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Topical Questions

Volume 660: debated on Thursday 16 May 2019

Since our last questions session, over the past six weeks the Government and the Opposition have held constructive meetings. The Prime Minister met the Leader of the Opposition earlier this week, and discussions continue with the aim of reaching a compromise that could command a majority in the House. The Prime Minister has also said that the Government will introduce the withdrawal agreement Bill in the first week after the recess, which will allow more time for the talks to continue, but with a view to ratifying the withdrawal agreement before the summer recess.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that the withdrawal agreement Bill will include the Government’s proposal for legislation to enshrine the backstop in UK law?

Yes, because the withdrawal agreement will need to be ratified, and ratification includes the Northern Ireland protocol.

I wonder if the excellent Secretary of State has had an opportunity to watch “Brexit: Behind Closed Doors”. The BBC has hidden it away on BBC Four, but it is quite a revealing programme. In it, the lead negotiator for our exit from the European Union, Olly Robbins—who I think is in Brussels this week—says that because he has done such a rotten deal he cannot come back to the United Kingdom and is applying for Belgian citizenship. Is that appropriate, Secretary of State?

Without straying too much into my television viewing habits of recent weeks, I must confess to my hon. Friend that I am intending to watch that documentary. I have seen clips of it, including the one to which he has referred. As he will appreciate, given my current diary, I do not have a huge amount of television time, but I will be sure to make time to watch it in the coming days.

In February, the Secretary of State told the House:

“the withdrawal agreement Bill is a significant piece of legislation and we will need to get it through the House, but the key issue is getting the deal through, because once we have done that, we will have the basis for the necessary consensus in the House to approach that legislation.”—[Official Report, 28 February 2019; Vol. 655, c. 505.]

That makes sense—deal first, implement second—so will the Secretary of State tell us whether the Government are going to hold a fourth meaningful vote before the withdrawal agreement Bill is introduced, or whether the House will be asked to do the opposite of what he advocated in February and implement a deal that has not been approved?

I do not want to stray into territory that is rightly much more a matter for the Chair, but I think I am correct in saying, Mr Speaker, that you have been very clear in your directions regarding meaningful votes and whether they would be considered. As for the deal, we have talked about whether an agreement could be reached with the Opposition. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, those talks are ongoing, including the discussion between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition this week. We have made it clear, and the Prime Minister has made it clear, that we will bring the withdrawal agreement legislation to the House in the week after the recess, and the House will have an opportunity to vote at that point.

I should have thought it was patently obvious that if the Prime Minister’s deal is put to the House for the fourth time—if that is allowed—it will fail, just as it has failed three times already.

Let me make it clear that Labour opposes the idea of passing the withdrawal agreement Bill without an agreed deal. That would put the cart before the horse, and Labour will therefore vote against the Bill’s Second Reading. How on earth does the Secretary of State think that a Bill to implement a deal that is not before the House can be passed in two weeks’ time—or is this about keeping the Prime Minister in office for another week and giving her a lifeline for today’s meeting of the 1922 Committee?

The talks with the Opposition Front Bench team have been going on for over six weeks, and the House has now looked at the meaningful vote on three occasions and made its view clear. The question therefore arises, as came through in amendments from a number of Members of this House—such as the Snell-Nandy amendment—whether there are changes to the withdrawal agreement Bill that would enable it to command wider support. It is on that basis that not only have we had those discussions but indeed the right hon. and learned Gentleman has welcomed them. When the House sees that legislation, it will be for it to decide whether it commands a majority of the House. The right hon. and learned Gentleman’s personal position might be that what is in that text is irrelevant, because he personally wants to have a second referendum, but that is not the basis on which the discussions have been held; that may be his personal position, but it is not, as I understand it, the official position of the Leader of the Opposition. It will be for the House to make a decision, and the Prime Minister has made it clear that there will be an opportunity for it to do that in the week after the recess.

The Secretary of State looks physically fit and is in good shape and I expect he goes to the gym a lot. If he decided to leave his gym and the gym said to him, “You’ve got to give us two years’ notice; when you leave, you have to pay four years’ worth of membership fees up front; and after you’ve left, we’re still going to control your fitness programme,” would he regard that as a good deal or a bad deal?

I fear that we are straying slightly into territory that is not primarily relevant to the legislation we will be considering after the recess. My gym attendance is a bit like my television viewing: a little non-existent at present. The point is that we as a House know that we need to confront not just the issue of the legislation in the withdrawal agreement but the consequences that would flow from it. When I gave evidence to the Lords Select Committee yesterday, in the usual joyful comments to which my social media feeds are accustomed, people seemed surprised that if we do not leave the EU with a deal, the House will need to face a choice as to whether it then leaves without a deal or whether Members of this House, as they have done with no deal before, seek to prevent that and seek to revoke such an outcome. I do not think that that is a revelation, although it seemed to be greeted as one; I think it is simply a statement of fact and logic, and Members of the House need to confront that when they consider the withdrawal agreement Bill that comes before the House after the recess.

T2. It is three years since the EU referendum and the chemical industry on Teesside and beyond is still nervous about the future. That is having a major impact on jobs and investment. Time and again, I have raised this issue with Ministers, and time and again they have failed to provide the assurances needed; what has the Brexit Secretary got to say now? (910943)

I am very pleased that the hon. Gentleman has raised that question. I have not visited his constituency exactly, but I have been to Teesport and seen many representatives of the chemicals industry, and the one thing they are very anxious to do is create some certainty: they want this phase of the Brexit process to be completed and feel we should back the deal and back the withdrawal agreement. They have, unlike many Opposition Members, accepted the result of the referendum and want to move forward with this process.

