Skip to main content

Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 660: debated on Thursday 16 May 2019

Exiting the European Union

The Secretary of State was asked—

Withdrawal Agreement: Public Vote

1. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential merits of a public vote on the EU withdrawal agreement and political declaration. (910916)

5. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential merits of a public vote on the EU withdrawal agreement and political declaration. (910921)

16. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential merits of a public vote on the EU withdrawal agreement and political declaration. (910935)

I have regular discussions with my ministerial colleagues, but those discussions are always short because we agree that it would be a bad idea.

Einstein is widely credited with saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing multiple times but expecting different results. If the Government intend to bring their withdrawal agreement back to Parliament in the form of a Bill, is it not the case that it is only likely to receive any sort of majority in this House on condition of an amendment in support of a public vote? Does the Secretary of State accept, in the words of his own Chancellor, that that is a “perfectly credible proposition”?

As the hon. Gentleman should know, part of the reason we have been having discussions with his Front-Bench colleagues is to look at how the legislation might evolve to take on board the earlier votes by the House. One could make a similar accusation against the Labour party. If we look at its policy on a second referendum, we see people such as Len McCluskey saying that it

“risks tearing our society further apart, as the ignored majority believe their views have been scorned”,

while other Labour members say it is the way forward. There is no consistency among Labour Members, and that is part of their problem.

When I met the Prime Minister in March, I put it to her that a public vote is the only way to get us out of the current deadlock. Does the Secretary of State agree?

It is not only that I do not agree; the hon. Lady’s own Front-Bench colleagues do not agree. She says that a public vote is the only way, but that is not the current policy of her party. Her party’s policy is to say that if its deal were accepted, it would not put it to a public vote. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady asks what I think, but I answered that at the start of my response. I do not agree that a public vote is the way forward; the vote is for Members of this House, who cannot make a decision. The point is that I am not the only one who thinks that a public vote is not the way forward; the hon. Lady’s Front-Bench colleagues think so too, because it is not their current policy.

What about a vote on the Prime Minister’s deal? In a few weeks’ time, the Prime Minister will have asked MPs no fewer than four times whether we agree with her deal. Does the Secretary of State not think it would be fair to ask the public once whether they agree with the deal?

Again, the hon. Gentleman will need to look at the Bill when it comes forward. What we voted for on previous occasions was a meaningful vote. We have been in discussions with Opposition parties and, as referenced in an earlier question, Members across the House, to take on board some of the concerns raised in those debates, and those will be reflected in the legislation brought to the House.

The Secretary of State could point out that the Opposition’s wish will be granted when the European elections take place next Thursday. That will be a genuine vote on what people think in this country. We will need to look at the policies of the party that finishes up with the most votes. Does he agree that that will clearly show what the people want?

I am sure my hon. Friend will agree with me that we have had a people’s vote. It was won in 2016 and that was reflected in the Labour party’s manifesto. Once again, we hear Labour Members saying one thing to the electorate when they face an election but doing another when they come to the House.

I do not think that any Member of this House thinks that my right hon. Friend is anything other than virtuous in all that he does. In our commitment to bring forward the withdrawal agreement Bill, we have listened to the concerns of Members across the House and have reflected that in the draft legislation that is being prepared. It will be for Members to reach a decision on that or one of the two other alternatives—either we risk not leaving at all, which I think would be a huge betrayal of the 17.4 million people who voted to leave, or we leave with no deal, which would create issues for the Union and the economic disruption that would flow.

Many of my constituents tell me that they would not vote in a second referendum because they are angry and frustrated that Parliament has not delivered on the first one. Does the Secretary of State agree that a second referendum would continue the divisiveness and uncertainty, and would almost certainly not settle the issue, because the turnout would be smaller?

I very much agree with my hon. Friend on that. I would urge his constituents to vote, and to vote Conservative, in that election, but he is right to say that any such second referendum would be both divisive and not necessarily decisive. They have perhaps taken their lead from many Members of the House, who seem unwilling to confront the real choice that lies before them and vote, which is why they are seeking to have a second referendum.

The Government’s position is that it is democratic to come back to the House of Commons for the fourth time in order to try to persuade us to change our minds. They are entitled to try, although it may be unwise. Can the Secretary of State explain to the House, therefore, why it is undemocratic to ask the British people, given what we now know, whether they wish to change their minds or not?

Because we had a decision; we gave the British public that and we have not delivered on it. I would have much more time for the right hon. Gentleman’s position if behind the language of a confirmatory vote he wanted to explore the different ways of leaving: if he was saying, “The public gave a clear instruction to leave, but we want to have a vote between leaving with the Prime Minister’s deal or leaving with no deal.” But his position is to revoke. He does not want to say that he supports revoking, so he wants to hide behind this veneer, façade and impression whereby this can be can done through a second referendum. I urge him to have some candour and say he wants to revoke. Come out and say it. That seems to be the right hon. Gentleman’s position and that is what is he should say.

I want to revoke article 50 and so do the vast majority of my constituents. Does the Secretary of State not see the glaring failure of logic in giving this House four votes but not being prepared to give the population a second vote? That is why people who do want to remain in the EU will be voting for the Scottish National party in the forthcoming European elections in Scotland.

Well now, what is always glaring from SNP Members is their desire to overturn democratic decisions. They did this on the referendum in 2014 and they want to do it on the referendum in 2016. They then want to say to this House that a further referendum is one they will abide by, but we know that if they get the “wrong” result, it will be three strikes and yet again they will say that they are still not out.

Support for Farmers

2. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on support for farmers after the UK leaves the EU. (910917)

I continue to have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues across government. As my hon. Friend will be aware, we have pledged to commit the same cash total in funds for farm support until the end of this Parliament.

