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House of Commons Hansard
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No-deal EU Exit Preparations
20 March 2019
Volume 656

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(Urgent Question): To ask the Prime Minister if she will make a statement on no-deal Brexit preparations.

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I thank my hon. Friend for his urgent question and congratulate him on securing your approval for it, Mr Speaker.

The Government have always been clear that leaving the European Union without a deal is not an outcome that we want. Last week, Parliament voted against leaving with no deal, signalling a clear majority against such an outcome. However, the legal default is that the UK will leave the EU without a deal unless an alternative is agreed; any agreed extension would not change that. A longer extension would also entail holding European Parliament elections in the UK. As the Prime Minister stated in her letter to Donald Tusk, we

“do not believe that it would be in either of our interests”—

the UK’s or the EU’s—

“for the UK to hold European Parliament elections.”

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Will my hon. Friend give way?

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It’s a UQ!

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Order. I do not wish to be unkind to the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton), for whom I have the highest regard, but this is an urgent question—stop the clock, please.

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It’s been a while.

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Well, the hon. Lady graced the Front Bench with considerable distinction and it is some time since she has sat on the Back Benches. It is entirely understandable that she did not know the procedure, but there is no scope for intervention when the Minister is delivering his mercifully brief oration.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker; I apologise to my hon. Friend.

The Government have undertaken significant action to prepare for a potential no-deal scenario. We have published 450 pieces of no-deal communications since October 2018, including information on reciprocal healthcare arrangements with the EU, on driving in the EU after exit, and even on how to take a pet abroad. We have contacted 150,000 businesses that trade with the EU to help them to get ready for no-deal customs procedures. We have held meetings, briefings and events with stakeholders across the economy, including around 300 engagements in the past month alone. We have responded to stakeholder feedback to make sure that communications are clear by updating approximately 1,300 pieces of gov.uk content based on their input.

More than 11,000 people are working on EU exit policy and programmes across the Government. We have launched a public information campaign, which includes information on gov.uk, to help citizens and businesses to prepare for leaving the European Union. TV adverts started today and radio, press and outdoor poster advertising are ongoing. Furthermore, the Treasury has provided £4.2 billion for EU exit preparations, including preparations for a no-deal scenario, and £480 million has been allocated to the Home Office to ensure that it is fully prepared.

Getting ready for this scenario depends on action not only from the Government, but from a range of third parties, including businesses, individual citizens and the European Union itself. Despite Government mitigation, the impact of a no-deal scenario is expected to be significant in a number of areas. Leaving the European Union with no deal is the legal default until Parliament passes a deal or agrees on an alternative. We are focused on achieving that, but until it has been achieved, we will continue to prepare for no deal and we advise businesses to do the same.

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I thank the Minister for that response. It is important that the Government recognise the current position. Whatever the possibilities for how Members may vote in this place or how the EU may respond to requests for extensions, he is absolutely right to suggest that the current legal default position is that the United Kingdom will be leaving the European Union on 29 March, with or without a deal. It is important in more than one sense that those on the Front Bench recognise that. The narrative that seems to be emerging from No. 10 is that Parliament has not expressed its view as to what should happen. I would suggest to the Minister that it has. In February 2017, by a majority of 384, the House clearly said that with or without a deal we would leave on 29 March 2019. There was no equivocation about; it was black and white.

The Government have said they are making adequate preparations. Many of us on the Government Benches—and, indeed, on the Opposition Benches—have questioned the Government about those preparations. We know that billions of pounds have been spent, and we have had assurances from the Government, including from the Dispatch Box and in Committee. On 12 February, I asked the Prime Minister if she could

“reassure the House that should we leave on 29 March on no-deal WTO terms, we are sufficiently prepared”.

She answered very directly:

“We are indeed. We have ramped up our preparations. We are continuing our preparations for no deal.”—[Official Report, 12 February 2019; Vol. 654, c. 752.]

