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Withdrawal Agreement: Proposed Changes

Volume 664: debated on Monday 7 October 2019

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union if he will make a statement on when the Government intend to publish the full legal text of their proposed changes to the withdrawal agreement and political declaration.

We are unconditionally committed to finding a solution for the north-south border that protects the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and the commitments that can best be met if we explore solutions other than the backstop. The backstop risks weakening the delicate balance embodied in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement between both main traditions in Northern Ireland, grounded in agreement, consent and respect for minority rights. Any deal for Brexit on 31 October must avoid the whole UK, or just Northern Ireland, being trapped in an arrangement without consent in which it is a rule taker. Both sides have always been clear that the arrangements for the border must recognise the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland and, reflecting that, be creative and flexible. Under no circumstances will the United Kingdom place infrastructure checks or controls at the border.

On Wednesday 2 October, the Government proposed a new protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland. These were serious and realistic proposals that reflect the core aims put forward by both the UK and the EU. These proposals are consistent with the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and deliver our aim of avoiding any checks or infrastructure at the border. The proposals were set out in detail in an explanatory note and in a letter to the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker. The Prime Minister deposited both documents in the Library on Wednesday 2 October and published them in parallel on To support these negotiations, a draft legal text was also shared with the Commission on a confidential basis. The Prime Minister’s Europe adviser, David Frost, and UK officials have been in intensive discussions with the Commission for some time now and will continue to meet their counterparts from taskforce 50 for further technical talks this week. These meetings will cover our proposals on the protocol and the political declaration to reflect the goal of a comprehensive free trade agreement.

The previous withdrawal agreement and political declaration would have trapped the United Kingdom within European regulation and customs arrangements. The Prime Minister is continuing talks with the EU leaders today, including the Prime Minister of Sweden, the Prime Minister of Denmark and the Prime Minister of Poland. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union is also travelling to EU capitals, including visiting Amsterdam and Valletta over the course of this week. Discussions with the Commission are ongoing and thus sensitive, and we must ensure that we as a Government act in a way that maximises our chance of success in these negotiations. We will of course keep the House informed as the discussions continue. The legal text that we have shared with the Commission will only be published when doing so will assist the negotiations.

We hope that those in Brussels will decide to work with us over the upcoming days. If they do, we will leave with a new deal. If they do not want to talk, we are prepared to leave without a deal. We need to get a new deal or a deal, but no more delays. We must get Brexit done so that the country can move forward and focus on other issues, such as the cost of living, the NHS and other domestic priorities.

Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. The Government have presented the EU with a 44-page legal text, a seven-page memorandum and a four-page letter. In this House, we have seen the memorandum and the letter, but not the full legal text. Frankly, that is not good enough, because without the full legal text, we are being asked to guess at the detail of the Government’s proposals, or, worse, we are being asked to take the Prime Minister’s word on it. We do not want a summary. We do not want the Prime Minister’s interpretation of the text. We need to see the full legal text. And it matters, because there appears to be what the Taoiseach has called a “contradiction”—his word—between what the Prime Minister tells the House and the words of the legal text.

Last week, in response to a question from the right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green), the Prime Minister said that “the proposals we”—that is, the Government—

“are putting forward do not involve physical infrastructure at or near the border or indeed at any other place.”—[Official Report, 3 October 2019; Vol. 664, c. 1389.]

I noted the words used by the Minister just now, and I hope he can clarify this. The contradiction the Taoiseach appears to be highlighting is that the legal text may say something different on that very issue, and the Minister will know just how important that is.

Can the Minister now clear the issue up at the Dispatch Box? Does the full legal text bear out the Prime Minister’s assertion to the House that his proposals do not entail physical infrastructure at the border, near the border or in any other place? That is what he said, and that is what prompted the Taoiseach to say that the full text should be published. That goes to the heart of the only defence the Minister has put forward—that of confidentiality.

Both the Taoiseach and the President of the EU Commission have called for the legal text to be published. That shoots through the confidentiality argument. They want us to see the text so that we can properly debate and scrutinise what the Government are putting forward. The only party insisting on secrecy are the UK Government, so the question is obvious: what are the Government hiding?

