David Davis has escaped formal censure after he was accused of holding parliament in contempt by saying on Wednesday that the government hasn’t carried out any impact assessments of leaving the EU on different sectors of the British economy.
After a meeting of the Brexit committee on Wednesday evening, the group agreed on a statement declaring it believes Davis had complied with what was required of him, making it highly unlikely the Brexit secretary will face contempt proceedings.
The SNP's shadow leader of the House of Commons told BuzzFeed News he had written to the speaker urging contempt proceedings after Davis’s testimony to parliament’s Brexit committee on Wednesday morning.
“I’ve already indicated to John [Bercow] that I’ll be raising a point of order today to outline what happened at the Brexit committee and suggest this can’t go on,” the SNP’s Pete Wishart said. Bercow said he would have to wait for the Brexit committee's report of Davis's remarks before taking any action.
This may not be the end of the issue: Chuka Umunna, the pro-Remain Labour MP, later tweeted to confirm he had written to Bercow, asking for an investigation into whether Davis had misled the Commons over the assessments.
The long-running dispute between MPs and the government about its internal analysis of the impact of Brexit escalated on Wednesday after a testy exchange between Davis and the Commons’ cross-party Exiting the European Union committee.
MPs who had been pushing for months for the government to release its impact assessments were visibly startled when they were told by Davis that the government has not actually carried out formal analysis of how leaving the EU will affect various sectors of the economy.
“There’s no sort of systematic impact assessment,” the Brexit minister said.
“So the government hasn’t undertaken any impact assessments on the implications of leaving the EU for different sectors of the British economy?” Hilary Benn, the Labour MP who chairs the committee, pressed the secretary of state. “So there isn’t one, for example, on the automotive sector?”
“No, not that I’m aware of,” Davis said.
“Is there one on aerospace?”
“Not that I’m aware of, no.”
“One on financial services?”
“I think the answer’s going to be no to all of them,” Davis replied.
Benn said it was “rather strange” that the government undertakes impact assessments routinely, on various policies, but hadn’t done so on “the most fundamental change we are facing”.
Davis also said the government hadn’t carried out an assessment of the economic impact of leaving the EU’s customs union before cabinet ministers decided on that policy.
“Isn’t that quite extraordinary?” Benn responded.
“No, no, no,” Davis said.
Davis said the Brexit department had, since it was established after the referendum in 2016, carried out an evolving series of pieces of analysis on different sectors of the economy that would be affected by Brexit, but that this did not involve making forecasts about how those industries would be affected.
The analysis did not amount to formal “impact assessments” in the sense that the term is used in government.
Davis said he doesn’t trust economic models because they are often inaccurate, and that it wasn’t necessary to carry out far-reaching impact assessments of individual sectors because the government’s policy is to seek a comprehensive free-trade agreement with Europe that will cover all sectors.
“Therefore the usefulness of such a detailed impact assessment is near zero,” Davis said. With his department stretched for resources and time, “It was was not a sensible use of resources.”
The Brexit minister added: “We will at some stage, and some of this has been initiated, we will at some stage do the best we can to quantify the effect of different negotiating outcomes as we come up to them. Bear in mind that we haven’t started phase 2 [of the negotiations] yet.”
Davis was pushed by the committee on how the revelations squared with his previous public statements about his department’s preparations for Brexit.
Last year, Davis told the Brexit committee the government was “in the midst of carrying out about 57 sets of analyses”.
In June, appearing on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show, Davis said: "We've got 50, nearly 60 sectoral analyses nearly done.”
In October, appearing again before the Brexit committee, Davis said the 57 pieces of analysis "are in excruciating detail”.
Asked whether Theresa May had seen the studies, Davis said: "She will know the summary outcomes of them. She will not necessarily have read every single one."
Speaking on Wednesday, Davis said he had never used the term "impact assessments".
“Do not draw the conclusion that just because you’ve used the word impact that you have written an impact assessment,” he told Benn in one lively exchange.
Parliament voted in November to force the government to release its impact assessments. Ministers then said the documents didn’t exist, and instead provided 850 pages of analysis they pulled together from various sources across Whitehall.
A reading room has been set up in Westminster so that MPs can peruse those documents in secret. Some have said the documents do not seem particularly comprehensive or insightful.
Davis said his department had done its best to meet the spirit of parliament’s request.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, one of the prominent Tory Brexiters on the committee, said on Wednesday that Davis’s department has responded “generously and fully” to what MPs asked for.
“It is getting as close as we can to meeting the intent of parliament,” Davis agreed.
Opposition MPs disagreed.
"It is unbelievable that these long-trumpeted impact assessments don't even exist, meaning the government has no idea what their Brexit plans will do to the country,” said Wera Hobhouse, a Liberal Democrat MP who sits on the Brexit committee.
"Whether it’s through incompetence or insincerity, David Davis has been misleading parliament from the start."