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Transition Period: UK Preparedness

Volume 683: debated on Thursday 12 November 2020

What recent assessment he has made of the UK’s preparedness for the end of the transition period. (908665)

The Government have been clear that the transition period will end on 31 December, when the UK will be outside the single market and the customs union. There is a guaranteed set of changes and opportunities for which the Government, businesses and citizens all need to prepare. The vast majority of the changes that will come into effect will take place regardless of the outcome of negotiations with the European Union on our future trade relationship. Although we have seen a significant increase in readiness among businesses and citizens, there is still more to do, which is why I encourage everybody who needs to do so to go to, where there is a range of tools to help people to make the changes they need to for life after the end of the transition period.

I have every confidence that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster—and all Government Ministers—wishes to continue to prioritise the protection of children online after we leave the transition period. Over the past decade, the UK Safer Internet Centre has removed millions of child sexual abuse images and videos from the internet. Its work costs the UK Government 10p per child under the age of 15 in the UK. What assurances can the Minister give me that the UK Government will continue to fund this work, and will work with the centre, after the EU funding it receives ceases at the end of the transition period?

The hon. Gentleman raises a critically important question. The online exploitation and abuse of children is one of the most horrific crimes, and the more that we investigate, the more we are aware that its scale is even greater than any of us feared. That is why it is so vital that we continue to fund all the organisations that are fighting this scourge. Funding will be maintained. I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his work in this area.

The Marine Management Organisation has stated that about 700,000 tonnes of fish caught in UK waters are landed by other member states. We catch a tiny amount in their waters by comparison. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that fishing businesses are ready to take advantage of a rebalance once we have finished the transition period?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Under the common fisheries policy, it is not just the case that environmentally we have lost out, but that the coastal communities that she stands up for so brilliantly have lost out as well. As an independent coastal state, we will be able to rebalance the opportunities in our waters in order to ensure that our coastal communities can benefit more financially. We will replace the European maritime fisheries fund with new funding to ensure that there are facilities onshore to help with the processing of the fish that we catch, and of course we will enhance our maritime security capability as well.

We left the EU in January and there are now less than 50 days to go until the end of the transition period. Labour Members have been clear that failing to achieve a deal with the EU would be a disaster for the British economy, but deal or no deal, preparations need to be in place for whatever our new trading relationships are on 1 January. In February this year, the Minister recognised the need for 50,000 customs agents trained and ready to go by the end of this year, and in July he announced a £50 million new fund to make this happen. So can he update the House: how many customs agents are now trained and ready to go?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question and also for the emphasis that she quite rightly puts on the need for all businesses to prepare, whether or not we secure a deal. Of course we are determined to secure a deal, and that is why our negotiators, under Lord Frost, are working hard with Michel Barnier to close the remaining gaps in the negotiations. As to the number of customs agents, 50,000 was always an estimate. There has been a significant increase in the number of customs agents who are being employed, both by companies themselves with in-house capacity, and through intermediaries who have been scaling up their activities as well.

It is frustrating that the Minister cannot answer this basic question. One minute he wants to channel his inner Roosevelt and the next minute he says that this should all be left to markets, but businesses are demanding leadership and demanding action. Last week, the National Audit Office expressed its concerns about a lack of preparation, and now more and more businesses are expressing their concerns that crucial technology like the customs declaration system is just not ready. Is the Minister actually in control, and will he stake his own reputation on there being no delays, disruption or lost orders due to this Government’s gross incompetence?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for drawing attention to the National Audit Office report of last week. I would encourage everyone who cares, as she does, about making sure that we make the most of the success that life outside the European Union can offer us, to read that report. One of the points it makes is that there are many IT systems for which the Government are responsible. Progress on all those systems has been good. The customs declaration system is essential to making sure that we make a success of life outside the European Union. That is why we have invested, particularly, hundreds of millions of pounds in making sure that businesses that will use CDS when they are transferring goods to Northern Ireland can do so with the support of the Trader Support Service.

It is now some 50 days until we go over the Brexit cliff edge, and in the meantime the covid death rate in the UK reaches 50,000. England is in the middle of another national lockdown, unemployment is on the rise, and the faceless characters that actually run this country at No. 10 are at each other’s throats. Should Scotland be celebrating this incoming Brexit, and whose side is the Minister on—Dom’s or Carrie’s?

I am on the side of people from Aberdeen to Aberystwyth who voted to leave the European Union. They want us as a United Kingdom to make a success of these new opportunities. I know that the Scottish Government are total strangers to behind-the-scenes intrigue and briefing wars, so I can imagine his shock and amazement to see these things reported in the newspapers, but let me assure him that the Government continue to make decisions in the interests of the whole United Kingdom. The people of Perth and North Perthshire can have confidence that they have not only a gamesome representative in the House of Commons, but a Government committed to their welfare.

May I tell the right hon. Gentleman what Scotland is in fact doing? Scotland is quickly determining that it wants no part of this incoming Brexit nightmare after the transition. Independence and a European future is now the new settled will of the Scottish people. We are now the majority, so can he think of an example anywhere in the world where another dilapidated, finished Government are attempting to deny a majority in a democracy?

I think that the hon. Gentleman might be referring to Belarus, of course, with his last question, but let me assure him that the United Kingdom Government remain strong, resolute and committed to delivering on the will of the British people. In particular, the Union, which has provided for 300 years an example of people coming together in a spirit of solidarity to proclaim the values of democracy, human rights and liberalism, will endure for many decades to come.

We now learn that the First Minister and her deputy have said that there is a “real threat” to the continuity of food supplies in Northern Ireland. The Road Haulage Association has described border preparations as “frankly pathetic”. The customs declaration service probably will not be ready in time, and the NAO has warned that widespread disruption for 1 January is likely. Given that the right hon. Gentleman has repeatedly assured the House that it will all be fine, why does he think so many other people do not share his optimism?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. His Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union has done extensive work drawing attention to the preparations that are required to be made. There are still significant preparations that we and businesses need to make to conclude our preparedness, which is why later today, I will be meeting representatives from business representative organisations, including the CBI and others, to ensure that everything possible is being done to prepare for the changes. I do not shirk from acknowledging that there are challenges we all face in the run-up to the end of the transition period, but there are also significant opportunities for which the British people voted and which we are pledged to deliver.