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Topical Questions

Volume 650: debated on Thursday 6 December 2018

Eleven days ago, the Government published the EU withdrawal agreement and the political declaration on the future relationship between the UK and the EU. We have achieved a deal with the EU that delivers on the referendum, that the nation can unite behind and that Parliament should back.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his new role on the Front Bench. Will he explain or elaborate on the work he is doing across Government to enhance connectivity post Brexit for international trade across the county of Essex and in our regions to get the economic growth that is required and to expand our ports and airports to ensure that our trade not only flows but increases when we leave the EU?

My right hon. Friend makes an extremely important point, and I am very conscious of it in the East Anglia region. The border delivery group is working with Departments to ensure that plans are in place to engage fully with traders in advance of exit and indeed, it has visited each of the 135 port and airport locations. My right hon. Friend brings considerable experience to the subject and I am happy to meet her to discuss it further.

I welcome the Secretary of State to his place and genuinely wish him well in his role.

On 15 October, the Prime Minister made an important point from the Dispatch Box to reassure MPs who were worried about the backstop arrangement. She said that

“if the EU were not to co-operate on our future relationship, we must be able to ensure that we cannot be kept in this backstop arrangement indefinitely.”—[Official Report, 15 October 2018; Vol. 647, c. 410.]

Does the Secretary of State agree?

I thank the right hon. and learned Member for his generous welcome. I also take the opportunity, as I did on Monday night—although technically it was Tuesday morning—to pay tribute to him for serving as shadow Secretary of State throughout this period. On the core of his question about the UK’s ability to exit from the backstop, he will know, as a former lawyer, that the legal process is clear in terms of the role of the Joint Committee and the arbitration, and that there is legal wiring in the withdrawal agreement that requires the EU to act in good faith. Those issues were explored in much more detail with the Attorney General on Monday, but in short I very much agree with the Prime Minister because there is a legal connectivity between the withdrawal agreement and the backstop arrangement.

That is a very sensible position. The Secretary of State suggests that he agrees with the Prime Minister that, if the EU does not co-operate, we cannot be kept in the backstop indefinitely. The problem is that the Attorney General’s legal advice, which was published yesterday states, in terms,

“in international law, the”


“would endure indefinitely.”

He went on to say:

“This remains the case even if parties are still negotiating many years later, and even if the parties believe that the talks have clearly broken down”.

That is the complete opposite of what the Prime Minister said she intended to achieve.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes the same point in essence as my very distinguished predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), about where the balance of risk sits. The right hon. and learned Gentleman quoted the Attorney General, so it is worth drawing the House’s attention to exactly what the Attorney General said on that point. [Interruption.] Well, he quoted part of what the Attorney General said, but my right hon. and learned Friend said more than what has been quoted in isolation, and the right hon. and learned Gentleman will be the first to accept that when considering these issues, one looks at the whole, not selective comments. The Attorney General said:

“I do not believe that we are likely to be entrapped in the backstop permanently”.—[Official Report, 3 December 2018; Vol. 650; c. 552.]

However, he also said that

“the matters of law affecting the withdrawal can only inform what is essentially a political decision”.—[Official Report, 3 December 2018; Vol. 650, c. 546.]

It is a question of where one assesses the balance of risk to be. I looked at that very issue when I considered the matter. The Attorney General has addressed that, as is reflected in his comments to the House on Monday.

T4. Will my parliamentary neighbour, the Minister for no deal, confirm for the benefit of our constituents in Northamptonshire that the Government have advanced plans in place to ensure a smooth Brexit in the event of no deal? (908064)

I thank my hon. Friend and parliamentary neighbour for his question. I know how hard he works in his constituency, and he always puts me to shame with the amount of work he does for his constituents.

I remind my hon. Friend of the answers he has heard on this so far, before giving him some extra bits. We already have over 300 plans that we are delivering to ensure that, should we be in a no deal scenario, it goes smoothly. We have plans for our border, and he will have heard about the amount of legislation, primary and secondary, that is going through the House, and I have some specific examples.

On 2 November. Canada signed a nuclear co-operation agreement with the UK. Later in November, the Competition and Markets Authority started its recruitment campaign to hire staff to fulfil the obligations of its new state aid role. We have begun a pet travel awareness campaign to advise pet owners of the actions they would need to take to be able to travel to the EU with their pets from March 2019. The Home Office has recruited 300 people to its readiness taskforce, and it was on track to be deployed in November. I could go on.

Can I very gently say to Ministers that they appear today to be adopting what I can only describe as an Oxford high table approach to political debate? That no doubt has its own merits, but we are subject to the constraint of time, and therefore I would urge a degree of pithiness of exchange.

