Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
I beg to move,
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, that she will be graciously pleased to give directions that the following papers be laid before the House: all papers, presentations and economic analyses from
This is, frankly, a desperate state of affairs. We are two years on from the referendum and five months away from the deadline for the withdrawal deal, but the Government still cannot agree on the most basic of Brexit issues: our future customs arrangements. Each week we see a new attempt, and each week we see it fail, with a Cabinet—a war Cabinet—and two Sub-Committees of warring factions. Yesterday we at least saw some agreement: the agreement to kick the ball down the road for another month as the Government agreed to publish a White Paper on their negotiating position, but without any agreement on what will be in it.
The Prime Minister is clearly in a difficult position. Every time she tries to make progress, a Cabinet Minister is waiting to trip her up. As an Opposition, it is tempting for us to dwell on the Government’s misfortune but, frankly, this is too important. The lives of millions of people across the country depend on us getting Brexit right, and if the Government cannot, Parliament needs to take responsibility, because there is a majority in this House that believes in a sensible approach to delivering the decision of the referendum. That starts with our customs arrangements, which is why we have tabled this Humble Address motion to seek the publication of the papers and analysis on the Government’s two post-Brexit customs options: the Prime Minister’s favoured proposal of a customs partnership, which has of course been dismissed by the Foreign Secretary as “crazy”; and the so-called “maximum facilitation” option, which the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy rightly warned would put jobs at risk. Both have faced serious criticisms of their technical detail and may be illegal, according to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office.
The Brexit Secretary, who is unfortunately not in the Chamber, has dismissed the customs partnership as “blue sky thinking”, but when looking at the maximum facilitation option, I was struck by his words. I want to quote him precisely:
“Faced with intractable problems with political pressure for a solution, the government reaches for a headline grabbing high-tech ‘solution’. Rather than spend the resources, time and thought necessary to get a real answer, they naively grasp solutions that to the technologically illiterate ministers look like magic.”
Those were the words of the Brexit Secretary. As it happens, he was speaking in 2008 about ID cards, but was he not prophetic in anticipating today’s “intractable” problem? However, it is not intractable; there is a solution.
It is clear to everyone that the Government are in a total mess, locked in a fight over two options, neither of which is practical or acceptable to the EU, but this House has an opportunity to sort out the mess. There is a majority that respects both the result of the referendum and our duty to protect the livelihoods of the people we represent. Stephen Crabb rightly described the conflict in the Cabinet as an “ideological cage fight”, adding that Parliament may soon be “making the decisions”. Frankly, it would make a better job of it. There is a majority for a new and comprehensive customs union, both here and beyond the House, among all those who recognise the importance of protecting our manufacturing sector, of securing frictionless trade with the EU, and of honouring our obligations on the Good Friday agreement and the border in Ireland.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and I heed his admonition. Does he agree that peace in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is crucial, especially given the background work done by Members on both sides of the Chamber and everyone’s heartfelt desire to maintain peace in our time?
I would, of course, and I am frankly distressed that those who favour the most destructive Brexit are so casually willing to dismiss that if it gets in the way of their objectives.
Let me return to the breadth of support for a comprehensive customs union outside the House. The director-general of the CBI, Carolyn Fairbairn, has described it as a non-ideological and practical solution. Crucially, she pointed out:
“If we don’t break the impasse on this customs decision, everybody will be affected—manufacturers, services companies, retailers. An awful lot hangs on this now.”
Her view is shared across business and the trade unions.
Those who seek the deepest possible rupture with the EU, no matter the cost, have been developing their arguments against a customs union, so let me address them. Some have warned that being in a customs union raises prices for food and clothing through the common external tariff. I hope that they will also reflect on the response of British farmers and clothes producers to their idea of unilaterally cutting our tariffs, presumably to zero.
I have also heard the absurd argument that developing countries would be disadvantaged by a customs union with the EU. Current customs arrangements serve developing countries well, as 49 of the poorest countries have tariff-free access to the EU market through the “Everything but Arms” policy. If the approach would be so damaging, perhaps the Government will explain why they propose to replicate the entire EU regime on market access for developing countries—the general system of preferences—after Brexit.
The most frequent objection, of course, is that a customs union would prevent us from signing trade deals with other countries—it would. That sounds significant, but the significance is largely symbolic. We can and do trade with non-EU countries without trade deals. The EU is our biggest trading partner, but the US is our biggest national trading partner, and that is without our having a trade deal. Some people talk about increasing trade with China once we are free of a customs union, but Germany trades four times as much with China as we do.
The right hon. Gentleman misses the point. He should listen to his own International Trade Secretary, who has talked clearly about a customs union not preventing us from increasing trade.
The hon. Gentleman talks about missing the point. I do not want to be rude, because he is making an interesting speech about the customs union, but the actual subject of the debate is whether or not these documents should be released. We are talking about an important constitutional precedent. We have been run by Cabinet government since George III. The hon. Gentleman has not even addressed that as an issue.
I intend to address it as an issue as I conclude my remarks, so I will come back to that.
The Government’s own analysis shows that none of their ambitious proposed new trade deals will go anywhere near compensating for the loss of a customs union with the EU. Free trade agreements with the United States, China, India, Australia, the Gulf and south-east Asia would add just 0.3% to 0.6% to our GDP, but moving to a comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU would hit our growth by 5% over the next 15 years. Despite the number of air miles that the International Trade Secretary has clocked up, India has said that it is in no rush to strike a trade deal with us, while Japan has said that it is prioritising the EU for a trade deal.
Working with the EU in the future and seeking deals for a market of 650 million, we can build on the full or partial free trade agreements that we already enjoy with 68 other countries through the EU, as well as the EU deals just concluded with Japan, Singapore and Mexico. If we are confident about our country, and if we are ambitious for its future, we should recognise that we have nothing to fear from a new, comprehensive customs union and everything to gain. It is the best way to support jobs, particularly those 2.1 million in manufacturing, and it is an essential step towards avoiding a hard border in Northern Ireland.
When we previously heard the argument about playing into the hands of those with whom we are negotiating in the EU27, it was as bogus in relation to the other papers that have been released as it is to these papers. Members who insist on a customs partnership or the maximum facilitation model should be confident that the Cabinet papers will stand up to parliamentary scrutiny, and the constraints that were laid down previously provide for the confidentiality that is right for this place. Others who share concerns about those models should also want them to be subjected to proper scrutiny.
This is one of the most important decisions faced by the country since the second world war, but the Cabinet is unable to agree. Parliament therefore has a deep responsibility to stand up for the people whom we represent, and we need access to the information in order to do so. I hope that the House will approve the motion.
I felt that Paul Blomfield, while setting out as best he could the Opposition’s approach to various aspects of European policy, rather neglected to address the key significance of the motion that the Opposition have tabled, which is about the requirement for the public disclosure of current Cabinet Committee papers and which raises important matters of constitutional principle.
The House should not mistake me: I believe passionately in the accountability of Ministers to Parliament. No Minister who possesses a grain of sense approaches questions in the Chamber, let alone a Select Committee evidence session, without a strong sense of trepidation. I still remember what I learned, many years ago in my first Parliament, from watching that magnificent parliamentarian the late Gwyneth Dunwoody using questions and interventions during Committee sessions to spear Ministers who had not bothered to master their brief before appearing in front of her. So I believe in Parliament, but I also believe strongly in Cabinet government, and in the proper constitutional relationship between Government and Parliament. Of course, as Ministers we have a duty to keep Parliament informed about Government policy, but effective Cabinet government also relies upon certain principles.
If the right hon. Gentleman is such a believer in Cabinet collective responsibility, what does he make of the conduct of the Foreign Secretary, who continually and consistently undermines the Prime Minister and her position? What does he think will do more damage to our negotiating position: publishing some documents or the conduct of an incompetent Foreign Secretary?
I will explain later why I believe the implications of the Opposition motion would be extremely damaging for the quality of Government decisions under Governments of any party.
I fully support the position the Minister is taking. Does he recall that when Labour Governments were giving away powers of self-government right, left and centre at Nice, Amsterdam and Lisbon, they never shared their reasons or the negotiations they had beforehand, even though the issues were deeply contentious among Conservative Members and led directly to the vote to leave the European Union?
Wishes are always expressed by Members, usually those in the Opposition parties at any given time, for Governments to divulge more about internal discussions between Ministers, but I think the right constitutional principle is that the roles of both the Executive and Parliament need to be respected.
Three key principles are at issue in this debate. First, there is the need for confidential and frank discussion between Ministers in Cabinet and Cabinet Committees, and after eight years in Government one general truth that I have learned is that a policy proposal almost always benefits from discussion among colleagues, who bring different perspectives and interests to bear.
My right hon. Friend is making a powerful argument, but beyond the doctrine of collective responsibility and making sure that one can have conversations in government, in what world does it make sense that we should disclose our own Government papers—our own Government secrets—to the other side in a negotiation?
I will want to say a bit more on that point in a few minutes, but first I want to finish what I have to say about collective responsibility.
Discussions between Ministers need to be frank. That was very well set out by a former very senior Labour Secretary of State, Jack Straw, in a statement that was quoted with approval by the Chilcot committee in its report. Mr Straw said in 2009, in explaining a Cabinet decision to veto the release of minutes of one of its meetings, that dialogue in Cabinet and Cabinet Committee
“must be fearless. Ministers must have the confidence to challenge each other in private. They must ensure that decisions have been properly thought through, sounding out all possibilities before committing themselves to a course of action…They must not be deflected from expressing dissent by the fear that they may be held personally to account for views that are later cast aside.”
Those were principles that previous Labour Governments upheld in fulfilling the responsibilities of government, and it is a measure of how far today’s Labour leadership has fallen that it should be abandoning those principles today. We cannot have that kind of honest, open discussion in Cabinet or Cabinet Committee if people know that at any time their views could be made public by means of a resolution of the House.
The second principle—
I am not giving way at the moment.
The second principle is that officials must be able to give frank advice to Ministers in confidence. That includes memorandums and other papers provided to Cabinet Committees by some of the most senior officials in the civil service. There are Labour Members present who have themselves served in government; they know that those in the professional civil service used every ounce of their professional skill to help them, as Labour Ministers, deliver the objectives of the elected Governments in which they served. I have to ask: what would those Members say to those officials about a motion that might result in the making public of the advice of professional civil servants—people who of course can never answer back themselves—which they had thought was being given to Ministers in confidence?
I am deeply old-fashioned in my views, and I believe it is an enormous privilege serve in a Cabinet. I also believe that discussions should be frank and unconstrained within the Cabinet, and that Cabinet Ministers should agree on a collective Government policy and be prepared to defend that policy in public afterwards.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that if such a motion were to be passed, less would be said in Cabinet papers and they would no longer contain the same candour? That is something that we should try to get away from. We had quite a bit of it between 1997 and 2010, when decisions were not taken through collective Cabinet responsibility.
My right hon. Friend speaks from experience, and he is completely accurate in what he says.
The third principle was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Dover when he talked about international relations. All Governments have to negotiate with other sovereign Governments and with international organisations, and it is a cardinal principle of our system of government that Ministers and officials need to be able to prepare the British negotiating position in private. Indeed, as recently as December 2016, that was also the view of Keir Starmer, who said:
“I fully accept that the Government will enter into confidential negotiations…I do…accept that there is a level of detail and of confidential issues and tactics that should not be disclosed, and I have never said otherwise.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 618, c. 223.]
It is a source of sadness to me that he appears to have departed from that position in lending his name to the motion on the Order Paper today. I would be happy to take an intervention from him if he wishes to explain to the House why he has abandoned the view that he championed two years ago.
The position I set out was in relation to a motion with pretty much the same terms as this. It was accepted that there was a degree of confidentiality. The argument that is being made now is the very argument that was made then about not disclosing papers that are all in the public domain now.
I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman was indulging in a bit of mediaeval scholasticism there. That was not persuasive. I do not know whether he is now fearful of the Trots in his constituency who are working to deselect him. I do not know what has caused him to abandon the principles that he once stood by. The principles that he stood by in 2016 are the ones that Labour Governments of the past have followed, and I just wish that the Labour party would live up to those principles today.
On that point, is there not an issue of consistency involved? Under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, which was passed by a Labour Government, there is a deliberate and necessary exemption for confidential information. It would create complete confusion and inconsistency if that principle were to be breached now.
My hon. Friend is right. The Freedom of Information Act 2000—brought in, let us not forget, by Labour Government—specifically provides exceptions from the freedom of information rules for Cabinet and Cabinet Committee papers, for advice from officials to Ministers and for information that might harm our diplomatic relationships and negotiations. The wording of the ministerial code expresses the balance between the different duties of Government of accountability to Parliament and of confidentiality in developing Government policy. That is why the code explicitly provides that Ministers should be as open as possible with Parliament and the public, notes that we should refuse to provide information only when disclosure would not be in the public interest, and says that that judgment should be made in accordance with the relevant statutes and the Freedom of Information Act 2000—so including the exceptions I mentioned.
I have already given way quite a few times, and I am conscious of the large number of right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House who have expressed a wish to participate in the debate.
Turning to the point made by my right hon. Friend Sir Patrick McLoughlin, the candour of everybody involved, whether Ministers or officials, would be affected if they thought that the content of their discussions would be disclosed prematurely. Frankly, if details of discussions were routinely made public—
No, I am not giving way at the moment.
