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Future Relationship with the EU: Negotiations

Volume 676: debated on Tuesday 19 May 2020

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister for the Cabinet office, if he will make a statement on the third round of the negotiations on the UK’s future relationship with the EU.

I am grateful for this opportunity to update the House on the progress of our negotiations with the European Union. I have today laid a written ministerial statement before the House, which provides a comprehensive update on the third round of our negotiations with the EU on our future relationship. We have also today made public the UK’s draft legal texts. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade has also published the new tariff schedule that we will operate at the end of the transition period for those countries with which we do not have a free trade agreement.

Negotiators from the UK and the EU held full and constructive discussions last week via video conference. The talks covered trading goods and services, fisheries, law enforcement and criminal justice, and other issues, with both sides discussing full legal texts. The discussion underlined that a standard comprehensive free trade agreement, alongside other key agreements on issues such as law enforcement, civil nuclear and aviation, all in line with the political declaration, could be agreed without major difficulties in the time available. There remain, however, some areas where we have significant difference of principle, notably on fisheries, governance arrangements and the so-called level playing field. The EU, essentially, wants us to obey the rules of its club, even though we are no longer members, and it wants the same access to our fishing grounds as it currently enjoys while restricting our access to its markets.

It remains difficult to reach a mutually beneficial agreement while the EU maintains such an ideological approach, but we believe that agreement is possible if flexibility is shown. The agreements that we seek are, of course, built on the precedents of the agreements that the EU has reached with other sovereign nations. To help facilitate discussions in the fourth round and beyond, the Government have today published the full draft legal text that we have already shared with the Commission and which, together with the EU’s draft agreement, have formed the basis of all discussions. The UK texts are fully in line with the Government’s document entitled, “The Future Relationship with the EU: The UK’s Approach to Negotiations” which was published on 27 February. Copies of the legal text have been placed in the House of Commons Library and are also available online at

The Government remain committed to a deal with a free trade agreement at its core and we look forward to the fourth round of negotiations beginning on 1 June, but success depends on the EU recognising that the UK is a sovereign equal.

We left the European Union at the end of January and we now have seven months to agree new arrangements with our nearest neighbours. It was always a tight timetable, but the Government have made it clear that they are sticking to it and we need them to get it right. The Government have promised an ambitious, broad, deep and flexible partnership with no tariffs, fees or charges; the safeguarding of workers’ rights; consumer and environmental protections; and a comprehensive security partnership. Let me push the Minister on those issues.

First, on the economy, will the Minister tell the House what concrete progress was made last week on ensuring that British businesses will face no tariffs, fees or quotas on any goods exported to the EU? What assurances can he give to workers with regards to maintaining and improving existing labour standards?

Secondly, on our regulatory framework, leaving the European Medicines Agency, the Chemicals Agency and the Aviation Safety Agency means new regulatory bodies will need to take on this work. Can the Minister guarantee that they will be up and running by the start of January?

Thirdly, on research, international collaboration on scientific research has never been as important as it is today. What assurances can the Minister give on our future participation in the Horizon research programme?

Fourthly, peace in Northern Ireland was hard won. We must not jeopardise it. In January, the Prime Minister guaranteed unfettered access for goods moving between Britain and Northern Ireland. Last week, it was revealed that the Government would implement checks on some products crossing the Irish sea and that there would be new infrastructure at ports coming from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland. Can the Minister confirm whether those additional checks are being planned for when the road map for implementing the protocol will be published?

To conclude, we must not add to the uncertainty already being experienced right now. We need answers to the questions I have put today. I urge the Minister to act in the national interest to get a deal that is good for jobs, workers’ rights and scientific co-operation.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her questions, which touch on critical issues in these negotiations. We believe that a zero-tariff, zero-quota deal is available; indeed, that is the explicit aim of the political declaration to which the EU has said it will apply its best endeavours.

