Monday 5th October 2020

(3 years, 9 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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[Sir David Amess in the Chair]
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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David Amess Portrait Sir David Amess (in the Chair)
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I would like to start the wind-ups at 7 o’clock. Six people want to speak, so I hope colleagues will share the time between them.

Jack Brereton Portrait Jack Brereton (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Con)
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It is an absolute delight, Sir David, to be back here speaking in Westminster Hall after quite a long adjournment in this Chamber. I thank the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) for leading this debate, although I find it ironic, given his past challenges in explaining the Labour party’s policy on Brexit.

The 2016 referendum was the largest expression of democracy in our British history, and the largest mandate of any Parliament in terms of the 17.4 million people who voted to leave. The petitioners represent less than 1% of that figure. A Government with a large majority has been elected on a mandate to get Brexit done. We have now left the EU, thankfully, and, at the end of the transition period in January, Brexit will be fully completed.

Yet we still see Opposition Members trying once again to hamper Brexit, as they have done in debate after debate, calling for delay after delay—delays for which I have never voted, and which the British people do not accept. I do not think that anyone would ever have imagined that it would take nearly five years to complete the process—that is quite long enough, according to my constituents.

The public have been clear in their feelings about a Parliament that did not fulfil the democratic wishes of the British people. We have seen enough of the delay and uncertainty that the last Parliament brought to our economy and our country. The transition must not be extended, because by doing so, we will never bring about conclusion or any certainty—we have had enough uncertainty. The British people—certainly my constituents in Stoke-on-Trent South—would not accept a further extension. We should certainly not trust the view that an extension is required because of covid. We all know the real reasons why people want the transition extended further.

Labour and other parties opposite continue to repeat the mistakes of the past. Even now, they question what people thought they were voting for and the legitimacy of the process in its entirety. How much have their views changed since the promise to honour the result, whatever the outcome might be? It goes to the heart of British democracy that we honour and trust the decisions of the British people who elected us to represent them in this place.

I know that my constituents in Stoke-on-Trent South do not feel that they have benefited from their membership of the EU. They feel that although other areas have moved forward, they have been left behind. What was the only year in which the UK was a net gainer from our contribution to the EU budget? Surprise, surprise, it was 1975—the year of the common market referendum. That is slightly more than a coincidence. My constituents knew exactly what they were voting for when they overwhelmingly backed leave: an end to being controlled by the EU; an end to sending to the EU every year vast amounts of money that we never get back; and an end to free movement for proper control of our borders. That is exactly what this Government are now delivering. The Government’s focus on levelling up will ensure that all communities, in every part of our country, can prosper and succeed.

As I have made clear, I hope that we secure an ambitious free-trade deal with the EU at the end of the year, but whatever the outcome—deal or no deal—it must provide a clear end state and certainty, allowing our country to move forward once and for all. Unlike many Opposition Members, I very much have confidence that our country, our economy and our Government will get through this and flourish in the future.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab)
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It is delightful to see you in the Chair, Sir David, and to be back in Westminster Hall. I agree with most of the comments made by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton). First, I would like to declare three unremunerated interests: I am a board member for the Centre for Brexit Policy; I am on the advisory board for the Foundation for Independence; and I was, until just after the referendum, a board member of Vote Leave.

I ask hon. Members inside and outside this Hall a simple question. We have seen a two-pronged attack on democracy since the decision in 2016, which, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South said, was the single largest vote in our history. Most people in this country would be absolutely horrified if President Trump challenged a victory by the Democrats in the United States and it went to the courts, but that is exactly what has happened in this country. Many of my hon. Friends who care passionately about this and wanted to stay in the EU simply do not see it in those terms. That two-pronged attack on democracy has come from hon. Members, both from my party and from others, who want to overturn the decision, and from the EU itself, which is less surprising, because it is a non-democratic body that has used many tactics to make it painful for this country to leave, as a warning to other countries that might want to leave. So, I will start with that point.

I will also say that we have left the EU, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) has said, but we are still in the transition period and subject to the withdrawal agreement. I hope that we get a Canada-plus style of free trade agreement, which was on offer at the beginning of this process, and it is another element of bad faith from the EU that that has been taken off the table, as has giving this country third-country status, which is real bad faith.

I hope that we can get that type of arrangement, but it is vital that the final leaving agreement is sovereign-compliant. We need control over our fishing and over how we subsidise our industry, if that is what we choose to do. This country subsidises industry, providing so-called “state aid”, at about half the rate of the rest of the EU, so it is not a big problem.

