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Brexit: Release of Impact Assessments

Volume 787: debated on Tuesday 28 November 2017


My Lords, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer given to an Urgent Question in another place. The Statement is as follows:

“On 1 November the House passed a Motion asking that impact assessments arising from sectoral analyses be provided to the Committee on Exiting the European Union. Mr Speaker, this Government take very seriously their parliamentary responsibilities and have been clear that they would be providing information to the committee. In the past three weeks, departments have worked to collate and bring forward this information in a way that is accessible and informative.

I am glad to be able to confirm this information has been provided, not only to the Committee for Exiting the European Union but to the House of Lords EU Committee and, indeed, the devolved Administrations. I can also, with Mr Speaker’s permission, inform the House that we have initiated discussions with the parliamentary authorities to make this information available to all colleagues through a reading room.

We were clear that we would respond to the Motion but also that the documents did not exist in the form requested. Indeed, I made it clear to the House during the debate that day that,

“there has been some misunderstanding about what this sectoral analysis actually is. It is not a series of 58 economic impact assessments”.—[Official Report, Commons, 1/11/17; col. 887.]

The sectoral analysis is a wide mix of qualitative and quantitative analysis, contained in a range of documents developed at different times since the referendum.

The House of Commons has itself recognised that while Ministers should be as open as possible with Parliament, the Government also have an obligation to consider where it would not be in the public interest for material to be published. Furthermore, it is important to recognise that in some cases there may be confidential or commercially sensitive information in this analysis, and that in many cases it has been developed to underpin advice to Ministers of the negotiation options in various scenarios. It is well understood, as was the case under successive Administrations, that such advice to Ministers must remain private. We have also explained that we have a clear obligation not to disclose information when doing so would not be in the public interest.

In light of all that, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State made a Statement on 7 November, in which he explained that, given that the documents did not exist in the form requested, it would take some time,

“to collate and bring together this information in a way that is accessible and informative for the Committee”.—[Official Report, Commons, 7/11/17; col. 231WS.]

He committed that those reports would be provided within three weeks. In providing that information to the committee yesterday, we have met that commitment.

Ministers also have a specific responsibility, which Parliament has endorsed, not to release information that would undermine our negotiating position. Contrary to what has been asserted in some places, the committee did not give any assurances that what was passed to it would not subsequently be published in full. Where there are precedents for Government passing information to Select Committees in confidence, these will be on the basis of assurances received before the material is shared, or a clear set of rules such as those governing intelligence material.

When he met the Secretary of State, the chairman of the committee said that he was willing to enter into a dialogue after the committee had received documents from the Government. This is not the same as an assurance that, if we had provided confidential or sensitive material, it would not be published, and it is not in keeping with the usual practice of committees on these sensitive issues. As such, the sectoral reports do not contain material which would undermine the UK’s hand in the negotiations, or material that is commercially or market sensitive.

Mr Speaker, this debate really seems to be about the “release” of the reports. As you pointed out succinctly yesterday,

‘publication is to the Committee and the matter is in the hands of the Committee’.—[Official Report, Commons, 27/11/17; col. 50.]

Therefore, I suspect many of the questions I receive today should be directed to the chair of the committee and his fellow members. The House should be in no doubt—this has been a very substantial undertaking. We have been as open as possible, subject to the overwhelming national interests of preserving our negotiating position. We have collated over 800 pages of analysis for the committees less than a month from the Motion being passed. This covers all of the 58 sectors.

We now consider the Motion of 1 November 2017 to have been satisfied”.

I thank the Minister for reading out that Statement. Has the Minister read the 58 reports? Assuming he has, does the evidence within these analyses show that leaving the customs union will benefit our economy?

I have not read all the reports, although I have read very many of them. These documents are constantly being updated and collated. New information is coming to light and new facts are emerging, all of which inform our negotiating position. The Government have been very clear that we are leaving the customs union and the single market. I believe that this will be firmly in the country’s best interests.

My Lords, are this Government not a serial offender when it comes to the arrogance of their executive power? The Brexit pledges were all about taking back control and Westminster sovereignty, but Parliament has been refused a decision on Article 50. There has been an attempted power grab in the withdrawal Bill and now there is this.

In her speech to the Conservative Party conference in October last year, the Prime Minister gave many pledges about change, transparency and honesty and how she had heard the call of millions of people. Is it not time to stop hiding from the British people and to stop keeping them in the dark about the Government’s extreme Brexit plans? Should these reports not be published in full, rather than going through a Whitehall whitewash? Why are the Government trying to spare their own blushes and hide from the people the disaster that Brexit will mean for their jobs, their rights and the environment?

We are not hiding behind any documents. We have provided an unprecedented level of information to the committee. We have been as open and transparent as possible, subject only to preserving our negotiating position. With the permission of the House, I should like to answer a question which I was not asked, but which I expected to be asked by the noble Baronesses—will the House have access to this material? The answer is yes.

