Leaving the Eu: Preparations

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:14 pm on 3rd September 2019.

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Photo of Jon Trickett Jon Trickett Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office), Shadow Lord President of the Council 5:14 pm, 3rd September 2019

This is the first opportunity that I have had to congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his appointment. He may regard it as a poisoned chalice, but no doubt the Prime Minister thought it appropriate that he took it.

I thank the Minister for his courtesy in providing advance sight of the statement—it was rather vacuous, but we did have a good chance to study it carefully. He makes much of the work that has been carried out by civil servants who have been working under intense pressure preparing businesses, individuals and wider society for Brexit. We acknowledge the very hard work of all those civil servants and thank them for their service, and we welcome the work that the Government are doing in that respect. However, the truth is that £6.3 billion is being spent on Brexit preparations, yet it is too little now, because it is too late. Even if all the preparations had been carried out in time and in a more comprehensive way, the country would still have no idea whether we will leave with a deal or with no deal.

Let me come straight to the point, because there are significant omissions in the Minister’s statement. There is no mention, for example, of medical supplies, but in the past 24 hours serious-minded health leaders have warned that no deal could result directly in medical shortages, affect treatment for UK nationals in Europe and exacerbate the already difficult NHS crisis. It has been reported that the Government are now stockpiling body bags because of concerns that there may be an increase in the mortality rate. Will the Minister assure the House that that is not the case, but if it is, will he explain what he is doing about it?

The statement mentions that 1 million EU citizens have been given settled status. We welcome that, but there are more than 3 million here. The Government’s prevarication over time and their inadequate preparations right from the beginning have caused great anxiety and left millions of people who live here, pay taxes here, have made their lives here and have their children here wondering what their future holds. It is a mark of the slow progress that is being made that the Government still have not resolved the status of UK citizens who are living in Europe, as the Minister said.

The Secretary of State talks about getting businesses ready, yet it is only a few weeks ago that these serious-minded business leaders demanded an independent inquiry into what a no-deal Brexit would consist of, amid accusations that vital information about potential problems was deliberately being held back by the Government—that was from the business community itself.

In the early part of his statement, the Minister made much of trust—trust in this House and trust in democracy—but the truth is that the Government are playing fast and loose both with democracy and with the House. I say that because of the proposal that the House be prorogued, and because the Prime Minister’s staff are now hinting at a possible cynical general election, which we are ready for. One way or another, the Government are set on closing down the House of Commons for weeks when the country is facing one of the most difficult times in our recent history. If there is an election—this is a very important point—the direction of the country and its relationship with the EU will be hotly debated. We and the country will need full access to all the relevant information. The Minister’s statement conceals more than it reveals, but can he confirm that, during an election period or a prorogation period, whichever it is, civil service preparations for Brexit will continue through the election purdah if necessary? Can he confirm whether, during the purdah, Ministers will continue to provide political guidance to civil servants on Brexit? I give notice now that the Opposition will seek immediate access to the civil service and ask to be kept fully informed, as is the convention, of all the information that the House and the country have been denied about all developments. That request must be responded to the minute the election is called.

Just eight weeks ago, the current Prime Minister told his party and the country that the chances of a no-deal Brexit were a million to one against. Yet this morning, the former Chancellor, who is no longer in his place, stated that no progress has been made and that there are no substantive negotiations going on. Is that true? The two positions cannot be easily reconciled. Either there is progress or there is not. Having heard the Prime Minister in the Chamber just now, it is clear that most people still have no idea.

To most informed observers, however, it appears that the Government’s favoured deal—whatever they say—is no deal, so let us listen to the Minister’s own words from earlier this year. He said:

“Leaving without a deal…would undoubtedly cause economic turbulence. Almost everyone in this debate accepts that.”

He went on to say:

“We didn’t vote to leave without a deal”.

That was from the man who led the whole campaign to leave the European Union. He was for May’s deal and against no deal, but now he is the Minister for no deal. How does he reconcile the progress of his career?

The House must be allowed to see the detailed assessments contained in the Yellowhammer dossier. The truth is that the Minister is hiding it, but why? The media are reporting that the Yellowhammer papers—even the watered-down versions that he is working on—paint such a disastrous picture of the country after no deal that the Government dare not publish them. Yet shockingly, leaked excerpts talk of potential shortages, delays and even protests on the streets.

Is it not a disgrace that the Government intend to close Parliament down for five weeks without allowing the House to scrutinise their detailed preparations for no deal? Members have a right to know what those preparations are, as has the country. After all, it was this Minister who said:

“We are a parliamentary democracy, and”— listen to this—

“proroguing Parliament in order to try to get no deal through…would be wrong.”

Those were his exact words. But that is precisely what the Government are now trying to do. How can he justify the amount of resources being spent on preparations for no deal without any scrutiny or accountability to this House? It is simply unacceptable.

Under normal purdah rules, the Select Committees looking at Brexit preparations and Yellowhammer could also be suspended, leaving absolutely no scrutiny by Members of the Government’s plans. When it comes to Yellowhammer, the media appear to be better informed than the House, so let me briefly ask the Minister some questions.