Debates between Chris Heaton-Harris and Paul Blomfield

There have been 4 exchanges between Chris Heaton-Harris and Paul Blomfield

1 Wed 20th March 2019 No-deal EU Exit Preparations
Department for Exiting the European Union
3 interactions (543 words)
2 Mon 4th February 2019 Leaving the European Union
Department for Exiting the European Union
12 interactions (2,118 words)
3 Mon 19th November 2018 Leaving the European Union
Department for Exiting the European Union
6 interactions (2,346 words)
4 Mon 10th September 2018 Vote Leave Campaign: Electoral Law
Department for Exiting the European Union
2 interactions (2,311 words)

No-deal EU Exit Preparations

Debate between Chris Heaton-Harris and Paul Blomfield
Wednesday 20th March 2019

(1 year, 6 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Department for Exiting the European Union
Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris - Parliament Live - Hansard
20 Mar 2019, 2:22 p.m.

I found it interesting that my hon. Friend was barracked by Opposition Members for pointing out how strong our country’s economy was. I would have thought they would be proud of that.

I hope that in my opening answer I gave the House a sense of how much preparation the Government have done since August 2016, although preparations have of course been ramped up in the last few months. I will list a handful of points: more than 550 no-deal communications have been sent out since August 2018; we have had 300 stake- holder engagements since February; we have been signing international agreements with our trading partners and rolling over others; 11,000 people are working on EU exit policy and programmes across Government; a number of IT programmes are ready to go should we need to activate them; and we have published the HMRC partnership pack containing more than 100 pages of guidance for businesses on process and procedures at the border in a no-deal scenario. The Government have been preparing assiduously and quietly behind the scenes for no deal, but we want to get a deal over the line; that is the most important thing for us.

Paul Blomfield Portrait Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab) - Parliament Live - Hansard
20 Mar 2019, 2:24 p.m.

I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting the urgent question.

The hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) talked about the wishes of the House, and he was right to do so, but the House has twice ruled out leaving the EU without a deal and twice rejected the Government’s deal by historic margins. It is simply unacceptable that the Prime Minister continues to doggedly press ahead with her Hobson’s choice of her deal or no deal. Resilience is an admirable quality; obstinacy is not. Does the Minister recognise that by their approach the Government risk being considered in contempt of the House yet again?

The Government’s energy at this critical time should be going to find a way forward that can command the support of the House and the country and that is not the Prime Minister’s flawed deal, which the Government themselves have said would shrink the economy by 4%. The situation requires flexibility and the Government reaching out across the House, and that includes flexibility on the length of the extension of article 50. The Chancellor for the Duchy of Lancaster said last Thursday of a 30 June extension:

“In the absence of a deal, seeking such a short and, critically, one-off extension would be downright reckless and completely at odds with the position that this House adopted”—[Official Report, 14 March 2019; Vol. 656, c. 566.]

Does the Minister agree that rather than this focus on no deal, the Prime Minister’s priority should now be to create opportunities for the House to consider all the options available to get the country out of the impasse she has created?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris - Parliament Live - Hansard
20 Mar 2019, 2:27 p.m.

I think the hon. Gentleman will find that a lot of hon. Members sitting behind him represent seats that voted to leave the EU in big numbers and would be surprised to hear that Her Majesty’s Opposition are trying to stop that happening. As I said in my opening answer, the legal default is that the UK will leave the EU without a deal unless an alternative is agreed. No agreed extension will change this fact.

Leaving the European Union

Debate between Chris Heaton-Harris and Paul Blomfield
Monday 4th February 2019

(1 year, 7 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Department for Exiting the European Union
Paul Blomfield Portrait Paul Blomfield - Hansard
4 Feb 2019, 5:44 p.m.

We could measure the pound at different points, but the hon. Gentleman will know that the pound has fallen since we took the decision to leave. That produced a short-term benefit in additional exports, although the consequences are now beginning to have an effect, because the component parts of many of those exports are now coming in at higher prices. We could debate these issues for a long time. However, I do not think anyone has yet argued successfully against my contention—the Chancellor’s contention—that no deal would be a disaster for the country. That, of course, is why Parliament has voted twice now against leaving without a deal.

