Tory MPs disown 'negative' Brexit findings by own committee

Anushka Asthana and Lisa O'Carroll
Tory MP Dominic Raab described the report as ‘rushed, skewed and partisan’. Photograph: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Theresa May’s claim that “no deal is better than a bad deal” has been criticised as unsubstantiated by a parliamentary committee, but its pro-Brexit MPs have refused to back the findings.

The chair, Hilary Benn, called on the government to urgently prepare for the “worst-case” scenario of crashing out of the EU without a trade deal, and asked for an impact assessment of what the economic fallout would be.

But he also had to contend with the fact that his Commons committee on exiting the EU was divided over its third report, with pro-Brexit members complaining of the negative tone, walking out and ultimately refusing to back the conclusions.

Dominic Raab, a Conservative MP who campaigned to leave the EU, described the report as “rushed, skewed and partisan”, claiming it was regrettable that it had divided the group.

“That undermines its credibility and influence, but I hope and expect the committee will learn the right lessons, as we move forward,” he said.

Raab was one of six Conservative members of the group who refused to sign up to the final report, alongside the former culture secretary John Whittingdale. Benn defended his decision to publish the report, telling the Guardian that anyone who read it could see it was “balanced and fair”. He said it drew on the evidence provided and represented the “select committee doing its job”.

On Tuesday, Benn told the Today programme the main finding of the report was based on evidence from the Brexit secretary, David Davis, who admitted that the government had not carried out a full assessment of the potential economic impact of failing to secure a trade deal at the time of departure from the EU.

“If the government is going to make this assertion that no deal would be better than a bad deal, then I think everyone would expect the government to have done some assessment,” Benn said.

“[No deal] would mean a return of tariffs and other non-tariff barriers to trade, if you’re a beef or dairy farmer you’re talking about tariffs for 30-40%, it would have an impact on financial services because passporting is very important to them, a million people work in financial services, all the way through to the emergency healthcare we get when we travel in Europe through the EHIC health card. All of those things fall by the wayside if you had no agreement.

“Therefore it seems to the committee sensible that the government should do an assessment, and when we asked [Davis] has the government done so, his reply was no we haven’t. Maybe they will, and that’s why we set out they should.”

Benn said he was sorry that not all members of the committee felt able to sign up to the report, “but as we know Brexit is a subject that arouses great passions in people and they have strong views. But we have a job to do as a committee and that is to sit down together, to hear what people have got to say, and then to hold the government to account.

“It’s not absolutely unknown for select committee reports not to get unanimous reports. I urge people to read the report and make up their own minds.”

Labour MP Pat McFadden went further on Monday, claiming that his pro-Brexit colleagues were simply “annoyed by the facts”. “The report faithfully reflects the evidence that the committee has heard. Hilary Benn has made every effort to be open and accommodating to all strands of opinion on the committee,” he said.

The report agrees with another committee’s conclusion that crashing out of the EU and on to World Trade Organisation terms would be a “very destructive outcome” and says it is essential for MPs and Lords to have a vote in such a scenario.

Sources on the leave side of the argument insisted that the problem was with the tone of the report in all areas, but minutes of the committee meeting show there was a particular annoyance over the no-deal recommendations.

One MP said the Brexiters also felt that too much emphasis had been placed on the evidence of Sir Ivan Rogers, who resigned as the UK’s EU ambassador after warning about the complexities of securing a trade deal.

About a third of the committee left a meeting, which was convened to discuss their report on the UK government’s white paper on Brexit, with the rest happy with the 150-page draft. All of those present who had backed leave in the referendum campaign were among those boycotting the discussions, while two other Brexiters – Michael Gove and Peter Lilley – were unable to attend.

Other findings include calling for an immigration system that will prevent sudden shortages of labour and even for the government to consider “whether immigration could be managed on a geographic basis”.

The MPs call on the government to formally respond to the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland legislatures regarding each of their options papers as a matter of urgency – and say the Irish border should top the list of negotiating priorities.

It says the government has “a responsibility” to consider how its changed relationship with the EU will impact both Northern Ireland and the Republic, and says maintaining freedom of movement and people to attain Theresa May’s “frictionless” border “will be a complex challenge”.

It warns that the meat and dairy industries in Northern Ireland will be heavily impacted by Brexit and that a return to border patrols on the 300-mile frontier could lead to a return to violence.

“Any return of the customs checks at the border with Northern Ireland … would provide an opportunity and focal point for those who wish to disrupt the peace,” said Benn.

The committee also urged the government to consider continuing payments into the Horizon 2020 scientific research programme and the Erasmus student exchange programme to limit the damage.

Davis has previously described Britain as a science superpower but academics and researchers are concerned that Britain’s leading role will be damaged unless it continues to pay into the science funding programme.

Medical researchers are already being removed from applications for EU research grants by European colleagues, MPs were told in February.

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