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Topical Questions

Volume 657: debated on Thursday 4 April 2019

Since I last updated the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) has left the Government. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to his outstanding service as a Minister. He will be greatly missed in the Department and by his colleagues, but I know he will continue to serve his constituents in Daventry in an exemplary way.

Since our last departmental questions, we have not only had a large number of debates with the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), but votes, and the House has not yet been able to find something that it is for, as opposed to lots of things that it is against. That is why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out on Tuesday that this division—this lack of conclusion—cannot continue and drag on. We have reached out to the Leader of the Opposition to see whether we can agree on a plan to leave the European Union with a deal. Those discussions will continue later today.

The public know that the withdrawal agreement is a long way from the Brexit that was promised. Does the Secretary of State agree that the public have been badly let down and that whatever agreement is drawn up by this Parliament should now be subject to a confirmatory public vote—on a real rather than a fantasy Brexit deal?

The hon. Gentleman seems to confuse the winding-down arrangements—the withdrawal agreement—with a future deal. The EU has been clear: first, that any deal reached will need to include the withdrawal agreement; and secondly, that that withdrawal agreement is not open to renegotiation. Therefore, any deal to move forward in an orderly fashion needs to come with a withdrawal agreement. That is why it is so remarkable that the hon. Gentleman voted against the withdrawal agreement—whatever the deal to leave the EU, it will require a withdrawal agreement. The only conclusion is that perhaps he does not want to honour his own manifesto and perhaps he does not want to leave at all.

T3. Will the Minister confirm that it is still the Government’s position to take us out of the common fisheries policy, with the UK participating in annual negotiations as an independent coastal state no later than December 2020? (910237)

Yes, I am very happy to confirm to my hon. Friend that that is our policy. It was good to meet the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation in his constituency to hear why it sees that policy as a sea of opportunity.

Normally I complain that in these sessions we do not get any of our questions answered. We have moved on this morning: instead of answering questions, the Ministers are now asking themselves questions, or inventing questions that they would like to answer and then answering them. I had better be careful how I frame this question for the Secretary of State.

Last week, the Prime Minister said:

“unless this House agrees to it, no deal will not happen”.—[Official Report, 25 March 2019; Vol. 657, c. 25.]

That was a very important commitment, particularly now that we are eight days from 12 April. The simple question for the Secretary of State to ask himself is this: does he agree that, unless this House agrees to it, no deal will not happen?

What the Prime Minister was referring to, which was played out in the debate in the House yesterday, was that when the House of Commons passes a law—subject to the other place, that is the position of the vote last night—then in law, bound by the ministerial code, Ministers will need to abide by it. At the same time, the Prime Minister has always been clear that the decision by this House not to approve the withdrawal agreement means that any extension will need to be agreed by the EU Council 28, which includes the United Kingdom, but it can be opposed by any member of the European Union. It is not solely within the control of this House whether we leave with or without a deal; it is also now subject to the decision of the EU 27.

When we do get a question and answer, it gets interesting. That is a rowing back on what the Prime Minister said. When she said that unless this House agreed to it no deal would not happen, that was not in the context of the Bill last night—that Bill had not even been drafted. She said it as a general proposition in the debate last week. I hope that the Secretary of State is not rowing back, and I would like him to confirm that he is not rowing back. Otherwise, we have elicited something here of some importance.

May I also go on to ask the Secretary of State whether he now regrets voting against an extension of article 50 in this House on 14 March—that was an extension beyond 29 March? Does he now regret voting against the Cooper-Letwin Bill last night? Had the House followed his vote, does he appreciate that it is highly likely that we would be in a no-deal situation right now?

