[Relevant document: Oral evidence taken before the International Trade Committee on 29 November 2017, on the Trade Bill, HC 603-i.]
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Government have been clear that in leaving the European Union the UK will also leave its customs union, allowing us to establish and enhance our trading relationships with old allies and new friends around the world. Further to that, the Government have previously set out that in leaving the EU customs union and exercising the powers in this Bill, we will be guided by what delivers the greatest economic advantage to the United Kingdom and by three strategic objectives.
Before my right hon. Friend gets deep into his analysis, may I ask him about the expression “a customs union” in clause 31, which, according to the explanatory notes, clearly includes the EU itself? Will he be kind enough to tell me, either now or later in his speech, what the distinction is between the customs union and other kinds of customs union mentioned in clause 31?
Clause 31 makes provision for this country to enter into a customs union with another territory. That territory could be the existing customs union of the European Union after we have left the European Union, or it could be another territory separate from it. As he will know, such a move would be subject to a treaty and would not be entered into until a draft statutory instrument had been laid before the House and approved under the affirmative procedure, and then subsequently approved by Her Majesty as an Order in Council.
I say gently to the right hon. Gentleman that we are going down a rather well-worn path. The answer is quite simple: in June 2016, the British people took a decision—people may have ended up on different sides of the argument, but they took a clear decision—that we would exit the European Union. As a consequence of that, we will be leaving the customs union.
I was almost reassured by what my right hon. Friend said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash). Would it not remain perfectly lawful under clause 31 for this country either to stay in the existing union, or to re-enter it quite quickly without any further change to the law, and while remaining party to all the EU agreements with about 70 other countries and participating in them as though we were still a member of the European Union? If that is strictly the effect of the Bill, may I tell my right hon. Friend that I would be considerably reassured?
As my right hon. and learned Friend will know, article 50 was invoked—the decision was taken to invoke that particular article—with the consequences that we will exit the European Union on 29 March 2019, and therefore leave the European Union customs union. However, clause 31 does indeed facilitate our future ability to enter into customs union arrangements with other customs unions or territories, subject to the express will of Parliament, as I detailed with reference to the affirmative resolution that would have to be passed by the House.
The Manufacturing Trade Remedies Alliance tells me that 7,000 manufacturing jobs, including 2,500 in the chemicals industry, will be at risk in my constituency if the UK does not establish effective trade remedies. If there is no customs union, how will the Government guarantee that manufacturing workers will not be negatively affected by unfairly priced or subsidised imports?
The hon. Gentleman raises the extremely important matter of protecting our UK producers from dumped goods in this country, goods that have been subject to excessive subsidy, and indeed import surges that arise for other reasons. That is why this Bill and the Trade Bill, which will have its Second Reading tomorrow, make provision to set up a Trade Remedies Authority with the ability and powers to investigate appropriately the kinds of issues to which the hon. Gentleman alludes, and to ensure that we are able to take remedial action, in terms of additional duties and so on, to ensure that we properly address those particular threats as and when they occur.
The Financial Secretary of course knows how close we came to the collapse of the British steel industry, thanks to the dumping of Chinese steel, but even though schedules 4 and 5 of the Bill refer to incredibly onerous public interest and economic interest tests, there is absolutely no detail of how so many of the practical aspects will work. Why do the Government seem to be set on leaving our manufacturing sector completely exposed to the dumping of Chinese steel, for example?
I am afraid that I have to disagree with the hon. Gentleman. The Bill takes a balanced approach to the issue of protecting our domestic producers including, very importantly, steel producers. By “balanced approach”, I mean that we should also take into account the interests of consumers of those imported goods and businesses that use them in their processes. If the hon. Gentleman looks closely at the measures—we will do that in Committee—he will see that they provide for compensation where dumping has occurred and for appropriate sanctions to be made.
The economic advantage to the UK is very important, and that means continued UK-EU trade that is as frictionless as possible. It also means avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland and establishing an independent international trade policy. As we look forward to the next stage of our negotiations with the European Union, we see that the nature of our future customs relationship with the EU, and therefore the legislation that will allow the Government to give effect to any such relationship, become all the more significant.
My hon. Friend mentions the need to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. I know that he will also agree that we need to avoid an effective hard border on the channel crossing points, particularly the channel tunnel and the port of Dover. That is our principal road freight route for goods back and forth across the continent of Europe. It is essential that we maintain frictionless trade.
My hon. Friend is entirely right. That is why we have consulted ports so extensively, most importantly that of Dover, which I visited myself. I met the port authorities down there, and members of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs have been closely involved in consultations with the ports. Of course, the Bill allows the facilitations that we will require—both unilateral and bilateral—to ensure that the smooth flow of trade occurs at those vital ports. It is particularly essential that we do not have any delay to the processing of imports and exports that go through roll-on/roll-off ports.
On the specific need to keep trade frictionless, HMRC, which is part of the Minister’s Department, said that we would need an additional 5,000 customs officials. The Home Office said that it was already recruiting 300 additional staff, although I understand that they will backfill places rather than taking on additional roles. How many new customs officers are currently in training to prepare for the new customs regime in March 2019?
The important point is that we are in discussions with HMRC about its funding—[Interruption.] If I may, I will answer the hon. Gentleman’s question. We are discussing with HMRC the funding arrangements it will need in the 2018-19 financial year. As he suggested, Jon Thompson has said that between 3,000 and 5,000 staff will perhaps be required. Incidentally, they need not be new recruits; they may be people who are reallocated from other parts of HMRC as we change priorities, depending on how the negotiations pan out. I am very confident that an organisation of in excess of 50,000 people will be capable of recruiting sufficient individuals of the right calibre and with the right skills to ensure that the job is done.
Will the Minister confirm that on our current frontiers with the rest of the EU, excise, VAT, general taxation and currency are all different on the other side of the channel or the other side of the border with the Republic of Ireland, and that that all works very smoothly and mainly electronically today? Why do people think there would be a bigger problem if we needed to add another line to the electronic register because there was a customs charge as well?
My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. There is no doubt that we can foresee an end state in which a very frictionless process pertains on the borders between the EU27 and the United Kingdom as a separate customs territory. There are many examples around the world of technology in particular facilitating the free flow of goods across international boundaries.
The Minister referred to the EU’s borders. It is not only that we have a border with the Republic of Ireland, as the British overseas territories have borders. Gibraltar has a border with Spain, and Anguilla has a border with Saint Martin and Sint Maarten. Will he explain what the Bill will mean for British overseas territories?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, the overseas territories are not part of the existing European customs union. However, they clearly need to be factored into our discussions and negotiations. We are, of course, close to our overseas territories and, indeed, our Crown dependencies, and we will ensure that the arrangements that would suit those overseas territories, as well as the United Kingdom, are taken into account when determining where we land this deal and the approach that we take.
Does the Minister recognise the advice given by HMRC’s permanent secretary that it believes that all of what is required is doable, and indeed that it is confident that we can have the movement of trade without significant disruption? Does he accept that if we want a frictionless border not just between Northern Ireland and southern Ireland, but between southern Ireland and its main market in the United Kingdom, it is not just a matter of this Bill and the resources being in place, because there needs to be much more co-operation than has been demonstrated so far by the Irish Government?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, but I do not want to be tempted too far into the negotiations that pertain to matters between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. However, I will pick up on the point that he and other right hon. and hon. Members have made about readiness. The customs declaration services system that will need to be in place to handle around 300 million import and export transactions and declarations is well on target. It will start to go into use by this autumn and we firmly believe that it will be up and running by next January—well in time for the 29 March deadline.
The Minister is being very generous in taking interventions. Will he tell the House the estimated impact on the beef and dairy sectors in Northern Ireland, following today’s article in the Financial Times that flags up the massive cost to the industry that a completely new customs union system would entail?
Any issues around impacts on the flow of goods or trade necessarily require an assessment of where exactly the deal with the EU and—specifically in the case of the hon. Lady’s question—the Republic of Ireland lands. Until we know exactly where that lands, it is not possible to start opining on those impacts. I come back to my central point: we are negotiating hard, and it is in our interests, and of course those of the EU, to make sure that we have the lowest duties possible between our trading blocs, and that trade flows as freely and effectively as possible.
I have been asking the Minister for many months now about the impact of the 13th directive and the ability of other countries, once we are outside the EU, to vary their own VAT requirements. How can he be so confident that by next January he will be able to implement a system that looks at import and export tariffs, given that it will still be dependent on all 27 countries determining their VAT relationship with us? Does he have an agreement with them for that deadline?
The 13th directive—as the hon. Lady will know, is principally used by countries and businesses outside the EU for the purposes of reclaiming VAT within the UK—will not necessarily be an issue, depending on where the negotiation between us and the EU lands. It is quite possible—indeed, the Bill facilitates this—that continued engagement with IT platforms will allow an easy and effective method of making the kind of reclaims to which the directive relates. She raises the question of whether we have to be ready by next January. If we have an implementation period, for example, we might have considerably longer to bring the process into effect.
The purpose of the Bill is to ensure that on day one we are ready for whatever eventuality we are faced with. For example, the Bill moves us away from acquisition VAT to import VAT, as would be the case—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Nottingham East (Mr Leslie) thinks that that is some extraordinary revelation—almost a divine revelation—but it is actually in the Bill, as he will find if he reads it. To get technical, if he really wants to find out where this will end up, I think it inserts new section 15 into the Value Added Tax Act 1994. All these possibilities will be facilitated, but it will depend on where the negotiation lands.
I appreciate that the Minister did not even get on to the section of his speech about VAT before we started to ask him about it, but following on from the previous intervention, he will be aware that many small businesses in this country have not had to deal with import VAT, because they have been dealing with imports from the EU, and that finding upfront cash to pay for that would be a real problem for them. Will he assure the House that he is aware of that issue and the concerns of small businesses about cash flow, and that he hopes to return to this matter? As he knows, we have discussed this before, and as Chair of the Treasury Committee, I will be writing to HMRC to ensure that we understand its current thinking.
My right hon. Friend, who has been a doughty campaigner for the interests of business, is absolutely right to raise this issue, with which the Government and the Treasury have sympathy. We do not want over 100,000 businesses to be disadvantaged in cash terms in the way she describes, so this is certainly something that we will be looking at closely going forward. The Bill itself does not prescribe any particular end point in this context. It will be for the Government, after the passage of the Bill, to decide exactly where we wish to end up.
My right hon. Friend said that the Treasury might be inclined to be generous to businesses that had their cashflow disadvantaged by this change. Would he perhaps be less generous to large businesses that wholly disadvantage their small UK suppliers by forcing them to accept 120-day payment terms, thus effectively putting many out of business? It would be rather generous to let such businesses off earlier VAT payments on their purchases from within the EU if they were not paying their UK suppliers to a decent timetable.
My right hon. Friend is being very generous. It would help us all if he could confirm that this is really an enabling Bill, and that it therefore should not alarm either those who wish to see the continuity of existing trading arrangements, or those who want significant differences. It paves the way for either scenario, depending on the negotiations in Europe.
As usual, my hon. Friend is eloquent and to the point. He makes an important point because, as he says, the Bill is intended to ensure that wherever the deal with the European Union lands, we will be in a position to be ready on day one to ensure that we keep trade flowing across our frontiers, to the benefit of our economy, our businesses and our consumers.
I mention this only because of the very articulate response that my right hon. Friend gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham). The Bill refers to Orders in Council, which the Financial Secretary has mentioned, and also includes the words “despite any enactment”. Could that include the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, when it has been enacted? Could it also include any other transitional arrangements under a further enactment? The words “despite any enactment” are very dramatic.
I think it is clause 32 that sets out the basis on which the powers will be dealt with. The Bill is extremely clear that any treaty between ourselves, as a customs union, and another territory or customs union must be subject to a draft affirmative statutory instrument. Having been laid, such an instrument would not come into effect immediately, but only when Parliament—or, specifically, the House of Commons—had considered and passed it. At that point, and only at that point, would an Order in Council follow, which would effectively bring the will of the House into law.
My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. At the heart of the issues that we are discussing are British businesses of all sizes. Because we want to ensure that we have an environment that is as good as possible for those businesses, consultation has been at the heart of our approach. We produced a discussion paper last year, as well as a White Paper, to which we received responses. I know that my colleagues in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs have been actively engaged for many months in roundtable discussions with not just businesses, but representatives of ports and airports, and all the important actors in the process of importing and exporting into and out of the United Kingdom.
Perhaps I could now make a little progress—
I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way so generously, and for giving way to me twice. Let me also congratulate him on the eloquent clarity that he is bringing to this whole subject. He confirmed to my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) that this is essentially a contingency Bill in case things change, and that it covers everything from carrying on roughly as we are now to having quite different arrangements. However, does it remain the Government’s preference that things should stay the same if the negotiations are successful? Paragraph 10 of the explanatory notes states that
“it is the government’s intention that the UK’s Customs regime will continue to operate in much the same way as it does today following exit from the EU.”
Can my right hon. Friend confirm that that remains the Government’s policy intention in the context of the forthcoming negotiations?
My right hon. and learned Friend raises an important point. The Government are indeed saying that we recognise the importance of ensuring that we have a smooth and frictionless trading situation between ourselves and the European Union once we have left it. Although we will have left the European Union, the Bill will facilitate our ability to have similarities in the way in which we trade. It will then be up to us to decide how we deviate from our starting point. We see the current position, under the European Union code—the customs code and the legislation in the European acquis—as a starting point to which we need to be reasonably aligned, even though we might diverge from it in the years ahead as a result of the negotiations, if that would be to the benefit of our country.
The Minister has clarified that it is the Government’s intention to continue with the existing customs arrangements, and that the Bill will allow for the possibility of a continued customs union. Can he also confirm that the content of any new customs arrangements or customs union will be decided only through secondary legislation, rather than through primary legislation? Would it not be better to have a proper vote on the Floor of the House on primary legislation on whether we should stay in a customs union?
The right hon. Lady poses an ingenious question. The simple answer is that the form of the arrangements with the European Union after our exit is the subject of the negotiations. The Government have committed to holding a meaningful vote on the deal. The focus will be on whether the deal is appropriate, not on secondary legislation within this legislation. This Bill is designed to facilitate whatever the will of Parliament ends up being. That is the important point.
The Government have been clear from the outset of the negotiations that, as we implement the decision of the British people to leave the EU at the end of March 2019, we want a deep and special partnership with the European Union and that, as we move towards any future relationship, we should seek to minimise disruption and maximise the opportunities that the process of withdrawal represents. That is in the interests of businesses and individuals in the UK and the EU.
Since triggering article 50, the Government have worked intensively with our European partners to settle the issues in the first phase of the negotiations—namely, a fair deal on citizens’ rights allowing UK and EU citizens to get on with their lives in the country in which they live; a financial settlement that honours the commitments that the UK has undertaken as a member of the European Union, just as we said we would; and an agreement on the island of Ireland that preserves the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom and the stability that has been brought about by the Belfast agreement. We have made great strides in each of those three areas, and I am sure that Members on both sides of the House will welcome the European Council’s agreement last month that sufficient progress had been made on phase 1 and that we should move on to talks about our future partnership.
This development in the negotiations means that we can now look forward to discussing our future customs relationship with the EU. As I reminded the House earlier, the Government have been upfront in setting out their objectives for any such arrangement. The Prime Minister has been clear that, although we are leaving the EU, and therefore its customs union, we are not leaving Europe. So just as the UK will establish an independent international trade policy and look to forge trading relationships with new partners around the world, it is also critical that our future customs arrangements allow us to keep trade between the UK and the EU member states as free and frictionless as possible.
The Minister keeps on referring to the importance of free and frictionless trade with the European Union, but is it not time for the Government to be a bit clearer with the public that, through our membership of the customs union, we have preferential trade agreements with a further 65 countries right across the world? This is not just about protecting trade with the EU; we also need to protect those existing trading relationships. As far as any future trade deals are concerned, we must recognise that size matters, and that we are better and stronger as part of the European bloc.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and it is one that I largely agree with. It is important that we maintain the existing arrangements that we have been brought into by virtue of our membership of the European customs union, which is exactly why we are in discussions with those countries to ensure that we have appropriate arrangements in place once we leave the EU and its customs union. Over and above that, there will be opportunities to forge trading relationships with other countries around the world, which we are prohibited from doing at present because of our membership of the EU customs union.
My constituents are today dealing with the news of yet more job losses at Vauxhall in Ellesmere Port. We are a place that manufactures, and we want to keep manufacturing, so can the Minister tell me and my constituents exactly what these opportunities are?
The opportunities will be very significant indeed—[Interruption.] If the hon. Lady will allow me, I will attempt to answer her question. Of course our trading relationship with Europe is extremely important, which is why we are having negotiations with our European partners. It is important to us and to them to ensure that we maintain those relationships to the highest degree. However, a growing percentage of our trade is now taking place outside the European Union—certainly more than was the case five or 10 years ago—and the expanding markets of the future are not necessarily going to be the countries that constitute the membership of the European Union. To answer the hon. Lady’s question directly, the opportunities lie out there in China, India, the United States and other countries around the world with which we will be able to forge a freer set of trade agreements than we have been able to contemplate during our membership of the European Union.
The Minister continually uses the word “frictionless” and talks about keeping things as they are now. Indeed, the Bill will facilitate our keeping the customs union regulations as they are at the moment, so what principle are the Government using to take participation in the customs union off the table?
This comes back to the fundamental point that on leaving the European Union we will be leaving the customs union. Then it will simply become a question of what kind of relationship we negotiate with the EU and its customs union. The Government’s position is clear on this. We want these arrangements to be as frictionless as possible. We want to facilitate trade rather than putting barriers in the way of what will be a European customs union of 27 nations after Brexit.
The Minister seemed to say previously that it might not be a great thing for the UK to leave the customs union and the single market, but that we were doing it because that was the will of the people as expressed in the referendum result. Is that the only reason that we are doing this?
I apologise to the hon. Lady if I said something that in any way misled her. I do not think that I actually said that. What I said was that, as a consequence of leaving the EU, we will of necessity be leaving the customs union. Now, in the negotiations, we need to strike the best possible deal for our country—a deal that is in our interests and those of the European Union and that maintains a close, frictionless, positive and mutually beneficial relationship between ourselves and a customs union of the remaining 27 members.
On the subject of the negotiations that the UK is having with countries with which it currently has free trade arrangements because it is part of the EU, and on the rules of origin issue, what discussions has the Minister had about cumulation and about whether the EU will accept UK-EU cumulation, or whether we will be required to have parts made only in the UK?
As the hon. Lady will probably know, those are matters of ongoing discussion within the Department for International Trade, but this Bill and the Trade Bill, which will have its Second Reading tomorrow, are about ensuring that country-of-origin issues can be determined by ourselves under our own laws, rather than having to depend upon on those of the European Union.
It is entirely true that we cannot have our cake and eat it—[Interruption.] I am paraphrasing the EU, not the Government’s position. Our position has always been that we foresee a mutually advantageous trading relationship with the European Union’s customs union and, for the purposes of this afternoon’s debate, the important point is that this Bill provides and facilitates the ability to produce exactly that.
It is important to provide certainty and continuity to businesses, including the hundreds with which the Government have met and consulted since the referendum. Crucially, the Government remain firmly committed to avoiding any physical infrastructure at the land border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. That commitment and progress on the issue were formally recognised at last month’s European Council, and it will continue to inform our approach in the future.