If such details were made public, Ministers would feel inhibited from being frank and candid with one another. As a result, the quality of the debate that underlies collective decision making would decline significantly. That is not in the interests of any Government of any political party, and it is not in the interests of our constitutional democracy. Such discussions also need to be underpinned by full and frank advice on policy options and their implications. No Government of the past have tried to operate in an environment where papers can be finalised and distributed to members of a Cabinet Committee one week and then made public the next. It is simply not possible to do so and not responsible to pursue that as an objective.
Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire Dales, I invite the House to consider the situation were we to accept the Opposition motion and adopt the practices that the motion embodies. If the motion were carried and the situation that the hon. Member for Sheffield Central advocated became the standard practice governing relations between the Executive and Parliament, we would soon see a deterioration in the quality of policy making within Government, and not greater but significantly less transparency. Indeed, that point was made Mr Jack Straw, a former Labour Home Secretary, Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, Leader of the House and Foreign Secretary, when he said about regimes that did not have the kind of exceptions to disclosure that are in the Freedom of Information Act:
“The paradox of their situation is that, far from that leading to an increase in the accountability of Ministers and decision makers, it has reduced accountability because it has cut the audit trail. Officials and Ministers have gone in for Post-it notes and oral decisions which should have been properly recorded, or for devices for ordaining all sorts of documents which have nothing to do with the Cabinet or Cabinet Committees as Cabinet documents.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 332, c. 31.]
It was precisely those practices of avoiding the formality of Cabinet and Cabinet Committee agendas, papers and minutes that were severely criticised by both the Butler commission in 2004 and the Chilcot inquiry in 2016. I regret the fact that the Opposition’s motion appears to be moving towards backing a situation in which all those flaws identified by Chilcot and Butler would be reproduced in the future, and I hope that we do not go in that direction.
The justification that we have heard for the motion is that there are special circumstances, but I simply reject the idea that the Government have been insufficiently transparent on the issues in question. On the conduct of the negotiations, the Prime Minister has made important speeches at every stage to set out our approach. We published two White Papers and a series of papers last summer and autumn to set out further details. In December, the Government and the European Commission published a joint report to set out the progress made in the negotiations. The text of the draft withdrawal agreement is in the public domain. We announced only yesterday that we shall publish a new White Paper next month on our proposed future relationship with the European Union. There are six Brexit-related Bills before Parliament, all of which, as usual, are accompanied by impact assessments.
Select Committees have been able to scrutinise our plans for exit, as the more than 100 Select Committee inquiries into such matters testify, and the Government have engaged with all those inquiries. We have provided written evidence, and Ministers and officials have appeared for questioning. The Prime Minister has come to this House on numerous occasions to give statements on EU summits. Department for Exiting the European Union Ministers alone have given evidence to Committees on 35 occasions and have made no fewer than 85 written statements during the lifetime of their Department. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union has given 10 oral statements to the full House of Commons during the time he has held office.
It would not be in the national interest to release information that will form part of our negotiating position. In order to ensure good governance, it is in the interest of all of us, including those who might have the ambition of serving at some very distant date in a Labour Government, to preserve the system of Cabinet government that allows for good and well thought through decisions.
For those reasons, I have no hesitation in asking my right hon. and hon. Friends to oppose the motion before the House today.
Order. As Members can see, a large number of colleagues want to participate, so there will be a four-minute limit on Back-Bench contributions.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate.
I was going to say that I stand here with a sense of déjà vu, but perhaps I should say “already seen” in case I upset those who want to purge these lands of all trace of foreign influence. The SNP will be supporting the motion, but what does it say about this so-called mother of Parliaments that we have to keep going through such a ridiculous medieval charade—another French word—just to get the Government to provide Parliament with the information we need to do the job we have been elected to do?
We will debate the motion until 7 o’clock, when we now know the Government will frogmarch their obedient little minions through the Lobby to oppose it. The motion probably will not be carried, but even if it were carried, we would spend the next six months raising points of order to argue over 14th-century precedent as to whether the Government actually need to pay a blind bit of attention to anything this Parliament might say.
The hon. Gentleman has just been advised of how little time there is for debate. If he has his name down to speak, he will get his time. If he has not put his name down to speak, I am sorry, but those who have put their name down get precedence.
Would it not be so much better if the Government were simply prepared to trust Parliament with that information in the first place? The Government’s response was not only predictable but was so predictable that I wrote what I am saying now before they responded. They say there is a long-established convention that Cabinet papers are confidential. They say routine publication would prejudice the smooth and efficient operation of Government. They say that publication would place in the public domain sensitive information that could compromise our negotiating position.
I accept there are occasions, maybe the majority of occasions, when any or all of those considerations should predominate and the balance of argument should be against disclosure, but the motion before us does not ask for the automatic release of everything the Cabinet ever does; it asks for the release of some papers in relation to Brexit that the Opposition, including the SNP, believe need to be made available to Parliament in the unique circumstances in which we now find ourselves.
The Government keep telling us we are in an unprecedented situation, and then they ask us to be dictated to by precedent in a situation that is unprecedented. Yes, the confidentiality of Cabinet papers is an ancient convention. In fact, we are reminded that the convention goes back to the days of King George III—that great, wise and all-caring monarch whose glorious reign has been immortalised in film as “The Madness of King George”. What better metaphor could we have for the Brexit process?
If the Government are so thirled to sticking to the fine detail of these honourable conventions, why on earth has the Foreign Secretary still got a job? He has earned more red and yellow cards in two years than Vinnie Jones did in his entire career, but he is still on the pitch—the Foreign Secretary is not on the subs bench just now, obviously—arguing in public with the manager over what the team tactics should be, while some of his colleagues try desperately to calm him down before he gets suspended permanently. In the interests of strict accuracy, I should say that Vinnie Jones is only ninth in the world record list for red cards—or 10th, if we include the Foreign Secretary.
We must also consider the argument that releasing these papers would not be conducive to the smooth and efficient running of Government business. We do not need to release Cabinet papers to prevent the smooth and efficient running of Government business, as the Cabinet is perfectly capable of doing that for itself. The main Opposition party tabled this motion because it is becoming terrifyingly clear that those in the Cabinet are making a bigger mess of the Brexit process every time they meet to try to fix it.
If the hon. Gentleman had listened, he would have heard me make it clear that I am not arguing, and neither is the motion, that this should be regarded as routine, automatic or standard practice; this is a request in a specific instance. I will explain why in this instance and on this matter those in the Cabinet have shown themselves incapable of fixing it by themselves. We do not need a Humble Address to mess up the smooth and efficient running of Government business; we only need Cabinet Committees and Sub-Committees in order to do that, as they can do it perfectly well. The Government’s arguments might carry some weight if they could point to some kind of progress—there has been some but not nearly enough. Almost two years after the decision was taken to leave the EU, and five months before, as we know, we need agreement on the Government’s preferred solutions, we do not know even what their preferred solutions are, because they cannot agree on them. Those in the Cabinet are too busy fighting among themselves, jockeying for position for when the Prime Minister goes, willingly or unwillingly. Almost the only thing they can agree on is that this mess is everybody’s fault but their own.
As for the Government’s non-plans for our future customs relationship, here is what we know: we know that the Prime Minister’s plans are “crazy”; we know there are “significant question marks” over whether they can be delivered on time; we know that the Foreign Secretary is undermining the negotiations; and we know that thousands of people in the car industry could lose their jobs if the Government get it wrong. We know all that because it is what Cabinet Ministers are already telling us in public. If what they are saying in private is more damaging to our negotiating stance than what they are saying in public, heaven help us. Those quotes have come from serving Cabinet Ministers within the past 10 days—that is what they are saying in public. It is hard to believe that what they are saying in private can be so much more damaging that they cannot be allowed to say it—
I am sorry, but I did say I was taking only one intervention.
We have a Government who claim to be taking back control but who are now seen to be running completely out of control. They claim to be restoring parliamentary sovereignty, for those parts of these islands where such a strange idea actually holds any sway, but they are at best failing to co-operate with and at worst appear to be wilfully obstructing Parliament’s attempts to hold them to account. The ducking and diving that went on with respect to a previous Humble Address, on the Brexit analysis papers, has been discussed often enough that we do not need to repeat it now. We also know that the Government are still trying to avoid complying with a recommendation from the Public Accounts Committee’s 18th report, published more than three months ago, that they publish details of what work Departments are doing to prepare for Brexit. Two weeks ago, the Chair of the Brexit Select Committee had to take the highly unusual step of publicly rebuking the Secretary of State for not giving proper priority to making him and his civil servants available to give evidence to the Committee. There are probably other instances going on right now, which are not yet in the public domain, where individual members of particular Select Committees will know that their Committees and their Chairs are losing patience with Ministers for either not being available to be questioned or for not providing information on time.
This morning, a hard-hitting report was published by the Work and Pensions Committee and the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee on the collapse of Carillion. In normal circumstances, it would have attracted huge attention. A lot of people have not noticed it yet because there are so many other Government failures, Government U-turns and Government fall-outs going on that it is difficult to keep on top of all of them. In publishing that report, the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee Chair, Rachel Reeves, said:
“The company’s delusional directors drove Carillion off a cliff and then tried to blame everyone but themselves”.
I hope that she has registered that remark for royalties because I think it will be used an awful lot in future to describe the Cabinet’s handling of Brexit.
The Cabinet has miserably failed in its responsibility to introduce credible proposals to avoid what the Prime Minister described as a cliff edge. I suggest that we do for the Cabinet what the Cabinet would do for a failing council or health authority: it is time for this Parliament to take back control and put the Cabinet into special measures.
I do not just want the Cabinet to give us the information. The Cabinet is clearly incapable of taking a decision anywhere near on time, so as well as giving us the information, why not give Parliament the decision? Why not respect the sovereignty, as they call it, of Parliament? Why not agree to a free vote in this place on the customs union? I will tell you why, Madam Deputy Speaker: the Government know what the result would be. It would not be consistent with their red lines or anything that appears in existing Government papers.
Let us have that free vote on the customs union. The European Research Group can quietly go away and spontaneously combust when they see the result and the rest of us can concentrate on turning the bus round before it disappears over the Prime Minister’s cliff edge.
I am happy to follow Peter Grant and I will unashamedly speak on many of the issues that he has mentioned.
I reject the blatant attack by Opposition Members on the functioning of the Government. Today, we see an attempt to undermine our negotiations with the EU. The Opposition will use any means, including a Humble Address, to try to force the Government to reveal their hand. I would have thought that a party so involved with trade unions would be expert at negotiation. Do Opposition Members not respect the referendum result? Are they simply playing politics during a vital negotiation? Industry and constituents alike want us to get on with it, yet here we are again, with the Opposition trying to frustrate the process.
If the Opposition want to avoid a so-called hard Brexit, why are they undermining the negotiations?
Given that I have not been elevated to the lofty heights of Cabinet—one day, we never know, I may be—I am unfortunately unable to answer the question for the Foreign Secretary. I am sure that the next time my right hon. Friend is in his place, the hon. Gentleman can ask him himself.
Yesterday in Holyrood, the Scottish National party Government refused to give a legislative consent memorandum to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, despite months of negotiation, despite Mike Russell, the Brexit Minister, saying that he was near to a deal, and despite SNP MSPs who would like to be pragmatic about a deal.
I can always rely on my hon. Friend to get to the nub of the matter.
The Government in Holyrood are deliberately under- mining the UK negotiations, and I am flabbergasted that the Scottish Labour party and the Scottish Liberal Democrats have supported the nationalists, disregarding the 2015 Scottish independence referendum and ignoring the Brexit referendum for narrow political gain. That is also why we are here today: for narrow political gain.
Will the hon. Gentleman explain at which point during the referendum debate we heard about maximum facilitation proposals or a customs arrangement?
Unlike Opposition Members, I respect the British people and representative democracy. I trust the Conservative Government to put forward proposals to the British people. The great thing about the British system is that it is a democracy, we will have other elections and we shall be judged on how we deliver Brexit. Conservative Members intend to deliver Brexit and respect the Brexit vote.
Many Opposition Members have held Government positions and the SNP is in government in Scotland, so how can they possibly support the motion? How can they countenance exposing the Government’s negotiating position? How can those members of the official Opposition who have held Government positions possibly table a motion such as this to undermine the Government, knowing, as they do, about the delivery of government? As my hon. Friend Stephen Kerr said, would the Scottish Government seriously consider giving us their confidential papers and information about their confidential conversations?
It is quite remarkable that the hon. Gentleman speaks about Scotland’s economic papers and performance, when Scotland is now the highest-taxed part of the United Kingdom, which he is knowingly damaging. It is not Brexit that is damaging the Scottish economy, but the SNP’s determination to make Scotland a poor place for inward investment. I come from Aberdeen, like my hon. Friend sitting in front of me, Ross Thomson, and it is the most productive part of Scotland. It is quite remarkable how well Aberdeenshire is still doing, despite the Scottish Government.
As my hon. Friend James Cartlidge asked of the hon. Member for Glenrothes, would the Scottish Government release their papers? I would be fascinated to see the papers that have passed between the Scottish Brexit Minister, Mike Russell, and the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, because as we are seeing today, they have set out to frustrate the Government’s negotiation with the EU. We all want the best deal. As parliamentarians, we should see that the motion seeks simply to undermine the Government. I cannot support it.
