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Topical Questions

Volume 664: debated on Thursday 5 September 2019

Since I last updated the House, I have had the pleasure of welcoming the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) to his ministerial place. I should like to take this opportunity to thank my right hon. Friends the Members for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng) and for Braintree (James Cleverly), who have now both joined me in the Cabinet. We have a new Prime Minister, who is committed to leaving on 31 October, and within the ministerial portfolios, I welcome the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who has taken on responsibility for domestic operational planning in the context of no deal. This enables me and my Department to focus on negotiations with the EU, in which we will seek to achieve a best-in-class free trade agreement. Throughout the summer, I have visited a number of European capitals and had regular conversations with my key interlocutors, including the Deputy Prime Minister of Ireland and the French Europe Minister, with whom I had recent productive meetings in Paris.

If I was still a serving police officer and I arrested a European national who, unbeknown to me, was wanted for a string of serious violent sexual offences, at the moment I would simply have to access a database on booking him into custody to find that out. Will the Secretary of State spell out in detail how I or my custody sergeant would do that if we were to leave without a deal on 31 October?

Under the current position, that would depend upon to which member state the situation pertained. We already have in place a bilateral arrangement with Ireland to reflect the common travel area, but the arrangements vary between member states. However, the premise of the hon. Lady’s question is right, because the UK puts more data into the European arrest warrant system than any other member state, and we think that the UK’s contribution is of value to the European Union and that it is not in its interest to put its citizens at risk by not reciprocating. We stand ready to work with member states, but it is the European Commission and my counterpart Michel Barnier who have ruled out what he calls “mini-deals” to address the hon. Lady’s concerns.

T3. When we leave the EU, with or without a deal, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the provision of medicines into the UK will remain uninterrupted? (912301)

As was covered earlier in the question session, a huge amount of work has been done by the Department of Health and Social Care, including on additional procurement capacity and express delivery. That builds on extensive work by the industry, including the additional stock and additional flow capacity that it has procured.

I want to ask specifically about the important issue of Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government remain fully committed to all the existing elements of the December 2017 joint report between the UK and the EU negotiators? Yes or no?

Our commitments were set out in the letter to President Tusk. It contains our commitment to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, which includes putting no infrastructure at the border to impede north-south flow.

I asked a careful question, and I got a careful answer, which did not confirm full commitment, so let me press on. It has been reported this week that EU member states were told by the European Commission that the UK Government were proposing to reduce the ambitions of the 2017 joint report relating to Northern Ireland—not the Good Friday agreement, but the 2017 joint report. In particular, it has been reported that the UK is rowing back from the “legally operable” solutions to avoiding a hard border to what has been described as “aspirational” measures—that is quite specific. The pledge now is only to have trade across the Irish border that is “as frictionless as possible”—again, a difference. These are important issues, and I know that there has been a bit of knockabout this morning, but this is of huge importance across Ireland. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to reject those reports and make it clear that there will be no rowing back from the solemn commitments made two years ago in the 2017 joint report?

First, as I said in my previous answer, there has been no rowing back from the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, which is an area of common accord between us. Secondly, the reason I pointed towards north-south co-operation is that, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman will be well aware, the Prime Minister drew a distinction in the letter to President Tusk between the backstop and the Northern Ireland protocol. The right hon. and learned Gentleman will also know that, while the two terms are often used interchangeably in the Chamber, there is a distinction between them, particularly on the basis that the north-south co-operation, the common travel area and the benefits of the single electricity market are distinct from the points in terms of alignment.

As for right hon. and learned Gentleman’s further question around the legally operative text, I addressed that point to some extent in my remarks in the Chamber yesterday in that there is a distinction between the European Commission saying that all aspects need to be set out in a legally operative text by 31 October and looking at, for example, what role the joint committee will have during the implementation period, because the implementation period means that things need to be in place by the end of December 2020 or, if extended by mutual agreement, for one or two further years. It is therefore within that that there is a distinction to be drawn.