The Government set out in their future partnership paper last summer and in the White Paper for this Bill two options for our future customs arrangements—two options that most closely meet those objectives. One is a highly streamlined customs arrangement, which comprises a number of measures to help to minimise barriers to trade, from negotiating the continuation of some existing trade facilitations to the introduction of new, technology-based solutions. The other option is a new customs partnership: an unprecedented and innovative approach under which the UK would mirror the EU’s requirements for imports from the rest of the world that are destined for the EU, removing a need for a formal customs border between the UK and the EU. The Government look forward to discussing both those options with our European partners and with businesses in both the UK and the EU as the negotiations progress.
The Government have already taken a number of important steps to ensure readiness for EU exit, including most recently at the Budget when my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced £3 billion of funding for Departments and the devolved Administrations to support their preparations. HMRC is on course to deliver a functioning customs service on day one that enables trade to flow, HMRC to collect revenues and the UK to have a secure border. The Treasury has already effectively allocated over £40 million of additional funding to HMRC this year to prepare for Brexit and continues to work with HMRC to understand its ongoing Brexit requirements. The Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Bill represents a significant part of our preparations.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I sense that he is coming to a conclusion, so I wanted to get this particular question in. The programme motion specifies when he and the Government want the Bill to come back for Report and Third Reading, but how many sittings does the Minister intend the Bill to have in Committee? Many hon. Members would have expected a Committee of the whole House, but that does not appear to be the case and the Committee stage will happen upstairs. Will he guarantee that significant time will be available in Committee for those lucky Members to scrutinise this legislation properly?
I will make two points. First, as the hon. Gentleman will know, such matters are for the usual channels, and his party is an important part of the usual channels. Secondly, the Bill will of course receive the normal high level of scrutiny as it passes through the House—line by line, clause by clause. Amendments can be tabled, debated and divided on if necessary. The Bill will then come back to the House on Report and for Third Reading. If he has any particular representations to make about the number of sittings in Committee, he should perhaps speak to his Whips, who can then speak to our Whips, and I am sure that we will all end up in a happy place on the issue he has raised.
The Minister is being generous, as he always is. Having been opposing Whips at various points on various financial matters, I know that he always does these things in good faith, but I share the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham East (Mr Leslie). Both Front-Bench teams are currently tied up with the Finance Bill that is going through—an important piece of legislation that we quite rightly oppose many parts of. Given that, we will not be able to start the scrutiny of this Bill in Committee for quite some time, and the Bill is due to be out of Committee by 1 February. The Bill will not receive full scrutiny in the House of Lords because this is a money Bill, so will the Minister tell us how many Committee sittings there will be to scrutinise a large, substantial and important Bill?
I thank the Minister for giving way and for drawing attention to the “Future customs arrangements” paper that came out in the summer and the two potential solutions: the highly streamlined option or the new customs partnership. Will he confirm that the Government are still open minded about both options and that this Government’s priority is to maximise stability and minimise uncertainty not only for British consumers buying products from the continent, but for continental suppliers trying to sell to us and vice versa?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the Government’s position is that we are determined to explore both models actively. The new partnership model would be a creative and unique approach to a customs union with the European Union in which we would effectively have a common customs border and no customs border between ourselves and the other EU member states. Its very uniqueness and the creative thinking needed to reach any such agreement means that it would probably happen on a longer timeframe than some of the other approaches that we will be taking, but I can confirm that we want to continue to discuss both options with our European partners.
The Bill allows the UK to establish a new, standalone customs regime, ensuring that VAT and excise legislation operates as required upon EU exit. The Bill makes a number of provisions that are absolutely essential for any future customs regime to function effectively regardless of the outcome of the negotiations. Those provisions include allowing the UK to charge customs duty on goods, including those imported from the EU, allowing the Government to set out how and in what form customs declarations should be made, and giving the UK the freedom to vary the rates of import duty as necessary, particularly in the case of trade remedies investigations and for developing countries. Moreover, it will confer a number of necessary and appropriate powers to allow the UK to respond effectively to the outcome of the negotiations, and it will give the Government the ability to make subsequent changes to the customs, VAT and excise regimes, which may be required later but cannot be predicted as this stage.
As I have set out today, the Government recognise the importance of providing certainty and continuity to businesses, so this Bill will allow the Government to make good on their intention to replicate the effect of existing EU law wherever possible as the UK leaves the EU. I look forward to debating the provisions and the underlying issues as the Bill makes its way through this House. The Bill takes significant steps to ensure that the UK is ready for EU withdrawal by allowing our country to establish a standalone customs regime and by ensuring that our VAT and excise legislation operates as required upon exit day. As we begin discussions with the EU on our future partnership, the Bill ensures that we can do so with the utmost confidence, securing our ability to deliver a robust, efficient, effective customs regime whatever deal is struck with our European partners. As such, the Bill underpins our great country’s ability to pursue its own trade deals with partners from right across the world, and I commend it to the House.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “That” to the end of the Question and add:
“That this House recognises that the UK will need considered and effective arrangements to ensure a customs and tariff regime, including the potential of a customs union with the European Union, is in place before the UK’s exit, in order to guarantee frictionless movement of goods at UK ports and the ability to levy customs duty and VAT and to protect manufacturing and other key industries through the power to enact protective tariffs, but declines to give a Second Reading to the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Bill because the Government has failed to provide a coherent plan for the operation of the customs and tariff regime after the UK’s exit from the European Union or for the maintenance of frictionless movement of goods at UK ports, because the Bill is not accompanied by proposals to ensure that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs are properly resourced and organised to implement a new customs and VAT regime, because the needs of UK manufacturers and producers have not been properly reflected in the design of the proposals and because the Bill proposes to give excessive powers to Ministers without appropriate procedures for parliamentary consultation and scrutiny.”
Here we are at the start of another year, and it feels much the same as the last one—the same old empty Bills, long on rhetoric and short on detail. Yet always the Government’s default position is a fresh set of powers for Ministers, which is the one fixed point in a changing world. This Government seem to be taking back more control from Parliament as each day passes.
The Bill ostensibly sets out to create a functioning customs framework for the United Kingdom once we leave the European Union—hope springs eternal. We accept that such an arrangement is necessary, regardless of the UK’s future relationship with the EU or, indeed, the nature of its wider trading relationship, yet once again we have been denied any detail in the Bill itself, as hon. Members have identified. There is nothing to guarantee frictionless trade through the UK’s ports from the moment of exit, no measures properly to resource Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs for the task and nowhere near sufficient detail on the powers and provisions of the Trade Remedies Authority that will be charged with ensuring that our vital British industries are protected. Only yesterday we saw the potentially disastrous consequences of that lack of detail, with reports on the likely result of the Government’s failure to address the EU VAT area for thousands of businesses.
In short, instead of setting up a stable customs framework, this Bill provides few of the policy or, indeed, practical considerations required for the task of leaving the European Union.
This Government have guaranteed absolutely nothing whatsoever. Time after time, they hide behind the veil of negotiation.
Before addressing the Bill’s specific failures in meeting the Government’s objectives, I will raise the issue of the powers created by this Bill that enable Ministers to do whatever they want. The leave campaign’s central message, the one repeated time and again and printed across its campaign literature, was that leaving the European Union would allow the Parliaments and Assemblies of the UK to “take back control” of our law making. And yet again, every piece of legislation published by the Government relating to our exit creates more powers for Ministers, while ignoring Parliament completely. Parliament is in a persistent state of having its head patted—that is as much as Parliament is getting at the moment.
Lots of people want to speak, so I will move on and come back in a minute.
We now have a Government who are prepared to change the law to give themselves a majority on Public Bill Committees—that is where we are. They are prepared to ignore votes of the House on Opposition day motions, and they are now prepared to undertake the greatest centralisation of powers that Parliament has seen since the war.
Does my hon. Friend agree with me and many Labour Members that the programme motion needs to be more detailed and needs to make it clear that we will have proper scrutiny in Committee, with more sittings than currently appear to be on offer from the Government?
We will get as much scrutiny as possible on this Bill.
Having completely failed to create a strong and stable Government at the last election, the Prime Minister seems to be ignoring the will of the electorate and grabbing power by any means necessary. That is particularly the case with this Bill, where Ministers are being handed powers to set import and export duties, preferential rates and quotas across any good or service sector in our economy. This Bill will give the Government the power fundamentally to reshape the environment in which our economy operates with a few strokes of a pen.
As my hon. Friend says, it is critical that Parliament has a say. CF Fertilisers on Teesside is worried about the dumping of cheap goods, particularly from Russia, if we do not get the anti-dumping legislation right. The Minister says that will be addressed by this Bill and by the Trade Bill, which will have its Second Reading tomorrow, but I cannot see anything that says so. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is all the more reason why we need much more time in Committee to ensure that such guards are put in place?
My hon. Friend makes a good point that we need to have absolute scrutiny of the Government’s proposals.
We know what the Government would do with the powers contained in this Bill. They would tear up protections for British producers and consumers, throw workers’ rights on to the bonfire and create a free-market offshore tax haven—a miserable pound-shop economy. The Government know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
The Government do not have the authority to act in that way. The referendum and the recent election show a country divided, and it is Parliament’s job to reflect the country’s will and to develop a workable consensus. This Government, much like the disastrous Major Administration, have no mandate to implement such far-reaching changes, which is why the Labour party’s reasoned amendment would deny the Bill a Second Reading. We demand that the Government return with a Bill that sets out a clear path to our mutual objective of creating a functioning institutional framework for the handling of customs once we leave the European Union, one that provides the proper powers of scrutiny to Parliament, as promised by the leave campaign and as determined by the citizens of the UK in the recent election. Anything less is an affront to our democratic process and will only spell disaster for our country as this weak Prime Minister becomes prey to the worst instincts of many Conservative Members.
I am happy to have a conversation with my hon. Friend outside the Chamber, but this is about the Government’s policy, not ours.
HMRC resourcing is another issue that we have to address. Everyone in this House agrees that we must avoid the nightmare scenario of gridlock at UK ports, with lorry queues stretching as far as the eye can see, yet the Government continue to do Brexit on the cheap with their refusal to fully fund and resource HMRC. Its staffing levels have been cut by 17% since 2010, and they are set to be cut further this year as it plans to close 137 offices across the country. The Minister must recognise the urgent need to hire and train more customs officers and HMRC staff, particularly if the Government are to meet their over-ambitious target of a fully operational customs system by 2019.
Although the Treasury is keen to tout technology as its magic solution to customs post Brexit, Ministers have failed to offer specifics on what a new customs system will look like and on whether it will even be ready in time. At the same time, there remains huge underlying questions about whether the current customs declaration service programme can deal with the sheer workload and pressure post Brexit.
A new IT system is no substitute for a fully resourced and staffed HMRC. Even with a transitional arrangement with the EU, the Treasury must recognise the urgent need to increase HMRC’s budget and staff, which is why the Opposition will attempt to amend the Bill to require Ministers to report back to Parliament on HMRC staffing levels and on the progress on testing and implementing these new systems.
Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that HMRC has been given all the funding it has asked for to be ready for Brexit? Doe he recognise that the Treasury has set aside a total of £3 billion, that £400 million has gone to HMRC, that the negotiations are under way and that it will be given what it asks for to be ready on Brexit day?
There is no one in training and the staff on the ground take a completely different view from the hon. Lady.
The Bill outlines the trade remedies the Government will enforce against the dumping of unfairly priced goods. At the moment, these remedies are provided by the EU, but on leaving, the UK will have to enact and manage its own trade remedies. These measures are spread across this Bill and the Trade Bill and are of great importance to UK manufacturers. As I have said at this Dispatch Box on previous occasions, the Opposition will oppose any attempt by this Government to undermine UK manufacturing and jobs by the weakening of trade remedies, as well as any attempt to dismantle unilaterally the external tariff and open up UK markets to unfairly priced goods. This is a question not of protectionism, but of fairness and the rule of law, as countries that allow or encourage state dumping are not playing by international rules.
The manufacturing industry remains an indispensable part of the UK economy. According to the Office for National Statistics, manufacturing accounted for 2.3 million jobs in 2016 and 10% of the UK’s total economic output. These jobs are shared out across the minerals and ceramics, paper, steel, glass, chemical and fertiliser sectors. They are also spread across communities across the country, where manufacturing remains one of the largest employers. In my constituency alone, more than 2,500 people are employed in manufacturing, and the same will be true of the constituencies of many Members here today.
The trade remedies proposed in this Bill are pitiful to say the least. They are far weaker than the remedies currently in place in the EU and are weaker than those in most developed trading nations, and if they remain unchanged, they will put manufacturing jobs at risk.
I agree very much with the point my hon. Friend is making about the pitiful nature of the trade remedies in the Bill. Indeed, I think that it poses much greater risks for industries such as the steel industry in my constituency. Does he agree that it is necessary to put paid to the myth that existed that we could not take trade remedies when we were part of the EU? Indeed, the former Steel Minister who is sitting opposite, the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), took a good decision, for which I praised her at the time, to introduce remedies on certain steel products that affected steel in my constituency. Whether these decisions are taken or not is a political choice; it is not about whether we can do this or not under the EU.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right on that point.
What is concerning is the fact that UK manufacturers and key industries have not been consulted on the trade remedies in the Bill. Perhaps the Minister can explain why, if the Prime Minister is happy to meet representatives from Toyota to agree a deal and the Environment Secretary is in regular contact with the National Farmers Union on future agricultural subsidies, he has failed to consult an industry that represents nearly 10% of the economy and employs millions on the trade remedies it needs to protect UK jobs.
I am sure my hon. Friend will have seen the letter in the Financial Times from the chief executive officers of the British steel, paper, ceramics, minerals and chemicals associations, along with their trade union counterparts, which puts this very well: they are deeply critical of the Bill, saying it does not do anything like what is required on trade defence and making it absolutely clear that the UK’s manufacturing base and tens of thousands of jobs around the country will be at risk if Parliament gets this Bill wrong.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right on that point, and on that issue the Government just are not listening—it is as simple as that.
As I was saying, I have no doubt that if the Minister had consulted, he would have been told by industry professionals in no uncertain terms to tear up this Bill and start again. It offers no legal certainty for UK manufacturers. Schedule 4, in particular, has little detail on how investigations will be conducted or on how calculations and remedies will be applied. In addition, a mandatory lesser duty rule is completely out of step with the direction the EU is heading in and with the majority of countries in the World Trade Organisation.
The economic interest test outlined in the Bill is of particular concern, as not only is it unique to most WTO countries, but it appears to be tipped towards the consumer and against the producer; it is absolutely out of balance. It is far too wide and gives unprecedented powers to a Secretary of State for International Trade who has already advocated lowering food standards and weakening workers’ rights. The Bill does not state the duration of the remedies that would be in place, whereas the EU currently stipulates five years. Nor is the Bill clear about the rolling over of specific EU trade remedies that are set to expire and that must be replaced by the Secretary of State or whole sectors would be left vulnerable. Those are just a few of the concerns that the Opposition have with the trade remedies outlined in the Bill, and we will raise them further and seek to amend them in Committee.
As I mentioned, the Opposition recognise the need for effective customs and tariff arrangements, which will guarantee the frictionless movement of goods at UK ports. The ability to levy customs duty and VAT as well as to protect manufacturing and key industries when the UK leaves the EU is also important—
My hon. Friend knows that that matter has been debated on many occasions, and I am not going to go there.
The trade remedies outlined in the Bill are woeful and will not protect UK manufacturing and jobs. Similarly, the Government have failed to provide any clear indication alongside the Bill that they will properly fund and staff HMRC to make sure it can effectively manage our customs and tariff regime post Brexit. This is yet another poorly drafted Bill from an increasingly chaotic and divided Government, who seek to award themselves unprecedented power and shield themselves from any parliamentary scrutiny. That is why I urge colleagues from across the House to support our reasoned amendment.
I really wanted to contribute to today’s debate because my local port of Heysham will be directly affected by the outcomes of what we are discussing today.
I went to see the port not so long ago to talk about how we best facilitate the trade coming through it. I met the port authorities and the chief executive of Seatruck Ferries, Alistair Eagles, who envisaged that, given the way things are looking, there would be no problem with trade from Northern Ireland coming into the port of Heysham and the rest of the UK. There was one thing that concerned me around that time: press reports of a “Dad’s Army” of customs officers being recruited. Such reports were completely unfounded and erroneous, because we know now that customs officers are being recruited. The main point I looked into was the fact we could get our trade from Northern Ireland moving through the port of Heysham seamlessly, as happens now. It was agreed at the time that that could carry on, so I am glad to report to the Chamber that, judging by what I found out and the experiences of how the port is working, we do not envisage a problem.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that we on the Northern Ireland side also welcome the fact that the Government have made it clear that trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK will not be interrupted in any way as a result of leaving the EU? Indeed, despite what has been said in this House time and time again, the Government have put forward very positive proposals as to how that frictionless trade can be conducted.
I could not have put that any better—I agree with everything the hon. Gentleman said.
I will give just one taste of how trade works in my area. We are the first port of call—excuse the pun—for Northern Ireland. I hope that the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) and I are going on a little project on a Wrightbus—known as the Boris bus—from his constituency through the port of Heysham all the way down to London to demonstrate exactly how trade works within the UK and how it will flourish under the Bill.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for enlightening the House on that point. As he knows, that bus is in itself a great expression of how trade works within these islands. People from the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) work in a factory in my constituency, which draws on skills from across the whole United Kingdom, whether the tarmac manufacturers in Scotland, the electronics manufacturers in Manchester or the window developers for buses. All those skills are put into one product, which is seen every day on the streets of London, Manchester and other parts of the UK. It is a good example of how trade works practically, putting people into employment. I welcome the project that the hon. Gentleman suggested.
The hon. Gentleman explains succinctly that the supply chain that makes the buses is immense in his constituency and in the wider UK. That is why trade must flourish between Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom and Europe.
It is a fact that we will leave the EU, and it is best to think about how we do it. The Bill covers the initial stages of facilitating that.
My hon. Friend is generous in giving way. I am sure that he agrees that, given that southern Ireland does 80% of its trade with or through the United Kingdom, it is also in Ireland’s interest that that carries on seamlessly. Like my hon. Friend, I have a port—Cairnryan—in my constituency, and if any of the buses are too much for others to handle, I would love them to be sent my way.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, which brings me nicely to my next point. I have to be careful what I say because I am still Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I put it on record that I wish him well. He has not just been an excellent boss; he is a more than excellent friend. I welcome the new Secretary of State, whose name has just been announced: my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley).
We have a free trade border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, and we have had it since the 1920s. Two currencies operate in the area, and there is not a problem. To be grown up about the situation, there is no reason why that should not carry on. However, I urge all Members to think of the benefits that can arise from our leaving the EU. Gibraltar has been mentioned. Since Brexit was announced, Gibraltar has increased its trade by 25%, and there does not seem to be a problem with borders that it is not already experiencing. It is therefore in the interests of not just the UK but the EU that we continue with the frictionless borders and frictionless trade tariffs. That is the grown-up view.
I urge hon. Members to allow the Bill to go forward. I will vote for it this evening and I urge Ministers to heed what I have said, even though it is about a microcosm of the UK, and ensure that we get the best deal for the UK within Europe.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Bill, which I will call the customs Bill for ease during my speech. I am particularly delighted that we are considering it at the same time as the Finance Bill—that is excellent. I am not sure whether Hansard can capture my sarcasm there.