However, it is vital that we have control of our own laws. That is why people voted to leave the EU, so we need the final leaving agreement to be sovereign-compliant. And we must not have overhanging liabilities that are unaccounted for, to be determined by some future decisions that the EU might make to give us more financial commitments. Finally, regarding the conditions for leaving, we must not be subject to the European Court of Justice. Otherwise, we will not be a truly independent country.

I have supported the decision to leave the EU in many votes in the House of Commons. I did not support the final withdrawal agreement, because I never believed that there should be the possibility of Great Britain being separated from Northern Ireland. The EU has exploited that situation and weaponised the historical situation in Ireland to try and keep control over our laws, so I hope the Government can get an agreement that does not lead to the splitting-up of the United Kingdom in those terms.

In introducing the three petitions, my hon. Friend referred to the legal action that is being taken. It is the most curious legal action. I am not a lawyer, but who has ever taken legal action against a Bill passing through this House that is yet to become law? It is extraordinary. Indeed, it is not only extraordinary in that sense; it is extraordinary in that it goes against the EU policy itself. In the Kadi I and Kadi II decisions—a complicated case adjudicated on by the European Court of Justice—the Court came to the conclusion that

“the obligations imposed by an international agreement cannot have the effect of prejudicing the constitutional principles of the EC Treaty”.

So the legal action is not only absurd in its first terms; it also goes against the way that the EU deals with its own policy.

I think it was mentioned that several court cases found that actions taken by parties on both sides have been in breach of the law. That is wrong; it should not happen. There is no general election or local election that I have ever been involved in where there have not been problems; that is just what happens in the heat of the campaign. Regarding Vote Leave, the Electoral Commission gave Vote Leave bad advice, and it ended up in breach of the rules, and it has paid a fine for that. I do not believe any of that affected the outcome. The single biggest factor in cash terms was that the Government paid £9 million effectively to put out a remain leaflet, which dwarfed all the rest of the expenditure.

I will finish by swiftly dealing with the petitions. There is the petition that cites covid as a reason for delaying the implementation. I understand at least one motivation behind that. The fact is that if we can control our own laws and regulations, we are in a better position to respond to any crisis immediately and not to be bound by the European Union’s bureaucracy. I will give an example: it took about 18 years for the EU to change the clinical trials directive, and lot of jobs went out of Europe because it was so slow. In order to build our economy after covid and to deal with it now, we need to be completely in charge of our rules and regulations.

Jack Brereton Portrait Jack Brereton
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Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the challenge of getting an EU covid recovery package together is an example of that?

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer
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I do agree. I will not get into a debate about covid, but we need to be spritelier than we have been in response to this crisis, and being in charge of ourselves is the best way to do it. I have previously said that both sides have been found to have been in breach of the regulations.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool mentioned foreign interference. Did the biggest interference in terms of publicity—when President Obama came over and asked people to vote remain—make any difference? I suspect in many cases that boosted the leave side of the debate.

This country has decided to leave the EU, and we have to get the best deal possible. We have to ensure that we get it to be sovereign-compliant, and not let the EU carry on with what are effectively imperialistic policies. It wants to carry on controlling our laws and regulations. It wants to keep us paying, without our having any say whatever in the creation of those laws and regulations.

Nick Fletcher Portrait Nick Fletcher (Don Valley) (Con)
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My first ever Westminster Hall debate is on the subject that got us here in the first place. As the first ever Conservative MP to represent Don Valley, an area which voted 69% in favour of leaving the European Union, I felt compelled to speak in the debate because two of the petitions that we are debating, which are now over a year old, demand a public inquiry into the 2016 referendum. The vast majority of my constituents and I believe that the motives behind the petitions are not entirely sincere. Instead, I believe that the petitions were established and signed because people—petition data show that they reside mainly in the southern metropolitan areas of the country—could not accept the referendum result. We really need to move on.

Since the 2016 referendum, some members of the political elite have treated 17.4 million people with complete contempt. Large sections of the media and political class actively tried to rob those people of their voice. Some politicians and journalists stated repeatedly that the desire of the majority to leave the EU was impossible. By the beginning of the last general election, some said that the referendum should not have taken place in the first place, and one major party even promised to cancel Brexit altogether. Meanwhile, petitions such as the ones we are debating were used to grind Brexit to a halt. Through inquiries, people who remained upset at the referendum result sought to overturn the largest democratic exercise in this country’s recent history. That was despite the fact that, after the referendum, Parliament overwhelmingly voted to proceed with the Brexit negotiations. Some 80% of the votes cast in the 2017 general election were for parties that supported our departure from the EU.

