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Prorogation (Disclosure of Communications)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:39 pm on 9th September 2019.

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Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Duchy of Lancaster) 6:39 pm, 9th September 2019

I will certainly speak within the four-minute limit, Mr Speaker.

I wish to focus on Operation Yellowhammer. The issue with Prorogation is whether the Government deliberately misled Parliament. The issue with Operation Yellowhammer is whether the Government are deliberately withholding key documents from Parliament and the public.

Members of Parliament will have seen The Sunday Times last month when it published the leak of Operation Yellowhammer and said that Britain would face shortages of fuel, food and medicine and three months of chaos at its ports in the event of a no-deal exit. The report went on to warn that lorries might face delays of two-and-a-half days at ports and that medical supplies might be vulnerable to severe extended delays. It also said that the Government had expected the return of a hard border in Ireland. We have not, of course, been able to see this document, because the Government have not been willing to provide them to us, but what we have had is a series of Ministers touring studios saying, in effect, that there is nothing to see in this document, that there is nothing to worry about and that everything is under control. I am afraid that, at the same time, we see reports that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has sought to sanitise it. Having apparently failed to sanitise it, he has simply decided to rely on the fact that the report will not be published at all.

I have sought assurances from the Government that if civil servants were asked to modify this document—in effect to sanitise it—that would be in breach of the ministerial code. I have also asked whether those civil servants would be subject to disciplinary action if they refuse to sanitise it and whether, if they spoke out because they noticed that the documents had been sanitised, they would be covered by whistleblower legislation. When I asked for this information, I was referred to the evidence that the Minister gave to the Select Committee, or was about to give to the Select Committee, last week. After he had given evidence, I went hotfoot, as Members would expect me to do, to see whether he had answered any of these questions, and, of course, he had not. When he replies now, perhaps, rather than sending me a letter referring me to evidence in which he has not answered the question, he would like to answer those specific questions, because we need to have that information available.

Businesses are trying to prepare for no deal. The Government are withholding information from them. At the same time, the Minister in charge of local government is writing to local authorities telling them that they have to provide information to residents and businesses about what preparations they are making in relation to no deal. It does seem that if the Government are asking local authority leaders to make that information available, there is a duty on them to make that information available. Yet what we have from the Government is the withholding of this critical information that would allow all of us to prepare for a no-deal scenario.

It may be that the Government are worried that putting this information into the public domain might lead to shortages of food. To some extent, I understand that, and, if that is the case, that would be less than perfect. Again, I did suggest to the Minister that the Government might want to release the information on Privy Council terms to Privy Counsellors and allow us to access that information. Clearly, I would prefer all Members of Parliament to be able to see that information, but if that is one way that the Government would feel more confident that the information could be shared, then they could do that.

I hope that, when we get a response from the Minister, he will be quite specific in answering these questions, which have so far been avoided by the Government. We would all like to know the answers to those questions so that we have a degree of certainty about what the impact of no deal will be, so that we can all help businesses and others to prepare for that eventuality.