Is the Minister as concerned as I am about the issues that so many different organisations have raised? Perhaps the Minister and the teams in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs have been meeting the organisations that are raising concerns, but I do not think that they have been listening. Part of the problem for me is the wide range of organisations that are raising a wide range of issues. As many hon. Members have said, they include UK Steel, the Manufacturing Trade Remedies Alliance, the British Ceramic Confederation, the GMB and the TUC, but also the British Chambers of Commerce, the British Retail Consortium and the Law Society of Scotland. All those organisations have raised issues, which are not all specifically about trade remedies. There are therefore several problems with the Bill, not just with one aspect but across the measure.
The Bill has 166 pages and creates so many delegated authorities that the Government have had to produce an 174-page document detailing them. The majority relate to the negative procedure, though some relate to the affirmative procedure. In four instances, the UK Government create Henry VIII powers—the power to amend or repeal an Act of Parliament—which are particularly concerning. We have consistently raised concerns about Henry VIII powers, and we will continue to do that. The Chartered Institute of Taxation said:
“The Bill will, we understand, have the powers to amend primary legislation using secondary legislation; raising similar concerns around delegated powers as with the EU (Withdrawal) Bill.”
UK Steel said that
“key aspects of the UK’s trade legislation will evade proper parliamentary scrutiny”.
It is a major concern when UK Steel, a trade body that represents important manufacturers, makes such comments.
The number of organisations that are raising concerns is worrying for Members, as is the fact that so much of the Bill will dodge proper parliamentary scrutiny. Those who supported Brexit as a means to strengthen parliamentary sovereignty are being incredibly badly served yet again by the UK Government. Sovereignty for the Government is very different from sovereignty for Parliament. I urge the Minister to read the Law Society of Scotland briefing on the Bill. It suggests several amendments, and much of its concern is about the lack of requirement for Ministers to consult when making secondary legislation.
The hon. Lady has mentioned at least twice the Law Society of Scotland briefing document, which I have in my hand. It is a very useful and positive contribution to informing Members of all parties about the Bill. I will quote from it so that we are all clear about the context. In its general remarks, the Law Society of Scotland says:
“We recognise the necessity for this Bill”.
That conclusively states that the Bill is a necessity. Does the hon. Lady accept that?
Because the UK Government decided that we are leaving the customs union and we will therefore need our own customs procedures, it is sensible, given that it was an entirely EU competence, for the UK to create its own customs framework. However, if the UK Government had done what we suggested and remained part of the customs union, the Bill would not be necessary. Although the Law Society of Scotland says that the Bill is necessary because of the decisions of the UK Government, it raises several concerns. I ask the Minister to read the briefing, which suggests a number of amendments, particularly on consultation.
Further to the point made by the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr), has my hon. Friend seen the briefing from the Manufacturing Trade Remedies Alliance? It says:
“These proposals are much weaker than we have in the EU (and also weaker than those of most other Trading Nations). Weaker remedies cost jobs.”
Just because we have legislation—and bad legislation—it does not make what is happening a good thing.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, who speaks for us on international trade. She is right about trade remedies and I will come on to that specific point later.
Although the Bill is general, it is also wide ranging. I want to consider some of the issues relating to HMRC that the Minister mentioned earlier. The new CDS software is set to replace CHIEF—customs handling of import and export freight—the current system, in 12 short months. The Public Accounts Committee report in November stated:
“It would be catastrophic if HMRC’s new customs system, the Customs Declaration System (CDS), is not ready in time and if there is no viable fall-back option.”
It expects the number of customs declarations that HMRC must process each year to increase fivefold. Every time I and other hon. Members have questioned the Minister about this, he has been particularly blasé and unflustered about the tight timetable. The PAC also said that HMRC’s timetable is incredibly tight, given the amount of work still to do. HMRC will only know by July 2018 whether the system works as intended—I am surprised that HMRC will only know by July 2018, but the Minister thinks it will all be fine—which is only one month before the first traders start to use it, and gives very little time to take remedial action if anything goes wrong.
It is vital for our exporting businesses that the customs software works. We have consistently raised concerns about this and we will continue to do so. I appreciate that the Minister is nodding, but we will keep the pressure on to ensure that it happens.
UK businesses have several questions about the capacity of HMRC to deal with the volume of customs declarations, and many businesses will have to make customs declarations for the first time. Businesses are already concerned about the loss of the HMRC hotline that they could previously access. One business contacted HMRC with a query and received a reply seven months later. Seven months is not an appropriate timescale. If HMRC cannot respond to complaints and questions timeously now, how will it do so in the future after a fivefold increase in the need for customs declarations?
In a post-Brexit scenario, businesses will—in an incredibly short timescale and whether we have a trade deal or not—have to come to terms with new customs software. They will also have to come to terms with a new system of customs duties, ways to export and other massive changes. That means an incredible amount of uncertainty. When drafting the Bill, the Government could have been clearer about how the new customs system would work, therefore getting rid of a level of uncertainty. I know that they do not yet have a trade deal, but if they had been able to implement the software earlier or be clearer about how the processes will work, it would have been better for businesses.
Broadly speaking, businesses have been in favour of the replication of the Union customs code in the future. I mentioned the issue of rules of origin, and the Minister also referred to it earlier. There is a major problem with those rules. The Minister said that they should be determined by the UK Government in negotiation. As a side note, the current UCC, at 61.3, contains options for declaring origin. That does not appear to have been replicated in the primary legislation, and the British Chambers of Commerce, on behalf of its members, want to see certainty for the future on that matter.
Major problems are brewing on rules of origin, especially the duration of any transition agreement that the UK Government strike. At the very least, the Government need to negotiate interim free trade agreements with countries that the EU currently has FTAs with. Many of those trade deals allow UK companies to export because of the recognition of cumulation with EU content. For example, the trade deal that the EU has with South Korea, for example, says that
“a car will be originating in the EU if no more than 45% of the value of the inputs have been imported from outside Korea or the EU to manufacture it.”
So if the UK—in this brilliant scenario with its amazing negotiating team—manages to convince Korea, at least temporarily, to replicate the trade deal that it has with the EU, changing all references to “EU” to “UK”, for example, that will be all well and good, but it will not solve the issue of cumulation for many of our businesses. Take for example a widget that is created in the UK. It may have many parts from other EU countries. It may have 60% EU content, which it needs in order to be exported to South Korea. However, it may not have 60% UK content. Under the previous rules of origin system that we had as part of the EU, that worked fine and the widget could be exported to Korea. But if Korea says that it wants the widget to have 60% UK content, it will be a major issue for businesses which will no longer be able to export those widgets.
I am afraid that I am not very familiar with our trade level with South Korea. I wonder whether the hon. Lady has picked a particularly obscure example to demonstrate her point, rather than looking at the countries we will do substantial trade with in the future. I hope that I will be able to get some more information on that point.
I picked South Korea and car manufacturing because the percentage is particularly high. However, many other areas of trade and exports have percentage requirements. Because we have not needed rules of origin for products from the UK—we have been able to add all the EU content—it has not been a consideration for businesses. They have been able to export if they can prove that a certain percentage is from the EU. It is an issue not only for the trade deal with Korea, but for all sorts of trade deals that the UK has because it is part of the EU. The concern is not that we will not be able to do new trading, but that our current trading will become a major issue as of March 2019, if we do not get the appropriate rollover and grandfathering in place.
Perhaps my hon. Friend will join me in correcting the hon. Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes), as South Korea is very important for Scottish trade. As a result of the EU-negotiated deal, whisky goes to South Korea on a 0% tariff. The former chief executive of the Scottish Whisky Association has expressed the view that without the heft of the EU, Scottish whisky—the UK’s biggest export—would not have had the benefit of that deal.
I appreciate that information.
There are so many technical issues that will have a major impact on jobs and manufacturing in UK. When I have asked the Government about this, the answers I received were pretty fluffy. I have asked about cumulation—mainly outside the Chamber—as it is a major issue that the UK Government have not taken seriously enough. It has been raised especially by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. If hon. Members look at how many times cumulation has been mentioned in the Chamber, they will find that it is very few.
I thank the hon. Lady for mentioning the incredibly important matter of cumulation. It is by cumulation that a British car that has components from other parts of Europe manages to be sold to third countries under existing agreements. My recollection is that the Minister said that the Department for International Trade would look to continue having agreement on cumulation, and that the Bill will give it the legal tools to continue such negotiations. Does the hon. Lady agree that the Bill is necessary as an enabling package to allow us to have a customs relationship with Europe and other parts of the world in the future?
I think that we should remain in the customs union and the single market, because then we would not have any of these issues. I appreciate that the Minister says that the Government are looking at this, but I am trying to make it clear how important this matter is, and I hope that I have been able to do that in my discussion of cumulation.
The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) raised the importance of the EU FTA deal with South Korea—indeed, it adds some £2 billion to our exports every year—but the interesting question is why the EU has been able to make free trade agreements only with South Korea and Vietnam. What about the rest of Asia? Does the SNP believe that sufficient progress has been made in expanding our trade, especially in Scottish whisky, across the whole of Asia, or could the process perhaps have been done more energetically and dynamically by Britain making its own free trade deals?
There are EU FTAs with many countries and we trade through them. Because the EU has such a large market, it is able to strike much better free trade agreements than the UK Government will be able to strike for their much smaller market. That is just the reality.
On the capacity of HMRC, I also want to talk about the issue of authorised economic operators, which was mentioned a lot in the customs White Paper. Relying on the AEO system causes a bit of a problem, as the UK is just not that good at either promoting or administering it. Some of the rules applied by HMRC are nearly impossible for many of the smaller operators to meet, such as the requirement we have heard about that the person who is in charge of customs in organisations has three years of customs experience. Some of our businesses have been trading exclusively with the EU, so they cannot meet that requirement very easily. HMRC must look at this as a matter of priority, and particularly consider the situation in Austria, where it takes less than three months for an initial AEO application to go through. Germany has increased the number of authorised economic operators incredibly successfully. The UK Government could benefit from looking at those countries when they consider making changes. It is not about making the regime slacker and enabling more people to jump through the hoops for AEOs; it is about making the process of applying for and getting AEO certification more accessible and streamlined. I know the UK Government have had representations on this matter, and I urge Ministers to consider them and act as soon as they can. We need to get the system in place as soon as possible so that companies can register and receive the certification to become AEOs in advance of the exit date.
As we heard earlier, there is also an HMRC capacity and streamlining problem in the area of VAT. That was also raised in the media recently in the context of the British Retail Consortium’s concerns. The changes to the VAT regime could create major cash-flow problems for businesses, and they might have to restructure or take on burdensome new cash-flow loans. The BRC says that there is no impact assessment produced by the Treasury about the costs of these measures in terms of additional compliance burdens for business, nor about what the costs of HMRC collecting and refunding these upfront costs would be. It seems that there is a real problem and that the required VAT changes have been pretty badly thought through.
I also want to raise the issue of virtual free trade zones. The Bill contemplates only physical free trade zones, but a virtual zone would allow businesses along the supply chain to benefit from simplifications and facilitations without having to incur the time and expense of individual applications, such as with inward processing relief. The British Chambers of Commerce has requested that the Treasury consider the possibility of including virtual free trade zones in its powers relating to designated free zones.
In the context of HMRC, I also want to mention import VAT on gifts from the EU, which I have spoken about before. Folk will be shocked when they get a bill because they have received a gift worth more than £39 from somebody in the EU. Such a system currently applies if people get a gift from elsewhere in the world, but the Government are suggesting that it should also apply in the case of goods from the EU. That is a major concern, because as there has been free movement and people have been able to live in other European countries, it is perfectly feasible that an awful lot of people will have family members in other EU countries and therefore will be likely to receive gifts of a value of over £39. I want to make it absolutely clear that if and when people start getting those bills, they will be totally caused by Brexit, leaving the customs union, and the proposed changes to VAT.
Trade remedies have been mentioned, particularly by Labour Members. Some of the evidence about the matter that the International Trade Committee received last year was concerning. The EU currently has anti-dumping and countervailing measures that would normally be expected to still be in place after Brexit day, such as a five-year measure that was put in place two years ago, meaning that it will have about two years to run at the time we leave the EU. Bernardine Adkins of the law firm Gowling WLG told the Committee that
“it won’t be possible to grandfather the measures, otherwise you will face problems with the World Trade Organization.”
If she is right, we have a pretty significant problem, especially because the call for evidence the Government issued at the end of November seems to suggest they do not know which trade remedies are relevant to UK companies. If the UK Government have to create a trade remedies agency, get it up and running, and furnish it with details that have not been provided in this Bill—how to conduct investigations, how subsidies are to be defined, how to assess if a UK industry has been injured, how to define a UK industry, and how to calculate the level of duties and guarantees needed to rectify the injury caused—and if they have do all that before putting in place even the trade remedies that currently exist, we have another problem.
UK Steel has been particularly vociferous in its criticism of this aspect of the Bill. It says that the chief and overriding concern is that schedules 4 and 5 to the Bill, concerning anti-dumping and anti-subsidy measures respectively, contain very little detail. It goes on to point out that for many of our major trading partners, including the EU and US, such issues are covered by primary legislation. The UK Government have chosen to deal with this through not primary legislation, but secondary legislation. That is yet another concern that we have about the Bill. The Bill does not even have the level of detail of the WTO agreements, so if the Government had included those, the Bill would have been substantially better.
The lesser duty rule is also a significant issue, as the UK Government are looking to go in that direction at a time when the EU is looking to move away from it. This is a concern for us, and for UK manufacturers and jobs in particular.
I and my party have general concerns about the loss of the customs union and the single market. We also have very specific concerns, which echo the views of businesses, about aspects of this Bill. A Fraser of Allander Institute report last year said that 134,000 jobs in Scotland are supported by trade with the EU, and Brexit threatens to cost our economy in Scotland £11 billion a year by 2030 and to result in many fewer jobs. The OECD highlighted in June last year:
“In case Brexit gets reversed by political decision…the positive impact on growth would be significant.”
There are major issues about tariffs if we leave the single market. The EU average tariff on imports from outside the EU was 5.2% in 2014. The average tariff on food was 15%. Skimmed milk exported into the EU from outside the single market attracts a tariff of 74%. If our organisations get hit by these tariffs when they are exporting—if we end up outside the EU single market and customs union as part of a no-deal scenario —we will not just have the problems I have mentioned about issues with the Bill, trade remedies and how HMRC will cope with all this. All these things are an incredible problem. Would it not be better and easier, and would it not be in the economic interests of everyone in this country, if the UK Government were to say, “Actually, we are going to stay in the single market and the customs union”?
This debate and the presentation of this Bill are incredibly timely. Before Christmas, at the European Council meeting, the Prime Minister moved our negotiations on leaving the EU on to the second phase, with the agreement of the other member states, and we will now discuss the future relationship and the future trading relationship. It is important that, so soon after that Council meeting, although there is still a lot more to be done and negotiated in terms of how that relationship will work, we are debating a vital piece of enabling legislation that gives the Government the legal power to implement whatever is negotiated.
We could have a different scenario, where the Government could negotiate without any legal basis to implement the agreement. They could just negotiate on the basis that they would then have to bring legislation forward at some point in the future. There is no guarantee there would be the time to do that, and it would be a rather strange process to go through. It is far better that the Government are able to pass enabling legislation that gives us the legal authority to implement what they negotiate. At least then, when negotiating with the Europeans, they know that we can implement what we negotiate and we will not be left high and dry because we have run out of time.
That is an important point, and it has been reflected in the speeches from Members from two Opposition parties. Does not the hon. Gentleman therefore find it rather odd that on one hand they talk about urgency, yet on the other hand they have tabled motions saying we should not proceed with this Bill on Second Reading?
Absolutely. If we waited until every question that has been posed today could be answered—if, indeed, they can all be answered—before we introduced legislation, we could end up with no time for scrutiny or debate, or to implement the legislation in the first place. We can enter into the negotiations on our future trading relationship with any sort of purpose only if it is clear that we have in place the legal frameworks to implement whatever we agree and only if the EU negotiators can see that the UK has the legal basis to implement its own regime and requirements, whatever the trade deal or scenario.
The hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) presented a compelling amount of detail in her speech. It is tempting to lay out all the difficulties and say that there is no point in introducing legislation until we have an answer to all the problems that seem insurmountable, but that would be entirely the wrong way to go about it. We need to make sure that the enabling legislation is in place. It can also be tempting—I say this as someone who campaigned for Britain to remain in the EU—to rerun all the arguments that were made during the referendum, as if the referendum had not happened, but it did happen and the country voted to leave the EU. It is now our responsibility to put in place the legal framework that enables the Government to negotiate so that we can put in place the best possible deal. It is far better that we do that now than in a year’s time.
I do not know whether my hon. Friend agrees, but the speech we have just heard from the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman), in which she highlighted some important issues relating to cumulation and other matters, is an example of why the Bill is such a good part of the process. It is giving people the opportunity to highlight important issues for the Government.
Absolutely, and that is the spirit in which the comments made by the vast array of trade organisations and businesses that are seeking to engage in the process should be interpreted. They are giving us notice of the issues that they believe we need to get right for their sectors. That does not mean that there is a concern that we will not get those things right, but they are right to flag up the things that we have to get right.
I was particularly pleased to hear the Financial Secretary say in his opening remarks that the Government intend to establish a system of frictionless trade at our major ports and other major places of trade with the EU. That is very important for my constituency in Kent, just as it is incredibly important for Northern Ireland. We need to ensure that trade can flow freely.
Ministers from the Department for International Trade will be working hard not only to put in place good trade deals that continue the free trade agreements we currently have with other countries as a consequence of our membership of the EU, but to negotiate trade agreements with other countries around the world. Such agreements will be incredibly important for our future success, but there is something about trade that is rather inevitable: countries tend to trade a lot with other countries to which they are near, because the cost of such trade is obviously far lower. There is a reason why we trade more with Belgium than with Brazil—although I wish we could trade more with Brazil—and that is that Belgium is very nearby. The cross-channel routes and the routes across the border in Northern Ireland are fundamental for our economic success. That is where frictionless trade really matters so that people can move their goods quickly and speedily. In many businesses, particularly those that work in food or with cut flowers and other perishable goods, the quick, “just in time” movement of goods is vital. Businesses on both sides of those borders will be affected equally.
I was pleased to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) talk about the initiative he will be undertaking with the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) to bring a Wrightbus down to London. I visited the Wrightbus factory in Ballymena, where the company makes a fantastic product that has become an icon of the London streets. Although the Wrightbus Boris buses do not operate on continental Europe, I urge my hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman to continue their journey down to my constituency and through the channel tunnel, because it is so important to maintain the flows of trade not only between the countries of the UK but between the UK and continental Europe. A third of the trade of Warrenpoint port in Northern Ireland runs from the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland, into mainland UK and on to continental Europe. We need to keep trade running frictionlessly through all those points.
