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Department for Exiting the European Union

Part of Ministry of Defence – in the House of Commons at 8:31 pm on 26th February 2018.

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Photo of Stephen Gethins Stephen Gethins Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Affairs and Europe) 8:31 pm, 26th February 2018

I extend my thanks to colleagues across the House who have backed this debate this evening. This is an important debate. The Department for Exiting the European Union is obviously a relatively new Department, but it is not an insignificant spending Department, as we have seen recently.

We have some sympathy for the Government of the day—and the House will not hear me say that very often—given that they are trying to find a solution for leaving the European Union on the back of a vote leave campaign that told us precious little about what leaving the European Union would actually mean. There was no White Paper and no manifesto. Two years on from the EU referendum, however, the excuses are wearing a little thin. The Government increasingly seem to have not much of a clue and any analysis they conduct—at the taxpayers’ expense—is hidden from view, in spite of what this place says and others might argue.

What is clear that the Government are taking each and every part of the United Kingdom down the road to ruin. Tomorrow we will vote on the estimates, a vote that will take place before we even know what the UK Government’s plan is for leaving the EU. The Government tell us that this is a big negotiating strategy—not to tell anybody anything. But even Baldrick could tell us that simply not having a plan, cunning or otherwise, is not much of a strategy. I fear that, just as the EU referendum was held to try and keep the Conservative party together—and then we had a general election for the same reason—so too is every announcement on the subject. It is the Government’s raison d’être—if I may be forgiven for using French in this debate. This is clearly a failing Government when the risks are so high for us all.

The situation is having an impact on public services. If GDP decreases, obviously less cash will be available for public services, unless taxes are increased or further cuts are made. We are all mindful of that. We have just had an excellent debate about the 2% GDP commitment for defence spending. But if GDP is not what we think it will be in 2030, that will mean less money for defence, in the same way as the red bus pledge seems to get further and further away from the £350 million a week that was promised for the NHS. The Government’s own leaked analysis shows that GDP will fall as will investment in public services.

The Chancellor has set aside £3 billion for Brexit preparations—greater than his additional cash allocation for the NHS in England. That is spending even before we take into account the devastating impact of the loss of EU nationals on the NHS and other public services—and, frankly, on our society in general.

The overwhelming departmental spend shows an increase. Jon Thompson, the chief executive of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, said in November that he would need an extra £450 million a year for personnel and infrastructure—spending money to throw up barriers, rather than to take them down. That money could otherwise be put towards frontline public services. As well as this expenditure that we do not need at the moment, we saw in July 2017 that the Department for Exiting the European Union is spending money on legal costs, including litigation, to stop this place having a say. Again, that is money taken away from frontline public services, and another way in which Brexit is costing each and every one of us. The expenditure for DExEU and the Government’s plans will be absolutely brutal. I have a message for the Government. In spite of what they might believe, there is no magic money tree. It does not exist and it has never existed. Every penny spent on leaving the EU—including the eye-watering bill of reportedly £40 billion just to leave—is cash that we will not have to spend on other services.

If I may say so for a moment, the issue goes beyond finances. This Government are so hell-bent on keeping themselves together and somehow trying to find a way a through the morass that they have created for themselves that other policy areas are being left behind. In normal times, we should be looking at the future of our NHS, and working with our European partners to tackle issues such as climate change and the ongoing conflicts that have been debated in this House that affect many of Europe’s neighbours.

As I saw just this morning, higher education is one area that will deeply affected by the UK leaving the European Union. Yes, it will be affected in terms of funding, but it will also be affected when it comes to personnel. This morning I spoke to academics who have gone on strike over their pensions at the University of St Andrews. Believe me, it is a cold time of the year to be striking; it is pretty chilly out there. Those academics want to see a Government who are committed to seeing an end to this crisis. This is just one of many difficult issues, yet at a time when that area should be a priority we are having to debate these Government plans that suck cash out of our frontline services. Instead of tackling the issues that matter such as higher education funding and the strikes in that sector, we are trying to clear up a mess of the Government’s own making.

The UK Government should take the advice of almost all economic experts, businesses, and the Scottish and Welsh Governments who incidentally—unlike DExEU—have actually published their analysis. Staying in the single market and customs union would protect the economy and give the Government consistency in trade policy. While we are talking about how much money we are spending on these areas, it would remiss of me not to mention the official Opposition. It was welcome to see some movement from the Labour party after almost 20 years of glacial movement, but there is still a long way to go. When the Labour party talks about a “jobs first” Brexit, it is perhaps mindful of the Government’s analysis showing that staying in the single market is a better option, but still the least worst option.