To ask Her Majesty’s Government what detailed information they have provided to (1) HMRC, and (2) the transport and related industries, to enable planning and procurement for delay-free border crossings between the United Kingdom and European Union member states immediately following the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union.
My Lords, a number of government departments, including HMRC, are working together to ensure a co-ordinated approach to our exit preparations for the border. The Department for Exiting the European Union has established clear governance arrangements to scrutinise and assure policy development on exit across Whitehall. The Government continue to engage with a wide range of businesses on exit readiness and are developing border plans through discussion with industry bodies, including ports and airports.
I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer, which I might refer to as motherhood and apple pie—it is a nice piece of pie, though—but I wanted some detail. Perhaps I can offer her some detail; I have just received it from MDS Transmodal, which compiles statistics across the channel. Apparently, in 2014, just-in-time deliveries—the ones that could be held up most by customs—were valued at £282 billion. That includes £30 billion of fruit and veg and temperature-controlled goods, but also parts for aircraft, cars and other manufacture. If those do not operate, where will the businesses—Toyota, et cetera—go? Will the Minister congratulate the only person who has put his head above the parapet, someone called Jon Thompson, who runs HMRC? He was reported in the Sun on 30 October as saying that it might take five years to set up a post-Brexit customs system that worked. What are the Government going to do in the meantime?
My Lords, of course we understand the importance of ensuring a smooth customs operation post exit and we are doing all that we can to avoid adding unnecessary time and cost to the process. In the Budget today, the Chancellor has just announced that we are investing a further £3 billion, on top of the £700 million already committed, to prepare Britain for every possible eventuality and to ensure that we prosper after we leave the EU.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that new, integrated digital economy platforms that cover jointly e-logistics, e-commerce, e-finance and e-insurance are in the making, spearheaded not least by the public-private partnership GCEL? It could offer solutions to government for post-Brexit, delay-free EU border crossings, the Irish question and much more. If the Minister would care to have her officials put in touch with people who can answer much more than me, I would be delighted to have that happen.
I would be delighted to put our officials in touch. We absolutely are aware of the technology-based options and are looking at those. In our future partnership paper, which we published in August, we proposed that we would use a highly stream- lined customs arrangement and bilateral technology-based solutions to speed up processes and ensure that traffic can flow smoothly.
Will my noble friend confirm that the Irish negotiations for delay-free border crossings are well advanced, with a large amount of agreement on both sides? Will that not act as a template for our negotiations with the rest of the EU on the continent?
I agree with my noble friend that it is absolutely key to ensure a close relationship between Northern Ireland and Ireland after exit. As we have made clear, we must aim to avoid any physical infrastructure on the land border. We recognise the economic, social and cultural context of the border. Of course, we are working together to find a creative solution.
My Lords, the Government promised a lorry park on the M20 to relieve pressure on the police, the motorway and the people of Kent when Operation Stack needs to be implemented in future but, two years later, they are still struggling with that very modest plan. If the Government cannot manage a planning application, how can we have any confidence that they will be able to cope with the complex processes that they need to introduce to customs systems in the time that we have until their proposed Brexit?
My Lords, we are fully committed to finding a permanent solution to Operation Stack. Ahead of exiting the EU, we have commissioned Highways England to deliver an interim solution that will store HGVs on the M20 and allow two lanes of traffic in both directions. We are also extending the arrangement with Manston airfield so that, if capacity is exceeded, HGVs can divert to Manston. We are confident that that will be in place in March 2019. That will mean that the M20 will remain open to traffic in both directions and, if Operation Stack is required, the disruption to local traffic will be much lower. Our focus is on engineering a frictionless border.
The Minister has said with great confidence but little specific detail that the Government are doing all that they can to ensure a smooth Brexit. Can she perhaps tell us what the most important of those steps is to ensure a smooth Brexit and, at the same time, perhaps comment on the remarks from the Irish Foreign Minister, who said that the Irish would be prepared to use their veto on negotiations were there not to be a seamless border between the Republic and the United Kingdom?
One thing that the Government have done is to set up the Border Planning Group. Of course, multiple departments and agencies are involved in the border and I am sure that noble Lords will appreciate the complexities of that. The planning group has been set up to understand the interactions, interdependencies and cumulative effects at the border. The group works closely with departments across government to ensure that we have as frictionless a border as possible.
My Lords, I live near the border between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. Can the Minister confirm that persons will have no inhibition in crossing that border and that the common travel area is going to continue after Brexit? Secondly, can she confirm that, even in the context of present membership of the European Union, customs operate on both sides of the border because there are different rates of tax on fuel and alcohol, with VAT, and on other items? Can she confirm that customs will continue to operate on both sides of the border, as they do now, after Brexit?
My Lords, the UK is committed to maintaining the common travel area and protecting the rights enjoyed by British and Irish citizens in each other’s states and, of course, we will protect the ability to move freely within the UK and between the UK and Ireland. As I said, we recognise the special importance of this to people in their daily lives. The noble Lord is right to point out that customs arrangements exist on both sides of the border and, of course, that will continue after exit.