Exiting the European Union
The Secretary of State was asked—
Marking Exit Day
I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend on his election to the seat of Warrington South. I look forward to his advocacy on issues relating to our exit from the European Union. We stand ready to work with businesses up and down the country as we mark an important moment in our national history: leaving the European Union on 31 January.
Before coming to the House, my hon. Friend was a champion of small businesses in Warrington, and I know he will continue to be so during his time in this place. The best way that we will support businesses in his constituency is by having control of our money, borders and laws. That is what our exit from the European Union does, and that is what he should rightly celebrate on 31 January.
From the reaction of the House, it seems my hon. Friend has struck an extremely positive note in one of her first contributions. I again welcome her to the House. I know her constituency is famed for its beer, and I am sure that many Members would welcome those breweries celebrating this occasion in such a way, just as I would welcome the fantastic Elgood’s Brewery doing so, which sits in my constituency.
I very much welcome my hon. Friend to his place, not least as a fellow Lancastrian; I am sure Mr Speaker knows of our Lancastrian pride. He brings an important suggestion. Again, it is all part of marking this significant moment in our national history.
Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge that 31 January is a significant day not only for us here in the United Kingdom but for hundreds of millions of Eurosceptics across the continent of Europe who share concerns about the direction of travel of the European Union, including many citizens in my country of birth, Poland? Does he agree that it is important for us to celebrate this day very publicly, as a nation, to give a guiding principle to others in Europe that there is life outside the European Union?
My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the fact that this is an important day not just for our own citizens but for many elsewhere who recognise the importance of this event in terms of democracy and respecting the democratic decisions that people take, rather than overturning them, as has sometimes been the intention in the past. He has always been a champion of close ties between the UK and Poland, and I think that whatever celebrations there are will continue in that vein.
Do the Government’s plans for the end of this month still include the abolition of the right hon. Gentleman’s Department? If so, which Department and which Minister will take responsibility for the very important negotiations that are about to begin?
I pay tribute to the work of the right hon. Gentleman during his tenure as chair of the Exiting the European Union Committee. He knows from his time in Government that machinery of government changes are announced in the usual way by the Prime Minister, and No. 10 has signalled that it intends to do so. He should also be aware, because we publicly stated it, that the Department will draw to a close to mark our exit. It is the Department for Exiting the European Union, and we will have exited and done the job of the Department when we leave on 31 January.
I welcome the Secretary of State back to this House. We have always got on very well, and he is much cleverer than me, but I do have a couple of degrees in economics. When the President of the European Commission comes here and says that in any deal, if we do not have free movement of labour we will not get free movement of goods and services, is that not something that we should all be very sad about as we leave the European Union?
I am always grateful to the hon. Gentleman for how he champions his constituents and raises thoughtful points. He is quite right to pick up on what I thought was a constructive speech from the European Commission President at the London School of Economics yesterday and to draw the House’s attention to it. What I took away from her speech was her language about wanting a very ambitious partnership—she referred to
“old friends and new beginnings”
and drew on her own time in London and how much she enjoyed it and valued the United Kingdom. She wanted to see a close partnership, whether on climate change, security or many other issues on which we have values in common with our neighbours.
Will the Government confirm whether they are going to request the chiming of Big Ben to mark 11 pm on 31 January? This is not going to be a moment of celebration for many people across the UK; it will be a moment of considerable concern, not least for my constituents who are European Union nationals. Perhaps we should be asking the Government: if they do want to hear the bell chime, for whom will the bell toll?
I welcome this late conversion on the part of the Scottish National party to celebrating our exit and having Big Ben chime. As the hon. Gentleman will know, a decision as to whether Big Ben should bong or not is one for the House authorities and I would not dare to step in to such terrain. The wider point, as I think the mood of the House has demonstrated, is that this is an historic moment and many Members of the House wish to celebrate it.
I urge the Government to be careful about the tone that is adopted at the end of January. They will appreciate that there are many who do not see this as a moment for celebration. In particular, may I ask the Secretary of State what measures are being put in place for the large numbers of non-UK EU nationals, of whom there are many in Cambridgeshire, who will feel particularly vulnerable at that point?
