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“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to provide the House with an update on the progress of Brexit negotiations and the Government’s no-deal contingency planning. On Friday, I was in Brussels for the fourth time since I became Secretary of State for a further round of talks with Michel Barnier. We had an extended discussion covering outstanding withdrawal agreement issues, internal and external security, and our future economic partnership. We have injected some additional pace and intensity into the negotiations as we reach the final phases.
The vast majority of the withdrawal agreement has been agreed. When signed, the agreement will: safeguard the rights of EU citizens in the UK and UK nationals in the EU so that they can continue to live their lives broadly as they do now; provide for a time-limited implementation period, giving businesses and citizens the certainty they deserve until we reach a new partnership; and allow for the UK to make an orderly and smooth exit as we move towards a future deep and special partnership with the EU. In August, we made further progress across the outstanding separation issues, including protection of data and information, the treatment of ongoing police and judicial co-operation in criminal matters and ongoing Union judicial and administrative procedures after exit. The scope and contours of the withdrawal agreement are now clear, subject to some further technical details we will continue to work on.
At the same time, we continue to work to complete a backstop to deal with the position of Northern Ireland and Ireland, as we committed to in the December joint report with the EU. As the Government have made clear, the EU proposals are unacceptable because they would create a customs border down the Irish Sea. We are determined to reach a solution that protects the Belfast agreement and avoids a hard border on the island of Ireland. We will not permit a customs border down the Irish Sea, which would put at risk the constitutional and economic integrity of the UK. Of course, this can be done without compromising the EU’s core principles. Importantly, we look to meet our commitments to the people of Northern Ireland through our future partnership so that no backstop would ever need to come into effect.
The White Paper we published in July has served as the basis for constructive discussions on our future relationship with the EU. I, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and other Cabinet colleagues have made visits across Europe, explaining our proposals and making the case for what we have put forward for our future relationship. Since the publication of the White Paper, Ministers have had more than 60 engagements with their counterparts across Europe. I met the French Europe Minister in Paris and recently saw the Swedish and Irish Foreign Ministers in London. I also met Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator, last week.
We have received a wide range of positive and constructive feedback. Equally, just as we have presented our proposals in a spirit of compromise, so they have proved challenging in some respects for some in the EU. But our friends across Europe are engaging seriously with our proposals on the substance. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister set out, we are committed to delivering on the vision in the White Paper and delivering a future relationship that will see the UK leave the single market and the customs union, an end to freedom of movement so the UK will control its own borders, the end of the jurisdiction of the European Court, and the UK and the EU meeting their shared commitments to Northern Ireland and Ireland, as I have already described.
At the same time, we want to build up the foundations of a bright, strong and enduring new relationship for the future with: frictionless trade across our borders; continued close co-operation on law enforcement and security; the UK free to develop its own independent trade policy; and broader UK-EU co-operation from research to student exchanges in many of the areas that we prize on both sides. We approach these talks with ambition, pragmatism and energy. If our EU friends match us, we will strike a deal that is in the clear and overwhelming interests of both sides.
I should also like to update the House on steps the Government have taken over the summer to prepare for the unlikely event that we do not reach a deal with the EU. While we expect to reach a deal with the EU—while it remains the most likely outcome, and while it remains our top and overriding priority—as a responsible Government, we have a duty to prepare for any eventuality. So on
The technical notices continue this same, responsible, practical approach to preparing our country for Brexit. Among the technical notices, there is advice for businesses on some of the new processes they would be expected to follow when moving goods between the EU and UK in a no-deal scenario. Our technical notice on workplace rights sets out how workers in the UK will continue to be entitled to the rights they have under UK law. We have set out how, in the event of no deal, the UK will recognise the testing and safety approvals of existing medicines, if they have been carried out by an EU member state regulator, to minimise any disruption to the supplies of medicines or medical devices from the EU.
The notices are proportionate, they are measured and they prioritise stability for our citizens, businesses, public bodies and NGOs. The 25 notices published in August were the first in a series of updates which we will be publishing over the coming weeks to keep stakeholders informed about what, if any, action they need to take.
