Leaving the EU Debate

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Department: Cabinet Office
Monday 5th October 2020

(3 years, 7 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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David Amess Portrait Sir David Amess (in the Chair)
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Order. As you have just heard Madam Deputy Speaker explain, we have of course only just resumed sittings in Westminster Hall. It will take a little while to get used to the procedures, but I am sure we will all get the hang of it if people observe social distancing. If Members think of it, wiping the microphones down on leaving will save the Doorkeepers some work.

Mike Hill Portrait Mike Hill (Hartlepool) (Lab)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petitions 241848, 250178 and 300412 relating to the UK’s departure from the EU.

It is an honour to speak under your chairmanship, Sir David, and a privilege to open this important debate on the day when Westminster Hall debates resume. The petitions are on the subject of Brexit, and the first calls for a halt to it while a public inquiry is held. It has more than 110,000 signatures and states:

“The UK's departure from the EU looms but questions remain about the legitimacy of the Referendum. The Electoral Commission said illegal overspending occurred during the Referendum. Were the vote/any subsequent political acts affected? Article 50 was triggered. Was the overspend known about then? A transparent Public Inquiry is required, now.”

E-petition 250178 has more than 109,000 signatures and also seeks to establish a public inquiry into the conduct of the 2016 EU referendum. It also addresses the subject of alleged interference by “foreign actors and governments”, saying:

“This must be investigated under the Inquiries Act (2005).”

The third petition, e-petition 300412, has more 107,000 signatures and states:

“The government should consider delaying negotiations so they can concentrate on the coronavirus situation and reduce travel of both EU and UK negotiators. This would necessitate extending the transition period; as there can only be a one off extension, this should be for two years.”

These petitions mean different things to different people. Some see a halt to the transition period as necessary for the safety of the public, while others see it as a further attempt to delay Brexit by those who oppose it. From my own personal experience, the vast majority of my constituents would fall into the latter category, as almost three quarters of them voted to leave in the 2016 referendum. They would not want a further delay, after four and a half years of delays and false starts, unless it were completely unavoidable.

As far as the majority of my constituents are concerned, the United Kingdom’s 47-year-old membership of the European Union ended on 31 January 2020. However, it is not as simple as that. We are currently in the transition period, which ends on 31 December, and, contrary to points made during the 2019 election campaign about oven-ready deals, things are far from oven-ready and simple, particularly on the trade deal front. As we have seen over the past two weeks with the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, which has already prompted legal action from the EU, the prospects of a no-deal Brexit are very real.

The Government’s final opportunity to request an extension to the transition period, provided for under the withdrawal agreement, came and went on 30 June 2020. Many would argue that 11 months is already a tight timeline for a complex deal to be negotiated, ratified and implemented, and that does not take account of the covid-19 crisis, which has soaked up much of the UK and EU Governments’ energies. That has led to a number of calls for the transition period to be extended, including the petitioners in e-petition 300412. The petition calls for a pandemic delay, which is perhaps the most compelling reason at the moment.

The Government have much to reassure the public about before leaving the EU in the middle of the current pandemic, and this petition argues that it is simply common sense, in the light of covid-19, to seek an extension, so that important matters can be given the proper attention they deserve. These matters include healthcare workers’ status and rights; imports of medicine, new testing kits and personal protective equipment; the import and export of goods and food; and travel arrangements across borders. I am sure hon. Members will raise these points in the debate and I look forward to the Minister’s response. It is common knowledge that the negotiations were delayed earlier in the year by the pandemic and I would welcome a more in-depth response from the Government as to how they believe that has affected the UK’s readiness for Brexit.

There are important lessons to be learned from campaigns in the run-up to and during the 2016 referendum. E-petition 250178, on foreign interference, points to the serious questions raised by the Russia report, commissioned by the House of Commons Intelligence and Security Committee. This includes the potential influence of some senior figures within the leave campaign. I would personally welcome a further independent inquiry into that, as called for by the petition, as the Government’s response to the Committee’s report has been lacklustre, at best, so far.

