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My Lords, it will come as no surprise to the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, that I disagree with virtually everything he said. As the Bill confirms, the Brexit charabanc is lurching giddily along, dragging our country towards a completely unknown destination. Even at this not-quite 11th hour, no Brexiteer, and certainly not the Prime Minister, has the faintest clue how we will be trading with our biggest partner—Europe—or any other country for that matter. No wonder the pound has plummeted and businesses engaged in any way with the outside world are at their wits’ end. It is therefore hardly a surprise that, although the Bill allows for the creation of a stand-alone customs regime for the UK, there is as yet no idea what shape it will take.
Everybody knows the mantra is “Brexit, dammit”, but nobody knows yet what it means, and maybe we never will until after we crash out into the nirvana of Trumpian free trade. That does not matter a jot because we will be free of Brussels—free, free at last—but God knows what new chains will now restrict our jobs, our prosperity, our businesses and our workers. I am no historian but I cannot think of any equivalent situation our country has ever faced as a result of a conscious act of government policy which says, “We’ve no idea where we’re going but we’re going there anyway”. Has the British political class ever done anything more utterly, profoundly irresponsible? Yet this Parliament, to our utter shame, has so far simply indulged in rubber-stamping it.
It should therefore be no surprise to anyone that the Bill illustrates how neither No. 10 Downing Street nor the arch-Brexiteers in the Conservative Party are now in control of their Brexit fantasies. Neither has a plan as the clock ticks down. What unites them is that it must click down regardless of the consequences. The people have spoken—full stop. We are going we know not where, but we are going anyway. This is rapidly becoming an act of collective national madness.
With the Chequers deal based on her flawed White Paper the Prime Minister was supposed to be keeping the UK close to the single market after Brexit, with some magical thinking about customs arrangements. Never mind that the services sector, forming a mere 80% of our economy, was abandoned. The importance of the Bill and the parallel Trade Bill should not be underestimated. Borders matter. Those who fantasise that the UK can enjoy frictionless trade under WTO rules need to understand that those rules mean hard borders, including within the island of Ireland. Even under the WTO’s most-favoured-nation rules, if we did not enforce the border in Ireland, we would be in breach of our agreements with other parts of the world, as would be, in parallel, the Republic and the EU. That would be a disaster for the economies of Northern Ireland and the Republic and would gravely threaten the peace and prosperity which have flourished since the Good Friday agreement of 1998, which is a binding treaty recognised under international law to which this Government pay lip service, but which is being steadily undermined by their whole approach to Brexit. No developed country trades purely on WTO rules, and it is fantasy to suggest that Britain should be the first to give it a go. Moreover, less than two weeks ago the director-general of the WTO pooh-poohed the idea that the UK could fall out of the EU straight into compliance with WTO arrangements, pointing out that it would take quite a time to negotiate the transition.
The debates on the Bill in the Commons demonstrated that the Government are a hostage to a minority of their own Back-Benchers, who chose to table four changes as wrecking amendments. The Chequers compromise can be seen as the Prime Minister’s attempt to steer her dysfunctional Cabinet towards a softer Brexit strategy that would mitigate, to some extent, the most damaging economic consequences of a hard or, worse still, a no-deal Brexit, but it started to fall apart at the first hurdle. Rather than risk defeat and a possible government collapse, these European Research Group amendments to the Bill were accepted by No. 10 and now potentially constitute new red lines, which may hinder the conclusion of a successful Article 50 withdrawal agreement.
The amendments in question were, first, to introduce the need for primary legislation if the Government want to keep Britain in a customs union. As my noble friend Lord Tunnicliffe and the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, have convincingly argued, and as Labour has compellingly argued, the case for a customs union with the EU is overwhelming—in order, among many other things, to avoid rules of origin requirements and check whether goods qualify for preferential tariff arrangements. According to the Government’s own analysis, these rules can burden businesses with additional administrative costs amounting to between 4% and 15%.
Furthermore, once the UK ceases to be regarded as EU territory, UK component parts and products will no longer benefit from zero tariffs as EU products under EU free trade agreements. That means that if the Government’s facilitated customs arrangement does not work, the fallback position will be no customs deal at all, which would be deeply damaging for our manufacturers. This could have a huge impact on UK trade and is the reason why a customs union is absolutely necessary for the sake of British manufacturing, international trade and Northern Ireland’s peace.
A second ERG amendment accepted by the Government ruled out a customs border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. This was accepted as in line with the Prime Minister’s previous position, despite her commitment in the UK-EU joint report of 8 December 2017:
“In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the”,
Belfast/Good Friday agreement.