Our approach acknowledges that there are some risks in a no-deal scenario and demonstrates that we are taking action to avoid, minimise and mitigate these potential risks, so that we are equipped to manage any short-term disruption. While it is not what we want, a no-deal scenario would bring some countervailing opportunities. We would be able to lower tariffs and negotiate and bring into effect new free trade deals straight away. There would be the immediate recovery of full legislative and regulatory control, including over immigration policy and, while mindful of our legal obligations, a swifter end to our financial contributions to the EU.
So, I will continue to meet regularly with Michel Barnier, confident that a deal is within our grasp, if the ambition and pragmatism that we have shown is matched by our EU friends. This House and the British people can rest assured that the United Kingdom will be ready for Brexit deal or no deal—prepared, whatever the outcome, so that this country will go from strength to strength. I commend the Statement to the House”.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement. I welcome him back, though I regret that, while we were all at the seaside, his Government—as is clear from the Statement—have failed to provide a workable path through the morass of negotiating objectives. To quote Bloomberg:
“As politicians dither, Britain’s economy is taking a hit”, with Brexit costing 2% of economic output, even before we have left.
During a summer of government squabbles, I spent time watching how fast lorries could load on to European ferries at the moment. I then went on to feel the effect of the falling pound, while hearing about the likely lack of Danish sperm—I kid you not—portaloos along the M20 and the ending of the EMA pharmaceutical approvals for our Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency. Meanwhile, I was reading Charlie Clutterbuck’s Bittersweet Brexit, though I have yet to find the sweet bit.
Meanwhile, back here, we have a plethora of groupings, mostly within the governing party. There is Better Brexit, Stand Up 4 Brexit, the ERG’s “Hell, any sort of Brexit”, David Davis’s “I won’t vote for Chequers” Brexit, Boris Johnson’s “diddly squat” Brexit, the Leave.EU members in the Conservative Party’s Brexit, an alternative Best For Britain Brexit, Macron’s “blind Brexit” or perhaps a Europe of concentric circles, a “half DExEU staff leaving” Brexit or even a “jump off the cliff” Brexit. These sound funny, but this is serious stuff. What is clear is that, 44 days before the October summit, Chequers will not fly. We said so at the time; we said that it ignored services, failed Northern Ireland and was logistically unworkable. We now know that the EU will not accept it, but neither will the House of Commons, where there is simply no majority for it.
So, please, no more nonsense of just “some risks” to no deal. And, please, let there be less money wasted on preparatory work which is somewhat otiose. We need a deal that can work. It is time that the Government got honest and ruled out no deal once and for all. It is time that the Prime Minister ended the uncertainty for UK citizens in the EU and for EU citizens here and made firm commitments not just “when” the agreement is “signed”, as in the Statement that the Minister has just read out, but now.
I agree strongly with the No. 10 spokesperson who said:
“What we need at this time is serious leadership with a serious plan”.
But that is not what this Statement provides. Indeed, a survey in the Conservatives’ most marginal seats showed that three-quarters are dissatisfied with the Government’s handling of Brexit—they clearly have judgment.
It is time for the Prime Minister to ditch her red lines and get real. If we want trade to thrive with our nearest neighbours, if we want to continue inward investment as a path into European markets, if we want to continue free flow of our food and agricultural products and if we want a border-free Ireland, we have to be in a customs union with the EU and we need a deal on services. We also have to recognise that while the withdrawal agreement has only—“only”—to win the approval of the Commons, the European Parliament and the European Council, the subsequent trade deal will need the consent of every member state, their various parliaments and assemblies. That will mean us negotiating a deal to win their support. Closing off doors now, with unrealistic demands, will mean only U-turns down the line.
It must be evident to this House that the Government must change course and propose a credible plan that can command the support of Parliament, protect jobs, the economy and the environment, avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland and be acceptable to our partners. The Statement that the Minister has read out gives us no confidence that that is the way that we are going. The Government have six weeks to get this right. More of the same will not do. So will the Minister pledge not just to listen to his hard-Brexit friends but to seek to navigate a way forward that can win parliamentary and EU endorsement?
