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Brexit: Negotiations

Volume 788: debated on Tuesday 30 January 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty's Government who is conducting the negotiations for the United Kingdom leaving the European Union; and to whom that person reports.

My Lords, the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, the right honourable David Davis MP, is responsible for conducting negotiations with the EU in support of the Prime Minister, including supporting bilateral discussions on EU exit with other European countries. DExEU supports this work by co-ordinating and overseeing negotiations and establishing a future relationship between the UK and the EU.

My Lords, is it not common knowledge that the Prime Minister has shifted the focus of negotiations to a competent official in the Cabinet Office, because she has lost confidence in a Brexit Secretary who complacently thinks the whole the matter is simple? His incompetence was proved by the shambles in the first stage of negotiations, which was only ended by a fudge on the Irish border. Will the Minister clear the matter up once and for all today, by telling the House how the Government plan to avoid a hard border while also leaving the customs union?

The first part of the noble Baroness’s question is totally wrong. The Secretary of State is doing an excellent job, and the Prime Minister is doing an excellent job in conducting the negotiations. We have said many times that we will avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland, and that remains the case.

My Lords, how many of the negotiations are now taking place with the Bulgarian Ministers, as it is their presidency at the moment?

We are conducting a wide range of discussions with all EU member states. I myself am visiting one on Thursday and Friday, and other Ministers are doing the same. We are advancing the UK’s cause and lobbying other member state Governments in advance of the full and special partnership that the Prime Minister has suggested.

Could the Minister help me? [Laughter.] Somebody might be able to. As well as reporting on all matters concerning his department to this House, what matters in the department are specifically devolved to him, for his responsibility?

I am always very happy to help the noble Lord, although I am not sure that my help is the help that he needs—but I shall do my best. I have responsibility for attending the General Affairs Council; for liaison for existing EU business; for the small matter of helping to get the withdrawal Bill through this House; and for liaison with the devolved Administrations in conducting ongoing EU business.

My Lords, given that the issues at stake in negotiating Brexit cover almost every department in Whitehall, is it not unavoidable that this has to be dealt with from the Cabinet Office, the co-ordinating department, and by the Cabinet itself, rather than DExEU? Is that one reason why there is apparently so much discontent within DExEU, and why it has four times the turnover of civil servants compared with the rest of the Civil Service?

I do not think that there is any discontent within DExEU. When the department was established, a number of officials were seconded from other government departments, and a number of them have returned to their original departments. But the noble Lord is right—these negotiations are complex and impact on a whole range of policy areas. Most departments in Whitehall are involved in one way or another, so of course it is important to co-ordinate that work, which is done both in DExEU and in the Cabinet Office.

My Lords, how helpful does my noble friend think it is to the British national interest to have people sniping from behind the scenes at our negotiators at this crucial time?

Well, the noble Lord knows that I admire greatly his contributions on these subjects, but perhaps on this occasion he is not quite correct. The normal process of parliamentary scrutiny is appropriate. We, of course, as Ministers welcome the opportunity to account to your Lordships’ House; we will be doing that extensively over the next few months and have done over the last few months. Of course, it would be nice to see a bit more support of our position sometimes. Nevertheless, most people take a responsible attitude and want to question and probe us on the process, which is absolutely correct.

Can the Minister help us on the paper that has apparently been leaked? I know that he will not talk about the details of any leak—but on a paper that deals with the impact on GDP and various scenarios that affect us about Brexit, clearly, it would not be a leak if important documents like this were routinely made available to parliamentarians and others and we could then discuss them properly. I hope that there will be an opportunity for that.

Secondly, the paper apparently suggests that deregulating areas such as the environment, product standards and employment law could be an opportunity for the UK going forward. Who commissioned that paper? Is it true that it was his department and, if so, is that his negotiating position?

The analysis to which I believe the article refers is a preliminary attempt to improve on the flawed analysis around the EU referendum. It is there to test ideas and design a viable framework for the analysis of our exit from the European Union, and at this very early stage it considers only off-the-shelf trade arrangements that currently exist. We have been clear that those are not what we seek in the negotiations. It does not consider the desired outcome—the most ambitious relationship possible with the European Union, as set out by the Prime Minister in her Florence speech.

My Lords, is the Minister more worried about the sniping from this side of the Chamber or from his own?

I asked whether the Minister was more worried about sniping from this side of the Chamber or from his own side.

One person’s sniping is another person’s constructive comments. I enjoy engaging with this House, sometimes on destructive comments, but we have considered appropriate contributions from all parts of this House.

The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, raised the issue of the Irish border. Is it not very difficult to get a solution to the Irish border issue that is separate from the trading relationship that we have with the rest of the EU?

We have made it clear that we do not want a hard border in Ireland. The exact structure of the border and customs arrangements will, of course, emerge from the end-state negotiations. Where we end up will clearly have an impact on the border arrangements, and we have made that very clear.