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Government Planning: End of the Transition Period

Volume 678: debated on Thursday 16 July 2020

What assessment he has made of the adequacy of the Government’s preparations for the end of the transition period. (904852)

What steps the Government are taking to ensure business readiness for the end of the transition period. (904854)

What recent progress the Government has made on negotiating the UK’s future relationship with the EU. (904891)

Earlier this week, we launched a communications campaign to ensure that people and businesses know what they need to do to prepare for the end of the year. Most of the actions will need to be completed whether or not we get a negotiated outcome. While a negotiated outcome remains our preference, our priority is to provide timely and comprehensive guidance on the changes that businesses and citizens will need to make in any scenario.

The leaked letter from the Secretary of State for International Trade demonstrates the alarm and confusion at the top of the Government. Despite Monday’s announcement, the Minister cannot convince his own Cabinet that the border will be ready by 1 January. Does he recognise the concerns expressed by the Institute of Directors, which found that only one in four businesses are ready for the end of transition because

“preparing for Brexit proper is like trying to hit a moving target”?

I understand the frustration that many businesses will have felt as deadlines that were set during the previous Parliament shifted as a result of votes in Parliament, but we now know that, as a result of the general election, the transition period will end on 31 December. There are many “no regrets” actions that businesses should undertake, and I had the opportunity to talk to the chief executives of a number of leading businesses yesterday to make sure that that message was put across in a collaborative way.

The withdrawal agreement stated that both parties would endeavour to conclude equivalence decisions by June 2020. Will my right hon. Friend give the House an update?

I appreciate how hard my hon. Friend works on behalf of businesses, including financial services, in her constituency. We have completed our side of the bargain—we have provided the European Union with the information that it needs for its own autonomous decision on equivalence—and we await that decision with eagerness.

Universities throughout Wales and the UK are working flat out to cope with the effects of covid and Brexit. Some stability and reassurance would be provided by Horizon Europe and Erasmus. Has the Minister now secured full, rather than associate, membership of these valuable programmes?

Continued participation in Erasmus is one of the negotiating requests that our team are making. We will find out from the EU the terms on which it is happy to grant continued access. We have acknowledged that we may continue to be a net contributor to schemes such as Erasmus and Horizon 2020, but it is also important that we continue to collaborate with other countries beyond the continent of Europe when it comes to education and science.

On Monday, when asked about a lorry park in Ashford, the right hon. Gentleman told the House:

“It is not the case that any specific site has been absolutely confirmed. We are in commercial negotiations with a number of sites”—[Official Report, 13 July 2020; Vol. 678, c. 1278.]

So can he answer a specific question: how many sites in Kent is he looking at to put infrastructure on? How many of those sites will be to check the paperwork of goods leaving the UK and how many will be to check goods coming into the UK, because, as we all know, there is no space to do that at Dover?

We were looking at five sites, and yesterday the Department for Transport confirmed that a site at Ashford has been secured. These sites are there to facilitate traffic management and the flow of goods out of the country. When it comes to the appropriate checks on goods coming into the country, at Calais the French authorities will be seeking to check export declarations.

Continuing on the theme of lorries, the Government’s border operating model sets out the obstacles to trade from 1 January, but it promises jam tomorrow on support for businesses. For example, it warns:

“HGV drivers without the correct documentation risk being stopped from boarding services”—

or being—

“fined, or sent back to the UK”

on arrival in the EU. It also highlights the risk of long queues on the roads to UK ports. The Government’s solution, the smart freight service technology, is only in development and there has been no consultation on its use in Kent. The Minister often talks about providing certainty, which is important, so can he confirm to business that the smart freight service technology will be ready in time for companies to test it and train their workers on it so that it can be operational on 1 January?

That is a very good point. The smart freight technology of which the hon. Gentleman speaks does need to be tested before it goes live, but it is important to stress that it is just one piece of the range of measures we are putting in place to ensure the free flow of trade. Businesses have the information now, as a result of the border operating model, to make sure that they have all the details they need and are in compliance with the rules governing trade.

I am afraid the right hon. Gentleman dodged giving a direct answer yet again. Ambiguity and confused messaging are becoming a trademark of this Government, and his answer certainly will not reassure the Road Haulage Association, which has said that this technology will not be much use unless it has the opportunity to test it and train its people before January.

Let me raise another issue. The NHS Confederation and others in the Brexit Health Alliance have warned of potential disruption to the supply of healthcare products. The border operating model says:

“For imports of medicines, regulatory licensing information will need to be included as part of new customs declarations”.

But it goes on to say:

“The requirements for regulatory licensing information are subject to negotiations”.

Recognising that we are in the middle of a global pandemic that has already put enormous pressure on existing medical supply chains, will the right hon. Gentleman say when the details of those requirements will be ready?

The details of almost all requirements are, on a no-regrets basis, available, but of course the hon. Gentleman is right, in that we seek a negotiated outcome that will mean that are neither tariffs nor quotas and indeed that there can be a degree of confidence on the part of all businesses about exactly what they need. He talks about ambiguity and uncertainty. We had a vivid example of that in the Chamber yesterday when the Scottish National party, on its Opposition day, requested an extension to our transition period. The Government voted against it, but the Labour party was conspicuous by its absence. I am afraid that allegations of ambiguity sit ill with the Labour party’s decision to be ambiguous on the biggest question this country faces.