On working standards, we are confident that we will continue to remain a leader, in not just Europe but the world, in workplace protection and the support we give to all our citizens. It has been the case all the time we have been in the EU that we have maintained higher standards than other European countries. Indeed, countries outside the EU, such as Norway, also lead the world in this way.

New regulatory bodies are in the process of being set out to ensure that all businesses have the certainty they need. When it comes to scientific research, we are committed to collaborating with European and other partners. As the hon. Lady knows, there are countries outside the EU that take part in the Horizon programme, including, of course, our friends in Israel.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that peace in Northern Ireland is critical, and we will shortly publish a framework document on how we intend to implement the protocol to ensure that we have unfettered access for goods from Northern Ireland into Great Britain and that we preserve the gains of the peace process.

The final point the hon. Lady asked about was certainty. She said uncertainty was a problem, and indeed it is—uncertainty over Labour’s position. On 2 January, the leader of the Labour party called for a two-year extension to our transition period. In April, he said once again that we should extend if necessary. But, then, earlier this month, he turned turtle and said:

“I’ve not called for a pause”.

Then, on Sunday, the hon. Lady said we “mustn’t rush this” and that, if the Government need to, they should come back and expand the timetable. So which is it? Is the Labour party committed to making sure that we leave the transition period on the 31st?

Order. Come, come, this is about your policy, not the Labour policy. You are much better than that. Mr Gove, you have a great future—don’t waste it here. Right, let us move on. We now call William Wragg.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Negotiations of this nature are always complex, but their resolution tends to be a matter of political will. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House how much of the apparent impasse is due to practical impediments and how much is due to a lack of political will? Is he satisfied that his good offices have the capacity, currently, to make a success of these negotiations?

Yes, absolutely. We believe that flexibility on the part of the European Union is in the interests of all, and provided that it moves away from its current ideological fastness, we can secure the progress we need.

What a petit déjeuner de chien! The Government are wilfully piling a second hammer blow on to an economy already shattered by covid, in their obsessive pursuit of a hard-Brexit agenda and the self-inflicted economic misery that that will bring on top of a pandemic. Is it not the case that the Government are doing nothing other than playing political games with the futures of millions of people by pursuing this anti-EU agenda at all costs? As countries in the rest of the world get round to putting in place their various recoveries, this Government will still be blaming Barnier as the good ship Britannia hits that Brexit iceberg. Even the Euro dogs on the street know that this Government are making a pig’s ear of the negotiations with their petulant demands and their rewriting of agreements, yet it is still all the EU’s fault. For goodness’ sake, for the good of all our constituents, will the Minister just stop, seek that extension and engage in these negotiations like a grown-up?

I am grateful for that intervention. The hon. Gentleman read it beautifully; it could almost have been set to music. However, the point that both of us have to accept is that we are democrats: we voted democratically to have one United Kingdom, we voted democratically for that United Kingdom to leave the European Union and we are honouring both those referendum results. I am sure that, on reflection, he would wish to as well.

Over recent weeks, we have seen how the European Union’s response to the unprecedented covid-19 pandemic has been fraught with internal divisions, as the German Federal Court ruled that the European Central Bank had overstepped its legitimate competence with its £2 trillion rescue policy. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is now even more essential that we press ahead with negotiations and end the transition period by the end of this year, so that we can regain complete control over our money, our borders and our laws and therefore have the flexibility and the nimbleness in this country to chart our own path to recovery post covid-19?

Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. Were we to extend the transition period, as some have argued for, including the SNP and, in a previous incarnation, the Leader of the Opposition, we would find ourselves paying additional sums to be part of the EU subject to new laws over which we have no say and without the freedom to regulate our economy in a way to ensure that our recovery works.

Under the single-use plastics directive, the EU is introducing a range of bands, labelling and extended producer responsibility on single-use plastics, as the Minister, who worked in this area, well knows, which will lead to increased recycling and producers covering the costs. In developing our own world-leading environment management system, what discussions are we having with the EU on its schemes, and when will we inform industry if we plan to align with the EU or to produce our own betterment plans, because they need to know soon?