It is a great pleasure to follow Colin Clark. He said in the middle of his remarks that he would not expect the Government to expose their negotiating position to the people with whom they are negotiating. I was under the impression that the Government did not have a negotiating position, because the Cabinet certainly cannot agree on one. They would expose the position that they have no negotiating position.
Why are we discussing the release of papers? Let us look at the substantive issue. We are six months away from having to have on the table a final deal, which will then have to go through the EU27 and, indeed, through this place, if we are to have a meaningful vote. There are only two more formal EU summits left until this process has to conclude. The Government triggered article 50 with no idea about which direction they wished to go, and the journey has certainly taken them down many cul-de-sacs and dead ends.
We still do not even have a Cabinet position on this issue. To a certain extent, I can agree with the Minister, who spoke for 20 minutes and did not mention the Government’s position on the customs arrangement at all. I can appreciate slightly that he would not want what the Cabinet were saying to each other in private to be released, but all we have to do is pick up a copy of The Daily Telegraph or, indeed, run close enough—if we can run slowly enough—to the Foreign Secretary and listen to what he is saying to journalists as he briefs them behind the Prime Minister’s back. This is a Government and a Cabinet in complete and utter chaos.
We have the unedifying spectacle of the Prime Minister trying to push her favoured customs partnership model to the Cabinet, but the Cabinet cannot agree on it. We then have the Brexiteers in the Cabinet saying that they would rather have this maximum facilitation—we are back to facilitation again, whatever that would mean in a customs context—and the Foreign Secretary calling the Prime Minister’s goals “crazy”. The Prime Minister is too weak to sack or gag the Foreign Secretary—the worst Foreign Secretary that this country has ever had bestowed on it.
Amid all that, the EU negotiators had, in their words, subjected to
“systematic and forensic annihilation” both proposals on which the Cabinet cannot even agree. We have a situation in which, to all intents and purposes, the Prime Minister could persuade the Cabinet to back her customs partnership or, indeed, fold to maximum facilitation, but the EU is saying, “Well, we’re not going to agree to it in the first place,” so all that effort was in vain.
It is really important for the public to see the evidence, the economic indicators, the discussion and the trajectory of the Government for the simple reason that this will cost jobs and economic growth. Even the Brexit Secretary’s special adviser has said that it will cost the country £25 billion a year to 2030. Indeed, the Treasury itself has said that it could cost up to £55 billion a year by 2033 if we follow World Trade Organisation rules. That is why we need this information in the public domain and why I have been championing a people’s vote on the final deal. It does not matter whether someone voted remain and was a strong remainer, or voted leave and was a strong leaver, because, if we have the evidence in front of us, it would be democratically right for the public to be shown that evidence, so that they can compare it with what we have now and, in the light of that evidence in front of them, we can ask them whether they wish to go down the route that this chaotic Government are trying to negotiate.
The reason why the Government are not putting these papers out has nothing to do with confidentiality of Cabinet discussions. It is because they have nothing to put out, because, first, they cannot agree and, secondly, even if they could agree, it is not in the best interests of this country. As we have always seen with this Conservative Government, they put party and ambition for No.10 first and the country second.
The Minister for the Cabinet Office put very well the argument about why we need to keep Cabinet confidentiality. It is an essential part of what the Government of the UK should be doing whenever they are negotiating a treaty or any international matters of substance. Quite frankly, it is an absurd idea that this House should be making them look over their shoulder at every single step and unsure about how to proceed.
This Humble Address procedure is archaic and it is being abused here. It is actually quite a childish approach. Before its recent incarnation, it had not been used since the middle of the 19th century. At the beginning of the 19th century, there was absolutely no way that Parliament would seek to get the reasons, the tactics and the assessments of our military commanders at Waterloo or Trafalgar. It is quite absurd that this Parliament now should be trying to undermine the Government’s negotiating position.
Our constituents depend on our Government being able to negotiate well on our behalf. They rely on our Government, and confidentiality in these discussions is needed to allow the Government and civil servants the space to make arguments without fear or favour. That would certainly be at risk if this process continues to be abused.
The terms of the motion do not even stand up. I would like your advice, Madam Deputy Speaker, on whether the motion in these terms is in fact valid. As I understand it, this type of Humble Address is designed for the Privy Council, or for a Secretary of State and departmental documents; it is not designed for the Cabinet.
Order. May I just reassure the hon. Gentleman that the motion would not be on the Order Paper if it was either out of order or invalid.
Indeed I am not. I would never do that. What I am saying is that there is a provision in Erskine May for Parliament to seek an order of the House to release certain documents. I accept that this may be a grey area—an evolving area—of parliamentary procedure. None the less, I genuinely think that it goes to the heart of what the Opposition are trying to do. They are simply trying to undermine the Government’s position and the national interest of our country. That is truly unacceptable and they should withdraw their motion.
As a remainer, but also a democrat, my view following the referendum was that we had to respect the will of the people. That meant supporting the Government to trigger article 50, allowing the process of negotiations to begin as soon as possible and offering support to the Government on Brexit if they were acting in the national interest. Any Government post referendum would have had to begin the negotiating process to leave the EU quickly, and any Government would not have found those negotiations easy. However, what we have seen so far from this Government is a shambles that has made this country a laughing stock and damaged business and public confidence in our future.
As hon. Members have said, the specific issue that is the subject of today’s debate highlights the daily farce that we now experience. The Prime Minister has been unable to persuade her own Cabinet to support her preferred customs model and the Brexiteers have united around their own alternative. She sought to resolve this by setting up Cabinet working parties to assess the veracity of each option. Presumably, our future customs arrangements will be decided by a kind of “Dragons’ Den”.
When the Foreign Secretary briefs a newspaper that the Prime Minister’s preferred model is “crazy”, he is not sacked. Instead, the Health Secretary is sent on the airwaves to tell the Foreign Secretary, via the media, to shut up. The Prime Minister claims that stability in Northern Ireland and the Good Friday agreement must be protected by ensuring that there is no hard border. Her allies are then sent out to threaten a border poll if the Cabinet does not support her preferred option—so much for the Conservative and Unionist party. Now we hear that the Government intend to produce a Brexit White Paper, setting out their position on the key issues. Surely, other than in this incompetent Government, this White Paper should have been published at the beginning of the process, not halfway through.
The truth is that, with the referendum commitment, none of this is about the national interest. It is about party management within the Conservative party. The Prime Minister is permanently conflicted between keeping the Brexiteers happy and saving her job, and acting in the national interest on the customs union and the single market to ensure that she does not lose a fragile parliamentary majority. I accept that many Brexiteers believe that they are acting in the country’s interests, but some judge every decision through the prism of their political ambitions to lead a party with a ferociously anti-European membership.
The decisions that we are taking now are probably the most important in peacetime. They are far too important to be left to a Government paralysed by weakness, division and personal ambition. That is why Parliament must now fill the vacuum being left, step up to the plate and build a coalition around the national interest. This means adopting negotiating positions that will do the least damage to United Kingdom businesses’ trade with the European Union, being part of a comprehensive customs union and doing nothing that will undermine stability in Northern Ireland. Of course, ultimately, the decisions of the Commons must prevail, but it is right that the House of Lords fulfils its scrutiny role. It is frankly laughable to hear right-wing Conservatives who were always opposed to modernisation now calling for the Lords to do what they are told or run the risk of abolition. They simply do not have any sense of irony.
We face the biggest peacetime challenge, other than post war, in our history. More than ever we need politicians who can provide the leadership that this country needs. The Government have failed, so Parliament must now step up to the plate. It is true that the majority voted to leave the European Union, but this did not give any of us a mandate to allow ideological extremism to consign this country to decades of slow growth, wasted potential and permanent instability.
Surely the key question that we should be asking ourselves is whether, if Parliament were to pass this motion and the information were to be released, it would undermine our negotiating position. I would argue that that is most certainly the case. Of course it is the aim and objective of those who support the remain cause that the EU will give us the worst possible terms and that, as a result, we will go on to reject an agreement, but there are also practical reasons, and political judgments have to be made.
What do we know already? We know that the Government are intent on delivering the Brexit that was determined by the referendum. We know that they will bring back control of our money, borders and laws to this House, rather than their being based in Brussels. In doing that, they intend to ensure that trade between ourselves and the EU is as frictionless as possible, that we avoid a hard border in Ireland, and that we establish an independent trade policy.
What do we know about the facts and figures? We know that in 2016 we had a trade deficit with the EU of £71 billion. In that same year, the UK had a trade surplus with the rest of the world of £34 billion. The European Commission has predicted that 90% of world economic growth over the next 10 to 15 years will come from outside the European Union, so surely our focus should be on countries outside the EU.
This is just total fantasy stuff. The idea that we do not presently trade with the rest of the world is just laughable. Through the European Union, we have trade agreements with the rest of the world, and the reality is that leaving the customs union and the single market will diminish our ability to carry out such trade. As a London MP, I find this unbelievable. My city will be all right post-Brexit—it will not be easy, but it will be all right. However, communities such as the hon. Gentleman’s—big fishing communities—are going to be absolutely hammered. What on earth is he doing by justifying the absurdity of the Government’s policy?
For the hon. Gentleman even to suggest that the fishing industry has in some way benefited from our membership of the European Union is simply laughable. I would gladly invite him to my constituency so that he can meet the people who were involved in the fishing industry. Very few of them are involved in it now because of the European Union.
To go back to the facts and figures that I quoted, it is noteworthy that only this week Liam Halligan asked in The Sunday Telegraph why, if the customs union is so vital to Britain, we are running a massive trade deficit inside it but a large surplus with nations outside it. We need to ensure that we are able to set our own trade policies so that we can trade freely with the expanding economies in the world, and the reality is that those economies are not in the European Union. We have to widen our horizons. The success of Britain has always been our free trade with the world as a whole.
Can the hon. Gentleman specify which countries he has in mind when he talks about these wonderful free trade arrangements that we are going to have?
I am not listing the countries. I am saying that the main growth in world trade is outside the European Union, and that should be our focus. I do not know whether the hon. Lady has travelled to the far east, South America or some of the African nations that are expanding. By dealing with the developing nations, we are supporting the poorer parts of the world. As a Liberal Democrat, surely she should be behind such proposals.
No. I have given way twice already and I recognise that time is running out.
As I said, the Government have made clear their intentions and how they intend to improve things. They have been very clear that we will leave the customs union in March 2019. Any attempt to thwart that is an attack on the democratic process and the clearly defined will of the British people. Some 70% of people in my constituency voted for leave. They did not vote for half-leave, which is what Opposition Members who want to remain in the single market or a customs union are trying to achieve. They wanted to leave full stop—absolutely and completely.
There are many mechanisms that can be used at the border. We can use pre-notification schemes such as that of the World Customs Organisation and the EU’s authorised economic operator scheme. Those mechanisms are operating and have been tested. The border between Switzerland and the EU is crossed by many more people and vehicles than the Irish border. It is not beyond the wit of this Government and this Parliament to come up with a solution. I am confident that a solution can be found. We voted to leave, not to half leave. The motion would undermine our negotiating position and should be rejected out of hand.
It is nearly two years since the Brexit referendum, and there are just 316 days to go until the United Kingdom leaves the European Union. I support the Opposition’s motion because the in-fighting and indecision in government is holding back the Brexit negotiations and delaying crucial votes in Parliament. Labour recognises that the only way to ensure that we have the frictionless trade necessary to support our vital manufacturing industries is to secure a new comprehensive UK-EU customs union. A customs union not only is the best way to prevent a hard border in Northern Ireland, but has wide support from the business community and trade unions.
Some 247,000 EU citizens live in the west midlands region, and there are 87,000 across the Greater Birmingham area. The west midlands’ 10 universities attract more than 8,000 EU students each year and employ approximately 5,000 academics who are EU citizens. My constituency is home to both the University of Birmingham and Newman University, and I am proud that many of the students and academics from those great institutions choose to make their home in Edgbaston. However, I wish to focus my comments on business and specifically manufacturing, which are why the release of these papers is key.
The Conservative Mayor of the West Midlands said in an article this week that hard-line Brexiteers risk causing the “unintended destruction” of thousands of jobs in the region’s automotive industry—he was right. The automotive industry employs more than 50,000 people across the region in firms such as Jaguar Land Rover, Aston Martin, BMW and London Taxi Company. There are also numerous component companies such as GKN based in Birmingham. Those companies’ fortunes are inextricably linked to the ability to move goods and parts between the UK and Europe.
The port of Dover handles £122 billion of the UK’s trade in goods in 2.6 million freight vehicles, and 99% of that freight traffic comes from the EU. The port has estimated that, given the lack of physical space, even a two-minute delay to check each vehicle would lead to 17-mile queues on either side of the channel. That is exactly the type of delay that would adversely affect companies in the west midlands, as their products often require several trips across the channel before completion.
Nearly 40% of JLR’s global suppliers are based in Europe. Those suppliers are crucial to the success of JLR, and without their timely and competitively priced parts, production at JLR and all other manufacturers would simply grind to a halt. With seatbelts supplied by Bosch and made in Germany, plastic sealing made in the Czech Republic, wheels from Germany and brake hoses from Spain, it is quite clear that the production of a modern British car relies on an interconnected web of European automotive suppliers. The west midlands has one of the highest shares of goods imports coming from the EU, and 47% of goods exports from the west midlands go to the EU. The region’s higher-than-average reliance on the manufacturing sector, and automotive manufacturing in particular, makes it even more reliant on trade than other areas.
