Sunderland will become the first stop on the Government’s new Brexit committee’s tour of the UK today.
As the committee arrives in Sunderland, chairman Hilary Benn MP speaks exclusively to the Echo about its work and the reasons for coming to Wearside.
Sunderland has seldom been out of the Brexit headlines since the fateful referendum day in June.
The city’s result was the first hint that pollsters and pundits had got it wrong and Britain was heading out of the EU.
Since then the question of what promises the Government has - or has not - made to persuade Nissan to continue to invest in its Sunderland plant has never been far from the news.
I am really looking forward to the visit. We are determined as a committee to get around the UK and I am delighted we have chosen Sunderland for our first hearing.Hilary Benn MP
So where better place for the Whitehall committee set up to oversee the Brexit process to kick off its fact-finding tour of the country?
“We are going to make a series of visits around the UK and this is the first,” said chairman Hilary Benn MP.
“Members of the committee will be coming to Sunderland to take evidence to inform the reports we are going to produce about the process and what the Government should be looking for.
“We will be in the North East to hear what the view is, what are the most important things for the people we will be taking evidence from, so we get the best possible deal out of the most complex negotiations the country has entered into for decades.
“Sunderland and the North East is a really important centre for manufacturing. The North East sends 58% of its exports to the EU, the second highest in the UK, so we thought it would be a good place to start.
“We are going to hear from the leader of the council, the Chamber of Commerce, someone from the North East Local Enterprise Partnership. We will be asking questions about the impact of Brexit and the feelings in the North East, what are the particular issues that those we are hearing from are concerned about and how do we deal with these?
“What are the things we should be looking for in the negotiations?
“I am really looking forward to the visit. We are determined as a committee to get around the UK and I am delighted we have chosen Sunderland for our first hearing.”
The committee’s task was to oversee the Government’s handling of Brexit, and NOT to stand in its way, said Mr Benn: “After the referendum result, the Government decided to set up a department that would have responsibilty for the very complex and important negotiations that we are about to embark on when Article 50 is triggered.
“The committee’s job is to scrutinise the work of the Department for Exiting the European Union.
“We are not making an inquiry into why people voted the way in which they did. The referendum result is done and dusted, it is over. We ARE leaving the European Union.
“Our task is to scrutinise the process and the Government’s objectives, when we learn what they are going to be, so we can make the most of the opportunity.
“The crucial question is not about whether we are leaving - because we are - but what our future relationship with the European Union is going to be like when it comes to trade, financial services, regulation, the position of EU citizens in the UK and the position of Brits - including those from the North East - in the EU.
“All these questions will determine what kind of relations we are going to have with the European Union when we leave. On the outcome of that, a great deal rests.”
The committee has already taken evidence from representatives of industries as diverse as finance and engineering, as well as the TUC and CBI, and will hear from Brexit Secretary David Davis next week.
Prime Minister Theresa May has so far been reluctant to reveal too much of what the Government wants from the Brexit negotiations, but Mr Benn believes the time to open up is fast approaching.
“I think the Government should set out what its negotiating position is,” he said.
“It is entirely reasonable that the British people and the British Parliament should learn what the negotiating objectives are before we tell the other 27 member countries what they are.”
Today’s hearing will be carried out in the wake of the Government’s legal challenge to a High Court ruling it needed Parliamentary approval to formally start the Brexit process.
The reasons for the case had been widely misunderstood, said Mr Benn: “The case that is in the High Court is constitutionally very important, but not for the reason some people think it is.
“It is all about the Royal Prerogative power, as it is called, that the Government has historically used,” he said.
“The case that is being debated is about whether they can use that power to introduce Article 50, which is the notice that you are leaving the EU.
“It is NOT a case about whether we are leaving - because we are.”
Coverage had suggested the case was about preventing the UK from leaving the EU, despite the popular vote to do so: “It is no such thing,” said Mr Benn.
“The original ruling did no such thing. The issue behind it is not whether we leave. We have to accept the outcome of the referendum and if we accept the outcome, then we have to trigger Article 50.”