After what happened with the phasing of the negotiations, the transition and the ridiculous mantra on no deal, we are here again, with article 50. Every time the Prime Minister is confronted with the growing reality that 29 March may not be a feasible departure date, she insists that we are still leaving. She seems to be in some sort of parallel universe, which is not occupied by many of her Cabinet. The Foreign Secretary said on Thursday that we might need some extra time. The Justice Secretary told The Daily Telegraph that he agreed, and it reported that nine Cabinet Ministers believe it, too. The ever-thoughtful Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington), wrote yesterday that

“we have to grasp the nettle of an extended article 50 period”.

I shall be interested to know, when the Minister responds to the debate, which side of that argument within the Conservative party he is on.

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union (Chris Heaton-Harris) - Hansard
4 Feb 2019, 5:45 p.m.

You have to ask?

Paul Blomfield Portrait Paul Blomfield - Hansard
4 Feb 2019, 5:45 p.m.

We will come to that shortly.

When she is questioned, the Prime Minister just keeps hitting the repeat button. She knows it is nonsense and, what is worse, she knows that everybody knows she knows it is nonsense. It did not have to be like this. The hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) has highlighted the original drafting of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. There was provision for multiple exit days for multiple purposes, which was sensible. It was the Government’s proposal.

However, to throw some red meat to those whom the Chancellor described as the Brexit “extremists” of the European Research Group, the Government fixed 29 March on the face of the Bill for all purposes. It was a gimmick, and a time-consuming and irresponsible one. The Opposition told the Prime Minister that it was a legislative straitjacket and that the Act would have to be amended. We tried to help her out, and tabled amendments to that effect, but the Government rejected them. They rejected proposals that would have given Parliament control over the dates.

The Prime Minister is now preparing to return to Brussels, following last week’s vote. The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam talks about the EU giving some flexibility. Let us just remember what the Prime Minister is returning to do. She is going to ask the EU 27 to change the backstop that they did not want, but that she pressed them hard to accept. The backstop is a UK Government proposal. We can imagine their bewilderment when, having conceded it when pressed by the Prime Minister, they will face her telling them “You know that backstop? We have got to change it.”

Break in Debate

Paul Blomfield Portrait Paul Blomfield - Hansard
4 Feb 2019, 5:53 p.m.

The hon. Gentleman raises a much broader question. There would not be fees in relation to the customs union, but, as the Government have acknowledged, there clearly will be payments for other schemes and partnerships that we might want to be part of; the Minister might want to comment on that. There are no fees in relation to the customs union, but there would be if we were to be part of the Horizon 2020 framework programme 9 on research across the European continent. We would pay something in and we would get something out.

There are many other schemes, if we were part of the agencies and partnerships: take Euratom, the European Atomic Energy Community. We are spending an enormous amount of money replicating arrangements that we could have continued to benefit from as a member of Euratom. There is no additional benefit to the UK in that; it is just a separation of functions because of the obsession with the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, which has never ruled on anything relating to Euratom that would be of any concern to the United Kingdom.

My point is that, at that juncture after the referendum, there was an opportunity to reach out to the majority that existed in Parliament for a sensible Brexit. I campaigned to remain, but I recognise the outcome of the referendum. Instead, the Prime Minister let the ERG set the agenda, set the red lines and box her in, leading to the deeply damaging proposal that the House so overwhelmingly rejected a couple of weeks ago. She is putting her party before her country, just as David Cameron did before her, and the country is facing the consequences.

It is not too late. As an Opposition, we are willing to talk about that sensible Brexit deal—a relationship with a customs union, single market, rights and protections, agencies and partnerships. To answer a question that I was anticipating the hon. Member for St Albans would ask, although she did not: if the Prime Minister will not go there, we will consider the option of a further public vote to break the impasse. Nevertheless, whatever happens over the next seven weeks, we cannot and should not rule out an extension of article 50.

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union (Chris Heaton-Harris) - Hansard
4 Feb 2019, 5:54 p.m.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. You have obviously heard my speech many times before; I believe that is why you are just about to scoot off to do better things. I thank you for the generous way in which you have chaired the debate. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) for the thoughtful way in which he introduced the debate. He, like me, campaigned to leave; he, like me, knows that there are many different ways of leaving, but that the British people gave an instruction to their Government, and he, like me, knows that the Government are intent on delivering on it.

