Since our last Question Time, the Government have made important progress towards delivering the result of the European referendum and grasping the opportunities that Brexit can provide. In the negotiations with our European counterparts, we have found important areas where we agree—on pensions, healthcare and Northern Ireland, for example—and we are now working on those areas where we do not agree. We have provided more clarity by publishing papers on a range of issues. Finally, later today we will debate the repeal Bill, which will give effect to the result of the referendum while providing the legal certainty that will avoid unnecessary disruption. I believe the Bill should command the support of all those who believe in securing a smooth and orderly exit from the European Union.
Leaving the EU single market and customs union would be an unprecedented act of self-harm to our economy, especially if the UK Government fail to negotiate a trade agreement with the EU. Will the Secretary of State confirm that if he fails to reach a deal within the two-year deadline, the UK will remain a member of the EU under the existing terms?
No, I will not. The vote of the British people was very clear: they wanted to leave the European Union and take back control, of both borders and laws. That would not be possible if we simply stayed inside the single market under the current terms.
As my right hon. Friend will be aware, EU legislation giving protections to food from particular geographical areas, such as the Cornish pasty, our clotted cream and the Cornish sardine, came into force in 1993. Has his Department had discussions with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about similar arrangements carrying on after we leave the EU?
I can assure my hon. Friend that the Government fully support the UK’s many world-class traditional food products, including those from Cornwall. We recognise the importance of protecting the name and status of high-quality UK food products, such as those currently registered under the protected food name and geographical indications schemes. We are working closely with DEFRA on this important issue. The Government are also engaging directly with producers, actively considering how best to ensure that traditional food products are protected once the EU has left the EU.
Whenever I hear the Secretary of State explaining what will replace our current relationship within the EU, whether he is on the single market, the rights of EU nationals or whatever, it always sounds like a cut-and-paste, second-best, Heath Robinson version of events. I just wonder whether he ever, even for a moment, thinks it is possible he may be mistaken.
It would probably be a unique foray at this Dispatch Box for a Minister to admit error, but let me say this to the hon. Gentleman: I said at the beginning that this is a negotiation; it will take time and go in directions that we do not necessarily expect, and there will be give and take in it. That is as close as I can get.
Later today, this House will get to debate the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill for the first time, which, as we know is a very important piece of legislation that provides certainty and a smooth exit for this country from the EU. Will the Secretary of State set out for the House, and indeed for the country, what the consequences would be of this Bill not being passed? Does he agree that any Member who seeks to block its passing is not acting in the national interest?
I am afraid that my hon. Friend is precisely right. The purpose of the Bill is to establish continuity, for several reasons. The first is to provide certainty for business, an issue raised by Mr Sheerman. The second is to ensure our ability to carry out a free trade deal which will be unique in the world. The third is to underpin all the rights and privileges that we have promised to our country down the years, including employment rights, consumer rights and environmental rights. All those things are vital in the national interest, so he is exactly right.
How should employers in my constituency that I have visited in recent months today assess the risk of ending up with tariffs or additional regulatory barriers to exporting to the single market when we leave the EU?
Those employers should have confidence that it is in everyone’s interests, ours and those of all the nations of the European Union, to deliver tariff-free access between our markets. I would say to those employers that they should have a great deal of confidence that we will therefore secure the deal.
The purpose of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill is to provide continuity and a working statute book on the day we leave. Will my right hon. Friend make it absolutely clear that a vote against this Bill is a vote for chaos and for uncertainty?
My hon. Friend is exactly right about that, and she allows me to reiterate one other point: all the talk from Opposition Members has been about changing things in this Bill. The Bill is about maintaining continuity; it is about keeping in place the aims and purposes of all the European law that we currently have—and will have the day after we leave.
The purpose of any transitional arrangement is, as the Secretary of State said, to avoid a cliff edge, and to give continuity and certainty to the UK economy. But the Chancellor and the Trade Secretary published an article last month saying that during any such period the UK would not be in the single market or the customs union. What is the purpose of a transitional arrangement that undermines the very stability and continuity it is supposed to achieve?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point and I suspect it would have been in his question earlier if he had had the chance to ask it. The simple truth is, as I have said, that we are starting from the aim of maintaining as much continuity as is necessary to anything that might change in the final settlement. So we will do that. Because we are not in the European Union at that point—legally, we will not be—we will not be formally members of the single market and the customs union. We may well seek a customs agreement for that period and a similar arrangement on the single market provisions, but we cannot make that decision ourselves; there is a negotiation to be carried out with the EU.
Does the Minister agree that the system of secondary legislation contemplated by the Bill that we will be debating later today provides the best and most flexible means of ensuring that the United Kingdom is left with a coherent statute book when we leave the European Union? Does he not also agree that there will be general bemusement in this country that the Opposition are seeking to oppose that Bill?
May I begin by paying tribute to my right hon. Friend for all the work he has done in the Department? The quality of the work I inherited is a testament to the leadership he provided in the Department. I am most grateful to him. He makes a good point: secondary legislation is a long-standing mechanism for making detailed changes to the law, with the scrutiny procedure for each instrument agreed by Parliament. Since their introduction, every Government have used statutory instruments and every Parliament has debated and approved statutory instruments.
The hon. Lady makes a good point. The Government are well aware of those issues, and we continue to develop our contingency plans not only in those areas, but right across Government.
Constituents of mine are the bedrock of the success of world-beating companies such as Spirax Sarco. Does my hon. Friend agree that the withdrawal Bill must be the opportunity to cement employee rights, not erode them?
I do agree with my hon. Friend, and I think we have had a good canter around the issue today. I am grateful to him for giving me the opportunity to once again say that the Government are committed to protecting workers’ rights to ensure that they keep pace with the changing labour market and that nothing in the withdrawal Bill will change that.
I would say two things to the hon. Lady: first, we will do that as soon as is feasible within the constraints of the negotiation; and secondly, if she is concerned about business confidence, I say to her that the best way to guarantee stability is to vote for the Bill this afternoon.
Many farms in Wales straddle the border with England. Will my hon. Friend outline how he is ensuring that the voice of cross-border communities is not being ignored in discussions over Brexit and devolution?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We would be happy to meet him and his constituents to address this important issue. The Bill sets out a framework that protects common UK frameworks while we have the conversation with the devolved Administrations as to where they are needed. I think that is a sensible approach to protect the interests of farmers and businesses across the UK.