Monday 5th October 2020

(3 years, 7 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Julia Lopez Portrait The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Julia Lopez)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. This is my first Westminster Hall debate since returning from maternity leave. I feel I should have contributed to the previous debate on what it is like to raise a baby during a pandemic as I am a little more qualified.

I have a strange feeling of déjà vu, as though nothing has changed in the year I have been away, but of course many things have changed. We have had a general election and we have left the EU. The language that we used in talking about Brexit today, as if it had not happened, is a little out of date.

I thank the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) for presenting the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee and for speaking on the three petitions. Hon. Members have put their arguments across with a great deal of vigour, but not rancour, which is a refreshing change from the previous Parliament.

In responding to the calls in the petitions to establish a public inquiry into the conduct of the 2016 EU referendum, or halt Brexit for a public inquiry, or to extend the transition period and delay negotiations, I can state that there are no plans to do any of those things. Two of the petitions focus on alleged breaches of electoral law in the 2016 referendum, but the allegations have been rightly investigated and dealt with by the Electoral Commission, the independent regulator. The case is now closed. Our focus should not be on returning to the divisions of the recent past, but on this country’s bright future.

I will consider various points in further detail: the evident legitimacy of the EU referendum, our stance on foreign interference, the important role of the Electoral Commission, and our future focus and ongoing negotiations with the EU. First, let me deal with the evident legitimacy of the EU referendum. Others have highlighted this today, but I shall repeat it: 17.4 million people voted to leave the EU. More people voted for Brexit than have ever voted for anything else in the UK. It is a pleasure to welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher), who is a product of that will of the people.

People from across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to leave the European Union. That clear mandate from the people of our Union has since been rightfully respected and delivered. Ignoring the referendum result would have been deeply damaging to British democracy. We saw the damage that the past three years of indecision in Parliament caused. Additionally, the legality of the EU referendum is beyond doubt. It was carried out based on legislation passed by Parliament with clear and repeated commitments from the Government to implement the outcome. The EU Referendum Act 2015 was scrutinised and debated in Parliament for more than 34 hours. The provisions relating to the conduct of the referendum were carefully scrutinised and ratified by Parliament.

More recently in the 2019 general election, the British people cast their votes once again and elected with a substantial majority a Government committed to upholding the result of the referendum. Following the election, Parliament voted with clear majorities in both Houses for the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020. On accusations of foreign interference, I emphasise that it is and always will be an absolute priority to protect the UK against foreign interference and maintain the security and integrity of our democratic processes. It is absolutely unacceptable for any nation, including Russia, to interfere in the democratic processes of another country, and we take any allegations of interference in the UK democratic processes by a foreign Government very seriously. We have seen no evidence of successful interference in the EU referendum. However, we will continue to safeguard against future risks, strengthen our resilience, and ensure that the regulatory framework is as effective as possible. The Government are committed to making sure the rules work now and in future. In July 2019 we established the Defending Democracy Programme, bringing together expertise and capabilities from across Departments, the security and intelligence agencies, and the civil service, to ensure that UK democracy remains open, vibrant and secure. As announced in the Queen’s Speech, we are bringing forward new legislation to provide the security services and law enforcement agencies with the tools that they need to disrupt hostile state activity.

Now I will turn to the important role of the Electoral Commission, which is the independent regulatory body responsible for ensuring that referenda are run effectively and in accordance with the law. The Electoral Commission has the right to conduct investigations into alleged offences, and to take action when offences have been committed. Such investigations are, rightly, independent of the Government. The Electoral Commission did indeed undertake investigations into the EU referendum and, regrettably, levied fines on multiple groups on both sides of the referendum campaign. In addition to the fines levied against leave campaigners, remain-supporting groups such as Unison and the GMB also breached political finance rules, and were fined by the Electoral Commission for failing to deliver an accurate spending return. More serious matters were referred to the police, who investigated them further and, again, found no evidence of criminal activity.

Focusing on the future, we have now entered the final phase of negotiations with the EU. Last week the ninth round of negotiations took place. There were positive discussions in the core areas of a trade and economic agreement—notably trade in goods and services, transport, energy, social security and participation in EU programmes. However, significant differences remain, notably on the level playing field and fisheries. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster provided a written ministerial statement earlier today with an update on this round of negotiations. The Prime Minister spoke to President von der Leyen on 3 October to review the progress of negotiations. They agreed on the importance of finding an agreement if at all possible, and instructed the chief negotiators to work intensively to try to do so, given how short the time now is before the European Council on 15 October, when we hope we can find an agreement.