I applied for this urgent question because media reports, including some emanating from this place, suggesting that a no-deal Brexit would prove a profound economic shock mirror the incorrect warnings before the 2016 referendum and are causing—[Interruption.] This is an important point for Members to appreciate, as we sit in this Westminster bubble. These pronouncements are causing concern across the country. It is easy for Opposition Members to say, “Oh, don’t worry about it”, but for a lot of people sitting in their homes, these dire predictions of economic gloom, which are unfounded, are causing concern.

I remind the Minister that prior to the 2016 EU referendum there were dire predictions of 500,000 extra unemployed people that proved unfounded—so much so that the Bank of England, among others, had to apologise. We have had record low unemployment, record manufacturing output and record inward investment. I suggest that economic reality trumps predictions any time. In order to reassure and better inform the public, will the Minister detail to Parliament the extensive preparations the Government have made for a no-deal exit? Especially given the proximity to 29 March—just a week away—the Government need to reassure people that they are prepared, having spent two years and billions of pounds on no-deal preparation. I look forward to hearing what he has to say.

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I found it interesting that my hon. Friend was barracked by Opposition Members for pointing out how strong our country’s economy was. I would have thought they would be proud of that.

I hope that in my opening answer I gave the House a sense of how much preparation the Government have done since August 2016, although preparations have of course been ramped up in the last few months. I will list a handful of points: more than 550 no-deal communications have been sent out since August 2018; we have had 300 stake- holder engagements since February; we have been signing international agreements with our trading partners and rolling over others; 11,000 people are working on EU exit policy and programmes across Government; a number of IT programmes are ready to go should we need to activate them; and we have published the HMRC partnership pack containing more than 100 pages of guidance for businesses on process and procedures at the border in a no-deal scenario. The Government have been preparing assiduously and quietly behind the scenes for no deal, but we want to get a deal over the line; that is the most important thing for us.

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I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question.

The hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) talked about the wishes of the House, and he was right to do so, but the House has twice ruled out leaving the EU without a deal and twice rejected the Government’s deal by historic margins. It is simply unacceptable that the Prime Minister continues to doggedly press ahead with her Hobson’s choice of her deal or no deal. Resilience is an admirable quality; obstinacy is not. Does the Minister recognise that by their approach the Government risk being considered in contempt of the House yet again?

The Government’s energy at this critical time should be going to find a way forward that can command the support of the House and the country and that is not the Prime Minister’s flawed deal, which the Government themselves have said would shrink the economy by 4%. The situation requires flexibility and the Government reaching out across the House, and that includes flexibility on the length of the extension of article 50. The Chancellor for the Duchy of Lancaster said last Thursday of a 30 June extension:

“In the absence of a deal, seeking such a short and, critically, one-off extension would be downright reckless and completely at odds with the position that this House adopted”—[Official Report, 14 March 2019; Vol. 656, c. 566.]

Does the Minister agree that rather than this focus on no deal, the Prime Minister’s priority should now be to create opportunities for the House to consider all the options available to get the country out of the impasse she has created?

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I think the hon. Gentleman will find that a lot of hon. Members sitting behind him represent seats that voted to leave the EU in big numbers and would be surprised to hear that Her Majesty’s Opposition are trying to stop that happening. As I said in my opening answer, the legal default is that the UK will leave the EU without a deal unless an alternative is agreed. No agreed extension will change this fact.

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I welcome my hon. Friend to his place. Has he noticed that in the last few hours Monsieur Barnier has issued an instruction declaring that the EU must now prepare for the no-deal scenario, claiming that only two elements of its work need to be completed? One is short-term visas and the other is the budget for 2019. Does that mean that the EU considers that if we do not reach a deal we will leave on the 29th?

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I have outlined the legal default position a couple of times already. My Department monitors the European Commission’s no-deal announcements and those of individual member states. The Commission has made no-deal announcements on Erasmus, social security, fishing, air transport, aviation safety, road haulage, trade and exports and dual-use systems, EU funding for the Peace programme, energy efficiency, the Connecting Europe Facility, shipping inspection and a whole host of other areas. The European Commission, like us, would be ready in that circumstance.

