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Department for Exiting the European Union

Part of Ministry of Defence – in the House of Commons at 9:51 pm on 26th February 2018.

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Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union 9:51 pm, 26th February 2018

I congratulate Stephen Gethins on opening the debate and I thank the hon. Members who have contributed. I am proud to serve in and represent the Department for Exiting the European Union, which—despite having been established for only two years—has achieved a great deal.

As the House knows, the Department was set up in response to the referendum, one of the biggest democratic exercises in British history. Turnout was high at 72%, with more than 33 million people having their say. Turnout was higher than in any general election since 1992, and it was the second highest popular vote of any form in our long and distinguished democratic history. More than 1 million more people voted leave than voted remain.

The Department was established at pace from a standing start. It has grown considerably to more than 600 staff today, plus more than 150 people based in Brussels at our permanent representation to the EU. DExEU staff are drawn from more than 40 Departments and public bodies, as well as 180 staff who have joined us from outside of Government to ensure that we have the range of expertise to deliver our objectives. If time allows, I will respond specifically to the Chair of the Select Committee, but I join him in paying tribute to the quality of our staff, and I was glad to hear him do so. I am extremely proud to work with them.

As many hon. Members observed in the debate, and as many others have done here and in the Lords, the scale of the Department’s task is immense, but its objectives are clear. One of DExEU’s primary objectives is to lead and co-ordinate cross-Government work to seize the opportunities of Brexit and to ensure a smooth process as we leave, including the required domestic legislation, on the best possible terms.

Delivering EU exit is, of course, a cross-Government effort. Our work in DExEU means that we come together with the devolved Administrations, Parliament, EU member states and institutions and a wide range of other interested parties. The Department is small and agile in Whitehall terms, with just over 600 people. We are focused on co-ordinating activities towards our EU exit in Brussels, in Whitehall and beyond across the UK.

For 2017-18, our original budget for the year was £106.1 million. Following a supplementary estimate, we have reduced this budget to £80.6 million. The Department transferred £1 million to the Cabinet Office in relation to supporting the transfer of the role of the Europe adviser to the Cabinet Office, and a further £0.8 million to other Departments to support activities directly related to our exit from the European Union. A further £20 million of the original budget was returned to the Treasury to be transferred to and used by other Departments for critical work relating to Brexit. Our Department has sufficient funding in current and future years to deliver its objectives.

We have achieved a tremendous amount already. We have put in place a major legislative programme to make sure our statute book continues to function smoothly as we exit the European Union, and to cater for the full range of negotiated and non-negotiated outcomes.

DExEU has set out the Government’s future vision in 14 position papers, supporting the keynote speeches delivered by the Prime Minister at Lancaster House and in Florence. Officials from my Department have engaged in negotiations and supported the Secretary of State in the Brussels negotiations, which ran from June to December. That culminated in our publication, with the EU, of a joint report on 8 December last year, setting out the significant agreements that we had reached on the three key areas of citizens’ rights, the budget and Northern Ireland.

A fair deal on citizens’ rights is one that will allow for the UK and EU citizens to get on with their lives broadly as they do now in the country where they live. The financial settlement honours the commitments that we undertook as members of the EU, as we said it would. It is a fair delivery of our obligations in the light of the spirit of our future partnership and it is one based on reasonable assumptions. The settlement is estimated to stand at between £35 billion and £39 billion in current terms, which is the equivalent of around four years of our current budget contribution, around two of which we expect to be covered by the implementation period. It is far removed from the figure that some had suggested of £60 billion.

We have an agreement in relation to Northern Ireland that commits us to maintain the common travel area with Ireland, to uphold the Belfast agreement in full and to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland while upholding the constitutional and economic integrity of the whole United Kingdom. On that point, Jenny Chapman asked about visits to Northern Ireland. I checked just moments before I rose to speak. The answer is that the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my hon. Friend Mr Walker, who is responsible for engaging with Northern Ireland, has made three visits and has another planned.

We want to honour the agreements set out in the joint report. The important thing now is for talks to move forward so that we can agree the terms of our future relationship with the EU in order to provide vital certainty to businesses and citizens. Sammy Wilson asked what signals we wanted to send. Although I agree with him that a responsible Government should prepare for all scenarios, the signal that this Government wish to send is that which I have just set out: we wish to fulfil the withdrawal agreement; we wish to agree an implementation period; we wish to agree a co-operation on security and defence because our commitment to peace and security in Europe is unconditional; and, of course, we want to move forward to agree a future economic partnership that is in all our mutual interests.

Negotiations have been continuing at pace in the last two months to ensure that we secure a deal on the time-limited implementation period that both we and the Commission want to agree by the March European Council. The Prime Minister has advocated this implementation period from the start, and first mentioned it in her Lancaster House speech. The implementation period will provide greater certainty for individuals and businesses, meaning they will only have to plan for one set of changes in the relationship between the UK and the EU. The business community has been clear on the importance of this to its planning, and the period will ensure a smooth exit and transition to our future partnership after the UK leaves the European Union in March 2019. We have of course published a legal text on the arrangements for the implementation period and we look forward to taking further significant steps.

As I have said, a key part of DExEU’s role is to lead and co-ordinate work across Government. We have been working with Whitehall Departments to help them to plan for all scenarios, sharing assumptions and scenarios and making sure we have the right legal and administrative systems in place. The Department returned £20 million of original Budget allocation to the Treasury to help to fund other Departments, with an additional £2 million being transferred to other Government Departments as a result of a transfer of responsibilities. In terms of wider financial support for EU exit, over £250 million has been approved by the Treasury as needed in 2017-18 to prepare for EU exit work across a range Departments. The Chancellor announced at the 2017 autumn statement that a further £3 billion will be available to Departments.

Time has run short in this debate. I will just pick up one or two of the points raised by the hon. Member for Darlington regarding the Prime Minister’s Europe adviser. The departmental and ministerial responsibilities are set out clearly on gov.uk. The Europe Unit supports Olly Robbins in his role as the Prime Minister’s EU sherpa. As such, it supports him as the lead official and the Department is glad to work with him.

As time has run so short, I will finish by simply saying that I have listened extremely carefully to the debate, in particular to the points on the customs union, but the Government’s position remains as stated.