First, we have the oddity of the right hon. and learned Gentleman accusing the ministerial team of not answering the question, then pointing out that indeed we have answered it in an interesting way. Putting that to one side and going to the substance of his question, as I pointed out to the House, one of the defects of the legislation passed last night is the potential for it to increase the risk of an accidental no deal, where the EU Council decides to offer a different extension from the one agreed by this House. Under the terms of that legislation that would have to come back to this House for approval the following day, by which time the EU Council would have concluded. I do not think that was the intention of the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), but it is a possible outcome. It is subject to their lordships deciding whether they want to correct what I regard as a defect, although the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s shadow ministerial colleague says that, no doubt, their lordships will just nod it all through without scrutiny and without addressing that defect.

Regarding the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s second point, I was alluding to a statement of the law. I do not differ at all from the Prime Minister, who has always been clear that Ministers abide by the ministerial code, and I am sure that he would expect no less.

Thirdly, on the extension, we have addressed this issue in previous debates because the three amendments had all been defeated by the time we got on to the fourth vote. A further commitment had been given to an amendable motion for the following week, which was addressed. But the bottom line is that I want to respect the referendum result. I think asking people to vote for Members of the European Parliament three years after they voted to leave the EU is damaging to trust in our democracy. The question for Opposition Members is: why do they keep voting against everything when their own manifesto said they wanted to respect the result?

T6. The digital single market copyright directive is on its way to becoming law in the EU. This could have significant implications for the UK’s intellectual property-rich creative industries, particularly publishing, whose successes are underpinned by the gold standard copyright system. How consistent will the UK’s copyright regime be with the EU’s when—perhaps I should say if—we leave? (910240)

T2. The Prime Minister has confirmed that the future declaration is not legally binding, so what assurances can the Government give us on trade tariffs, rights at work, food standards and environmental protections that will be binding on whoever ends up negotiating our permanent deal with the EU? (910236)

As the hon. Lady knows, there will be ample opportunity for the House to legislate during the passage of the withdrawal agreement Bill. As she also knows, there is legal wiring—for example, through article 174, which deals with best endeavours and good faith obligations under the withdrawal agreement, and how they connect. If it is one of the matters the House looks at in the future, it will be able to choose to put into legislation negotiating objectives. The point is that the hon. Lady has opposed the withdrawal agreement that the EU says is necessary for any deal, and we cannot get on to the future relationship without a withdrawal agreement.

T8. Regulatory alignment is a euphemism for their making the rules and us having to implement them, is it not? (910242)

My right hon. Friend, as always, is short and to the point. He correctly identifies the risk of rule taking. We talked earlier about financial services and the tax take from that sector alone. The UK taxpayer, who underwrites the liabilities of a sector such as financial services, will have concerns if the rules are being set in countries in Europe, rather than in this Parliament.

T5. When in 2017 the former Brexit Minister, the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), claimed that so many DExEU staff were on loan from elsewhere in the civil service because the nature of the Department was temporary, I bet he did not foresee his own departure, along with five other Ministers, the latest one being the no-deal Minister, the hon. Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), who says his work is done now. When do the Government envisage the job of exiting the European Union being complete, enabling this young Ministry, which has experienced so much churn, to be wound up? (910239)

As the Prime Minister has already informed the House, the Department for Exiting the European Union will lead during the next phase of the negations. As the hon. Lady is well aware, we need to get on to those negotiations in order that the Department can undertake them. That is what businesses up and down the country want. They want this uncertainty to be brought to a close and they want us to get on into the implementation period for the certainty that that will bring. It is also what EU citizens living in this country and UK citizens in Europe want to see.

T9.   Will the Minister outline what conversations he has had with the Home Office to ensure that the settled status scheme works effectively for EU nationals? (910243)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question—it is important to make sure the scheme works as effectively and smoothly as possible. The Home Office is providing assisted digital support over the phone from more than 200 centres throughout the UK, and at home with a trained tutor. Applicants can have their identity verified by the identity document checkout at more than 50 locations, one of which I am pleased to see is in my constituency, as well as by post. I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary confirmed recently that Apple has said it will make the identity document check available on its devices by the end of the year.