I should answer a couple of the points raised in the debate. It is always a pleasure to hear the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) telling us that we cannot cancel Brexit; in general, the Lib Dem policy is, “We can’t cancel it, so we’ll try any other means whatever, parliamentary or otherwise, of undermining that result.” Realistically, I struggle with the Lib Dems when they say pretty much anything, because I remember in 2010 their campaigning vehemently to get rid of tuition fees and then, as soon as they got into Government, doing exactly the reverse. She says she is not campaigning to cancel Brexit now, but I absolutely know that she is, so I think she should be a bit more honest in the debate.

Break in Debate

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris - Hansard
4 Feb 2019, 6 p.m.

I absolutely do not. I just wish that the hon. Lady’s party was as honest as her.

I always enjoy debating with the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield), as I do with anybody from the Labour party Front Bench, because it is interesting to see which part of the Labour party they are from. Is he from the bit that wants a second referendum? Does he agree with his party’s leader that article 50 should have been activated the day after the referendum? Is he part of the democratic socialist movement, which actually believes that the result of the referendum should be respected? Or is he from the authoritarian or the metropolitan intelligentsia parts of the Labour party, which believe that the people got this completely wrong?

The hon. Gentleman is a wise pro-European of long standing and is principled on these matters. I do not doubt his sincerity. However, again, I struggle with his party’s position, which seems to be ever changing. [Interruption.] Those outside must have heard that I had started speaking; I like to get that sort of response.

It is fascinating to see people talk about taking no deal off the table, as the hon. Gentleman did. That is not the wisest thing to do in any negotiation.

Paul Blomfield Portrait Paul Blomfield - Hansard
4 Feb 2019, 6:02 p.m.

If the Minister thinks that that is not the wisest thing to do, why did the Chancellor reassure businesses that that is exactly what is happening?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris - Hansard
4 Feb 2019, 6:04 p.m.

Because we are working towards a deal. There is a deal on the table. When Parliament took back control last Tuesday, it actually gave some indication that there is a possible deal out there. The Government want to deliver a deal, but a responsible Government plan for all eventualities. We are planning for a no-deal eventuality, just as the European Commission and the 27 other EU member states say they are in all the announcements that they make about what might happen in a no-deal circumstance. That should give the hon. Gentleman some limited comfort that a no-deal situation will not be as bad as he fears.

The hon. Gentleman wants to take no deal off the table, for the reason that it would be disastrous for the economy. To extend that logic to its obvious conclusion, I take it that he will try to persuade fellow Labour MPs not to contest the 2022 general election. We all know that a Labour Government lead to worsening economic conditions and make people poorer in general. If we should not do anything that makes people potentially poorer, the obvious conclusion is that he should not stand as a candidate in that general election. I thought he might want to rise to respond to that, but I understand if he wants to go for a cup of tea.

I thank all those who participated in today’s debate, and Clive Grenville, who set up the petition. He should be pleased with the number of people who signed it. Fundamentally, it asks the Government to respect the outcome of the 2016 referendum and deliver our withdrawal from the European Union, which millions voted for. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam and those who signed the petition that the Government remain committed to delivering on the instruction given to us by the British people to leave. We remain clear that our policy is not to revoke article 50, or to extend it, delay or hold a second referendum on exit.

Paul Blomfield Portrait Paul Blomfield - Hansard
4 Feb 2019, 6:04 p.m.

For the sake of absolute clarity, is the Minister saying that there are no circumstances whatever in which the Government will seek an extension of article 50?

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris - Hansard
4 Feb 2019, 6:07 p.m.

I will carefully repeat what I just said: we—the Government—remain clear that our policy is not to revoke article 50, extend it, delay or hold a second referendum on exit. Perhaps it will help the debate if I re-outline the now very familiar reasons why the Government have taken this position. I remind hon. Members of the immense progress we have made towards delivering the exit that we, as a Government and as a Parliament, were entrusted to deliver.

First, let me deal with the overarching question of revoking article 50. As I have made clear, the Government’s policy remains that we should not and will not revoke our article 50 notice to withdraw from the European Union. To revoke article 50 would betray not only the vote of the British people in 2016, but the mandates on which the majority of us were elected at the last general election. I emphasise again to hon. Members the strength of the mandate and the clarity of the instruction given to us by the 2016 referendum, which illustrates why we must respect the result and why the Government’s policy is not to revoke article 50.