Yes, during the happy years that I spent at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, we made strides, as indeed did European nations, on improving recycling and reducing the use of single-use plastic. We pay close attention to what is happening in Europe and elsewhere as we develop our plans, but, in significant areas, our plans are ahead of where the EU is now. None the less, we want to work co-operatively because, even though we may be in different jurisdictions, we all share one planet.

I congratulate the Prime Minister, the Cabinet Office Minister and everyone in the negotiating team for robustly resisting attempts by the EU to set our laws via its playing-field clauses? Those clauses are not present in any other comparable EU trade agreement and are not wanted by the people of Dudley and beyond. May I ask my right hon. Friend to be equally robust in ensuring that the Prime Minister’s commitment to allow goods to flow freely from Great Britain into Northern Ireland in any future trade agreement with the EU is fulfilled, and, above all, that we shall be ending the transition period without extension and on WTO rules if an acceptable agreement cannot be reached?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right on both areas. We will not be extending the transition period and we will be outlining, very shortly, our approach towards a Northern Ireland protocol to make sure that the UK, as a single customs territory, can take advantage of its new freedoms.

The Minister will be aware that an earlier version of the European Union withdrawal Act contained provisions that ring-fenced workers’ rights, namely a lock on EU-derived workers’ rights. That would have meant that, before the Government changed workers’ rights, they would rightly have had to consult employer bodies and trade unions. Those measures were removed and we were told to expect them in an upcoming employment Bill, the details of which we are yet to see. Given that the decision made in the UK-EU trade talks will have a huge impact on UK workers, what is the Minister doing to ensure that there is no period of time during which workers are left without sufficient rights in law? Very importantly, what discussions is he having with trade unions and the TUC to ensure that workers are protected?

The hon. Lady raises a very important point. EU law will continue until we choose to alter it, but it has always been the case, as I mentioned briefly earlier, that we have had higher standards of worker protection than some other European countries. I enjoy my discussions with the TUC in order to ensure that this country can continue, as great socialists such as Tony Benn have always proclaimed that we should, leading the world, whether inside or outside the EU, in protecting workers’ rights.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and warmly welcome the stance that the Government are taking in these negotiations, but can he confirm that, whatever the outcome of these negotiations, we will have control of our own waters? It will be we who decides who has access to them, which will mean that fishermen of places such as Mevagissey and Newquay can look forward to a much fairer share of the fish available in UK waters?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Access to our waters will be on our terms, and the beneficiaries of that will be our fisherman in Cornwall and elsewhere.

This morning’s figures for the claimant count show an alarming rise in the number of people in receipt of out-of-work benefits, and we expect that future figures will be still worse. What estimates have the Government made of the likely further rise in those figures if at the end of this year we are tackling not just covid-19 but a no-deal Brexit?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question. As he knows, it is a source of sadness to all of us to see people who want to be at work, not at work. Of course, we need to protect the fragile economy of the island communities that he represents, and we do so strongly through the power of the Exchequer across this United Kingdom. We believe that, outside the European Union, we will have more freedom to protect people in employment, and we will also save some of the money that we would have spent on EU membership.

I believe that the Secretary of State, like me, thinks that the customs compliance obligations under the protocol can be implemented without new physical inspections or infrastructure at Northern Ireland ports. In that case, will he intervene with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to stop it making preparations for new physical inspections and infrastructure at Northern Ireland ports?

My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. We are one customs territory—the protocol makes that clear—and we will shortly be publishing further details about how we intend to ensure that Northern Ireland benefits from that.

We know that county lines—and the exploitation and grooming of our young people and the knife crime that goes with it—is driven by serious organised crime across our national borders. When I spoke to the National Crime Agency, it was clear that the tools available to it—the European arrest warrant, Europol and other things— are crucial in its fight against crime. Will the Secretary of State clarify what he meant when he told the Lords European Union Committee that we may not necessarily have concluded everything on internal security by 31 December? Will he reassure the House that we will be able to continue to fight crime by co-operating with our colleagues in the EU without interruption after 31 December?