Then there is the question of a level playing field. As the House knows, no Labour MP could support a deal that strips away or undermines workers’ rights, environmental protections or consumer rights, yet that is the very—[Interruption.] I hear the claims that it does not. If it does not, the Government should publish the text and assure the House. Before I first came to the House, and since I have been in the House, I have dealt with summaries and interpretations of texts, and I have seen texts, and there are differences between the full text and somebody’s summary or interpretation. If it is clear that the text does not undermine workplace rights, environmental rights and consumer rights, the Government should publish it and assure the House. What is being hidden? Will the Minister agree now to do the right thing and publish the full legal text forthwith?

I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for those comments. Last week, I was able to tell the House that proposals would be tabled to the EU by the end of the week. Not only were we able to table those proposals, but we were able to publish them and share them with the House. It is the Government’s intention to share as much as possible, but at a time that is right, and not at a time when getting a good negotiation through takes precedence.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked about the Prime Minister’s position in relation to his assertion that there would be no checks at the border, near the border or at any other place. I have not seen the Taoiseach’s exact comments, but I can confirm that the position that the Prime Minister stated is still correct today and is the Government’s position, and I see no reason why that is going to change.

In relation to level playing fields, we are not hiding anything. We do not wish to undermine workers’ rights. We will keep those workers’ rights. Truth will tell over time, when the right hon. and learned Gentleman sees the results of the negotiation. He wants a deal, and I want a deal. The Government genuinely do not think that sharing the full text now will make doing a deal more likely.

I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister’s statement in response to the urgent question, and we all hope for no further delays on the Brexit negotiation. Is he aware that business groups across the country want certainty, to allow them to plan for the future? What discussions has he had with them to reassure them?

I thank my right hon. Friend for that question. Clearly, he has been talking to business groups in his constituency. Businesses certainly do want certainty, and whether it is meetings with business groups in England, Northern Ireland or Wales, everyone wants to get Brexit done. The last thing they want is more delay. We have had delay and delay and delay, and the answer to delay cannot be more delay.

I congratulate the Minister on managing not once but twice to include all this week’s Brexit buzzwords in such a short but, I am sorry to say, not particularly informative answer.

The Government have made public only their version of a seven-page explanatory document based on a full 44-page legal text. Last week, a number of Government loyalists criticised Opposition Members for saying we were likely to oppose the Prime Minister’s plan before we had read it properly. They then went ahead and committed themselves to supporting it before they had read it properly—they cannot have seen it or read it properly, because nobody has seen it yet.

It is simply not acceptable for us to be asked to commit to support something based on the Prime Minister’s version of what it says, because none of us can trust what he tells us. Last week, he twice gave us a promise from the Dispatch Box—once to the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid) and once to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady)—that the Government are going to restore full control of Scotland’s fishing to the people of Scotland. If only that were true.

The Taoiseach told us that the Prime Minister’s version of what is in the 44-page confidential document was not accurate. The Prime Minister told us last week that there would be no checks on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but even the seven-page summary tells us that that was not true.

Does the Minister not accept that if he is to have any hope of Parliament agreeing to the withdrawal agreement, he must trust Parliament and allow us to see the full agreement now, not at the last minute when there is no time to read 44 pages of detail? When will the document be published? When can we expect to be asked to vote on the deal? How much notice will we have regarding the detailed legal text? Going back to the question that is still being dodged, does the Prime Minister’s proposal mean that there will be additional infrastructure anywhere in relation to the Irish border? If so, where will it be?

The legal text will come forward at the right time. The hon. Gentleman is critical of Tory Members for supporting the Prime Minister before seeing all the detail, but I would not be critical. Indeed, I suggest that my hon. Friends should always support the Prime Minister as a matter of default. I understand that SNP Members will be more sceptical, but they will have all the information in front of them before they are asked to vote. However, we will not provide the legal text if it gets in the way of the negotiations and the deal, which I think the hon. Gentleman would want.

As the Government approach the final stages of the negotiations to get the necessary changes to the backstop, is it not the case that if the EU believes that this House will not support the Government’s deal, it is less likely that a deal will be achieved? We have heard people say, month after month, that they want the Government to negotiate a deal, so I say to Opposition Members who, like me, want a deal that now is the moment to speak up and support the Government in getting that deal.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point. Now is the time for a deal, but the way that the House has behaved has made a deal less likely and made it more likely that we will have no deal. However, it is not too late. The Government are reaching out across the Chamber to our friends on the other side, saying, “Join us in supporting a deal. It is the right thing for the country.”