The message from businesses in the west midlands is clear: we need a deal, and we need a deal that works for business. Labour is clear that that deal is a customs union. The west midlands already has higher unemployment and a higher proportion of people with low or no qualifications than the UK average. My constituents simply cannot afford any more barriers to be put in their way when they are seeking employment, and by not entering a customs union, the Government are doing just that. Members of the Cabinet need to put aside their petty differences and rigid ideologies, overcome their stubbornness, and focus on what matters, which is the jobs of people in the west midlands and across the country.
When the UK voted to leave the EU, the UK voted to rejoin the rest of the world. The great Brexit prize will be our regaining our ability to strike new free trade deals across the globe, leading the world as a free trading nation, championing trade liberalisation, and directly taking on those who advocate protectionism. If we were to take the advice of some of our colleagues in the Lords or even right here in the Commons, we would find ourselves a vassal state, shackled to the rules of the customs union and unable to set our own trade policy, while not only being absent from the table, but out of the room when decisions affecting us are taken, which is the very worst of all worlds.
The Prime Minister has been clear that we are leaving the customs union, but what has been astonishing is the hokey-cokey approach to the customs union adopted by Labour Members: in out, in out, shake the shadow Cabinet all about. They are now taking a position that means that the UK will not be able to set its own independent trade policy. Labour peers have tried to frustrate the Brexit process, while Labour would keep us following EU rules with no say. Some Labour MPs want to keep us in the single market permanently.
Labour still refuses to commit to ending free movement. Paul Blomfield raised the issue of the border with Ireland in relation to “max fac”. Let us be clear that this approach relies on electronic customs clearing, which is standard practice across the EU, following World Customs Organisation principles.
I draw Members’ attention to the EU’s own customs expert, Lars Karlsson, who in evidence to the Brexit Committee said that using new technology is not in itself new. GPS technology, which most motorists already carry in their cars, has been available for years. Such technology is already in use for the mass tracking of vehicles, and it is used by the likes of Network Rail, and by Uber for taxis. Furthermore, we could extend the authorised economic operator or trusted trader schemes for reputable companies, such as Guinness, which already, despite the different excise duties, has many lorries crossing the Irish border that do not need ever to be stopped. Beyond the scaremongering, an Irish border without any infrastructure is absolutely possible, using both new and existing technology.
No, thank you.
To return to the Brexit prize of being able to set our own trade policy, it was on
To cut through all this debate about whether we should stay in the customs union, I seem to remember that our manifesto was quite clear that we were leaving the EU, the single market and the customs union, and that we were going to negotiate a free trade agreement. Surely the whole party and the whole House can unite around that. That is why we are having the implementation Bill and ensuring that all these existing laws are in our law. What could be more simple than a free trade deal? Let us stick to it.
I could not agree more with my colleague. Not only was that in our manifesto, but I believe it was in those of other parties so that we would enact the wishes of the British people. I am not surprised that the only party not listening to those wishes is the SNP, because it puts its fingers in its ears to the results of all and any referendums.
I am delighted that the new Department for International trade has undertaken 167 visits overseas. It is clear from the trips that Ministers have taken that a British label on goods is regarded as a sign of quality, as it is for services, and the demand for British is huge. International demand for British goods is growing, and Aberdeen, which I represent—
No, thank you.
Aberdeen is well placed to take advantage of this, given that 90% of manufacturing in the city I represent currently gets exported, mainly in oil and gas, and in environmental engineering.
I am very grateful indeed to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene. May I ask him to reflect? He says that the introduction of existing and new technology on the Northern Ireland border with the Republic of Ireland would mean that we would have nothing to worry about, but how will that work, given that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has today said publicly that there will be “no new cameras” on the border? How will the new or existing technology be put in place?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention, but I believe that I have already answered those points. There does not need to be infrastructure at the border. From GPS to mobile tracking to trusted traders, I think I have answered all those points.
I am running out of time, so I will end by saying that there are huge opportunities for Aberdeen, the north-east and Scotland to use our competitive advantage to seize the benefits of Brexit. We must set our sights on the future—a new and global future.
I am glad we are having this debate. It is often demanded of this House on international matters and in negotiations that we back the Prime Minister of the day, but 78 years ago this month the Labour party did the unimaginable: in the early stages of the second world war, when we were fighting for national survival—arguably a bigger issue than Brexit—we voted against the then Conservative Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and we drove him from office. At the time, the Labour party was led by one of this country’s greatest ever leaders, Clement Attlee.
Our decision in May 1940 to force a Division in this House on what was dubbed the Norway debate, because it related to the allies’ campaign to stop the German invasion of Norway, led to the resignation of Neville Chamberlain. At the time, we were attacked for being opportunistic, undermining the Prime Minister, and being devious and divisive. We were told by Conservative Members that this was not the right time, at such a dangerous moment, to “snipe” at the Prime Minister. The Times called it “a great misfortune” that we did what we did. The criticisms being levelled at us now, for scrutinising what the Government are doing on Brexit, are similar in tone. Looking back, that moment in 1940 is celebrated. It led to a new Government of national unity, led by Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee, which helped to see off the Nazis.
Brexit is clearly a very different situation: it is not a decision about war and peace, life and death, but it is surely the gravest issue to face this Parliament in more than 50 years. Given the importance of the issue we are dealing with, no one who sits in this House—I say this to Ross Thomson —should see it as their job to act simply as a rubber stamp for the Prime Minister of the day, whichever side of the House we sit on. That is why it is absolutely essential that this House is provided with the papers and the evidence on which Ministers are making decisions.
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman had the opportunity last night to hear the interview on “Newsnight” with the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, who talked about the New IRA dissidents—a chilling title—who are willing to exploit Brexit. Will he and his colleagues call on the Government to put redacted copies, so that no confidential names are mentioned, of the Chief Constable’s security briefings to Ministers in the House of Commons Library?
I absolutely support what the hon. Lady calls for. That is very much the reason why I am an advocate of our continued participation not only in the customs union but in the European economic area. Not only would leaving the customs union and the EEA be a bad decision for our economy, with the customs union relating principally to manufactured goods and the EEA being vital for our services, which account for 80% of our economy, but the Irish Government and many others are absolutely clear that to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland we need to continue to participate in both the customs union and the EEA. We know that because others have told us. We know it economically, because our trade unions and our businesses have argued for it. We therefore deserve to see the evidence on which Ministers have decided to take a different view.
Does my hon. Friend agree that is not possible to separate the economic issues that relate to manufacturing and to services? Manufacturing needs services and services need manufacturing as part of their work programme, so surely we need to recognise the integrated importance of manufacturing and services to the British economy.
That is absolutely right, and of course it is why I support the motion. However, I would also like to see the Government’s papers that led them to decide that we should not take up the offer that the EU is making to us of continuing to participate in the EEA, in addition to the papers on the customs partnerships.
I want to deal with some points that the Minister for the Cabinet Office made. First, we have been told that we cannot see any of these papers for a number of reasons, but I say to the Minister that this is a Government without a majority, containing members of the Cabinet who said that we should leave the European Union to reassert parliamentary sovereignty. Withholding evidence like this at every step of the way flies in the face of that argument. Secondly, we are told that asking for all this will undermine the Prime Minister. Every single European diplomat, Foreign Minister and Head of Government we speak to will tell us what is doing more to undermine the Government than anything else: disunity in the Cabinet and people such as the Foreign Secretary coming out and calling their Prime Minister’s proposals “crazy”. That is what undermines the Government.
I want to make a final observation, because we have talked about the 2016 referendum. This is the way I see it. Yes, the country made a decision to invoke article 50 and start this process, and in some ways, it was like buying a house. We put an offer in to purchase the house. When someone is buying a house, do they immediately go from putting in their offer to paying their deposit, paying the money and completing the purchase? No, they do not—they carry out a survey to check whether the foundations of that house are sound. If the survey comes back and tells them that the foundations are unsound and the house is going to collapse, they do not go ahead and make their purchase.
That is why I believe that 650 people in this House of Commons should not be making a decision of this gravity for 65 million people. They should get a say on the Brexit deal that comes back to us in the autumn, but if Government Members are determined to deny them that, they should at least show them the survey before they insist on carrying out the purchase. Make no mistake—I say this to Members who are parroting Whips’ lines and doing the usual tribal thing—you will not be forgiven. Members of this House will not be forgiven by future generations if they simply dance to the tune of their Whips. We should think very carefully about what we are doing, because we will never be forgiven if we make the wrong decision.
Today’s motion shows definitively that the Opposition are unfit to be a party of Government. It is quite simply the height of irresponsibility for the Labour party to demand that the Government should publish confidential Cabinet papers about our future customs arrangements at a time of such crucial negotiations. That would inevitably expose every detail to our negotiating partners in Europe and destroy every inch of leverage that we have with them. No Government could assent to that, and no Opposition worthy of being a Government should ask for it.
I do not know whether my hon. Friend heard the historical analogy from Chuka Umunna, but it was entirely false, because the Labour party then was not trying to get Cabinet papers revealed—that would have been ridiculous, either in wartime or now. What it was trying to do was bring down the Prime Minister. That suggests that this motion and this debate are not about the truth; they are about trying to bring down the Prime Minister.
I agree, and I would draw another historical analogy: it is 60 years ago this year that Nye Bevan issued his famous warning to the Labour party not to send a British Foreign Secretary into the negotiating chamber naked, and that is precisely what this motion would do. It runs directly contrary to our national interest, and the whole country will see how profoundly misguided it is. There is no way of overstating this: every Member who votes for this motion—every one—will be damaging the principles of Cabinet government in the hope of inflicting partisan advantage. It is unforgivable. Coming a week after north-east Labour MPs called for a second referendum—or, as they now euphemistically call it, a people’s vote, as if a referendum were not exactly that—this shows the Opposition in the worst possible light.
This is the same “Project Fear” prognosis that we heard in 2016, which has been comprehensibly rubbished and which nearly 70% of the hon. Lady’s own constituents rejected—and she continues to lecture me about listening to my constituents and acting in their interests.
The Labour party is unreconciled to Brexit, unwilling to deliver it and unfit to run our country, but the Leader of the Opposition should be thanked for giving us another opportunity to point out the many reasons why Labour’s policy on the customs union and Brexit is so absurd. First, depending on who we ask and on which day, Labour has committed to staying in “a” or “the” customs union, but at the same time says it wants the UK to have a say over future trade deals and arrangements. The whole point is that if we are in the customs union but out of the EU, the UK will have no formal role or veto in trade negotiations, and the EU will have no incentive, let alone legal obligation, to negotiate deals that are in the UK’s interests.
Secondly, Labour’s U-turn towards stay in “a” or “the” customs union clearly breaks a manifesto commitment on which its Members all stood. That manifesto said:
“Labour will set out our priorities in an International Trade White Paper…on the future of Britain’s trade policy”.
We now discover that that White Paper would simply read: “Priority No. 1: give trade policy back to Brussels”.
Thirdly, the EU’s customs tariffs hit the poorest in this country the hardest. The highest EU tariffs are concentrated on food, clothing and footwear, which account for 37% of total tariff revenue, so the poorest British consumers are paying to prop up European industries.
Fourthly, the customs union not only hurts the poorest in our own country; it also supresses the economic growth of the developing world, because EU trade policy encourages cheap imports of raw materials from developing countries, such as coffee, but heavily taxes imports of processed versions of the same good. This means that poorer countries are stuck in a relationship of dependency, whereby there is no incentive to invest in processing technologies, which could lift them from their status as agrarian economies.
Finally, the House should be reminded that during negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, about which Opposition Members made so much fuss in 2015 and 2016, Jeremy Corbyn gave an impassioned speech to the House in which he concluded that, in negotiating TTIP, we were
“engaging in a race to the bottom”.—[Official Report,
Vol. 590, c. 1108.]
As Leader of the Opposition, he is now proposing a policy that would completely abrogate the UK’s ability to veto such arrangements in the future, let alone influence their negotiation.
I cannot improve on that point, other than to say that it goes to the heart of the matter, which is that this is not about our national interest; it is about the Labour party’s domestic political interest. It is shameful and wrong.
The Labour Party, in supporting a customs union, has gone back on the principles of a lifetime, broken a manifesto pledge and sided with corporations over consumers. It would punish the poorest in this country and abroad and subject the UK, one of the largest economies in the world, to a Turkey-style relationship of dependency in which the EU has complete control over our trade and customs. It is desperate for any opportunity to bring down the Government and has chosen to put power before principles and party before country. Millions of its own voters will be watching very closely indeed.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate on the future of our trade in goods and often the services associated with them—a matter on which I spoke in our recent debate in the House.
The Government have shown that they are not capable of reaching a decision in the national interest. What we are set to receive in the next few weeks will be a fudge between the Prime Minister’s warring Cabinet factions. It is time to trust Parliament to address these complex matters and to give it all the information it needs. I therefore support the motion.
We hear from those who criticise the EU that we need to escape its bureaucracy and red tape, but the irony of the Government’s two customs proposals is that they would lead to more barriers and more delays than we currently experience with the customs union. Let me set out some key points.