Export sales of organic produce totalled £188 million in 2016, supporting countless British jobs, particularly in the agricultural sector. What assurances can the Secretary of State give me as to the certification that protects that organic produce in respect of exports to the EU after we leave?

I know my hon. Friend’s constituency very well, as it is where I was born and grew up. He is absolutely right to highlight the importance of this issue in the farming sector. I am happy to give him the commitment that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is looking at this issue. My hon. Friend will be aware that this is part of a wider approach, where we can take a much more bespoke approach to our farming needs once we are out of the EU, rather than the catch-all, one-size-fits-all approach in which the common agricultural policy applies.

The Minister will know that food processing is very much related to farming, and it is our biggest manufacturing sector. Has he talked to that sector? Does he not realise that research by King’s College London shows that every leave constituency of this country will be 20% worse off leaving the EU—on any terms?

First, may I join the Prime Minister in recognising the hon. Gentleman’s service? He said at Prime Minister’s questions yesterday that he was a Eurosceptic when he came into the House; there is still time for him to return to his true beliefs.

As the hon. Gentleman is well aware, I represent one of the key farming constituencies in the country, in the fens. He will also be aware that the majority of farmers voted to leave, and that is because they see the opportunities—for example, in respect of things like the three-crop rule, which is restrictive for many in the farming community. Through the Agriculture Bill, we can have a much more bespoke approach. The key issue is to speak to those who actually farm. The overriding message from the National Farmers Union is to back the deal, and farmers themselves want the liberty of being outside the straightjacket of the EU. That is what this Government will deliver.

Will my right hon. Friend reassure livestock farmers in Brecon and Radnorshire and throughout the country that immediate funding for them will be guaranteed in all circumstances?

My hon. Friend has championed the livestock sector extremely assiduously, and I know he has met my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to discuss these issues. We have given a commitment to match funding, but we must ensure that we do so in a more bespoke way. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss that further so that we can give his constituents the support that they need.

Will the Minister further outline the support for agrifood producers, with reference to the food labelling and stamps issue, which is still uncertain and has the potential to cause massive financial strain and supply issues?

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight an under-discussed area of policy. Some Members want only to talk down the opportunities of Brexit, rather than to talk about what we can do with the freedoms that Brexit unlocks. One of those freedoms is in respect of food labelling, which is an area in which the United Kingdom can apply a more bespoke approach and in which there will be opportunities. Indeed, last week I was in Scotland with manufacturers and we discussed just such issues.

UK Economy

3. What recent assessment the Government have made of the effect on the UK economy of the UK leaving the EU. (910918)

In November 2018, the Government published their economic analysis of leaving the European Union. In doing so, the Government delivered on their commitment to provide appropriate analysis to Parliament. The publication provides an assessment of how different exit scenarios may affect the sectors, nations and regions of the UK economy in the long run.

If the rumours are true, the withdrawal agreement Bill will come back to the House shortly. There is no credible analysis, including from the Government, that shows that any form of Brexit will be beneficial to the UK economy, so will the Bill include a detailed economic and environmental impact assessment of its impact on every single sector, region and nation of this country?

The hon. Gentleman has been in the House long enough to know that I cannot possibly reveal details of the Bill ahead of its introduction. What I can say generally is that the UK economy is performing strongly—much more strongly than many of his doom-mongers and naysayers have suggested. Employment levels have broken all records, and there are 3.6 million more people in work than there were in 2010. Business investment in the UK stood at almost £47 billion in the first quarter of this year—that is an increase of 30% since we took office in 2010. Generally, the UK is the top destination for inward investment in Europe. Amid uncertainty, the economy is performing well.

Financial services are a critical part of the UK’s economy and one of our top exports. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the withdrawal agreement does not include a specific section on financial services and that access to the EU market after any transition would be a matter of separate negotiation? Will he update the House on his most recent discussions on the issue with his EU counterparts?

The withdrawal agreement is not the end state of the relationship between the UK and the EU; it is merely a mechanism to get to that end state. In a free trade agreement, which I hope we get, our financial services will absolutely be able to have more freedom. They have a brighter future outside the EU than within it.

I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. The creative industries tell me that their economy is already suffering, with the concerns of musicians in particular, for example, not being addressed in any part of the Government’s negotiations or deal. They will have to move kit and people around the European Union, and they are already losing out on bookings. What discussions is the Minister having with representatives of, for instance, the Musicians’ Union about this problem?

I refer the hon. Lady to the answer I gave just a minute ago. The withdrawal agreement itself does not describe the end state of our relationship between the UK and the EU. It is simply a means to the end. We are discussing all the time with representatives of the creative industries, and we hope that, once the agreement is passed, we can then go on to the second phase of the discussions.

The European Union is mired in low economic growth. Many of its countries have eye-watering levels of youth unemployment and its currency has to be constantly supported by quantitative easing. Can my hon. Friend understand why anybody would want to chain us to this rotten corpse?

I fully appreciate the force of my hon. Friend’s argument. The idea that the EU simply represented the be all and end all of economic prosperity has been completely exploded by his remarks. If those record high levels of youth unemployment occurred in the constituencies of any Labour Member, they would be rightly outraged. We have great opportunities outside the EU, which is why I hope that we can pass the Bill and move forward in these discussions.

The car industry, British steel, and the travel industry are all citing Brexit as a major cause of concern in their sectors. Does the Minister consider that to be project fear or project reality?

I urge the right hon. Gentleman to end the uncertainty and back the Bill so that we can move on with this debate and get to the next phase of the negotiations. That would provide the certainty that the industries that he cites are looking for.

