Skip to main content

EU: Customs Arrangements

Volume 804: debated on Wednesday 8 July 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to publish (1) the proposed border operating model for customs arrangements, and (2) guidance to businesses on (a) where, and (b) how, those arrangements will operate, between the United Kingdom and the European Union; and what changes they will need to make for the operation of that model after the transition period.

My Lords, a border operating model will be published this month. This will provide guidance to business and industry to prepare for the introduction of each of the three stages of controls. We are committed to engaging closely with business and industry ahead of publication to ensure that the operating model reflects their feedback and provides the guidance and information they require.

I am grateful to the Minister for that response, but will the border operating model that the Government plan to publish this month cover the customs needs in both directions—import and export—and, as he is talking about the exports, goods that are not allowed to be delayed for six months? Secondly, what about the special relationships between Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and the UK? Will the guidance give full details of what is planned there and how it will be implemented?

My Lords, like the noble Lord, I hope it will be comprehensive. We recognise our duty to business and are grateful for the engagement there has been on the developing process so far. For example, the noble Lord will know about the ongoing discussions with the Channel Tunnel rail freight steering group, of which there was a meeting only last week.

Will the guidance to which the Minister referred cover the issues arising in the Port of Holyhead, where the physical space is not adequate to accommodate the additional customs operations or hold lorries awaiting clearance? Will he confirm that Her Majesty’s Government accept responsibility for getting this sorted? When will they get a move on and get it done?

My Lords, I am in that invidious position where advice is shortly to be published and I am not going to pre-empt what is in it. But I can assure the noble Lord that the position regarding Welsh ports, which he has raised before—I am grateful to him for that—is certainly something the Government are well aware of, and it is under consideration.

[Inaudible.]—to the continent by some key players. Are the Government expecting UK manufacturers to adapt to government policies, or are the Government adapting to the needs of industry? After consultation with those at the sharp end of supply chain issues, and the clarion call for certainty, what change of policy might the Government feel obliged to consider, should the US remove itself from the WTO, thus compounding uncertainty?

My Lords, the issue with the US is slightly wide of the Question, but I assure the noble Viscount again that engagement with business is ongoing, has been ongoing and will develop further in light of the new proposals. The Government have been grateful for the welcome from many representative bodies in industry to the engagement that has taken place so far.

My Lords, while the legislation on the new borders is clearly reserved, the implementation of the work on these new borders will involve interaction with the devolved Governments, particularly in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Might the Minister like to reflect on the way in which communication and the co-ordination of decisions, particularly during the emergence from the peak lockdown period, has deteriorated between the central UK Government and the devolved Governments? Can he give us any reassurance that lessons have been learned and that, as we move into this new phase of borders for the UK, that the relationship will be more transparent and effective?

My Lords, I always travel in hope, and I share the noble Lord’s aspirations. As was famously said:

“Jaw, jaw is better than war, war.”

In every aspect of this great question, all people of authority in every part of the United Kingdom share a responsibility for the overall good of the people of the United Kingdom. Certainly, I want to see good relations right across the border, and I give the noble Lord that assurance.

My Lords, we are often told that effective border management requires active co-operation between states on both sides of the border. A number of recent reports suggest that the Dutch, Belgians and French are far better prepared for the new border arrangements than we are. But is it compatible with the British Government’s rather hard interpretation of sovereignty to allow French customs and passport officers to operate on British soil as they have in recent years, or, for that matter, for British passport officers and customs officers to operate on Dutch, Belgian or French soil as they also do? Does that now need to stop to defend the sovereignty of the United Kingdom?

My Lords, again, that is slightly wide of the Question. The treaty to which the noble Lord refers is one under which arrangements subsist between the Governments of the United Kingdom and France. That is the position. I hope we will be as well prepared as any nation.

My Lords, I have heard that the United Kingdom is to introduce border checks in three phases over the first six months of next year. Can my noble friend the Minister tell the House if the phased approach will definitely be complete by July, and whether the Government have taken legal advice as to whether their approach is compatible with WTO rules?

My Lords, the Government are convinced that the arrangements are both deliverable and defensible. The Government’s intention is to be pragmatic. The phased arrangements have been widely welcomed by business and industry, but we intend to operate to those dates and phases.

My Lords, the Minister’s answers on this Question are of particular interest and importance to us here in Northern Ireland. We have been assured there will be no border in the Irish Sea, but more recent government comments on this are, to say the least, confusing. Can the Minister give a statement today that will clarify the situation for business and commercial interests in Northern Ireland, which is, after all, an integral part of the United Kingdom?

My Lords, Northern Ireland is most certainly an integral part of the United Kingdom and I profoundly hope it will stay that way. The Government have specific engagement with the Northern Ireland Executive and Northern Ireland business. We have made the terms in which we hope to proceed very clear in the Command Paper published earlier this year.

As the noble Lords, Lord Wigley and Lord McConnell, have hinted, and I confirm from the horses’ mouths, the border operation model has been developed with no effective engagement with the devolved Governments, whose ports, such as Holyhead, will have to operate the system. When will the Government fully involve the devolved Governments in this vital planning?

My Lords, without going into competing versions of past events, I repeat that we are publishing a document very shortly with which I hope all interested parties engage positively.

My Lords, if we have learned anything from recent shocks, it is the fragility and complexity of medicine supply chains that bring 37 million packs of medicines from the EU to the UK every month. The new border operating model is an opportunity to account for this complexity, and wherever possible, mitigate future supply risk. What technical and regulatory measures are planned to enable the new model to identify and prioritise category 1 goods when necessary?

My Lords, again, I must ask my noble friend to await the details, but I assure her that the specific question of medical and pharmaceutical goods is certainly understood and taken into account.

My Lords, at present, from the moment a truck drives off the cargo deck of a ferry at Dover, it takes less than four minutes for it to reach the port exit and begin its journey onwards into Britain—and of course that process is free of paperwork. How long will it take that lorry in the future, counting the time at a customs processing centre, the details of which we do not yet know?

My Lords, I hope that the arrangements will be as smooth and swift as possible. This will be a matter for discussion and elucidation, but the Government intend to sustain our right to border controls and to facilitate the effective transit of goods.