My Lords, the DExEU website today displayed a rather apt message:
“We’re experiencing technical difficulties. Please try again later”.
That perhaps sums up the incoherent, divided and irresponsible position—or, rather, positions—of this Government. That the Trade Secretary could on Sunday dismiss the Chancellor’s forecast of the need for extra borrowing of £80 billion by 2033 while staying in post shows the Prime Minister’s utter, weak inability to impose rationality or discipline on her Government. The Chequers plan is a dead parrot, so the important question is: where do the Government go from here? I would like an answer and I think that Parliament deserves an answer, as do the people.
The Statement claims that the no-deal notices, of which we expect another batch, “prioritise stability”. The way they seek to get any continuity at all in the event of no deal is, in fact, by relying on a series of mini-deals to prevent the absolute disaster of grounded planes and the absence of crucial trade. The Government are saying, “Please, Brussels, can you rescue us from our absurd no-deal threat?”
There will be a particular set of 5 million people who will be badly hit by no deal: the 3 million EU citizens in this country and the 2 million Brits in the rest of the EU. The failure to give a unilateral guarantee two years ago—which would have been reciprocated, as the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, said at the time—is creating an agonising limbo of anxiety and depression. Meanwhile, Brexiteers are moving assets or citizenship to other EU countries.
To get a little personal, I do not know whether the Prime Minister gets her glucose patches—on which I can comment, as she is commendably open about them—from abroad, but my type 1 diabetic husband gets his glucose sensors and insulin from elsewhere in the EU. There are many other people with medical conditions who are vitally dependent on such imports. That a Government could calmly contemplate upsetting such a flow and creating distress and potentially worse is breath-taking in its dereliction of a basic duty of care.
The prominence of no-deal planning seems to fulfil a number of purposes, all of them within the Tory party. It is a sop by the Prime Minister to the hard Brexiteers, who positively want this outcome, and a warning to the “chuck Chequers” brigade to accept Chequers as somewhat less bad. There are two things that it does not do: it does not put pressure on the Brussels negotiators and it does not inspire confidence in the public—on the contrary.
There is this sentence in the Statement:
“While it is not what we want, a no-deal scenario would bring some countervailing opportunities”.
This is obviously a bone thrown to the ERG faction. What exactly are the “countervailing opportunities” for small businesses losing their export markets, or patients losing their essential medical supplies? The no-deal scenario means lots more costs to businesses, higher prices for consumers, an avalanche of new bureaucracy—such as pharmaceutical companies having to register medicines twice, showing that EU red tape ain’t got nothing on Tory red, white and blue tape—and more taxpayers’ money spent on quangos and civil servants, stockpiling and so on.
Panasonic and Muji are but the latest companies to announce that they are moving their HQ across the Channel. We face this dire outcome because the Tory Government have proved totally unable to deliver a workable or tolerable Brexit deal. Indeed, not only do they provide absolutely no reassurance about how to resolve issues between the UK and Ireland in the event of no deal, they actually advise businesses and individuals to contact the Irish Government. We know that the Tory Government love outsourcing, but this surely goes shamefully too far in abdicating responsibility for the border communities.
Can the Minister tell us that the Government will reverse their refusal to guarantee that MPs will see the full impact analysis of a no-deal Brexit before the final vote on any departure from the EU? Both the previous and current Brexit Secretaries have, in the past, supported a second referendum, so presumably they think that it is a demonstration of democracy, exposing the PM’s comments as a sham. We on these Benches insist on a final say on the deal. We are joined, it is announced today, by 70% of Mumsnet subscribers: a very sensible bunch.
I thank both noble Baronesses for their comments, which I thought were long on criticism but a bit short on workable alternatives. I am delighted that the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, enjoyed her holiday so much—discussing sperm and Portaloos seems to have had a positive effect on her vitality. I say to her that we are providing serious leadership and have a serious plan, in stark contrast to the Labour Party, from which I have heard no plan at all, apart from one that says that we should remain in a customs union—but then it cannot even bring itself to vote for the trade deals that are negotiated under that customs union. So we are providing a way forward through serious negotiations in the national interests.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, for her comments and I can tell her that the citizens’ rights part of the withdrawal agreement is agreed. She mentioned medical supplies. The Department of Health and Social Care is working with its partners across government, in the health sector and in industry, to prepare for the possible disruption to the supply chain of medical supplies including medicines, vaccines, medical devices, clinical consumables and blood products. And, yes, we will provide a full economic analysis of the deal that has been negotiated before the House of Commons and this House have their meaningful vote.