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Save for what one Conservative MP referred to as the headbanger wing of the Conservative party, everybody thinks that Brexit is a bad idea—businesses, medical personnel, universities. Parliament voted to rule out no deal because it represents a colossal political failure. The hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) talked about what concerns people. I will tell him what concerns people: a decade of Westminster austerity hitting schools, the NHS and other public services. We are spending £4.2 billion on a no deal, including millions for ferries. No one voted to leave on 29 March. No one voted for a no deal. Will the Minister take no deal off the table and invest the money in hard-pressed public services?

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I think the hon. Gentleman will find that 17.4 million people voted to leave the EU and that a huge number of them, including in Scotland, will find his comments very disappointing. As I have pointed out to my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) and other hon. Members, the legal default is that the UK will leave the EU without a deal unless an alternative is agreed.

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May I pursue the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith)? In a statement issued yesterday, Mr Barnier said, quite correctly, that

“voting against ‘no deal’ does not prevent it from happening.”

He also said:

“Everyone should now finalise all preparations for a ‘no deal’ scenario.

On the EU side, we are prepared…and are working on the two last measures that still need to be adopted, namely on short-term visas and the EU budget for 2019.”

Will those two issues be resolved in 11 days’ time, and how many issues does the Minister think the UK Government still have outstanding?

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Unfortunately, although I was a Member of the European Parliament for 10 years, I cannot honestly comment on how long it would take the European Union to complete its final two measures, although budget rounds are very interesting debates in the European Parliament. There are a number of matters that we are still finishing off in our no-deal preparations, but the vast majority are in a good state.

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May I ask the Minister about national security? One thing that is undoubted is that if we leave without a deal, British police forces will no longer be able to use up-to-date information from all the other police forces in Europe, and we will no longer be able to use the present extradition arrangements in the European Union under the European arrest warrant. What will the Minister put in place to make sure that we are safe?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his very sensible question.

The continued safety and security of both UK and EU citizens remains our top priority. In a no-deal scenario, the UK would lose access to the mechanisms that we currently use to co-operate with EU member states on security and law enforcement. The Home Office is working intensively with operational partners to put no-deal plans into action, and to ensure that the UK is ready to “transition” our co-operation with our European partners and make best use of the alternative channels with EU member states should that be required. We are preparing to move co-operation to alternative non-EU mechanisms should that be required, and our contingency plans are largely tried and tested mechanisms which we already use for co-operating with many non-EU countries, including making more use of Interpol and Council of Europe conventions. They are not like-for-like replacements, but they would not result in a reduction in mutual capability.

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We have been treated to plenty of lurid stories over the past few months about a shortage of the radio isotopes on which a million people in our NHS depend every year. Will the Minister confirm that advanced plans are in place to ensure that in the event of our leaving the European Union with no deal, no one would be disadvantaged?

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I can confirm that we have plans for the items to which my hon. Friend has referred. Indeed, a written ministerial statement describing the details of those plans was laid nearly three weeks ago.

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If Macron, like de Gaulle before him, says “Non” to the Prime Minister’s request for an extension, we will not get one, because there must be unanimity. Does the Minister agree that in those circumstances—as a matter of fact—the only way to avoid no deal would be to revoke article 50, which the House could do, because, contrary to what the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng), suggested yesterday, the House has not as yet voted on a motion to revoke it?

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As a matter of fact, the best way to prevent that from happening is to vote for the Prime Minister’s deal.

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My hon. Friend has acknowledged that the default position is that this country will leave the European Union on 29 March without a deal. Can he tell us in what circumstances the Government will conclude that a deal is impossible, and does he not accept the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) that the public are entitled to reassurance in that regard?