Hindsight can be a wonderful thing. I believe that the last election, when many of my hon. Friends and I were elected across the country, is confirmation that petitions such as the ones we are debating do not have the popular support of the people. The 2019 election decisively confirmed that the public did not want to stall Brexit, and indeed that they did not want endless inquiries into allegations that had no substance; they wanted to get on with Brexit and deliver the referendum result. However, we now see renewed calls to halt Brexit, this time due to coronavirus, yet again because a small minority continue to cling to the hope that they can prevent the will of the people.

I, for one, find it awful that my constituents’ views yet again appear to have been discarded, but I make it clear to the good people of Don Valley and across the north that their voices will be heard, and that the Government will get on with Brexit. The Government have already confirmed that they are fully prepared to leave the EU with an Australian-style deal at the end of this year. With coronavirus likely to be with us for many more months or even years to come, why wait? After all, we gave the public the choice in a referendum and two general elections. I think they have made themselves quite clear, so let us get on with what I and many others were elected to do less than a year ago—let us get Brexit done.

Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse (Bath) (LD)
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I have many reasons to be proud of my constituency of Bath. One of the most important to me is its long tradition as an open-minded, welcoming and outward-looking city. Bathonians want this country to reflect those values, which we hold close to our hearts. Bath was one of the constituencies with the most signatories to the petition to halt Brexit for a public inquiry. In 2016, 68% of Bath residents voted to remain, putting us in the top 50 remain-voting constituencies in the UK.

Just days after the referendum, a handful of us residents founded what became one of the most active grassroots campaigning organisations in the country, Bath for Europe. We came together as a non-party political group of volunteers campaigning for the UK to remain at the heart of the European Union. I was a founder member of Bath for Europe before I was elected the MP for Bath. We were ordinary people achieving extraordinary things. We donated our spare time, talent, creativity, knowledge, experience, ideas and resources to keep the cause of Europe front and centre, both locally and nationally.

In addition to organising rallies, marches, speakers, events and regular meetings, perhaps our biggest achievement was our constant engagement with members of our community. Every week, we held street stalls and commuter calls, handing out leaflets and discussing Brexit and what it would mean for our city and our country. We did our research, and we respectfully listened to people, some of whom had opinions very different from our own. We spoke to them in a positive spirit. We became a fixture in Bath, and our constructive dialogue helped to lift the public discourse.

Among the most damaging legacies of Brexit have been the deepening division in our society and an aggressive culture war that seeks to pit people against each other. Bath for Europe stands for equality and fairness. For example, this spring, the group held a virtual EU citizens fair to support those applying for settled status. Bath for Europe remains a force in our city. The people of Bath will continue to uphold the values of openness, inclusion and international co-operation, and I will use my voice to represent their views in Parliament.

It is important to stress that we should not fight lost battles. No EU membership is now a reality. That does not mean that there are not many millions of people in the UK who believe that our place is at the heart of the European Union. Their voices need to be heard too, and I am one of them. Passionate supporters of a football club do not immediately switch sides to the club who won the premier league. They stay loyal to their side through the years, even through relegation, and prepare for better times.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer
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Does the hon. Lady agree that it is a fundamental of democracy that the losing side accepts the overall result and the winners? That is how democracy works. One does not have to change one’s view, but one has to recognise the result.

Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I absolutely understand that democracy needs to play itself out, and I do not want to reheat the battles that we had for two and a half years in this Parliament.

However, we have argued again and again that the decision made in 2016 was unclear. We need to make it clear and discuss to the end whether what people understood they voted for in 2016 is really what they wanted. The result is now there, I accept that; we had a very clear election result, and we are now no longer members of the European Union. That is why I say that it is no use to now fight lost battles. But we have a passion to be at the heart of the European Union, and almost half of the people of the UK still believed that going into the 2019 election. They have not suddenly gone away. The winning side has to accept that too, therefore the debates that we continue to have here are not undemocratic. They are part of democracy. People have their voices heard.

