The government’s efforts to keep its Brexit negotiations secret are likely to include the establishment of secure reading rooms for MPs and peers to read strategy documents.
The plan for reading rooms policed by a security officer is designed to ensure that documents cannot be leaked, photographed or passed to a third party.
The government has come up with the idea as a way of fulfilling a commitment that it will allow UK parliamentarians the same level of access to Brexit negotiating documents as MEPs in Brussels.
Reading rooms have been developed in Brussels, and more recently London, as a way to stop documents on the near-defunct Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership from being leaked. The European commission believed that if it emailed TTIP documents to MEPs they were more likely to be leaked.
The reading room proposal, set out by the Brexit minister Lord Bridges, underlines the dilemma the government will face in keeping parliament informed of developments in the most important postwar negotiation undertaken by ministers, and Downing Street’s belief it must keep its hand close to its chest.
Bridges told peers this week that British MPs would be given the same access as MEPs, but added that because there was no precedent for the coming treaty negotiation, it was not yet clear what access to documents MEPs will be given by the European commission.
Bridges said ministers were looking at “mechanisms for transmitting information in such a way as to ensure that there can be timely debate and scrutiny on the negotiations, while at the same time ensuring that complete confidentiality can be maintained. For example, we are closely watching the recently opened TTIP reading rooms”.
Under the scheme, visitors have to hand over their mobile phones, sign an undertaking that they will not leak the documents and allow a security officer to monitor their movements. They are allowed to take handwritten notes, but not to access computers or tablets.
An EU select committee report published in the summer had called for parliamentarians to be given the same access to documents as MEPs currently enjoyed for trade negotiations, including the draft negotiating objectives.
The report on parliamentary scrutiny argued that in the EU it is agreed that “all documents are supplied to the European parliament in sufficient time for it to be able to express its view, and if necessary to publish formal recommendations, and for the commission [which conducts the negotiation] to be able to take these views and recommendations into account”.
In a skirmish about access to government thinking, some peers and MPs have been pressing ministers to publish a green paper setting out their broad negotiating objectives, including its vision for a future framework of EU relations, at the time it invokes article 50. Signs point to the government seeking a transitional deal, given the complexity of the negotiations ahead.
Ministers are keeping largely silent because they have not yet reached internal agreement on their negotiating strategy, and they are waiting for the supreme court to rule on whether the permission of both Houses must be sought before article 50 is invoked.
All but a handful of the most ardent pro-European parliamentarians are likely to vote for the government to be entitled to start the talks, largely making the court case an argument of principle about parliamentary sovereignty.
Lord Kerr, the former UK diplomat credited with writing article 50, this week urged ministers to shed some of its obsession with secrecy, saying he could not understand why they believed openness would undermine their negotiating stance.
He told peers this week: “Our initial negotiating stance will not be a secret from the foreigners very long, because when we say it, they will hear it. How could it be undermined by being presented to the people and parliament in advance?”
He claimed the real reason for the government secrecy was “the difficulty it faced in deciding exactly what their initial negotiating stance is to be, perhaps because the foreign secretary has failed to convince his colleagues that it is possible to have one’s cake and eat it for all the dossiers”.
He described the discussion with government as worse than hitting a tennis ball against a wall, saying it was instead like hitting the ball against a hedge: nothing ever comes back.
Ministers have briefed that they could envisage the government seeking two different trade deals with the EU, one covering goods and the other services.