The Minister reminded us that the Government have done an economic analysis of a number of Brexit scenarios, but, very pointedly, they have not given us an analysis of the impact of the scenario that they are going to ask us to vote on in a few weeks’ time. Every analysis they have done of every Brexit scenario has shown that the economic damage to Scotland caused by Brexit is always made even worse if we also lose our rights under free movement of people. How does the Minister justify imposing this additional economic damage on a country that rejected Brexit by 62% in 2016?

I fully appreciate the concern of the Members from the Scottish National party. They campaigned for two referendums. They got beaten in both of them and now they simply want to re-run them. The fact is that the United Kingdom voted to leave and this Government—and Ministers—are pledged to deliver on that referendum result.

I want the result of the referendum to be respected. I want the 62% of sovereign citizens in my nation to have their declared will respected. Does the Minister not realise that, every time he or his colleagues say that Scotland has to put up with this because Scotland is part of the Union, they are driving another nail into the coffin of that Union? Does he not appreciate that his comments today will simply persuade more and more Scots that, next week, the way to protect Scotland’s interests is by returning an increased number of SNP candidates to the European Parliament and by making sure that, in 2024, Scotland participates in those European elections as a full sovereign member of a partnership of equals?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was in Scotland last week, and the opinion there is very divided on this issue, as it is in the rest of the United Kingdom. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate, as a democrat, that the vote in 2016 was a national vote—a United Kingdom vote—and we are pledged to respect the majority result, which was to leave the European Union.

Customs Union

Any assessment will depend on the counterfactuals that it is measured against, and those were considered in the economic analysis that was put out in November.

Many of my constituents in Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough contact me regularly with their wide-ranging views on Brexit. Will the Secretary of State reassure them that they would be no worse off if we left without a customs union and without the elusive trade deal that the Secretary of State for International Trade has failed to deliver despite stating that it would be the easiest thing in human history to negotiate?

There is nothing elusive about the text of the political declaration, which makes it clear that the Government can negotiate the benefits of a customs arrangement alongside an independent trade policy. The economic analysis shows that that is the best way forward of the options open to the Government.

On Monday, the Secretary of State’s two predecessors, 11 other former Cabinet Ministers and the Chair of the 1922 Committee wrote to the Prime Minister urging her

“to reject a customs union solution with Labour”.

Many Cabinet Ministers clearly agree with them. Does the Secretary of State?

I have been clear throughout that we have an approach that I think is the best way forward. There are conflicting views in all the parties including, as the hon. Gentleman well knows, on his own Front Bench. We are discussing these issues with the Labour party to seek a way forward on behalf of the House that will allow us to deliver on the referendum result. If he is asking about my personal position, I have always been clear that we made a clear manifesto commitment with regards to the single market and customs union, and we are trying to look at how to deliver on the referendum result. As the shadow Secretary of State would say, those discussions are ongoing.

I guess that might have come close to a suggestion that the Secretary of State does agree with those who are opposing the Prime Minister’s position. But this is, after all, a Secretary of State who voted with those two predecessors against his own Government’s proposal on extending article 50, even after he had recommended it to the House, so I think we deserve some clarity on these issues. The authors of Monday’s letter also said of any agreement that is reached:

“No leader can bind his or her successor…so the deal would likely be…at best temporary…at worse illusory.”

Does he agree with that?

It is not a revelation to this House that I supported leaving in the referendum, that I still support leaving, that I have voted consistently on every occasion to leave, that I have voted against extending article 50 and that I have stood by the manifesto on which I was elected. The question for Labour Members is why they repeatedly—at every opportunity—refuse to stand by their manifesto commitment. Why will they not honour their promises to the electorate? Yes, I do support leaving. I support leaving with a deal, and I have made it clear that if we do not leave with a deal, of the two alternative options I would leave with no deal. My position has been consistent. Why hasn’t theirs?

EU Settlement Scheme

6. What recent discussions he has had with the Home Secretary on the effectiveness of the EU settlement scheme for European economic area nationals. (910922)

This is a hugely important scheme designed to help EEA and EU citizens take up their rights and deliver on the Government’s commitment that we want them to stay. I regularly meet colleagues in the Home Office to discuss the scheme, and it is important to note that the Home Office has received more than 650,000 applications so far, with thousands more being received every week. Applications are free and there is plenty of time to apply.

If the Government really wanted to make non-UK EU nationals feel welcome and wanted them to stay, they would make this an easy system. In fact, people have to have the right phone. If they do not have the right phone, they have to go to an ID scanning centre. But just look at where those centres have been placed; they are all around London, so the Secretary of State’s constituents and my constituents have to travel all the way to Bedford, Peterborough or London. Why is there not at least an ID scanning centre in every county?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the accessibility of the scheme, and I agree that it should be accessible. There are going to be 200 assisted digital locations across the UK to support people to register, including one in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency of Cambridge, which he should welcome.

It is all well and good for the Minister to say that there are going to be these centres, but they are not here yet. My constituents are having to travel to Glasgow for ID scanning because there is not an opportunity to do that in Aberdeen, where there is only a small library centre. I am incredibly concerned—this issue has been highlighted to me—that women fleeing domestic violence are being told that that, because their application is a bit more difficult, they will have to go all the way to Glasgow, when they are already suffering from destitution as a result of domestic violence.

I take on board the hon. Lady’s point and I am happy to discuss it with colleagues at the Home Office. As well as the assisted digital locations and the scanning centres that she mentioned, it is also possible for people to apply via the Android app. My colleagues at the Home Office have also been in regular talks with Apple to ensure that applications can also be made through its devices. There is a whole range of ways in which people can apply. Face-to-face support at home is also available to help particularly vulnerable people complete their applications.