People could not disagree with a lot of what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but in the real world at some point we are going to face tariffs, whether it is outside his constituency, on continental Europe or around the rest of the world. If we want a clue about that, we should look at the recent actions of Donald Trump’s Administration in relation to Bombardier. Food supply chains could also be threatened.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Manufacturing is such an important part of the economy of Coventry, where his constituency is. Tariffs are important. Of course, we want a free trading environment among the countries with which we trade, not only in Europe but around the world. I looked back at one of Margaret Thatcher’s speeches—I am sure the hon. Gentleman is just as keen a student of those speeches as I am—to see how she made the case for the single market to businesses before it was created. She rightly highlighted that, although trade without tariffs is obviously important, what is much more important is getting rid of artificial barriers to trade, such as the restriction of goods from markets because they are not seen to comply with certain standards or the creation of artificial delays that can make trade in goods that need to be moved quickly uneconomic. It is just as important to get trading agreements and the flow of trade right as it is to get the tariff situation right.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech in favour of frictionless, free and fair trade. I hope he agrees that, as we go through the Brexit process, it is important that nothing is done to create any barriers to the internal operation of the UK market, by which I mean Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Frictionless trade is just as important between Northern Ireland and Great Britain as it is on the island of Ireland. It is vital to the economies of the island of Ireland and Great Britain and to everyone who lives and works on the island of Ireland and in Great Britain. As I said earlier, because of our proximity and the integrated nature of so many of our businesses, that trade is so important, and it is vital to the protection of so many jobs. There should be no artificial borders in the Irish sea, and nor should there be borders that create friction on the island of Ireland or with the continent of Europe across the English channel.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point that is sometimes overlooked in these debates: it is vital for the Irish economy that there is no line of demarcation or border on the Irish sea, because its main market for either the sale or the transit of goods is Great Britain. If we simply talk about the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, we miss the point: there has to be integration among all the islands.
That is absolutely right. As the hon. Gentleman will know, a third of the goods processed through Warrenpoint port in Northern Ireland come from the Republic of Ireland, so it would do great damage to the economy of the island of Ireland were artificial barriers to be put in place. The same is true for goods that move through what is effectively the Great Britain land bridge to the continent of Europe. A large amount of goods from the Republic of Ireland are exported to continental Europe through ports such as Dover, as well as through the channel tunnel, and it is vital for so many businesses and for the free flow of trade that they are not treated as goods being imported from a third country but allowed to flow freely just as they currently do.
It is important that we make sure not only that we get the tariff regime and the rules of trade right, but that part of our preparedness is about ensuring that we have the right physical infrastructure alongside the enabling legislation that the Government are seeking to pass. I was really pleased to hear the Chancellor announce £3 billion in the Budget to help the UK to prepare the physical infrastructure it will need for trade. Technological solutions can be put in place to make sure that trade can flow without restrictions and frictionlessly at the key trading points and the key points of entry to other markets, but the infrastructure also needs to be put in place now.
It is particularly important for my constituents in Kent that we provide a long-term solution to deal with issues such as Operation Stack. If trade is being held up, for whatever reason—be it bad weather in the channel or strike action in one of the French ports—we need the physical infrastructure in place to keep Kent’s roads open. As part of our preparations for a future in which we can keep goods and services flowing freely around our key points of trade, it is important that we have in place the right physical infrastructure. That includes a commitment to deliver the Operation Stack relief lorry park in Kent. I was pleased that the Financial Secretary was able to confirm before Christmas that the £250 million that the Government had earmarked for the delivery of that vital piece of infrastructure is still there, and I hope we will see good progress on the design this year. Not only can that relief lorry park be considered as a piece of infrastructure for dealing with Operation Stack, which can happen at any time—it has happened while we have been a member of the EU and could happen again in future—but that physical infrastructure will be there in case we need it because of delays in the movement of goods.
My hon. Friend is making a good speech in which he is, of course, advocating free trade, in which we all believe—or at least Conservative Members do. Does he, like me, see the profound irony in our discussing how we are going to have to have new technologies, put in new systems and do all these other hugely complicated, very expensive things, in order to cope with leaving the customs union, even though we believe in and want free trade? Does he not think it would be much more simple and sensible just to stay in the customs union?
My right hon. Friend makes a compelling point, but we have to accept that other political issues are being considered alongside the management of trade: our general future relationship with the European Union as a partner European continental country, but not as a member of the EU itself; whether we should have arrangements whereby the level of regulatory alignment is such that we effectively become a satellite state—a client state—of the European Union and not an independent one; and the extent to which we have to fully comply with and implement rules that we have no further part in designing in future. That is what creates difficulties around membership of the customs union and the single market. As she knows as well, the issue of membership of the single market also comes alongside considerations around the issue of free movement of persons as it is defined now.
If there is a way, through negotiation, to resolve those difficulties and to keep a system of trade that we have got used to and that works so well for our economy, without any deviation from the current system at all, and to deliver the other political objectives that people voted for in the referendum, I will welcome that. However, what we are talking about here is making sure that we prepare, both through the laws and the physical infrastructure, for a different scenario whereby, if we are not able through negotiation to replicate what we have now, we have a system in place that can deliver something that is just as good.
There are many unanswered questions because that process is still being negotiated, but, as I said at the start of my remarks, it is far better that we have the debate about what we want the system to look like now, at the same time as giving the Government the legal power to negotiate and implement what they want in future. Now is the right time to be having that debate. I am sure that there will be plenty of other opportunities for the House to debate the specifics of the deal as we progress through the negotiations this year. But now is the right time to be having this debate.
As I have said, maintaining a system of free trade is clearly what we all want and what we want to see delivered. We need to ensure that we have the legal infrastructure in place and invest in the physical infrastructure, so that we can implement the deal that we have, and in particular keep frictionless trade on the island of Ireland and at our key points of trade in Kent —at the channel tunnel and at the port of Dover—with continental Europe.
Let me start by commending the work of the Manufacturing Trade Remedies Alliance, an organisation that is being serviced in a secretariat format by the Ceramics Confederation in my constituency. Working with a number of other trade bodies and trade unions, it has put together comprehensive work to try to make the Bill better. It is not seeking to torpedo the Bill, or to say that the status quo is what we should have. It has genuinely tried to engage to highlight the practical problems with the Bill and to propose solutions that it knows, both as workers and as employers, will benefit its manufacturing industry. I just wanted to put that on the record.
I wish to commend the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) for her speech, which covered, although in some depth, a number of quite technical points. This is where we are getting to in the Brexit negotiations: the time of painting in primary colours has almost gone, and we are now talking about the individual details that mean so much to our constituents. In my constituency, in Stoke-on-Trent, in the heart of the potteries, no more broadly will the impact of trade remedies and a proper customs arrangement be felt than in the ceramics industry.
In my constituency, around 5,000 jobs are directly related to manufacturing. Across the city, there are 15,000 such jobs, and even more when we tie in the supply chains and support services that make those industries flourish. Madam Deputy Speaker, if you go to any decent hotel around the world, to our own Tea Room, or to any high-class restaurant and turn over the plate, you will undoubtedly see, stamped with pride on the back of that piece of ceramic, “Made in Stoke-on-Trent” by Steelite, Churchill or Dudson. Those companies have been an ambassador for British business around the world for many years.
Only today in our local newspaper, The Sentinel, Jon Cameron from Steelite noted that 75% of every product that he makes is exported around the world. Therefore, the free trade arrangements that we have around the world, some of which are secured through the European Union, are important because they are about jobs in our constituency and jobs in our city. The hon. Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) asked about South Korea. South Korea is one of the largest emerging markets for British ceramics in the world, and we are increasingly selling it more and more tableware and tiles than anywhere else. It is important that we recognise that countries that may seem obscure for some parts of the broader trade arrangements have huge impacts on smaller manufacturing areas where exports are becoming an increasingly important part of what we do.
What I wish to focus on today is the arrangements for market trade remedies. At the moment, the ceramics industry has a certain level of protection via the EU’s market protection arrangements, which affect tableware and tiles. Both are being looked at right now. They are being renewed through the European Parliament, so they are being scrutinised and looked at. The intention is that, where we know that there are market distortions caused by non-market economy countries such as China and Russia, the playing field is levelled.
We talk about free trade, but we should also be talking about fair trade. It is not fair on British manufacturing if Chinese companies are able to produce below-market value, cheap, low-quality tableware, import it into the UK, undermine the local manufacturing base and then distort the market and get away with it. Such practices cause job losses in Stoke-on-Trent and do serious long-term damage to the local market and the local industry. They also mean that, essentially, we are handing over domestic production to Chinese companies. What happens then? Once those companies have driven local producers out of the market, they put up their own prices, and suddenly there is no alternative. The next time I go on holiday, I do not want to turn over my plate and see that it is not made in Stoke-on-Trent. For me, that would be a symbol that we have got it wrong in terms of how we approach British manufacturing.
One in seven of the jobs in my constituency is linked to manufacturing, so making sure that we have those correct protections in place is vital. Across my neighbouring constituency of Stoke-on-Trent North and in Kidsgrove, nearly 19% of the workforce are involved in manufacturing. There are still parts of our country where manufacturing is the fundamental base of the work that we do. Making sure that we have those correct protections in place is vital to ensuring that we still have a manufacturing base that we are proud of in Britain.
Under schedule 4, the Bill will provide a number of mechanisms for the Manufacturing Trade Remedies Alliance, but, unfortunately, they are lacking. This is not a political point; it is a point of fact. As the hon. Member for Aberdeen North pointed out, they do not include a system for how we calculate injury from non-market economy countries. They do not point out how we calculate injury. The Bill commits us to the mandatory lesser duty rule, which is something that the EU is moving away from. It is looking at a conditional lesser duty rule.
The lesser duty rule basically says that, if we can demonstrate that there is injury to our market because of subsidy by a non-market economy country’s activities, we will only seek to remedy the lesser of those two injuries. We may still have goods being imported into our country below market value, distorting our market in a way that is unfair and we will be happy to accept that because it is the lesser of the two duties. That is fundamentally wrong. It is something that the EU is moving away from. We could easily have adopted the wording that was chosen by the EU and put it into the Bill, because it was supported by this Government in the European Council and by our MEPs across the piece.
My hon. Friend is trying to tempt me down a particular course of discussion around single market membership, which I do not really wish to address as part of the Bill, but I do understand his point. In this Bill, not only do we have a set of Trade Remedies Authority procedures that are not particularly well defined and an attempt to wed ourselves to a mandatory lesser duty rule, we are also seeking to include an economic interest test—again, something that very few countries use. The only time we would see either a public interest test or an economic interest test is when we have multinational organisations such as the EU. We will not be in that position, yet we will be wedding ourselves to an extra layer of bureaucracy and complication to our trade remedy process that does not necessarily give the best outcome for British industry.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of the areas where this Parliament and this House should have some right of scrutiny, but where that is being brushed aside. This will all be done through written ministerial guidance, secondary legislation and statutory instruments. There is nothing in the Bill that immediately gives this House and all Members present the opportunity to properly define what we want to see regarding market and trade remedies.
There are a number of matters, which I am sure will come up during Second Reading of the Trade Bill tomorrow, that relate to the membership of the Trade Remedies Authority, the way in which it will be run and its budget. There are also questions around the cost of the investigations and who will be responsible for that cost. In the EU process at the moment, the trade itself makes up a good proportion of the cost, but it does so knowing that whatever remedy it gets out will more than offset the cost of the remedy process. There is no guarantee that that is the case for whatever system we set up once we are outside the customs union and the single market. That could simply result in a situation where industry does not take the risk—where it does not want to put the funding in place to do the investigation and to work out the dumping and injury levels because it does not know what they will look like beforehand. Therefore, any remedy would be of no benefit to the industry once it has made up those initial costs, so it simply will not do it. We will have a situation where we are not able to protect British industry and British business because the system is complicated and opaque.
The Financial Secretary to the Treasury is no longer in his place, but he has agreed to meet the British Ceramic Confederation to talk about some of the issues I have raised. I am grateful to him for doing so, and I hope that he will hear sense in the comments made this evening. When we leave the EU and come out of the customs union and the single market, there are a number of things that we can do to strengthen British business, put us in a better position and demonstrate to the world that Britain is still a manufacturing nation. We still make things. Nowhere is that more evident than in Stoke-on-Trent, where we make things and sell things of great beauty and high art around the world. We can continue do that, but only if we put the protections in place. Once we are outside the EU, we will have the freedoms and flexibilities to put in place the protections we want.
Having read this Bill, I fear that the Government are trying to come up with the lowest level of protection that they possibly can, which is of interest economically to only a few groups of people and whereby the Minister himself would have the ability to override future decisions. Therefore, I support the reasoned amendment; I hope that the Government have heard my comments; and I look forward to scrutinising this legislation further.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell). I concur with many of his remarks on the ceramics industry, although I am the MP for Denby Pottery, so we may have a slight disagreement on the premier manufacturer of such products. Perhaps we should move swiftly on.
I welcome this important Bill. It is absolutely right that the Government have brought it forward at a relatively early stage in the Brexit process, and it is important that it clears this hurdle tonight. If we are going to leave the EU’s customs union when we leave the EU, it is a simple fact that we will need to have our own customs arrangements and rules in place for that day. By doing so, we can keep collecting the tariffs we get from non-EU imports. As well as keeping that revenue, we can keep important trade matters flowing and the important reliefs in place.
A Bill like this can be quite frustrating because there are lots of interesting customs issues that we would like to debate, such as what the EU deal and any new tariffs will or will not look like, what the administration process will be and how we will fix the Irish question—if we can perhaps refer to it as that—but this Bill does not answer all those questions. Instead, it puts in place the architecture that we can then use to answer those questions when we know what our deal with the EU will be. It is right that this Bill goes through because we need to get all the nitty-gritty detail of our new customs process in place as early as we can, so that it can be understood by all the businesses out there that will need to comply with it and all the software producers that will need software in place. A lot of people will need to be trained on the new duty codes, including which ones apply to their products, how they comply with all these rules, what software systems will be needed and how they will interact with the new HMRC ones. All those things have to be done as early as possible if this is going to work on the day that we finally leave.
I have some comments on specific parts of the Bill. I was not really trying to find in the Bill the detail of what the customs rules will be and exactly what the text says. I think that what we have pretty much mirrors the EU customs rules, and we are just creating our own regime to do much the same thing. That is probably the spirit of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, and I appreciate we have to do this as a separate Bill for ways and means purposes. Most people who operate in this area will understand the mechanics that the Government are trying to produce, but what we want to understand is how we can make complying with the burdens of that as easy, straightforward and cheap as possible for the businesses that have to do it. A key part of that is the authorised economic operator system.
When the Public Accounts Committee took evidence on authorised economic operators, it found that about 604 businesses in the UK had that status. Now, that is not a very large proportion of the existing importers that could be using that status. It is about a 10th of the number that Germany has. There needs to be a real impetus during the passage of this Bill and afterwards to ensure that HMRC is doing everything it can to get businesses signed up to that process, so that we have as many of those operators in place as we possibly can when we really need them. That will help those businesses, but it will also help HMRC because it will know which businesses they do not have to check and which will be compliant, rather than having to do risk assessments on them all. What is not entirely clear in the Bill is the status of a business that is already an AEO. If someone has been approved under the EU regime, will that approval grandfather into our regime, or will they have to reapply for it? If someone signs up now, will they be in the same position? I think we should be very clear that if we think a business has that status now, there is no reason why they cannot have it going forward as well.
The Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, which I serve on, has been doing quite a lot of work on customs issues, including visiting Switzerland to see how the border with the EU works. We saw that we can actually minimise the amount of declarations needed if we can make the systems mesh, synchronise and talk to each other. We do not want to see a business making a declaration in the UK for the export of something and then making an equivalent declaration in France when that is imported into the EU system. If a system is designed so that businesses can make one declaration for both regimes, it will halve the work and make things a lot easier. I cannot quite see in the Bill a provision whereby we can take the power to create a system that talks to the other regime in that way. I cannot see a measure whereby, for example, a business could make a declaration in France and where we could then get that data and deem that business to have complied, and vice versa—if a company makes an export declaration here, can that be passed on to the French? Clauses 25 and 26 are about co-operation, but I hope that in drawing up these rules the Government have thought through how we can get a simplified, joined-up system so that we can minimise the amount of compliance we need for those compliant businesses.
Clause 27 is an interesting provision, as it will give the Government the power to create fees in connection with the import process. Perhaps the Government could just reassure us that they are not planning on charging an import fee for the pleasure of complying with these new rules; that might be an unnecessary cost to trade. Will the Government be clear exactly where they see the role of fees and what they think those fees might be? I just cannot see that every time someone imports a widget, they should pay HMRC a fee for that pleasure.
There was some debate on clause 31 in the opening remarks. That clause is about forming customs unions. I have some concerns about what the Government are trying to achieve here. I can see that it is attractive to have the power in place, if we want to create a customs union with our overseas territories as we all leave the EU at the same time in our various different ways; I have no particular objection to that. I can also see that when we do a transitional deal with the EU, we want to be able to bring it into force effectively. But we are supposed to be agreeing the transitional deal by March, which will give us a year to put it into place before we actually leave. I am not quite sure why we need such a broad-ranging power in the Bill because, as far as I can tell, there is no time limit or geographic limit on this power. In theory, we could do a customs union with the trans-Pacific trade area in 25 years’ time, and it could go through on the affirmative resolution process. I am not sure that that is what we intend.
Customs unions are generally quite significant and powerful things, where we agree not only not to charge tariffs on the other side and vice versa, but to have a common set of external tariffs. Indeed, there is a provision in clause 31 that says we will accept that when a Government change dates on a tariff, that change can apply in the UK. Now, I suspect that we are not envisaging the Jersey Trade Minister setting our tariffs for us. I am guessing that that is aimed at some kind of EU arrangement.
If we do have a year to put in place a transitional provision, it would be better to do that in a considered way through primary legislation so we understand what it means rather than have it go through by some kind of parliamentary back-door process where we cannot talk about the detail or try to amend the substance. These things can be very significant. There can be large amounts of revenue at stake, or issues about which industries we choose to protect. We need to try to clarify exactly what the Government are trying to do in clause 31, and exactly how long this power needs to exist for and what geographical extent we are prepared to give to it.
On the Irish customs question, we cannot expect anything in this Bill to look at that specifically. One of the proposals that we have come up with for fixing the customs border is to exempt all micro, small and medium-sized businesses from needing to comply with the customs rules, presumably so that they would not need to do the declarations or pay any tariffs on goods going across the Irish border. However, I cannot see where in the Bill the Government have taken the power to do that. One could argue that it is covered by the reliefs in clause 19, but is that really the solution that we are expecting in the Northern Ireland context? Perhaps the Government should sensibly take the power to deliver this in the Bill and make sure that it can be achieved if negotiated.
I have some final points on the VAT issue, which was raised earlier. It is clearly perfectly fair for importers from the EU to point out that they are going to be cash-flow disadvantaged compared with their current situation if they have to pay VAT immediately when they import the goods rather than on their next VAT return once they have processed the transaction. That would put them in the same position as somebody importing from outside the EU. It is encouraging that the Treasury, for once, is prepared to be generous in that situation and create a regime where those businesses may not face that cash-flow implication. We ought to think very carefully about whether we want to treat an import from France differently from one from the USA in this situation. Will this generosity on cash flow apply more widely than the EU?
A lot of the lobbying on this has come from the British Retail Consortium. Businesses in my constituency that trade with the large retailers tell me that they are being pretty brutally squeezed on the amount of credit that they have to give to those large retailers—up to 120 days in some cases. If the Government intend to create a targeted, generous regime to help the cash flow of people importing goods from outside the UK, perhaps they should make it available only to businesses that treat suppliers within the UK with some kind of fairness, to have a level playing field. It would be a bit crazy for it to be better for their cash flow to import goods from the EU than to buy them from the UK supplier round the corner. I hope that could be another stick to encourage large businesses that treat their small suppliers quite badly by saying, “Yes, we accept that there is an issue, but we will only let you have this cash-flow advantage if you’re behaving fairly to others in terms of their cash flow.”
I welcome this important Bill and hope it gets a speedy passage through the House.
I want to take the opportunity provided by this Bill to raise an important opportunity that could bring as many as 90,000 jobs to this country—and, in particular, many to my own constituency. It relates to part 2 of schedule 2 and can otherwise be referred to as the introduction of free ports.