First, there is the customs partnership, which could undermine the tariff systems of both the UK and the EU. It would require us to track the movement of every good imported to the UK for which the UK and EU did not have identical tariffs and quotas. That surveillance could multiply exponentially over time. Sussex University’s UK Trade Policy Observatory has said that it is very hard to see how it could work, and even the Government’s own HMRC is reported to believe that the proposal is unviable. Secondly, there is the “max fac” option. To put it simply, that would eventually require some infrastructure on the Irish border, which the Government themselves ruled out in the joint report in December and which the EU would be unwilling to revisit.
Perhaps the worst aspect of this, however, is that even if both the Government’s proposals worked perfectly, neither could be in place by the time we needed them. After the Government had finally made a decision, it would reportedly take up to three to five years for the systems to be up and running. That is likely to take us between one and three years past the end of our transition period. So the choice is very simple, but it is a choice that the Prime Minister is refusing to make. Either we stay in the customs union, or we impose unnecessary barriers and costs on British businesses and infrastructure at the Irish border.
It is not just a question of infrastructure at the Irish border as if there were just one checkpoint. There are more than 270 crossings. During the troubles many of them were blocked by boulders, and people had to make detours of 20 or 30 miles. We cannot send the people who live near the border in Northern Ireland back to that situation.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Indeed, I believe that there are more crossings on that border than in all the other EU countries put together. That, I think, is a reality check on what is actually possible.
The practicalities of what those barriers and costs will mean can be assessed through two real-world examples, aerospace and medicines. The UK’s aerospace industry is a global success story that attracts significant investment. In my constituency, for instance, there is Boeing’s parts distribution centre in Feltham, the largest such centre in Europe. It relies on complex and globally integrated supply chains. Hundreds of aerospace parts currently flow back and forth daily across the EU’s borders to and from the UK, before being integrated into new aircraft or used to support in-service fleets. The just-in-time demands of the aerospace industry require quick and predictable border processes so that parts can reach their destination and repairs can be done in hours. Maintaining that speed for aerospace goods post Brexit is vital.
As for medicines, the Proprietary Association of Great Britain, the industry body for consumer medicines that we all know and use such as Beechams and Calpol, has said that a customs union is crucial to
“minimise the additional time and administrative burden” at the border. Ingredients for products that we use daily can cross the UK border up to four times during the manufacturing process.
We know that this debate is taking place in the absence of any credible evidence to suggest that leaving the customs union would be of net benefit to the UK. It is time to recognise that it is not an academic debate that will have no consequences, but a serious debate whose consequences could cost us billions and have an impact on jobs and prosperity for decades to come.
My constituents would be aghast at the behaviour of the Labour party. I represent parts of the Wigan and Bolton boroughs, and those who live there would hardly believe that Labour Members are yet again trying to undermine the British people and give every advantage to the Brussels bureaucrats. I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to reject subversive Labour and deliver an honest Brexit.
Maybe I can take the extra time.
While I welcome the motion, I regret that the Government have used today’s debate to focus on process rather than substance, because there are some crucial issues around the customs union and at the heart of today’s debate. It is laughable that Conservative Members should be lecturing the Labour party about acting irresponsibly and against the national interest when their party consistently puts party interests above the national interest, when their party’s Foreign Secretary has called the Prime Minister’s own proposals for a customs partnership “crazy”, and when their party likes to debate these issues in national newspapers rather than this Chamber.
I sometimes agree with the right hon. Lady but on this occasion I do not. The paper I am holding up now is the kind of ludicrous document we have before us: the “Future customs arrangements” paper. It is the only thing written by this Government on the customs union, and it contains just five flimsy paragraphs on the Prime Minister’s supposedly preferred option. That is not acceptable. Members of this House have a right to scrutinise the Government’s proposals, and this document is for the moment all we have to go on.
At the crux of this debate is the fact that membership of the customs union is crucial for two reasons. It is crucial because it is the only way to protect jobs and investment in my region of the west midlands and across the country. The EU is the UK’s biggest export market and our manufacturers, such as those in the automotive sector like Jaguar Land Rover and in the aerospace sector, rely on a frictionless border with that market. Any delays on the border, any extra cost and any added bureaucracy will put jobs and investment at risk.
Turkey’s arrangement with the EU was agreed when Turkey was on the path to membership; that is not the arrangement the Labour party is seeking with the EU, and to suggest otherwise is, frankly, ludicrous. We are proposing that we remain in the customs union and have a say over trade agreements done with the rest of the world. That is a more responsible policy than the hard Brexit that Conservative Members are preaching.
The other crucial issue in this debate is the border on the island of Ireland. The Prime Minister has made two contradictory promises: she has promised that there will continue to be an invisible border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, but she has also promised that we will leave the customs union. Anybody who has rationally considered this in the round will come to the same conclusion as I have: it is clearly not possible to do both of those things. That is why both the models being considered by the Government have been rejected by the EU. The Prime Minister can have as many meetings of the Cabinet and the Cabinet Sub-Committee and with Tory Back Benchers as she likes, but that does not change the fact that the EU opposes both of these models and neither of them is tried and tested. If she spent a little less time negotiating with her party and a little more time negotiating with our EU partners, she might have made more progress in the negotiations to date.
I will not.
Let us briefly consider the two models. Even some Conservative Members seem to be suggesting that the Prime Minister’s preferred option of the customs partnership is illegal, “crazy” and “cretinous”, so she does not even seem to have the backing of her own Members of Parliament. The EU has called it “magical thinking”, and from looking at the detail of the proposal it would appear that we would have to track every import into the UK—the EU tariffs would be different from those with the rest of the world—and collect the relevant tariffs, trusting those who say that the final destination is the EU. If it was not for the EU but stayed in the UK, we would not need to track it. That does not sound like a workable proposal to me. It would be a bureaucratic nightmare.
Then we come to the “max fac” option. Ross Thomson—it would be nice if he were listening—spoke enthusiastically about Dr Lars Karlsson’s proposals. When the Exiting the European Union Committee took evidence from Dr Karlsson, he admitted that some form of infra- structure—whether CCTV or automatic number plate recognition—would be required on the border. It has already been said that that would go against what has been agreed if we are to retain an invisible border on the island of Ireland.
My last point is that geography matters in trade, and I will leave the House with this point:
“We export more to Ireland than we do to China, almost twice as much to Belgium as we do to India, and nearly three times as much to Sweden as we do to Brazil. It is not realistic to think we could just replace European trade with these new markets.”
Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am in your debt.
This is the second time in as many weeks that we in this House have debated as part of an Opposition day debate the customs arrangements after the UK has left the European Union. That is only right and proper, as this is one of the major decisions facing the country today. The arguments for all the options have been rehearsed at length in this place, and it is only right that the Government should take seriously the concerns of all individuals who, whether I agree with them or not, have the interests of this country and its people at heart. I personally have complete faith that the Government will come to the right decision at the right time for this country. That is something that the Opposition do not seem to understand.
Of course there are differing opinions on this side of the House as to what would be the best way forward. Unlike the parties opposite, we enjoy debate and opinion in our party. We have not yet succumbed to the group-think mentality that seems to have subsumed most of the Opposition. Although I politely disagree with some of my hon. and, indeed, learned Friends on the best choice for Britain regarding our customs arrangements with the EU, I know that they are being constructive in their suggestions, positive in their outlook and united behind the ideal of building a better future for this country, none of which can be achieved by the suggestion in the motion we are debating today. To what end would releasing all of those papers take us? What would it achieve? Would it take us closer to a resolution of this vital issue? Sadly, I think not. This is not a helpful motion. It is a disruptive and petty motion aimed at creating a distraction from the divisions and flip-flopping of the Opposition on this and practically every other issue, and it shows naivety at the top of the Labour party.
The hon. Gentleman talks about the debate that takes place within his own party, but surely that is done on the basis of information and knowledge rather than ignorance. Would not the disclosure of these documents provide the information and knowledge that we all need if we are to debate what is in front of us?
I am terribly sorry; I do respect the hon. Gentleman, but I heartily disagree with him on this point. Releasing these documents would set a very dangerous precedent for how Cabinet Government and indeed the government of this country would proceed in the future.
I was heartened by the response of Peter Grant in neglecting to answer the question from my hon. Friend James Cartlidge about Scottish Government papers. He clearly agrees with us on the importance of confidentiality when it comes to Government papers. However, when my hon. Friend Stephen Kerr raised the image of Scottish Cabinet meetings, I could not shake the memory of Margaret Thatcher and her vegetables on “Spitting Image” a few years ago.
I simply do not understand the negativity shown by Opposition Members regarding our country’s future. They are constantly looking at the glass as though it were half empty. They are negative and downcast. They are too busy looking back in anger, rather than looking forward with optimism. I am convinced that this Government will succeed in the negotiations. They will succeed in building a country that is fit for the future, a country that we can all be proud of: a free, prosperous and open country humming with commerce and creativity and trading with countries all across the world. Unlike the party opposite, I actually want our Government to succeed in the negotiations. If we voted for the motion here today, we would be undermining their ability to do that. That is why I support the Government, and that is why I will be voting against the motion this evening.
The Minister for Cabinet Office gave all sorts of procedural reasons for why these papers should not be released. He spoke a lot about the relationship between Parliament and the Executive, but he did not mention the people who matter in all this: the British public, our businesses and the trade unions that represent workers who will lose jobs if we crash out of the EU with the reckless hard Brexit that the Government are currently pursuing.
It is no wonder that the Government do not want to release such papers and information because, after weeks of trying to prevent papers from being released, we saw Treasury documents that made it clear that, under all the options being pursued by the Government, we will see job losses, a loss of revenue, a lowering of growth and an increase in public sector borrowing—all the kinds of things that will have an impact on communities up and down the country. Indeed, documents about nuclear safeguards were released today, and the Government marked each one as red. This information should be in the public domain for the public and our businesses to see.
My hon. Friend is making an important point. Does he accept that we are already seeing the loss of many hundreds of jobs, particularly in our manufacturing sector and particularly in the west midlands, by virtue of these policies and the uncertainty surrounding them?
My hon. Friend makes a crucial point. I have the same worries about businesses in Wales, in south Wales and in my constituency.
This is our biggest decision since the second world war, and as my hon. Friend Chuka Umunna pointed out, we have a total shambles from the Government. Rows are largely being conducted in public, but without the public knowing what the Government know about the real impacts on businesses and on Northern Ireland and the huge inconsistencies in what is being put forward, let alone the risks to our place in the world.
We have heard about the risks of leaving the customs union. We have heard about the £466 billion-worth of current goods trade with the EU. The Brexit Secretary’s special adviser said that there would be a cost of £25 billion a year up until 2030. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has pointed out the issues with customs checks on imported goods. The Home Affairs Committee revealed the lack of preparation at the Home Office, including the lack of recruitment of people to carry out customs checks, and the cost of all that. We have not even left yet, but the Home Office has already had to request up to half a billion pounds that could have been spent on policing. Instead, it is going on preparing for a hard Brexit. We have also heard about the impact on the Northern Ireland-Republic of Ireland border, including some excellent points, as ever, from Lady Hermon, but the Northern Ireland Secretary has not even been to Brussels to discuss the issues and the Brexit Secretary went over to Northern Ireland only relatively recently.
My hon. Friend Matt Western pointed out the risk to jobs, and we repeatedly hear that directly from businesses. Many businesses have come to see me in private to tell me how disastrous the Government’s approach is. The truth is that the Government know that, but they are just not willing to admit it in public. Many businesses are activating major Brexit contingency plans. We have heard about the automotive sector, but the National Farmers Union has also described the scenario as disastrous. The pharmaceutical industry has warned about the impacts, and the Chemical Industries Association has made it clear that the best thing for us is to retain our membership of the single market and the customs union.
I have spoken extensively with the UK Chamber of Shipping about the impact on Welsh ports, including in my constituency, and it warns that the UK is facing an absolutely catastrophe. The same goes for steel, manufacturing, high-tech industries and, of course, the creative industries. We should not forget about the ability of our musicians and creative people to travel across Europe, making incredible products and selling them to the world.
As my hon. Friend Angela Smith said, we cannot fundamentally divorce all that from the arguments about the single market. I favour our staying in the EEA and in the customs union, and the Social Democratic and Labour party—Labour’s partner in Northern Ireland—has said the same. At the moment, however, the Government are riven in two in public and in private. They are unprepared, irresponsible and incompetent, and, what is worse, they know it.
Our negotiations with Europe are the most complex for a generation. I support transparency, scrutiny and democratic decision making, but it is utterly ludicrous to expect one side at the negotiating table to have a higher level of disclosure on its negotiating position than is expected of those on the other side—the EU. That is why I will not be supporting the motion tonight. It ties our hands.
It is utterly normal in international negotiations for parties to consider more than one option. When the EU wanted to reform the common agricultural policy, there were four options; when it published its recent paper on the future of Europe, there were five options.
We should not somehow blame the Government for being slow in deciding their future option. The Government laid out their options last August, and I was in Ireland discussing it with businesses on both sides of the border within a fortnight, but it was only last Sunday that the Irish Foreign Minister suggested he is open to having more exploratory talks.
I do not blame the Irish for taking time. I grew up on the border in Northern Ireland. I was born and raised in Omagh, where 29 people lost their lives after the Good Friday agreement. I will not jeopardise the Good Friday agreement; I will not jeopardise peace in Northern Ireland; and I will not jeopardise the Union that holds our country united.
We have to find a solution that works. Neither of the two solutions is perfect.