Leaving the EU: Sovereignty

8. What assessment he has made of the potential level of sovereignty that the UK will have after leaving the EU. (910924)

I know that the hon. Gentleman has consistently championed leaving the EU on the grounds of sovereignty. The referendum was a call to reclaim the UK’s sovereignty by ensuring that the decisions that affect us are made by those whom we elect. On borders, free movement will end, with Parliament deciding our domestic immigration policy in the national interest. On money, vast annual payments to the EU will end, and the UK will leave the EU budget. On laws, EU law in the UK will end, as will the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union. All of this can be achieved by voting for the withdrawal agreement.

People voted in the referendum for the United Kingdom to be independent, democratic and self-governing, but the BBC recently broadcast a comment by the Belgian Liberal politician, Guy Verhofstadt, about the UK becoming a “colony” of the EU. What are the Government going to do to avoid such a humiliation?

I think the hon. Gentleman will recognise that some of these statements may be made to provoke rather than necessarily to inform. We have a very clear agreement, in the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration, on the UK coming out of and separating itself from the European Union. That is something that Members across this House, bearing in mind the manifestos on which they were elected, should get on and support.

The BBC documentary, “Brexit: Behind Closed Doors”, was a devastating exposé of the incompetence of the Government’s Brexit negotiating strategy. It showed the contempt the EU has for the Prime Minister’s stance, and showed that the EU has run rings round us at every opportunity. With two exit dates having come and gone, despite over 100 assurances from the Prime Minister on the Floor of the House, is it not clear that the simplest, cheapest, cleanest and most honest way to deliver Brexit is to leave with no deal on 31 October?

If my hon. Friend had voted as the Secretary of State and I have voted, we would have left the EU already.

A YouGov poll published today indicates that a majority of people are not happy with the European Union and feel that it may break up in the next 20 years. There is also widespread concern about the political elite both at European and national levels. Does this not show that at some time in the near future, Europe is going to go through major reform, and is it not better for us to be there and be part of that reform? Should we not therefore now be considering, in the light of the fact that there is no majority here for no deal or for a second referendum, revoking article 50?

I admire the hon. Gentleman’s honesty in setting out that his position is clearly to revoke article 50. These are arguments that were made before the referendum. We had a negotiation with the European Union, and we put that approach to the people in the referendum and said that they should decide. I think we should listen to their decision and follow it through.

Political Declaration: Security

9. Whether the Government have made a recent assessment of the adequacy of the security commitments provided for in the political declaration. (910925)

In November 2018, the Government published an assessment of the future security partnership as set out in the political declaration. The political declaration itself recognises the shared threats faced by the UK and the European Union and provides a framework to safeguard our security. That framework, as the hon. Lady will know, covers law enforcement, judicial co-operation in criminal matters, foreign policy, and security and defence co-operation in areas where we hope to have mutual co-operation.

Protecting our national security from organised crime and terrorism is of course the first duty of any Government. My constituents want to know that we will still be able to participate in the European arrest warrant and share criminal record checks if or when we leave the EU, so what further progress has been made on what was put into the political declaration so many months ago?

The hon. Lady will appreciate that those matters are for the second phase of the discussions between us and the EU. In order to get to that second stage, I sincerely recommend that she supports the withdrawal agreement. That is the only mechanism by which we will get to phase 2 of the negotiations, where we can discuss some of these matters, which are critically important to her constituents and to the country.

Leaving the EU: NHS

10. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on the effect on the NHS of the UK leaving the EU. (910929)

11. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on the effect on the NHS of the UK leaving the EU. (910930)

12. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on the effect on the NHS of the UK leaving the EU. (910931)

Nearly 500 people working for Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust are from the EU. The Royal College of Nursing tells us that 7,000 EU nurses have left the register since the referendum. With the number of trained nurses declining, what will the Government do to ensure that quality of healthcare in my constituency does not suffer if and when the UK leaves the EU?

If the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) gives me a moment, I will answer with some specific numbers on recruitment. As a former Health Minister whose portfolio covered the workforce, I have always taken an interest in this area, so if he gives me a moment to get past the first two words, I will try my best to respond. It is not a widely known fact that, since the referendum, there are 700 more doctors from the EU27 countries working in the NHS and over 5,200 more EU27 nationals working in NHS trusts and clinical commissioning groups.

The hon. Lady is right that we need to do more on nurse recruitment. The Department is doing a huge number of things, including on the apprenticeship levy, looking at the skills mix and professional qualifications, and investing up to £20.5 billion extra a year in the NHS, a lot of which is targeted at improvements to the workforce. She is right that we need to look at how to strengthen nurse recruitment, but it is misleading to keep presenting to the House the fiction that, since the referendum, there has been a fall in the number of EU staff working in the NHS, when 700 more doctors are working in it since then.

Some 64% of medical professionals think that the NHS will get worse after Brexit. They have not been fooled by a slogan on the side of a bus. Can the Secretary of State explain why the Government are struggling to convince those who work for the NHS that there will be a Brexit dividend?

I suspect that this constant drumbeat of negativity around it does not help. The fact is that we have committed to a 10-year plan. The hon. Lady should listen to people like Simon Stevens, the former Labour adviser and the chief executive of NHS England. She should look at the 10-year NHS funding commitment that this Government have made, with up to an additional £20.5 billion a year. She should look at the areas of improvement to care and stop talking down our NHS. In terms of Brexit, there are things, if one looks at the October 2017 paper, to protect the NHS, but it is time to stop talking down the NHS and look at the funding commitment this Government have made.

I should declare an interest: I have several family members working in the NHS. As we have heard, there is huge concern about the lack of nurses—particularly specialist nurses—coming from the EU. The NHS used to have a recruitment programme in Portugal, where the training is excellent, particularly in intensive and post-operative care, and there is good care but not enough jobs. The NHS can no longer do that. In addition, medical research teams are in despair because they cannot exchange specialist researchers to further medical science. Can the Secretary of State reassure the medical profession that this is keeping him awake and that he has a response to it?

