My contribution to the third reading of the Bill to invoke Article 50

Below is my contribution to the third reading of the Bill authorising the Prime Minister to invoke Article 50. You can watch it here.

 

Mr Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con)

I am grateful for the chance to speak briefly. It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), whom I gather felt that she had not previously had the opportunity to put her points. She has taken about 10% of the time allocated to debate this group of amendments, so I hope that she feels that she has now had the opportunity to make her case, and she did so extremely eloquently.

I want to cover a few bases. [Interruption.] There is a lot of noise coming from the Opposition Benches; it is quite hard to think or speak, but I will plough on. I feel extremely strongly about the rights of EU citizens living in the United Kingdom. I had a meeting in my constituency on Friday, in which I discussed Brexit with about 150 people, including a lot of people from different EU countries, because there are a great many scientific research and high-tech international companies based in my constituency.

These are people who contribute. I note that people love to talk about the economic contribution made by citizens from Europe, but I also deeply value their social contribution. They are incredible people who not only provide world-class expertise to many businesses and science, but make a huge contribution to the communities in my constituency. They are obviously devastated by what has happened and they seek reassurance from the Government.

I am not going to support any particular amendments, because I think that would mess up the Bill and that they would not necessarily achieve what they seek to achieve. I am also deeply reassured by the Home Secretary’s letter, which was circulated earlier, and by the Prime Minister’s repeated comments about how she is going to make it an absolute priority to get clarity on the rights of EU citizens.

Mr Vaizey

I give way to a former Treasury official.

Helen Goodman

The right hon. Gentleman said that there was a letter from the Home Secretary. Was it a letter for Conservative Members only? Now that he has ​referred to it in the House, is it not appropriate to put it on the Table or in the Library for all hon. Members to see?

Mr Vaizey

I may have made a faux pas. It was addressed “Dear Colleague”, and may have just been sent to me. It might be private correspondence between me and the Home Secretary, for me to circulate to my European constituents, who are among the most talented Europeans living in this country.

Helen Goodman

On a point of order, Mrs Laing. Is it appropriate for an hon. Member to refer to a document that is not available to the whole House?

The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Mrs Eleanor Laing)

I believe it is appropriate for an hon. Member to refer to whichever document he or she might care to quote. It would be a matter for the right hon. Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) whether he makes any more of the immediate quotation he wishes to use from any particular correspondence. We all have private correspondence.

Alex Salmond

Further to that point of order, Mrs Laing. Would I be in order to say that the custom and practice is that a ministerial letter about a debate should be circulated to Members and placed in the Library?

The First Deputy Chairman

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, as ever—[Interruption]—or as often. If a letter or any document was produced by a Government Minister in his or her capacity as a Government Minister that was intended for the information of the whole House, it would indeed have to be placed in the Library or the Vote Office, or distributed on the Benches. Hypothetically, if there is a letter—I do not know whether there is or not—addressed privately to an hon. Member, it is a matter for the hon. Member.

Mr Vaizey

I am already in enough trouble with my Whips, Mrs Laing, so I suppose another faux pas will not get me to a much better place. I have only been in the House for 11 years, so I am still learning the ropes.

Mr Harper

My right hon. Friend has been here only as long as I have, so we are clearly both still learning the ropes. I wanted to assist him. The Prime Minister has been clear on the record that she intends to take a very generous approach. To go back to the point made by the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), part of the roadblock is that some EU member states will not negotiate with us until we have triggered article 50. In fact, the quicker we get the Bill on the statute book and get article 50 triggered, the quicker we can get that arrangement in place and reassure EU nationals in Britain and British citizens overseas.

Mr Vaizey

That is an excellent point. A difficult road lies ahead and we will have to make some pretty unsavoury compromises. They are understandable compromises, but we should make no mistake that the mood of the House among many colleagues who supported Brexit is to move as quickly as possible to provide reassurance to European citizens in this country. I wanted to use this opportunity, before I got mired in a procedural quagmire ​and moved closer to the Chief Whip’s tarantula, to make it as clear as possible that I stand four-square behind European Union citizens living in this country and their contribution.