I take at face value the hon. Lady’s comments about her support for the Good Friday agreement, but what is her response to the people in Northern Ireland, including the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, who disagree with her, who feel that Brexit risks a hard border and who feel that that would damage peace?
We have to find a solution that meets the Prime Minister’s criterion of no hard border in Northern Ireland, which is why I want to continue the discussions on the partnership agreement. The partnership agreement is not perfect, and it has never been done before, but we should let the Government continue negotiating and not close down options.
The “max fac” solution is not perfect, either. Some 145,000 businesses that trade with Europe would have to start doing customs declarations for the first time, and it relies on the small business exemption on the border in Ireland, which puts our relationship with Ireland into permanent potential conflict because Ireland would end up having to be the policeman of our door with Europe.
We need to continue looking, but we also need to remember that resolving customs is only part of this discussion. It does not even solve the goods issue. We still need to deal with rules of origin. Incidentally, will the Minister please make sure we look at pan-Euro-Mediterranean cumulation of origin as a sensible option?
I completely agree, and that brings me on to my next point because, actually, there has been a huge amount of disclosure on the direction of the negotiations. When I say that customs union is not a full deal, it is because many other areas, such as services, digital and medicines regulation, have to be addressed both for us and for people on the other side of our borders. That was in the Mansion House speech, but, more importantly, it was laid down just last week in a joint document published by the UK and the EU on the discussion topics for the future partnership.
Businesses need clarity—I understand that—and they will probably need a lot more time to implement whatever decisions are reached. I am sure many businesses will need more time for implementation than we previously thought, but let us take the time to get this right and let us let the Government get on with their negotiations and with focusing on finding the end solution.
I want to speak in support of the speech made by my hon. Friend Paul Blomfield, who led for Labour from the Front Bench and made an excellent contribution. I specifically want to support his comment that there is a majority in this House for a sensible approach. We would not imagine anything less than good, British common sense in the House of Commons, but I cannot understand why the Prime Minister, having called a general election to determine her Brexit, would not listen to the views of those democratically elected to this place. Instead, the Government’s approach is chaotic. The Minister said our motion would affect the quality of policy making—that is a joke, given what we currently face. The lack of British diplomacy at this crucial point for our country is embarrassing, and the Secretary of State’s whole argument makes absolutely no sense given the Foreign Secretary’s conduct.
This motion is designed to reset that balance and make sure the British people can hold the Government properly to account, because Labour’s approach to Brexit is sensible. It reflects how trade currently is, and I commend the speech made by Vicky Ford, as her description was of how trade actually is today; we produce goods across borders, not within them. We need an approach to customs that provides for the just-in-time logistics that our modern economy has embedded within it.
My hon. Friend Emma Reynolds made an excellent contribution, describing all the ways in which our manufacturing business needs a sensible customs arrangement that means we can transfer goods across borders quickly. I simply add that for manufacturing towns up and down Britain that is mission critical. We simply can no longer afford to have places that are left behind, where a factory shuts and is never replaced. Those were the dark days of the 1980s, and we must not have that again, not now.
My hon. Friend is making an important point about multinational supply chains and how it is important not to have delays, paperwork or checks in the middle of that operation. Does she agree that this is about not just customs, but common standards and rules? Anyone in this House, on any side, who thinks that this is just about customs and not about the adherence to common standards and rules is kidding themselves.
Perhaps it is because I have learnt a great deal from my right hon. Friend that he pre-empts the next paragraph of my contribution. Labour’s approach has been absolutely sensible to date, but we need more small addition to our policy, which is to support membership of the single market. As he said, other things are needed. We need common standards and, specifically, an agreement on rules of origin, which are necessary to make sure that manufacturing business in this country does not have to expend time, money and energy on constantly calculating volume and what percentage within that will agree with the EU on the EU’s rules of origin requirements. That simply cannot happen, which is why we need membership of the single market.
Finally, this country simply has an ageing population, and although that is a great thing, our country will not financially succeed without a sensible immigration policy. So I simply say to those in this House, and wherever else, who think that the answer to all our woes is to end the approach we have had on immigration to date that we cannot cope with our dependency ratio being as it is. We need a sensible approach to immigration going forward and that should be part of our future relationship with the EU. It is not dramatic or complicated; we just need to take, as the Labour Front Benchers have today, a pragmatic, common-sense approach and listen to the British people.
It is a great pleasure to follow Alison McGovern. However, people outside the Chamber watching the debate could be forgiven for wondering what month and what year we are in. Being in here, listening to the arguments that we heard during the referendum campaign, is like groundhog day.
Chuka Umunna questioned our voters’ ability to make up their minds about the referendum, but I will take no lectures from him. I say to him and to all hon. Members that people in Redditch—my constituents—knew exactly what they were voting for in the referendum and, on that day, 62% of them voted to leave the European Union. It is therefore my job to come here and deliver a sensible Brexit—yes, I use the words “sensible Brexit”—that protects their livelihoods.
We hear the argument rehearsed time and again that a catastrophe—an economic disaster—is about to hit us all. Yet week after week, our economy confounds that. Since we voted to leave the European Union, British businesses and British entrepreneurs are doing what they have always done and what they do best: creating jobs, innovating, and starting new businesses that provide jobs for my constituents and others throughout the country. We have record high employment in this country. Growing foreign direct investment is coming into our country, creating jobs and benefiting all our constituents.
It is astonishing to hear accusations that members of our Cabinet do not have the same opinions. Is it any surprise? There are highly respected Conservative Members who have made their views on the EU clear for decades. Our party does not take the approach that those who enter the Cabinet become clones. Discussions go on in Cabinet—that is a healthy way of finding the best method to address the biggest challenge facing our country. I will not vote for the motion and I support the Government’s approach.
Let us make no mistake: the only way to ensure tariff-free and frictionless trade, as well protecting against a hard border on the island of Ireland, is to remain in the customs union.
The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union told me in a recent debate that the Canada-United States border was an example of a customs arrangement that the Government may seek to replicate. However, the Irish Prime Minister, having visited that border, said:
“I saw a hard border with physical infrastructure, with customs posts, people in uniforms with arms and dogs.”
That is not what we want for the border in Ireland.
Having visited Detroit and that border between in the US and Canada in February, I can confirm that it takes an average of eight minutes to get through, and that it is what a hard border looks like, with X-ray machines and so on. There would be serious friction on such a border.
It is good to hear such first-hand experience in the House. Clearly such an option is unacceptable for peace in Ireland and the efficient customs regime that we seek. Donald Tusk has effectively said that if Ireland does not find the UK’s offer on the border acceptable, the EU will not allow negotiations to move on to trade. If we also consider the fact that the Irish Prime Minister has said that it the US-Canada border example
“is definitely not a solution”,
it is clear that the only way forward is to remain in the customs union.
My constituency of Bridgend has the largest Ford engine factory in Europe. The automotive sector is critical to the wellbeing of many families throughout my constituency—on average, around 12,000 families are linked to work with that factory. According to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, the introduction of tariffs on trade with the EU because of our leaving the customs union would significantly increase costs. A 10% tariff on finished vehicles would cost the industry £4.5 billion, increasing the price of cars imported to the UK from the EU by an average of around £1,500. Tariff costs and custom burdens on such a highly integrated supply chain would undoubtedly disrupt and undermine the competitiveness of UK manufacturing, and that is without the common standards and rules mentioned by my right hon. Friend Mr McFadden.
The Government have said that one of their strategic objectives is
“ensuring UK-EU trade is as frictionless as possible”.
Automotive experts have made it crystal clear that customs barriers and tariffs would be crippling for their industry. As frictionless as possible is just not good enough. It is no secret that the single market and customs union have been vital for the competitiveness of the sector. In the UK, it has made more than £71 billion in turnover and supports more than 800,000 jobs. That is not something that we can toss away lightly.
To protect jobs and to protect the automotive industry, the Government should be actively seeking to avoid any customs tariffs whatsoever. The only way to do that is in the customs union. My constituents deserve to know what future the Government are taking them towards. They have the right to make the ultimate decision, based on the facts—facts that were denied to them at the time of the referendum. Let them have those facts now, and let us know what the Government know about the risks we are taking as a result of their line of taking us out of the customs union.
It is with some regret that I speak in this debate, given the way in which Opposition Front Benchers have yet again chosen to abuse a parliamentary procedure to make a political point. I agree completely with my right hon. Friend Anna Soubry, who described this as a Mickey Mouse motion. It is such a waste of an Opposition day debate.
The customs arrangements after the UK leaves the EU will have both political and economic impacts. There have been discussions regarding many models—some that will make our borders invisible and others that will revolutionise the world. I appreciate this wave of technological enthusiasm, but it is important to remember that the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee reported:
“We have…had no visibility of any technical solutions, anywhere in the world, beyond the aspirational, that would remove the need for physical infrastructure at the border.”
The Prime Minister has set out three key objectives for the future deep customs arrangement promised in the Conservative party manifesto. Those are the right options, and she should be given the space and flexibility to come up with the solution that works in the best interests of our nation. If she is not able to do so—if she is boxed in and undermined—the consequences will be particularly serious, especially for the island of Ireland.
One popular trope is that we should just walk away and unilaterally impose zero tariffs, and then there would be no need for a hard border—that we just decide to have nothing and that is it. But we are leaving the EU in 10 months and we need to get real. Having zero tariffs with a country does not automatically eliminate the need for border checks, and such a proposal would run into issues under article 39 of the WTO rules. In a no-deal situation, both the WTO rules, to which we would be subject, and the EU rules, to which the Irish Republic would be subject, would require the implementation of a de facto border.
Of course, tariffs are only part of the problem, and arguably they are a very minor one. Non-tariff barriers are far more important, and they are created by inadequately harmonised regulation. Rules of origin could render any tariff-free deal that we strike meaningless for many companies. Product quality-checking issues are far more critical, as they speak to issues such as public health, public safety and animal welfare.
Other examples of borders, such as those in Norway, Switzerland or even Canada, are completely useless for the UK situation. The Swiss border has a level of physical infrastructure for commercial freight that both sides in the negotiations have said that they do not want. Switzerland accepts the vast majority of the EU acquis on goods and it is also in Schengen which, last time I checked, is nobody’s policy position.
It is not possible to know precisely what customs arrangements will be necessary until after the future trading relationship has been determined, so we must let the Prime Minister get on with it. The Opposition are very able when it comes to talking about process—in fact they are obsessed with it to the exclusion of outcomes—but they will soon find out that what our constituents want and need are solutions to the real issues that we face, not just politicking and endless arguments about procedure.
There is stalemate within the Cabinet. In the blue corner, we have the Prime Minister leading the charge for a substandard customs partnership; in the purple corner, we have arch-Brexiteers pushing for an economy-wrecking maximum facilitation scheme. Neither is workable, and they have both been rejected by the EU, so why are we even discussing them?
We are told that a high-tech computerised system can be used to process people at the border without the need for checks. Do we need reminding that, less than two years ago, this House found Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to be improperly targeting ordinary hard-working people through an outsourced company? Do we need reminding that, just a couple of weeks ago, the Home Secretary resigned because of serious Home Office failings? How can we even begin to entertain the idea that a hi-tech computerised system will give us frictionless trade? Every lorry crossing the border into Switzerland is stopped while drivers’ paperwork is checked. Upwards of 15,000 lorries a day pass through Dover. None of the proposals put forward by the Government would result in frictionless trade; it would be a “frictionful” trading nightmare, and if it is going to be a trading nightmare, why are we even considering it?
For me, there is only one option: a customs union between the UK and the EU. That is the best way to ensure that there are no tariffs or customs checks within Europe. When I talk to businesses, they tell me that they want tariff-free trading with Europe, and they want it without a mountain of paperwork. When I talk to our trade unions, they say that they want workers’ rights protected. They want a deal that raises living standards, not threatens them. If the Government get their way, the burden will be placed on our businesses and our workforce—ordinary hard-working people. Not being part of a customs union will cost far more than any other proposed trade deal, and if it is going to cost us more, why are we even considering it?
We are being told day in, day out, that leaving the European Union will make us worse off, that business will be hampered, that jobs will be harmed and that our rights will be watered down. I fear for this country when the Brexit Secretary presents us with the final deal. I stood up for my constituency of Tooting when I voted against triggering article 50, and I will not hesitate to do the same when it comes to the final deal. I will not vote for a deal that makes Tooting and our country worse off.
Well, well, well, it is Wednesday, it is an Opposition day, and we are doing the Humble Address again. That rarely used instrument of parliamentary procedure, which has not been seen much over the past 200 years, has suddenly been used half a dozen times in less than six months. I accept that, effectively, there are two groups within the main Opposition party. Those in the more sensible group—they usually sit towards the back of the Chamber —feel very heartfelt about leaving the European Union and disagree with the principle of doing so. They make it quite clear, through this kind of proposal, that they do not wish that to happen. I respectfully disagree with them and gently ask individuals such as the hon. Members for Streatham (Chuka Umunna) and for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty)—neither of them are in their place, although they were here for much of this debate—to reflect on some of the words that they use. There is a genuine view on the Government Benches—and in constituencies such as mine, which voted 63% to leave—that we should leave the European Union, the single market and the customs union, and that there are options and opportunities when we do. To suggest that we are extremists or that we are being overly partisan because of that does nothing for my constituents or for the reputation of this House and how we are debating this issue. Therefore, although I understand hon. Members’ concerns, I ask them to consider their language separately.
