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European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:16 pm on 22nd October 2019.

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Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Chair, Committee on Exiting the European Union 4:16 pm, 22nd October 2019

The direct answer to the hon. Gentleman, with whom I also have the pleasure of serving on the Exiting the European Union Committee, is that to attempt to say to Members that the choice has to be between a bad deal—this is worse than the previous Prime Minister’s deal—and no deal is not a very attractive proposition. During the passage of this Bill—if it gets its Second Reading—I hope that we will attempt to improve some elements of it.

Clause 30 goes to the heart of the point about no deal, because the withdrawal agreement makes provision for the possibility of an extension to the transition period which, at present, will end in 14 months’ time. Clause 30 says that the House can agree to a further extension, but it requires a Minister of the Crown to move the motion in the first place. The situation I am worried about is what if the Minister of the Crown fails to come to the House, does not move a motion proposing that the Government should request to the joint committee that the transitional period be extended, and the answer is that we would fall out without a deal in 14 months’ time if an agreement had not been reached. The House has voted on several occasions to make it clear that it is opposed to leaving with no deal, and there are arguments on either side as to whether people think that is a good thing or a bad thing, so I flag this up at this stage, because we will need to deal with that point—I gather that an amendment is on its way if it has not already been tabled—and to safeguard against it.

There is a second related problem to clause 30. What happens if a deal has not been negotiated by the end of December 2022 when the two-year extension has been applied for and secured? Now we would be facing exactly the same difficulty: the possibility of exiting without an agreement at the end of the transition period. In those circumstances, there is no way under the agreement that the British Government can get a further extension, so we have to find a way of ensuring that a deal is concluded by that time.

Ministers claim that, because of the high degree of alignment, it will all be done really quickly. I would just observe that took three and a quarter years to get to this point, and it took Canada six to seven years to get an agreement. Michel Barnier said this morning that he thought it would take around three years to negotiate such a deal, so we will be looking for assurance from the Minister in Committee that under no circumstances will the United Kingdom leave the European Union at the end of the transition period without a deal—I think another amendment may be on its way about that. The same point is relevant to citizens’ rights, which have not been raised much in the debate so far. We could do with clarification from Ministers, because if the transition is extended, will they also change the deadline by which EU citizens have to apply for settled status?

As I said on Saturday, I will not be voting for the Bill, above all because of the political declaration—I do not have a problem with the withdrawal agreement—which is not the right approach to take, because it is not good for business. I am very surprised, like other hon. Members, that the Government have just blithely said, “We are not going to undertake an economic assessment,” and I assume that the reason for that is simple. They did one before which showed that a free trade agreement is the second-worst outcome up for the economy after no deal, and they do not really want to have to point that out again.

My final point is about clause 31, and it links to the economic impact of the political declaration. The clause deals with the oversight of negotiations on the future relationship, and it appears to give Members some oversight, some say, over the nature of the negotiations on the future relationship, but proposed new section 13C(3) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 says:

“A statement on objectives for the future relationship…must be consistent with the political declaration of 17 October 2019”.

I simply point out that if, in one, two or three years’ time, the House realises that the objectives of such a free trade agreement are not in our economic interests, because we finally realise the damage it will do to the economy—we have seen what businesses have said and the concerns they have expressed—the current wording of the clause gives no opportunity for Parliament to get a Government to change those objectives. I do not think we should accept the Bill on that issue, as it is currently worded.