EU membership at some point in the future continues to be a Liberal Democrat ambition. I firmly believe that our time will come, but in the meantime I will stand up for all EU citizens here in the UK and for UK citizens in Europe, and make sure that they can live with all their rights undiminished. That is what I now fight for: to keep the flame alive that our place as the United Kingdom is at the heart of the European Union. I will not give up on that belief, and I do believe that our time will come.

John Howell Portrait John Howell (Henley) (Con)
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It is a great pleasure to be here. In fact, it is such a pleasure that this is the second debate in a row that I have stayed for. I was down to speak in the first debate and when Mr Speaker’s Trainbearer said, “Do you want to speak in the second one?” I thought, “Yes, I might as well get my Westminster Hall score back up.” In the original referendum—gosh, that was so many years ago—I was somebody who voted remain. When I looked at these petitions—the ones to halt Brexit for a public inquiry, extend the transition, and look at foreign interference—my first reaction was one of utter exasperation. To see that covid was mentioned as the excuse for doing these just defied belief.

There is an organisation in Europe that is far more liberal, in the best sense of the word, and far more open to ideas coming in. That is the Council of Europe. It is also almost twice the size of the EU. Has covid stopped its work? Does covid mean that nobody does any monitoring of the appalling human rights situations that exist in certain countries? I am the rapporteur for Turkey in the Council of Europe, and we are holding—it is difficult—inquiries on Zoom with non-governmental organisations in Turkey to make sure that we understand what the Turkish Government are up to, and to say no to them. So the idea that covid is responsible for this is for the birds. It does not hold any water at all. It is a bit of a cheek, actually, to put all three motions together, particularly given the legal bar on extending the transition. Why on earth we should halt Brexit, I have no idea. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) that it is time to move on, and that is exactly what I want to do. I do not want to sit in this place for another three or four years debating Brexit. I have had enough of that. I had enough of that in the last Parliament, and I do not want to go through it again. The country made that decision spectacularly, and I am not going to do that.

But I would raise one issue: the difficulty that we have of conducting these negotiations in open session. Every negotiation is conducted in open session, with people briefing journalists on either side as we go through. The reason for that is that there is a fundamental problem with the dispute resolution mechanism set up when the withdrawal agreement was agreed in the first place. All the effort in that agreement was down to arbitration, which is not an enclosed area. It should not have been straight into arbitration. They should have had, first of all, a process of mediation which is incredibly discreet. Anyone who has been through a commercial mediation will know that they should not blab to a journalist or anyone else about what is happening during that mediation. If I were doing this again—not that I did it, but if we were going through it again—I would strongly recommend that the Government go for mediation. Of course, it is not in the interests of the EU to do that; it does not understand the concept very well.

That is really all I want to say about this, except for one thing. The hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) mentioned the amount that the leave campaign that was fined. The first organisation to be fined for not keeping the proper accounts and not declaring the right amount was the Liberal Democrats, who were fined £18,000 by the Electoral Commission.

Munira Wilson Portrait Munira Wilson (Twickenham) (LD)
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I wanted to take part in this debate not because I am trying to stop democracy in its tracks or because, as a brand-new Member of Parliament, I have not had the two or three years of debating Brexit and am desperate to have my fair share, but because my consistency of Twickenham appeared in the top 10 constituencies for all three of these petitions. I know from the result of the referendum, in which 67% of my residents voted to remain, and the humbling and overwhelming result in my favour in the general election, which was largely fought on Brexit, when the good people of Twickenham, Teddington, Whitton, St Margarets and the Hamptons put their faith in me, that the majority of my residents are pro-European and they want me to give them a voice. That is what I am here to do.

It is fair to say that, like me, many are heartbroken that we have left the European Union. They genuinely felt that for economic as well as social and emotional reasons that the UK should remain in the European Union. Many of my constituents are, like me, outward-looking and internationalist in perspective, and have enjoyed the freedoms of being able to live and work in the European Union and fall in love without borders, and simply wished the same opportunities for their children.

Of course I accept, with a heavy heart, that we have now left the European Union—I do not deny that the electorate spoke very clearly in December—but I still fundamentally believe that no deal that could be negotiated could be as beneficial as continued membership of the European Union. I am deeply worried about the long-lasting damage that Brexit will cause to this country’s economy and standing in the world.

