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Thu 12 December 2019
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Civil Service chief forced to defend Secrecy of Cabinet Papers

Whitehall is sitting on a ‘critical’ impact assessment of what would happen if Britain leaves the European Union without a deal on 29 March, the Cabinet Secretary has confirmed.

Mark Sedwill said the information was the latest list of policy areas most likely to be affected by a hard Brexit. But it has not been disclosed to Parliament. Sedwill confirmed the document was being with-held from MPs during his appearance before the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) on 28 February.

In withholding the list, the Government continues to risk Contempt Proceedings from the Independent Group of MPs – in particular former Conservative MP Anna Soubry. After Sedwill spoke to MPs, Soubry tweeted: “This Government defies the will of Parliament”.

This Government defies the will of the people.

Anna Soubry

Sedwill has written to the Procedure Committee’s inquiry into contempt of Parliament to defend confidentiality between Whitehall and the Government. He told the PACAC: “Cabinet papers remain confidential until released under the Public Records Act.”

List of ‘Critical’ No Deal Impacts Withheld

Sedwill gave evidence to MPs yesterday morning on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC).

He confirmed that rather than being a raw Cabinet briefing, this week’s Impact Assessment of a ‘No Deal’ Brexit was specifically written in Whitehall and approved by Ministers over two weeks – after Soubry had asked for it to be disclosed.

This evidence confirmed that rather than being a raw Cabinet briefing, this week’s Impact Assessment release for No Deal was specifically written in Whitehall and approved by Ministers in a hurry over two weeks, simply because Anna Soubry MP had asked for it to be disclosed.

The assessment revealed that almost one-third of ‘critical’ no-deal projects would be off-track if the UK crashes out of the EU.

Sedwill did not volunteer the list to MPs yesterday, but he gave two examples of such ‘critical’ issues: data and border control.
The [Whitehall] assessment revealed that almost one-third of ‘critical’ no-deal projects would be off-track if the UK crashes out of the EU.

Under ‘No Deal’, he said, the UK border would need checkpoints somewhere. This, of course, is a hugely sensitive issue in Northern Ireland, where checkpoints became targets during the Troubles and the border has been check-point free since the Good Friday Agreement. France has ‘started building’ checkpoints along its border to prepare for a No Deal Brexit. Britain has not, Sedwill said.

Sedwill also warned that companies that keep data in the EU could face serious disruption to their business if a ‘No Deal’ crash-out takes occurs.

Regarding the lack of adequate preparation, Sedwill told PACAC that it was ‘impossible to mitigate’ the impact of no deal and that the Government’s priority is to get a trade deal agreed with the EU.

Cabinet papers remain confidential until released under the Public Records Act.

Mark Sedwill, Cabinet Secretary

Soubry Furious

Yesterday on Twitter Anna Soubry conformed that, privately, she has seen Cabinet papers detailing the impact of a ‘No Deal’ Brexit – but that these have not been released to MPs. She made an impassioned plea for greater transparency: “No Deal would be ruinous and no responsible Government would contemplate it”, she wrote.

“This Government defies will of Parliament & puts the ERG [European Research Group] & party before the interests of the country”.

Sedwill’s defence of Secrecy

Sedwill yesterday spoke out about the ‘breakdown in confidentiality’ over Brexit discussions. Amid concerns that some ministers may have leaked key details of talks, or written about discussions openly in the media, the Cabinet Secretary said ‘candour and confidence’ had ‘eroded’ between Government and Whitehall.

Leaks from within the Cabinet, he said, inhibit ‘good governance’. Sedwill also confirmed that he has written to the Procedure Committee’s inquiry on how the Government was found in contempt of Parliament last year.

Asked if the Civil Service had been transparent over the likely impact of Brexit, Sedwill claimed Whitehall had put out a ‘huge amount’ of information – including a detailed report on access to medicines this week, as well as 106 ‘technical notices’ last August. He defended this week’s Impact Assessment of a ‘No Deal’ as a ‘cool-headed assessment’ drafted across the civil service and signed off by Ministers.

But he added: “Cabinet papers remain confidential until released under the Public Records Act.”

For further analysis of secrecy in the tumult of Brexit, follow our investigation In Contempt, Democracy in Darkness. You can also send any tips or ideas to @avwinter or alex.v.winter@pm.me

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