The story of the government’s documents analysing the impact of Brexit on different sectors of our economy has truly been worth an episode of The Thick Of It. Or a whole series. For months, Brexit Secretary David Davis boasted that his department had compiled analyses of the impact of Brexit on 58 sectors of the economy. For months, MPs like me called on him to publish them, to be straight with the public about what Brexit will mean for their lives. For months, he refused.
Finally, the Department for Exiting the European Union released a list of the sectors they had analysed. Covering everything from aerospace to broadcasting, telecommunications to road haulage – sectors in total employing an incredible 29 million British workers, according to research by Open Britain. MPs voted for a Labour motion, which the government promised to honour and which Speaker Bercow ruled was binding, to finally release the impact assessments.
That was three weeks ago. And then on Tuesday, the Exiting the European Union select committee, of which I am a member, was provided with the analyses. David Davis himself admitted these were edited and incomplete.
It’s striking that in June this year, the Secretary of State said on the Marr Show that “we’ve got 50, nearly 60 sector analyses done”. His department confirmed in September in response to my freedom of information request that the studies were completed. In October, the Secretary of State not only confirmed they had been completed, but that they were in “excruciating detail” and that the Prime Minister had seen the summaries.
Since 1 November, ministers have been saying these same analyses don’t exist.
Unlike the travails of Malcolm Tucker, however, this really matters. Leaving the European Union will touch on almost every sector of our economy and our national life. It is the biggest change of course this country has made in decades. We have already seen the risks to family budgets, with inflation soaring ahead of wage growth, the value of the pound plunging in the aftermath of the referendum, and our growth rate being downgraded from being the fastest growing economy in the G7 to being the slowest growing. In this context, it is vital that if the government knows what the impact will be for our economy – and it claims to – that information must be released.
This is also an issue of parliamentary sovereignty. Those who campaigned to leave the EU told voters that Brexit would “take back control” of our laws – passing sovereignty from Brussels to Britain’s sovereign Parliament. Their obfuscation and lack of respect over these impact assessments suggests a worrying trend and risks rendering these pledges meaningless. The fundamental right and responsibility of MPs to scrutinise government policies on behalf of our constituents is being undermined.
David Davis’s defence is that releasing all of the information would undermine the government’s negotiating position. First, if that was true, why not trust the select committee to decide with the government’s input if parts of these assessments should be redacted before publication? Second, the government keeps telling us that Brexit will be at a minimum economically harmless if not actually beneficial. That it will lead to an increase in spending on the NHS and public services. This week’s Budget suggests otherwise and should set alarm bells ringing. But if the economic benefits are real – in the long term if not the short term – and these documents actually support the government’s case, why the resistance to share the findings? And third, recognising also the select committee’s agreement with the principle that nothing that risks the UK’s negotiating position should be published, what is the basis for the general assumption that sharing sectoral analysis will undermine our negotiating hand? Let’s not forget that the EU will have 27 different sets of analysis of trade between the EU and the UK. It would appear the only people being kept in the dark are Parliament and the public.
This is important also because it informs the vital public debate about how we leave, not to mention how to prepare business and the nation as a whole to address the risks and impacts of Brexit. The public will rightly suspect there is another reason why the government won’t release the full reports – the likely significant costs of Brexit to our economy as described recently by the deputy governor of the Bank of England, and therefore to the working people of this country. We learnt last night that ministers could give as much as £50bn to the EU as part of the divorce settlement – money that should be properly spent on our schools and hospitals.
Nobody voted to be poorer, to put jobs and trade at risk, and to leave less money available for our public services. As these new facts come to light, and with 16 months to go to Brexit, the government’s undemocratic and obstructions to evidence-based debate becomes ever more worrying.
Seema Malhotra is a leading supporter of Open Britain.