In the summer of 2016, millions of people came out to have their say, trusting that their vote would count and that, after years of feeling ignored by politicians, their voices would be heard. The referendum enjoyed a higher turnout than any previous referendum, with 17.4 million people voting to leave the European Union. That is the highest number of votes cast for anything in UK electoral history, and the biggest democratic mandate for a course of action ever directed at any UK Government. As I have reminded the shadow Minister and the House, the passion with which people voted was quite extraordinary. Those of us who toured polling stations on the day will remember pencilgate: people refused to put their cross in the box using a pencil, for fear that the Government would rub it out. The battles over trying to get a pen into a polling station to vote with were quite extraordinary.

Leaving the European Union

Debate between Chris Heaton-Harris and Paul Blomfield
Monday 19th November 2018

(1 year, 10 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Department for Exiting the European Union
Paul Blomfield Portrait Paul Blomfield - Hansard
19 Nov 2018, 6:41 p.m.

I do; it is a reflection of the corner into which the Prime Minister has painted herself.

Petitioners should be reassured that we, as Opposition parties, will work across the House to ensure that we do not face a no-deal scenario. When the deal is inevitably voted down, the Prime Minister must follow the direction of the House. She has been intent on denying Parliament a truly meaningful vote, just as we have been intent on securing it. We will not accept the premise that she is trying to present —“It is my deal or no deal, take it or leave it, like it or lump it”—and nor will Parliament. When the deal is voted down, we need maximum flexibility and all options on the table.

We will demand a general election, as hon. Members would expect, and I hope that some Conservative MPs, although perhaps understandably reluctant to vote for one after their last outing, may come to realise that it would be in the interest of the country to break the deadlock. If they do not, then all other options must be kept open, including a public vote that would include remain as an option on the ballot paper.

The Government have spent the last two and a half years putting the interests of their party before the interests of the country, pursuing a divisive split from the EU rather than seeking to build a new and close relationship, and negotiating within their warring party rather than negotiating effectively with the European Union. They have failed the country. Our people need and deserve better, and this Parliament will need to ensure that they get it.

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union (Chris Heaton-Harris) - Hansard
19 Nov 2018, 6:44 p.m.

This is the first time I have served under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. You are a near neighbour of mine in constituency terms and used to represent a huge chunk of my constituency. I know I do not do as good a job as a constituency Member of Parliament as you did, but I hope I can at least be good and behave myself in front of you as Chairman of this debate. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, as it was to serve under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale).

I have learned many things during this debate. The first thing is never to drink a litre of water over a three-hour debate, but that is by the bye. I learned the power of a petition, because we have had a good and, on the whole, constructive debate. I commend Ciaran O’Doherty, the lead petitioner, because it is a big step to do this sort of thing, and to get the publicity that has gone with it. He should be congratulated in many areas, because without any mass of publicity, his petition has breached the 100,000 mark. Sky is trying to get a petition about leaders’ debates—a petition that I am in favour of—which it advertises on a regular basis on its news broadcasts, and which now sits at 70,000-odd signatures, so Ciaran O’Doherty should be very much congratulated on getting the number of names on his petition that he did.

I also congratulate the Petitions Committee on arranging this debate, and the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) on sponsoring it. I have enjoyed listening to many of the contributions, and I thank the hon. Lady especially for the polite and sensitive way in which she introduced the debate. I will talk about many of the questions she raised, especially around no deal, which other people call “leaving the EU on WTO terms”, and one of my colleagues calls a “global British leave.”

I should state at the beginning that no one is talking about introducing a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. We will not do so, and the Irish Taoiseach has said again today that Ireland will not. That is not on the table. I will pick up the points that the hon. Lady very properly mentioned about the concerns of EU citizens in the event of us leaving on WTO terms. As the Prime Minister said, these people are our friends, neighbours and co-workers, and

“EU citizens living lawfully in the UK today”

will be entitled, and welcome, to stay.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns) for her contribution. As ever, she hid her views under a bushel; I wish she would just tell people where she stands on issues. As ever, she strongly represents the people who voted for her in her constituency when she won it at the general election, and her constituents’ views on these matters. Her point about trust in politics, a fair point that was echoed by a number of other speakers, was particularly well made.