Earlier this year, the Government said that if we left the EU with a deal, we would keep our world-leading standards and rights on food, quality, employment and environmental protections. That commitment was pretty flimsy then, but people now fear that it has been ditched in desperation, and the Government will not even publish the text. The public have a right to know whether the Prime Minister is prepared to sacrifice the quality of food on supermarket shelves, the rights of workers to take holiday and our children’s right to breathe clean air.

We are supposed to be temperate in our language, but, quite frankly, that is a load of rubbish. That is not our intention, and if our constituents are worried and scared as a result of what the Liberal Democrats say, that is a terrible thing; it simply is not true.

I said from this spot a few weeks ago that it did not matter what the Government brought back, because there are Members in here representing leave seats who will always find a reason to vote against what the Government bring forward, because their real aim is to stop us leaving. Is it not the ultimate irony that the people who are giving the biggest croggy to a no-deal Brexit are the very people who repeatedly stand up and tell us that we have to vote for compromise but then vote against any compromise—any deal—that is put on the table?

My hon. Friend is right. That is a particular problem with the Liberal Democrats who, for perfectly respectable reasons, do not want a no-deal exit but who will not back a deal. It makes sense for us all to get behind a deal, which is better than no deal. That is what the Government want to do, and we reach out to all Members to support a deal.

Something does not quite add up on there being no physical infrastructure at any other place, which is probably one reason why the Government’s proposals are currently not acceptable to the European Union. The Prime Minister told the BBC last week that

“there will have to be a system, for customs checks away from the border.”

The explanatory note says that such checks will

“take place at traders’ premises or other designated locations… Goods moved under either mechanism would be under customs supervision by one or other customs authority from the point at which they are declared for export until they are cleared by customs in the territory of import for free circulation”.

Can the Minister name any jurisdiction in the world where there are customs checks but no customs infrastructure?

The Government are looking for a tailored solution. Of all the trade between the UK and Northern Ireland, only 1% of goods cross the border. As well as trusted trader schemes, goods could be examined by authorities at commercial sites run by hauliers and freight forwarding companies. That is already provided for under existing transit rules, under which logistics services are commonly approved as authorised consignees for these very purposes. It already happens.

Were any of the frightful diminution of rights mentioned by the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) to occur, it would clearly require primary legislation by this Parliament, wouldn’t it?

Yes. We would not propose it; I would not support it; and I do not think my right hon. Friend would support it. Perhaps the Liberal Democrats can say whether they would support it.

We know the Prime Minister thinks that preparation is just for girly swots, but at least the last Prime Minister gave us a 90-page White Paper on her proposals and we got to see them at the same time as the European partners. Here we are, 11 days before the summit, and we have this pathetic rag—four pages—and an explanatory note. It would be comical if the Good Friday agreement and the promises contained therein did not rest on this. Can the Minister explain the magic thinking by which we have a border down the Irish sea and a border on the island of Ireland without border posts?

I acknowledge, as I think the whole House would, that we are working to a compressed timescale compared with the previous negotiations, but those negotiations were not successful. Following the same tack in our negotiating strategy and expecting a different result would be foolish. It is time for a change of tack in the negotiations, which I welcome.

As a member of the “MPs for a Deal” group, it would make my life easier if we were to include environmental and workers’ protections, as requested by many Opposition Members, but does the Minister agree that the right place for those protections is probably in the political declaration?

I thank my hon. Friend for her work with the “MPs for a Deal” group, which brings together MPs from across a number of political parties. I welcome her introduction of the political declaration, as getting that right will set the tone going forward from 1 November, after we have left on 31 October, and will form the basis of the future economic partnership and the first-in-class free trade agreement that most hon. Members want.

I thank the Minister for his response to our questions, and I wish him well in his job. Can he confirm that there is no intention to change the original position that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will take back control of our seas and our fisheries, enabling our fishing sector to grow and create jobs, and that we, the citizens of this great nation, will be in charge and in control?

I can give the hon. Gentleman that confirmation, but I encourage him to discuss the detail with my colleagues at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. If that is not to his satisfaction, I will be happy to talk to him about fishing rights or impact at the same time.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is the agenda of Members from the Opposition parties to overturn the referendum result, put a stop to Brexit and revoke article 50? Will he confirm that this Government and this Prime Minister will not let that happen?