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I should like to think that we are giving some reassurance through the vast array of publicly available information on how we are preparing for no deal, and, indeed, through the ongoing advertising campaign that I described in my statement. In my personal view, leaving without a deal is—I know that some Members do not like this word—suboptimal. The optimal way of leaving is with a deal that takes no deal off the table completely. However, we are as ready as we can be at this point, and the huge amount of information that is in the public domain should give his constituents and mine the reassurance that they deserve. [Interruption.]

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Order. I think that the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) is concerned, but the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) is back in the Chamber. I do not think that I need to dwell on the matter. Suffice it to say that there can, in extremis, be a reason why someone has—very, very, very briefly—to leave the Chamber. When the call of nature sounds, that person cannot pretend to be deaf. I do not say that in a pejorative spirit; I simply mean that one cannot pretend not to be aware of the immediate requirement.

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I was relieving myself, Mr Speaker. [Laughter.]

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I was trying to signal as much in a somewhat more tactful and seemly manner, but the hon. Gentleman has now blurted out the truth, and the nation is aware of what was his requirement. As he has now returned to the Chamber, he can beetle back to his seat and listen to the remainder of the exchanges.

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I will do so. Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.

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Very good. Well done.

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I understand that the cost of Brexit has been estimated to be £500 million per week. Does that include the cost of school meals, hospital meals, and meals in social care settings?

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I am afraid that I do not recognise that figure one bit.

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As the Minister will know, it is now being widely reported on Twitter that President Macron is minded to veto any extension of article 50 at the Council tomorrow. Can he confirm that, should that occur, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union will initiate Operation Yellowhammer—the Government’s no-deal plan—on Monday? If that is so and there is no extension, why do we not just vote down the rancid withdrawal agreement and sprint for the line?

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I am sure that my right hon. Friend will not expect me to comment on whether or not the President of France is active on Twitter at this point in time. He and I disagree on one fundamental issue. Having been involved in European negotiations in the past—albeit of a much more minor nature than anything like this—I know that occasionally there are times when one should bank what one has. My right hon. Friend disagrees with me about that, but it is a principled disagreement.

We do have Operation Yellowhammer, which is working to deliver the biggest peacetime project in the history of the civil service. Leaving the European Union with a deal remains the Government’s top priority, but a responsible Government must plan for every eventuality including a no-deal scenario, and these preparations are taking place alongside work to deliver on the Government’s policy priorities.

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It is essential that the largest businesses, and indeed the trade associations that depend on them for information about the progress that is being made on the rollover trade deals, are kept fully informed. Can the Minister explain why the Department for International Trade stopped the roundtables with large businesses?

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I have to say that I did not know they had done so, but I do know that there are ongoing engagements throughout the Government with business representatives and organisations, some of which I myself have attended very recently.

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It would be stupid to go out panic buying, would it not?

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The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) seems gravely perturbed that the fact that he is seated behind the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins) might disadvantage him. What I say to the hon. Member for Huddersfield is that I can almost always see him, and even if I can’t see him I can absolutely certainly hear him, so he has nothing to worry about at all. Mr Barry Sheerman.

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May I tell the Minister that I am usually an optimist but I do not know if he shares with me a feeling a dread and doom today? Here we are in the greatest national crisis for 100 years with the Titanic steaming towards the iceberg. He is a nice man but he is a Parliamentary Under-Secretary being sent to reassure the House that the preparations are all in good order. Even at this late stage we can go to Europe and ask for a longer rather than a shorter extension. We can also listen to the voice of reason behind him, the Father of the House the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), who made a very serious contribution earlier today. Surely at this stage the Minister could actually speak up for the nation and say, “Enough is enough, let us put this on hold and get a sensible relationship with Europe agreed across these Benches.”

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I think I can stand up and speak for the nation when I say the only sense of dread and doom I have is when the hon. Gentleman is ready to speak.

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I remind my hon. Friend that we both stood on an election promise that no deal was better than a bad deal, but beyond that can he confirm that aviation agreements are in place so that planes will be flying to and from Gatwick and other UK airports on 30 March?

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Yes, I can confirm that we have signed a whole suite of aviation agreements and that is the case.