I listened to what the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) had to say about EU citizens’ rights. There is a careful balance to be struck here, because there have been a whole host of assurances from senior politicians, I think on both sides of the House, that EU citizens currently resident and working in the United Kingdom would be welcome to stay here under a no deal, and the Prime Minister has already pledged that under a deal. I think the hon. Lady may have been slightly confused, if I may be so bold, as to the bit of the withdrawal agreement that she read out; that was an inner deal, a reciprocal way that both we and the European Union will deal with EU citizens living in the United Kingdom and UK citizens living in the EU. I will happily write to her, or have a chat with her afterwards, to clarify that.

Break in Debate

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris - Hansard
19 Nov 2018, 6:48 p.m.

Yes, I do think the right hon. Gentleman is being a bit pedantic. As ever, I thank the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) for his wise counsel and his contribution, which outlined many of the issues mentioned by the hon. Member for Wigan. I am also grateful for the Front-Bench speeches from the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) and the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant).

The UK and EU have taken quite a decisive step forward since the petition was launched. We have agreed, in principle, the terms of the UK’s smooth and orderly exit from the European Union, as set out in the withdrawal agreement. We have also agreed the broad terms of our future relationship, as set out in the political declaration.

It is worth reiterating what the agreement means, in relation to both the withdrawal agreement and our future relationship with the European Union. It means a whole host of things and answers many of the questions that many Members across the political divide have raised over the past two years. It secures the rights of more than 3 million EU citizens living in the United Kingdom, and about 1 million UK nationals living in the European Union, to continue living in those countries. It guarantees the terms of a time-limited implementation period, which provides the certainty to UK businesses that they have been telling us—as everyone in this Chamber has told us—that they need. It ensures a financial settlement that the Government believe to be fair. It confirms Gibraltar’s inclusion in the withdrawal agreement, including in the implementation period.

A mechanism to resolve any disputes between the UK and the EU in future has been agreed. Crucially, the agreement preserves the economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom, upholding the Belfast agreement. A lot has been achieved by the Government and the Prime Minister in the past weeks and months, whether people have enjoyed the headlines of the past few days or not.

On the future relationship, the draft political declaration means that we have also agreed in principle with the European Union on a free trade area for goods with zero tariffs, on no quotas, and on deep regulatory and customs co-operation, which will protect British businesses and the companies that support people’s jobs and livelihoods—companies such as those mentioned by the hon. Member for Wigan. Common ground has been reached on our intention to have a close relationship on services and investment, including financial services; on the desire for wide-ranging sectoral co-operation, including on transport and energy; and on fisheries, recognising that the UK will be an independent coastal state.

Consensus has also been reached on key elements of the future internal security partnership. There will be swift and effective extradition arrangements, and we will continue data exchange on fingerprints, DNA and vehicle records, as well as passenger name records—a whole host of things that not only the Opposition but the Scottish National party have asked for in the past. On foreign, security and defence policy, we have agreed arrangements for consultation and co-operation on sanctions, participation in missions and operations, defence capability development and intelligence exchanges.

While the legal agreements that will establish the future relationship can be negotiated only once the UK is a third country—when we have left the European Union—the full political declaration will provide a precise set of instructions to negotiators. The withdrawal agreement includes a legally binding commitment that ensures that both sides will use their best endeavours to negotiate in good faith the detailed arrangements that will give effect to the future relationship.

As we have always said, Parliament will have the opportunity to vote on the deal reached with the European Union once the full political declaration has been agreed, which will hopefully happen very soon at the summit. Once Parliament has approved the final deal, we will introduce the EU withdrawal agreement Bill. That will implement in UK law our international commitments, as set out in the withdrawal agreement, including on issues rightly raised by Opposition Members such as citizens’ rights, the financial settlement and the time-limited implementation period. It will simply be about domestically implementing commitments agreed in the withdrawal agreement as we bridge to our future relationship.