With great sadness, I can confirm that I fear that some Members on the Opposition Benches and in this House simply do not want to follow the mandate of the British people. They do not want to exit and they will use every trick and turn in the book to frustrate it. That is not to say that there are not some genuine concerns, and I recognise those, but she is right: some people, having offered the referendum to the electorate, do not like the result and are trying to interfere and overturn the democratic will of the public.

Can the Minister confirm whether the full legal text has been shown to the Democratic Unionist party? If it has, why is it reasonable for one party to be able to make an informed judgment about the Government’s proposals while everyone else is kept in the dark?

I am not going to get into the detail of—[Interruption.] Opposition Members who have been Ministers will realise that lots of people see documents, and Ministers do not constantly want to be in the position of saying who has seen what documents, which versions and when. I will not comment on who has seen which documents or indeed on documents that I have seen or have not seen.

I love the way that Opposition parties are implying that if only they could see these documents, they would rush to support the deal. I think the British public are now wise to the way in which Parliament has frustrated the Government’s negotiating position. Would it be possible for the Government to strengthen their negotiating hand by holding a vote on these proposals, in the way that we did on the Brady amendment in January, and show that there is a majority in this place for them?

I think members of the public are getting wise to what is going on: this Government are trying to deliver Brexit and this Parliament, collectively, is trying to frustrate it. My hon. Friend raises the interesting solution of putting this to a vote, and I will discuss that with my ministerial colleagues.

I have already said that I will not comment on which documents I have and have not seen, or which versions I have and have not seen. This is a document that we are negotiating on. It makes sense to look at that document, negotiate on that document and come back to the House with a final document. This House does not want a blow-by-blow account; it wants to deliver a deal.

As has been said by honourable colleagues on the Government Benches, it is a well-known fact, and the public are not fooled, that most MPs in this place—in all positions in this place—do not want to leave the EU. That is a dishonourable stance to take, after the EU referendum. Will my hon. Friend reassure the public and us that we will honour this referendum and leave the EU, with or without a deal, on 31 October?

I can reassure the people of Dorset and the United Kingdom that we will be leaving on 31 October. Our preference is to do so with a deal, but we are very much ready to leave with no deal.

I am sure, Mr Speaker, that you may not have heard the use of the word “dishonourable” to describe those of us who think that our great country has made a mistake and are doing nothing more than speaking out with the freedom that I thought was at the heart of our democracy. I would have hoped that the hon. Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) might have withdrawn his comments. In any event, it is very odd that we are all being asked to support a deal, the details of which we know very little of, unless of course our name is Arlene Foster. We want to know the details of these customs arrangements, and of the structures and infrastructure, because of the position in other countries, notably Norway and Sweden. Sweden is a member of the single market and the customs union, and Norway is in the single market but not the customs union, and they have a hard border. May we therefore have these unicorn details please?

I must say that although I am reaching out across the Floor, I have given up on reaching out to the right hon. Lady. There are many Opposition Members and there is still hope for people who will support a plan, but I suspect that under no circumstances will she support a plan, regardless of what we produce and what it says.

That may well be true but I hope that the right hon. Lady, who is not too delicate a flower, can bear the almost unendurable pain of the criticism of the Minister with such stoicism and fortitude as she feels able, in the circumstances, to muster.

Last week, the Leader of the Opposition said that no self-respecting Labour MP could vote for the proposals, yet we are now being pressed on a confidential document, the production of which would undermine yet again our negotiating position. Does the Minister agree that to reveal the documents would make no deal more likely?

I thank my hon. Friend for asking that question. No deal is indeed made more likely by the House not supporting the Government’s position. As for the Leader of the Opposition, I think that MPs and the public are coming around to the idea that he is flip-flopping on these issues left, right and centre, and want a general election so that they can re-elect a Government with a strong Conservative majority.

A few days ago, I asked the Minister whether the term “infrastructure” included cameras. He was not quite sure at the time; now that he has had a few days to go away and look it up, will he give us an answer?

I do not think I said that I was not quite sure. I think I used the words, “It would have been something that was considered,” but that the House should not read anything into that in any way. I think that is what I said, virtually verbatim, and that remains the position.

I wonder whether the Minister could help the House. Opposition Members say that they are not supporting a deal because they are worried about workers’ rights, yet if we had a deal, it would be this House that would decide on workers’ rights, and if they were ever in government, they could do whatever they liked. Can we conclude only that the Opposition do not think they will ever be in government?