T2. The German owner of the Barden factory in Plymouth has announced that the precision ball bearing plant and 400 jobs will go, and it blames Brexit for the closure. Will the Secretary of State join me and Plymouth’s Conservative MPs in encouraging Barden’s German owner, Schaeffler, to change its mind and keep this profitable plant open? (908062)

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his approach of working with other Plymouth MPs, my hon. Friends the Members for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) and for South West Devon (Mr Streeter). I recognise the importance of this to the three constituencies, and I am happy to raise the issue with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. We recognise the importance of Barden as a firm, and I am happy to work with the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) and his constituency neighbours as we take the issue forward.

T5. The majority of my constituents and I voted to leave the EU primarily to take back control of our sovereignty, and I am struggling to reconcile that with the proposed Northern Ireland backstop and our inability to leave it unilaterally. What reassurances can my right hon. Friend give me following the publication of the Government’s legal advice yesterday? (908065)

I am very happy to reassure my hon. Friend. A number of the safeguards have been debated at some length in the House, including safeguards on extending the implementation period, on the undesirability of the backstop to the EU27 and on the due legal process. Given the commitments in the withdrawal agreement, the due process that applies, in terms of the joint committee and the arbitration, would follow. There are clear safeguards in the text that the Prime Minister has negotiated as part of the wider achievements that have been secured in delivering on the referendum. There is an independent coastal approach, and we are coming out of the common fisheries policy and having a skills-based immigration system.

T3. I welcome the Secretary of State to his post. The North East England chamber of commerce is briefing that, because this deal fails to nail down certainty, it threatens investment and jobs, and businesses in the north-east do not support it. Why is he asking this House to support a deal that will threaten my constituents’ jobs? (908063)

If there is an outlier to which the hon. Gentleman refers—I always enjoyed our dealings in my previous ministerial role, given his health expertise—the overwhelming feedback we have received from business is its support for the deal and its desire to see the implementation period. Business does not want the uncertainty of crashing out, but it also does not want the uncertainty of a second referendum.

T8. The legal position of legislation passed by this House is that we will be leaving the EU on 29 March 2019, deal or no-deal. The events of this week, and I suspect next week, make a no deal outcome more likely, so will the Secretary of State ensure that all Government Departments now make ready and prioritise their preparedness for no deal? Does he agree that for the Government not to do that would be a dereliction of duty? (908068)

My hon. Friend will appreciate that a key focus for me since taking on this role has been to review the work on the state of readiness and to ensure that those discussions are held with Cabinet colleagues. That is exactly what I am doing, and it is supported by the excellent work of the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris).

T6. As the Secretary of State for stockpiling, can he explain to me how he will maintain a supply of the medical radioisotope technetium, given that its precursor has a half-life of less than three days? (908066)

I trust the hon. Lady is not trying to scare any vulnerable constituents we might have. I know she does not necessarily trust what a Minister might say, but all she needs to do is look at what other countries are doing to guarantee that the flow of all medical supply continues across borders, by googling what might be going on at the French border, to see that her concerns are unwarranted.

I very much hear the point that my hon. Friend makes. As I am sure he is aware, I am meeting colleagues and listening to concerns, including those on the backstop. Obviously, we also need to be mindful of the imperative of the guarantee that we have given to the people of Northern Ireland, which was given for a reason, in terms of the peace process and ensuring that we honour the obligations that have been given to the people of Northern Ireland.

I call Helen Goodman. She is not here. Oh dear, where is the hon. Lady? I hope she is not indisposed.

T9. On Tuesday, the National Assembly for Wales voted overwhelmingly for a Plaid Cymru motion to reject the British Government’s deal. What notice will the Secretary of State take of this new, emphatic and democratic decision? (908070)

We always pay attention to what the devolved Assemblies and devolved legislatures do. We, of course, take note of its decision, but it was a UK referendum that decided we should leave the UK, and Wales also voted to leave.

The Government’s own analysis shows that my constituents will be worse off under this deal, but the Secretary of State argues that they will gain sovereignty and future trade agreements. Can he explain precisely in engineering terms how supply chains between the north-east of England and north-west France, for example, can be replaced by ones with the mid-west of America or Western Australia?

The hon. Lady usually speaks on business matters with great experience, but it is a misreading of the economic analysis to suggest that her constituents will be poorer or less well-off. The issue within the economic analysis is what the impact will be on the rate of growth; it is not whether people will be worse off than they are today. One key achievement of the Prime Minister’s deal is that it keeps open the option of frictionless trade, because it moves from the binary choice that was initially offered, of either a Canada-style or Norway-style deal, and recognises a bespoke option.