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.