Those of us who have spent any time in the European Parliament—I spent 10 years there as a MEP; I know that the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) is an expert on negotiations at the European level—know that nobody will ever get everything that they want from a negotiation. However, there is a deal is on the table that is worth looking at seriously. I gently challenge the hon. Gentleman to say whether he actually believes that his party leader and Front Benchers really believe that their six tests on what is a workable outcome for the Labour party will ever be satisfied. I think he intimated that the Opposition may be a bit more interested in having a general election than in getting a decent deal with our European partners.

Paul Blomfield Portrait Paul Blomfield - Hansard
19 Nov 2018, 7:02 p.m.

I would thank the Minister for allowing me to intervene, but he invited me to do so. I simply respond by asking whether he agrees that, as our six tests were ones that the Prime Minister said she was determined to meet, they are a reasonable basis for assessing the deal.

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait Chris Heaton-Harris - Hansard
19 Nov 2018, 7:03 p.m.

I do, and I believe that the Prime Minister believes that she has not only very firmly hit those six tests on the head, but has planted that nail well into the plank of wood. The question is whether Labour’s is a political choice to try to get a general election, or whether it is interested in delivering the best deal in the national interest.

However, that is a bit too political for the tone I was trying to strike. I will make some points on our contingency planning in case the deal does not work out. While the chances of no deal have been reduced considerably, the Government will always do the responsible thing and prepare for all eventualities in case a final agreement cannot be reached. Extensive work to prepare for no deal has been under way for more than two years, and we are taking the necessary steps to ensure that the country continues to operate smoothly from the day we leave.

Our objective in such a scenario would be to minimise disruption by taking unilateral action to prioritise continuity and stability, wherever possible and appropriate to do so. We recognise that, in a no-deal scenario, citizens and businesses would need time to prepare themselves. We published 106 specific technical notices across the summer to help businesses, citizens and consumers do exactly that. We have already passed laws to ensure that we are ready for such a scenario, such as the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, the Nuclear Safeguards Act 2018 and the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018. We have also signed a number of critical international agreements. On nuclear co-operation, we have signed agreements with the US, Australia and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Every Government Department has been working for nearly two years to prepare for a no-deal scenario, with a huge amount of taxpayers’ money having been spent on this insurance policy. However, there are a number of concerns about how to mitigate some of the potential problems at our borders. The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington has disappeared; how annoying. I wanted to point out that he was probably the only person in the room who listened to the Senate debate in the French Assembly about what our French partners are doing to prepare for a no-deal scenario. It is actually quite important that we do the same as them. They have given Ministers emergency powers to ensure the flow of trade across the short straits by increasing the number of border officers and border checkpoints, introducing a border inspection point for agri-goods and a whole host of other things. We must obviously take this in the round.

Going back to the petition, I am afraid that I will disappoint the petitioner and the hon. Member for Blaydon, but I do not think that either will be surprised. Britain will leave the European Union on 29 March next year. The people of the United Kingdom gave the Government—all of us—a clear instruction: they want to leave the European Union. The Government respect that decision.

Vote Leave Campaign: Electoral Law

Debate between Chris Heaton-Harris and Paul Blomfield
Monday 10th September 2018

(2 years ago)

Westminster Hall
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Department for Exiting the European Union
Paul Blomfield Portrait Paul Blomfield - Hansard
10 Sep 2018, 5:21 p.m.

I take your point, Sir Roger. I think every aspect of the Government’s handling of the negotiations and the post-referendum process has been reckless, so I sympathise with the petitioners’ frustration. I now turn to the subject of the petition.

The Electoral Commission’s serious findings about Vote Leave have to be and are being fully investigated by the police. All those who are running the organisation or are associated with it at its heart should co-operate fully with the inquiry. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge pointed out, they did not do so during the Electoral Commission’s investigation. I hope the Minister agrees that sitting and former Ministers who worked with Vote Leave during the referendum campaign must co-operate fully with the police investigation, and that their adherence with the ministerial code during their time working with Vote Leave should be the subject of a full investigation. I look forward to hearing his comments on those points.

It is vital that the investigation is allowed to take its course, and there must be the possibility of criminal charges. Trust in politics is low—a number of hon. Members made the point that fake news and disinformation pose a very real threat to our democracy—so we cannot brush aside dishonesty in our political system.

