Countdown to Brexit: 25 days – A quiet week in Parliament – but post-Brexit planning continues in the background

This week has less Brexit activity in the Chambers of the Houses of Commons and Lords - but there are a number of relevant Committee sessions through the week.

Monday 4 March: the House of Commons will go through the remaining stages of the ‘Financial Services (Implementation of Legislation) Bill’.  This is one of the Government's key Brexit bills.  It enables EU legislation on financial services that has been adopted by the EU but that does not yet apply to the UK to be adopted by the UK.  It applies in a no-deal scenario for a period of up to two years after the UK leaves the EU.

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The Public Accounts Committee will take evidence from HMRC on preparations at the UK border for leaving the EU.  This follows a critical report from the National Audit Office on preparations at the border.

Tuesday 5 March: the Scottish Affairs Committee will take evidence from Chloe Smith MP, Minister for the Constitution, Scottish-UK intergovernmental relations.

The Exiting the EU Committee was scheduled to take evidence from the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, Stephen Barclay MP - but this has been cancelled due to Barclay having to travel to Brussels at short notice.

Wednesday 6 March: the Exiting the EU Committee will take evidence on Preparing for Brexit and the future relationship negotiations from: Dr Brigid Fowler, Hansard Society; Swee Leng Harris, Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law; and Professor Alison Young, University of Cambridge.

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee will be taking evidence from - among others - Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State, as part of its pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Environment Bill

Northern Ireland Affairs Committee will take evidence from representatives from different political parties in Northern Ireland, including: the DUP; Green Party; Traditional Unionist Voice; and the People Before Profit Alliance, on the implications of the withdrawal agreement and backstop for Northern Ireland.

The International Trade Committee will take evidence from Dr Liam Fox MP, Secretary of State, on the Work of the Department for International Trade.  The Department issued two written statements last Thursday: one on Processes for making free trade agreements after the UK has left the EU; and a second on the UK’s accession to the Agreement on Government Procurement (GPA). 

Note that the Department for International Trade's statement on making free trade agreements in the future was accompanied by a ‘Command Paper’.  This included a proposal that the Government should draw on "the expertise of Parliament throughout negotiations" via a specific parliamentary committee in each House; and that the Government would "work with the House Authorities to establish which committee(s) – including the possibility of creating a new one(s) – would be the most appropriate to take responsibility for scrutiny of future FTAs."  We will monitor this and report on whenever there is anything to say on this key aspect of Brexit for the future of business, trade and commerce.

Thursday 7 March: The House of Commons is scheduled to address Parliamentary questions to the Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox MP.  This will be followed by the weekly ‘Business Statement’ - where the Leader of the House is expected to set out the timetable for the following week - including the possible Meaningful Vote.

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In case you missed it – last week’s Brexit headlines

  • The FT reports that this week the government will set out plans to boost Britain’s “left behind” towns in a bid to win Labour support for the Brexit deal

  • Eurosceptic Conservatives and the Democratic Unionist party are reported to mulling over supporting the PM’s deal if the government obtains “legally binding” concessions on the Irish backstop

  • Prominent Eurosceptic Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg seemed to strike a softer tone towards Theresa May’s Brexit deal

  • The Labour Party announced support for a second EU referendum

  • The FT cited senior Labour MPs as saying there is unlikely to be a Commons majority for a second referendum

  • President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker and UK prime minister Theresa May pledged to conclude UK-EU negotiations by 21 March

  • Theresa May announced UK Parliament will now vote on her Brexit deal by 12 March

  • If this deal is rejected, MPs are to be given a second vote on a no-deal Brexit followed by a third vote on whether to seek a “short, time limited extension” to the 29 March exit date

  • Theresa May said any extension could not last longer than the end of June due to upcoming European elections.

  • French president Emmanuel Macron has indicated he might not accept a delay unless the UK changes course on its negotiating strategy

  • The UK government said tariffs would be imposed on imports of food in the case of a no-deal Brexit to protect British farmers

  • The US is seeking greater access to the UK market for US agricultural products in any trade deal

  • Opinion polls conducted since the formation of The Independent Group, a breakaway group of eight former Labour and three former Conservative MPs, suggest that it has reduced support for Labour and Lib Dems, and in the process widened the Conservative lead over Labour

  • The Financial Conduct Authority has announced a 15-month grace period for compliance with newly published rules in the case of a no-deal Brexit

Background to Thursday’s questions to the Attorney General

Geoffrey Cox QC is a successful barrister who became an MP in 2005.  He was appointed Attorney General in 2018 and has found himself the central character in the greatest political drama of modern times.  Cox may be the one who determines the way that Brexit plays out - he has the task of persuading the EU to agree to changes to the backstop in the Withdrawal Agreement.

Following the united stance across the EU against re-opening negotiations on the Withdrawal Agreement that they had negotiated – agreed and signed off - with Theresa May in November 2018, Cox has, this week, switched his attention to trying to secure an enhanced "arbitration mechanism".  We will track this proposal and report on the impact and implications when it becomes clearer what is meant – or if, indeed, there is any substance to this “arbitration mechanism.”

Background to Wednesday’s questions to Michael Gove

Post-Brexit, UK agriculture will be operating outside of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) under any scenario.

The Government has pledged to maintain the same cash funds as currently for CAP until the end of the Parliament – presently expected to be 2022.  It has indicated that it is unlikely to move to any new system of farm support until after 2024.

Proposals will be set out in a ‘Command Paper’ as a pre-cursor to the Agriculture Bill that will set out post-Brexit support arrangements for farmers.

The key elements of the emerging new policy for England that will be subject to consultation are:

  • The UK Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan (January 2018) set out how a new environmental land management system based on providing public money for public goods (such as habitat enhancement) is proposed to replace current direct payments to farmers in England.

  • CAP subsidies presently make up anywhere from 50-80% of a UK farmer’s income and their practices will be sensitive to fluctuations in support or a change of direction or priorities in this support.

  • The Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) (direct subsidies by area farmed) for 2019 will be paid as normal.

  • A five-year transition phase from farming subsidy to a system of public money for public goods over time whilst limiting some of the largest subsidy payments.

  • No lower standards for animal welfare or environment in trade deals and a new approach to food labelling with a new “world leading” standard for food and farming quality.

Environment Secretary Michael Gove is on record as saying that he is:

  • confident of “building a new economic partnership with the EU” that guarantees tariff-free access for agri-food goods between the UK and EU.

  • seeking a flexible migration policy overall and post-Brexit wants to ensure “access to seasonal agricultural labour”.

Farming unions and environmental groups have broadly welcomed the initial proposals.  

  • Farming unions want any new farm support system to be part of a coherent approach to food production with domestic agriculture policy post-Brexit helping farmers to mitigate volatility and enhance productivity as well as delivering environmental benefits.

  • Environmental groups want to see current funding for farmers maintained to support sustainable land management.