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Leaving the EU: No Deal

Volume 652: debated on Thursday 17 January 2019

1. How much his Department has spent on preparations for the UK leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement. (908618)

I bring apologies from the Secretary of State this morning. He will not be attending these proceedings because he is attending vital cross-party meetings in Downing Street—[Interruption.] I am sure that Members across the House will understand that those meetings are vitally important at this stage.

In answer to Question 1, in the 2017 autumn Budget, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was allocated an additional £310 million to support its work on EU exit preparations in this financial year, 2018-19, with a further £10 million being repurposed from existing budgets. DEFRA is using that additional funding to prepare for and deliver its ambitious programme of EU exit activities in readiness for all scenarios, including preparations for the UK leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement, as is the duty of a responsible Government.

Further to what the Minister has just said, I advise the House that the Secretary of State, in keeping with his usual courtesy, informed me last night of his intended absence. I shall greatly miss him, but we look forward to seeing the fellow again before too long.

Well, I am not sure that the House does understand the Secretary of State’s absence, Mr Speaker. DEFRA questions are only half an hour long; surely those meetings could have been delayed for 30 minutes. My question to the Minister is: will DEFRA be 100% ready in the event of us having to leave with no deal?

The Department is working flat out to prepare for no deal. As the House knows, we are bringing on the onshoring of environment, agriculture and fisheries policies, involving 55 major projects and 120 statutory instruments. We will be recruiting around 2,700 officials to ensure that we are well prepared in a no-deal scenario.

We know that householders are stockpiling food and that businesses are spending money that they can ill afford, as is the Minister’s Department, on a no-deal Brexit that would harm the food industry, the farming industry and of course the chemicals industry, which his Department regulates. In a phone call on Tuesday night, the Chancellor said that a no-deal Brexit would be ruled out and off the table by the end of next week. Does the Minister agree?

The best way to avoid no deal is by agreeing a deal, and that is why we are working constructively—[Interruption.] The House made its views clear on the Government’s proposed deal and we are now working constructively with major parties across the House to get a deal in place. I am just disappointed that the Leader of the Opposition did not turn up to do that, and that he has not even agreed with the advice of the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

The Secretary of State is sorely missed this morning. I wanted to commend him for his barnstorming speech last night. Hon. Members and others like myself who represent farming constituencies all received letters before Tuesday’s vote from the farming organisations—the National Farmers Union, the Country Land and Business Association and the Tenant Farmers Association—saying that “above all” they wanted to see a no-deal Brexit ruled out. Given the overwhelming majority in Parliament for that, will the Minister give us some reassurance that the Government will support the view of the majority?

Well, I will do my very best to make up for the absence of our esteemed Secretary of State, who did indeed put in a fantastic performance yesterday. I can assure my right hon. Friend that we are working closely with the NFU and the farming sector in seeking to find that deal. We know that many farmers voted to leave, but few wanted to leave with no deal. That is why we are working incredibly hard to ensure that we get that deal into place.

15. Of the six parties in the House, the Prime Minister met three last night. Labour Front Benchers are not meeting her, so I suppose we can work out who the Secretary of State must be meeting today. He told me last week that he thinks the other European countries will be looking enviously at the Prime Minister’s deal. Is that still the Government’s position, and if so, are they not concerned that that would threaten the entire European project, because everyone would want the glorious new future that Britain is going to have? (908635)

The EU has its own challenges, which it is no doubt seeking to take forward. We are clear that we want to take a deal forward. We felt that the deal was a good deal, but Parliament has had its say. We are now responding constructively in these negotiations, and I am grateful to the Scottish National party for taking that forward. I just wish that Labour would take a similar stance.

Last Saturday I had the honour of attending the plough service to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Staffordshire NFU, an extremely good organisation representing farmers throughout my constituency. At that service, a number of members came up to me and expressed how concerned they are about any prospect of no deal. Will my hon. Friend set out what the consequences would be for my farmers if there were, indeed, no deal?

The Secretary of State has made it clear in his contributions here and at the recent farming conference in Oxford that there could be significant disruption for the farming sector, which is why we are working very hard to make sure that Staffordshire NFU members and farmers across the country get the best possible protection. I meet the NFU every week to listen to and work through its concerns and, of course, the No. 1 priority is to make sure we get this deal. Again, I am grateful to those parties that have sought to become part of that process and dialogue.

14. Without a deal, Scottish farmers could soon face tariffs of 30% on dairy products and 46% on lamb, which would make them uncompetitive and would damage Scotland’s food and drink industry. I would have liked to ask the perhaps future Prime Minister to rule out a no deal, but will the Minister do so? (908634)

I can assure the hon. Lady that I am not the future Prime Minister. That will not happen. She does not have to worry about that. [Interruption.] Well, I am certainly not. I am merely filling in for him while he is not here.

The hon. Lady asks an important question, which other hon. Members have also asked. We want to make sure that protections are in place, and we want to get this deal in place, because a no deal would potentially have a disruptive effect on farmers. We will work together closely to ensure a deal happens.

It is absolutely right that the Government prepare for all eventualities, including no deal, but does my hon. Friend share my sense of incredulity at hearing those who spent most of this week attacking the deal on the table, and attacking every other deal the EU has ever done, now complaining about the prospect of there not being one?

That is the case we made. The Government and many Conservative Members felt that the deal was a good deal, but clearly we now need to respond to what the House has said, and we are doing that.

The Minister is a well-intentioned fella. Will he take a strong message from those of us who care about DEFRA, the environment and our farming sector that we do care, that we are willing to help get this right and that we are willing to do so on an all-party basis, as long as we can bury this nonsense of a no-deal Brexit?

The hon. Gentleman is also a good fella with good intentions, and I share his concerns about no deal. What we need to do now is to find a deal that the House can unite behind. The Secretary of State would say that if he were in his place, and it is important that the Leader of the Opposition now joins that process.

I, too, am sorry not to see the Secretary of State in his place at the Dispatch Box after what was quite the bravura audition yesterday. Someone once said:

“The day after we vote to leave, we hold all the cards and we can choose the path we want.”

It seems that those cards and paths have been pretty expensive so far. Can the Minister tell us whether his Department’s largesse has sorted out the export health certificate system, which of course relies on a single spreadsheet? Has he made export agreements with 154 countries to replace the EU agreements? Lastly, has this been the worst poker hand ever played?

Lots of questions there, but I can assure the hon. Lady that I am even more saddened not to see the Secretary of State here because I am having to answer all his questions on this subject.

On the hon. Lady’s substantive point, we are working on the export health certificate process, and we are working on the other trade agreements. My hon. Friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the farming Minister, is working on those issues as well. Each of those steps is being dealt with.