Opposition MPs unite in anger after minister removes awkward Brexit questions from order paper

"Liz Truss cannot simply ignore these problems while businesses and jobs across the country are under threat."

MPs have written to trade minister Liz Truss after it emerged that she vetted questions for next week’s ministerial questions – removing submissions relating to Brexit.

In correspondence seen by LFF, Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade Emily Thornberry told civil society groups on Tuesday: “As many of you know, every six weeks or so, I have the opportunity – alongside every other MP – to ask questions to Liz Truss in Parliament on behalf of our constituents and the country about international trade.

“There are always a huge variety of topics tabled in advance for discussion, reflecting the number of different businesses affected, and the range of connections between trade and other vital issues like human rights and climate change.

“Today, we received the extraordinary news that Liz Truss has gone through the list of topics for next week’s session and ordered the removal of six questions relating to trade with Europe, despite the severe problems that have recently been facing British exporters.

I have never known anything like it, and neither have most of my colleagues in Parliament. With representatives from the other opposition parties, I have written to Liz Truss to register our protests. I will keep you updated on what response we receive.”

Emily Thornberry told LFF: “Liz Truss cannot simply ignore these problems while businesses and jobs across the country are under threat. We need to demand answers and action, and this letter is just the start.”

LFF has republished the letter to Liz Truss in full below, signed by Labour, the SNP, Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru, the Green Party and the Social Democratic and Labour Party.

A Department for International Trade spokesperson told LFF: “All parliamentary questions are directed to the department best placed to respond. This is standard practice in Government and has been the case under successive governments.

“The Cabinet Office lead the Brexit Business Taskforce to support businesses with regards to the EU Trade Deal.”

Letter to Liz Truss – 16th February

Dear Liz,

We are writing to register our grave concerns and strong protests regarding your refusal to answer a number of questions relating to the UK’s trading relations with Europe – and one on inward investment in Northern Ireland – at next week’s session of International Trade oral questions.

Six Members from different parties have been informed by the Speaker’s Office that their EU-related questions on 25th February have been transferred to other Ministers at the request of your department. The only three EU-related questions left are one from a Conservative MP, and the two final questions on the order paper, which – as you know – are highly unlikely to be reached.

At a time when British exporters are crying out for the government to acknowledge and address the problems they are facing in the wake of Brexit, the Secretary of State for International Trade cannot simply put their head in the sand and pretend that these issues are not their concern.

Even if you are anxious to distance yourself from the mess that your Cabinet Office and Downing Street colleagues have created, there are four practical reasons why that position is untenable:

  • First and foremost, if it remains a key part of the stated mission of the Department for International Trade (DIT) to promote UK exports and investment overseas, it makes no sense for its Ministers to argue that their responsibility for that objective ceases to exist when applied to the 27 Member States of the European Union, with whom the UK currently does half of its trade. Are you really prepared to tell the UK fishing industry that you are only interested in the 30 per cent of their exports which go outside the EU?
  • Second, it flies in the face of the work your department actually does each day to provide advice, support and finance to companies trading with the EU. To give a pertinent example, the DIT’s Parliamentary Export Programme is currently being advertised in constituencies across the UK for the “free advice” it will provide to exporters on “the practicalities of post-Brexit trade”. If the department is answering questions from our constituents on those issues, how can its ministers refuse to answer questions from their MPs?
  • Third, it is simply not viable for you to try and divorce the decisions that the government makes on trade with every other country in the world from the trade that we do with the European Union. To give two immediate, topical examples, the deals we make on data sharing with third countries must take into account the impact on our data adequacy status with the EU, and any agreements we reach with third countries on SPS equivalence must consider the effect that would have on future levels of checks on our exports to the EU.
  • Fourth and finally, if the explanation provided by the Paymaster General on 18th January[1] for why no single department is in charge of the trading relationship with the EU remains that: “The Trade and Cooperation Agreement covers a wide range of areas and is the responsibility of various departments”, then surely it cannot be your position that other departments hold a share of that responsibility, but yours does not.

In summary, there is no sensible, logical reason for you to refuse to answer questions about the UK’s trading relationships with the EU, let alone inward investment in Northern Ireland, other than your desire to shirk responsibility for the failures of your colleagues elsewhere in government, and the consequences being felt by exporters throughout the country.

With all due respect, that is not a good enough excuse. Officials in your department, including those employed in European capitals, are working hard every day to help UK businesses with their trade and investment activity and resolve their export problems, and the least they all deserve is a Secretary of State prepared to answer questions about that work in Parliament.

We would therefore urge you to reconsider your rejection of MPs’ questions in this area, if not for the next session of International Trade orals on the 25th February – given the call lists have already been drawn up – then certainly at future sessions in the coming months.

After all, many of us may wish that one single Minister was taking a grip of these problems and accepting full responsibility for dealing with them, but in the absence of that, what we cannot afford is individual Ministers deciding to exempt themselves from their share of the collective task, least of all the Secretary of State for International Trade.

Yours sincerely,

  • Emily Thornberry MP, Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade
  • Drew Hendry MP, Scottish National Party Spokesperson on International Trade
  • Sarah Olney MP, Liberal Democrat Party Spokesperson on International Trade
  • Hywel Williams MP, Plaid Cymru Spokesperson on International Trade
  • Caroline Lucas MP, Green Party Spokesperson on International Trade
  • Claire Hanna MP, Social Democratic & Labour Party

Josiah Mortimer is Co-Editor of Left Foot Forward.

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