MPs and peers have attacked tight restrictions on access to Brexit analysis papers, claiming their content is little more than what has already been released into the public domain.
The Brexit secretary, David Davis, is due on Wednesday to appear before the exiting the EU select committee, to which he has handed over 850 pages of analysis after being forced to do so by a parliamentary vote.
Parliamentarians are now allowed to view the papers in a restricted-access reading room organised by Davis’s Department for Exiting the EU (DexEU), which one called “ridiculous amounts of security just to ensure that as few people see this stuff as possible”.
Another described the collection of documents as “two lever-arch files for 80% of the economy”.
It is understood that the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow Brexit ministers Paul Blomfield and Matthew Pennycook saw the papers on Thursday, as did senior Liberal Democrats, and other MPs and peers are due to see them over the coming days.
“It references materials already in the public domain, but they have been heavily, heavily edited to provide information which is uncontroversial and doesn’t add much to the substance,” a senior Labour source said. “It will raise real questions about what on earth the government is doing to prepare, if this is all there is.”
Dick Newby, the Lib Dem leader in the House of Lords, who was one of the first in the reading room, described the tight security as “a complete farce” and said it was incorrect to call the papers impact assessments.
“They make no assessment of the impact. They describe the current situation, they explain how the EU operates as well as how other countries work and then a section on what stakeholders think – that’s it,” he said.
“There is zero assessment of the economic impact. Nothing is redacted because there is nothing to redact.”
Lord Newby said the information provided to the government by trade bodies quoted in the reports was contained in statements they had made in public. “There is no reason whatsoever why they shouldn’t be published,” he said.
Some MPs on the committee view Davis’s failure to allow them to see unedited economic impact assessments, which they claim they were led to believe existed, leaves him in contempt of parliament.
That is because the humble address – an arcane parliamentary request rarely used since the 19th century – deployed by Labour to unearth the papers is binding.
Speaker John Bercow made clear that he would consider a letter from the Scottish National party’s Pete Wishart in relation to the issue.
“I have written once again to the Speaker saying that in my view the government are in contempt of the House and proceedings must be initiated,” Wishart told the Guardian.
“This government are refusing to accept scrutiny, belittling the means to hold them to account and refusing to accept their minority status. Patience is now running thin and the government must comply or face contempt.”
The drive to open the papers to scrutiny has been spearheaded by a Labour MP on the committee, Seema Malhotra. She has repeatedly quoted Davis himself referring to his department drawing up more than 50 impact assessments.
She is likely to drill the minister on Wednesday over why he made the claim if it was not true, but also to ask why – if the papers do not exist in the form that was originally promised – why not?
“Shouldn’t understanding the impact be part of what forms government policy?” she asked.
The papers include information about future international trade, including a survey of the retail sector naming its preferred new import sources including Mexico, Morocco, Peru and South Africa.
“This is pootling around in the undergrowth, nothing to do with major markets,” Newby said. “There are very, very few things of any interest at all.”
In order to view the papers, members must leave parliament and sign in to a reading room for pre-booked one-hour slots. They may book multiple hours back to back, and only eight politicians can be there at any one time, with their staff barred from entry, according to a letter sent to all members of both houses by Brexit minister Robin Walker.
Two officials monitor the room while MPs read the paper documents. No mobile phones or recording devices are allowed, though MPs can take notes – a situation that is understood to have caused cross-party irritation.
In his letter, Walker said the security would allow MPs to “conduct their scrutiny while respecting the need to keep certain information confidential”.
Davis will appear before the exiting the EU committee on Wednesday when the committee could decide to publish the papers. Departmental sources have insisted the information handed to the committee covered all industries and was ongoing work by civil servants that had been pulled together and edited in a way that officials believed would satisfy parliament’s demands.
Davis had previously claimed the government was “in the midst of carrying out about 57 sets of analyses, each of which has implications for individual parts of 85% of the economy. Some of those are still to be concluded.”
The Brexit committee chair, Hilary Benn, has said the editing of the documents was “not in keeping with the resolution that was passed by the House of Commons”.
A spokesperson from the Department for Exiting the EU said: “Our analysis is not, nor has it ever been, a series of impact assessments.
”We have always been clear that our analysis does not exist in the form parliament requested. We have taken time to bring together information in a way that meets parliament’s specific ask.
”Our overall programme of work is comprehensive, thorough and is continuously updated. This sectoral analysis is simply one part of it. It is not exhaustive and it is not the final say on any of these issues.”