Contribution to debate on Trade Bill, House of Lords, 11 September 2018

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My Lords, I, too, welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, who, I am sure, will recharge the flailing Brexiteer case in this House with her great eloquence.

This Bill could have huge significance for people’s jobs, people’s rights and the economy, because it illustrates how Brexit puts at risk not only our trade agreements with the other 27 member states of the EU, but agreements with around 70 so-called third countries around the world that collectively account for around two-thirds of the UK’s trade. In a no-deal scenario on exit day—which is enthusiastically advocated by many Brexiteers—we risk losing not only tariff-free access to the biggest single market in the world but the benefits of our participation in the EU agreements with these third countries.

It is also important that we debunk the Brexiteer myth that Britain will be freed to conquer new global trade markets if, and only if, we leave the single market and the customs union. Germany is in both, and its biggest trading partner is China. There are absolutely no barriers within the EU preventing us getting a greater share of global trade.

A further problem, once the UK ceases to be regarded as EU territory, is that for the purposes of complex rules of origin which define when a product benefits from tariff-free quotas, UK component parts and products will no longer qualify. This could have a huge impact on UK trade, especially in sectors such as the automotive industry and aerospace, where complex supply chains currently operate freely within the EU.

All these difficulties are exemplified—noble Lords will not be surprised to hear me mention it again and again—in the case of the Irish border. InterTradeIreland’s report last March, Cross Border Trade and Linkages, found that the vast bulk of cross-border trade is accounted for by firms that trade simultaneously in both directions. Although these two-way traders amount to just 18% of firms, they account for over 60% of imports and 70% of exports. The data also shows that most cross-border trade occurs in intermediate inputs—components of final products—and highlights the considerable interconnectedness of cross-border supply chains on the island of Ireland.

In addition to being exposed to costs from customs duties and increased administration, two-way trade also risks disruption from delays, particularly where supply-chain links are concentrated in perishable food products such as milk. Milk tankers cross the Irish border about 33,000 times a year. Northern Ireland produces around 2.2 billion litres of milk a year, of which some 30% is processed in the Republic. Milk and dairy products move in both directions, sometimes several times. For example, cream from Northern Ireland milk is removed in Virginia, County Cavan, in Ireland and sent back to the Baileys Irish Cream plant in Mallusk, County Antrim, in Northern Ireland. We should not think of trade across the Irish border as being confined to the island; much of it is connected to global trade as well. For example, this complex cross-border supply chain underpins global exports in powdered milk products from the island of Ireland, north and south. It is exposed on two fronts by Brexit. First, in the event of a hard Brexit, the north-south milk trade would become unprofitable due to tariffs ranging from 40% to as much as 64% depending on fat content. The second concern is that when the UK exits the EU, it will no longer be included in EU export agreements. It could take a period of years to put new export agreements into place for key milk powder markets. What is supposed to happen in the meantime to those dairy farmers and the thousands of other jobs dependent on these supply chains? The Brexiteers have absolutely no idea.

And for those no-deal zealots, in July, Pascal Lamy, the former director-general of the World Trade Organization, described as “pie in the sky” the idea that there would be no border on the island of Ireland if there was no deal. Therefore, as Labour has rightly argued, a new comprehensive customs union with the European Union after Brexit is the best way to protect jobs and the economy, as well as avoiding a potentially disastrous hard border on the island of Ireland. That is what the TUC, the CBI and major businesses such as Jaguar Land Rover and National Grid want.

For the last 40 years, when trade deals have been negotiated by the EU on behalf of its members, scrutiny has been delivered through the European Parliament’s Committee on International Trade and in the UK by the European Scrutiny Committee of the House of Commons. These mechanisms will no longer apply after Brexit. But surely trade negotiations must be transparent and open to scrutiny by stakeholders and the public. As things stand, these new arrangements with third countries which the Government call “continuity agreements” would be excluded from the Government’s new arrangements, admittedly still lacking in detail, for structured engagement with stakeholders in relation to the new trade agreements announced by the Secretary of State for International Trade on 16 July.

My Labour colleagues in the Commons successfully argued that the Government’s Bill as introduced was woefully deficient in that it accorded yet again a number of Henry VIII powers to Ministers but made no provision for parliamentary scrutiny, as takes place in other countries including Germany, New Zealand and Australia. Following an unprecedented campaign by trade unions, the trade justice movement and industry and consumer representatives, the Government, in fear of their own Back-Benchers, tabled amendments very late in the day addressing at least some of the issues. However, the Government simultaneously tabled an amendment that would allow Ministers to ignore these scrutiny provisions should they so choose. So much for taking back control. Furthermore, those provisions for enhanced parliamentary scrutiny did not extend to the clauses relating to the UK’s future membership of the WTO’s Government Procurement Agreement covered by the Bill. This is very worrying, as protections relating to public procurement need to be in place for public services such as the NHS and the public sector more generally in the UK. The Bill remains seriously deficient and still needs significant amendment to be made fit for purpose on these scrutiny issues.

I find it mind-boggling that, with the clock fast running right down, we still have absolutely no idea how, after Brexit, we will be trading with our biggest partner, Europe, or any other country outside. No wonder that investors and traders are giving up on the British economy and that Jacob Rees-Mogg has had to volunteer that we will be poorer for decades. He asserts that it is worth it because we will be free of Brussels: free, free, free at last, but poorer, poorer, poorer as well.

As they confirmed recently, Boris Johnson, David Davis, Liam Fox, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Iain Duncan Smith and the rest—and quite possibly the noble Lord, Lord Lilley—have no plan for their cherished Brexit. Meanwhile, government Ministers admit that we have no idea where we are going but we are going there anyway. What a way to run a country—no wonder the rest of the world thinks that reliable old Britain has gone barmy, with this Parliament a willing accomplice to what is rapidly becoming a national tragedy. The trade unions and others are providing a lead to rescue the country from this madness by demanding a people’s vote on the final deal. I hope that we will all support that.

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