Ms Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh (Ochil and South Perthshire) (SNP)

We have heard much talk in the House, particularly from the Prime Minister, about the idea of global leadership. Will the right hon. Gentleman explain precisely his definition of global leadership if it does not mean being a leader and standing up for EU nationals living in this country?

Mr Vaizey

The hon. Lady makes an interesting point and allows me to segue to the next issue, which is Britain’s global leadership in free trade.

Hon. Members who were lucky enough to hear me speak on Second Reading know that the constant talk of free trade treaties is driving me round the bend. As a Minister, I took part in the state visit from President Xi, and as a Member of Parliament I was in Westminster Hall to hear the address from President Obama—I know I should not stray on to the subject of presidential addresses in Westminster Hall, which is a dangerous road to go down—and I fail to understand those who cite the lack of British influence that has existed while we have been members of the European Union. Heads of State and Presidents from countries all over the world are only too happy to come and visit.

I am a loyal Conservative Member, but the point made about Germany’s trade with China was well made. People refer constantly to free trade treaties. I hope we will be able to negotiate them within a matter of days of leaving the European Union, but it strikes me that people are unaware of what happens in the real world if they think that our farmers, who are the best example, will simply sign up without a murmur to free trade treaties with countries such as the United States, which has very different welfare standards from ours. I understand the arguments of those who support free trade with, for example, developing nations, and I understand people who say that we should open our markets to them and support our farmers in different ways, but our farmers will have severe concerns. We also have to wonder whether developing nations have the same welfare standards as us.

Sir Nicholas Soames (Mid Sussex) (Con)

I entirely agree and support my right hon. Friend on his first point. On his second point, does he agree that many hon. Members, while wishing the very best, worry that those deals and transactions will take a long time to fulfil, particularly in the case of the farmers, and that there is therefore the great danger of being in limbo-land?

Mr Vaizey

That worries me, and I thank my right hon. Friend for making the point.

This is obviously a remoan. I know it is a remoan. I am a remainer just getting things off my chest. It is probably not very constructive, but it strikes me as bizarre that we have given up extraordinary influence over a market of 500 million people to sail off to negotiate free trade deals that will not be without controversy.

Mr Vaizey

I see a former Trade and Industry Minister who will correct me.

Mr Lilley

I would not dream of correcting my right hon. Friend, but I would ask him this question. When it appeared that we were going to stay in the EU, was he concerned about the terms of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and what that would have done to British farmers? Was he concerned about the trade agreement with the Canadians, of which we have today voted to take note? Was he concerned about those things, or is he concerned only when it feeds his remaining remoan tendencies?

Mr Vaizey

I did not accept the argument that TTIP would undermine our NHS, and I did not receive any representations from my farmers about its impact on them. I was concerned about the French introducing cultural protections, but felt that we were getting close to a free trade agreement thanks to the negotiating power of the European Union.

Kit Malthouse

Further to the intervention from my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley), I wonder whether the logical extension of the argument of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr Vaizey) is that we should withdraw from the World Trade Organisation. For example, is it fair that the textile workers of Leicester were exposed through our WTO membership to the textile industry in China, which has largely meant a transfer of that industry to that country?

Mr Vaizey

My argument is simply that it will be very difficult to negotiate the free trade agreements that people talk about. It is a very unconstructive and unhelpful argument and will not take us very far. It is more therapy on my part because I feel so frustrated that the tone of the debate since the referendum has been so awful and unpleasant; that we forget that 48% of the country voted to stay in the European Union; and that we are unable to build a consensus on the way forward. The remain part of the House and the country has, by and large, accepted that the referendum result is clear and decisive, and that it will take us out of the EU. We want to work extremely constructively to make that happen, despite my earlier remarks. We are urging all sides to have a realistic assessment of how difficult it will be so that we can work together in the national interest.

