Brexit Readiness: Operation Yellowhammer

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 25th September 2019.

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Photo of Keir Starmer Keir Starmer Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union 3:31 pm, 25th September 2019

I thank the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster for an advance copy of his statement. Let us get to the detail and test what he says.

First, the right hon. Gentleman says that the negotiations have seen significant movement over recent weeks. Will he confirm that three papers were submitted to the EU last week and one was submitted today, but they are what the EU called non-papers, because they are for discussion and do not commit the member state to the policy outlined in them, and at the moment they are being kept secret from the EU27? What is the thrust or gist of those papers? If we are to assess the likelihood of success in negotiations, we need to know.

Secondly, may I challenge the right hon. Gentleman’s statement that many businesses are already well prepared for no deal? At 3 o’clock last Wednesday, I sat round a table with the leaders of pretty well all the business sectors, and the one message they wanted to get across was how concerned they were that businesses were not prepared for a no-deal Brexit. I do not believe those businesses are saying one thing to me and another thing to the Government. Will he therefore clarify what he meant?

The statement significantly and studiously avoids giving any detail of the scenario that we are told the Government’s civil contingencies secretariat has drawn up. On 9 September, just before we were shut down, an order was made that all the documents prepared within Her Majesty’s Government since 23 July relating to Operation Yellowhammer and submitted to Cabinet or a Cabinet Committee should be laid before the House by 11 o’clock on 11 September. The Government are spending a lot of money telling businesses and the country to get ready, and they want to know what they are to get ready for. They need to know what could happen so that they can prepare. On 11 September, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster wrote to the Chair of the Brexit Select Committee,

“I thought it would be helpful to publish the Operation Yellowhammer document based on assumptions drawn up by the last Government.”

I have that document in my hand; it was the only document disclosed. He went on to say,

It is…my intention…to publish revised assumptions in due course”.

Nothing else has been produced.

The document disclosed to the Chair of the Select Committee is dated 2 August. Will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster explain how it is a document of the last Government, not this one? As he knows, it was leaked pretty well in full to The Sunday Times. Just so that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster does not try to avoid this by saying that he will not comment on leaked documents, I understand that it also went to the Welsh Government. In response to that leak, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said on the Marr show on 1 September that the document

“predated the creation of this new government” and that its predictions were the “worst possible eventuality.” The impression he was trying to create was that it is an old document and a worst-case scenario. [Interruption.] Thank you—that is exactly the point I want to come on to: the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster went on to say that it is “constantly updated”. Given that the document is dated 2 August, was it produced for this Government, the last Government or both? If it was for the last Government, have this Government produced any documents of their own since 23 July relating to Operation Yellowhammer? It is no good saying, “We are going to produce them.” This Government have been in place for nine weeks, and there are only five weeks and two days to go until 31 October.

If it is an old document and it was produced for the last Government, why did somebody change the title after the leak to The Sunday Times? It used to be branded the “base scenario”. Somebody got hold of an old, apparently irrelevant document and changed the title, so it is now called, “HMG Reasonable Worst Case Planning Assumptions”. Why was it changed if it is out of date and an old document? Who did it?

Will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster confirm that the rebranded document has 20 substantive paragraphs, each word for word the same as those in the document leaked to The Sunday Times? If it is constantly updated, where are the constant updates? This is the only document we have. Will he confirm that, according to this document, there will be “significant and prolonged disruption” at ports; that the “worst disruption” to the channel straits will last “up to 3 months”; and that there will be “significant queues in Kent” and delays of up to two and a half days at the border for HGVs attempting to use the channel route to France? If the answer is no, what is that based on if there is not another document in existence that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has not disclosed in accordance with the order of this House? The answer is either yes or no, based on a document that has not been disclosed.

Paragraph 18 has not had the attention it should have had. It centres on the impact of no deal on Northern Ireland. I know that this is a matter that the House takes extremely seriously. It sets out the Government’s planned model. It states:

“The agri-food sector will be the hardest hit…
Disruption to key sectors and job losses are likely to result in protests and direct action with road blockages. Price and other differentials are likely to lead to the growth of the illegitimate economy.”

It also mentions severe disruption at the border. The document itself concludes that the pressure will be such—[Interruption.] Northern Ireland happens to be extremely important to many people in this House. [Interruption.] We are here to scrutinise the Government; let us get on with it. This document indicates that the Government’s proposed model will come under such pressure that it is unlikely to survive for more than a few days or weeks. The Government’s preferred model for Northern Ireland is unlikely, according to their own assessment, to survive for more than a few days or weeks. A model that will not last more than a week is not a plan. There must be an update. Where is it?

Has the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster received any representations from the energy sector about the impact on oil and gas supplies to the UK in the event of no deal?

Anyone watching today’s proceedings and still thinking that somewhere lurks a clever and cunning plan to get through the chaos of the Government’s making needs to think again. The Government have lost six out of six votes in Parliament and the Prime Minister has lost his majority and his case in the Supreme Court. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said on the radio this morning that the Prime Minister is a born winner. I am glad that he has not lost his sense of humour. However, this is not a game, and for the Government to be five weeks away from leaving the EU without a plan is unforgiveable.