The petitions refer to covid, and in particular I want to speak about the third, on extending the transition period. I and my party have vociferously called for that not because we do not accept the result and we want to delay it ad infinitum, but because businesses and business organisations—we are talking about not the Council of Europe, but people who are struggling to keep their businesses afloat in the middle of a pandemic, when jobs are being lost hand over fist—have said time and again that, if we were to end up in a no-deal situation at the end of the transition period, it would be impossible for them to put in place all the infrastructure they need for their supply chains.

Jack Brereton Portrait Jack Brereton
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Businesses in my constituency say to me that it is the uncertainty of delay after delay that is causing the most damage to our economy and businesses. Does the hon. Lady agree that a further delay from extending the transition period would only prolong that?

Munira Wilson Portrait Munira Wilson
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There are two types of uncertainty. Crashing out without a deal at the end of the transition period is complete uncertainty, in terms of the unknown. Although there may be some uncertainty from extending the transition period, at least businesses are able to continue to trade easily. One of the issues that I want to touch on is medicines, about which the industry has spoken out very clearly in the past week or so.

The Government’s choosing to pass the deadline for extending the transition period, as we hurtle towards a potential no deal, was reckless and a monumental act of self-harm for this country. I want briefly to touch on three points. First, on the rights of EU citizens and naturalisation, I am concerned, given that we have already seen some rolling back from commitments in the withdrawal agreement, that the rights of UK citizens in the EU and EU citizens in the UK are at risk. In my borough of Richmond upon Thames, we have 14,500 EU nationals who are applying for pre-settled or settled status under the EU citizenship scheme. Back in May, the Home Office snuck out some guidance that made it harder for those with settled status to secure British citizenship. That has thrown several individuals’ futures into the air and, unfortunately, despite my letter on the topic to the Home Secretary on 29 May, I have yet to receive a response.

Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse
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Are we not talking here about the human cost of Brexit? We are talking about uncertainties, but it is important to look not just at business uncertainties but human people’s uncertainties, and the cruel situations that some of them find themselves in.

Munira Wilson Portrait Munira Wilson
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Absolutely. The business situation is also a human situation, because we are talking about the loss of jobs and livelihoods.

I want briefly to touch on agriculture and food standards, because my inbox has been overflowing with emails about this issue and the many concerns of constituents about the potential for undermining those standards as we enter into trade deals. The Liberal Democrats and others have consistently tried to amend the Agriculture Bill on its passage through Parliament to protect our standards, but the Government have refused to acquiesce on the point. In the case of the Trade Bill, they are refusing any democratic or parliamentary scrutiny. I am not sure how that is taking back control.

In the final area I want to touch on, I must declare an interest. Prior to coming to this place, I worked for nine years in the pharmaceutical industry and I still have a small shareholding in Novartis Pharmaceuticals. On medicines and health in general, it is clear that there is no oven-ready deal as promised back in December. In the midst of a pandemic, people are rightly worried about their health and several constituents have written to me about their concerns about the UK leaving the European Medicines Agency at the end of this year and what that might mean for the licensing of a covid vaccine or treatment. They are also concerned about us leaving the EHIC––European health insurance card––scheme that means that we can get treatment abroad and European citizens can get treatment here. The point about medicines and vaccines regulation applies equally to non-covid treatments.

Before anyone intervenes, I appreciate that the Health Secretary has made an announcement today about the UK collaborating with the US, Canada and other regulatory agencies on cancer medicines. That is welcome and I congratulate the Government on that, but we must remember that the UK is only 3% of the global pharmaceutical market, so if we go our own way on medicines, British citizens will be further back in the queue for new medicines and treatments. Let us not forget that. The deal announced today is only for cancer treatments and there are many other disease areas where British citizens risk being left behind and missing out on innovative treatments.

More pressing is the concern raised by European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations and the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry last week. With a supply chain already hit by the challenges of covid during the pandemic, they are very concerned that if we end up with no deal at the end of December, there could be real supply chain issues with medicines crossing the Channel. They have called for an urgent mutual recognition agreement to ensure that important tests and inspections are recognised either side of the Channel.

There is still a lack of clarity about how the Northern Ireland protocol will work in terms of regulated products such as medicines if no trade deal is in place and how medicines shipped from Great Britain to Northern Ireland will be treated on the other side of the border. While the deadline for securing an extension to the transition period has passed––though where there is a will, there is a way, so if there were a last minute change of heart, I am sure that the European Union would be all ears––it is imperative that in the short time remaining we secure the closest possible alignment with the EU in terms of customs, of regulations on medicines and other regulated products and of our food and agricultural standards. And let us not forget people––how we treat our EU citizens and how our citizens are treated in the EU.