Around the world there are approximately 3,500 free trade zones employing 66 million people across 135 countries. There are currently none in the UK. Conferring free trade status on a UK port would place it administratively outside of customs territory. It would mean that goods could be imported, manufactured or re-exported inside the free trade zone without incurring domestic customs duties or taxes, which is paid only on goods entering the domestic UK economy. As well as bringing benefits through customs taxes and duties, free zones also support economic activity through financial incentives such as research and development tax credits, regulatory flexibility, and tax reductions. They are recognised around the world as playing a major role in retaining, re-shoring and growing domestic manufacturing activity and boosting trade. In the US there are 250 free trade zones, and they also play a major role in the economies of Singapore, Hong Kong, Indonesia and the United Arab Emirates.
Ports are already a vital strategic asset for the UK, accounting for 96% of all trade volume and 75% of trade value. The free port concept builds on our maritime history and an existing UK strength. The creation of a free port would increase employment and economic activity in areas where economic need is high and could play a major role in rebalancing our London-centric economy. Of the country’s 30 largest ports, 17, including Teesside in my own constituency, are in the bottom quartile of local authorities in the index of multiple deprivation. I make no apology for lobbying for such a status on behalf of the port in my constituency. Teesport has strong structural advantages for being favoured for free port status. It has a deep-water facility providing lock-free access to the sea, with strong road and rail services. Teesport is versatile and adaptable. The facility handles 5,000 vessels and 40 million tonnes of cargo a year. The port is integral to the Teesside manufacturing complex, incorporating chemicals, engineering, renewable energy, and agri-tech. The South Tees development corporation is overseeing the former SSI site—the biggest industrial opportunity the UK has seen since the second world war. When the Government closed the steelworks in 2015 and 3,000 Teessiders lost their jobs, the Government promised to do all they could. On the Prime Minister’s most recent visit, she told us that we had to look to the future. Well, we are—the question is, are the Government?
The development corporation—the only one outside London—has set out its ambition to create 20,000 additional jobs in high-value manufacturing over a 25-year period, adding £1 billion in gross value added for the local economy. This would be substantially enhanced through the creation of a free port. Incorporating the development corporation area, together with the Teesport facility and in conjunction with adjacent industrial sites such as Wilton and North Shore, into a free port area would help the region to build on its current strengths in chemicals, steel, energy and logistics, and realise our vision to become the most attractive place in the country for high-value manufacturing.
Led by the north-east process industry cluster and the former hon. Member for Hartlepool, Teesside is the location of the largest integrated chemical complex in the UK and the second largest in western Europe in terms of manufacturing capacity. The sector has inputs to a range of other key industries such as aerospace, automotive, and life sciences. The sector is highly productive and competitive but faces a number of challenges such as increasing global competition, high operating costs, the need to attract investment from global parent companies, and skills shortages. A free port could be part of a range of policy solutions to maintain and enhance the attractiveness of investment in this sector in the UK and on Teesside. Free port status for Teesside could make the area the gateway of the north, rebalancing the economy and making the region’s manufacturing base more competitive and attractive.
This Bill provides an opportunity to establish the legislative basis to enable such a system to be set up in the UK, potentially giving a quick and powerful boost to the British economy as we go forward in Brexit negotiations. However, such a zone is not dependent on leaving the EU. Other member states have free ports, including the ports of Bremerhaven in Germany, Le Verdon in France, and Shannon in the Republic of Ireland. In fact, there are currently 85 free port zones within the European Union. Moreover, the Secretary of State is already empowered to designate free ports by statutory instrument under section 100A of the Customs and Excise Management Act 1979, which is still in force. Indeed, the UK itself had five free trade zones until 2012, at which point the statutory instruments that set them up expired, so the framework is in place and the opportunity is there. I hope that this Bill can clarify the situation. Part 2 of schedule 2 allows the Government to regulate on free ports. I hope that the Minister therefore agrees that this is the perfect moment to reopen the debate on free ports, to be bold, and potentially to create a new one—preferably on Teesside.
I conclude by asking the Minister the following questions. First, does he agree with the principle of free ports, and does he recognise the role they can play in driving and rebalancing our economy? Secondly, will the Government be using this Bill to amend the free port powers created by the Customs and Excise Management Act? If so, will they use the opportunity to bring forward powers to enable Teesport to become a free port or subject to special customs arrangements?
In following the hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley), I can only applaud her support for her local port.
I support this Bill. Above all else, as I said earlier and the Minister confirmed, it is an enabling Bill to create a post-Brexit functioning customs, VAT and excise regime. Because this is being done well ahead of the results of the negotiation, it does not predetermine the result. That necessarily disappoints those in this House who want the predetermined detail in order to see the extent to which the Bill suits their own vision of what our post-Brexit relationship should look like. In so doing, the Bill satisfies those for whom the Bill is intended—not politicians, but traders, exporters of goods and services, businesses and organisations, including universities and hospitals, with cross-border business in a wider sense—for we and, above all, they need to have in place the mechanisms for setting import duties, regulations, protections, dispute resolution procedures and so on, whatever the final trade and customs arrangements with the EU turn out to be.
That should be uncontroversial, but because the details are not in the Bill, Members are finding all their concerns and worries in their own imaginations. After a speech of some half an hour, for the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) it all boils down to the fact that she wants to stay in the current customs union with the European Union. For the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Gareth Snell), it is about protecting the ceramics industry. With respect to him and to Stoke-on-Trent, however, no customs Bill can do that, for the customs Bill is about making arrangements for future import duties, not about defining the new technology and brilliant designs that the world admires and wants to own, which is what will determine the future of the ceramics industry there.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Does he agree that without this Bill we will have the archetypal cliff edge that the Opposition parties go on and on about? By not supporting Second Reading, they risk creating the cliff edge that they are always going on about.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He brilliantly pre-empts the point I was about to make, which is that although some Opposition Members have described the uncertainty that they say the Bill will cause, the Bill will precisely help to avoid the cliff edge that all of us—but, above all, businesses—want to avoid. I thank him for his intervention.
The key is that the Bill will ensure that a customs regime is in place for cross-border business to flourish, whatever the results of the negotiations. To be honest, I think my right hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) underestimated the importance of technology not just in business, but for our customs processes. Regardless of whether or not we had decided to leave the EU, replacing the existing customs system, CHIEF, with the new IT platform, CDS, will, although it comes with a caveat about new Government IT systems, help our customs regime—it is currently rated fifth out of 160 countries in the world for its efficiency by the World Bank—to maintain or improve our position. The trusted trader system used by Canada and Australia, for example, has obvious replicability for trade at the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
At the same time, the Bill is not devoid of ideas. The earlier customs White Paper outlined the two key negotiating positions for the Government, the first being a streamlined option and the second being a new customs partnership. My own belief is that if our European partners—that is entirely the right word for members of an organisation with which we have 44% of our exports—prove pragmatic in their interpretation of the new partnership, I very much hope that option 2 will prove possible. This option would allow the UK to mirror EU customs arrangements and trade policies for goods that are eventually to be consumed within the EU—even if they are first used, as it were, in the UK—thereby ensuring that the right amount of EU duty is paid without introducing new customs processes between us. This would be a practical benefit from a new partnership that I very much hope will come forward from the negotiations.
Let me turn to the amendment. The hon. Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) talked with some passion about the manufacturing jobs in his constituency—rather fewer, I have to tell him, than the 4,000 manufacturing jobs in Gloucester; we all have manufacturing as a key element of our constituency business. He has concerns about the Bill’s impact on manufacturing, and the amendment therefore raises three objections to the Bill, which I will come on to. At the same time, there is clearly a certain demand from Opposition Members for an internal Labour debate about their party’s position on the customs union. The hon. Member for Nottingham East (Mr Leslie) would like a special debate on whether the preference of the leading Opposition party is for a customs union or for the customs union, and I am sure others from the Scottish National party would add weight to his discussions on that subject.
The truth is that Labour’s objection to powers coming back to the UK because we are “denied any detail”—the hon. Member for Bootle used that phrase—is bizarre, given that the whole point of the Bill, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) mentioned, is to avoid a cliff edge by putting in place the mechanisms needed, whatever the result of the negotiation, which has not yet started in detail. At the same time, Labour is complaining that the Bill gives powers back only to the Government, rather than to Parliament. In fact, of course, all the detail post-negotiation would come to Parliament through secondary legislation, on which all of us in this House would decide.
Has the hon. Gentleman had a chance to look at clause 31(4) in relation to forming a customs union with the United Kingdom? He can correct me if I am wrong, but I do not think that that would necessarily come before Parliament. It would be done by Her Majesty through an Order in Council.
Let me respond to the intervention, if I may, and I will then come to my hon. Friend.
The key thing in all the arrangements for a future customs union is that the precise nature of its structure has not yet been decided. It is all still up for debate, and the Bill is therefore an enabling Bill that puts in place the future mechanisms.
Precisely. I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Everything comes back to this House.
The point about the options that the Government have set out and the new customs partnership is that this will have huge practical benefits. Let me give a couple of examples. We could apply our own tariffs to goods destined purely for the UK. For example, for mangoes from India and the Philippines, which are not really a competitive product with anything we grow in this country, there is no reason why the EU should determine what tariff we apply. However, if a basic bicycle was made in another part of the Commonwealth and then exported to the UK for further modifications for onward export to the EU, it would make absolute sense for us to mirror the EU trade and customs arrangements.
The future customs arrangements, which are being negotiated, will therefore have profound implications for our future trading opportunities, and the Bill provides the way forward and opens the door to success, whatever the outcome of the negotiations. That is why the Liberal Democrat amendment, seeking a guarantee that the UK’s trading relationships with the EU and the rest of the world are not damaged, is so bizarre. How can anything like that be guaranteed, particularly during a negotiation? That was doubtless the reason why the amendment was not selected for debate.
This evening, one Opposition party is concerned about guarantees while a negotiation is going on, and another—the main Opposition party—is complaining about being denied any detail about the same negotiation, which has not yet properly started, while a third has already decided, regardless of the results of that negotiation, that it is all a terrible mistake. This evening therefore provides us with an opportunity to back a Bill, which should be entirely uncontroversial politically, that enables the businesses and manufacturers in all our constituencies to know with certainty that, whatever the results of the negotiation, we will have in place the mechanisms for their future exports. It is precisely because the Bill is practical and flexible and because it caters for all outcomes, while making sure that there is no cliff edge, that all of us should support it this evening.
The Bill has profound implications for our economy, for many of our constituents, and for businesses that operate in our constituencies. It gives the Government considerable powers to levy customs duties on goods coming from the European Union, which would be an incredibly damaging spiral for the British economy to enter into as it would not only affect employment opportunities and business costs, but put in jeopardy the stability of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The notion that the proposed duties will apply and that we will somehow also retain frictionless, uninspected borders is oxymoronic—it is not possible. Despite a rather cleverly worded phase 1 agreement between the Government and the European Union, in which they basically decided to kick the issue into the long grass to be determined later on, the question has not yet been resolved and the situation is incredibly serious.
The referendum ballot paper did not mention customs duties or VAT, and it certainly did not mention the customs union. That was not the subject of the question that the British public were asked. Perhaps some Government Members read something between the lines, or perhaps when they squinted in a particular way and stood on one foot they read something on the ballot paper that the rest of the country did not. The country has not voted to leave the customs union, yet the Government and the Prime Minister take it totally for granted that we should all naturally accept that outcome.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman was conscious during the entirety of the referendum campaign. I certainly was and I can assure him and the House that there were frequent references to the definition of the European Union as a single marketplace and a customs union. In fact, that was how the EU came to be defined on television and in the debates. I do not know where the hon. Gentleman was, but it was very clear that the British people knew exactly what leaving the European Union meant. To say otherwise is, frankly, to turn one’s back on the common sense of the British people.
Just because the hon. Gentleman asserts that it was very clear does not mean that that was the case. In fact, his own friend and colleague, Daniel Hannan, a Member of the European Parliament, was very clear that the single market was incredibly important and that no one proposed leaving it. Many other hon. Members said similar.
The Prime Minister at the time was perfectly clear that leaving the European Union did indeed involve leaving the single market and the customs union. It is sophistic in the extreme to suggest that people did not mean to leave the European Union and its institutions when we voted to leave.
Oh, that’s right—he is not here anymore. I vaguely remember who the Prime Minister was at the time.
The ballot paper text is a matter of record for all to see. It asked whether we should remain in or leave the European Union, but it did not go into the details, because in a parliamentary democracy those sorts of details are naturally left to us. This is on our shoulders. We are accountable to our constituents for interpreting that referendum result and putting it into effect, always with an eye on protecting their best interests. That is our job—it is what we are elected to do.
Government Members may think that it is in their best interests to leave the customs union, but that was not on the ballot paper. I disagree with them. I do not think that leaving the customs union is in our best interests, and certainly not those of my constituents. We are talking about a potential impact on half the goods traded by the United Kingdom, as half our goods trade goes to the European Union. These are not inconsiderable issues. Some 2.5 million lorry journeys a year through Dover might be affected. Whole businesses have set up “just in time” business models, down to a matter of minutes, for how goods and components will be sourced throughout supply chains and how inventories will be sourced from across the whole European continent, but they now face being upended not only by the potential duties imposed by the Bill, but by other, non-tariff barriers including bureaucracy, additional form-filling, registrations and inspections. Goods coming in might have to go to one side, both at the port of departure and at the port of entry, to be checked for sanitary and phytosanitary compliance. There are all sorts of inhibitors to the free flow of goods. I and other Opposition Members are talking about free trade. That is what we should be standing up for, which is why this is an incredibly important issue.
I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. This is not just about goods being physically sold in other European countries. Musicians who tour Europe face real uncertainty about whether their instruments and merchandise, whose sales a lot of bands rely on, will be viewed as imports into those countries. There is a lot of uncertainty about what will actually be classed as a good crossing a border.
I know that the hon. Gentleman holds his views deeply and sincerely; colleagues of mine hold very different views equally sincerely. Surely the crucial thing for all of us, however, is that the Bill allows for any of those possible outcomes. It does not predetermine the result of the negotiations or determine whether the United Kingdom will have a future free trade agreement with the European Union that replicates almost completely the existing customs union. Therefore, surely we can agree tonight about the importance of having a mechanism in place that avoids the cliff edge that all the businesses in all of our constituencies want to avoid.
If only that were the case. In fact, that same point is raised in paragraph 9 on page 6 of the explanatory notes, which states:
“The Taxation…Bill does not presuppose any particular outcome from the UK’s negotiations with the EU.”
That is not true. The Government have absolutely presupposed that the customs union is off the table. It is the ultimate presupposition, if ever anyone wanted a definition. This Bill apparently does not allow us to stay in the customs union, but it should allow us to do so, because I happen to believe that there is a majority in this House of Commons for membership of the customs union. I have a little job of work to do to continue to persuade my own party’s Front Benchers of that particular point, but I will try my best to do so because I think they will eventually recognise that being part of the customs union is incredibly important for our economy not just in the transition period, but for the longer term. I believe that the numbers are here in the House of Commons to support that and that it will eventually be proven.
I am disappointed that the Government have tried to twist parliamentary procedure by deeming this measure to be a money Bill. It is Mr Speaker who will decide whether or not it is a money Bill, and I think he will do so at the end of this particular Commons procedure. The Government, though, in a slightly tricksy way, are putting through the Bill following a Ways and Means resolution. Why have they done that? They have gutted the Trade Bill and stuck everything they possibly can into what was the customs Bill so that it cannot be amended by the House of Lords. It is the most obvious trick in the book—rule 101 for a Minister. I have been around the block a number of times, and I have to tell the Minister that there are whole clauses in the Bill, such as clause 31, that are about the formation of a customs union. How is that a matter purely for a money Bill? It is absolutely an issue of public policy to do with our trading alliances that the other place should have every right to pass comment on. If it has advice and suggestions for this place, it should be allowed to amend the Bill.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend’s point. Is it not underlined by the fact that the Government’s programme motion neglects to state how many days’ scrutiny the Bill will receive in the Public Bill Committee, let alone on the Floor of the House, but does state that the Committee will be done by 1 February? If the Committee does not start for a week or a couple of weeks because the Finance Bill and other measures are going through, there will be an extraordinarily small amount of time for detailed scrutiny of a 56-clause Bill with numerous schedules that will potentially have serious impacts on our economy.
That is why I suspect that the other place will look at the truncated scrutiny. I tried to get this out of the Minister earlier—not the Minister before us, but the Financial Secretary to the Treasury. It was not a Cabinet Minister who came to the Chamber to introduce the Bill, by the way, but I am told that a reshuffle might be going on, so perhaps the Chief Secretary or even the Chancellor are in negotiations. The junior Minister acquitted himself reasonably well at the outset—as well as he possibly could, given the line that was scripted for him to take—but I think that a Cabinet Minister should have presented a Bill of such scale and importance. It deserves proper scrutiny in this place, with the right number of Committee sittings, because otherwise the other place will have to do that job for us.
I am happy to confirm that the Bill will have eight Committee sittings in the House of Commons.
I can only hope—fingers crossed—that I am selected for the Committee. I know that my hon. Friends on the Front Bench will be keen to have me on it. I try my best to be as constructive as possible at all times, so I hold out great hope for that.
Part 1 of the Bill is very wide-ranging. My hon. Friends have made speeches about trade remedies in respect of anti-dumping and subsidy provisions. Perhaps the Minister will use his winding-up speech to cast a little more light on what the UK’s policy will be on competitive trade and, in particular, on subsidy issues. I know that Government Members have an interest in many aspects of trade with places such as China and other non-market economies. The question about subsidies is important, so I would like to hear a little more from the Government about what their policy stance will be. Will we cut and paste the existing EU approach or not?
A number of big decisions have to be made. When our constituents find out that we will have the power to raise or lower a particular duty, the widget manufacturers or whatever in our constituencies who might be prone to it, or whose competitors might be prone to it, will take great interest in contacting Members of Parliament to say, “Will you push the Government to raise this duty?” or, “Will you push Ministers to lower that duty?” This has the potential to fill our inboxes for decades to come.
Members of the European Parliament—we have sort of outsourced much of this policy to the EU for 40 years—have a number of scrutiny powers in respect of customs and excise and trade agreements that we will not have when those matters are brought to the House of Commons. I worry very much about trade agreements. Members of the European Parliament have the right to comment on them and even to suggest amendments to them. Of course, they then give final consent to trade agreements, but that is not part of the current Administration’s package under the customs and trade Bills.
Of course, that is an unamendable procedure. I think that, at the very least, the Government will be pushed by the other place into a super-affirmative procedure whereby the Commons has a Committee that looks at the details and suggests amendments and changes. Ministers may then plough ahead if they want, but a super-affirmative procedure would mirror more the powers of MEPs in these matters. A simple aye or nay would be a dilution of the scrutiny powers that we currently have democratically via elected Members of the European Parliament.
I want to focus on part 3 of the Bill. In the past couple of days, a lot of attention has been given to the number of firms that do business across the European Union. They think of their trade not as imports and exports, but as arrivals and dispatches. Whether they are buying components from Birmingham or Bristol or from Brussels or Berlin, they treat them all the same for customs and excise and VAT purposes. That will potentially not be the case under the Bill.