The hon. Member is absolutely right, and I hope that colleagues across the House will see that I always try to take a tone that reflects that. I have often talked about the fact that in my own family, notwithstanding my personal role, my eldest brother is an official working for a European institution. I know that many families were split on this issue.
To answer the hon. Member’s question directly, one thing that we have done is establish a £9 million fund to support outreach groups and charities. We have worked with embassies in particular. Within that £9 million, £1 million is specifically for the settlement scheme, as I am sure the Minister for Security detailed in Committee on Tuesday, and there have been 2.6 million or 2.8 million or so applications, so the scheme is working very effectively free of charge. But the hon. Member is right that some people will have concerns, and one thing that the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill does is guarantee the rights of citizens and address many of the concerns that some of his constituents have shared.
In celebration of this important occasion in our nation’s history, will the Secretary of State arrange for Union flags to be flown from all public buildings across our kingdom? That would be a fitting tribute to the decision the British people made to leave the European Union. We will remain unafraid of our patriotism, unabashed about our departure and unwavering in our determination to make our future even greater.
I know that, like me, my parliamentary neighbour always takes pride in seeing our Union Jack flown, and any opportunity to do so is one that he and I would always celebrate. Given my right hon. Friend’s penchant for poetry, I cannot be alone in thinking that such an occasion might inspire him in due course to write something fitting.
Even the most ardent supporter of Brexit will, I am sure, share a concern that the UK’s departure from the European Union might be depicted as representing insularity and nationalism. It is therefore important that we dispel that sense, and one way in which we could do so is to sign up long term to the vulnerable refugees resettlement scheme and, indeed, to accept in full the Dubs amendment and do our best by the most vulnerable people on this planet, child refugees.
I absolutely agree with the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question. A big part of why I and many colleagues supported Brexit is that we want to be more outward-looking, global and international; we want to go after trade deals around the world and have autonomy.
On unaccompanied children and the Dubs amendment, we should not talk down the United Kingdom, which is currently in the top three EU countries in terms of the number of unaccompanied children it takes. It takes 15% of the entire total of unaccompanied children. We have a proud record, we have made commitments, and the Home Secretary wrote to the Commission in October on this issue. It is not necessary for it to be in the withdrawal agreement Bill itself. We have a proud record, and we should not talk it down.
The Government have been clear that the future relationship will protect the UK’s sovereign right to regulate, and have no plans to align dynamically with EU employment legislation.
Since October, the withdrawal agreement Bill has undergone major changes, including the stripping out of previous commitments to workers’ rights. Will the Secretary of State publish a revised impact assessment so that he can be honest with the public about what his Government have in store for them with their hard Brexit plan?
The reality is that we actually go beyond Europe in many areas of workers’ rights, including maternity and paternity leave, and we should be proud of that. The hon. Gentleman asks specifically about the change to the withdrawal agreement Bill, but it does not affect the rights of workers. It should be for this Parliament to set the standards. In our manifesto, we committed to having high standards. The real question that should be asked is why a number of member states do not meet the standards set here in the United Kingdom.
The hon. Lady says that as if she supported the Bill in October, but she did not. She did not support it when those things were in the clause, and now she is lamenting that they are out of the clause that she did not support. The reality is that the purpose of the withdrawal agreement Bill is to implement the international agreement that the Prime Minister has reached with the European Commission. Of course it is for the House, in the course of its business, to determine what standards it wants on workers’ rights, the environment and other areas. The Prime Minister was clear in the manifesto that we are committed to high standards in those areas. I think that is something that the hon. Lady and I can agree on.
Does the Secretary of State agree that, contrary to what the hon. Member for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) said, we need dynamic alignment like a hole in the head? The purpose of Brexit is to enable us to make our own laws and rules, set our own taxes and chart our own course.
I thank the Secretary of State for his answer on dynamic alignment. As his Department winds up, I thank him personally for leading it with such professionalism, and I thank his team at DExEU.