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There is a good reason why this House has resoundingly objected to and rejected a no-deal Brexit: because Members here have looked at the evidence of the real-world harms. Just one such area of concern is the position of healthcare for British citizens who are pensioners who have retired to countries across the European Union. The Minister will know that a reciprocal arrangement could not be made with the EU as a whole but would have to be made with 27 individual countries. Can he set out in how many of those 27 countries our fellow citizens who have retired to the EU now have the absolute certainty that in nine days’ time they will have reciprocal healthcare arrangements in place?

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Actually, a whole host of countries are now enacting legislation through their processes to do exactly as the hon. Lady says. The hon. Lady is completely correct in the fact that health in general terms is tied up in social security policy in nearly all EU member states. This needs legislation in individual EU member states, and I believe—I will write to the hon. Lady later today to clarify this—that pretty much every member state has started that legislative framework process.

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Kent MPs have been meeting regularly about preparations for Brexit with the roads Minister my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), the Department for Transport, Highways England, Kent Police, the Port of Dover and Eurotunnel. If my hon. Friend the Minister cannot answer this in the Chamber will he write to me with assurances that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, and in particular the customs part of it, is ready for Brexit and for the extra volume of customs procedures that may be needed to make sure we do not have queues in Kent?

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My hon. Friend rightly raises concerns for her constituents. Extensive work to prepare for a no-deal scenario has been under way across Government for two years and we are taking steps to ensure that the border continues to operate as effectively as possible from the day we leave. We have three objectives for the UK border to be delivered on day one and beyond: maintaining security; facilitating the flow of goods and people; and revenue protection. We will prioritise flow at the border, which means any increase in the number of checks will be kept to a minimum by conducting only essential checks, which will help to reduce friction at locations like Kent.

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I know we have got the TV adverts today, but what official advice are the Government giving to families across the country as to what they should do to prepare for or cope with this country exiting the EU without a deal?

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It does rather depend on what aspect of people’s lives will be affected, so there is a huge range of information both online and now available in advertising as well, where people will be able to see what will happen in circumstances such as if they were concerned about taking their pets abroad or about their holiday. That is all available online.

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It is patently obvious that the Government are not remotely prepared for us to leave without a deal, and at the same time we have a Government who are ploughing on with a plan that has been twice rejected, refusing to bring votes and refusing to stick to commitments they have made to this House. If the chief executive of a major FTSE 500 company or a hospital were to run a major project in anything like as shambolic a way as this every single Member of Parliament would be demanding they resign; why doesn’t the Prime Minister resign?

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It is the Leader of the Opposition who did not want to prepare for no deal in any circumstance whatsoever and did not want to spend any money on getting this country ready in case we were to leave without a deal. So if the hon. Gentleman should call on anybody to resign, it should be his leader, the Leader of the Opposition.

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I am afraid that I still see no case to extend, but in the event of an extension, does the Minister envisage there being any further no-deal planning, or is all of that no-deal planning completed and there is nothing further to be done?

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I can assure my hon. Friend that in an extension there would be further no-deal planning, and lots of plans would have to be adjusted because they are obviously targeted currently at one particular date and that would be moving.

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From the 10,000 or so constituents I have spoken to since the EU referendum I have heard many different reasons why people voted to leave the EU but none of them included to be poorer. So given that we know that all the credible economic analysis shows that the economy would shrink and there would be an increase in poverty, how is the Minister making preparations for if and when an extension to article 50 can be quickly implemented in this House?

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I did not hear the last bit of the hon. Lady’s question, but Treasury analysis published by the Government back in November shows that in every scenario the economy of this country will be growing.

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Has the Minister seen the call from the president of the National Farmers’ Union of Scotland today asking the Government to abandon their proposals for applied tariffs in the event of a no-deal Brexit? As he points out:

“Without the maintenance of tariff protections, we would be in danger of opening up the UK to imported food which would be illegal to be produced here”.

In the 1970s the Minister’s predecessors in the Conservative Government then regarded our fishermen as expendable; it is beginning to look as if this current Government have taken the same attitude towards our farmers.