I think everyone in the House believes in higher protections for workers’ rights and maintaining and expanding them over time. My hon. Friend makes an interesting point about the Opposition’s level of confidence: not only are they not confident that they will be in government to improve workers’ rights, but they do not seem to be confident that they will even win a general election. They are running scared of going back to the people because they know that they are trying to overturn the will of the people who wanted Brexit.

Paragraph 13 of the memo issued last week confirms that even if the European Union agrees to the proposals, and even if Parliament then agrees them, they would not come into force for more than a year, unless they had also been endorsed by the Northern Ireland Executive, which has not met for several years. Will the Minister confirm that if the Northern Ireland Executive continues to fail to meet, the proposals automatically fall away after 12 months?

The right hon. Gentleman is right: we are in a constrained period and we are trying to do an unprecedented amount of work. Even separate to the problem of which he speaks directly, there are already many hurdles to get over, but we will work together with all our partners to re-form Stormont—that is our priority in relation to Northern Ireland—so that we can get this deal through.

In the most recent general election, more Chelmsford constituents emailed me about the environment and animal welfare than about all other issues put together. I am enormously proud of the way in which the Government are leading the world on protecting the environment and on endangered species. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Lib Dem’s suggestion that this deal, which is to resolve the issues on the Irish border, could somehow be used to undermine our standards on the environment, animal welfare or workers’ rights is pure scaremongering and totally irresponsible?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. We will maintain environmental and animal welfare standards. I know that she works tirelessly to improve those standards, both in Chelmsford and with Back Benchers. I remember many a campaign that she has led in her time in the House of Commons, particularly on environmental issues, recycling, and changing behaviours and perceptions. I thank her for that work, and there is nothing in this process that means that we are going to go back on any of those commitments. In fact, the Government are committed to going further, as she has demanded.

It is almost as if members of the Government have been taking lessons dancing around slippery poles this afternoon. Essentially, we do not have a credible deal, because there are no customs borders anywhere in the world without some form of physical infrastructure. We have a Government who are still insisting that they will obey law, but only those parts that it chooses to obey. Will the Minister at least confirm that the Government will comply with the spirit and the provisions of the Benn Act in full?

In answer to the latter question, yes. When it comes to slippery poles, the thing that is slippery is introducing a ten-minute rule Bill to say that if hon. Members, for whatever reason, cross the Floor of the House and leave their party they should stand in a by-election, then not doing that when she crosses the Floor of the House. That is slippery.

My hon. Friend the Minister had a strong outing on this subject on 26 September—a date that I happen to remember. Today, I noticed a subtle difference in his wording, as he talked about our leaving with a deal or being “prepared” to leave without a deal on 31 October. Will he confirm not only that we are prepared to leave without a deal on 31 October but that we will actually leave without a deal on 31 October, unless we have deal?

I thank my right hon. Friend, and confirm that nothing has changed since his birthday—I think that that was what he was referring to. Apologies for not congratulating him at the time. My language was not nuanced in any way. We will be leaving on 31 October with a deal or without a deal.

If I were charitable, I would say that the right hon. Gentleman turned 58 on 26 September, but I am afraid that I must not mislead the House. [Interruption.] I call Chris Bryant.

May I ask about the political declaration, which is of as much concern to many of us as other elements of the withdrawal agreement? The former Prime Minister was quite right to say that if there is no deal, there is no deal on security. All the elements of security are shunted forward into the political declaration. I wonder where we are with extradition, because since the original version of the political declaration was signed, four major European countries have said that they will not on any terms extradite their nationals to the UK if we are no longer members of the European Union. Will that not pose a significant problem for us if we want people to face justice in this country?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that. Obviously, the broader case is that the convention of the ’50s on extradition will come into play. There is a problem with four or five countries, and we are having discussions with them. They are quite significant difficulties, as they concern constitutional arrangements, but there are other arrangements that are not entirely satisfactory to try people in their home country that can be used if we do not secure a workaround. It is not ideal, but there are workarounds, and we are progressing them.

Will the Minister update the House on the volume of trade that would be subject to special customs arrangements that have attracted so much heat and light in discussions? Will he confirm that with good political will on both sides problems can be resolved?