Yes, it is the case that we want to have access to all the crime fighting, law enforcement and criminal justice tools that the EU has in order to be able to deal with crime. It is also the case that we cannot accept the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice as a precondition for so doing.

The UK is a world leader in workers’ rights and environmental standards. Does my right hon. Friend agree that they should be maintained in any future trading relationship with the EU, and in fact with the rest of the world?

Following the point well made by the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), it is not just the wants of our economy but the needs of our society that depend on these negotiations. As she said, our membership of Europol and our access to the European arrest warrant are due to lapse unless new arrangements are agreed. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is not enough to bring in migrant flights for critical areas of our economy, but that we need to ensure the safety and security of our society? Will he guarantee that there will be some arrangement that will allow law enforcement in Scotland to access the European arrest warrant and Europol?

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman, the distinguished former Cabinet Secretary for Justice in the Scottish Government. We want to co-operate with all our neighbours on law enforcement, but we cannot submit to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is imperative that we leave on 31 December? On 1 January, new financial arrangements are coming into the EU. A massive net contribution would already come from the UK, but with the rejection of corona bonds and bigger EU budgets, our net contribution would be much bigger, and that would hamper our efforts to get our own economy back on track.

I am very grateful for the question from my hon. Friend. He is absolutely right, and that is one of the very important reasons why we need to extricate ourselves from any further payments. I also congratulate him on looking so well. I thought for a second that he had become the Member of Parliament for High Barnet.

The aerospace, shipping, haulage and freight industries have repeatedly pleaded with the Government to seek arrangements based on evidence, not ideology—in particular, through the Government delivering on their commitments to continue participation in the EU’s aviation safety regulator, and in security and safety zones. These sectors have managed under the incredible pressure of coronavirus, but clearly they cannot take any more strain than they are already under. Will the Minister listen to the experts and keep the Government’s promises on the EU’s aviation safety regulator, and on security and safety zones, rather than putting these vital industries at unnecessary risk?

The hon. Lady makes a very good point. We are working with the aviation sector and others to ensure that we can have as seamless a transition as possible.

As I have said previously, I am honoured to represent the workshop of the United Kingdom, in the communities of Wednesbury, Oldbury and Tipton, but businesses in my communities are increasingly frustrated by the European Union’s standoffish approach to the negotiations. Does my right hon. Friend share the analysis of business owners in my constituency that the UK’s ask is a simple one—namely, a free trade agreement in line with the agreements that the EU has with other countries—and the EU’s refusal to recognise that is holding up progress in the talks? Perhaps he could give a message to businesses in my constituency, which are growing increasingly frustrated by the EU’s standoffish approach.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He stands up for the people of West Bromwich and Tipton brilliantly. He and those businesses are right that we need to move to a new, precedent-based relationship.

Our relationship with the European Union will have significant economic effects on our country. The Minister will have done modelling of the impacts; how many people in the country will be pushed into poverty as a result of us leaving the European Union?

As we leave the European Union, we have a saving in the amount of money that we currently remit to the EU. That money can be deployed here in the UK, on our NHS and to support the vulnerable.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that global trade was contracting before the covid crisis struck. Would it not be a major boost to confidence in the global trading system for the EU and the United Kingdom to reach a trading agreement in the time available, and is there not an increased responsibility on us to do so, given the covid crisis?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is a very powerful incentive for the European Union to put the interests of its members and citizens ahead of ideology. The EU—as, I would hope, a body that takes its internationalist credentials seriously—would recognise that it would be a boost not just to its own economy and our economy, but to the world economy and the global trading system if we were to conclude a deal.

The International Monetary Fund and business leaders want the Government to reduce economic uncertainty amid the coronavirus pandemic. Recent polling found that two thirds of the public want an extension to the transition period. I know that the Minister is not always fond of expert opinion, but will he heed their warnings and buy business precious time to adapt to the economic headwinds that Brexit will bring?