Even if we stayed in the single market and the customs union, we would not necessarily be in the EU VAT area, which is outwith the customs union. That is another decision that Ministers will have to face up to and take. I would like the Bill to be amended so that we stay in the EU VAT area or, at the very least, have a proper impact assessment of the implications of leaving it. That is the position of the British Retail Consortium, which argues that leaving it would mean a potential bureaucratic burden for businesses that currently, if they are importing goods from EU member states, can treat the acquisition VAT through the normal quarterly lodgings of their VAT returns. Henceforth, those firms will potentially have to pay VAT up front—it is known as import VAT—at the point of entry, so at the border, at the port, at Dover, at the channel tunnel or wherever it comes in, each time there is that level of transaction. To look at it in the round, the customer would pay the same amount of VAT at the end point, but it would be incredibly disruptive to the cash flow of those firms.
I looked online and at the explanatory notes, thinking that there must be a regulatory impact assessment of that situation, because the Bill abolishes acquisition VAT and introduces import VAT on goods, including those from the European Union. There does not seem to be a particularly rigorous impact assessment. I do not know whether I have missed it. There was one for the Trade Remedies Authority, but there does not seem to be one for the import VAT proposals. There ought to be an impact assessment, because that is Cabinet Office best practice, but I cannot seem to find it.
Again, I do not think voters were necessarily tuned into the implications on the EU VAT area when they cast their votes on the ballot paper. I may be criticised again for saying this, but I did not see the EU VAT area on the ballot paper. Perhaps I was not looking closely enough. Perhaps Government Members will help me out and point to where it was.
Currently, 140,000 British companies have to go through the rigmarole of registration and compliance when importing from outside the EU. A further 132,000 firms that do not trade beyond the EU but source their imports and components from within the EU will potentially be added to that. Knocking on for 300,000 businesses will be hit by this. According to HMRC’s own statistics, the number of transactions that are hit by customs duties and, therefore, potentially by import VAT will go from 55 million trades to 255 million trades a year, with all the paperwork and rigmarole associated with that level of bureaucracy.
My hon. Friend is making incredibly important points about the practical implications of the Bill and the proposed changes. Was he not concerned, therefore, that the Financial Secretary refused to confirm whether any additional customs officers were being proposed or were in training? In fact, he seemed to suggest that they would be reallocated from other roles within HMRC or the Home Office. Given the scale of the additional bureaucracy that is being proposed, is that not deeply worrying?
We will have to hear from Ministers how they propose to deal with the extra 200 million trades going through the new system. I hope to read more in the impact assessment. If the Government can cope with, or have proposals to ameliorate, some of that administrative burden, we would like to see it in the impact assessment.
On top of that, my hon. Friend should know that, as I think was mentioned earlier, HMRC currently has a computer system or IT software called CHIEF. What does it stand for? I will not try to deal with the acronym—oh no, I can; you will be glad to know, Madam Deputy Speaker, that it stands for “customs handling of import and export freight”. CHIEF will be retired in January 2019—keep that date in mind, as it is crucial in the transition. We are moving to a new system called the customs declaration service. It is costing £157 million to implement and is potentially great news, but all these 130,000 new traders will suddenly be brought into this new system, and they will need to be given time, leeway and flexibility to get used to a system that they currently do not have to operate. I want to hear from the Minister what approach the Government will take to gradually phase in the new system while bringing so many extra businesses into that procedure.
We have had the good fortune over the last week to see some of the news, including BBC news. In the last week the BBC has visited businesses on the mainland. There seems to be a confidence among businesses and private enterprise across the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in what the Government are doing in relation to the points that the hon. Gentleman is making. Does he accept that a lot of those companies understand the issues and are happy to put them in the hands of the Government?
That is not quite the impression I am getting from the business community. Trade bodies, such the British Retail Consortium and others I have mentioned already, are voicing their concerns, but many businesses are also waiting to see if there is any clarity on the details of how this will pan out. The warm words about phase 1 agreements—“We can sort these things out”, “Don’t worry, it will all be fine”—will only butter so many parsnips. Ultimately, businesses want to know how it will affect their bottom line, how they will cope, what sort of new systems they will need to put in place, what sort of employees they will have to bring in, and so on.
I am afraid I disagree with the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). He and I get on very well, but I am not hearing the same thing. The Freight Transport Association has made very clear the consequences of even marginal delays to customs procedures, such as those caused by the introduction of a new IT system and the additional time spent processing declarations. It has said that the addition of an average of two minutes to customs processing would result in a 17-mile queue from Dover back to Ashford; four minutes takes the queue back to Maidstone; six minutes back to the M25; eight minutes, and we are at the Dartford crossing and Essex. We could not have a clearer illustration of the types of problems that could be caused. These are substantial changes and, even with the best will in the world, they will have substantial impacts on trade.
That is why we should not just rush the Bill through as though it were a minor, technical copy-and-paste exercise. These are fundamental decisions we are having to grapple with, both in this House of Commons and in the other place, and it is not appropriate that it be deemed a money Bill. Yes, aspects are to do with taxation, but others are not and broaden out into trade and other areas. The Government might think they can deal with this tactically in that way but I do not think it appropriate.
I encourage my Front-Bench team, and all hon. Members, to support remaining in the customs union. I give notice to my Front-Bench team in particular. I asked the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury about the Labour party’s policy on the EU VAT area, a specific area of policy we need to get to grips with. The Bill should be amended so that we retain our involvement and participation in the EU VAT area, as that is the clearest, simplest way of retaining the current benefits. I am sure that amendments will come along on this issue, and when they do, I hope that all hon. Members will think carefully about what to do.
As for this evening, I worry that this VAT issue is yet another potential horror story in the Brexit saga. We pull at one thread and yet more issues start to tumble down on top of our constituents and the business community. It is not right to facilitate duties being put on trade with our nearest neighbours and closest economic allies across the EU, and that is why I hope that we will oppose the Bill this evening.
If we are to deliver Brexit, the UK needs to leave the customs union and establish its own customs regime. Without doing so, the UK will be precluded from striking its own free trade deals and left open to certain judgments from the European Court of Justice. I fear that those who believe we can honour the referendum result while staying in the single market or customs union are simply wishing to deliver Brexit in name only.
The Bill is widely drafted in order not to prejudice the eventual outcome of any deal we strike with the EU. It instead ensures that the UK can respond to its new status, whatever the circumstances in March 2019. That could include a no deal scenario—something that would represent a wasted opportunity of historic proportions on the EU’s part. Our Government have already made it clear that the UK wants to maintain free, frictionless trade with the EU and that they wish to maintain continuity with EU law at this stage on customs, excise and VAT to give businesses certainty.
There would be no need for chaos at customs or increased tariffs if our standalone regime could be linked closely to the EU’s, potentially in a new customs partnership. The question is whether the EU has the capacity to recognise its own interests and, more crucially, the interests of the people it governs. Until 2008’s financial crisis, global trade had been growing at up to twice the rate of global output for decades. Ever since, trade has slowed to be in line with, or sometimes below, growth in the global economy and political upheaval has followed.
As a founding World Trade Organisation member, the UK has long been a passionate advocate for liberalised trade. It is time to regain that leadership role and push back against the superficial allure of protectionism. The Bill sets the scene for that. While it introduces the potential for levying tariffs, giving us the tools to protect against dumping, it also allows us to adopt a unilateral trade preference scheme for developing countries to ensure trade further replaces aid as the primary poverty alleviation tool.
The Bill also aims to manage the flow of goods at our ports. Over the summer, I visited London Gateway, a state-of-the-art port in Essex with modern HMRC and Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs facilities and spare capacity. A logistical hub is being developed to deliver goods directly to London and the south-east rather than via midlands distribution centres. German grocer Lidl has already taken space there. The competition from nearby ports such as Tilbury, with its vast Amazon fulfilment centre, keeps freight costs low and ties into the Government’s ambitions to unlock the entire Thames Gateway with a new river crossing and more homes. This plan and these efficiencies strip out cost to retailers, helping to offset any potential increase in tariffs. Our customs systems are already highly efficient, but the Bill sets up an authorised economic operator scheme to indicate the fulfilment by exporters and importers of recognised compliance standards and makes provision for HMRC-approved warehouse operators. These measures should fast-track shipments. We now need to identify the sectors most exposed to any new cost and resource HMRC appropriately, which is what the Government are doing.
In my capacity as a member of the International Trade Select Committee, I would like to say something about tariff-free quotas. As an EU member, the UK is party to over 60 free trade agreements that permit our trading partners to export a certain volume of goods to the EU tariff-free. Along with the Trade Bill, this Bill provides the foundation for the continuation of these deals after Brexit. We hope that this grandfathering process will be straightforward, but our trading partners may use the opportunity to renegotiate terms, and rules of origin might add complexity to existing trade. Rules of origin define where a product was made and help to determine the application of quotas, preferential tariffs and trade remedies.
At present, the UK can export to the EU with no restrictions on the value of imported intermediates from third countries, and this will likely change once we are out of the customs union. Origin is generally conferred based on where a good was obtained or manufactured or where the last substantial transformation took place. Cumulation of origin allows for greater flexibility when using raw or semi-manufactured materials from certain third countries. Currently, as an EU member state, the UK benefits from the pan- Euro-Mediterranean cumulation zone.
Cumulative rules of origin may prove hard to negotiate, requiring trilateral discussion between the UK, the EU and the third country concerned. None the less, the UK’s departure from existing free trade agreements is not challenge-free for the EU either. Those FTAs were negotiated on the basis of access to an EU economy that included a UK market, which, in 2015, amounted to 17.5 % of the EU’s GDP, and which contains some of its most voracious consumers. If we withdraw that market from the FTA, there will inevitably be an impact on its functioning, if not on its legal character. The EU plans to remove the equivalent of the UK’s market share from the duty-free quotas that it offers its trading partners. Otherwise, EU domestic producers will have to compete with a greater inflow of tariff-free foreign goods. FTA partners, however, are understandably very unhappy at the prospect of a substantial reduction in their tariff-free quotas.
If the EU can think imaginatively and flexibly about a customs link to the UK economy, with potential agreement on rules of origin at least for a transition period, the potential problems of both sides can be addressed. The EU’s default arrangements relating to rules of origin are relatively liberal, and processes already exist for exporters to self-certify origins. Agreeing on those processes, and ensuring that businesses sign up to them now, should be a priority.
May I pursue the issue of tariff-rate quotas? Is it not the case that, even if countries receive the same amount in total—if they were previously able to distribute 100 tonnes of goods, and in future they could distribute 70 to the EU and 30 to the UK—they might challenge that on the basis that if the UK market collapses, they will not be able to transfer that amount to another country, as they currently can?
My point is that any issues relating to tariff-rate quotas will affect not just the UK but the EU, and it is therefore in the EU’s interests to try to reach an accommodation with the UK.
I welcome the Bill, which is about preparedness and which, given its wide drafting, allows for any negotiated outcome. I hope that it sets us up for a new chapter in our long history as a proud, global trading nation.
Let me start where the Minister started. He spoke of wanting to secure the greatest possible economic advantage for the United Kingdom, but I am afraid that what we have is a series of Ministers who are wilfully proceeding with Tory Brexit decisions that they know are damaging to the UK’s economic interests.
Some Conservative Members—although not Ministers —state openly that they realise that what the Government are pursuing is damaging to our economic interests. Some are embarrassed by that, and I shall not embarrass them by naming names; they are keeping their heads down and staying quiet. Some think that this is a price worth paying. Some believe that it will benefit the United Kingdom, although sometimes the advice that they give to others is the complete opposite of their claims to that effect.
All those who follow this debate, whether they are leave or remain supporters, ought to be aware that Ministers are advocating a move that they know is damaging to the UK’s interests and that they are doing so because on 23 June 2016, on one day of the electoral cycle, people voted to leave the European Union. People need to remember that Conservative Members who were overwhelmingly in favour of our remaining in the EU know that this will cause us damage, but are proceeding with it nevertheless. The Government will not admit that, and they will not release the information that would enable us to know it. We have already had the rather circular argument about sectoral analysis, impact assessments and so on. The one thing that the Government are not willing to do is share the information about what the economic impact of Brexit will be.
The hon. Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins), who is no longer in the Chamber, made a very sensible point. He understands perfectly well the impact that leaving the EU and the customs union would have on the port of Dover. He rightly pointed out that countries trade more effectively with countries that are close to them. That is why the idea that there is a trade deal out there with Australia or New Zealand that will replace the trade deals that we have with the European Union is a fiction.
There have been many references to frictionless, seamless trade. That is fine; everyone wants to achieve that. The only problem is that, so far, no one has actually identified how it will work. It is great to have the aspiration, but in practice no solution is available. The same is true of the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for Nottingham East (Mr Leslie) confirmed that that can has been kicked down the road. No solution has been identified in phase 1 of the negotiations. It has been accepted that there is a huge problem, but also that the can will be kicked a little further down the road.
We will wait and see whether I have got the logic back to front. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman, however, that the idea that it is possible to have on one hand a completely seamless border and on the other hand a United Kingdom that is outside the European Union does not work. There must be one of two solutions. The first, relating to where that border sits, would be very unpopular with members of the Democratic Unionist party, while the second goes against everything that the party in power is advocating. I do not think that there is a simple solution, and that is why I think that the issue has been kicked down the road. I suppose people are hoping that, perhaps as a result of phase 2 of the negotiations, there will be a miracle solution that will make possible a frictionless, seamless border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, but given that no one has identified it so far in the 18 months or so that have elapsed since the referendum, I am not confident that anyone will come up with it in the time that remains.
I believe that the Bill is unnecessary and, indeed, highly damaging. It was required only because the Government have set themselves against the solution that is our staying in the customs union. The hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) tried to highlight the differences between Labour Front Benchers and some of his hon. Friends, which is easy enough to do, but he could equally have chosen to highlight the differences on the Tory Benches. At least one Tory Member, the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), considers the solution that the Government are trying to identify in all their fudges and workarounds to be staying in the customs union, and I agree with her. If there are differences of opinion, they exist on both sides of the House, not just between Labour Front and Back Benchers.
We will oppose the Bill’s Second Reading, not for—I was going to say mealy-mouthed reasons, but that might be unfair. I do not know the hon. Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) terribly well, but I have no reason to believe that he is, in fact, mealy-mouthed. I must say, however, that Labour Members are trying to sit on the fence for as long as is physically possible, in spite of repeated interventions from their own side. At some point, they will have to jump in one direction or the other. It must be getting very uncomfortable for them, sitting on that fence. The longer they sit on it, the sharper and more uncomfortable for their backsides it will become. At some point, they are going to have to jump. I hope that they will jump in the direction that they are being encouraged to do by some of their Back Benchers and by the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National party, Plaid Cymru and the Green party—namely, in favour of staying in the customs union and the single market long term, not just as a means of massaging support over the next few months but in the long-term interests of the United Kingdom.
As I have said, I do not want to describe Labour Front Benchers as mealy-mouthed, but there is clearly some difficulty with the position that the Labour party is trying to adopt, and I would like some clarity on this. Labour Members say that they are interested in preserving jobs, for instance, and I wonder what work they have done to assess the impact of a substantial number of job losses in the transport industry. A lot of goods are transported from the Republic of Ireland to Dover through Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom. Those involved are thinking of simply cutting out the rather complicated business of crossing the UK border altogether and instead shipping the stuff straight from Ireland to, say, Cherbourg. That would result in the loss of many jobs in Britain along the way.
We have heard many references to the VAT change, which could affect between 100,000 and 150,000 businesses. Concern was expressed earlier that some larger businesses can be quite aggressive towards small suppliers, but a lot of the businesses affected will be small businesses that suddenly find themselves in difficulties with their cash flow. I wonder what analysis the Government have carried out on that. I am afraid that, as in so many areas relating to Brexit, the answer is that there has been no impact analysis and that the Government are simply proceeding with these changes.
One of the key claims by the leave campaign was that leaving the EU was about cutting red tape. I would love the Minister to confirm that the measures in the Bill will cut red tape for businesses, but frankly I cannot see how businesses will benefit from a reduction in red tape in any shape or form as a result of this legislation. Instead, businesses that are not subject to red tape at the moment will have to take on red tape that they have never previously had to deal with. The Minister must at least try to address that point, given that one of the main claims made by leave campaigners was that leaving the EU would cut red tape for businesses.
We could talk at length about the delegated powers, as we have done on many other Bills relating to Brexit, but there is no point in rehearsing the arguments that have been made on those Bills, because the Government are clearly intent on taking advantage of the situation and cutting Parliament out of the loop as much as possible.
If the Government want to proceed in the way that they are doing at the moment, trade remedies will be essential. Members will be aware that trade remedies are currently implemented by the EU, which has more than 100 such measures in place against imports from 25 countries. To what extent does the Minister expect those measures to be replicated? Also, does he believe that it will be possible for the UK, operating alone, to have more effective trade remedies than those currently implemented by the EU with its 28 member states? Again, we need clarity, honesty and accountability. We need to hear from the Minister whether he thinks that the trade remedies available to the United Kingdom on its own will be weaker and less effective than what is currently available to us as a member of the European Union.
I welcome the fact that the Government will legislate to ensure that we can maintain a system of trade preferences for developing countries. I have already referred to the VAT issue and to the impact on red tape. I hope that the Minister can confirm that the Bill will have no red tape implications, although it is hard to see how he could possibly do so. [Interruption.] Would my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) like to intervene on me?
No. Okay. I thought my hon. Friend was poised to come in with a trenchant point. I am sure that she has one, and that she is saving it up till later.
The Government have brought forward a Bill that is needed simply because they have chosen to adopt one of the more extreme Brexit options open to them: settling for no deal whatsoever or coming out of the customs union. In those circumstances, it is clear that they will need to provide the legislation that is set out in this Bill and that trade remedies will need to be in place. I have put to the Minister some specific questions about whether he can demonstrate that the Bill will not impose an additional red tape burden on businesses and whether the trade remedies that he is advocating in the Bill are likely to be more effective for the United Kingdom than the ones currently available to us through the European Union. With that, I will happily sit down.
I was hoping this evening that we might begin to get past some of the old arguments and debates over whether to leave the EU that we have been having ad nauseam over the past year and more, but it seems as though some people cannot understand that if we do not leave the single market and the customs union, we simply have not left the EU. It is by virtue of being a member of the EU that we are in the customs union, and we automatically leave it on the day we leave the EU.
The opportunities that are there for this country as a result of leaving the EU simply will not be there if we stay in the single market. The behind-the-border trade reforms that can give advantages to our service industries will not be possible if we do not have control of our own regulation, and being a member of the single market will obviate that entirely. Similarly, on the customs union or, indeed, a customs union, if we leave the control of our customs and trade policies with the EU, everybody would judge that to mean our not having left the EU. What we need, and what I have argued for consistently, is an advanced and modern form of customs co-operation that enables our trade to be as frictionless as possible. There will be frictions, however, and we should not shy away from talking about them. The Bill begins to allow us to have control over all the levers that enable us to put such things into place. This enabling legislation is vital so that we can have the systems that are required for things to operate properly on day one after we leave the EU.
I will certainly support the Bill’s Second Reading, which will give it this House’s support in principle. We have heard quite a lot of discussion about the different policy stances that the Bill will enable us to take up in future, and there will obviously be much more discussion about what our trade policies should be. It is entirely right that that should happen in this House in a constructive and, I hope, cross-party manner, because this is about our futures and those of our children and grandchildren, too.
I want to address a few of the things that have come up this evening. The point about VAT and cash flows is interesting and I have raised it before, and it is worth remembering that the EU is going through its own change process on VAT. It intends to impose a directive that would essentially mean that the country from which a good is being exported will collect the VAT at its own rate rather than have a good exported on a VAT-free basis and then get the receiving country to account for the difference after having collected VAT on receipt. That in itself will change a lot of the cash flows around intra-European trade, and it is worth examining more closely whether it makes sense in that context for us to think about having a system that enables us to collect VAT for each other in the future. I am not necessarily against being party to some sort of arrangement with the EU on VAT to enable that smooth process at the border to continue, but we need to look at it much more closely. I hope Ministers will give some thought to that and inform the House of their thinking.
