Brexit: Government studies handed to MPs amid secrecy row

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Media captionKeir Starmer asks about the existence of the documents but Robin Walker says they did not “exist in the form requested”.

Parliament is being treated with contempt over the partial release of Brexit documents, Labour has claimed.

MPs will see for the first time later studies of how the UK’s exit will affect 58 sectors of the economy, but certain sections will not be released.

Ministers say they are being as “open as possible” but some sensitive details which risk “undermining the UK’s negotiating hand” will be kept private.

Labour said the will of Parliament was being ignored and transparency ditched.

The 850-pages of documents – which MPs demanded be published in a vote earlier this month – has been handed to the Commons and Lords Brexit committees, whose members will begin to study it in private later.

Brexit minister Robin Walker said he hoped the “accessible and informative” material would be made available to all MPs in due course – in a reading room – but defended the removal of commercially sensitive details which he suggested could damage the UK’s negotiating strategy.

But Labour MP Hilary Benn, who chairs the Brexit committee, said it was “their job” to decide what was published and he objected to the suggestion it could not be trusted to respect confidentiality.

Image copyright PA
Image caption David Davis pictured during his appearance before the Brexit committee

What is in the documents?

There has been huge speculation about what is in the Brexit papers, which reportedly run to 800 pages.

Until now only senior ministers and civil servants knew what was in the papers, which were kept in a safe overnight in several lever arch folders.

The Commons and Lords Brexit committee will starting reading them in private later, while they have also been shared with the Scottish and Welsh governments and Northern Irish officials.

But there are bits which they won’t be able to see because they have either been handed over with bits blacked out, or not been handed over by ministers.

The BBC’s economics editor Kamal Ahmed says he has been told that the reports are not – as has been claimed by some – in-depth “impact assessments”.

He says they will not put a figure on the costs to different industries if there is no comprehensive free trade agreement between the UK and EU after the UK leaves in March 2019.

The government says the reports will show the size of each of the sectors, their worth to the UK economy and how they are regulated at the moment within the EU single market and customs union.

Why are they incomplete?

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Image caption The letter from Davis Davis to the committee was not well recieved by some

In a letter to the Commons committee, Brexit Secretary David Davis said certain details were being kept private because there was no guarantee all of the 21 MPs on the committee would keep them secret.

One Conservative member of the committee, Craig McKinlay, has backed this stance, suggesting some of his fellow committee members may “use this information against the national interest”.

The cross-party committee, he told the BBC, was “deeply divided” between those “refighting the referendum” and those who want to “move on” and he trusted the government to decide what information to share.

“If we get this wrong, it could cost the country billions,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today.

What’s all this talk of contempt of Parliament?

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Media captionSir Keir Starmer says the government could be in contempt of Parliament if it withholds Brexit data from MPs

Earlier this month, MPs voted for the documents to be released, although Conservative MPs abstained.

Ministers claim the analysis “does not exist in the form Parliament requested” and claim they have satisfied the terms of the parliamentary motion, but Labour disagrees and says the MPs’ decision was clearly “binding”.

“It is simply not open to the secretary of state to choose to ignore it and to pass to the select committee the documents that he chooses,” Shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer said.

“Whether he’s in contempt of parliament is a matter we’ll come to at some later date – but he’s certainly treating parliament with contempt.”

Many Tory MPs, including prominent Brexiteers, also criticised the government’s actions, Philip Hollobone telling MPs it was “skating on very thin parliamentary ice”.

Speaking in Parliament, the SNP’s Pete Wishart said the “government must be held accountable for its failure to comply” but Commons Speaker John Bercow said any MPs alleging contempt of Parliament must write to him officially, assuring them he would respond promptly.

It is up to the Speaker to rule on whether Parliamentary rules have been flouted and to decide whether to refer it to the Committee on Standards and Privileges for investigation.

Only after the Commons vote did chatter really emerge that the problem was not necessarily that the government was trying to cover up the assessments because they were the stuff of nightmares.

Instead, part of the issue was, in the words of one official, that the work was “embarrassingly thin”.

Cue panic, it’s suggested in Whitehall, to cobble together in some areas reports that look like serious pieces of work and in other areas to scrape away anything that looks just too grim…

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