On dynamic alignment, I ask my right hon. Friend to reflect on the fact that the Brexit vote was about this House being sovereign. For me, as a Welsh Member, that is the Union of the United Kingdom, and this House being sovereign over our alignment.
I extend a particularly warm welcome to my hon. Friend on his return to the House, and I thank him for his contribution to the Department during his tenure. He is right both in having confidence in this House setting high standards on workers’ rights and the environment, and in emphasising the importance of that from a Union perspective. Of course, Wales supported leaving, just as England did.
I am absolutely clear that we will deliver on our manifesto—[Interruption.] Members seem surprised that the Government want to deliver on our manifesto. The manifesto says that we are committed to having high standards. As I said earlier, the real issue is that, in a number of areas, EU standards are lower. The UK has three times the maternity entitlement: it has 52 weeks of maternity leave, 39 of which are paid, whereas the EU requires only 14 weeks of paid leave. That is the area that I urge the hon. Gentleman to focus on.
A Government genuinely committed to workers’ rights would have given a straight yes to that question, but the Secretary of State did not. If he committed to dynamic alignment on workers’ rights, there would be nothing stopping the Government going beyond it in the years ahead. Should we be surprised by their lack of commitment? The Prime Minister said that the weight of employment law was “back-breaking”. Is not the truth that the Government will not end up with stronger rights for UK workers at the end of this Parliament?
I really do not think Opposition Members should be talking about a lack of commitment when it comes to the withdrawal agreement, given that their party leader was neutral on the issue during the general election. The reality is that the hon. Gentleman, like so many Members on the Opposition Benches, having said that he would respect the result of the referendum, went back on the manifesto commitment and did not do it. It is now time to listen to the electorate and deliver that. We are absolutely clear that in doing so, as we set out in our manifesto, we will maintain high standards on workers’ rights.
I continue to have regular conversations with ministerial colleagues across Government on all aspects of exiting the European Union. The Government have been clear that we will not weaken our current environmental protections as we leave the European Union, and that we will maintain, and even enhance, our already high environmental standards.
It is vital that we not only maintain but enhance our environmental protections, and that we enhance our natural environment. Can the Secretary of State assure the House that leaving the EU will not negatively impact on the Nature4Climate fund and the essential restoration of our peat moorlands, including in my constituency of High Peak?
I welcome my hon. Friend to his place. He is quite right to highlight the importance of those protections from a constituency perspective. I draw his attention to the £10 million that the Government have allocated for peatland restoration until March 2021, which I hope will give him comfort, alongside the environmental commitments set out in the Queen’s Speech, such as the independent monitoring of the targets that have been set, and the allocation of funding for that specific issue, which I know he has a close constituency interest in.
The United Kingdom has some of the highest food standards, so will my right hon. Friend confirm that Her Majesty’s Government will not allow substandard agricultural or food imports after the UK leaves the EU, which it would otherwise be illegal to produce here in the UK?
I welcome my hon. Friend to his place —it is nice to have so many hon. Friends to welcome today. I am sure that, like me, he listened to “Farming Today” this morning and heard, in relation to the Oxford conference, a debate on how important it is to maintain high animal welfare standards on imports in any future trade deals. One of the odd points about this debate is that the Government are constantly asked whether we will maintain high animal welfare standards, notwithstanding our manifesto commitments to do so, but there is very little scrutiny of those areas in Europe that have lower standards. I am sure that we will explore the issue during the negotiations.
The Secretary of State will know that the EU’s groundbreaking European green deal includes many policies with which UK alignment will be straightforward. Others will be more challenging. For example, the circular economy action plan will seek to change business models and set minimum standards for producers to prevent environmentally harmful products being placed on the market. He has talked about wanting to lead on environmental issues, so will the Government commit to adopting and keeping pace with the proposed minimum standards on sustainable production?
We are very happy to commit to world-leading environmental standards. One of the areas where we are doing so is through our hosting of COP 26 in Glasgow, which will be key, and through standards—[Interruption.] I will come on to climate change, but that is integrated in our aspiration—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is chuntering away, but I will move on to that. On the specific point about the green deal, he is right that the Commission President specifically referred to the green deal in her speech at the London School of Economics yesterday, and it is something that the Prime Minister and I discussed with her in our meeting. Again, it is an area where the UK has world-leading expertise. Look at our green finance, our green investment bank and the areas where the UK is in the lead. We look forward to working with the European Union on that as we move forward.