Article 50 has been triggered, beginning the two-year process of our withdrawal—my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge spent some time talking about that. I recognise that there is discussion around the question, but I accept the view that, legally, it could be revoked if there were political consensus that it should be. However, we cannot revoke it on the basis of this petition. It is difficult to know exactly what influenced voters. The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) said—I think I am quoting him rightly—that the referendum was won by cheating. Clearly there was cheating, but it is not clear that the referendum was won by it. We cannot be certain, and we cannot credibly say that overspending in the region of half a million pounds definitely swung the result one way or the other.

We need tough sanctions on those who break the law. The Electoral Commission is right to seek much larger fines and much greater retribution against those who bring our democratic system into disrepute, and there must be criminal prosecutions where appropriate. I understand why the petitioners feel it is nonsense—the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk made this point—that the result should stand if there has been cheating. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge cited the example of the parliamentary election of Oldham East and Saddleworth that was overturned, but he also made the point that we have to be guided by the law. Although the law provides for that option in relation to parliamentary elections, it does not provide for it in relation to referendums. There is a case for having a much wider inquiry, but as it stands the case for overturning the referendum has not been made.

Far from strengthening our democracy, disregarding the vote simply on the basis of this issue risks further undermining trust in our political system. That is why the Opposition’s focus is on pressing the Government to reach out to the majority in the country, not the minority in their party, and to reach a deal in the country’s interest. The Opposition have ruled nothing out, but our focus is on ensuring that the divisions in the Conservative party do not lead us to crash out of the European Union without a deal in the autumn. If the deal does not meet our six tests on co-operation, the economy, migration, rights and protections, national security and the interests of the regions and nations, we will vote it down. The Prime Minister said she accepts those tests, but time is running out for her to meet them.

Chris Heaton-Harris Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union (Chris Heaton-Harris) - Hansard
10 Sep 2018, 5:26 p.m.

It is a huge pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, as ever, Sir Roger. Actually, I think this is the first time I have served under your chairmanship as a Minister. I hope I do not somehow incur the wrath that the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) faced. I will stay completely in order throughout the debate.

I thank the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) for opening the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee. He said that he did so in an “even-handed” way—actually, he did, and he should be congratulated on that. I guess I should caveat that by saying that it was relatively even-handed, but it was a very good job well done, and I congratulate him on representing the views of the people who signed the petition.

I thank all hon. Members who participated in the debate. There is a decent number of them here, considering the competition in the main Chamber. There were interventions from my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami) and the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake)—it is a shame he has left, because I was fascinated by his idea of an independent arbiter to stop incorrect statements. I thought it was odd for a Lib Dem politician to attempt to silence his own party’s election machine, but so be it.

There were also interventions from the hon. Members for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) and for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West). In fact, she and I debated during the European referendum campaign in a room not too far from here. I would like to think that, had she been here now, she would at least agree that our debate was fairly well educated—certainly, the people in the audience were, and they informed the debate very well indeed—and very balanced. Good debates did happen during the referendum campaign, and I am sure many hon. Members in this Chamber participated in them on either side of the argument.

I thank the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), and I recognise her long-standing and very principled position on the matter of leaving the European Union. She is a passionate pro-European, and I respect her for that completely. When I was a Member of the European Parliament, I debated with lots of people in a similar position, and I never fell out with them once because I completely understood that they were sticking to principled positions. I just happened to disagree with their position. I very much welcome what she said about wishing to get a good deal for the country and scrutinising the deal when it comes before the House. I thank her for those words.

I thank the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for his contribution. He made some interesting points, which were probably more for Cabinet Office Ministers than for the Parliamentary Under-Secretary in the Department for Exiting the European Union, but I will pass them on. The hon. Member for Cambridge made similar points about the rules of referendums. I will ensure that those points are passed on so that he can be assured that they will be taken into account in any future debate on the rules of referendums.

I thank the official Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield). I have known him for a long time—alas, slightly too long, really. I disagree with him too on much of what he said, but I know that he speaks from a principled position. He is passionate about this subject and I respect him for that.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments about how Chequers has moved the negotiations and this debate on. It will be interesting to see where his party—the Opposition—gets to in its debate on such matters. I tend to think that the majority of his constituents and mine are in a slightly different place from us. No matter how they voted, they just want this noisy debate to end and they want us to get on with the very detailed job of leaving the European Union in March next year.