We have also heard today about rules of origin, and it is right to raise that—I have previously raised rules of origin both in the International Trade Committee and in the Chamber. The hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) made the excellent point that the cumulation of rules of origin is very important in any trade deal. We will have to think about those things anyway, and we absolutely have to think about them in the context of rolling over the trade agreements we already have by virtue of being in the EU. There is a lot of good will on the part of foreign nations that are party to those deals, but rules of origin will definitely have to be addressed in our negotiations with the EU.
As my colleague on the International Trade Committee, the hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez), said earlier, tariff-free quotas are also important in that context, and the EU has to think about that. When it comes to rules of origin, we also have to remember that our supply chains are highly integrated, and it is not as simple as saying that we just cannot trade with the EU anymore. It would also be very damaging for the EU, as having to find suppliers that are not part of our supply chain would create a lot of pressure on EU businesses, and it would create a lot of pressure on the EU to find resource from within its own economies to meet those supply chain needs. That is not something the EU would want.
The hon. Gentleman is talking about European suppliers needing to find someone to supply, and about companies in this country needing to use such supplies. Is there not a danger that, particularly in the car industry where companies from other parts of the EU are currently in this country, we will lose viable industries? They will simply go where the supply chain is easier and where they will not be tied up in the red tape proposed in this Bill.
The hon. Lady is right that, particularly in the car industry, rules of origin are an issue across the world. In the North American Free Trade Agreement, for example, the ability of US and Canadian car manufacturers to integrate their supply chains makes a big difference. Under the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which the Canadians are considering re-entering in a modified form, rules of origin on cars are probably one of the main determining issues. The degree to which local content needs to be demonstrated is a major factor.
Among other things I hope that, through this process, car manufacturers will look at sourcing more UK content in order to raise the proportion sourced in the UK, or indeed in the EU. It is all to play for, and there are lots of different ways of organising it. I would not necessarily say it is impossible or too hard but, yes, it needs to be thought about.
In that context—I have also said this before—the Customs Declaration Service that HMRC is working on has to be flexible enough to change the values that are put into the system. Whether on VAT, import duty or the cumulation of rules of origin, we need to make sure the system is able to be changed flexibly and easily at a later date. If that is not the case, this will be a nightmare and we will have a computer system that fails. I hope HMRC is well aware of that fact and of the need for that flexibility.
We have also heard about trade remedies, and it is right to say that the Trade Remedies Authority needs to be put in place very soon. The sooner it can get on with doing the work of analysing what the competitive position in various of these industries where existing or potential future remedies are going to be needed, the better; that has to be done with a good lead time in order for us to be able to argue at the WTO that we should potentially think about renewing trade remedies or putting new ones in different industries in place.
We also heard a little about lesser duty. It is fair to say that the lesser duty provisions in the WTO agreements are there for a reason: to try to prevent an arbitrary and egregious application of trade remedies. However, we need to make sure that we use our opportunities arising from coming out of the EU to make these arguments for how the global trade system should work in a non-egregious and non-arbitrary way, one where we can have rational dispute resolution mechanisms for our trade.
Having said those things and having said how necessary this Bill is, I must say that I have some concerns about the text, which I would like to discuss with Ministers and think about during the later stages of the Bill. I am concerned about clause 42, which deals with the EU law relating to VAT, and the potential for statutory instruments to be brought forward to alter the rights, remedies and procedures which have been imported by virtue of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. Similarly, I would like more clarity on clause 47, which deals with EU law relating to excise duty. We need to think a bit more about it, because it seems to give the Treasury and Treasury Ministers the power to alter fundamental concepts of EU law and the application of it in the future.
We also heard about clause 31, which relates to the potential implementation of a customs union, with fairly draconian Henry VIII powers. Admittedly they are subject to an affirmative procedure in the House of Commons, but it would be worth knowing a bit more about what the intent of this is and exactly how it would operate. Overall, we need to make sure we use this opportunity and this Bill to get a positive new customs co-operation system in place with our EU friends and allies. What we want is a good relationship with the EU, and it does not have to be at the expense of the rest of the world. This is not an either/or situation. I have heard many commentators say that if we are not part of the EU, we cannot do anything with the EU and that all the other deals we might do around the rest of the world cannot replace that. That is a false argument because we are looking to build on what can be as near as possible to our current relationship with the EU, and if we can do that really well and are smart about it, we can make a great success of leaving the EU.
Ga’i ddymuno blwyddyn newydd dda i chi—may I wish you a happy new year, Mr Speaker?
I wish to confine my remarks to three key points. First, I wish to add my voice to those calling for our continued membership of the largest trading bloc in the world. Secondly, I wish to outline the concerns from Welsh ports, which would face immediate challenges to their existing position as a result of changes to our customs arrangements. Thirdly, the weakness of this Bill’s ability to protect our vital industries will form the final part of my speech, and we have heard many interesting contributions on that point already.
As promised, I wish first to reiterate to the British Government the illogicality of, and harm they will cause by, ripping us out of the customs union. A student of GCSE economics could explain the foundations of international trade as laid out by David Ricardo. His theory of comparative advantage is not complex to grasp. By specialising in particular industries, combined with free international trade, all nations will see positive results. The premise is simple: rather than creating a range of mediocre products, the highly specialised industries of each nation produce better goods, which are then traded internationally, satisfying domestic demand for the products made in other nations. Whether we agree that this commercial international order should be our goal or not, it has underpinned our economic approach to trade for centuries.
International marketplaces have moved on from Ricardo’s time. Instead of cloth and wine, the modern economy trades aeroplane wings, specialised steel products and microchips. To account for this complexity, policy makers have created institutions to manage commerce.
The European customs union is the greatest example of one such institution. By removing physical and financial barriers to trade, it has created the largest, richest, most powerful network of free-trading states in the world. As a result of our membership of the customs union, Welsh businesses can trade on a completely unfettered basis within the bloc, gaining access to 600 million consumers.
As a trading bloc, the EU customs union also applies a common external tariff on entering the bloc, and we should remind ourselves of the extra costs that will hit our exporters if we are no longer members and have no agreement on future tariffs. Carmarthenshire is known for its agricultural produce, so it is worth putting it on the record that the tariff for animal products can be more than 138%, with an average of 20%; the maximum tariff on dairy products can be as much as 134%, with an average of 45%.
I could also point to other major employers in Carmarthenshire who manufacture component parts for export and will obviously follow the upcoming negotiations with great interest. We should not be under any illusion: if it becomes burdensome, financially or through regulation, for those companies to move their goods, they will relocate. Our membership of the single market and the customs union has been invaluable in securing valuable foreign direct investment in areas such as my home communities in the Amman valley.
Before I am accused of scaremongering, today’s shambolic reshuffle was trailed in the press over the weekend as a reorganisation to prepare for a no-deal scenario. The 27 members of the EU are not the only ones with whom we will lose our existing free-trade arrangements. Sixty-seven countries have agreements with EU customs union members which must be grandfathered, although there continues to be some dispute about whether that is possible. The issue will be discussed in greater detail tomorrow when we deliberate on the Trade Bill.
By pulling my nation out of the European customs union in search of some false free-trade, low-tariff Brexit nirvana, the British Government risk the jobs and wages of my constituents. The Minister will undoubtedly claim that this is the will of the people. We can of course engage in a tit-for-tat argument over whether that is the case. However, that denies him the opportunity to outline the purported benefits of the British Government’s approach. For that reason, I ask him the following: if certainty is his aim, and the status quo is certainty, why is rolling the dice on more than half our imports and exports a good idea? Why is he gambling away my constituents’ jobs and wages? Why is he pulling us out of the customs union at all?
I also implore Labour Front Benchers to come to their senses. The constructive ambiguity of the Labour party’s Brexit position may offer marginal electoral advantage, but it provides the silver platter on which the Tories can serve up an extreme and damaging Brexit. Rather than playing hokey cokey with the single market and customs union, I ask Opposition Members to join us and take a clear stand to say we are better off in these great European economic institutions. Let there be no mistake: the Tories can deliver their current policy of an extreme Brexit only because the position of the Labour leadership is to leave the single market and the customs union after the transition phase.
I am grateful for the intervention, and am aware that during the debate many honourable colleagues on the Labour Back Benches have made that exact point and implored Front Benchers to change their position. Some very interesting reports are coming out of the parliamentary Labour party meeting this evening.
Before the recess, the tangible and immediate chaos created by pulling us out of the customs union was vividly illustrated. The Prime Minister’s attempts to conclude phase 1 of the negotiations were almost scuppered by the issue of customs borders on the island of Ireland. Others will be able to expound with greater invested passion why no such border should exist. However, I would like to raise my concerns about the sea border that my nation shares with Ireland and thus the EU.
Wales and its ports are intimately linked with Ireland. Holyhead, Fishguard, and Pembroke Dock are vital trading links between Wales and the Republic of Ireland. Holyhead is the UK’s second largest port. In excess of 400,000 trucks pass through it every year. A hard maritime border between Wales and the Republic of Ireland will inevitably hit Holyhead hard, and I ask Ministers to read the excellent article of 4 January by my former university lecturer, Professor Richard Wyn Jones, on this specific issue facing Holyhead and his native isle of Ynys Môn, or Anglesey. In Holyhead there is simply no space in or around the port for the kind of infrastructure that will be required to process the number of lorries and trailers that currently pass through it. A hard border in Holyhead can yield only chaos. The same problems apply to Pembroke Dock and Fishguard.
The inevitable consequence of physical constraints in and around the ports is that freight will need to find ways to bypass Holyhead and Wales, especially if there is a soft border between the British state and the European Union in Northern Ireland. Without trade arrangements that mirror the outcomes of what we already have, Welsh ports will be in danger of becoming uncompetitive. With the intention of pulling us out of the customs union, the Bill and the actions of the Minister make it clear to the people of Holyhead that the Government consider their livelihoods to be dispensable.
Finally, I would like to highlight the concerns of an industry central to and symbolic of the Welsh economy—the steel sector. Primarily its concerns centre on trade defence provisions. These are found in clauses 13 and 14 and schedules 4 and 5. I am sure the Minister will have seen last week’s letter in the Financial Times from almost a dozen industry and union representatives highlighting the fact that these clauses
“set up a lighter-touch approach to illegal dumping by China and others than in the remaining EU and any other major economy.”
In the lead-up to the referendum, the exact opposite was promised by the leave side. In an ITV Cymru debate I took part in, Mr Nathan Gill from UKIP, speaking on behalf of the leave side, promised that a British Government freed from the shackles of Brussels would be able to impose prohibitive anti-dumping duties on China. I am sure that that clear promise influenced votes in some communities in south Wales. When he uttered those words, we know the British Government were selling the Welsh steel sector down the river. In March 2016, the British Government blocked attempts to strengthen EU trade defences against imports of cheap Chinese steel that devastated Port Talbot steelworks and took it to the brink of collapse—as we heard from the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) earlier. Yet again, it seems that the Government have little concern for steelworkers, preferring to seek dodgy deals with Trump’s America and cosying up to Beijing to protecting Welsh jobs and wages.
Fundamentally, the Bill would be wholly unnecessary, and its deficiencies of no concern, if the policy of the British Government followed the sensible path of remaining a member of the European customs union. For this reason and other reasons I have outlined, my Plaid Cymru colleagues and I will refuse to give the Bill a Second Reading and will vote against it tonight.
I am delighted to speak in favour of the Bill as it provides the next pillar to support the UK’s exit from the European Union. Free and fair trade is fundamental to the growth and prosperity of the United Kingdom and the world economy. Trade with our neighbours near and far is intrinsically linked with jobs, wage growth, productivity and innovation. Trade ensures that more people can access a wider choice of goods and services, hopefully at a lower and competitive cost, and can make household incomes go that bit further.
As we prepare to leave the EU, we are beginning to chart our new course, remaining—as we have always been proud to be—an outward-looking, internationalist nation, and identifying new opportunities with potential trading partners around the world. The UK’s trade with the world is equivalent to over half our GDP. We must therefore do everything that we can to ensure that trade can continue and that all the necessary arrangements are in place after we have left the EU. We need customs, VAT and excise arrangements to support us in both our existing and future trading missions.
Let us be absolutely clear: the decision by the British people in 2016 to leave the EU was one to remove us from all aspects of the EU, not to cherry-pick the ones we want. Indeed, 27 other countries would have a say about any cherry-picking we indulged in. Our departure from the EU includes leaving the customs union. Opposition Members would ignore or put aside the decision by the people of the UK and claim that the country could somehow magically retain its membership of the customs union. This Government have made it crystal clear that the UK will leave the customs union. Anything less would be viewed as a betrayal of the millions of people across the country who voted leave—I am not one of them; I voted to remain—and now expect us in this place to carry out that decision. I hope that those voters will be encouraged by the Government’s steps to implement our own independent arrangements, including on trade, and will feel that real progress is being made towards our exit from the EU.
I would like to deal briefly with an issue of huge importance to businesses in Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock, and indeed beyond—throughout the whole United Kingdom. Business after business in my constituency stresses the same thing: the need for clarity and certainty so that they can begin the process of planning for their futures, and the futures of their staff, suppliers and customers. This Bill takes steps to address their concerns.
Customs and excise are complex issues, and I am not an expert in them, but I understand that more than 17,000 types of goods must be classified, and I am sure there will be sub-classifications as well. It will take time for businesses—and, I dare say, the Government—to adapt to any new changes. I therefore welcome the provisions that facilitate an interim customs arrangement with the EU, remaining true to the Prime Minister’s promise of an implementation period. During such a period, I would like close association with the EU customs union, in much the same manner as we proceed currently, so that we avoid a cliff edge for businesses, which no one wants.
My hon. Friend talks about cliff edges. Does he, like me, find it ironic that the Opposition parties that will vote against the Bill’s Second Reading are creating the very cliff edge that our constituents—business operators, directors and entrepreneurs—do not want? That is exactly what Labour and the SNP will be doing by voting against Second Reading.
I share my hon. Friend’s view about the pessimism of some Opposition Members, albeit not all. The last thing that we need is to talk down the United Kingdom and our business communities. At this time, they need our support. We do not need a cliff edge for business in the UK, as well as those in the EU with which we trade.
The next few months will be crucial, and I am sure that the UK’s negotiating team in Brussels will do all it can to agree to the principle of an implementation period. The one thing this Bill must not do is limit our ability to negotiate a future trade agreement with the EU. All options must be on the table for our negotiating team to secure a future trade agreement.
Whatever the future arrangements—we do not know what they are; no deal has been struck and the die has not been cast—at the heart of the UK’s trade policy must be a continued commitment to rules-based free trade. The UK has long led the world in this area, from early trading days with sailing ships such as cutters—[Interruption.] I was thinking more of the Cutty Sark.
We have played a leading role in organisations such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. We in Scotland have made an immense contribution to the UK’s trade across the world, for instance with our shipbuilding. We have done very well. We have sailed the world—I shall never forget it—and our most successful days are ahead as we remain part of the United Kingdom.
Our future trading arrangements with Europe have immense possibility. The UK starts from an unprecedented point of alignment, and I would like both sides to take this opportunity to design a customs arrangement that is both ambitious and innovative. This is not a one-way street; it is a two-way street with many movements on it. Let us imagine the Prosecco producer in Italy, the wine producers in France and Spain, the flower growers in Holland—[Interruption.] Yes, there is whisky, but we are leaving; I am thinking of the ones who remain, such as the car manufacturers in Germany and Spain. They will want a frictionless, seamless arrangement. Let us never forget that the United Kingdom is a good country to do business with. These people, among many others I could mention, will want to continue to do good business with us.
Does the hon. Gentleman not understand that the most important thing for the EU is to maintain its integrity? If everybody would get a better deal by leaving the EU, as the UK thinks it will, everybody would leave. That is exactly why the EU wants to protect its union. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is the first thing the EU will have in mind?
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention, but I think she missed the point of what I was trying to say. This is a two-way street. In fact, the trade deficit is in favour of the EU. I think that we will wish to work together as nations. Although we are leaving the EU, we are not falling out with the EU. We have made a choice. We are leaving, but we want to be friends. Basically, I was saying that the EU will wish to remain our friend for a whole range of reasons.
Above all else, the needs of businesses throughout the UK must be prioritised, which means that we must have a customs arrangement that is both highly streamlined and compatible with our colleagues in European nations. We should not create differences. We have decided to leave—[Interruption.] We can replicate and mimic, but Opposition Members forget to tell us the baggage that comes with membership of the customs union. We cannot cherry-pick; European colleagues—friends of Opposition Members and friends of mine—will not allow that.
The Bill will ensure that the UK can continue to operate as an outward-looking nation after we exit the EU, leaving open options for the Government’s implementation of an effective future trade policy. I have heard repeatedly the pessimism of some Opposition Members, although not all. They are so pessimistic and willing to talk down our businesses, capabilities and competences, and our willingness to innovate and to succeed. We will succeed and we will honour the referendum. The world truly is our oyster and we shall succeed. For that reason, I am delighted to support the Bill.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant), even though large parts of his speech were based on magical thinking.
I rise to address schedules 4 and 5, which propose the introduction of a new post-Brexit trade defence regime. Trade remedies enable countries to defend themselves against underpriced and state-subsidised goods, so they play a pivotal role in the rules-based WTO system. Governments would never have agreed to the radical trade liberalisation of the past half century were they not reassured that they could act to step in and defend their industries, if necessary. Trade defence remedies have therefore played a central role in tearing down the walls that prevent free and fair trade. How ironic, then, that this Bill is the work of a Conservative Government. The party that claims to be the voice of enterprise, free trade, business and industrial strategy has produced a Bill that, if passed in its current form, would fatally undermine the British manufacturing sector.
To illustrate my point, I wish to focus on what the Bill, in its current form, would mean for the British steel industry, which is centred on the Port Talbot steelworks in my Aberavon constituency. Over a third of the EU’s 92 trade defence instruments relate to steel, and over the years those 30-odd measures have played a vital part in stemming the flow of the dumped Chinese steel that almost led to the total collapse of the British steel industry. The Chinese Communist party owns 80% of that country’s steel industry. The party subsidises the industry to the hilt and sells the steel at well below cost on the global market. It is a well-established strategy that the Chinese state pursues relentlessly and ruthlessly in its bid to extinguish all competition and establish monopoly status.
The all-party group on steel’s “Steel 2020” report, which was supported and signed by Members who now serve in government, concluded that trade defence instruments exist not to unfairly protect certain sectors of the economy, but rather
“to support the free, fair and efficient functioning of the market.”
I will certainly not stand here and claim that the EU’s trade remedies regime works perfectly; it does not. It has often been too slow and bureaucratic, and it has unfortunately been hamstrung by the lesser duty rule. The fact of the matter is that the European Commission acts on behalf of 28 member states and 500 million consumers, so when it threatens action, even behemoths such as China sit up and take notice. It is therefore no exaggeration to say that were it not for the anti-dumping measures taken by the Commission at the height of the steel crisis, our precious steel industry would probably have gone under.