T7. The Government have been warned that EU nationals’ children who are looked-after or care leavers will fall through the gap when it comes to the settling of their status. These are vulnerable children in the care of the state, yet the Government, their corporate parent, do not even know how many of them there are and are refusing to give them automatic settled status or to waive the fees of those eligible for citizenship. Why is that? (910241)

I absolutely disagree with the hon. Lady about the Government’s attitude to this group. We want to ensure that all those who are eligible for settled status, particularly children, are given a smooth and orderly process. I am certainly happy to take up her concerns with the Home Office, but I do not agree that the Government do not take their responsibilities in this regard extremely seriously.

Yesterday, in the International Trade Committee, we heard from the Minister for Trade Policy that, should we ever get there, it will not be DIT negotiating our future trading relationship with the EU but, I presume, DExEU. If that is the case, what lessons will be learned from the fundamental strategic flaws in this opening phase of negotiations? What detailed discussion is under way with DIT about the impact of whatever DExEU negotiates on our ability to build future trade agreements?

My hon. Friend is right that my Department will lead on the future trade agreement—the future economic partnership with the EU—but she will also be aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade will lead on our trade deals with the rest of the world, and he and I speak regularly. In respect of the lessons from phase 1, as in the corporate world, as in Government: there are always lessons. There are things that have gone well in phase 1 and things on which we can improve. It was a major new endeavour for the Government to undertake and we have had a number of discussions in the Department to ensure we take those lessons on board.

North-east manufacturers have achieved great success as part of integrated, just-in-time pan-European supply chains, which mean that, as one manufacturer puts it, their stock room is somebody else’s delivery van. These manufacturers are now having to stockpile as a consequence of this Brexit chaos, and that has implications for their cash flow and finances. What help is the Minister looking to provide for them and what hope of future economic integration can he offer them in the case of there being a deal without a customs union?

I have travelled in the north-east, although not quite in the hon. Lady’s constituency, and I have seen chemicals firms in the petrochemicals industry. They say with one voice that they want a solution to this impasse, just as we do in this House. They want to have a deal, to have the implementation period and to move on from this.

Forcing the UK to take part in European parliamentary elections would show a fundamental lack of respect for our democratic process, wouldn’t it?

I have already addressed this point. Three years after the country voted by record numbers to leave, there is a strong desire to ensure that we get on with it and do so. The Prime Minister has compromised and reached out. We are endeavouring to deliver on the will of the British people as expressed in that referendum vote, and on the manifesto commitments of both main parties.

The hon. Member for Redditch (Rachel Maclean) appears to be on the receiving end of mentoring from her right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne). It will probably be extremely helpful to her—it would be to any Member—and it is a great tribute to the right hon. Gentleman.

Can the Secretary of State just enlighten the House as to what he thinks has actually gone well during this first phase?

I think what has gone well in this first phase is that we have an agreement with the EU that gives certainty to EU citizens, that respects our legal obligations and that will ensure that there is no hard border on the border of Northern Ireland. In part, one of the achievements of both parties, but particularly of the Labour party, was the Good Friday agreement. It is why those Members in Northern Ireland get so agitated with Members on the hon. Lady’s Benches over their failure on the withdrawal process. We have a deal; it is on the table; and it is the only deal that the EU is willing to offer.

The clear and solemn commitment in the Conservative party manifesto, on which the Secretary of State and I were elected, was:

“As we leave the European Union, we will no longer be members of the single market or customs union.”

Will he ensure that the Prime Minister does not renege on that commitment at the European Council next week?

My hon. Friend correctly identifies that commitment in our manifesto. He will also be aware that the manifesto gives a commitment to have a deep and special partnership with the EU. It is that balance that we are trying to seek. That is why the Prime Minister brought forward a deal that delivered on the referendum result—on things such as control of our borders, a skilled immigration system, control of our fisheries, control of our agriculture, and putting an end to sending vast sums of money to the EU—but also respected the fact that 48% of the population did not vote for leave. It is that compromise that has not been pure enough for some Members on the Government Benches to support it.