European Court of Justice
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Lia Nici) on her election as the first Conservative MP for Great Grimsby since 1945—fantastic!
The withdrawal agreement ensures that the current role of the European Union institutions, including the European Court of Justice, and the obligation to comply with European Union law as it is now end with the implementation period on 31 December 2020. There are limited exceptions, such as citizens’ rights, to give businesses and individuals certainty. The agreement enables a relationship between sovereign equals.
I thank the Minister for his response. Does he agree that coastal areas such as my Great Grimsby constituency voted particularly to ensure that we take back control of our fishing laws, and that it is essential, following Brexit, that laws governing fishing are decided here in the UK?
I agree with my hon. Friend. I recognise the importance of this issue as I, too, represent a coastal constituency. As we leave the EU, we will be an independent coastal state and we will introduce our own independent fisheries policy. We will be able to control access to and management of our waters. That presents opportunities for the UK fishing industry, and the Government are determined to make the most of such opportunities for the people of Grimsby and the rest of the United Kingdom.
On 30 January, I shall be holding a public meeting to explain the terms of the withdrawal agreement. When I held my last meeting relating to the previous withdrawal agreement, concern was raised about the European Court’s ability to determine issues that arise. Will my hon. Friend confirm that, under articles 167 to 181 of the new withdrawal agreement, while the Court can have matters referred to it, it cannot actually determine, because we will now have an arbitration panel, over which the UK will have a large degree of control?
I can confirm that the withdrawal agreement establishes an arbitration panel as part of the standard mechanism for settling disputes between the UK and the EU. After 31 December, the Court of Justice of the European Union will no longer be the final arbiter of disputes under the disputes resolution mechanism. I look forward to an invite to my hon. Friend’s event.
I thank the Minister for his assurances on the ECJ. People in Heywood and Middleton voted to leave the European Union by a quite significant margin. Does he agree that the critical reason for that was a wish to take back control of our laws to this place and not to be dictated to by Brussels?
It is wonderful to see my hon. Friend in the Chamber—he is not the first Conservative MP for his constituency since 1945, but the first ever Conservative MP for Heywood and Middleton. This Government have prioritised negotiating a deal that disentangles us from the European Union’s legal order and does indeed take back control of our laws.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his election. His experience as an A&E doctor will, I am sure, pay dividends here. I promised my office that I would make no jokes about his scrubbing up well as a new Member of Parliament.
Ministers from the Department for Exiting the European Union continue to hold regular discussions with Health and Social Care Ministers. The NHS is, of course, of the utmost importance to the Government. As was outlined in the Queen’s Speech, the national health service’s multi-year funding settlement, which was agreed earlier this year, will be enshrined in law for the first time ever.
I thank the Minister for that response. I know that my constituents in Crewe and Nantwich are delighted to see the deadlock broken and the good progress that we are making toward delivering Brexit responsibly by the end of the month. Does he agree that significant measures have rightly been taken to ensure the continued flow of medicines after Brexit, and that the NHS will continue to be a fantastic place for EU citizens to work in years to come?
The Government are moving forward on the implementation of the withdrawal agreement, and we are confident that the deal will be ratified on 31 January. Under the terms of the agreement, we will enter the implementation period following 31 January, during which medical supplies will continue to flow as they do today. My hon. Friend makes a good point about EU nationals working in the health service. Since the referendum, almost 7,300 more European nationals have been working in NHS trusts and clinical commissioning groups, which should be welcomed.
During the election, the Prime Minister promised 50,000 extra nurses. Given a one-third increase in EU nurses leaving the UK, does the Minister accept that the Prime Minister must ditch his anti-immigrant rhetoric, and that there must be improvements to the settlement scheme so that EU citizens feel both welcome and secure in the UK?