It is quite remarkable that the hon. Lady makes no mention of the five new medical schools that this Government have committed to, of the record expansion in doctor training that this Government have committed to or of the lifting of tier 2 visas for not only doctors but nurses, so that we can recruit around the globe. The Opposition seem to think that recruitment into the NHS stops at Europe, but we recruit talent for the NHS from around the globe, and we have lifted tier 2 visas to facilitate that. This constant drumbeat of negativity from the hon. Lady does not reflect the reality of this Government’s commitment to our NHS.

I declare an interest: many members of my family work in the NHS. The NHS depends on tax and national insurance revenues. What is the Government’s assessment of the impact of leaving the European Union on those tax and national insurance revenues?

My hon. Friend is right to say that we need a strong economy to have a strong NHS. The option set out in the economic analysis that was published by the Treasury in November makes it clear that the Prime Minister’s plan is the one that will deliver the strongest economy, and enable us to make that record, 10-year commitment of up to £20.5 billion more a year to our NHS. That is a sign of the Conservative party’s commitment to the NHS, and for the majority of years that the NHS has existed, it has been run by a Conservative Government.

I hope the hon. Member for Kensington (Emma Dent Coad) will take it in the right spirit if I say that it was most solicitous and courteous of her to notify us that her family members work in the national health service, but for the avoidance of doubt, it is not necessary to declare an interest simply because one visits a doctor from time to time.

I was going to say that both my parents were nurses, as was the shadow Secretary of State’s mum, but I obviously do not need to. I remember being accused of negativity, as the Secretary of State has done repeatedly today, when we warned of the dangers of privatising the probation service, and look how that worked out. It is our job to challenge the Government. They might not like it, but that is one reason we are here. Public health is potentially at risk from Brexit. Chlorinated chicken is a public health risk.

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman takes that up with the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove). How can we trust this Government to protect our public health or our NHS in any trade deal with the United States when they cannot agree within Cabinet? The Environment Secretary says that chlorinated chicken will be banned, but the Secretary of State for International Trade says it will not be. Who speaks for the Government on that issue?

The hon. Lady is right that it is her job to challenge the Government, and unfortunately for Government Members she usually does that more effectively than we would like her to. On this issue, however, I disagree with her. Labour policy is that it wants a say on EU trade policy, even though EU treaties do not allow that. For many years Conservative Members have been told by the Labour party that we cannot go into things such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership because that will be a threat to our NHS—that is what Labour Members have said repeatedly. Now they say that they want to pass control of our independent trade policy to the EU, but that that will not be a threat to the NHS. Once again Labour Members say one thing when it suits them, and another thing today. There is no consistency in their trade policy.

Support for Towns

The Department continues to work closely with colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to ensure that towns and communities across England are supported post Brexit. In March the Government announced a new £1.6 billion Stronger Towns fund for England, which will boost growth and give communities a stronger say in their future after Brexit.

Earlier this year the Government announced that £55.6 million will be made available to local government to cover the additional expenditure resulting from Brexit, and it is important that councils such as Stockport are prepared from day one after we leave the EU, so that my constituents can have uninterrupted local services. How will my hon. Friend ensure that, as local authorities make their bids for the Stronger Towns fund, towns and villages such as Cheadle are able to feel the benefit?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her tireless work representing and championing her constituents in the north-west. More than half the allocated Stronger Towns fund will go to towns across the north of England, and just over £281 million will be allocated to the north-west region. There will be further opportunity to deliver locally led projects, create new jobs, and support the Government’s commitment to building a more prosperous economy across the United Kingdom.

One of the ways that the Government could start moving on regeneration, not just in England but across Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, is to set out when the consultation on the shared prosperity fund will start. It was meant to start before December 2018, but Ministers from the Treasury, the Wales Office, and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy do not know when it will be. Perhaps Ministers from the Department for Exiting the European Union can give us some answers for a change.

The hon. Gentleman will have observed that we have not yet reached a deal on the withdrawal agreement. The shared prosperity fund is the pot of money that will be allocated across the UK once we have left the EU. The withdrawal agreement still has to go through. We recognise the importance of reassuring local areas at that point that the shared prosperity fund will be distributed, but it does not make any sense to do that ahead of the ratification of the deal.

Revoking Article 50: Voter Confidence

14. What assessment the Government have made of the potential effect on voter confidence in (a) politicians and (b) democracy of revoking Article 50. (910933)

Revoking article 50 would cause irreparable damage to the relationship between voters and the Members of Parliament who represent them. It would reverse the outcome of the 2016 referendum, betraying not only the 17.4 million voters who voted to leave but everyone who voted, putting their faith in our democracy at risk. Revoking article 50 would break the trust the British people place in politicians, in voting and in democracy.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. What steps is his Department taking to maintain the public’s faith in the importance of their votes and confidence in this Government delivering what they said they would deliver, particularly as we head into European elections that the public did not want, vote for or support?

Ultimately, there are only three ways that this situation can resolve itself: the UK leaves the EU with an agreement; the UK leaves without an agreement; or we revoke article 50 and do not leave. Leaving without a deal is undesirable, but not leaving is unacceptable. That is why the Government maintain the position that they want to leave the European Union with an agreement as quickly as possible, restoring people’s faith in the democratic process and honouring the commitment we made in the 2016 referendum.

Next month, it will be three years since the referendum. Does the Minister regard the referendum choice as binding for all time? Does he not recognise that at some point it will be necessary to go back to the people and ask whether they still think leaving the EU is a good idea?