The purpose of the second ERG amendment seems to be to destroy the negotiating room within which discussions on such backstop arrangements could take place. However, the most substantial and visible impact of the Bill will be at the UK’s borders—seaports and airports—and on our land border with the Republic of Ireland. It allows for the Irish border to return to being a customs border between the UK and Ireland. That means that goods leaving Northern Ireland will have to be cleared for exit from the UK and for entry to the EU.
First, goods crossing the border must be covered by a pre-departure declaration, partly to offer evidence of their status for VAT-free export. Secondly, goods will be able to enter the customs territory only through a designated place of clearance—which, for a land border crossing such as on the island, usually contains facilities for customs examination and clearance, including access to the relevant customs software systems to ensure that detailed information on the goods is submitted for recording and risk analysis purposes, and that correct duties are paid.
Thirdly, goods will be subject to customs duties from both sides. Fourthly, traders are more likely to be subject to requirements for import and export licensing. As the UK leaves the EU, all businesses in Ireland and Northern Ireland that trade across the Irish border will have to be properly registered to do so. Proper rollout of any trusted trader scheme requires time and agreement with trading partners.
Fifthly, the Bill will change common experience for VAT and Excise. Import VAT will be charged on all imports from outside the UK. Sixthly, if goods have to be inspected, there has to be the facility and capacity to do so. For the movement of agri-food produce, for example, including livestock, a rigorous veterinary and plant health inspections clearance regime must be in place. All of this illustrates the importance of getting a deal with the EU that avoids the need for customs controls between the EU and the UK.
How ironic it is, then, that this Bill also now contains a provision that risks making such a deal far less likely. The addition of this proposed new clause as a result of ERG dogma has ramifications not just for the Irish border; it also has implications for the current Brexit negotiations at a macro level. This was the Government’s intention in accepting it.
The so-called backstop in the draft withdrawal agreement is intended to prevent the scenario I have outlined previously coming into effect around the Irish border. However, what the ERG amendments, and therefore the subsequent new clause, do—in a fairly crude way—is to prevent that backstop being workable. It forces a scenario in which the Irish border is a customs border in the Bill. More to the point, by making it more difficult for the UK and EU to finalise the withdrawal agreement, it makes such a scenario all the more likely. This is no imaginary problem; there are no harmless consequences.
In July, the Prime Minister made her first substantial visit to Northern Ireland. When there, she visited the village of Belleek, on the Fermanagh-Donegal border. Belleek is in many ways a typical Irish border village. It has a population of Catholics and Protestants, British and Irish citizens, cross-border families and cross-border workers. A good number of such workers are employed by one business that straddles the border, with its front door in the Republic and its back door in the UK. As Theresa May’s entourage descended on the village, that business owner described the impact of the uncertainty around Brexit in a powerful way. “Out here”, he said, “We’re cannon fodder”.
The third ERG amendment Theresa May accepted makes it illegal for Britain to collect EU tariffs at its ports unless Brussels agrees to act on a reciprocal basis. The Government insisted that the amendment was consistent with the customs policy as outlined in the White Paper, because they envisaged using a formula to govern the flows of money based on trade patterns between the EU 27 and the UK. However, the White Paper does not explain exactly how this would work, and it seems highly unlikely that the EU will accept such a plan. There are further technical problems with the proposed facilitated customs arrangement, as it would appear to breach elements of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade—GATT—which is part of the World Trade Organization rules.
It is, in any case, a complete and utter delusion that the UK, with a market of 60 million, can improve on the negotiating strength we already have as a member of the EU with a market of 500 million, as far as free trade agreements with third countries are concerned. The point is that trade will become more costly and burdensome outside the EU single market and the customs union, and our businesses and manufacturers will be at a disadvantage compared with their European neighbours and competitors.
The ERG’s fourth amendment concerned VAT. Because the authorities need to know whether goods have crossed the border to properly apply the tax, the EU VAT area is absolutely crucial to avoiding a hard border. We currently have around 25 million customs declarations requiring payment of VAT at the border. That will potentially rise to 255 million after Brexit. Either goods are checked as they cross, requiring hard infrastructure and border friction, as happens in Switzerland and Norway, or we seek to stay in the EU’s system, which operates on the basis of a paper trail to track the movement of goods and requires European Court of Justice rules to apply. If the Government adopt neither option, it opens the UK up to massive fraud where goods enter the country VAT-free and people evade tax, depriving the Treasury—and therefore our already cut, battered and overstretched public services—of crucial revenue.
In conclusion, the debates on the Bill have illustrated that, as the reality of Brexit becomes clearer, the case for it disintegrates. Instead, the case for delaying Brexit and for giving not only Parliament but the people a meaningful vote, or a people’s vote, on any draft withdrawal agreement, becomes ever more compelling. I am delighted that my own trade union, the GMB, has today supported the principle of a people’s vote.