My German GP husband, who has been looking after patients for over 30 years, was quite offended by the Prime Minister criticising EU citizens treating this “as their own country”.
There has been a lot of concern about the possible increase in drug prices for the NHS under a US trade deal, but what estimate has been made of the increased bureaucratic customs costs for the 37 million packets of drugs that come from the EU every month?
The Secretary of State regularly discusses the rights of EU citizens with the Home Secretary and other Cabinet colleagues. To protect the right to reside, EU citizens who are resident at the end of the implementation period must apply for settled status by June 2021. This is a free-of-charge process, and we have already received well over 2.6 million applications to the scheme.
I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, and obviously I am delighted by the progress that the settlement scheme is making in encouraging EU citizens who are here to remain. In common with many colleagues in the House, I spent a number of days in the last few weeks knocking on doors and talking to my constituents. One of the people I came across was an EU citizen—an Italian who was married to a British lady and had lived here for over 50 years, working all the time and paying his taxes. He wanted to become a British citizen, but is faced with an application fee of £1,700. Does my hon. Friend think that that is fair? Is there something that we can do to encourage people who have lived here for a long time to become British citizens?
I am more than happy to meet my right hon. Friend to talk about the specifics of that case and the EU settlement scheme. Yesterday the Minister for immigration talked about why that issue would not be covered by the withdrawal agreement Bill, but I am more than happy to chat to my right hon. Friend about that individual case.
Will the Minister further outline whether he intends to level the fees between European partners and Commonwealth partners such as Canada to ensure that there is a level playing field for immigration? Is he aware that that would reduce the fees paid by Commonwealth spouses?
I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues on citizens’ rights. The withdrawal agreement will protect the rights of EU citizens who arrive in the UK by the end of the implementation period. As of the end of November, we were already moving towards receiving 3 million applications to the EU settlement scheme.
I am glad that the hon. Lady asks that question, because it lets me say: first, we have a grace period until June 2021 to address that issue; and, secondly, the declaratory scheme that she advocates would increase the risk of exactly the issue to which she refers.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the fact that 3.5 million EU citizens see the best future for themselves and their families as to remain living and working in post-Brexit Britain is a huge endorsement of our post-Brexit prospects? I wish that that confidence was shared by hon. Members on both sides of the House.
I urge Members on both sides of the House to support Third Reading of the withdrawal agreement Bill because it safeguards the rights of the 3 million EU citizens here, as it does those of the 1 million or so UK citizens in Europe. The Bill guarantees the rights of those EU citizens because we value the contribution they make to our homes, communities and businesses.
Refusing to provide paper proof of status, rejecting Labour’s proposal to grant automatic status, granting only uncertainty inducing pre-settled status to people who have been here legally for years and the high cost of applying for citizenship—what part of all that does the Secretary of State believe makes our EU friends and neighbours living in the UK feel truly valued and welcome?
In which case the hon. Lady should well know that the specific issue of documentation versus digital was raised with the Minister for Security, who was clear that although there will be a letter to provide a document, it would have reference to the digital number. That issue was explored at length. She will also know that citizens do not lose any rights when they get pre-settled status, and that they then move on to settled status. Those issues were debated—that is what a Committee stage is for—and addressed by a Home Office Minister at that time.
I continue to have regular conversations with ministerial colleagues on all aspects of exiting the European Union, including agricultural policy.
Our farmers and food producers are required by domestic legislation to observe high standards for the environment, the workplace and animal welfare. Will the Secretary of State confirm that under future free trade agreements, tariff-free imports will be allowed only from producers that also observe those standards?
My hon. Friend is right to raise the issue, about which there has been a live discussion at the Oxford farming conference, as he will know. The UK has always been a leading advocate of open and fair competition. I assure him that we are absolutely committed to maintaining high standards through a robust domestic enforcement regime.
As this is my right hon. Friend’s last question session as Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, may I congratulate him on having served with such distinction?
I very much welcome the Government’s commitment to maintaining common agricultural policy levels of funding for our farmers, but during his remaining days in office, may I urge my right hon. Friend to liaise closely with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to make sure that we come up with an excellent deal for our hill farmers, many of whom operate at a level of subsistence yet look after some of the most beautiful uplands in our land?