Will not the biggest danger to confidence in democracy come when the promised sunlit uplands fail to materialise? Is not the only way out of this mess to go back to the people and ask them to exercise their democratic choice?

The British people have already exercised their democratic choice. I do not subscribe to the negative predictions that the hon. Gentleman and others have made about a post-Brexit British future. More importantly, international businesses do not agree with him; inward investment into the UK is still flourishing. The employment market does not agree with his predictions either, because unemployment is still reducing and employment is still increasing. I am confident—the Government are confident—that there is a bright future ahead for this country outside the European Union. That is what we are committed to delivering and that is what we are working towards.

Leaving the EU: Security

15. What recent assessment he has made of the merits of continued co-operation with the EU on security after the UK leaves the EU; and if he will make a statement. (910934)

Last week I was in Sibiu, where I made clear that we face common and evolving threats to European security. Those threats demand close co-operation and the UK has a leading role to play in that.

My right hon. Friend will know that the Bundesnachrichtendienst has already made it absolutely clear that the United Kingdom is one of the biggest intelligence services in the world, is a member of Five Eyes, and that Europe is dependent on the United Kingdom for intelligence. We also wish to co-operate with them. Does that not make complete nonsense of what some Opposition Members say—that if we left the EU, without a deal or otherwise, the EU would not continue to co-operate with us for its own benefit?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that there is a shared interest between the UK and the European Union in close collaboration on security. He is right that the UK is the only European member of the Five Eyes intelligence network and that we are the only EU country that contributes both the NATO 2% and the overseas aid 0.7% commitments. It is in both sides’ interests to work closely on our shared challenges, because many of those challenges lie beyond Europe.

Leaving the EU: Expenditure

Additional EU exit funding allocated by Her Majesty’s Treasury to Departments and devolved Administrations covers all scenarios. No-deal spending cannot readily be separated from deal spending, given the significant overlap in plans in many cases. Since 2016, the Treasury has allocated more than £2.4 billion of funding for all exit scenarios.[Official Report, 20 May 2019, Vol. 660, c. 6MC.]

Despite talking up and legitimising a no-deal outcome for two years, the Prime Minister applied for two different extensions to the article 50 period to avoid that outcome, because she knows it would be damaging to the country. The Minister talks of £2.4 billion. Would that money not have been better spent on the fight against knife crime, on helping families struggling to cope with universal credit or on 100 other causes that would benefit our constituents, rather than on an argument that, by the Prime Minister’s actions, she has shown she does not even believe in?

Her Majesty’s Government have never had the policy to take no deal off the table; the House has committed the Government through votes to do so. The right hon. Gentleman talks about spending in other Departments. We have, for example, seen record spending in the national health service, making good on the Government’s commitment. If he does not want to see any more money spent on no-deal preparations, it is incumbent on him to bring this to a conclusion, and the best way of doing so is by voting for the withdrawal agreement Bill when it is presented to the House, giving this country certainty and the ability to move forward in a post-Brexit world.

In an op-ed in The Sun on Saturday, the Brexit Secretary argued that

“it would be inexcusable for the Government to not use the coming months to continue to prepare”

for no deal. Indeed, based on his answers today, no doubt he would like to accelerate those preparations. However, as the public know, given that they get advance sight of pending public rows in their morning newspapers, the Chancellor of the Exchequer takes a different view. He recently issued an edict that no further Treasury money will be provided for no-deal planning ahead of the 31 October deadline. When it comes to no-deal planning, will the new Parliamentary Under-Secretary tell us who actually speaks for the Government?

The Treasury has already allocated money for no-deal preparation. We continue to prepare for no deal, because at the moment there is still the possibility that on 31 October the United Kingdom will leave with no deal. Members of the House who are uncomfortable with that position can take a no-deal Brexit off the table by voting for a withdrawal agreement and leaving with a deal, which remains the Government’s policy. If we were to do that, we could move on to the second stage of the negotiations and set about creating a strong working relationship with our European partners and other nations around the world.

Support for Fisheries

18. What discussions he has had with Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on support for the fisheries sector after the UK leaves the EU. (910938)

We continue to work closely with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on supporting our fishing industry. The Government’s vision for a sustainable and profitable fishing sector was set out in the fisheries White Paper in July 2018. As an independent coastal state, we will control access to UK waters and pursue a fairer share of fishing opportunities for the benefit of fishermen in Banff and Buchan and across the UK.

I thank my hon. Friend for his response. Will he confirm that, whatever form the withdrawal agreement takes, we will leave the common fisheries policy, as he just said, and take part in annual negotiations as an independent coastal state no later than December 2020?

My hon. Friend is right. He continues to be a passionate and persistent champion of the fishing industry in his constituency. The best way to ensure our taking part in those negotiations by December 2020 is to vote for the withdrawal agreement, as he and I have done, to secure those rights, and not to try to trap us in the common fisheries policy as the SNP has done.

Legal Services

19. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that the UK's future relationship with the EU enables continued trade in legal services. (910939)

The UK is a world leader in the provision of legal services. English law has a reputation for excellence across the world. The political declaration outlined the EU and the UK’s commitment to ambitious arrangements for services and investment that go well beyond World Trade Organisation terms and existing EU free trade agreements.

Legal services in the UK are a success story, with the sector making a significant contribution to the economy each year. The Law Society estimates it at about £25.7 billion, with £4.4 billion in net exports and 370,000 jobs. That relies in part on uniform market access across the EU and the European economic area. Will the Minister therefore work with representatives from the legal sector to ensure that it is maintained by the UK-EU future relationship?