I speak today not only to raise concerns about the Bill’s implications for our steel industry, but to highlight the fact that this is about the future of our entire manufacturing sector. Indeed, the chief executive officers of the British steel, paper, ceramics, minerals and chemicals associations, along with their trade union counterparts, put it very well in their letter of 5 January to the Financial Times. They said:
“Without a robust approach to trade remedies the UK government will be unable to achieve its international trade or industrial strategy ambitions. The UK’s manufacturing base and tens of thousands of jobs around the country…will be at risk if parliament gets the bill wrong.”
I say to hon. Members on both sides of the House that if they have any form of manufacturing in their constituency, the Bill really matters to them.
As an MP who represents a constituency whose local economy relies almost entirely on manufacturing, I desperately want the Government’s industrial strategy to succeed, but the fact is that it will not be worth the paper it is written on if it is not underpinned by a robust trade remedies regime. It is in that constructive spirit that I urge the Government to undertake a radical rethink of schedules 4 and 5, with particular reference to five issues. First, the Bill contains very little detail about how the post-Brexit trade remedies regime will operate in practice. Instead it enables the Secretary of State to legislate for all-important details through statutory instruments. That really matters not only because it is yet another example of Ministers attempting to sideline Parliament, which has become a recurring theme of this whole Brexit process, but because there will be deep and widespread industry uncertainty until the secondary legislation is in place. Labour Members have raised the issue of steel in this place more than 300 times since 2015, but if this Bill passes in its current form, steelworkers and their families can kiss goodbye to the idea that they will have a voice in Parliament standing up for their interests and fighting their corner. We will not be able to do so because all the key decisions will be taken behind closed doors and implemented by statutory instruments.
Secondly, it is imperative that the Bill includes a cast-iron commitment to scrapping the lesser duty rule. This Government have been the ringleader of attempts to block EU moves to reform the rule, which means that we have only been able to impose tariffs of 13% to 16%, whereas the Americans, for example, can impose import duties of over 200% on dumped Chinese steel. An unreformed lesser duty rule must not be retained in UK law. We therefore call on the Government to state precisely how they intend to calculate the margin of injury to ensure that the process is at least as robust as the reformed EU system, and to lay out all that detail in the Bill.
Thirdly, the economic and public interest tests would create an unnecessarily high barrier to introducing any form of trade defence. None of those tests is required under WTO rules, so why are the Government intent on placing multiple obstacles in the path of an industry that wishes to file a complaint?
Fourthly, we need changes to the proposed remit and composition of the Trade Remedies Authority, bringing it in line with global norms and ensuring proper representation of trade unions and industry. Fifthly, the Bill must be amended to ensure that British courts are able to correct decisions made by the Government that deny British industry WTO-complainant rights that our competitors across the world enjoy. Without those changes, the Bill will fail in its essential task of establishing a fit and proper trade defence regime.
Once we have decoupled ourselves from the EU’s trade defence regime, it is simply beyond debate that we will have less leverage. Therefore, if anything, the post-Brexit regime that we create must be far tougher and more robust than the one that we have left. That is why we simply cannot allow schedules 4 and 5 to pass unamended. Unless the Bill is amended, it will deny us even those scant protections. For that reason, I urge hon. and right hon. Members to join me in the Lobby to amend and fix this broken Bill.
I agree with a number of the comments about trade remedies in relation to the ceramics industry, but I will touch on that later.
It is essential in leaving the EU and the EU customs union that we develop our own customs regime. It will put in place the foundations for the negotiations on leaving the EU but does not predetermine them, allowing the flexibility needed as with any negotiating process. I hope that we secure the best possible Brexit deal. But whatever the outcome may be from those negotiations on future customs—deal or not—it is essential to have legislation in place on the UK statute book when we leave. It is important that we have the strongest hand possible in the negotiations, with the powers in place as required to adapt the UK system to fit with the outcomes from the negotiations.
It is clear that we need to maintain certainty for our businesses, ensuring initially that there can be parity as far as possible between the existing EU customs union and the new regime developed for the UK, creating a smooth transitional period. This must be based on the continued strong support for rules-based free trade and the structures of international institutions set out particularly through the World Trade Organisation. An independent customs policy will allow us to pursue policies that are in the best interests of UK trade and our own economy, and in the interests of my constituents in Stoke-on-Trent South. We are clear on these Benches about our policy on trade and leaving the customs union. This is in stark contrast to the concoction of views from the Opposition Benches.
This is what my constituents voted for when they voted 70% to leave. They wanted to see a change—not just in leaving the EU, but in pursing our interests more effectively around the world and supporting all our communities to become more prosperous. Businesses in Stoke-on-Trent South, where we have a significant manufacturing base, see huge opportunities for developing new trade links outside the EU, and leaving the customs union will enable this. There is significant potential to grow our export markets in order to sell some of the fantastic products that we produce to countries such as the United States, Japan and other developed market economies around the world.
For manufacturing and specific industries such as ceramics in Stoke-on-Trent, it is critical that we have the right trade policies in place that support a robust trade remedies regime. This is about ensuring a level playing field for these industries, continuing the anti-dumping measures already put in place by the EU that have allowed industries such as ceramics to stabilise. I was pleased by the assurances given to me by the Secretary of State for International Trade when he visited my constituency that the current measures in place within the EU will continue post-Brexit.
Where we face unfair competition from state subsidisation in non-market economies such as China and others, resulting in huge overproduction, we need to ensure that it is not possible for below-value products to be dumped into the British market. Just to reflect on the vast scale of these distortions, there is currently an overproduction of tiles in China that is six times the entire EU annual demand. This puts at risk jobs in Stoke-on-Trent and other manufacturing industries across constituencies such as ours. To ensure that there can be real free trade, we must ensure that in leaving the EU there continues to be an effective trade remedies framework that aligns well with other WTO members.
In all, it is essential that the Bill is accepted by the House today to ensure that we have the necessary legislation in place when we leave the EU, with the flexibility to support our negotiations and a new tariffs regime that is in the national interest.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) and, preceding him, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), both of whom represent industries that are also very important to my constituency—steel and ceramics. I join them in pursuing a robust trade remedies mechanism, and in agreeing particularly with my hon. Friend that there is much work still to do to make sure that we get this right. I also join my hon. Friend in being very clear that we are talking about a level playing field and not protectionism. I think that on the Labour Benches there is considerable support—I hope universal support—for genuine free trade. Protectionism is not the way forward if we want to grow economically and play our part on the global stage.
This Bill, if passed, will fundamentally change our relationships, whether for good or bad, not just with our closest trading partners but with countries across the world. The EU customs union is without question one of the key pillars supporting the largest free trading bloc in the global economy—a bloc that in 2016 accounted for 43% of our exports and 54% of our imports. Yet we are debating a Bill that, in effect, confirms the Government’s intention to take us out of the customs union—a mechanism that is, or has been, integral to delivering our current trading profile. The Government are doing this despite the fact that leaving the customs union could cost the UK an estimated £25 billion every year until at least 2030.
Leaving the union will also further complicate our key trading relationships by necessitating customs declarations for EU trade. The National Audit Office estimates that the number of declarations per year will increase from 55 million to 255 million if the UK leaves the customs union. Sometimes one has to lay down the statistics as barely as that, because this is what it all means. We have to see the global impact of the decisions that we are taking here in this Chamber.
To put into perspective what is at stake, it is worth looking in a little detail at the food and drink sector, which is the largest manufacturing sector in the UK economy. It is an industry worth more than £100 billion to the UK economy. In 2015, UK food exports to the EU were worth £11 billion, while food imports from the EU were worth £28 billion. The British Retail Consortium has established that the average tariff on food products imported from the EU could be in the order of 22%, with tariffs on Irish cheddar, for instance, being as high as 44%. I will not go into the detail of the Environment Secretary’s view on what we should do about that; one is reminded of “Wallace and Gromit” as much as anything else. The overall impact of that tariff—the Environment Secretary could not answer this point at the Select Committee—could be an increase in cheese prices of between 6% and 32% for consumers in this country. This is about workers’ rights but it is also about consumers. It is about the impact on the prices of everyday food staples, and on consumer choice.
The food and drink sector relies on the efficient, just-in-time movement of goods between EU countries in the context both of finished goods and the industry’s complex supply chain arrangements, which my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham East (Mr Leslie) mentioned. This is not just a “nice to have” arrangement; it is an essential part of modern manufacturing processes. Just-in-time delivery not only ensures high quality, especially of perishable goods—the freshness and quality of the products on the shelf—but is very important for customer service. It is the same in the steel industry: in my constituency, just-in-time delivery of supply chain components and of products out of the plant is just as important for customer service as the quality and standards of the goods.
The next-day delivery of highly perishable produce—this is particularly pertinent to the food industry—is currently possible, yet the Bill threatens to put up barriers to this remarkable aspect of modern-day European Union trade. It is therefore imperative that the frictionless movement of goods across our borders remains in place, especially as far as the land border with Ireland is concerned. Anything else will have a seriously detrimental effect on the food and drink industry.
Equally, the lack of a commitment in the Bill to remain in the EU VAT area may mean that UK businesses face cash-flow issues, as well as customs delays, at the border. Many other Members have mentioned that today, but the point cannot be reiterated frequently enough, because it is so important. UK businesses are incredibly worried about the impact on cash flow if we get this wrong.
This is the wrong Bill. There is no doubt in my mind that this should have been a Bill that confirmed an intention to keep us in the customs union to secure our economic future. While the country may have voted to sever its political union with the European Union, it did not vote to leave the customs union. I know that view has frequently been challenged by Government Members today, but I repeat the point that membership of the customs union and the single market was not on the ballot paper, and this country certainly did not vote to be poorer.
I recall the words of the Chair of the Treasury Committee, the right hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), who made the point in a debate in Committee on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill that one of the responsibilities of this House is to deploy its judgment and to bear in mind that future generations will judge us on the judgments that we make. Many Members of the House believe that if we get this wrong—if we get this Bill wrong—future generations will pay the price, and that is not a risk that many of us are prepared to take.
Such is the importance of the Bill that it is absolutely imperative for it to have thorough scrutiny in both Houses, but the Government seem determined to avoid proper scrutiny by using the Ways and Means procedure to determine that this is a money Bill. I have no intention, Mr Speaker, of dictating what your decision should be. All I am attempting to do is to make the argument that this Bill is so important and so far-reaching in its implications that it would be a disservice to democracy for it to be characterised as a mere money Bill. This legislation is far from that: it is global in importance and profound in its potential impact on the UK’s economic future. On those grounds, I hope you will give serious consideration to ensuring that members of the other place get their chance to scrutinise the Bill meaningfully.
After the successful conclusion of the first phase of our Brexit negotiations last month, it is great to see Ministers pressing forward to build our future trading relationship with Europe and the rest of the world. This Bill, as Opposition and Government Members have identified, will be critical in establishing the framework within which that trade is conducted. It is of huge significance to my constituents in Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland and for the people of Teesside as a whole. I never forget that the north-east is the only net exporting region of England. In that regard, there are two main elements that I want to address tonight. The first is trade remedies, which are vital for the UK and Teesside steel industries, and the second is the special customs procedures that will be central in allowing Teesside to fulfil our ambition to host the first free port in the UK after Brexit.
Turning first to steel, as we know, the past two decades have been extremely challenging for the industry. Most recently, a combination of a surplus of global production, shamelessly exploited by the Chinese to dump steel, and our high domestic industrial energy costs led to the crisis experienced by the industry in 2015, but the steel sector remains a cornerstone and an enabling sector of our wider economy. The Government’s own study of the future of the industry estimates a massive £3.8 billion opportunity in steel demand by 2030. That progress, however, depends in large part on having a strong trade remedies regime, which brings me back to the Bill.
I am a passionate advocate of free trade, but free trade does not mean trade without rules. State-subsidised exports and those dumped at artificially low rates are a distortion of the free market. Steel producers, as people in Redcar and Cleveland know only too well, are particularly vulnerable to unacceptable trade practices. As the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) identified, more than one third of the 92 EU trade remedy measures currently in place appertain to steel. It is therefore critical that our post-Brexit trade remedies framework is robust and firm. On the whole, I am confident that the Bill will deliver that, but there are three areas where I believe improvements could be made.
Given that the Financial Secretary has already been generous enough to meet me before Christmas and that the Minister for Trade Policy has agreed to meet me later in the week, I will limit myself to touching on those areas in outline. First, there is the broad lack of detail. For example, there is currently very little detail of how investigations by the Trade Remedies Authority will be conducted and remedies applied. There is also uncertainty about how injury to producers will be calculated and quantified. Finally, the Bill enables the Secretary of State to overturn TRA recommendations on the grounds of public interest, but it is not yet clear how that public interest will be defined. I urge Ministers to put more detail into the Bill where possible. Where such technical details would be inappropriate, I encourage them to publish secondary legislation as soon as possible, even if only in draft. Although I appreciate that some of the finer details may depend on the outcome of the negotiations, some clearly do not.
Secondly, although it is entirely reasonable that an economic interest test is conducted by the TRA prior to the recommendation of definitive measures, it is not clear why such a test is required before the recommendation of provisional measures. My concern here is time. The reason provisions measures exist at all is that trade investigations can necessarily be lengthy and it may take some time before the authority reaches a definitive decision. It is possible that a great deal of damage could be inflicted on our domestic producers before a definitive investigation could be completed. Will the Minister therefore agree to review the extent to which the economic interest test may delay provisional measures, especially those safeguarding against a flood of exports?
Finally, the Bill states that the TRA will be unable to open an investigation if the UK market share of a domestic industry filing a complaint is below a certain threshold, which is as yet unspecified. That provision will leave many producers uncertain whether or not they fall within the scope of the Bill’s protections. In addition, while I understand the rationale for requiring a threshold in theory, I am concerned that a too onerous threshold could serve to undermine the World Trade Organisation right for infant industries to seek protection and also to prevent industries that mainly export from seeking relief.
The special customs procedures outlined in the Bill will be central to allowing Teesport to fulfil its ambition of being the first major free port in the UK. A free port, for Members who are not aware of the concept, is an area that is physically within a country but legally outside it for customs purposes. Goods that enter a free port do not incur import duty. Instead, import duty is paid only when goods pass from the free port into the domestic economy. The hon. Member for Redcar (Anna Turley), who is not in her place but it is so good to see her back in the House today, made a very good case for why Redcar and, by extension, Teesside are so well qualified to host the first free port in the UK after Brexit.
Worldwide, there are approximately 3,500 free ports located in 135 countries. We do not have any. Our membership of the customs union and the stringent state aid regime have acted as a block on their creation. Brexit therefore presents a fantastic opportunity to introduce free ports in the UK.
Teesport handles more than 5,000 vessels each year and about 40 million tonnes of cargo on an estate covering almost 800 acres. Situated immediately adjacent to the mayoral development corporation, Teesport is undergoing huge investment to prepare it to rival the largest ports in Europe. It has all the qualities that will allow it to prosper as an international hub for trade and supply chain processing. A free port at Teesport would aid the Government’s wider objectives of rebalancing the economy from south to north and from the service sector to manufacturing.
To that end, I am pleased that the Bill makes express reference to free ports and sets out the regulatory framework under which a free port would operate. My only request to the Minister is to provide additional clarity on paragraph 9 in part 4 of schedule 2, which states that processing in a free port could take place only if
“the processing of the…imported goods…results in the production or manufacture of other goods in which the imported goods can be identified”.
I would be grateful if the Minister gave examples of which manufacturing processes would and would not be permitted under that definition. That is important because it will mould the future shape of free ports in this country by determining the extent of the economic activity that may take place within them. To my mind, it is important that at this early stage, we maximise flexibility so as not to unduly hinder the new and unique opportunities that an independent trade and customs regime will bring.
Any changes to taxation on cross-border trade between the UK and the European Union after Brexit will inevitably lead to some friction for companies exporting to or importing from the rest of the EU. Whatever scheme is negotiated—if, indeed, any is—it will inevitably lead to greater costs and more bureaucracy.
As an EU member state, we are part of the customs union and the common external tariff, because of which goods produced in the EU are not liable for further duties as they cross either way over the border between the UK and the EU. After Brexit, businesses will be required to make customs declarations on trade between the UK and the EU. HMRC estimates that the number of customs declarations will increase fivefold from the current 55 million to 255 million when we leave the EU and that the number of businesses going through the customs process will increase from 170,000 to 300,000.
The existing declarations system is 25 years old and is to be replaced. The new system, known as the customs declaration system, which was originally designed to accommodate changes to EU customs legislation that take effect in 2020, will be available only two months before the Government’s proposed Brexit date of 29 March 2019 if there is no transitional period. The customs declarations system is part of changes to more than 250 existing projects—a crazy amount of work to overcome in such a short period of time. That presents a strong argument for remaining part of the customs union, at least for a transitional period. In my view, we should do so not only for a transitional period, but beyond it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham East (Mr Leslie) pointed out the importance of the EU VAT area, of which we are part. When we trade within the EU, it is effectively VAT free. If we leave the EU VAT area, companies will pay VAT up front at the borders, adding to bureaucratic costs and hitting the cash flow of many companies, especially those that are small or medium-sized. That will be exacerbated further, given that many in industry believe that whole swathes of the SME sector are not prepared for what is coming down the road with Brexit. Large companies and multinationals are more likely to have the capacity to plan ahead and compensate, as difficult as that will turn out to be for many of them. They have the space to think strategically. Small companies think tactically about the next few months—about getting the next order out of the door.
For the 130,000 companies that will be dealing with customs formalities for the first time, not being part of the customs union will come as a shock to the system. In oral evidence to the Treasury Committee, Martin McTague, the policy director for the Federation of Small Businesses, said that small companies will be less likely to be prepared:
“If the past is anything to go by, it will probably be the back end of 2018 before some people wake up to what is going to happen. If we are about to drop off a cliff in April 2019, they will be completely ill-prepared for that and it will almost certainly result in business failures.”
In my view, if that were to happen, it would undermine the SME sector, which is the engine room of the economy.
Nationally, 8% of all jobs are in manufacturing. In Sedgefield, it is almost 26%—one in four. Durham and the Tees Valley is a major location for business and science research and development. I want that to continue. That is probably one of the reasons why, according to a recent North East England chamber of commerce survey, 52% of north-east businesses want to remain in the single market and the customs union and 60% want to see at least a transitional period of three years; why 53% believe that the UK’s Brexit objectives should be revisited following the general election result; and why 54% disagree or strongly disagree with the statement that the best interests of business are being prioritised by the Government ahead of Brexit negotiations.
The customs union and access to the single market are important to the economy, especially in the north-east. Latest figures show that 61.6% of the region’s exports are to the EU. Some 75% of businesses in the north-east either sold or sourced goods from the European single market. This is obviously not an insignificant number. What bureaucratic and financial burdens are we placing on our industry with changes to our relationship with the EU? We must consider also that the UK has over 60 trading agreements with the rest of the world because of our membership of the customs union.
Some people say there are potential alternatives, but all will harden our borders, make them more difficult to navigate commercially and will not be as frictionless as they are now. We may do all we can to reinvent the wheel, but I believe we will find that whatever reinvention we come up with will not be as round as the original. I want to congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) on restating Labour’s position to remain as part of the customs union and single market for a transitional period, but it should not just be for the transitional period; it needs to be for good. If we want to end austerity, invest in our public services and protect and create jobs, we need to be in the customs union and the single market. For me, not to be in both and to have an anti-austerity strategy is dishonest and fantasy economics.
Sedgefield is home to the largest business park in the north-east. It is my duty to explain to my constituents what could be the repercussions of leaving the customs union, since many of their livelihoods depend on the consequences of Brexit, and I will continue to do so.