My Lords, is it not now clear that, despite the best efforts of my noble friend and his Secretary of State, whom I admire greatly, the Chequers proposal could be agreed only at the expense of further, very substantial concessions extracted under duress, which would lock the UK indefinitely into a highly disadvantageous one-sided arrangement? Is it not now clear that there is a growing and powerful case for the UK to exercise its right to join the European Economic Area, very much as a holding arrangement, so that businesses could have a line of sight for the next few years on how they can trade and invest? That would create a period in which, when emotions have settled, a substantive free-trade agreement could be negotiated with the EU. Would he accept that this argument is most powerful not for those who want to reverse the result of the referendum and prevent Brexit happening but for those who, like myself, believe that it must happen?
I thank my noble friend for his comments; he brings a lot of informed commentary on the subject. I am afraid that I do not think the option he set out is particularly practical. Were we able to carry on with membership of the European Economic Area, of course freedom of movement would continue, which I think would disappoint a lot of people who voted for Brexit, while the legal options are not straightforward. It would require the agreement of existing EEA countries and the ongoing agreement and co-operation of the EU, which would not necessarily be forthcoming. I know that the option has been put forward in good faith by a number of people, but I am afraid that the legal and practical difficulties would be considerable. That is why we default to our proposals, which we continue to negotiate on in good faith in Brussels and in other member state capitals.
My Lords, the Minister’s Statement today says that there will be no frontier between the island of Ireland and the mainland and no frontier between Northern Ireland and southern Ireland. It is not about time that he told us how this would work practically unless there is customs alignment between the two? I would like to hear the nuts and bolts of how it would work.
I can send the noble Lord a copy of our White Paper, where we have set out exactly how that can be provided through the facilitated customs arrangement and the alignment on goods. I am sure that, if he read it in full, he would see exactly how that could be delivered.
My Lords, with reference to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Maude, is it not the case that the United Kingdom has to serve notice to leave the European Economic Area and that that is separate from leaving the European Union? Therefore, unless we technically serve notice and give a year’s notice of leaving the EEA, we will remain members of that organisation.
I do not think that the noble Baroness’s analysis is correct. The European Economic Area is an agreement between EFTA countries and EU member states, and our membership of it will lapse when we leave the European Union. In order to join the European Economic Area we would have to become a member of EFTA, we would require the agreement of the EFTA countries and we would then need the agreement of the European Union in order to continue in that membership. That presents a number of legal and practical difficulties—but I would be happy to write to the noble Baroness in more detail about how it might not work.
Does my noble friend feel that the point has been put sufficiently strongly to the Brussels establishment and the Commission that the Chequers plan is already a compromise and is a compromise of compromises? That does not seem to have penetrated, judging by some of the comments from the Brussels Commission. Does my noble friend also feel that the Brussels Commission understands that a great many of the fundamental principles to which it refers have already been modified throughout the European Union, particularly in relation to labour movement, frontier controls, airport entry controls and the movement of services where there is no single market? Have those points got over to the people we are dealing with in Brussels?
Of course we are dealing with a lot of different interlocutors as well as the official EU negotiating team, represented by Michel Barnier, and the Article 50 working group. We are also liaising with individual member states. It is fair to say that there is a variety of opinions. We think that we have set out a compromise. It was obtained at some difficult political cost, but it offers a way forward. A number of member states and individuals in the EU have commented that it offers a workable and viable way forward and they look forward to engaging on it. Of course, it is a negotiation. There have been various noises off, but we still away the official Commission response. Senior members of the task force have made it clear that they think it offers a viable discussion and way forward.