The hon. Gentleman is a diligent member of the Justice Committee, and he is absolutely right about the importance of the UK legal services sector to exports and its contribution to the economy. We have listened to EU leaders, and we understand and respect the position that the four freedoms of the single market are indivisible and there can be no cherry-picking. Although we are not seeking single market membership, we are seeking ambitious arrangements for services and investment that build on recent EU FTAs. We are working closely with colleagues from the Ministry of Justice and engaging with industry stakeholders, including the Law Society, to achieve a deal that works for the UK legal services sector in terms of both market access and civil judicial co-operation.

Topical Questions

Since our last questions session, over the past six weeks the Government and the Opposition have held constructive meetings. The Prime Minister met the Leader of the Opposition earlier this week, and discussions continue with the aim of reaching a compromise that could command a majority in the House. The Prime Minister has also said that the Government will introduce the withdrawal agreement Bill in the first week after the recess, which will allow more time for the talks to continue, but with a view to ratifying the withdrawal agreement before the summer recess.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that the withdrawal agreement Bill will include the Government’s proposal for legislation to enshrine the backstop in UK law?

Yes, because the withdrawal agreement will need to be ratified, and ratification includes the Northern Ireland protocol.

I wonder if the excellent Secretary of State has had an opportunity to watch “Brexit: Behind Closed Doors”. The BBC has hidden it away on BBC Four, but it is quite a revealing programme. In it, the lead negotiator for our exit from the European Union, Olly Robbins—who I think is in Brussels this week—says that because he has done such a rotten deal he cannot come back to the United Kingdom, and is applying for Belgian citizenship. Is that appropriate, Secretary of State?

Without straying too much into my television viewing habits of recent weeks, I must confess to my hon. Friend that I am intending to watch that documentary. I have seen clips of it, including the one to which he has referred. As he will appreciate, given my current diary I do not have a huge amount of television time, but I will be sure to make time to watch it in the coming days.

In February, the Secretary of State told the House:

“the withdrawal agreement Bill is a significant piece of legislation and we will need to get it through the House, but the key issue is getting the deal through, because once we have done that, we will have the basis for the necessary consensus in the House to approach that legislation.”—[Official Report, 28 February 2019; Vol. 655, c. 505.]

That makes sense—deal first, implement second—so will the Secretary of State tell us whether the Government are going to hold a fourth meaningful vote before the withdrawal agreement Bill is introduced, or whether the House will be asked to do the opposite of what he advocated in February, and implement a deal that has not been approved?

I do not want to stray into territory that is rightly much more a matter for the Chair, but I think I am correct in saying, Mr Speaker, that you have been very clear in your directions regarding meaningful votes and whether they would be considered. As for the deal, we have talked about whether an agreement could be reached with the Opposition. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, those talks are ongoing, including the discussion between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition this week. We have made clear, and the Prime Minister has made clear, that we will bring the withdrawal agreement legislation to the House in the week after the recess, and the House will have an opportunity to vote at that point.

I should have thought it was patently obvious that if the Prime Minister’s deal is put to the House for the fourth time—if that is allowed—it will fail, just as it has failed three times already.

Let me make clear that Labour opposes the idea of passing the withdrawal agreement Bill without an agreed deal. That would put the cart before the horse, and Labour will therefore vote against the Bill’s Second Reading. How on earth does the Secretary of State think that a Bill to implement a deal that is not before the House can be passed in two weeks’ time—or is this about keeping the Prime Minister in office for another week, and giving her a lifeline for today’s meeting of the 1922 Committee?

The talks with the Opposition Front Bench have been going on for over six weeks, and the House has now looked at the meaningful vote on three occasions and made its view clear. The question therefore arises, as came through in amendments from a number of Members of this House—such as the Snell-Nandy amendment—of whether there are changes to the withdrawal agreement Bill which would enable it to command wider support. It is on that basis that not only have we had those discussions but indeed the right hon. and learned Gentleman has welcomed them. When the House sees that legislation, it will be for it to decide whether it commands a majority of the House. The right hon. and learned Gentleman’s personal position might be that what is in that text is irrelevant, because he personally wants to have a second referendum, but that is not the basis on which the discussions have been held; that may be his personal position, but it is not, as I understand it, the official position of the Leader of the Opposition. It will be for the House to make a decision, and the Prime Minister has made it clear that there will be an opportunity for it to do that in the week after recess.

The Secretary of State looks physically fit and is in good shape and I expect he goes to the gym a lot. If he decided to leave his gym and the gym said to him, “You’ve got to give us two years’ notice, when you leave you have to pay four years’ worth of membership fees up front, and after you’ve left we’re still going to control your fitness programme,” would he regard that as a good deal or a bad deal?

I fear that we are straying slightly into territory that is not primarily relevant to the legislation we will be considering after the recess. My gym attendance is a bit like my television viewing: a little non-existent at present. The point is that we as a House know that we need to confront not just the issue of the legislation in the withdrawal agreement but the consequences that would flow from it. When I gave evidence to the Lords Select Committee yesterday, in the usual joyful comments to which my social media feeds are accustomed people seemed surprised that if we do not leave the EU with a deal the House will need to face a choice as to whether it then leaves without a deal or whether Members of this House, as they have done with no deal before, seek to prevent that and seek to revoke such an outcome. I do not think that that is a revelation although it seemed to be greeted as one; I think it is simply a statement of fact and logic, and Members of the House need to confront that when they consider the withdrawal agreement Bill that comes before the House after the recess.

T2. It is three years since the EU referendum and the chemical industry on Teesside and beyond is still nervous about the future. That is having a major impact on jobs and investment. Time and again I have raised this issue with Ministers and time and again they have failed to provide the assurances needed; what has the Brexit Secretary got to say now? (910943)

I am very pleased that the hon. Gentleman has raised that question. I have not visited his constituency exactly, but I have been to Teesport and seen many representatives of the chemicals industry, and the one thing they are very anxious to do is create some certainty: they want this phase of the Brexit process to be completed and feel we should back the deal and back the withdrawal agreement. They have, unlike many Opposition Members, accepted the result of the referendum and want to move forward with this process.