I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s kind remarks. He is absolutely right to focus on hill farmers. As he will know, one of the aspects of the agriculture Bill is the ability to target measures—for example, on the environment—at specific areas of agriculture. Key among those are hill farmers, whom I know he has always championed.
Farmers made it clear in Oxford this week that they simply do not trust the Government’s assurances. Will the right hon. Gentleman and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs give assurances that they will accept the equivalent of my former new clause 1 to the agriculture Bill, when it comes back? That would ensure no lowering of standards. Will they also agree to the National Farmers Union’s request for a trading standards commission to scrutinise any future trade deals and make sure that farmers are protected?
If farmers did not trust the assurances, I am not sure whether another assurance would suddenly become trustworthy.
On the substance of the hon. Lady’s question, I refer her, for example, to the commitment to set up the office for environmental protection, which will be the single enforcement body. Above all, however, I refer her to this House: part of taking back control will be the House’s ability to scrutinise issues, such as the legitimate one that she raises, and to ensure that the Government meet the assurances that they have given.
The Secretary of State will be aware of the importance of the agri-food sector in Northern Ireland. Will he assure the House, and the agri-food sector and associated businesses in Northern Ireland, that his departmental and Cabinet colleagues are very well aware of that importance and can minimise any threats and maximise opportunities as we leave the EU?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the importance of that issue. The former Chair of the Exiting the European Union Committee referred to the Department’s disbanding, but what is not disbanding is the expertise within it, which will be shared across Whitehall, including with the Northern Ireland Office. As the hon. Gentleman will know, when it comes to the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol, that sector and how it plays into discussions within the Joint Committee will be extremely important. I am sure that he will contribute fully to that debate.
As in Northern Ireland, the agricultural sector is vital to the economy of Scotland, where food and drink account for 18% of international exports. What work is my right hon. Friend’s Department and the Department for International Trade doing to ensure that, in our future relationship with the European Union, the trade in agri-goods is as free and frictionless as possible?
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of the food and drink sector—not least, for example, when we consider the Scottish whisky industry, which is key. From memory, the UK has 88 geographical indications, whereas Europe has over 3,000: from a negotiating point of view, the European Union obviously has more interest in that issue. From a Scottish point of view, however, the importance of the intellectual protection of Scottish whisky and salmon is huge. We are very alive to those issues.
One of the most welcome things about the debate since the general election has been its more positive tone, and one aspect of that has been moving on from the language of no-deal crash-outs. The withdrawal agreement safeguards things such as citizens’ rights. It includes the Northern Ireland protocol and settles settlement. We therefore move into a different phase, in which the risks of no deal that the hon. Gentleman and many others spoke about no longer apply. That is the benefit of the Prime Minister’s deal and it is why the hon. Gentleman should support the withdrawal agreement Bill on Third Reading.
Can my right hon. Friend confirm whether the Government will introduce any changes to the seasonal agricultural workers scheme after the UK leaves the EU? Farmers in my constituency need certainty that they can hire the workers they require.
I know from representing a farming area myself the importance of seasonal workers. Obviously, that debate interplays with the expansion of investment in agritech, which brings benefits not only for productivity but in reducing demand. My hon. Friend will be aware that the Home Office has increased the numbers under the seasonal agricultural workers scheme to 10,000, but as part of designing our own approach to immigration and having control of our borders, we will be able both to address the concerns of the public at large and to mitigate any specific sectoral issues that apply, for example, to agriculture.
Fifty per cent of Welsh lamb is consumed elsewhere in the UK and 45% of it goes to the European Union, so Welsh hill farmers will probably be the most exposed of all if there is a no-deal Brexit at the end of this year. Will the Secretary of State do everything in his power to ensure that the Government do not sign off on a deal unless it ensures tariff-free access for lamb into the European Union?
The whole point of the deal—I hope the hon. Gentleman supports it on Third Reading—is that it ensures that we will leave in a smooth and orderly way. The specific issues of hill farmers are matters for both the negotiation and the agriculture Bill. I am sure he, among others, will contribute to that debate.
