The Brexit department has refused to release key details about the 58 secret studies into how leaving the EU will impact the economy, saying officials need to make policy in a “safe space”.
Seema Malhotra, a Labour MP on the Brexit committee, had asked to know the scope, terms of reference and state of completion of the work on 58 sectors of the economy, but the department refused to release the details under freedom of information laws.
“There is a strong public interest in policy-making 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,” the Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) said.
“In this case, releasing the commissioning document for this exercise, which is still a live policy issue, may undermine the effective formulation or development of policies which are key to our negotiating strategy.
“Disclosure would similarly set a precedent that would inhibit free and frank discussion in the future. Without the necessary safe space for unreserved instruction in commissioning briefs, the quality of the eventual advice from the respective exercise would be diminished and would in turn lead to poorer decision making.”
The government did release a list of which sectors were covered by the studies. The list, ranging from advertising, aerospace and agriculture to telecommunications, textiles and tourism, covers almost 90% of the economy.
But Malhotra said the lack of transparency remained a key concern, with less than 18 months to go before Brexit is due to take place at the end of March 2019.
“The government’s reference to needing to conduct Brexit policy-making 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.
“Parliament is not here to give the government a blank cheque on Brexit, but to assist in achieving the best deal for our economy and society.”
The government’s refusal to make public more details about its impact studies comes as Theresa May’s cabinet prepares for a discussion on the next stage of the Brexit process on Tuesday morning.
The meeting will cover the prime minister’s hopes for progress on a trade agreement as well as preparations for a “no deal” scenario if talks with Brussels break down.
May is hoping talks will progress on the issues of money, Northern Ireland and citizens’ rights to allow negotiations to move on to trade by December but, so far, there are no scheduled further rounds between David Davis, the Brexit secretary, and the EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier.
The UK is trying to accelerate and intensify talks but the DExEU said the “shape of negotiations” until the December summit could not yet be confirmed.
Barnier had a meeting on Monday with prominent remain campaigners, including former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, veteran Tory Ken Clarke and Labour peer Andrew Adonis, prompting accusations the EU was conducting parallel Brexit talks. EU officials insisted this was part of Barnier’s “open door” approach to meetings.
Alexander Winterstein, a European commission spokesman, insisted that the only negotiations taking place were those involving the teams led by Davis and Barnier.
He said: “His [Barnier’s] door is always open for people who want to speak to him and his team, across the political spectrum and from all walks of life, from all parties, whoever is interested to speak to Michel Barnier.”
In response to a suggestion that the meeting would lead to concerns the EU was engaged in a “shadow negotiation”, Winterstein said: “There are two negotiators – on the one side the secretary of state for Exiting the EU, David Davis, and on the European side it’s the chief negotiator of the EU, Michel Barnier. Nobody else.”
“All these meetings were requested by the people who are coming to see Mr Barnier. His door is always open.”