My respect, however, does not extend to the Opposition Front Benchers, who are being deeply disingenuous in pursuing this proposal and the suggestions in it. It was heartening to hear my near neighbour, Paul Blomfield, accept that the Labour party’s proposals would mean that it would have no control over customs or future trading arrangements—one of the key reasons why 63% of my constituents voted to leave in the referendum two years ago. If that is the case, that is fine, but we should not draw an artificial distinction between having a trade deal and not having trade. The North American Free Trade Agreement quadrupled the amount of trade in that region when it was introduced in the 1990s. We can go out and seek to strike independent free trade deals that will be positive and beneficial to our country.
It is deeply disingenuous of the Opposition to suggest, three quarters of the way through negotiations—three quarters of the way through the Government trying to understand how we are going to strike a new set of deals with the European Union—that we should just throw open the books and show the European Union exactly what we are doing and thinking. The Opposition’s motion misunderstands trading policy, misrepresents the negotiations—probably wilfully—and misjudges the public mood. I will happily vote against it.
With so much mistrust towards politicians, it is important that we all support transparency wherever possible. It prevents abuses of power and is vital for a healthy parliamentary democracy—a clear reason why so many people voted to leave. It is therefore very strange that the Government, who support leaving, are now acting in such a non-transparent way. Why are they against transparency? What do they have to hide? Here is the reason: since 2016 the Government have still not moved on from their position of having their cake and eating it.
The Cabinet are having an internal row about whether to support a technological solution or the idea of a customs partnership. The European Union has already rejected both proposals as being in la-la land. In the case of the technological solution, nowhere in the world is there a customs border without physical border checks. The only exception is the border between Alaska and Canada, separated by thousands of miles of ice. If the technology existed, why would countries such as Norway and Sweden, or the US and Canada, not use it?
A customs partnership would still be de facto a hard border and would not solve the issue of the Irish border. That is contrary to what the Prime Minister promised in the joint statement in December 2017.
No, I have very little time.
The robust enforcement mechanism that the Government talk about would still mean that there would be physical border infrastructure. The frequency of checks does not take away the principle of a hard border. If the EU believes that the proposals are delusional but the Government believe that they are coherent, how do we establish who is right? This is why we need to see the written documentation from Government officials.
No, I have no time.
We want to know what advice Ministers were given. That is why we support the Humble Address motion. I suspect that the Government want to keep Parliament and the people in the dark so that they can leave the European Union at any price. It is time that the Government were honest about the realities of Brexit and let the people take back control of the process.
The meaningful vote is due to come to Parliament in the autumn; 650 MPs have an important role to play, but 650 MPs cannot update, confirm or review the decision taken by 33 million people in June 2016. If we live in a proper democracy, the people must have the final say. The people must finish what the people have started. I look forward to my constituents in Bath having the final say on the deal.
If Wera Hobhouse had indulged me by allowing an intervention, I would have asked her how many such bundles of papers the Liberal Democrats offered to the House while they were in government: precious few, I would suggest.
This is a silly motion. It is a complete waste of the House’s time. It is political posturing at its very worst. It is further evidence of Labour Members’ obsession with process and procedure and their complete lack of interest in the national interest. We should be focusing attention on outcomes rather than processes. I appeal to Labour Members by reading to them the words of someone who is venerated by many of them, including many of their most outspoken remainers:
“If you are trying to take a difficult decision and you’re weighing up the pros and cons, you have frank conversations…And if those conversations then are put out in a published form that afterwards are liable to be highlighted in particular ways, you are going to be very cautious. That’s why it’s not a sensible thing.”
That was said by Tony Blair. I ask Labour Members to consider this: if that was the approach to sensible government of the only leader they have had who has led them to general election victories, then why on earth should it not be the approach of those who pretend, at least, to have aspirations to be the Government of this country? That is something I very much hope we will never see.
I want to make one thing clear. There is one element of our post-Brexit customs policy that absolutely must be defended, and that is the principle that we leave the European Union as one United Kingdom. Whichever option the Government pursue, and whichever agreement we negotiate with the EU, it is vital that we maintain our commitment to the Union and have no borders within the United Kingdom. A border in the Irish sea, or at Gretna or Berwick, would be totally unacceptable. We cannot have any part of the United Kingdom kept, in effect, as part of the EU for customs purposes while the rest of the UK leaves. I am glad that the Government have repeatedly acknowledged that fact. We must leave the EU as one country not just because it preserves the Union but because it is the best option for jobs, businesses and trade across the UK.
I conclude with these words from Liz Cameron, the chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce. In fact, I see that I do not have time to utter those words, but I am sure that Members can find them by googling them.
Erdington is rich in talent but is one of the poorest constituencies in the country. It is blessed, however, by having the Jaguar plant in it. I remember the funereal atmosphere in 2010 when it faced closure, but the factory was turned around, which has transformed the lives of thousands of workers locally, with the workforce doubling in size from 1,400 to nearly 3,000. The foundations were laid in 2008 by a Labour Government with the Automative Council, and we worked with a coalition Government to build on that, with the new engine plant, the skills initiative in the supply chain and the investment in research and development transforming the UK’s automotive sector into the most productive in Europe.
Highly efficient just-in-time manufacturing is essential to maintaining the sector’s international competitiveness, because it relies on the free and frictionless movement of goods. For example, seatbelts, which are now highly technical computer-controlled devices, are made by Bosch in Germany; plastic sealing is made in the Czech Republic; wheels are made in Germany; and brake hoses are made in Spain. The modern British car relies on an interconnected web of European automotive suppliers.
Let us look at the statistics. Eleven hundred trucks a day arrive from the European Union, delivering components worth £35 million. Some 80% of auto imports come from the European Union, while 69% of auto exports are sent to the European Union. Our destiny is inextricably linked with that of the European Union. That is why we so strongly favour continuing customs union membership, for all the reasons we have heard, not least those set out brilliantly by my hon. Friend Preet Kaur Gill. It seems that many on the Conservative Benches are absolutely oblivious to the consequences of their actions. They are wide-eyed Brexiteers refusing to hear from the industry and the workers in it, and ploughing ahead with that which would be deeply damaging and harm the British national interest.
We are determined to continue to build on the great success story of Jaguar Land Rover, but there are mounting problems, with 1,000 jobs just gone at Solihull and workers being transferred there from the Jag. Impacts are being felt ever more strongly not just from Brexit but from the problems arising out of the transition from diesel. I say in all honesty to the wide-eyed Brexiteers: listen to the industry and to the workers, and do not be taken forward by a hopelessly divided Cabinet that is taking Britain over the cliff edge to what would be a national disaster.
I am very grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for affording me a few moments to contribute to the debate.
We have just heard from Jack Dromey that Brexiteers are somehow wide-eyed. I am blessed in Crawley, because my constituents are very sensible in their approach. Some 58% of them voted in June 2016 to leave the European Union, with the clear message that we would be leaving the customs union and the single market as well. My constituents are wide-eyed with the possibilities of global Britain and no longer being tied to the EU’s single market and customs union.
This country has a fantastic global heritage and more unique international links than any other country in the world. We are perfectly placed to be a bridge between the rest of the world and Europe, given our proximity and using the relations that we have. I think that is why a majority of the people of Crawley voted to leave the European Union. They are not insular in the way they view the world. They are employed by international companies located in my constituency—from Gatwick airport to medical technology companies, financial services companies and many others—and they see the global possibilities of free trade. We cannot realise those global free trade opportunities if we remain locked inside the customs union. We can only negotiate international deals with the Commonwealth and with many countries around the world, including the United States, if we are outside the customs union and if we achieve a comprehensive trade agreement with the European Union.
We are talking about negotiations, and I know of no business that would reveal its negotiating hand when seeking to make an agreement; I certainly did not when I ran a business. I know of no other country that would reveal its negotiating strategy in international forums. So that the official Opposition can relate to this, I add that I know of no trade union that would reveal its negotiating hand ahead of seeking a deal on behalf of its members. This motion is a nonsense, and we should vote it down this evening.
I am in favour of the Opposition’s motion for a number of reasons. First, seeing the documents would allow us to assess the economic impact that the two options will have. As MPs, we have been promised a vote on the final deal between the EU and the UK, but how can we vote on that deal without the information to inform us of the economic impact it will have? Neither can we wait until we are presented with the final deal to have our say on our trading relationship. The Government have openly stated that they wish to hold the House to ransom in October—it is their deal or no deal. As MPs, we need to have an input into this important debate before any deal is reached.
The second reason I am in favour of the motion is to highlight the importance of Labour’s policy of forming a new customs union with the EU. A new customs union is the only way to secure the frictionless trade with the EU that our economy relies on. As my hon. Friend Preet Kaur Gill rightly pointed out about the car industry, the manufacture of a car involves goods crossing EU borders perhaps a dozen times. If we adopt a policy that adds significant delays and checks at the UK border, what will car manufacturers do—will they carry on as usual, accepting that the UK is less competitive and more expensive, or will we see the gradual relocation of jobs and businesses to the continent? I genuinely fear that the latter may be true.
Under current regulations, if we were to leave the EU without a customs union, 44% of the components of a car need to originate in the UK for us to benefit from free trade, but a car is currently about 25% British-sourced. This means that the car industry, but also many others, will see tariffs on goods. The ambitious free trade deal that the Government want will be meaningless without a customs union. That is why we need to be up front and honest about the impact each trading option will have.
The only word that comes close to describing this Government’s handling of Brexit is “shambolic”. We have even heard reports today that the Government are considering scrapping the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill owing to the risks of defeat in this House, and I hope the Minister will clarify those reports and confirm that the Bill will return to the Commons after it has passed through the Lords. As an Opposition, we must do all we can to shine a light on the dangers of a Tory Brexit, and, as we leave the EU, we must do everything we can to protect businesses, jobs and our economy. That is Labour’s guiding Brexit principle, and I urge colleagues to vote in favour of the motion.
Releasing this information is part of the job: this is about scrutiny, not mutiny.
As I have said in the House and in my constituency, I want a Brexit that is the best for Bury and Britain, not the confines and machinations of hard-liners among Government Members sitting on their protected bit of green-belt land, not a stand-off in Government two years in, and not a Prime Minister in a spin, announcing ideas, but admitting that they all still need work. And we have not even left yet. The serious point is that current jobs, our future prospects and just-in-time manufacturing rely on getting this right, and peace in Northern Ireland relies on us getting this right. This is detail on which millions of jobs, lives and livelihoods depend, and detail that our real economic growers need sight of.
It is said that the hard-Brexit ideologues are prepared to sacrifice themselves to get what they want on this point, but there is no heroism here. It is not heroic to put a company out of business from the comfort of their places on the Green Benches. It is not heroic to put jobs at risk as they nod with their accomplices across the table at the latest Brexit dinner. No hero takes risks with others’ lives when only they will live without the consequences of failure.
In Bury, we have businesses of all persuasions, ambitions and origins. Each of them tells me about their careful consideration of the implications, threats and, possibly, opportunities posed by leaving the EU, but they all want a customs union. As they weigh up their next moves, they should be enabled to do so with the best information—good and bad—that is available. Giving them such information will better prepare us all, because away from here, the prism through which Brexit is seen is that of communities, families, homes, jobs and prospects. That must also be our approach to Brexit: not deals in the dark, but information brought to light. Sharing the information from these Cabinet discussions is part of doing so.
A customs union is an economically literate plan that is supported by the CBI, as well as employers providing local jobs in Bury and elsewhere. It accepts the result of the referendum, allows us to move away from the stalled state of things as they are and lets us quickly get plans for a post-Brexit Britain. We need a transformation agenda to bring back to Labour the wards and communities in which people voted to leave because they felt left behind; and we need a modern vision for a country dealing with the world. The Government must stop wilfully adhering to threats made by a tiny rump of ideologues and do what is right by this country.
Today’s debate reflects the seriousness of the situation in which we have been left. We still have no idea about the Government’s plan for what is next on customs. Rachel Maclean, who is no longer in her place, mentioned groundhog day. It is certainly groundhog day when, two years on, we are still asking: what is the customs plan? We are still asking questions about what the Government plan to do next. This issue is not about this place and it is not about openness; it is about businesses being able to plan, it is about universities being able to plan, it is about individuals being able to plan.
At the moment, we are left with a form of Kremlinology, whereby we have to read between the lines to try to figure out what might be coming next. We have a stale Government with a past-her-sell-by-date leader. She is rolled out to paper over the cracks of a Government infighting behind the scenes. To be fair to the Foreign Secretary, he makes Kremlinology slightly easier by describing the Prime Minister’s own plans as “crazy”. Astonishingly, he is still in post.
What is not crazy are the challenges facing businesses. We know the economic analysis tells us that tens of thousands of jobs will be lost. GDP will be devastated, which means that income for public services will be devastated. We have so many outstanding questions, and not just on customs. What happens to immigration? What happens to research from which we all benefit? What happens to EU nationals?
It is clear that this is not going very well for the Government. If it is not going very well for the Government, then unfortunately it is not going very well for Scotland or any other part of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland where this means so much and should be taken so much more seriously.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my hope that the Conservative MPs from Scotland who were elected by hugely remain constituencies might respect that today and vote for the customs union?
Yesterday, the Government and the Tories were left isolated over their current plans.