Where there’s a will, there’s a way. People said that it was impossible that negotiations would reopen, but negotiations did effectively reopen after the Prime Minister spoke to President Macron and Chancellor Merkel, so I am optimistic. I am optimistic because negotiations are ongoing now: David Frost is in Brussels as we speak; my Secretary of State is travelling around, whipping up support and enthusiasm from other member states; and I understand that at around the time we are speaking—if not as we are speaking—the Prime Minister is on the phone to other Prime Ministers to whip up enthusiasm for the deal and avoid no deal. If only there were that much enthusiasm on the Opposition Benches.

With respect, who do the Government think they are kidding? The reaction from the EU to the Prime Minister’s proposal is courteous but critical, and it is abundantly evident that no agreement will be reached on his terms. We ask only of the Prime Minister that he is straight with people and their Parliament, and acknowledges this. Can the Minister therefore guarantee that the Prime Minister will not hold a meaningless vote before the European Council meeting?

To paraphrase a famous quotation: well, they would say that, wouldn’t they? EU representatives are negotiating. When we put papers in front of them, they are not going to say, “Gosh, this is wonderful. Thank you very much for making all these compromises. Let’s accept that wholeheartedly and send you back to celebrate.” They are bound to probe and see how far the Prime Minister is going to go. We have already compromised significantly; this is a good solution in which the UK Government have made a number of compromises. It is now time for the EU Commission and member states to say that they are up for compromising as well.

Does my hon. Friend share my frustration with the attitude of the Opposition parties, particularly the Scottish National party, who seem more intent on sowing discord and division in our United Kingdom than acting in the national interest? If they really were working for the economy and peoples of our country, they would get behind the Government and support us as we try to get a deal to leave the EU in good order on 31 October.

I thank my hon. Friend for speaking up for Scotland in this Parliament, and for focusing on the nitty-gritty of the economy. No deal will not be as good as a deal for the whole United Kingdom, including Scotland, so he is right to ask colleagues on both sides of the House—including Scottish National party Members and other Scottish Members—to back a deal.

The Minister may not be aware of this, but until about half an hour ago I had no idea who he was. From his answers today, I wonder how he can be so deeply unpleasant to so many colleagues on the Opposition Benches. The fact is that today he has said that it is not loyal or legitimate to stand up for our constituents when we are asking questions about what is contained in the deal. Some of us would vote for a good deal if we could see it—if we did not live in a secret society and a secret state. Will he wake up to the fact that there is a lot of good will in this House for a deal, if we could actually see it?

I am flabbergasted that the hon. Gentleman says he does not know who I am, because previously when I was at the Dispatch Box he asked me whether I knew about Huddersfield, and afterwards he thanked me for not mentioning that I was a comprehensive schoolboy who went to school in Huddersfield and he is the Member of Parliament for Huddersfield who was privately educated in the south of England.

Does my hon. Friend agree that at least some SNP Members are simply attempting to undermine the progress that has already been made and that this Government are attempting to make towards a deal? Does he find it as worrying as I do that, when challenged on passing on the Brexit preparation funding to local authorities in Scotland, the First Minister said:

“We should not be having to spend a single penny on Brexit preparations”?

Is that not taking a political view of Brexit preparations, rather than looking at what is good for the economy of Scotland?

I thank my hon. Friend for speaking up for Scotland. He raises a very important point about fund distribution, and while some of these things are in the purview of the Cabinet Office, I am happy to have a discussion with him about how we can improve the situation.

May I now appeal to colleagues for single-sentence questions without preamble? I do not want speeches. We have four other urgent questions, so short inquiries would help.

We are here on 7 October. The Government’s plan was for Parliament to be prorogued and not return until 14 October. Under the original plan, we would have had no scrutiny at all of the withdrawal agreement and very little time when we returned. Is that not the case, Minister?

If Parliament had not been in Session, I would have been helping to negotiate with member states, and perhaps we would have collectively, having spent more time doing that, got a deal.

Much nonsense has been spouted about the impracticalities of dealing with consignments when they reach their destination, rather than when they cross the border. Is it not the case that Britain’s biggest port by value operates on that basis already? Goods inbound to Heathrow airport do not stop at the border or near the border; they arrive at Heathrow and are dealt with there. Indeed, if the Minister were to visit the UPS hubs at East Midlands airport or in Cologne or Louisville, Kentucky, he would see tens of thousands of parcels crossing borders, with the duties, tariffs and VAT being dealt with in parallel with those goods travelling.