My Lords, I can confirm that, as acting chairman of your Lordships’ European Union Committee, I have received these documents. I have not read them all, but I had a chance to look at some of them last night. The committee will have a chance to discuss a way forward at its meeting tomorrow afternoon. It will want to take account of the views expressed in this House this afternoon before it comes to any conclusion.

Meanwhile, will the Minister expand a little on the reference in the covering letter from David Davis to Hilary Benn and to me to,

“aspects of the analyses which may still be sensitive to the negotiations, especially in the context of this particular point in time”.

When will this particular point in time have passed, at which point the sensitivity about releasing the information will presumably also have passed?

My Lords, as the House will be aware from media reports, this is a very fast-moving and dynamic negotiation environment. Some people might observe that the negotiations are sometimes not moving as fast as we might like. Nevertheless, things are changing all the time. New information is coming to light; papers are shared and discussions take place with our European partners. It is a complex and varied negotiation and we will be as open and transparent as possible. We will share all the information we possibly can, subject only to preserving our negotiating position. I cannot believe that most Members of the House would think anything else wise to do.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that in the normal course of events, notwithstanding his replies to date, when legislation is published in Parliament there is an impact assessment released for the benefit of parliamentarians? Will he confirm that when, for example, the agriculture and environment Bills come before this place it is the Government’s intention to publish the usual impact assessments at that time?

I am not privy to the details of those Bills, which are being done by different departments, but I would expect that they will publish impact assessments at the time.

My Lords, can the Minister have another go at answering the question put to him about the customs union? Does the report indicate whether it would be a good or bad thing for us to stay in or leave the customs union?

My Lords, I might be repeating myself but this is a series of sectoral analyses, analysing individual sectors of the economy in great detail. They show what things are going on in their sectors, what stakeholders have said to us and other key factors facing us. As I have said, it is the policy of the Government that we will leave the single market and the customs union, because that is in the best interests of satisfying the result of the referendum.

My Lords, the implication of what my noble friend has said is that the Government announced immediately that we would withdraw from the single market and the customs union before they had all the information, which has now become available. Should they not reassess the position?

My Lords, consistent with the result of the referendum we will be leaving the single market and we will be leaving the customs union.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm what I think I understood from his answer to one question, which is that the 850 pages form a completely different document to that which the Government put together on the basis of 58 sectoral analyses? If he does confirm that, can he explain why it was that in the debate in the other place on revealing the 58 studies, nobody from the government side explained that they were being asked, as he said, for something that did not exist?

No, they are not completely different documents. Much of the material is the same as it was in the original documents. Some of them were drawn up two years ago and some more recently. We thought that they should be updated and the information in them is often more current. There is more information in them than in some of the original documents. We think it is in a more accessible and open format.

My Lords, the Government state that this is unprecedented. I declare an interest: I was involved in an earlier exercise which the Conservatives in 2010 demanded, under the coalition agreement, that the Liberal Democrats should have access to. We had 32 detailed reports on the balance of competences between the United Kingdom and the European Union, which I negotiated as a Minister with David Lidington and Greg Clark. When they came out, Number 10 was very unhappy that almost all of them said that the single market was clearly in Britain’s interest and that the balance of regulations suited industry and other stakeholders. It did its best to suppress them; they were usually published as we broke up for the summer or for Christmas. Unfortunately, in the run-up to the referendum not only the leave campaign but the Conservatives in the remain campaign ignored that evidence base. Can we be sure that this time the Government will not ignore evidence as they continue these negotiations?

My Lords, of course we will not ignore evidence, but the Liberal Democrats seem to want to ignore the result of the referendum. The referendum result was clear and the Article 50 Bill was passed in both Houses. We are leaving the European Union, and of course we will use all available information to inform our negotiating position. This is the most important negotiation that any Government have carried out for many years. We are determined to get it right, and we are determined to get a good deal for the United Kingdom.

The noble Lord has told us that we are ignoring the result of the referendum. Nobody is arguing about the result of the referendum. However he did say in response to my noble friend Lady Hayter’s question that he had read “some” of these sectoral analyses, but he did not answer her question about what those sectoral analyses told him. He simply asserted that it is in the long-term interest of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. What did the sectoral analyses that he has read say about whether it is good or bad for those sectors in terms of leaving the EU?

I have my view on what they said, but the noble Lord will be able to judge for himself. We will make these documents available in a reading room, and he can read them and then come back and argue the point then.

Can my noble friend confirm that one reason why it is a bad idea to stay in the customs union is because we would not be able to negotiate free trade deals with other countries all round the world?

My Lords, in relation to a matter of this importance and the release of information, is it really right that the Government should be judge in their own court? Would the Government be prepared to let independent people, perhaps a group of privy counsellors, look at the information that has not been revealed and decide whether more of it should be revealed to the House of Commons and to this House?

My Lords, many Members of this House are independent and we fully value their judgment. They will be able to look at the documents. Many Members are on the Brexit Select Committee and I am sure they will let us know their point of view in due course.