My Lords, the Minister referred to the Statement mentioning the wish of the Government to cover every eventuality. In those circumstances, can he confirm that a question was raised in Brussels about the position on
The noble Lord is correct that Article 50 sets out a mechanism by which the process can be extended, but we are very clear that we are not going to apply for it to be extended. We leave on
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is truly extraordinary that the Government are advising the stockpiling of medicines and other necessities not as a result of war or of some natural calamity but rather as a result of a self-imposed policy which may well lead to yet further direful consequences? Should the country not be made urgently aware of the folly of what we are about?
The noble Viscount forgets that we had a referendum on the subject and the country as a whole decided that it wished to leave the European Union. We are implementing that decision. The technical notice to which he referred merely makes the point that we need to make sensible, pragmatic preparations in case there is no deal. We do not want or desire that outcome, but a responsible Government—he has been a member of such a Government in the past—have a duty to make clear what preparations may be necessary in the event of that unfortunate eventuality.
My Lords, the Minister says that citizens’ rights are agreed, but in the Government’s own words, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. Is he aware of just how worried British citizens throughout the EU are? What instructions have the Government given to British embassies to get out there and give some help to people who need to start planning for all the contingencies? It may be that their pensions cannot be passported through or that their driving licence will not be acceptable. I must declare an interest as my principal home is in France and I spend a lot of time there. This week the British embassy in Paris is running Rentrée receptions. It sounds pretty frivolous. We want to see people from the embassy in all the regions, giving advice—not just sitting in Paris, having receptions.
Of course we say that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, but the noble Baroness will find that the European Commission says exactly the same. Yes, we are engaging with UK citizens in other European countries. Whenever I visit other European capitals, I try to meet expat citizens living in those countries. Of course we are trying to provide the necessary advice. Ultimately, it is for individual member states to make the appropriate preparations, and we urge them to do so through embassies and contact with their Governments.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is a heavy responsibility on the Commission to ensure that arrangements for British citizens in European countries match those that we have offered to those in this country, which we are much more efficient at implementing?
The noble Lord is correct that that is the responsibility of the Commission and other member states. We have been very clear that in the event of no withdrawal agreement, we would want to act as quickly as possible to guarantee the rights of those EU citizens who have chosen to make their home in the UK, and we would hope that other member states will do that for UK citizens abroad.
My Lords, why, in the relevant technical notice, did the Government advise those who trade in Northern Ireland, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, to ask a foreign Government for advice as to how they should continue? Secondly, how is that consistent with us taking back control through Brexit to the British Government and the British Parliament? Finally, if the Minister wishes to criticise me for having no alternative, will he give me his resources for a week, and I will come up with better advice for the people of Northern Ireland?
Of course, in the event of no deal—which, as I repeat ad nauseam, we do not want to happen—we can be responsible for what happens in this country but it is the responsibility of other member states and the European Union to fulfil their side of the bargain and agree what will happen on their side. The border has two sides to it. We can say what will happen on the British side, but what happens on the Irish side is the responsibility of the Irish Government and the European Commission.
My Lords, does my noble friend accept that many people in this country in all political parties are looking for leadership? Will he convey to the Prime Minister, whom I wish to see remain to lead us through these difficult times, not only my very good wishes, but that it would be a very good idea if she were to consult leading figures in other political parties in this country and if she were to use the facilities of Chequers to invite some of our European friends and neighbours over for private discussions? We have to compromise, whichever side we are on, but if we allow ourselves to be led by the European ruination group in the other place, the future will be dire.
The noble Lord was doing so well until he got to the second part of his question. Yes, of course we will provide leadership, and we are. We have set out a plan as to how we think this can be delivered. I am not sure it is a practical suggestion that we consult the leader of the Opposition, who I think is providing a dire example at the moment, but we in our department and other Cabinet Ministers are having ongoing, regular discussions with other European leaders and Ministers. I am travelling abroad regularly myself, as are other Ministers, to try to convince other member states of the viability of our plans and the options that we have presented.
I follow up one more time the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Maude, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham. It may be technically correct to say that we do not need legislation to leave the EEA, but in practice is that not splitting hairs? I remember rather well, in December 1972 in Vienna, chairing the last meeting of the EFTA consultative committee that we were then a member of. On
I refer the noble Lord to the answer I gave earlier. The option of EEA membership is not straightforward. It is not uncomplicated and it does not present a solution to many of the difficulties that were addressed in the referendum campaign.