My right hon. Friend served in the Department for Transport and knows these issues incredibly well. I look forward to talking to him in more detail about East Midlands airport and UPS, particularly because Southend airport is doing a little bit of transit of goods with Amazon. He is right that these things can happen without intricate checks.

I gently point out that Members who came into the Chamber after the questions started cannot now expect to be called.

The Minister will be well aware that the withdrawal agreement we already have says that it protects the Belfast/Good Friday agreement “in all its dimensions”—those are the precise words. The withdrawal agreement also protects the constitutional status of Northern Ireland and the principle of consent. I would like the Minister to take a few moments to explain in detail to the people of Northern Ireland in particular how the Prime Minister’s new proposals guarantee those essential features of the withdrawal agreement.

The reason why they are an improvement on the backstop is that the backstop could have left Northern Ireland linked to the EU in perpetuity without any consent. This consent mechanism is a massive improvement. I thank the hon. Lady for the discussions we have had. I think she wants to have another discussion with me after this, and I am more than happy to do that.

The Minister was asked whether the Government are committed to publishing the details, but would that question not carry more weight if those on the Labour Front Bench had not already closed their minds? Within minutes of the deal being proposed last week, they said it was not good enough. Sadly, too many minds on the Opposition Benches—with honourable exceptions—are already closed. Is it not time to just get on with it?

It is certainly time to get on with it. I think that there are a significant number of Opposition Members who have more open minds than those on the Labour Front Bench, and we look forward to working with them over the coming days and weeks.

One reason why we need to see the legal texts is that there is every chance that this Government are planning to throw food and environmental standards under the bus for the sake of securing a dodgy trade deal with President Trump. Forgive us if we do not find the Minister’s reassurances very reassuring. We would like to see the full legal texts. While he is at it, could he have a word with the Prime Minister to make sure that the Trade Bill comes back in the Queen’s Speech, so that we have a chance at least of ensuring that planetary health comes before the interests of US trade lobbyists?

We will continue food and environmental standards. I have made that clear, and I will pass on the hon. Lady’s comments to the Prime Minister with pleasure.

In Michel Barnier’s speech in October last year, he said that a hard border in Northern Ireland needed to be avoided; that customs checks would be required, but they could happen using existing customs transit procedures; and that regulatory checks would need to increase, but they could continue to happen in the Irish sea. Does that not sound remarkably like the Prime Minister’s deal? Is it not time for the EU to negotiate in good faith, so that Members across the House can vote for this deal and we can leave on 31 October?

I thank my hon. Friend for that information, and I had not quite linked the two together. Perhaps we should call it not the Prime Minister’s proposal, but the Barnier solution.

It has been interesting to watch the Minister’s position morph from “We are prepared to leave without a deal” to “We will be leaving without a deal” in the course of this afternoon. Is he aware that in Edinburgh at lunchtime today, the Court of Session accepted from the Prime Minister “unequivocal assurances” that he would comply with the Benn Act? Is the Minister now departing from that promise made by the Prime Minister to the Scottish courts?

Just to be clear, we will leave on the 31st and we are prepared to leave on the 31st—that adds information, rather than detracts—and we will abide by the Court decision.

This morning, a Cabinet source was quoted as saying that the reason the Prime Minister is removing the level playing field protections on consumer, workers’ and environmental rights is that the Government know they would

“seriously restrict our ability to deregulate and do trade with other countries.”

That is the real aim of the Government’s Brexit proposals, is it not—to deregulate our economy and cut back rights?

I have to say that the world of work wants a deal to be done, but the Minister’s contempt for Parliament today makes it less likely that a deal could ever be arrived at. Serious questions have got to be answered seriously. May I ask the Minister about this specific point, as someone, like many in this House, who fought for decades for peace in Northern Ireland and would never, ever put that at risk? The Prime Minister talks in his letter about the

“very small number of physical checks needed”,

including at

“other points on the supply chain.”

I asked the Prime Minister last week:

“Where are they, and what are they?” —[Official Report, 3 October 2019; Vol. 664, c. 1409.]

He was unable to answer. Can the Minister?

I have tried to be as open as I can within the remit of trying to get a good negotiation. On the record, in response to an earlier question, I went through the trusted trader scheme and where checks could take place.

Can the Minister confirm whether he has seen the most recent legal document and read it, and say whether it confirms when a data adequacy agreement between the UK and the EU will be agreed? Without one—whether it is deal or no deal—very little is likely to be crossing any border.

