Government may bow to pressure to release Brexit impact studies

Keir Starmer - Cambridge

The government seems likely to be forced to release unredacted versions of dozens of documents assessing the impact of Brexit on the economy after a Labour motion was passed unanimously in the Commons.

The motion called for the 58 studies, which ministers have fiercely resisted publishing, to be released in full to the Brexit select committee, members of which would then decide what elements to issue publicly.

Labour has sought for months to secure the release of the studies, which cover the great majority of the UK economy, prompting speculation that ministers were wary of sharing them because of the gloomy assessments they contain.

The unanimous Commons vote came after Robin Walker, the junior Brexit minister, said the government would not oppose the measure, a tactic it has taken several times recently to ward off likely rebellions by Tory MPs supporting Labour motions.

However, while normal opposition day motions can be ignored by the government without consequence, the measure seeking release of the papers was tabled as a “humble address”, an arcane parliamentary request rarely used since the 19th century.

The Speaker, John Bercow, said such motions were “traditionally regarded as binding or effective”, but insisted that he could not immediately rule whether ministers would be judged in contempt of parliament if they did not act.

The Labour shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, who tabled the motion, said he expected ministers to release the studies.

“Labour has been absolutely clear since the referendum that ministers could not withhold vital information from parliament about the impact of Brexit on jobs and the economy,” he said.

“It’s completely unacceptable for the Tories to have wasted months avoiding responsible scrutiny and trying to keep the public in the dark. The reality is that it should not have taken an ancient parliamentary procedure to get ministers to listen to common sense.

“As the Speaker has made clear, the government cannot ignore [the] binding decision. David Davis must now respond to parliament’s ruling and urgently set a date for when he will share these papers.”

During the debate, Starmer argued that passing the papers initially to the Brexit select committee would be a prudent approach, not least as it has a majority of Conservative MPs.

Responding to Starmer, Walker said the government was wary of releasing “unvarnished” advice lest it prompted future documents to be written in less frank terms.

But he added: “Given the generosity of approach that he has taken in that regard we will not be opposing this motion. But I do say that we need to look at the content of this analysis.”

Walker also refused to say whether the motion would be binding, saying it was “not my job” to interpret the rules of house.

However, further stalling by ministers would prompt disquiet among those Tory MPs who support publication of the studies, including staunchly pro Brexit MP Jacob Rees-Mogg as well as other rebels such as Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston.

In her contribution to the debate, Soubry took aim at diehard Brexiters on her own side, who she said had to get serious about the process.

“You’ve won, you’re in charge of this, now you have to face up to the responsibility of delivering a Brexit that works for everybody in this country and for generations to come,” she said.

Soubry said some of those opposed to releasing the studies seemed mainly worried about what they contained: “The implication is quite clear: there’s something in them that’s not to be disclosed because it might prick this golden bubble, this balloon, of the promised land of Brexit.”

Walker argued that people should not get the wrong idea about the scope of the Brexit studies: “It isn’t the case – and I don’t believe that this department or any minister have ever said it is the case– that there are 58 economic impact assessments that summarise what all the eventualities could mean for each sector,” he said.

He also called on Labour to be prudent in how much information they sought to have published: “The house will appreciate that the more information is shared more widely, the less secure our negotiating position, and the harder it becomes to secure the right deal for the British people.

“The house has the right to require the release of documents but I sincerely hope that in what is requested in terms of how they guarantee the necessary confidentiality going forward, and how much is requested by the opposition spokesman, the select committee and the house will be mindful of the job that ministers need to do.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Peter Walker Political correspondent, for The Guardian on Wednesday 1st November 2017 19.58 Europe/London

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010