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Brexit: Appointment of Joint Committee - Motion to Agree

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:51 pm on 3rd July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Callanan Lord Callanan Minister of State (Department for Exiting the European Union) 6:51 pm, 3rd July 2019

My Lords, as always, I am grateful for the many interesting and thoughtful contributions made on all sides in today’s debate as we address the Motion in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith. It is of course for this House, rather than the Government, to determine the nature and configuration of its Select Committees and how they can best support the House’s consideration of EU exit. Needless to say, the Government will seek to support and facilitate the work of committees in whatever form Parliament agrees is most effective and appropriate.

Let me start by directly addressing the question posed by my noble friend Lady McIntosh. If this Motion is passed tonight, it will then be up to the other place, if it wishes, to take forward a similar Motion to agree to the appointment of a Joint Committee, but it would of course have no legal effect on how we leave the European Union. It will be for the two Houses to consider whether they believe that they have had insufficient opportunity and tools to consider the Government’s approach to a no-deal exit.

We should not overlook the work of the existing committees of both Houses in this respect. Indeed, we should pay tribute to that work and recognise its scale and importance. The Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster have all recently given evidence to this House’s EU Committee covering government preparations for no deal. As I am sure my right honourable friends will attest, the committee has shown it has the will and the tools to scrutinise the Government on no deal—as, indeed, it should. For instance, noble Lords will recall its inquiry report, Brexit: Deal or No Deal, which built on evidence from government and a range of experts and stakeholders on both sides of the EU exit debate. The report and the subsequent debate made a significant contribution to the House’s understanding of the potential consequences of no deal.

The sub-committees have also considered preparations for no deal in their specific areas of remit. For example, the EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee is examining the UK’s preparations for a no-deal Brexit and the potential impact this could have on the agriculture, fisheries, environment and energy sectors. In the other place, the Exiting the European Union Committee was appointed in July 2016 for the very purpose of scrutinising the Government’s work on EU exit. Since its formation, it has produced 16 reports, many of which have considered the implications of no deal, alongside the over 40 reports produced by the European Union Committee in this House during this Session alone. Indeed, the Exiting the European Union Committee’s inquiry on no deal is continuing; only last week, the committee took evidence from industry experts in the services sector regarding the implications of no deal. I am sure that this Motion is not intended to undermine the considerable work of that committee, the committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Boswell of Aynho, or the other sub-committees. However, we should recognise that there are committees already in place which can and do continue to provide the high-quality and timely analysis that the noble Baroness says she is seeking.

If we need any illustration that the structures as they stand are capable of effectively scrutinising the Government on preparations for EU exit, DExEU Ministers alone have given evidence to Select Committees on 48 occasions, spending over 4,000 minutes answering questions put to them on no deal and other EU matters. In addition, there is no need for a formal Joint Committee to be appointed to bring the particular expertise of each House together. Committees of either House can choose to hold joint meetings, including joint evidence sessions, if they so wish.

The possibility of the United Kingdom exiting the European Union without a deal has effectively been on the table since Parliament voted to support the triggering of Article 50 in March 2017. While the Government continue to believe that leaving the EU with a deal is the best outcome, the House of Commons has rejected leaving on the terms we have negotiated three times. Without a withdrawal agreement having been agreed, leaving without a deal remains the legal default at the end of 31 October 2019.

I am getting a little weary of listening to the litany of complaints from Labour and Liberal Democrat Members about the possible effects of no deal who simultaneously vote against the deal that we have negotiated. To be fair to the Liberal Democrats, which I do not generally like to be, they are up-front and honest about the fact that they want to stop Brexit. Labour, meanwhile, tells us that it wants to respect the result of the referendum. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, told us that during his failed MEP election campaign; the noble Lord standing on a platform of respecting the referendum result—he told us so in one of his leaflets—was one of the most enjoyable facts of that miserable campaign. Most amusing it was.