Allan Dorans Portrait Allan Dorans (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (SNP)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Thank you, Sir David, for the opportunity to speak in this debate on three very important petitions. Each of them, as you mentioned at the beginning, has been signed by more than 100,000 people, and they show the depth of feeling surrounding these issues. It is also, I believe, a great demonstration of democracy in action that people in the street—the public—can have their views heard in this salubrious building.

With your permission, Sir David, I will briefly address all three petitions. The first is “Halt Brexit For A Public Inquiry”. It 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?”

These questions remain unanswered. A significant focus for this petition is questions of overspending, its affects and the timing of the release of information relative to the triggering of article 50. There is little doubt, as the Electoral Commission insisted, that more than one group broke electoral law and spending limits, in some cases by quite substantial amounts. It is less clear what the effects have been. A poll by Opinium in 2017 suggested that 26% of Brexit voters felt that they had been misled by promises during the campaign, and that voters in that sample would by then have voted 47% to 44% to remain.

With regard to subsequent political acts, this seems a most serious concern. Evidence gathered and analysed by the Institute for Government in March 2019, but also supported by many other commentators since, points to dramatic consequences. This is not the place for the detail, but an introductory paragraph from the report, referring to the effects on Ministers, civil servants, public bodies, money, devolution and Parliament, states:

“In each area, we find that the challenge of negotiating, legislating and implementing Brexit has called into question how government works in the UK. The roles of the Prime Minister and her Cabinet, of civil servants and their departments…and of parliamentarians and the devolved administrations”

have all seen their roles considerably affected and changed significantly during this period.

As for the timing of article 50, it was invoked on 29 March 2017. One month earlier, on 24 February, The Daily Telegraph reported that the Electoral Commission was investigating the spending of Vote Leave and Britain Stronger in Europe, so clearly rumours of an overspend were well known to the Cabinet before article 50 was invoked. It is therefore my belief that there is sufficient doubt about the legitimacy of the referendum result surrounding spending limits and the political processes undertaken during that time to warrant a formal investigation and that Brexit be halted. I therefore fully support the petition to halt Brexit for a public inquiry into these matters.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the points that he is putting on behalf of the petitioners were actually put to the courts in this country on judicial review, and that the courts threw the case out and said it lacked all merit?

Allan Dorans Portrait Allan Dorans
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am aware of that, and I await the outcome with some excitement.

The second petition calls for the establishment of a public inquiry into the conduct of the 2016 EU referendum. It states:

“There is now strong evidence of serious misconduct during the 2016 EU Referendum, including interference by foreign actors and governments. This must be investigated under the Inquiries Act (2005).”

There are certain reports of interference. The Intelligence and Security Committee of this Parliament published a report on the interference and concluded:

“The UK Government have actively avoided looking for evidence that Russia interfered.”

It also concluded that the Government’s response was not fit for purpose. It was unacceptable that the Government delayed the publication of that very important report by a year.

Ciaran Martin, the then head of the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre, confirmed that Russian hackers had attacked British media, telecoms and energy companies over the past year. That the UK Government have regularly avoided looking for evidence is certainly cause for suspicion, but that in itself is not solid evidence of interference. Similarly, their being able only to refer in a press release to suspects as “Russian hackers” does not allow us to form a strong or firm conclusion that foreign actors or Governments were involved.

Where there are strong suspicions in any area of national security in the context of the protection of our democracy, further investigation must take place in the public interest. I believe that that case has been made, based on those strong suspicions; that there is sufficient evidence to warrant an investigation into the circumstances; and that it would be best taken forward by a public inquiry. I therefore add my support to petition 250178, to establish a public inquiry into the conduct of the 2016 referendum.

Finally, the third petition seeks to extend the transition and delay negotiations until after the coronavirus outbreak has been dealt with. The Government must consider delaying negotiations so that they can concentrate on dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, the resultant health, economic and social upheaval and the unprecedented circumstances that we currently face, which can only be dealt with by a Government with a clear, single focus on the problems on a massive scale that have been caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Doing so would necessitate extending the transition period; there can only be a one-off extension, which should be for two years. There is, of course, an obvious case to be made for extending the transition period.