Melanie Onn (Great Grimsby) (Lab)

The right hon. Gentleman is being generous with his time. I agree with his point about trying to reach consensus for the sake of the country. Is he concerned as I am about the protectionism of other countries and the dangers it presents in international trade? After a change of leadership in Nigeria, the Nigerians, on a whim, wrote a list of imports that they would no longer accept, which cut off all existing trade with UK companies, including one in my constituency that exported to Nigeria.

Mr Vaizey

I agree with the hon. Lady and that example reinforces my belief that free trade deals will not be easy to negotiate.

What I am really saying, I suppose, is that my constituents who voted to remain—especially those who come from other European countries—have a great deal of anxiety and want a realisation that we cannot wave a magic ​wand but that this will need hard pounding. I stand foursquare with the Government on ensuring that we get the best deal possible.

Mr Vaizey

I give way to one of the great experts on the implications of leave.

Mr Baker

I want to cheer my right hon. Friend up a little and apologise to him as I may have inadvertently failed to invite him to meet the Legatum Institute special trade commissioners who visited Parliament on Monday. The Mexican trade commissioner, who was one of the original North American Free Trade Agreement negotiators, explained to us the danger that NAFTA may need a major renegotiation under President Trump. With talk of the need to get the substance right and then get it through three Parliaments, it sounded as if it would take a terribly long time, but they think it can be concluded by October 2018. The experience of actual trade negotiators who have negotiated such agreements is that they can be done quickly.

Mr Vaizey

I will visit my hon. Friend’s constituency in April, so we can discuss the matter at length as I turn his leave association into a remain one. I know the Legatum Institute well because the chap who has become flavour of the month for his knowledge of trade deals, Shanker Singham, was at school with me, which automatically makes him a dangerous member of the liberal metropolitan elite. It is important that we are aware that one of the Brexiteers’ great champions is a member of the dangerous liberal metropolitan elite—

Mr Vaizey

Talking of which, I will take an intervention from my very old friend and former BBC presenter.

John Nicolson

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the danger is that we will be caught between a rock and a hard place? If our farmers lower their standards to compete with American imports under free trade, those standards may then be too low for the foodstuffs to be admitted to the European Union. It would be a difficult place to be.

Mr Vaizey

That is just one of many factors we must take into account.

I have tested the patience of the Committee with my wisecracks, and I now want to talk about my main, very serious issue—the withdrawal from Euratom, which will directly affect my constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), who is no longer in his place, represents the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, where the main research into nuclear fusion—the holy grail of sustainable energy—takes place. In 2014 we signed an almost €300 million contract to run the Joint European Torus on that site until 2018. We are now negotiating to take the programme forward. The JET, based in Oxfordshire, accounts for a quarter of the European fusion programme budget. Other money comes ​from ITER, the global fusion project. It will take place in France but still provides financial support for British projects including, for example, €40 million of remote handling equipment awarded to the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority—based in Oxfordshire—as part of a wider consortium.

Coming out of Euratom would present some difficult issues, including a requirement to conclude new bilateral co-operation agreements with the United States and approximately 20 other countries to maintain our access to intellectual property and nuclear technologies; removing the requirement for the UK to comply with Euratom’s safety regimes, which would prevent other countries from collaborating with us; and further potential delays and cost increases to the nuclear new build programme. I am extremely unhappy that the Bill will take us out of Euratom—and I was also unhappy that I had no warning of that—but I am grateful to Ministers, some of whom are in their places, for their reactions on this issue. I have been able to have discussions with Ministers from the Departments for Exiting the European Union and for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. I am grateful to the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson), who has personally met the Culham chief executive, and to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy who has also spoken to the chief executive. I am also delighted that the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), is due to visit Culham. Every effort is being made to ensure that at its all-staff meeting tomorrow proper reassurances can be given.

