Following a vote in the House of Commons last week the government has finally been forced into releasing studies into the economic impacts of Brexit on 58 sectors of the economy. However, when this will actually happen and how much will be redacted is not clear. What we do know is that the government only plans to release these studies to the Committee for exiting the EU and, as stated in a letter from David Davis to Hilary Benn, believe some of the information “should not find its way into the public domain”.
Passing papers along a few corridors so they land on a desk of a committee is simply not good enough. And with the probability that the documents will appear with chunks blacked out, MPs, businesses, public services and the general public could still be kept in the dark.
The existence of the 58 studies has been known for some time, but it was the leak of a Department of Health study in April which alerted me to the fact they potentially contained valuable information on the impact of Brexit across the economy. But letters to ministers, parliamentary questions and Freedom of Information requests got us no further. The Department for Exiting the EU and the Treasury have steadfastly refused to release the studies. Indeed, it was only at the end of October, after months of persistent questions, that they even released the list of the 58 sectors covered despite promising it “shortly” since June. And yesterday, in a parliamentary debate on the studies, the whole saga descended into farce with Brexit Minister Steve Baker claiming the 58 separate documents do not exist at all. The letter from David Davis to Hilary Benn also stated, “it is not, nor has it ever been, a series of discrete impact assessments.” Never has the government previously suggested these were not separate documents.
This whole charade has shown just how far from taking back control we actually are. Government ministers have been frantically trying to contain a situation that seems far out of their grip and for which they are unprepared. Indeed, it seems ministers arguing that the studies should not be released don’t even appear to have read them.
The attempts to have these studies released has also shown how the vote to leave the EU has exposed a huge democratic deficit in our country. In the space of just two years David Davis has turned from champion of free information to a gatekeeper blocking its release. The FOI Act, he has said, “can make Government more accountable”, and “save lives, root out corruption, unmask injustices and expose failing policies”. Now he has moved into territory where he withholds information, paid for by the public purse, on the basis it will “damage our negotiating position”.
This routine excuse for refusing to release the studies neglects the fact that the EU has been negotiating trade deals involving the UK for the last 40 years. It’s ridiculous to imagine the EU are not very well aware of the position of the UK’s economic sectors. It also misses the point that the EU and its member countries are also carrying out their own analyses of the impacts of Brexit and making them freely available. In any case, I am not seeking the release of their negotiating position; I just want to see the information that has informed the thinking that allowed the government to arrive at it.
Before the government said it would release the studies, and despair at the government’s stalling tactics, I had teamed up with the Good Law Project to demand the government release the studies. This received strong public backing: a crowdfunding campaign to cover the costs of judicial review proceedings achieved its target within 48 hours, raising almost £60,000 from over 2,000 donors. We set a 14-day deadline for the release of the studies, which elapsed just ahead of Labour resorting to an arcane parliamentary procedure to force the government’s hand.
But now, assurances made by the government last week that the studies would be released have been replaced with procrastination and playing semantics. So, we have written again to both the Brexit secretary David Davis, and the chancellor Phillip Hammond, to reiterate the need for a “fully informed public and parliamentary debate about the terms of Brexit, and the importance of these documents to that debate”. We have made clear that if the government fail to disclose these studies in full to the public by 13 November we will commence judicial review proceedings to obtain them.
At a time when the country is undergoing the greatest challenge in a generation, the public must not be left in the dark any longer. The government must release these studies in full, to everyone.
Molly Scott Cato MEP is Green Party spokesperson on Brexit