Fishing and Marine Policy
I welcome my hon. Friend back to his place as a great champion of the constituency of Lincoln. We continue to have regular conversations with ministerial colleagues on all aspects of exiting the European Union, including fisheries and marine policy.
And there was me saying I liked your socks.
The good city of Lincoln is not that close to the sea, but further to the Minister’s answer to Question 4, in percentage terms and considering everything we now know, how confident is my right hon. Friend not only that will we leave the common fisheries policy completely, but that we will then be in full control of our fishing areas and quotas, and therefore able to influence international total allowable catches?
I am 100% confident on those issues, because page 46 of the Conservative manifesto, which I know my hon. Friend knows in detail, makes it clear that we will leave the common fisheries policy and become an independent coastal state. For the first time in more than 40 years, we will have access to UK waters on our own terms, under our own control, and we will be responsible for setting fishing opportunities in our own waters.
Since our last departmental questions, we have contested the general election, where Brexit was the defining issue, and been given a renewed mandate by the British people to leave the European Union. As a result, we have been able to bring the withdrawal agreement back before the House. As was shown during its Committee stage this week, it is the will of this House that we now implement that decision.
That has been reflected, as referred to by the Chair of the Brexit Select Committee, the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), in the decision to disband the Department for Exiting the European Union, as its purpose will have been achieved. I would like to take this opportunity to place on the record my thanks to all the officials in the Department and across Whitehall who have worked so tirelessly over the last three years to achieve this result, and to thank all my colleagues who have served in ministerial roles in the Department.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister and I met the new European Commission President and the European Union chief negotiator to discuss our shared desire for what the President described as a unique partnership reflecting our shared values as friends and neighbours.
During the three years that the Department has been in place, it has had three Secretaries of State and three permanent secretaries but, since the first departmental questions, just one shadow Brexit Secretary. Throughout my interactions with the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), he has always been both professional and courteous while probing and challenging. Without wishing in any way to jinx his next steps, may I place on the record his contribution to the scrutiny of the Government, which I am sure will continue in whatever role he plays in the House moving forward?
Does the Secretary of State agree that close working between UK authorities and their equivalents on the continent is key to making our future relationship work? Now that we have nearly agreed an orderly exit, will he confirm that discussions between tax authorities in the UK and France on ensuring that customs processes are streamlined can start, and will not continue to be blocked by the European Commission?
It is not so much a question of whether those discussions need to start; they have started. In our contingency planning for an exit without a withdrawal agreement, there was a lot of discussion on how we would manage frictions at our borders, and much of that can be taken forward, such as the Treasury’s commitment to driving productivity and improving connectivity and flow through our ports. There is work on this already; my hon. Friend is quite right to draw attention to it, and we intend to build on it.
I thank the Secretary of State for his kind words. I appreciate the relationship that we have had, and, in particular, his kindness when my father died at the tail end of 2018, which touched me personally. I welcome the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey) and all Members, but I strongly dissociate myself from the words of the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State about the former right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield, who gave distinguished service in this House, including as Attorney General for the Government. I hope that there might be an opportunity to correct the record on that.
Yesterday, the Government voted down the Opposition’s amendment on unaccompanied child refugees. Our amendment would have preserved the victory that Lord Alf Dubs had campaigned for. I have always had a good personal relationship with the Secretary of State, but whatever he says about the wider issues, he must know that the Government have got this wrong. This could be his last Brexit oral questions; is he prepared to reconsider? I urge him to do so.
To understand the context, it is important to look at the commitment the Government gave to commencing negotiations on this issue, as reflected in the letter of 22 October from the Home Secretary to the European Commission. As was touched on in earlier questions, the Government have a strong record on this. They take 15% of unaccompanied child refugees; we are one of the top three EU countries in that regard. That commitment on granting asylum and supporting refugees remains; it is actually embedded in our manifesto, on page 23. In the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill, we return to the traditional approach, in which the Government undertake the negotiation and Parliament scrutinises that, rather than Parliament setting the terms, as happened in the last Parliament.