Will the Minister go back to the issue of citizens’ rights? If I understand it rightly, he has replied to various questions by saying that the Government will make up their mind on the situation for European citizens here in a no-deal situation when that arose. Are the Government not giving any consideration to whether it might not be both humane and valuable for our negotiating position if they were to make it clear now, unilaterally, that they will apply the provisions in the December agreement, come what may, deal or no deal? Surely that would be better, and it would also be a better way of protecting the interests of our citizens in other member states.
The Prime Minister has made it clear on a number of occasions that EU citizens who have chosen to make their homes in the UK are welcome to stay. We have protected their rights, and the rights of British citizens abroad in the draft withdrawal agreement. If there is no withdrawal agreement, we will want to move swiftly to guarantee the rights of those people. We may not want to do it in exactly the same way as set out in the withdrawal agreement at the moment, but we would want to guarantee their rights and emphasise the fact that they have made their home here and are welcome to stay. The Prime Minister has made that very clear.
My Lords, does the Minister not recognise that we will not know until perhaps a few weeks, or even days, before the exit date, whether a deal has been agreed, or it is a no-deal exit? In that case, is his advice to organisations and companies to behave as if there is to be a no deal from now on, and prepare themselves accordingly? Conversely, if there is a withdrawal deal, how does the Minister expect both Houses of Parliament to legislate it into effect in the few days that may lie between it being agreed and the exit date of March next year?
If it were only a few days, clearly the noble Lord would be correct that it would be impossible. The need for appropriate legislative scrutiny in both Houses is one of the reasons why we are still targeting an agreement in October this year. We are working towards that. It may not be possible, and I cannot absolutely guarantee that, but we are mindful of the fact that once we have negotiated a withdrawal agreement, there needs to be a meaningful vote, which we have promised, both politically and now legislatively. We will put it to the vote in both Houses, and if the meaningful vote goes through, we will have to legislate, which will take time. That is one of the reasons, and the EU has agreed with us, that we are approaching the end state of negotiations now. We need to have an agreement in the not-too-distant future.
The only way of joining the EEA, if it were possible, and I have set out the difficulties, would be to join EFTA because of the EEA’s agreement between the EU and EFTA. In that case, we would not be negotiating our own individual trade deals—EFTA would be negotiating. That fails the independent trade policy test.
The Minister made a brave, if failing effort to try to ascribe responsibility for the border issue to Dublin. We have a responsibility—it is called the Good Friday agreement. We have a responsibility both morally and legally not to do anything that undermines that agreement. Do the Government accept that, both morally and legally?
Yes, of course we are fully committed to the Good Friday agreement. I did not say it was solely the responsibility of the Republic of Ireland; I merely made the point that any border has two sides. We can be responsible for the UK side, and we can guarantee no hard border on the UK side. We would hope that the Irish Government and the EU would be able to reciprocate on their side as well, and produce no hard border. These are the issues that we are negotiating to make sure that the Good Friday agreement is respected and that no hard border is reintroduced into the island of Ireland.
My Lords, has the Minister been to Dover and talked to the people who run the harbour? I went with a Select Committee a few weeks ago. If trade does not remain frictionless then, unless there is a long period during which the Dover people can reorganise the port, it will come to a halt and vehicles will back up all the way to the M25. Surely the Minister must accept that places like Dover need more time than they are going to get under the current timetable.
I have not been to Dover recently myself, but ministerial colleagues have and officials are, of course, in regular correspondence and discussions with the officials there. One reason we put forward our proposals was to produce a frictionless border which would ensure that there are no queues at Dover or any other port. One reason why we are proposing a facilitated customs arrangement, and negotiating on it, is to produce frictionless borders both in Ireland and at Dover.
My Lords, given the complications and the failure to get anywhere close to an agreement, does the Minister wish to reconsider his answer to the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, that in no circumstances would we seek an extension of the deadline? If we have only got six weeks and we are still so far away, should we not now be formally seeking an extension of that deadline?