I see all the papers I need to, but I will not go through them, on a paper by paper basis, saying which version I have seen and when I have seen it. I simply will not do that; it is not helpful to the Government process.

If the Minister is so convinced that this is a good deal, whether or not he has seen the paperwork, why will the Government not put that deal straight to the British people?

I raised with the Prime Minister on Thursday the concerns of the Irish Deputy Prime Minister, Simon Coveney, about the nature of the democratic issue in Northern Ireland, where a minority could potentially hold a veto over the wishes of the majority. The Prime Minister assured me that he would seek discussions with the Irish Deputy Prime Minister, so can the Minister update me on whether those discussions have taken place—or when they are scheduled—and what the outcome of them might be?

I heard the hon. Gentleman in the questions to the Prime Minister. I have not discussed this issue with the Prime Minister since then, so unfortunately I cannot update him, but I am happy to do so in correspondence.

Last year, The Economist reported from the Norway-Sweden border—at Svinesund—and said:

“Even with the latest technology being outside the customs union entails a hard border”.

There is automatic number plate recognition, and there are lorry parks and the confiscation of alcohol. How can we have anything but that if the Government proposals come forward?

The hon. Gentleman refers to one border. There are many borders around the world. Technologies can be used to avoid a hard border, and this Government are committed to having no hard border.

Do the Government stand by the December 2017 joint report, in which the UK is committed to the avoidance of

“any physical infrastructure or related checks and controls”

in Northern Ireland?

Are the proposals for the Northern Ireland border the Government’s vision of the perpetual future relationship on the border, or are they actually another form of backstop until some glorious new customs relationship is reached between the whole of the UK and the European Union?

There will be the point of exit on 31 October; a future economic partnership and a final relationship; and the consent point for the Northern Ireland Assembly to review the issue. So there are many junctures in the future where things can change.

Have the Government sought and received advice on the compatibility of their proposals with strands 2 and 3 of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement?

As a matter of course, the Government do not share the legal advice they receive, nor do they confirm or deny whether they have sought legal advice. That is standard practice not related to this specific issue, but more generally.

As someone who supported Prime Minister May’s deal and wants to support a deal as opposed to no deal, and further to the answer to the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), may I ask the Minister to reassure me that strenuous efforts are being made in Northern Ireland to recover the support for a deal that seems to have been lost since the DUP changed sides and supported a deal?

Work is going on in Northern Ireland at a number of levels. I have been involved more at a business level, looking at the detail of the arrangements. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has been involved on a more political level, as have a number of members of the Cabinet. This is obviously the big issue remaining: the Northern Ireland-Ireland border within the withdrawal agreement. All of the Government are working towards solving that. I am more than happy to discuss this issue with the hon. Gentleman in more detail, because I know he has a high level of expertise on it. I personally very much respect his position, and his thoughtful comments on this issue and many others.

The Minister wrongly says that the backstop threatens power sharing. The Government’s solution is to hand a veto to one side, undermining strand 2 of the Good Friday agreement. What assessment has been made of the economic harm all this uncertainty presents for the promotion of business and investment in Northern Ireland?

The whole idea of Brexit is to reposition the economy not only of Northern Ireland but of the whole United Kingdom around the growth areas of the world. That is not to say that we are turning our back on our European friends, whose trade is very important, but global growth in the longer term is with the rest of the world. It positions Northern Ireland alongside the UK in a much better place for long-term economic growth.

The Government’s proposal makes it clear that the UK will not be in a customs union, there will not be a close single market alignment and there will be even less protection for rights than the May deal offered. Given that, how do the Government expect the proposals to win cross-party support in this House?

I think the Government expect cross-party support because there are a number of colleagues who have behaved very reasonably. I am afraid I did not hear who the hon. Lady was quoting at the beginning of her question, but I am more than happy to talk to her about that later on. Apologies, but I did not hear the beginning of her question.

To be frank, I was not being careful with my terminology. If the hon. Gentleman is asking, “Is there no infrastructure?”, there is no infrastructure. In relation to cameras, I saw cameras in Northern Ireland on the main road. I do not think it would be tenable to have cameras all along the border. They would simply be ripped down and be targets for terrorists to attack. I think he has successfully stretched my desire not to comment in any more detail. Certainly, he has done so effectively.