A great deal of the passion that people feel about the referendum result was expressed by the hon. Member for Cambridge. I remember it distinctly. In many constituencies—the hon. Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin) might recall this in his own—“pencilgate” caused a problem during the referendum. People were worried about marking their cross with a pencil because they thought that the Government might change how they voted. There was passion on both sides of the argument, and it would be foolish of us to ignore that passion.

I also thank all those who signed the petition. It was a good-sized petition, with 200,000 signatures, including nearly 300 people in my own constituency of Daventry. The petition calls for article 50 to be revoked if any electoral laws are found to have been broken during the 2016 referendum. It highlights two issues: the conduct of the referendum, and the revocation of our notice to withdraw from the European Union under article 50. I shall deal with each in turn.

I emphasise first that it is not acceptable for any organisation to breach electoral procedures, and it is regrettable that fines have been levied on multiple groups on both sides of the referendum campaign. Electoral law must be followed, and its breaches must be dealt with decisively. The Electoral Commission’s use of its sanctioning powers shows that it is doing that vital job. However, breaches did happen on both sides, I guess. A number of pro-remain organisations have also already been fined by the Electoral Commission for breaking referendum law, including the Liberal Democrats, Open Britain, Best for Our Future and a host of others. I understand, though, that that is not the nature of the petition.

The issue is rightly and effectively being dealt with through our legal system. It is being scrutinised through ongoing legal processes, even including challenges to the findings of the Electoral Commission. The police must consider whether there has been any breach of criminal law. There must be due process and a fair hearing, and an important constitutional principle is that politicians do not interfere with police investigations.

That said, the Government will be considering the wider implications of the issue, as well as recent reports on Government policy on referendums and elections. We will carefully review the Electoral Commission’s report on digital campaigning, the Information Commissioner’s recommendations on the use of data in politics and the results of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee inquiry into fake news, and we will take necessary action to strengthen our democracy further.

There is, however, no question that the UK Government will revoke our notification under article 50. Our clear policy is that we will not revoke article 50. The people of the United Kingdom gave a clear instruction, and the Government are committed to seeing that through. We will leave the European Union on 29 March next year.

Parliament voted overwhelmingly to put the question of the UK’s membership of the European Union to the British electorate. The simple question that was put to members of the public on 23 June 2016 asked:

“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”

The result of the referendum was therefore a clear answer to a clear question, giving a clear directive to Government to withdraw from the European Union, which we respected through our notification under article 50.

The result reflected not only campaigning but considerable and prolonged debate, at national and parliamentary level, underpinned by a commitment from all major political parties to respect the outcome of the vote. Almost three quarters of the electorate took part in the referendum, resulting in 17,410,742 people voting to leave the European Union and 16,141,241 voting to remain. That is the largest number of votes cast for anything in UK electoral history. Parliament then overwhelmingly confirmed that result by voting with clear and convincing majorities in both Houses for the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill. Furthermore, at the last general election more than 80% of the public voted for parties committed to respecting the leave result.

The Government respect the views and wishes of the more than 198,000 people who signed the petition, but the instruction received from the wider public and their elected Parliament is one that cannot be ignored. The Government are clear that the British people have voted to leave the European Union and therefore that is what we shall do. The former Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), noted early last year that

“the electorate voted for a Government to give them a referendum. Parliament voted to hold the referendum, the people voted in that referendum, and we are now honouring the result of that referendum, as we said we would.”—[Official Report, 31 January 2017; Vol. 620, c. 818.]

The Government have been and continue to be committed to delivering on the instruction given to us by the British people, working to overcome the challenges and to seize the opportunities that it brings to deliver an outcome that betters the lives of British people—whether they voted to leave or to remain. The British people must be able to trust in their Government both to effect their will and to deliver the best outcome for them. As the Prime Minister has said:

“This is about more than the decision to leave the EU; it is about whether the public can trust their politicians to put in place the decision they took.”

In upholding the directive to withdraw from the European Union, that is what the Government have done and will continue to do. We recognise that to do otherwise would be to undermine the decision of the British people, and that would be to disrespect the powerful democratic values of this country, this Government and this Parliament. The Government’s position remains clear: our notice under article 50 will not be withdrawn.