I am afraid that while I would like to answer with some specifics on the negotiations, it is a little above my pay grade, so I cannot do so on this occasion. Since the last round of negotiations, as set out in terms of reference, UK negotiators have continued in formal discussions with the Commission in Brussels and London. We have been clear from the outset about the principles underlying our approach. We are seeking a relationship that respects our sovereignty and has a free trade agreement at its core, similar to those that the EU has already agreed with like-minded countries such as Canada. As the Prime Minister has set out, there needs to be an agreement with the EU by the time of the European Council meeting on 15 October in order for it to be in force before the end of the transition period on 31 December. By then, if there is no agreement, there will not be a free trade agreement. That would mean that we would have a trading arrangement with the EU more akin to Australia’s. That would still be a good outcome for the UK. It would represent our reclaiming our independence as a sovereign nation. That is what the British people voted for twice. That said, we remain committed to working hard to reach an agreement by the middle of this month.

The Government were elected on a manifesto that made it clear that the transition period would end on 31 December 2020. That is now enshrined in UK law. At the second meeting of the withdrawal agreement Joint Committee on 12 June, the UK formally notified the EU that it will neither accept nor seek any extension to the transition period. Our position remains unchanged. Under no circumstances will the Government ask for or agree to an extension of the transition period. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Lord True have kept both Houses informed of progress throughout the negotiations.

I would like now to turn to some of the issues raised by colleagues in this vigorous and lively debate. I welcome the work that the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) is doing to give her constituents a voice. It is right that we bring everyone together, in this next stage of our country’s journey. The International Trade Secretary has repeatedly given assurances on food standards. The Trade Bill is about the roll-over of existing FTAs; it is not about future ones.

I appreciate the contribution from the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Allan Dorans). I have always found it peculiar that his party has such distaste for the results of referenda at the same time as they call for more of them, and that they can so unreservedly champion petitions as a democratic device over a good old-fashioned election result.

I thank the hon. Member for Hartlepool for the gracious way in which he acknowledged that the majority of his constituents do not want to overturn the referendum result. He asked how the pandemic has affected the readiness of businesses. That has clearly been a challenge, and it was also raised by the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield). Unfortunately, the pandemic has meant that businesses are, rightly, thinking of many other things. We are keen to get the message out that things will be changing for those who deal with the EU, whether or not we get an FTA. That message needs to be rammed home, because there is sometimes a misunderstanding in this place that everything will be the same if we get a deal. That is simply not the case, which is why we have done a lot of work on transition readiness. We now have a transition checker on gov.uk that people can go to for information on how to get ready for January, and I encourage people to look at it. We will also publish an updated border operating model this week.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) rightly reminded us that we have left the EU. The public have made their views known about further delay, and we will not extend the transition period.

The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) drew an interesting comparison with the United States. The Government share many of his ambitions for how any future relationship should protect our sovereignty.

I welcome the contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley in his first Westminster Hall debate, and on a subject about which he feels so passionately. He says we need to move on, and I agree. There is a difference between a petition and an election, as I mentioned earlier. In December, the public made their views clear.

I note that the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) is vastly more popular in her constituency than her party is with the rest of the country; I think that is because she makes her case so gracefully. I share her regret over the division that we have seen in recent years. I hope we can move on, united over the love that we have for our country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) shared his exasperation that we have to reheat what is now a very old debate. I welcome his valuable work with the Council of Europe.

I wish to thank again the hon. Member for Hartlepool for securing the debate. We have heard a number of arguments on this topic, but I remain entirely unconvinced that we need to launch a public inquiry on the EU referendum or that we should halt Brexit, extend the transition period and delay negotiations. Indeed, the Government have absolutely no plan to do any of those things. Clear legitimacy underpins the EU referendum from the 17.4 million people across our Union who voted to leave and the legal scrutiny that was applied to the European Union Referendum Act 2015. In addition, we have made it clear on a number of occasions that we have not seen evidence of successful interference in the referendum, and allegations of electoral overspend have rightly been investigated and dealt with by the Electoral Commission. We now need to focus on our bright future, negotiating our future partnership with the EU and forging trade deals with the rest of the world.