What preparations have the Government made to establish a UK investment bank to take over the responsibilities and functions of the European Investment Bank and indeed to do more for investment in the infrastructure and businesses of the UK?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. As the Treasury has set out, there will be extra support for the British Business Bank to play a role in that regard. I would also point him towards the important role of the UK shared prosperity fund in replacing elements of structural funding.

T3. The Secretary of State said earlier that a no-deal scenario would be harmful to the economy and threaten the integrity of the United Kingdom, but he then also said that he would support a no-deal scenario rather than remaining in the European Union. So is he saying that threatening the integrity of the Union of the United Kingdom is actually a price worth paying for a hard Tory Brexit? (910945)

What I am saying is that there will be consequences to both options. Revoke would involve a betrayal of democracy, going back on the commitments that this House has given and having a divisive, but not decisive, second referendum that could end up with the same result as before. Businesses are experiencing uncertainty, including in Dundee, where I was on Thursday. It has the fastest growing chamber of commerce in the United Kingdom, and people there want to see a deal and to see this country move forward. That is the way forward, but if we do not support a deal, a no-deal would have consequences. However, the much more severe consequences would be those for our democracy and for our international reputation as a country if we were to undermine such a major democratic decision.

Is planning still continuing for a no-deal situation, and is the Treasury providing adequate resources for it?

I can absolutely confirm to my hon. Friend that planning is continuing for no deal, and that funding is allocated. It is important for the Government to use the time that we have between now and 31 October to ensure that we are prepared, should that eventuality arise, but it is in our interests to secure a deal so that that becomes unnecessary.

T4. Nottingham has two world-class universities, and EU nationals on the academic staff and the student body make an extraordinary contribution to those schools. Can the Secretary of State give me a categorical assurance that, however Brexit is resolved, there will be no extra burdens impairing the contribution of EU nationals to those institutions? (910947)

EU nationals play a really important part in all our universities, and I regularly meet the university sector to discuss them. We will absolutely continue to welcome EU nationals to study at our universities after Brexit, but of course, part of the arrangements between us will depend on the future relationship, which will be determined in the next phase of the negotiations. I want to move on so that we can secure the best possible future relationship for our universities.

Will the Secretary of State set out for the House why a customs union is the wrong policy choice for the future success of the UK economy?

As we set out in our manifesto, it is in the interests of this country to have an independent trade policy. That is what the Prime Minister has negotiated, and that is the best way for us to deliver the global vision, which is why my hon. Friend and I supported Brexit in the first place.

I am sure that the whole of the Government Front Bench will be aware of the bad news today from Thomas Cook, whose travel business looks unsustainable as a result of the Brexit process. There is no such thing as a good Brexit, and we can only imagine the economic disaster of a madcap no-deal Brexit. Before the European elections next week, will the Secretary of State confirm that he will respect the views of this House and take a no-deal Brexit off the table completely?

Any news regarding an individual company is always concerning, in particular because our minds turn to the staff and their families who are dealing with the situation. This is an area in which the parties traditionally come together and work together to try to resolve the issue. However, we should not take these things out of context. Only this week we had the lowest unemployment since 1974, and that is an indication of our economic strength. When bad news is always blamed on Brexit, as some on the Opposition Benches seem to want to do, it is always worth remembering that we have not yet left.

T5. Will the Secretary of State assure me that he has read the major piece of research led by King’s College London and Sheffield University, alongside universities across Europe, into the impact on communities of leaving the EU on any basis? Is he as dreadfully worried as I am that many of the hardest hit will be those towns and cities that voted to leave? On the basis of these figures, many people are predicting a 20% cut in GDP, which would turn those areas into investment and employment wastelands. (910950)

The hon. Gentleman seems to be saying that the people in those communities that voted to leave should not be trusted with their vote, but that is not what he says at a general election when those same communities return Labour MPs. He does not say, when those people look at the economic policy of the Leader of the Opposition, that they are too stupid to be trusted with a vote, yet when it comes to the biggest vote in our country’s history, he seems to be saying that their vote should not be respected.

Earlier this month, the House unanimously declared a climate change emergency. Does the Minister agree that when it comes to tackling the catastrophe that is climate change—or, for that matter, challenging the overweening arrogance of the tech giants or protecting our citizens—we are stronger and have more influence as a consequence of international agreements, and that those agreements therefore enhance rather than diminish our sovereignty?

I agree with every word the hon. Lady just said. That is one of the reasons why we are seeking to secure the international agreement we have already negotiated with the European Union to allow an orderly withdrawal—one that will allow us to work together effectively on those issues in the future. Indeed, our Prime Minister has been in European capitals this week working collaboratively with other European countries.

The Minister knows that the Government’s myopic obsession with ending freedom of movement is causing a recruitment crisis in the health and social care sector—indeed, the King’s Fund said recently that it was becoming a national emergency. Why are his Government determined to drag that sector into that national emergency?

The only myopic obsession is the Scottish National party’s obsession with an independence referendum. The hon. Gentleman says it is the Government’s obsession, but it is the Migration Advisory Council that said this is a UK-wide issue, which needs to be approached on a UK-wide basis. I remind the House of the answer I gave earlier: there are now 700 more doctors from EU27 countries working in the NHS than there were at the time of the referendum. The numbers are going up, yet the hon. Gentleman constantly talks our country down.

Royal Assent

I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:

Offensive Weapons Act 2019

Mental Capacity (Amendment) Act 2019.