The Secretary of State and I regularly discuss exit issues with Cabinet and ministerial colleagues, including customs. The Prime Minister is clear that we are working towards a customs solution that keeps trade with the EU as frictionless as possible, avoids a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, and establishes an independent trade policy.
Can the Minister tell us how many times the Government’s two working groups on future customs arrangements have met, and how close are they to finally reaching a conclusion between the Government’s two unworkable and undesirable customs options?
Those working groups are meeting regularly to advance the work on both of the options. As agreed yesterday, the Government will provide by 31 October a statement to Parliament on the steps taken to negotiate a customs arrangement with the EU.
Does the Minister agree with the president of the Confederation of British Industry, who warned yesterday:
“If we do not have a customs union, there are sectors of manufacturing society in the UK which risk becoming extinct”?
No, I agree with the Conservative and Labour manifestos that said that we should be leaving the customs union and ensuring that we have an independent trade policy, but we also want to deliver the frictionless trade that businesses up and down our country need.
In the discussions with the European Union, have the Government made it clear that we would not tolerate a solution that put the customs border down the Irish sea, or for that matter, between England and Scotland, as some others want to do?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. We have made that abundantly clear, and the Prime Minister has been very clear that no UK Prime Minister could accept such a solution.
Yesterday, I had the pleasure of meeting the chamber of commerce from Portugal. While, of course, it was sorry to see us leaving the European Union, its biggest concern with regard to the customs union was how long it was taking for the entire process to be put together—I hasten to add that we then had a potted history about how Parliament works, sadly. Can I ask the Minister to ensure that, whatever comes through this, we send a message to the Portuguese that they are absolutely with us and trading with us in the future?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes an important point. Portugal is our oldest ally in the world—in fact, I think the longest-standing alliance in the world is between England and Portugal—and we want to ensure that the trade between us can continue to flourish, as we do with the trade between the UK and many other EU member states.
Does the Minister think that the sight of Ministers and Whips negotiating in real time their position on the customs union, either from the Dispatch Box or on the Benches, helps or hinders the UK’s negotiating position with the rest of the European Union?
The Government are determined to present the right answer on customs to make sure that we have the frictionless trade we all want to see between the UK and the EU. The sight of the Scottish National party abandoning their parliamentary responsibilities is perhaps not one that encourages confidence from anyone.
Half the Labour party seems to be voting against Labour’s amendments nowadays. We meet regularly with the CBI and with different business groups up and down the country. They are all very clear on the benefits of frictionless trade, and that is the policy of the Government.
The media inevitably focused on the personalities involved in the Cabinet row over a customs backstop last week, but it is the detail of that policy that really matters, so I ask the Minister a very simple question: are we to take from the fact that the Secretary of State and his other two colleagues are still in post that the Government’s position is not to accept, under any circumstances, a customs backstop that is not time-limited?
The Prime Minister has been clear that the backstop arrangements would be time-limited, but I say to the hon. Gentleman that the fact that our entire ministerial team is in post is a sign that our party is united, unlike the Labour party, which has now had 100—100!—resignations from its Front Benchers or Parliamentary Private Secretaries.
Not really an answer, Mr Speaker. Last week’s backstop paper only dealt with customs, but we know that a solution to the Irish border issue requires agreement on far more than that; it requires full regulatory alignment on goods to facilitate all aspects of north-south co-operation. Does the Minister accept that, and will the Government be making the case for full regulatory alignment on goods in future discussions with the EU?
As the hon. Gentleman will know if he has looked at the detail of the joint report, we are talking about alignment in those areas necessary for the functioning of the border and ensuring that there is no hard border. That does not mean full regulatory alignment across all areas; it means specific areas relating to agriculture and industrial goods that could otherwise result in tax at the border. We were clear in our presentations to the EU that there is further discussion to be had on that.