Notwithstanding covid, the UK is clearly not ready for a hard Brexit. Up to 7,000 trucks carrying goods from the UK to the EU might face two-day delays after the Brexit transition, according to a letter from the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Lloyds and Barclays were among the first UK banks to give notice to UK citizens living in the EU, warning them that their accounts will be closed on 31 December unless there is agreement. Border control posts at Northern Ireland ports will almost certainly not be ready in time, according to Stormont Minister Edwin Poots. Make UK estimates that UK firms will have to complete 275 million customer forms, up from 55 million, at a cost that HMRC has estimated at £15 billion a year.

I strongly believe that if we asked the public today whether they think we should delay Brexit, even for those reasons alone, a majority would agree. Some Brexiters would not, of course, as we have heard today—getting Brexit done, for some, is more important than dealing exclusively with the current pandemic that engulfs this country and threatens us all with dire and unimaginable consequences.

Public opinion, especially that influenced by our right-wing media, is not necessarily the best basis for policy development. By the Government’s own admission, any deal would be only a bare-bones trade agreement. Their own analysis says that there will be a GDP hit of up to 9% over the next 15 years if we further disadvantage our economy as we seek to recover from covid. All those factors require the undivided attention of Government, without the distraction of contentious negotiations about the arrangements to be put in place at the end of the current transition period. I therefore add my support to petition 300412, to extend the transition and delay negotiations until the coronavirus outbreak is brought properly under control.

Paul Blomfield Portrait Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to wind up for the Opposition with you in the Chair, Sir David. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mike Hill) for the way in which he opened up our discussion, and other hon. Members for their contributions to the debate.

The concerns raised in the petitions probably reflect the time at which they were launched, which was several months ago. The priority now is to look at the challenges that we face with just weeks to go before the deal that we need on our future relationship with the European Union has to be concluded.

On the issues raised in petition 300412, Labour pressed the Government, perhaps with some prescience, to give themselves some flexibility, when Parliament debated the withdrawal agreement Bill, and we tabled an amendment to that effect just in case unforeseen events might lead to the Government needing some wriggle room. I have to say that at that time we did not anticipate a global pandemic, but nevertheless we made that case. Our amendment was rejected, and the departure date was locked in law. The Government could have changed it before 1 July, but they did not, and neither did the European Union propose a delay.

We left the EU on 31 January, and we will leave the transition period on 31 December. We accept that completely, so I have to say that I share some of the exasperation of the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell)—if not for the same reason—at some of the contributions from Government Members and the allegations that they are making about the position of the Opposition. They should—we all should—have some humility and some honesty in looking back at the paralysis in Parliament over the last four years, and recognise that many of the delays were caused by the way in which the Conservative party was tearing itself apart on this issue and that some of those who delayed a deal being reached were those described, I think, by a former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer as the Brexit extremists within his own party. Indeed, the Prime Minister was utilising the issue as he egged them on in his rise to power. But we are now into the final month of negotiations, and both the UK Government and the EU are clearly seeking a resolution within weeks to secure the deal that we need by 31 December.

The other two petitions raise real concerns, and they were clearly exacerbated by the Government’s handling of the report from Parliament’s Conservative-chaired Intelligence and Security Committee, the publication of which was deliberately and unnecessarily delayed by the Prime Minister until after the general election. It was damning in its conclusion that the Government

“had not seen or sought evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes”.

As one of its members said when the report was published in July,

“The report reveals that no one in government knew if Russia interfered in or sought to influence the referendum, because they did not want to know.”

There are real issues that deserve consideration, but they cannot halt Brexit, as the petitioners seek, because we have, as a number of Members have acknowledged, already left the European Union. That is the result of the mandate that the Government received in last December’s election, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) mentioned, but it is only one half of the mandate. The other half is to deliver the deal that the Prime Minister promised the British people. That pledged an

“ambitious, wide-ranging and balanced economic partnership”,


“no tariffs, fees, charges or quantitative restrictions across all sectors”.

It pledged a deal that would safeguard

“workers’ rights, consumer and environmental protection”

and keep people safe with a

“broad, comprehensive and balanced security partnership.”

That was not a proposal or a wish list, but an agreement—and one that was ready to sign off. In the Prime Minister’s words,

“We’ve got a deal that’s oven-ready. We’ve just got to put it in at gas mark four, give it 20 minutes and Bob’s your uncle.”