T4. Does the Secretary of State think there should be a general election before the next European Council meeting so that the British people can decide whether they want the Leader of the Opposition as Prime Minister, who will keep us in the European Union, or whether they want to return our excellent current Prime Minister, who will take us out by 31 October? (912302)

Yes, we need to know who, at the 17 October council, can negotiate for the British people and, in particular, who can deliver on the express will set out in the referendum. What we have from Labour Members is doublespeak that will leave us in legislative purgatory, because they are saying, on the one hand, that they will vote against every deal that is put forward—three times they voted against the deal, and their own deal was rejected by the House as well—yet they also vote against no deal.

Well, the inevitable consequence is that they are not prepared to leave, even though their own manifesto said they are. The real question for the British public at the next election will be, how can they trust what Labour says in its manifesto on Brexit when it has gone back on every word it said at the last general election?

T2. Further to the question of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), we are now halfway through the time period set by the German Chancellor to produce alternatives to the backstop. In the light of the Government’s decision to prorogue Parliament, perhaps from next Monday, will the Secretary of State ensure that their proposals come to this House so that they can be scrutinised by this House, including the Select Committee on Exiting the European Union? (912300)

I think the Chair of the Select Committee would concede that, of the holders of my role—I know there has been more than one—I have probably been the most frequent in appearing before his Committee and others. Actually, that is not the case when compared with my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), but it is when compared with my right hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), who is now Foreign Secretary.

On the substance of the question, there has been a huge amount of work. My right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne) asked about the different working groups, for example, and I chair the technical working group. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union chairs the business group, and he was in Northern Ireland with that group over the summer.

Again, it goes to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow. Work has been going on throughout the summer on alternative arrangements, but if it is simply published against an all-weather, all-insurance test, it will be dismissed, as it was under the last Government, as magical thinking. That is what the last Government experienced. We need to get into the detail, and that work is going on, but it needs to be discussed in the appropriate way.

T5. Will my right hon. Friend confirm whether, since 25 July, the Department has had any discussions with the financial sector about the implications of any revised policy, which would be a policy of regulatory divergence? (912303)

My hon. Friend raises a specific issue and, as a former Economic Secretary to the Treasury, I know the markets take a keen interest in such discussions. If I may, I will ask the Chancellor or the Economic Secretary to come back to him on this specific issue.

T6. Thousands of Tooting residents have signed my local petition against this Government’s dangerous Brexit plans. Like me, Tooting wants to remain. The Brexit Secretary voted against legislation to block a disastrous no deal. Tooting is absolutely furious. Why is he trying to drive this country blindly off the Brexit cliff? (912304)

I think the hon. Lady would agree that there is more than one voice in Tooting. I am sure there will be a range of voices, as indeed there is, but I do not resile from the fact that I am sure she speaks for a majority in her constituency in making that point.

My approach is that when this Parliament says it will give the British people their say, when the Government of the day write to the British people saying they will honour the result and when this House then votes by a significant margin to trigger article 50 to deliver on that result, it undermines our democracy if Members of this House, on the one hand, vote against a deal and then, on the other hand, say they will not countenance no deal. I think that is a threat to our democracy, and I think it is a threat to our international reputation as a country that defends democracy around the world.

T8. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to protect farmers and manufacturers in the hopefully unlikely event of a no-deal Brexit? (912306)

I thank my hon. Friend for that important question. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has confirmed that it will support farmers in the same cash terms as they have been supported under the current scheme. We are working with farmers to look at new markets and, across the Government, we continue to work with businesses, both large and small. We are particularly encouraging small businesses to engage with the Government in their preparation for the eventuality of no deal.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on his grand tour of Europe in recent weeks during the recess, notably to Finland, a nation of 5 million people and an enthusiastic member of the European Union. Given that the UK was only the seventh largest importer to Finland in 2018, how will leaving the single market and the customs union improve that dismal position?

On the one hand, colleagues question whether we are engaging and on the other hand, the hon. Gentleman appears to suggest that we are engaging too much. He needs to make up his mind.

On how we promote further trade, first, there are opportunities beyond Europe that we are keen to seize, and we have a Secretary of State for International Trade. [Interruption.] On Finland, about which the hon. Gentleman is chuntering, I chaired a breakfast meeting with business leaders when I was in Helsinki and we looked at, for example, links on key areas such as timber where there is an appetite to strengthen bilateral trade further. There was a huge appetite among the business leaders I spoke to there to do more trade with the United Kingdom, including with Scotland as part of that United Kingdom.