When they have been questioned about the analysis, the Government apparently told BuzzFeed News that it was not being published because it is a bit embarrassing. I am not surprise it is a bit embarrassing. This is all a bit embarrassing. The situation in which the United Kingdom as a whole has been left is a bit embarrassing.
This matters: it matters to business, it matters to researchers, it matters to EU nationals. Parliament has a role and a responsibility. It deserves to have as much information as it possibly can. Back the Opposition motion and publish!
This Parliament, this country, businesses and the rest of the world are looking on in horror as our Government fight like cats in a sack over two unworkable proposals. No one can believe that a democratic country could put itself in this situation, doing so much damage to our businesses, our jobs and our future prospects.
The Government are refusing to release information on the advice they are getting from all sides, just as they whipped their MPs to refuse an economic impact assessment on the deal itself before we in Parliament have to vote on that deal. Anyone would think that the Government have something to hide: that they have no plan, that they have no strategy for avoiding the economic disaster that their own papers say they are heading for. They are doing everything except listen. They are not listening to those on their own Benches and they are not listening to British business.
Those of us on the Opposition Benches who have spoken to businesses in our constituencies have heard it loud and clear: they all want to be part of a customs union. It will be absolutely disastrous for our businesses if they are not part of a system of tariff-free borders and if they do not have regulatory alignment. Businesses in my constituency are already having to move abroad and set up offices and transfer jobs abroad, because they are being undermined by competitors in the European Union that are undercutting them and going to contractors, saying that UK companies cannot guarantee that they will be part of the customs union, that they will not have tariffs and that they will not have regulatory alignment. That is why we are losing business. It is happening.
The Government should listen to the Confederation of British Industry and the EEF, which said that
“the need for a post-Brexit customs union reflects what EEF and UK manufacturing have long called for…
free and frictionless trade can only be achieved by comparable customs rules to those” we already enjoy. That is why businesses in my constituency told me loud and clear at a Brexit summit that I held that they all need to be part of a customs union to carry on trading and to enjoy the preferential deals with the rest of the world that they enjoy as part of the EU customs union. We cannot seek to match that. Australia has just 15 such deals, as does Canada, and they are worse than what we get as part of the EU. The Government need to do the decent thing by this Parliament, this country and by our businesses and make sure that we have transparency.
Call me old-fashioned, but what is wrong with the House having papers, presentations and economic analyses on the Government’s post-Brexit preferred customs arrangements, including a customs partnership and maximum facilitation? What is wrong with that? What we have is a Government who are waiting, like Mr Micawber, for something to turn up. That is what it is.
Lee Rowley asked why we have this Humble Address motion before us. I will tell him why: it is because this Parliament is getting stitched up and gagged by the Tories. They would not allow amendments to the law in the Finance Bill. They have threatened the House of Lords. They have statutory instruments coming out of their ears and ministerial diktats will follow. That is why we have this motion. Paul Masterton told us that this Humble Address was a Mickey Mouse motion. Well, I tell you what: Mickey Mouse is 80 years old this year and he is a well-respected, popular icon—respected by generations and millions of people. If this is a Mickey Mouse Humble Address, I will have them every single day.
Colin Clark said, “Get on with it,” but what are we supposed to be getting on with? The Government do not actually know. My hon. Friend Mr Lewis said that this is a shambles, that we are a laughing stock, and he is absolutely spot on. Martin Vickers said that we are undermining our negotiating position. Well, we do not have a negotiating position, so how can we undermine something that we do not have? It was particularly bizarre.
My hon. Friend Preet Kaur Gill talked about the threat to manufacturing in her constituency, which the Government do not care about. It is as simple as that. Ross Thomson referred to Adam Smith and “The Wealth of Nations”. Let me remind him that before “The Wealth of Nations” came “The Theory of Moral Sentiments”. Well, there is nothing moral in what this Government are doing on this particular issue. There is secrecy, intrigue and furtiveness, and there is nothing moral about that whatsoever.
As for Mr Clarke, what we want to know is: what did he have in his right pocket? Was it a Rubik’s cube or a redacted Brexit Sub-Committee minute? Get it out and let us have a look. Chris Green mumbled something and then sat down. I think some of his hon. Friends should have done exactly the same thing and we might have been able to move on. Vicky Ford said that we need to take time to get it right. Well, we do not have the time because the Government have been dragging their feet for a year or more.
My hon. Friend Alison McGovern said the Government were in chaos, and she was absolutely spot on. Rachel Maclean said she wanted to deliver a sensible Brexit—well, get on with it then! We will join them, if they do want to deliver a sensible Brexit, but there is no suggestion they do. My hon. Friend Jo Platt called it shambolic, and it is shambolic. It is as simple as that. My hon. Friend James Frith said there was nothing heroic about putting people out of work, and he was absolutely spot on. My hon. Friend Ruth George said the Government were not listening, which sums it up, and we are losing business because of it.
In contemporary parlance, the Prime Minister is “shook”—totally unable to stand up to the right-wing press and back the only sensible way forward, which is Labour’s plan for a customs union. That is what we want. Instead, the Cabinet has been offered two options to decide between. First, we have what the Prime Minister calls a customs partnership. As my right hon. and learned Friend Keir Starmer has mentioned, this partnership would require UK officials to collect tariffs on behalf of the EU for any goods coming to the UK that are travelling onward to an EU state. As hon. Members have said, the Prime Minister’s plan has been described as “crazy” by the Foreign Secretary and as having “significant question marks” by the Environment Secretary, while HMRC sources have called it “unviable” and suggested that Ministers are “having a laugh”.
Perhaps the Minister can clarify: is the Prime Minister’s preferred option “crazy” or merely “unviable”? It cannot be forgotten that HMRC resources have been decimated, with staffing and resourcing slashed by 17% since 2010. Nevertheless, the Government now think it appropriate to use what little resource is left to protect the EU’s customs union for it, without the UK receiving the full economic benefits. This feels like the worst of all worlds.
Does my hon. Friend agree that even if the Prime Minister can persuade her divided Cabinet and then the EU negotiators to accept one or other of those two proposals, neither would be ready before the end of the transition period? Is it not therefore time for the Government finally to admit that we will be remaining in a customs union with the EU for some time to come?
That is a fair assessment from my right hon. Friend.
As Members have mentioned already, we have been told by the Brexit Secretary that:
“Faced with intractable problems with political pressure for a solution, the government reaches for a headline grabbing high-tech ‘solution’. Rather than spend the resources, time and thought necessary to get a real answer, they naively grasp solutions that to the technologically illiterate ministers look like magic.”
It is not me who is suggesting that the Brexit Secretary has not acquired the technical prowess to rocket us into this scientific utopia; it is the Brexit Secretary himself. The Government’s search for a magical fix to questions of such seriousness as the Northern Irish border leads us to believe that it is now in the public interest for Parliament itself to scrutinise the two options proposed by the Prime Minister. To do so, we must have access to the necessary information: in this case, the information contained in the papers, presentations and analyses provided to the Cabinet on each of these proposals.
Labour’s position is clear. We would negotiate a customs union that would ensure a strong and collaborative future relationship with the EU, deliver the exact same benefits as we currently have with members of the single market and customs union, ensure the fair management of migration in the interests of the economy and communities, defend the rights of workers and environmental protections, prevent a race to the bottom, protect national security and our capacity to tackle cross-border crime and deliver for all the regions. Let us then expose the Government’s total failure to reach a feasible negotiating position and in the process move one step forward to the goal of a new customs union with the EU, which is a position, I suspect, that is backed by Members across the House and one that meets all the key conditions of a final exit settlement.
This has been a wide-ranging debate. We have covered customs models and second referendums. We have covered the single market. There has even been a spirited attempt by my hon. Friend Mr Fysh to challenge the very orderliness of the motion, and the Chair. He is a braver man than I am. We have heard Peter Dowd extol the virtues and the leadership qualities of Mickey Mouse, with which I am sure he is most familiar on his side of the House. However, I wish to bring Members back to the important matter of the motion, which calls for
“all papers, presentations and economic analyses” presented to
“the European Union Exit and Trade (Strategy and Negotiations) Cabinet sub-committee, and its sub-committees” to be laid before the House.
As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said in his opening speech, any papers or analyses created for the Cabinet are rightly confidential. That is a well-established principle. Ministers must be able to discuss policy issues at this level frankly and to debate the key matters of the day within a safe space. There is a real risk that if details of Cabinet Committee discussions were made publicly available, Ministers would feel restricted from being open and frank with one another. The quality of decision making would be diminished, the advice of officials would be exposed in the most unreasonable manner, the tendency to make oral decisions would be amplified and there might even be communication via post-it notes, as my right hon. Friend suggested.
I say this not in a partisan manner. It is an important principle that applies to any Government of any political composition. The concept is, of course, not new. My right hon. Friend quoted the former Home Secretary Jack Straw, whose own White Paper on freedom of information concluded:
“Now more than ever, government needs space and time in which to assess arguments and conduct its own debates with a degree of privacy.”
I thank the Minister for giving way so graciously, unlike his counterpart earlier.
As was mentioned earlier by my hon. Friend Jo Platt, there have been reports today that the Government are considering shelving the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill and incorporating elements of it in a withdrawal and implementation Bill. What does the Minister say to that? Can he confirm that those reports are inaccurate, rather than risking possible defeats on the customs union?
I assure the hon. Lady that the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, which has gone through the House of Lords, will, in due course, return to this House for further consideration in the normal manner.
The concept of which I have spoken has been accepted by successive Governments and Oppositions. It was explicitly recognised in the terms of the last motion for an Humble Address tabled by Keir Starmer, which called for documents to be made available on a confidential basis—a principle from which he appears now to have departed. By contrast, this Government have been consistent in respecting their obligations to Parliament.
Whether through debates on primary legislation in this place, Select Committee inquiries, statements to the House, written statements or parliamentary questions, Parliament has been kept updated and informed, and it will continue to be given ample opportunity to scrutinise the negotiations as they progress. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union has made 10 oral statements in the House, Ministers from the Department for Exiting the European Union have made 84 written ministerial statements to both Houses and the Department has answered more than 1,700 parliamentary questions from Members and peers. Ministers from the Department have also appeared before a wide range of Select Committees in both Houses on 34 occasions. The Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my hon. Friend Mr Walker, has given evidence before Westminster Committees on 10 occasions and to devolved Committees on six occasions, and looks forward to attending the Exiting the European Union Committee once again next week.
It might have escaped the hon. Lady’s attention, but we announced this morning that there will be a further thoroughly comprehensive White Paper setting out all these matters, with further detail on the customs arrangements we may be seeking going forward. On customs in particular, I have in this House led many debates on behalf of the Government. I have led the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Bill through a Ways and Means debate, a Second Reading and four days in Committee. HMRC officials have sat before numerous Committees to provide evidence on the Government’s position. Before that, the Government published a customs White Paper, to which the hon. Lady referred, on our future customs arrangement.
The Minister and the House will be well aware of the comments that were made public last night by the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland about the threat from the new IRA dissidents who will exploit Brexit. That is in the public domain, so will the Minister give a commitment that redacted copies of those security briefings will be made available in the Library, or, if not in the Library, to the Brexit Committee and its Chairman? That is already in the public domain through the words of the Chief Constable.
The hon. Lady raises an important issue about the security of Northern Ireland, and the first point I would make is that we are absolutely crystal-clear that there will be no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland for the very reasons she raises. On her specific question about potentially receiving what would be some very sensitive information, albeit redacted, that would be best taken up with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, rather than by me making any specific comment from the Dispatch Box.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that it is still the Government’s firm commitment that there will be no new physical infrastructure on the Irish border and some degree of regulatory convergence if necessary and no customs border down the Irish sea, so this will presumably apply to Dover, Holyhead and everywhere else? Will he confirm that, whatever discussions are going on, quite rightly, in private within the Government, those commitments remain absolutely firm?
My right hon. and learned Friend will know that the joint report issued in December after the phase 1 negotiations covers exactly the issues to which he refers, and of course the Government will entirely stand by and remain committed to the commitments they made in that statement. The Government have this morning committed to publishing a further White Paper before the June European Council. This will communicate our ambition for the UK’s future relationship with the EU in the context of our vision for the UK’s future role in the world.
We have always been clear that we will not provide a running commentary on the internal work being carried out in the Government on these highly sensitive and vital negotiations. We are focused on delivering on the referendum result in the national interest, and that means having a stable and secure policy-making process inside the Government. It would not therefore make sense, and would go against the national interest, to release information that could in any way undermine the UK’s position in our negotiations, a point the House has previously recognised. To provide details of the confidential discussions between Ministers regarding our negotiating strategy to those in the EU with whom we are negotiating would be a kind of madness that surely even the Labour party would find a stretch.
We have shown our willingness to share sensitive information with Parliament, but we will not do so to the detriment of our national interests. Let us see this motion for what it truly is. It is not a motion designed to assist our country at this critical time in our history, to secure our future outside the European Union or to help Parliament to fulfil its duty to our people. No, this is a motion about something rather less noble. It is a motion designed purely for the purposes of party politics and it should be seen for what it is. We should reject this motion today.
The House divided:
Ayes 269, Noes 301.
People are curious. A Member beetled up to me to say he wanted to raise a point of order, but the fellow is not around. He has beetled off; he has beetled out; he has beetled somewhere else. [Hon. Members: “Name him!”] I am prevented from naming him by the phenomenon with which the House is well familiar, namely my natural restraint and understatement.