I am sure all right hon. and hon. Members will agree that faith in public institutions is at rock bottom at the moment. It is of the utmost importance that, as a matter of public service, we ensure that some mistakes can never be made again. If there was foreign interference, it is vital that we establish to what extent, and what measures can be put in place to avoid such an event ever occurring again. We could make a start by banning the hiring out of the Prime Minister for a game of tennis, for example. However, the timing of an inquiry need not necessarily derail the Brexit process.

I cannot vouch for other constituencies—I have no doubt that Members will be keen to enlighten me—but I wonder how many people in my constituency, where, a year prior to the referendum, a UKIP candidate beat the Tory candidate into second place in a general election, were convinced by foreign propaganda in the referendum campaign to vote leave. Frankly, it would not have changed anything in my constituency.

Vote Leave, the official pro-Brexit campaign group, was judged by the High Court to have broken campaign spending limits during the referendum and therefore to have broken the law. This followed on from an earlier decision by the Electoral Commission and is central to e-petition 241848 in its call for an inquiry into campaign spend. Campaign spending has a great impact on elections and voting, as all MPs will fully understand. If overspending occurs, as was the case with Vote Leave, or it is suspected, the Electoral Commission should investigate it as a matter of course. This follows an initial decision by the Electoral Commission to investigate Vote Leave, but not Darren Grimes of BeLeave, a campaign organisation in receipt of substantial donations from Vote Leave as part of a joint plan, according to the High Court.

We must establish the facts and ensure that all political bodies in the United Kingdom act with the integrity that the law demands. With Vote Leave already having paid a fine of £61,000, it would be in the public interest to know how it affected the result of the campaign in some areas. However, again, using that as a pretext to halt the Brexit process would be seen by many as a tactic to deliberately delay. There is little certainty in much Government policy, but one thing appears to be unshakable: the Prime Minister is sticking to Brexit come what may.

In conclusion, all three petitions have merits that warrant discussion, and all three highlight important issues that require greater transparency and clarity. The Government must make much more of an effort to restore faith in themselves both among the public and in Parliament. Delaying Brexit again is likely to further widen the divisions in our society and our communities. However, to do so without a cast-iron guarantee on imports during the pandemic and without knowing beyond doubt the legality of the actors in the winning campaign, especially in the teeth of the current pandemic, might also harm society. I urge all Members to consider those points carefully.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Mike Hill Portrait Mike Hill
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On behalf of the Petitions Committee, I thank the petitioners for achieving over 100,000 signatures on each of the petitions and therefore ensuring that such petitions—within the rules of the House—get debated. I also thank the Front Bench spokespersons, especially the Minister, for clarifying the position of my constituency. It was the largest leave-voting constituency in the north-east. As an individual MP, I represented their interest all the way through.

That takes me to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), whose predecessor was in the same position as I am. We have to remember that these are not party-political debates; they are petitions debates. As a member of the Petitions Committee, I am impartial, irrespective of my views and opinions. I hope I have got that across, because time and again they are seen to be political. That travels into the newspapers, which is not in the interest of Parliament or the petitions system in its own right.

I thank the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer), and the hon. Members for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher), for Henley (John Howell) and for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) for their interesting contributions to the debate. It is good to be back in our places in Westminster Hall, and I hope that the petitioners forgive us for mixing the petitions together. Covid has impacted on the Petitions Committee’s operations; hence the need to prioritise this.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered e-petitions 241848, 250178 and 300412 relating to the UK’s departure from the EU.

David Amess Portrait Sir David Amess (in the Chair)
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Just before colleagues leave, I want to say that it is very good to be back in Westminster Hall. There are teething problems, particularly with the way I chaired proceedings. Please leave through the door that is marked “exit only”. The Chairman of Ways and Means said that, to save the Doorkeepers coming in, you should wipe the microphones if you have touched them; the wipes are next to Graham Stringer. It would help. If you have any other observations about the way that this session did or did not work, please let the Chairman of Ways and Means know. Thank you.