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Leaving the EU: Interim Trade Tariffs

Volume 656: debated on Thursday 14 March 2019

The Government announced details of the temporary tariff yesterday in a written statement to the House. This is a balanced tariff policy that aims to minimise costs to businesses and mitigate price impacts on consumers, while also supporting UK producers as far as possible.

Now that the details have been published at last, I noticed that slippers are going to be charged at 17% less under these tariffs. Given the disorientation of some ministerial colleagues last night, perhaps a few might like to invest in a pair and retire early. On a more important point, can we get away from the obscene nonsense whereby, in the past, we have given international aid money to countries such as Ethiopia to encourage cocoa farmers to produce agricultural products—quite rightly—only for the EU obscenely to charge them tariffs of 30% when they try to sell the products of their hard labour back to us?

My hon. Friend is right. The temporary arrangements that we are putting in place recognise that there are developing countries that we have long supported and have agreements with, and which require tariff-free access to our markets to ensure that they can sustain themselves through trade. Sections within the proposal keep tariffs on certain lines to allow those countries preferential access to the UK market to their advantage.

The National Farmers Union is profoundly concerned that it has only two weeks to prepare for the new tariff regime, particularly in view of the fact that cereals and egg producers will have no protection whatever. What discussions has the Minister had with the appropriate Ministers in other Departments to ensure support and compensation for those farmers?

Of course, the farming community is protected by a commitment to the payments they were expecting through to 2020. As the hon. Gentleman will know and would expect, we consulted widely with colleagues across Government, so this is a collectively agreed decision. We have placed tariffs on quite a large number of vulnerable agricultural products, and we hope that the mix is the right decision not just for producers, but for consumers.

I remind the House that, for people in the bottom 10 percentage points of income in this country, food is a very real cost every single day; some 20% of their weekly income is spent on food. If we allowed inflation to roar away on products of this sort, people at that end of the income scale would find it very hard to feed themselves, and we believe that we have to mitigate that situation for them, as well as for farmers’ incomes.

Hundreds of my constituents work in the fish processing industry in the Grimsby-Cleethorpes area, and the supply of fish from Iceland is essential to them. Can the Minister give an assurance that no decisions on tariffs will be detrimental to those supplies?

There are two points on this. First, we have transitioned the free trade agreements the EU has with the Faroes—something that Opposition Members have derided us for as to the scale of the deal. To certain communities, particularly in my hon. Friend’s part of the world, these fish products are extremely important to keep people in work and keep people in the country. Secondly, we are having extensive discussions with the European Free Trade Association countries and European economic area countries about transitioning the free trade deal, and we would hope to be able to get some news on this to the House in due course.

Only yesterday, trade arrangements were announced between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and they give us some concessions. However, the Ulster Farmers Union has indicated that it has some concerns over the arrangements that have been made. What discussions has the Minister had with the Ulster Farmers Union in Northern Ireland to discuss this?

The hon. Gentleman identifies an extremely important issue. I am not going to sidestep the question—I will give him an answer—but of course in the end this is a matter for the Department for Exiting the European Union and, indeed, for the Government more widely. There is no doubt that the choices that have been made for the position on the border in Northern Ireland were made against an extraordinarily difficult backdrop. There were no easy decisions. The decision we have made is temporary. We believe that it is World Trade Organisation-compliant. We recognise that there are real difficulties. I spoke to representatives of the agricultural community in Northern Ireland only yesterday and explained this. While very disturbed by what was going to happen, they understood why the decision had been taken.