Brexit secretary David Davis giving evidence to MPs on select committee last week © AFP
The Brexit ministry has refused to release key details about reports outlining the economic impact of Britain leaving the EU on 58 industries, saying it needs to carry out policymaking in a “safe space”.
Rejecting a freedom of information request for various details about the reports by Labour MP Seema Malhotra, the Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) said publishing the information would undermine policy formulation.
“There is a strong public interest in policymaking associated with our exit from the EU being of the highest quality and conducted in a safe space to allow for design and deliberation to be done in private,” said Dexeu.
The concept of a “safe space” is more commonly associated with higher education institutions and their support for gay rights and opposition to hate speech, among other things. The idea has been criticised by some Eurosceptic Conservative MPs, including Jacob Rees-Mogg, who once called the safe space movement a “nonsense”.
Ms Malhotra had requested a list of 58 sectors — covering 88 per cent of the economy — on which government officials have been compiling reports about the impact of Brexit. That list was published by Dexeu on Monday and covered vast swaths of industry, including aerospace, agriculture, oil, pharmaceuticals, retail and corporate banking, and tourism.
However, Ms Malhotra’s request for further information about the reports has been rejected by Dexeu.
She had asked for details about the scope and terms of reference for each sectoral analysis, and which reports had been completed. She also wanted to know which reports had been commissioned externally.
Dexeu responded by saying such information was exempt under Section 22 of the 2000 Freedom of Information Act.
It said that it would prefer to release any the information in an “organised and efficient manner” rather than through a freedom of information request.
But Ms Malhotra said that this was further proof of the government ignoring parliament during the Brexit process.
“The government’s reference to needing to conduct Brexit policymaking in a ‘safe place to allow for design and deliberation to be done in private’ seems to be more about keeping parliament and the public in the dark,” she said.
It is not clear whether the government will publish any of the economic impact reports in full or as summaries.
The only government assessments about the economic consequences of Brexit to have been published are two Treasury papers released during the EU referendum campaign that predicted — wrongly — an immediate economic crash.
Brexit secretary David Davis will on Tuesday brief the cabinet on contingency planning for a “no deal” scenario, which will draw on the impact studies on how different sectors would be affected by either an orderly or disorderly breakdown of talks.
The Brexit secretary on Monday urged his EU counterparts to accelerate exit negotiations, but no date has yet been set for a sixth round of talks. British officials dismissed suggestions they wanted the talks to move into continuous session.
Mr Davis has suggested that the release of the economic impact reports would undermine Britain’s negotiating hand in Brussels over Brexit.
Last week Steve Baker and Robin Walker, two Dexeu ministers, admitted that they had not read the assessments.
Mr Davis has also told the Commons Dexeu select committee that prime minister Theresa May had not read the reports — only the summaries.
Ms Malhotra has written to Mr Davis, suggesting that summaries of the reports could perhaps be read by certain chairs of Commons committees under terms of strict confidentiality.
Mr Davis said last week that he would “think on that” because he did not know the answer off the top of his head.
As a backbench MP in 2015, Mr Davis said of freedom of information: “Time and time again, information is withheld from the public for no good reason other than to spare the blushes of the powerful.”