is at risk, meaning that businesses may be subject to multimillion-pound bills that they can ill afford. Will the Secretary of State urgently take action to prevent businesses such as British Steel in my constituency from suffering heavy financial penalties through no fault of their own?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important and fair point. He consistently speaks up for the steel industry, and the 2018 emissions surrender under the European emissions trading scheme is an issue of concern to that industry. I have spoken to my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary and he is happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the matter. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is undertaking an analysis of the issue, and I am happy to engage with the hon. Gentleman regarding that.

T7. I will continue to vote to leave the EU on 29 March with a deal, but will the Minister explain how funding for university programmes such as those carried out in the University of Nottingham, which employs a number of my constituents, will be protected in a no-deal scenario? (909518)

My hon. Friend will have seen the announcements about the Treasury guarantee for the funding measures she mentioned. We are also exploring more long-term alternatives, so this work is ongoing.

Thirty days ago the Government backed the Brady amendment and the Prime Minister said she would try to obtain

“legally binding changes to the withdrawal agreement that deal with concerns on the backstop”.—[Official Report, 29 January 2019; Vol. 653, c. 788.]

It is clear from yesterday’s debate that some Members on the Government Benches have a high expectation that legally binding changes may yet be agreed, even at the eleventh hour. Against that background, will the Secretary of State confirm that, although discussions have taken place about work streams and possible additional words to further explain the backstop, in the 30 days since the Brady amendment, the Government have not drafted or put forward to the EU any proposed words that could conceivably be described as “legally binding changes to the withdrawal agreement” in relation to the backstop?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right to refer to the package of measures that we are putting before the European Union, and the Prime Minister touched on that in her remarks on Tuesday. In terms of the specific wording, these are obviously live discussions and need to be given the space to be conducted. As the Prime Minister set out in her statement on Tuesday, we have been very clear with the European Union that the effects of these changes have to be legally binding. That is what the Brady amendment required and it is the clear will of the House; that is the crux of the issue that we are discussing with the European Union.

Well, this may be Brexit questions, but it is clearly not Brexit answers. The Secretary of State can evade questions all he likes, but his evasion tells its own story. He knows and I know that the Government are not even attempting to change a single word about the backstop in the withdrawal agreement, and he knows the expectation among his hon. Friends that there are going to be those changes to the withdrawal agreement. Can he not simply admit that the only plan the Government have is to run down the clock and attempt to force MPs to choose between the same basic deal that was rejected in the first meaningful vote and no deal?

With respect to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, there is an inherent contradiction in his question. He says that the Government are trying to run down the clock while, at the same time, we gave a clear commitment yesterday to give the House a vote, if the meaningful vote does not go through on the 12th, on whether the House would then support leaving without a deal. That is not in the Government’s interest. It is also not in our interest to run down the clock because, as he is well aware, we need to ratify the agreement through the withdrawal agreement Bill prior to leaving, and therefore we need time for that ratification to take place, so there is a contradiction within his question.

It is not in our interest to run down the clock, and, further, it is not in the interests of the business community, because they want the uncertainty ended as soon as possible. I gently say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, while congratulating him on perhaps winning a battle on his Front Bench on a second referendum when so many of his fellow shadow Ministers have spoken out publicly against it, that a second referendum will prolong the uncertainty, and I do not think that is in the interests of business.

T8. Does the Minister agree that if a no-deal Brexit was really akin to the arrival of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, Members in all parts of the House would be rallying behind the Prime Minister to support the deal that will get us out by the end of March? (909519)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The deal is absolutely essential across the piece, and that is exactly what we are focused on. If we can secure a deal, we will leave in an orderly and timely way. Given the efforts of the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), in preparing this country for no deal, I do not believe that a no-deal scenario will lead to the sort of destruction that the doomsayers on the Opposition Benches have suggested. We are doing lots and lots to secure our safety and our prosperity in the case of no deal.

T2. In Cambridge, it is local elections season. When I knocked on my first door on Sunday, I interrupted someone who modestly described himself as a mid-career academic. He was filling in a job application to move to Switzerland and told me that a number of colleagues in his department were doing the same, the reason being that his department faces losing 20% of its funding from the European Research Council. These are senior scientists who have heard what the Government have to say but have concluded that their future lies elsewhere. How can the Secretary of State reassure the 48% who feel that their future has been put at risk? (909513)

I am very happy to tell my fellow Cambridgeshire MP how I reassure the academics of Cambridge on this issue. If we look at just how many European Union universities are in the top 50 compared with the number of British universities in the top 50, we see that the determination of their success is not based on their membership of the European Union.

The Scottish Government are demanding additional funding for preparations to leave the EU. Can the Minister confirm that in 2018-19, despite receiving £37 million, the Scottish Government allocated only £27 million for that purpose—a gap of £10 million?

My hon. Friend has some good figures, and I have some extra, updated figures for him. The devolved Administrations received a total of £120 million in the 2019-20 EU exit funding allocations. The Scottish Government received £54.7 million for that period. We have been working behind the scenes with the Scottish Government, who have been nothing but professional, courteous and actually quite excellent to deal with on no-deal preparation.