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I disagree entirely. The tariff schedule which has now been published is designed to look after certain segments of the economy including agriculture. The right hon. Gentleman then went on to talk about standards, and we are not dropping the standards of what we expect in agricultural goods.

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The Minister has said on numerous occasions already during this urgent question that the default legal position is for the UK to leave the EU on 29 March next week. So can the Minister tell the House what the process is for changing the date in the EU withdrawal Act and what day next week we will get that?

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I would assume that a statutory instrument would do that particular piece of work.

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Government expenditure on no-deal preparations can be expressed as a sum of £63 per person per annum for three years. Wales’s net benefit from the EU budget is £79 per person per year. Which does the Minister consider to represent good value?

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I think preparing the country for every eventuality that this Parliament has voted for is good value for money.

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This House has unequivocally excluded the idea of no deal—it has ruled it out, out of hand—so the only ways to avoid no deal would be for the Government to bring forward a meaningful vote again, which you have excluded, Mr Speaker; to prepare to revoke article 50; or to accept crashing out with no deal. So what are the Government going to be doing?

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I would never presume to guess what Mr Speaker might do in allowing different things on the Floor of the House. Indeed, every day seems to be a bit of a surprise at the moment. However, the legal default is that the UK will leave the European Union without a deal unless an alternative is agreed. The alternatives are—[Interruption.] Well, I would like to think that we are going to vote for the deal.

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There really would be no need for this urgent question if the Government were to accept that no deal had already been ruled out by Parliament and that there were two ways forward from that: the revocation of article 50 or its suspension. May I offer the Minister another alternative, which would be to bring back a very different meaningful vote next week that would have embedded in the approval motion the principle of the ratification of the Prime Minister’s deal by the people, with remain on the ballot paper?

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I welcome, as the Prime Minister does, all conversations about how the meaningful vote can be passed by this House. However, last week, the House voted by some big number—more than a majority of the number of MPs in this House—to reject a people’s vote.

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In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), who said that the cost of Brexit was currently £500 million a week, the Minister said that he did not recognise that figure. The Governor of the Bank of England says that the figure is actually £800 million a week. Which figure does the Minister recognise?

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Obviously the Governor of the Bank of England did not recognise that figure either.

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The Minister has rightly said that, in the event of no deal next week, we now have an aviation agreement with the European Union which means that planes will be able to take off and land. What he did not say was that this will mean no route expansion during that time. Manchester airport in my constituency has 30 million passengers annually, with the capacity for 55 million, and 74% of its flights go to other EU destinations. This must surely be a bad agreement for the people of the north of England.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, and I know that he represents his constituents assiduously and understands the need for Manchester airport to work. I will have to come back to him, because I believe that the European Commission has moved on this, but I might be mistaken. I think that it has said that it will allow route expansion in this coming year, but I will come back to him to completely clarify that point if I may.

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Can the Minister tell me how many of the 17.4 million people who voted leave in 2016 voted for the Prime Minister’s deal and how many voted for no deal? If he cannot do so, is it not time that he and his Government stopped using the term “the will of the people” unless they are prepared to find out what the will of the people is by putting the deal back to the people with the option to remain?

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One thing I know is that 58.9% of voters in my constituency, and 17.4 million people in the country, voted to leave the European Union.

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This has been a classic display of what over-promotion looks like, in front of the entire House this afternoon—[Interruption.] No, I will not “come on”. This stuff from the Minister has been grimly depressing. Can he confirm that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) was 100% spot on when she said that if the Council does not grant the extension, and if Parliament does not pass meaningful vote 3—assuming that you would allow it to come back before next Friday, Mr Speaker—revocation is the only way to stop no deal?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and his comment. His kind remark will do me the world of good on my election literature in my middle England constituency next time. The constituency voted to leave and it expects the Government to deliver on its wishes and to deliver on leaving the European Union. The best way to take no deal off the table is to vote for the deal.