[3rd Allotted Day]

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 2:05 pm on 6th December 2018.

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Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Chair, Public Accounts Committee 2:05 pm, 6th December 2018

I stand proud to represent the borough of Hackney—proud that my borough voted 78.5% in favour of remaining in the EU, and proud that my borough is home to 41,500 European citizens, representing 15% of our population. And I am delighted to follow Sir Nicholas Soames, with whom I find myself in great accord in my distress that we are leaving the EU and making a long-term big mistake for this country. I celebrate the fact that the EU has brought peace and security to Europe for so many years.

But I am dismayed to follow Mr Davis. He spent 20 minutes not telling us a great deal, but he was at the heart—on the frontline—of negotiations with the EU and he left: he walked away from the challenge and now comes to decry the Government option and nearly every other option on the table, rather than, when he had the chance, coming up with a solution. And I see Boris Johnson in his place, too. These are people who wanted to leave and have walked away, and are now not even content when we are leaving.

Back in 2017 I voted against triggering article 50. Some might conclude that that is simply because I represent a borough that voted so heavily to remain, but, more than that, it was always practically impossible to disentangle from our long relationship with the EU in just two years. In my view we should have thought much more carefully about that.

There are huge practicalities in leaving which the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden did not seem to cover at all. My Committee—which I am honoured to chair, and of which the right hon. Gentleman is a former Chair—has produced eight unanimous reports highlighting the challenges to Government of preparing to leave the EU, and the civil service has been hampered by the need to develop plans for three different scenarios—whether we have a deal, no deal, or a transition—and all the various complications within them. This approach has been costly and confusing and means we lack real certainty, and businesses in particular—businesses in my constituency and up and down the country—are worried about the future.

In short, the Government have been reckless: they were reckless to call the referendum so quickly in the first place, with an ill-defined question that resolved nothing; in having no plan for what to do after that—not a single civil servant planning for an exit outcome; in triggering article 50 so quickly, again with no planning; and they have been reckless in leaving preparations so late in the day. We are not even going to get the legislation through Parliament. We possibly will if we sit 24/7 between now and the March, but there is a real risk we will not get that done.

The cost of uncertainty is also high in pounds and pence. I am proud to represent the tech sector in Shoreditch and the City fringe, but the cost of the deal is particularly harsh for small businesses. HMRC estimates that in terms of customs declarations alone small and medium-sized enterprises will have additional costs of between £17 billion and £20 billion a year just to comply with new customs if we crash out with no deal. There will be huge supply chain disruption even if we have a deal, let alone if we crash out with no deal. There is also the huge issue of access to skills. As came out earlier in the House today, there is not even an understanding yet of what the Government’s new proposals for immigration will be. Many in the tech sector rely on immigration from around the world, including Europe, and that free movement has been crucial in filling some very particular skills gaps, but the Government have been silent on that as we approach this huge vote.

So I back my right hon. Friend Hilary Benn because I believe that the House must not sanction no deal; it cannot be an option. I do not believe there is a majority in the House for no deal, but I fear that it could happen by default, and that would be a real betrayal of our role and responsibilities to the British public. So I urge all colleagues to rule out no deal emphatically. It is not a good solution by anyone’s count.

We also need seriously to consider extending article 50 or, if not, at least having a much clearer purpose about extending the transition period in order to combat the uncertainty that my right hon. Friend John McDonnell has already highlighted. I shall not repeat what he said. We need to get to a better solution. We need preparation and certainty for business. We need the understanding of what immigration will be like, and we need to reach consensus. If we cannot do that, we will have failed the British public.

Many of my constituents have asked me to support a people’s vote. I certainly did not rush into supporting this. I think that the right hon. Member for Mid Sussex and I share some of the concerns about what it could do to our country and to the trust placed in referendums. The proposal is riddled with challenges, not least that it would take a great deal of time. We would also have to have a majority for it in this House, and the Government would have to heed that. They would have to bring forward a Bill, and that Bill would have to have a majority. This is before we have even decided what the question would be.

The Government have so far failed this country at every step of the way. The deal on the table is bad for Britain, and I cannot in all honesty support it. I do not believe that the Government will get it through next week, so Parliament will need to step up. If we cannot agree at that stage, there will be no alternative but to return to the people, with all the damaging consequences that that could lead to.