What preparations have the Government made to establish a UK investment bank to take over the responsibilities and functions of the European Investment Bank and indeed to do more for investment in the infrastructure and businesses of the UK?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. As the Treasury has set out, there will be extra support for the British Business Bank to play a role in that regard. I would also point him towards the important role of the UK shared prosperity fund in replacing elements of structural funding.

T3. The Secretary of State said earlier that a no-deal scenario would be harmful to the economy and threaten the integrity of the United Kingdom, but he then also said that he would support a no-deal scenario rather than remaining in the European Union. So is he saying that threatening the integrity of the Union of the United Kingdom is actually a price worth paying for a hard Tory Brexit? (910945)

What I am saying is that there will be consequences to both options. Revoke would involve a betrayal of democracy, going back on the commitments that this House has given and having a divisive, but not decisive, second referendum that could end up with the same result as before. Businesses are experiencing uncertainty, including in Dundee, where I was on Thursday. It has the fastest growing chamber of commerce in the United Kingdom, and people there want to see a deal and to see this country move forward. That is the way forward, but if we do not support a deal, a no-deal would have consequences. However, the much more severe consequences would be those for our democracy and for our international reputation as a country if we were to undermine such a major democratic decision.

Is planning still continuing for a no-deal situation, and is the Treasury providing adequate resources for it?

I can absolutely confirm to my hon. Friend that planning is continuing for no deal and that funding is allocated. It is important for the Government to use the time that we have between now and 31 October to ensure that we are prepared, should that eventuality arise, but it is in our interests to secure a deal so that that becomes unnecessary.

T4. Nottingham has two world-class universities, and EU nationals on the academic staff and the student body make an extraordinary contribution to those schools. Can the Secretary of State give me a categorical assurance that, however Brexit is resolved, there will be no extra burdens impairing the contribution of EU nationals to those institutions? (910947)

EU nationals play a really important part in all our universities, and I regularly meet the university sector to discuss them. We will absolutely continue to welcome EU nationals to study at our universities after Brexit, but of course, part of the arrangements between us will depend on the future relationship, which will be determined in the next phase of the negotiations. I want to move on so that we can secure the best possible future relationship for our universities.

Will the Secretary of State set out for the House why a customs union is the wrong policy choice for the future success of the UK economy?

As we set out in our manifesto, it is in the interests of this country to have an independent trade policy. That is what the Prime Minister has negotiated, and that is the best way for us to deliver the global vision, which is why my hon. Friend and I supported Brexit in the first place.

I am sure that the whole Government Front Bench team will be aware of the bad news today from Thomas Cook, whose travel business looks unsustainable as a result of the Brexit process. There is no such thing as a good Brexit, and we can only imagine the economic disaster of a madcap no-deal Brexit. Before the European elections next week, will the Secretary of State confirm that he will respect the views of this House and take a no-deal Brexit off the table completely?

Any news regarding an individual company is always concerning, in particular because our minds turn to the staff and their families who are dealing with the situation. This is an area in which the parties traditionally come together and work together to try to resolve the issue. However, we should not take these things out of context. Only this week, we had the lowest unemployment since 1974, and that is an indication of our economic strength. When bad news is always blamed on Brexit, as some Opposition Members seem to want to do, it is always worth remembering that we have not yet left.

T5. Will the Secretary of State assure me that he has read the major piece of research led by King’s College London and Sheffield University, alongside universities across Europe, into the impact on communities of leaving the EU on any basis? Is he as dreadfully worried as I am that many of the hardest hit will be those towns and cities that voted to leave? On the basis of these figures, many people are predicting a 20% cut in GDP, which would turn those areas into investment and employment wastelands. (910950)

The hon. Gentleman seems to be saying that the people in those communities that voted to leave should not be trusted with their vote, but that is not what he says at a general election when those same communities return Labour MPs. He does not say, when those people look at the economic policy of the Leader of the Opposition, that they are too stupid to be trusted with a vote, yet when it comes to the biggest vote in our country’s history, he seems to be saying that their vote should not be respected.

Earlier this month, the House unanimously declared a climate change emergency. Does the Minister agree that when it comes to tackling the catastrophe that is climate change—or, for that matter, challenging the overweening arrogance of the tech giants or protecting our citizens—we are stronger and have more influence as a consequence of international agreements, and that those agreements therefore enhance rather than diminish our sovereignty?

I agree with every word the hon. Lady just said. That is one of the reasons why we are seeking to secure the international agreement we have already negotiated with the European Union to allow an orderly withdrawal—one that will allow us to work together effectively on those issues in the future. Indeed, our Prime Minister has been in European capitals this week working collaboratively with other European countries.

The Minister knows that the Government’s myopic obsession with ending freedom of movement is causing a recruitment crisis in the health and social care sector—indeed, the King’s Fund said recently that it was becoming a national emergency. Why are his Government determined to drag that sector into that national emergency?

The only myopic obsession is the Scottish National party’s obsession with an independence referendum. The hon. Gentleman says it is the Government’s obsession, but it is the Migration Advisory Council that said this is a UK-wide issue, which needs to be approached on a UK-wide basis. I remind the House of the answer I gave earlier: there are now 700 more doctors from EU27 countries working in the NHS than there were at the time of the referendum. The numbers are going up, yet the hon. Gentleman constantly talks our country down.

Royal Assent

I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:

Offensive Weapons Act 2019

Mental Capacity (Amendment) Act 2019.