I am very fond of expert opinion, and the universal view of experts is that Scotland operates the largest deficit of any country in Europe. Were Scotland to become independent, it would be perilous for the people of the country that I love, and that is why the Union that works—the United Kingdom—should endure.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we can only proceed to negotiate a free trade agreement with the EU if the EU recognises that our basic approach to the negotiations is formed on the mandate of the British people—the same mandate that the people of Stoke-on-Trent Central gave me and voted for in December? May I also thank him and the Government for the positive support that we have had for the ceramics industry in all the international trade negotiations?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The people of Stoke-on-Trent, whom she represents so ably, have consistently voted to leave the European Union and for politicians who have argued that we should leave the European Union, the customs union and the single market. In so doing, there will be new opportunities for the ceramics sector, which does so much for our economy.

In February this year, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster admitted that border checks would be inevitable, yet the Prime Minister promised voters that frictionless trade with the EU would continue after Brexit. What guarantees—not meaningless assurances—can the Minister give, based on negotiations so far, that British businesses will be able to export to the EU without any tariffs, fees and charges when the transition period comes to an end?

That is the agreement to which the EU committed itself in the political declaration, so I expect to hold it to it.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that UK control of its own state aid regime will be essential as we seek to rebuild our economy in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak? Is not this another good reason to ensure that we leave the transitional arrangements completely on 31 December?

Yes and yes. As a distinguished former Minister in the Department for Exiting the European Union, my right hon. Friend knows whereof he speaks, and he speaks the truth.

Will the Minister give a guarantee that he will succeed in protecting vital supply chains, such as those relied on by Cadbury in my constituency and by Jaguar Land Rover, not least in the light of gloomy economic forecasts and today’s unemployment figures?

The hon. Gentleman is a consistent and strong voice for UK manufacturing, and I agree with him that we need to ensure that supply chains are protected. They have taken a battering because of covid-19, but it is instructive that some automobile manufacturers are talking about reshoring production into the UK because of the advantages of so doing.

The rural economy in Brecon and Radnorshire has been hit hard by covid-19 and the resulting lockdown. Does my right hon. Friend agree that any extension to the transition period would not only cause more uncertainty for rural businesses but hold the UK economy back further at a time when vital recovery is needed?

My hon. Friend is a brilliant advocate for our farmers in the beautiful part of Wales that she is so lucky to represent, and she is absolutely right that the uncertainty over whether or not we will leave on 31 December is deeply damaging. I am afraid that the uncertainty generated by the Labour party is a problem, because they cannot have their date and eat it.

What concrete proposals to improve workers’ rights will the Minister take to these negotiations, which he has just said is his ambition?

When we think of workers’ rights, we need to recognise that the fragility of certain sectors of our economy has been exposed by covid-19. I think one of the things that we will all want to do is ensure that employers exercise a greater degree of social responsibility. One thing I have been struck by is that of course a flexible labour market can often be a way of providing people with easy access into jobs, but we have productivity problems in this country. Investment in skills and training, done in collaboration with the unions and with employers, is something that we should be thinking about for the future, and I think there could be a political consensus behind that across Labour and the Conservatives.

That concludes the proceedings on the urgent question. I suspend the House for 15 minutes, until 1.52 pm.

Sitting suspended.

On resuming, the House entered into hybrid substantive proceedings (Order, 22 April).

Bill Presented

Parliamentary Constituencies Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Minister Chloe Smith, supported by the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary Priti Patel, Michael Gove, Secretary Robert Jenrick, Jesse Norman and Amanda Milling, presented a Bill to make provision about reports of the Boundary Commissions under the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986; to make provision about the number of parliamentary constituencies and other rules for the distribution of seats; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 127) with explanatory notes (EN-127).

Three items of business today are designated for remote Division. Mr Speaker’s provisional determination is that remote Divisions will not take place on the motion on human tissue, the motion on constitutional law, and the Finance Bill (Ways and Means) motion.