I am disappointed by the Secretary of State’s reply. Labour will continue to fight to protect the most vulnerable. We may not win many votes in Parliament just now, but we can win the moral argument. I urge everyone who cares about the issue to put pressure on the Government, and urge Ministers to rethink this disgraceful decision. A legal obligation on the Government has been converted into reliance on the Prime Minister’s word. Surely the Secretary of State can see why that gives rise to anxiety among Labour Members.
The shadow Brexit Secretary is right: there clearly has been anxiety among Labour Members, but I hope that he takes assurance from the explanation I gave that the commitment is unchanged. That is reflected in the letter of 22 October to the Commission from the Home Secretary, and in the manifesto. The policy is unchanged. It is right that the Bill should, as is traditional, implement the international agreement; that is what it will do.
May I take the opportunity to say that I have the utmost respect for the previous Member for Beaconsfield? I was simply trying to say that as a Government Minister, I found the particular line of questioning raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey) much more helpful to respond to. I hope that the House will take that as an apology to the previous Member for Beaconsfield.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart) on her question, and on her election to the House. I can confirm that we will pay special attention to the 10-metre fleet; it is an issue that I am aware of, as a coastal MP; in Southend, we have some under-10 metre boats. I also confirm that as we leave the EU and become an independent coastal state, the Government will develop a domestic fisheries policy that promotes that fleet, which is profitable and diverse, and uses traditional practices to protect stocks and our precious marine environment.
I welcome the fact that the hon. Gentleman has drawn the House’s attention to a sector that is extremely important to the potential of the UK. I have discussed the issue with my ministerial colleagues. As for his characterisation, part of the reason for the withdrawal agreement Bill, which I hope he will support on Third Reading, is to secure the rights of the 3 million EU citizens, many of whom contribute to the creative arts. Future policy, however, is for the immigration Bill, where we will design something that is targeted at talents, including the talents of those in the creative industries.
It must be a happy day, and one to celebrate, when there are so many Lancastrians in the House. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the achievements of officials within the Department who have worked so hard to support the Government in getting this deal. It is an important moment, and in part, the closure of the Department will enable us to take the expertise built up by officials over the past three years into those Departments that will be front and centre in the trade negotiations.
I am happy to guarantee to all those EU citizens living in the UK ahead of our exit that the withdrawal agreement Bill guarantees their rights, among which are their rights to healthcare. That is why I urge the hon. Gentleman to support the Bill on Third Reading.
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. The Government are clear that they wish to continue to attract students from the EU and the rest of the world to study here in the UK. The UK’s higher education institutions have long-established traditions of attracting the brightest minds at all stages of their education and research careers, as we saw yesterday with the alumna of the London School of Economics. This being our last oral questions, I thank civil servants for their support. I particularly thank my private office and Cara Phillips. They have been wonderful.
The Secretary of State knows that Airbus contributes billions of pounds in taxation, employs tens of thousands of people and wants business continuity after a short transition period. Will he give an undertaking today that the European Union Aviation Safety Agency will continue as is—rather than us inventing new, bespoke regulatory systems for the sake of divergence—so that Airbus can plan ahead, invest and continue to make its contribution to our economy?
The hon. Gentleman correctly draws the House’s attention to an important issue, and one for the future negotiations. As he knows, however, in the political declaration there is scope for such participation. What was constructive and positive about the remarks of the President of the European Commission yesterday, which were reflected in the meeting with the Prime Minister, was the desire to build on that close partnership. The sort of areas where there will be detailed discussion will be on aircraft and other such sectors.
My hon. Friend is right to seize the opportunities that Brexit offers, and that is particularly the case in agriculture. He well knows that the bureaucracy of the common agricultural policy was an area of deep frustration, with things such as the three-crop rule dictating to farmers who farm more than 30 hectares what they can and cannot grow. We should be setting farmers free and giving them those opportunities. Through the agriculture Bill, we will have the chance to seize those opportunities, and I know that my hon. Friend will be at the forefront of that for his constituents in West Dorset.