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Leaving the EU: Diplomacy

Volume 664: debated on Tuesday 3 September 2019

9. What diplomatic steps he is taking to help ensure that the UK is prepared to leave the EU on 31 October 2019. (912248)

10. What recent discussions he has had with his European counterparts on continued diplomatic co-operation after the UK leaves the EU. (912249)

14. What assessment he has made of the effect of the UK leaving the EU without a deal on international perceptions of the UK. (912253)

Last week, I attended the Gymnich meeting of EU Foreign Ministers. I met the Foreign Ministers of France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Spain, Cyprus and Finland. We discussed Brexit but also the wide range of international foreign policy issues on which we will continue to co-operate beyond 31 October, from Hong Kong to Iran.

I welcome the Foreign Secretary to his place. Will he confirm whether the 90-strong negotiation unit has been disbanded? If that is the case, with regard to our foreign resources and diplomats what more is being done across the EU27 member states for us to get a deal to leave the European Union?

We have actually strengthened and increased the resources in Brussels and across capitals to make sure we are going to the EU with a clear and reasonable ask, backed up by the commitment and resolve to leave at the end of October, and with the staff and personnel to navigate the nuances and explain our message very clearly to our EU friends.

Does the Secretary of State agree that trust is critical to international diplomacy? If so, does he agree that by threatening a catastrophic no deal and non-payment of the EU divorce bill, instead of a global player on the world stage, he paints us as a dishonest and disreputable nation—much like his Prime Minister?

Let us agree on trust and the importance of being very clear with our international partners on both our reasonable ask and our commitment to leave the EU at the end of October. Trust with the voters of this country is also important. Both Labour and the Conservatives said they would respect the referendum, and on our side we are serious about fulfilling that promise.

Nobody voted to leave with no deal, and the very threat of no deal is leading the pound to tank to historic lows, which is nothing to be proud of. Is it not the case that if we crash out without a deal, as the Government seem to want, it will diminish the United Kingdom economically, culturally and diplomatically?

I respect the hon. Gentleman’s views. I think he would say the same whatever the Government’s position. I would point him, for example, to the views set out on the BBC, on the “Today” programme, by Mervyn King, a former Governor of the Bank of England. He is not known to be in hock to the Tories or Brexit, but he said very clearly that we should get on with it, that the short-term risks were manageable and that there were also opportunities. That is the approach we take.

I will welcome the Foreign Secretary to his place—for now, of course. Has he discovered that, as well as being particularly reliant on the Dover-Calais crossing, we are also reliant on good relations with our other European partners? What impact will no deal have on our relations, and will he reassure our partners that this Government still respect the rule of law?

Yes, I can reassure the hon. Gentleman on all counts. As well as making the reasonable offer that replaces the backstop, which would allow us to get a deal that is acceptable to this country, we have made the point to our EU partners that we are willing to co-operate on all the no-deal planning and preparation to reduce the risk on all sides. Of course, however, that will require the EU to engage to the same level.

I am glad the Foreign Secretary says he will respect the rule of law and any legislation passed in this place, but there is no mandate for a no-deal Brexit. He himself was among those who told us these deals would be really easy to sort out, and a no-deal Brexit, which he never mentioned, as Channel 4 found out, was never on the cards. So it is clear. Is he willing to do this damage to our relationships with our closest partners? The Prime Minister, the Brexiteers and the Foreign Secretary have no idea what they are doing.

It is the usual froth and frenzy from the hon. Gentleman. The reality is that no deal was debated on both sides, including by me, during the referendum—and it has been sourced—and that it was an in/out referendum. We remain committed to a deal with the EU, but the one thing that would undermine our prospects of getting a deal would be passing the Bill proposed by the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn). It would undermine our chances at this critical moment of the negotiations.

I welcome the new Foreign Secretary to his position, and indeed his seemingly entirely new team—it is certainly position churn—and pay tribute to his predecessor, who served for 12 months with a concern and diligence that had been so sorely lacking for the previous two years. I hope the new Foreign Secretary will follow the right example.

The Foreign Secretary will be aware of the concern of people across the country with health conditions such as schizophrenia and epilepsy for whom, as the Yellowhammer leaks reveal, it will not be possible to stockpile medicines. They will be left exposed and at grave risk because of the shortages that will follow a no-deal Brexit. Can I ask him a simple question? Have the Government asked for legal advice on how coroners would be expected to record the deaths of anyone who loses their life after 31 October as a result of the entirely preventable medicine shortages?

I thank the shadow Foreign Secretary for her generous welcome to the Dispatch Box. On no deal and medicines, the UK has a long-standing relationship with pharmaceutical companies, through the NHS, involving hundreds of vaccines and medicines, whereby we do stockpile, without any context of Brexit, but in the ordinary course of events. Both the Health Secretary and the head of the NHS have made it clear that the plans and arrangements are in place to make sure that people can receive their medication supplies in all circumstances. I am sure she will not want to engage in irresponsible scaremongering. It is very important that this be a fact-driven risk analysis.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his answer, but the truth is this: the whole point of the Yellowhammer leaks is that some essential medicines—the ones about which I am asking—cannot be stockpiled, which is why there is genuine concern for these individuals.

As a lawyer, the Secretary of State knows his case law as well I do. He will know that if dependent individuals are denied their medicine and die as a result, their cases may meet all the tests in the watershed cases of Jamieson, Khan and Staffordshire and justify a coroner’s finding that they died as a result of neglect. I will submit a freedom of information request today to obtain the advice that the Government have been given to that effect.

Is it not a shameful disgrace that, in 21st-century Britain, we are having to talk about people who are denied their medicine and about people having access to “adequate’” supplies of food—the Foreign Secretary’s own words—so that this shameless, shameful Government can play games of brinkmanship with Brussels and generate the pretext for a general election? This is no way in which to run a country.

Let me gently say to the shadow Foreign Secretary that what is shameful is to take a potentially vulnerable group in our society and scaremonger in such an appalling way. I think that she should listen to what the Health Secretary and Sir Simon Stevens have said and take into account the reassurances that medical supplies will be protected in any scenario.