Originally, he said that it would be done by July, despite the pandemic, and then, forgetting his words, that it would be done by September. That came and went too, so he set a new ultimatum of mid-October, which he then dropped over the weekend after his conversation with the European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen.

As a number of Members have said, businesses need clarity. The Government are providing confusion. The same incompetence that we have seen in the handling of the pandemic is now threatening jobs and the security of our country through the handling of these negotiations.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

In previous debates during this long discussion, my hon. Friend and I have disagreed. Today, I essentially agree with the approach that he has taken, but is he not being a little asymmetric? It is his job to attack the Government and criticise and analyse what they do, but does he not feel that one reason why there is not an agreement now is that the EU has withdrawn what it offered right at the beginning—a Canada-style agreement—and has also withdrawn the recognition of this country as a third country, which was previously on offer?

Paul Blomfield Portrait Paul Blomfield
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. He is right that we have not always agreed on these issues over the last four years, but we are in roughly the same place now, in wanting to secure a deal by December—not just any deal but the deal that the Government have pledged. That deal was not described by the Prime Minister as something that might be achieved; he said it was there, ready to go and we just had to press the button. I will return to the specific question of Canada, because it is important.

Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Is it not also true that it is unfair to say that Brexit was not done in the last three years because of all the people who wanted to delay it, when it was the Tories and the Conservative Government who did not get the deal done? They dithered and argued among themselves, and even decapitated their own Prime Minister. Is it not true that the Conservative party was also to blame for Brexit not getting done for such a long time?

Paul Blomfield Portrait Paul Blomfield
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Indeed, that is the point I was making a moment ago. The agony within the Conservative party, as it tore itself apart, was a significant delaying factor in getting the deal done.

As a number of Members have said, businesses require certainty. We welcomed the Minister back to her place at Cabinet Office questions last Thursday, and I am delighted to see her on the Front Bench today. I will ask her four specific questions, to which I would be grateful for a reply in her closing remarks.

First, can the Minister guarantee to the automotive sector that it will not face any tariffs from 1 January, in accordance with the Prime Minister’s promise, despite the apparent decision by the Government not to press to secure an agreement on rules of origin?

Secondly, can the Minister assure the financial and legal sectors, which are hugely important to our economy, that the Government’s deal will allow them to do business without new barriers, as the Prime Minister promised?

Thirdly, can the Minister guarantee that there will be no weakening of the arrangements that we have had within the European Union to keep the UK safe from serious international crime and terrorism, and, in particular, that we will retain access to systems such as the European criminal records information system, which shares data about prior convictions across EU countries?

Finally, returning to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer), given that the Government have insisted that they want a Canada-style deal, which raises the question of why that is off the table, would the Minister confirm that the Government would be willing to accept the non-regression clause provisions within the EU-Canada deal on workers’ rights and environmental protections? Those are precisely the points that were ripped out of the withdrawal agreement after the December election. If the Government were prepared to accept those, it would be a gamechanger in the negotiations.

Those are straightforward questions because they are all based on promises made by the Prime Minister, so it should be relatively simple for the Minister to say yes to each one of them. If not—I hate to think it—the Government might not have been telling the truth.

The coronavirus pandemic, which is referenced in e-petition 300412, makes it even more important that the Government deliver the deal that the Prime Minister promised, to support jobs, the security of our country, business and people’s livelihoods. As we look to the future, rebuilding from the devastating impact of the virus, we cannot face the additional problems of a disruptive departure from the transition. Covid-19 has taken people’s bandwidth in the civil service, politics and the EU. Businesses have not been able to prepare in the way that they would otherwise have done, because their capacity has been stretched.

It was unfortunate that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, in his recent statement to the House, tried to point the finger of blame at businesses for not being prepared. They are not helped by the unanswered questions that remain. Businesses around the country have reasonable questions about trade not only in goods, but in services. The agricultural sector has questions about health, food safety, standards and checks. The hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) talked about the problems of the pharmaceutical sector. I have talked to many other sectors in my role. Businesses representing critical sectors of the economy simply cannot get a hearing from this Government.

The Government have maintained throughout the coronavirus crisis that they could deliver a deal in the timeframe they have allotted themselves. They will be judged by that promise. As it stands at the moment, they need to get a grip and deliver the deal: not any deal, but the deal they promised last December; the deal that we need for the country to move on.

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 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.

Mike Hill Portrait Mike Hill
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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.

Sitting adjourned.