As a responsible Government, we continue to prepare for all Brexit scenarios. The delivery of much of this work is vital in both deal and no-deal scenarios: for example, the more than 550 statutory instruments to date which have been laid before these Houses to ensure a functioning statute book when we leave the EU in all scenarios. Departments continue to advance their no-deal preparations and are making sensible adjustments on the timing and pace at which certain work is progressing so that we are ready to implement necessary work in the lead-up to 31 October, if needed. The Treasury has allocated over £4.2 billion of additional funding to departments and the devolved Administrations for EU exit preparations so far, including for no deal. However, no-deal spending cannot readily be separated from deal spending, as in many cases the activities will be relevant in any exit scenario.

For nearly three years, the Government have been working to ensure that people and businesses are prepared for all scenarios. For example, the Government have published over 750 pieces of no-deal communications since October 2018, including 106 technical notices explaining to businesses and citizens exactly what they need to do to prepare. In answer to the point made by my noble friend Lord Bridges, we are continuing our work to roll over international agreements. We have currently agreed trade agreements with partners who account for over £70 billion of current trade. On 10 June, we agreed in principle an agreement with South Korea which represents another £15 billion. We have also established the EU settlement scheme, which is now fully open, with over 800,000 applications so far. This will continue to be run and to be supported, regardless of a deal or no-deal scenario.

My noble friend Lord Howell addressed the issue of EEA membership, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, also raised this point. Let me say to my noble friend that our view is clear. When we leave the EU, we leave the EEA in the absence of any further action. Rejoining would require EFTA membership, which may not be a straightforward matter, and we would need the agreement of all of the existing EFTA members. I should also remind my noble friend that, when similar proposals were considered during the indicative votes in the other place, they were defeated on both occasions.

My noble friend Lord Bridges also raised the subject of business readiness. For two years, the Government have been implementing a significant programme of work to ensure that we will be ready from day one in all scenarios. The UK wants businesses to be reassured that, even in a no-deal scenario, the Government will seek to do what they can to make the transition as smooth as possible and allow them time to make significant changes. We are continuing to engage with a wide range of stakeholders to support industry preparedness, including trade bodies, ports, hauliers, ferry companies and freight forwarders. The Border Delivery Group has run and will continue to run a series of local, national and international stakeholder events, working with intermediaries in the UK and Europe, to directly engage with business and answer questions. We have held a series of domestic and international events, and webinars have been hosted to support business readiness. Online content, bulletins, leaflets, videos and other materials are being disseminated on a range of border-related subjects in several different languages to support business preparations on no deal.

The noble Lord, Lord Hain, again with great passion, raised the issue of Ireland. Let me reiterate once again that, in the event of no deal, the UK Government would not introduce any new checks or controls on goods crossing from Ireland to Northern Ireland, including any customs declarations for nearly all goods. The UK’s wider temporary tariff regime would therefore not apply to goods crossing from Ireland to Northern Ireland. This approach is unilateral and it is strictly temporary. Because these are unilateral measures, they only mitigate the impacts from exit that are within this Government’s control. These measures do not set out the position in respect of tariffs or processes to be applied to goods moving from Northern Ireland to Ireland. In a no-deal scenario, we would need to have urgent discussions with the European Commission and the Irish Government to jointly agree longer-term measures.

The noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Ipswich, referred to staffing changes in my department. Let me tell him that, when a staff member leaves any role in the Civil Service, arrangements are made so that business continues as normal, and in my department careful succession planning has been put in place to ensure the department maintains its high standards of delivery.

The noble Lord also asked about five EU exit Bills currently before Parliament. We are of course working with colleagues across the House to resolve the outstanding concerns on these critical pieces of legislation to deliver our exit, and we will look to progress them as soon as possible. However, I can assure all noble Lords that all of the necessary primary legislation needed by exit day to deliver a smooth exit from the EU is in place, including the more than 500 statutory instruments that have already been laid.

The work that Her Majesty’s Government are undertaking to prepare for no deal was set out in detail, as referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, in a Written Ministerial Statement, from the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster on 26 June 2019, which addresses many of the issues that have been raised by noble Lords this evening.

This House has played, and will continue to play, a crucial role in preparing for the UK’s departure from the European Union. It has had ample opportunity to provide comprehensive and timely analysis of all the options for our exit from the EU and has demonstrated itself to be more than capable of doing so. It is not clear what additional value this proposal will add at this late stage of the process. I am, therefore, not able to support the Motion proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, this evening.