Mr MacNeil

Does the right hon. Gentleman think that all the conversations he has had are equal to the €300 million subsidy for Oxfordshire?

Mr Vaizey

As far as I understand it, that subsidy is not going away, and certainly shortly after the referendum the Science Minister guaranteed science funding up to 2020. I am sure that we will find some way to be a member of Euratom and to benefit, because British—and European—scientists working in Culham are vital to that project.

Charlie Elphicke

It is welcome to hear that Ministers have been so heavily engaged with my right hon. Friend following the concerns he raised on Second Reading. Does he agree that Euratom is so closely linked with the European Union that it would be difficult for the United Kingdom to continue to be a member of Euratom while leaving the European Union?

Mr Vaizey

I will answer by saying that I agree that that is the Government’s position. I also understand that the Government will act to minimise any further legal challenge to the Bill. I reiterate that I cannot fault Ministers for their response since I raised the issue on Second Reading, in terms of engaging personally with me and with Culham.

I do not know whether I am walking into a point of order quagmire, but I hope that Ministers will publish a document that will explain their strategy for taking forward Euratom as soon as they are able to do so. The ​key point is that the Government have no intention of walking away from Euratom because they somehow disagree with the principle of Euratom’s existence or the work that it does. It may sound trite when talking about people’s futures, but this is a technical withdrawal and I have been impressed by the energy of Ministers in engaging on this issue.

Sue Hayman (Workington) (Lab)

A constituent of mine who is an employee of the National Nuclear Laboratory has told me he is concerned that an exit from Euratom would impair his ability to collaborate with leading scientists and engineers across Europe, to the detriment of science and technology in this country. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with that point?

Mr Vaizey

The hon. Lady makes exactly the point about why people are concerned. As I hope I have made clear, Ministers are putting in a great deal of energy—I am full of terrible puns today—to ensuring that the implications of our technical withdrawal from Euratom are minimised, and that we can restore our de facto membership in the coming months.

Alex Salmond

The right hon. Gentleman is making a considered speech, as I would expect, but has he considered the possibility that if the Bill passes unamended, his position and point of influence will pass with it? It might be better to have something in writing in the Bill, rather than all these warm words, cups of tea and assurances.

Mr Vaizey

I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says, but I have known the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy for many years and shared many warm cups of tea with him, so I accept his warm words. I fully expect him to be in his post for several years to take this forward.

Kit Malthouse

My right hon. Friend is concerned about Euratom. Has he considered the alternative? Given that in the last funding round Euratom had to fight very hard to try to maintain its funding, a position it is unlikely to be able to maintain in future, and the fact that the largest single contributors to Horizon 2020, the Germans, have taken the decision to phase out their civil nuclear programme all together, is he not concerned that over the next couple of decades continued membership of Euratom might expose us to diminishing research funding? Exit from the EU could provide us with the opportunity to partner bilaterally with other countries, as we do already with India and South Korea, and therefore expose ourselves to a wider pool of research.

Mr Vaizey

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. In fact, in answering him I may slightly contradict my earlier rant. I have significant concerns that our exit from the EU could potentially damage British science because of our close collaboration with the EU, but some scientists in my constituency have pointed out that there is a danger of our becoming too inward-looking in only seeking European scientific collaboration. Whatever one thinks of other issues, China is certainly becoming a much more important player in scientific research. There may be a silver lining to the withdrawal from Euratom.​

My hon. Friend is also right to point out that securing funding for nuclear fusion is no easy task. In some respects, nuclear fusion is always the gold at the end of the rainbow. Nevertheless, it is extremely important research and I support it 100%, both in general and for the impact it has on my constituency.

I have taken so long that Ms Laing has turned into Mr Howarth. Having made a gentle jibe earlier at the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West, I see that I have taken up an inordinate amount of the Committee’s time, so I will sit down. I simply reiterate that I stand foursquare behind EU citizens living in our country. Please do not keep banging on about how easy free trade is going to be and please secure our nuclear relationships as far as possible.