T3. Does the Secretary of State recognise that if the Prime Minister returns with an amended version of her deal, there is a very strong case that parliamentary approval being subject to subsequent ratification in a public vote? (909514)

We have had a public vote. The people voted in record numbers, and they gave us a clear instruction to deliver on that. I simply remind the right hon. Gentleman that he, like so many Labour Members, stood on a manifesto that committed to give force to that vote. Many voters in his constituency and others across the country will be baffled as to why, given that manifesto, his party now seems to be going back on it and supporting a second referendum. That is not what it was saying at the general election.

Magna Carta states:

“All merchants may leave or enter England”—

of course, now the United Kingdom—

“in safety and security. They may stay and travel throughout England by road or by water, free from all illegal tolls, in order to buy and sell according to the ancient and rightful customs.”

Does that remain the policy of Her Majesty’s Government?

It has been a while since I heard Magna Carta quoted in the Chamber. I reassure my hon. Friend that we are committed to the principles of free trade to which that excerpt from Magna Carta alludes. We want a free trade agreement. We have been a champion of free trade over many centuries, and I strongly urge him to back the deal so that we can craft an agreement that will ensure free trade.

T4. The Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), told the House earlier that Scotland could not get a differentiated deal, as remain-voting Northern Ireland has, because of border issues. However, there is also a differentiated deal for Gibraltar. Can he explain why remain-voting Scotland is not to be treated with the same level of respect as Gibraltar and Northern Ireland? Does he agree with his former party leader and Prime Minister, John Major, that this Brexit madness strengthens the case for Scottish independence? (909515)

No, I do not agree with that statement. I made it clear in my previous answer that we are negotiating on behalf of the whole United Kingdom. That is why we have forums for engaging with the devolved Administrations. Sadly, Ministers from the Northern Ireland Administration are not available to engage with us, but they will be treated in the same way as Ministers from the other devolved Administrations.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the UK prosperity fund gives the UK Government and Scottish Government the opportunity to work together to improve all aspects of Scots’ lives?

T5. New industrial units were constructed at Moorfield industrial estate in my constituency, thanks partly to money from the European regional development fund. How much money are the UK Government allocating to replace the south-west Scotland regional development fund, and will they devolve it to the Scottish Government? (909516)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. He will know that the multi-annual financial framework, from which that fund comes, finishes in a couple of years, so more certainty can probably be delivered to businesses such as those in his constituency from the shared prosperity fund.

T9. Following on from the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) about European research funding, can the Minister clarify whether the Government intend to maintain that level of funding, whichever pot it comes out of, after we leave the EU? The University of Warwick is very concerned about that. (909520)

The Government are stepping up investment in research and development and building up the amount by which the UK leads other countries. As per the Secretary of State’s answer, I expect the strong position of our universities to continue to strengthen in years to come.

T10. Can the Secretary of State guarantee that in the event of a no-deal Brexit, the UK will have stocks of the essential dietary products for people with the rare disease phenylketonuria, or PKU? (909521)

Probably better than my confirming that is for me to point the hon. Lady to the written ministerial statement laid before the House earlier this week, which goes into great detail. I will happily give her a copy afterwards.

The Secretary of State or one of his colleagues mentioned the Healthcare (International Arrangements) Bill, but there is also the Agriculture Bill, the Fisheries Bill and numerous statutory instruments. We are days away from leaving. Why on earth are the Secretary of State or any of his Ministers confident that we will have a functioning statute book at 11.1 pm on Friday 29 March? I am not.

I am surprised that the hon. Lady is not. I believe she has sat on a number of the statutory instrument Committees. We have nearly completed our statutory instrument programme to get ready for a no-deal situation, and we have plenty of mitigating measures in place should other primary legislation be held back inadvertently by Members not wanting as smooth a departure as possible if we are to leave without a deal.

The recent Government report states that only 40,000 of the 240,000 British businesses that trade exclusively with the EU have applied for their export registration number. Businesses say that it could actually be given automatically if they are registered for VAT. Is this just incompetence, or are the Government looking for a scapegoat in the event of a disastrous for business no-deal exit?

No. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, we have been significantly scaling up our communications to those businesses. We have capacity under the website registration to register 11,000 a day. Part of the challenge has been that many of those businesses are hopeful of a deal, and are therefore holding back until 12 March to await the decision on that deal. However, they can scale up, and we have the capacity to scale up, as the paper provided to the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) set out.

In the light of the fact that EU negotiators have said they need a significant reason for extending article 50 on their side, if Parliament votes to extend article 50 on 14 March, what reasons will the Government give, and what preparations are they making now to ensure that it is secured and honoured?

What EU leaders have said is that they want to have the certainty of a deal. They do not want to see an extension, particularly any extension of uncertainty. The hon. Lady, as some other hon. Members have, talked about 14 March. The key issue is the vote on the 12th—the meaningful vote—and getting a deal. That is what EU leaders have said they want, and that is what this Government want.

I voted for Labour’s Brexit deal, but does the Secretary of State agree with the CBI that a no-deal Brexit will mean

“a lost decade, stifling the UK’s potential and leaving us less competitive, productive and prosperous for years to come”?

When the hon. Gentleman says he voted for Labour’s Brexit deal, I am slightly confused about which one, because its position has obviously changed somewhat. Given that his own constituents voted in a majority to leave the EU, I would say that I share their optimism for the future. We are a country that can go out into the world and succeed, and we can make Brexit an opportunity for us, rather than as portrayed in the way he sets out.