Second Reading (and remaining stages)
My Lords, the Bill was introduced in the other place on 8 December.
At the end of this year, the United Kingdom will leave the European Union’s legal jurisdiction and this country will recover its economic and political sovereignty. The measures in the Bill play an important part in those preparations. It sets out a new framework for the UK’s customs, VAT and excise systems following the end of the transition period, so that there are clear rules in place for goods moving in and out of Northern Ireland. It upholds our pledge to protect the UK’s internal market by ensuring that Northern Ireland goods have unfettered access to Great Britain.
I first turn to measures relating to the Northern Ireland protocol. This Government are committed to providing unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to the UK’s internal market. That means no tariffs or customs formalities for Northern Ireland goods arriving in Great Britain. Northern Ireland is and remains part of the UK’s customs territory. For goods deemed to be “at risk” of moving into the EU, the Bill introduces a framework for charges on goods arriving in Northern Ireland, both from Great Britain and from the rest of the world. The Bill will allow us to put in place decisions made by the joint committee on goods “not at risk” of entering the EU, ensuring that they do not have to pay the EU tariff. It also imposes a charge to UK customs duty on goods that enter Great Britain from Northern Ireland and are not qualifying Northern Ireland goods. The Bill also includes anti-avoidance rules on the use of unfettered access to ensure that it is not legitimate for goods to be routed to Great Britain via Northern Ireland in order to avoid the UK’s customs border.
For VAT, the Bill includes mechanisms to ensure that, in so far as is possible, VAT will be accounted for in the same way that it is today in Northern Ireland. Noble Lords will be aware that Northern Ireland is and will remain part of the UK and its VAT system. However, it will continue to align with the EU VAT rules in respect of goods but not services. This is to ensure that trade is not disrupted on the island of Ireland and allows us to meet our commitments under the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. HMRC will continue to be the tax authority for the whole of the UK. While the ECJ will continue to have a limited role where EU directives apply in Northern Ireland, the rules will continue to be policed by HMRC. Businesses will continue to have only one UK VAT registration number and to complete one VAT return each period for all supplies. In implementing the Northern Ireland protocol, the Government have sought to minimise changes to how the rules will operate in practice, as far as possible.
The Bill amends current legislation for excise duty to be charged when excise goods such as alcohol and tobacco are removed to Northern Ireland from Great Britain. This does not necessarily entail additional costs for Northern Ireland businesses and consumers. A credit of the duty already paid on the goods in Great Britain will be set against the duty arising in Northern Ireland, meaning that in almost all cases there will be no further duty to pay. In many cases, businesses move goods in duty suspension, meaning that there is no duty to pay in any case until the goods are released for consumption.
Some further taxation measures in the Bill need to be implemented before the end of the transition period. The Bill introduces a new system for collecting VAT on cross-border goods. This includes moving VAT collection on certain imported goods away from the border and involving operators of online marketplaces at the point of sale. UK consumers will now be able to see a VAT-inclusive price at the point of purchase, making pricing more transparent. In addition, measures in the Bill will remove the VAT relief on imported low-value items, meaning that VAT will be due on all consignments, irrespective of their value. This relief has been subject to long-standing abuse and removing it will build on government efforts to further level the playing field for UK businesses by protecting our high streets from VAT-free imports.
The Bill also includes provision for an increase in the rate of duty on aviation gasoline, which will apply across the UK. Otherwise known as avgas, the fuel is a form of leaded petrol, predominantly used in leisure flying. The Northern Ireland protocol requires that Northern Ireland continues to comply with the EU’s energy taxation directive following the end of the transition period. This directive sets a minimum level of duty in euros on leaded petrol used for propulsion. The Government have chosen to apply the change to the whole of the UK to ensure consistency between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This avoids burdens on business and reduces compliance risks for HMRC. The change made by the Bill will increase the avgas rate by 0.5p to 38.2p per litre from 1 January next year.
To prevent insurance premium tax evasion, the Bill also includes a clause to ensure that HMRC has access to the same anti-evasion tools, regardless of whether an insurer is based in an EU member state. Overseas insurers are liable to pay insurance premium tax where they supply general insurance for UK-located risks. Occasionally, overseas insurers do not pay the insurance premium tax that they owe, so it is important that HMRC has access to tools to deter and tackle IPT evasion. The changes made by Clause 8 remove references to “member states” in current legislation, and allow notices to be issued in the case of a non-compliant insurer based in a member state, without mutual assistance arrangements in place. We do not expect that HMRC will issue liability notices frequently but the ability to issue notices acts as an important deterrent.
Finally, the Bill introduces new powers that will enable HMRC to raise tax charges under the controlled foreign companies legislation for the period from 2013 to 2018. In order to recover state aid in line with a European Commission decision, the changes will enable additional CFC tax charges to be raised for the years 2013 to 2018. The Government are pushing for the decision to be annulled. In the event that it is, Schedule 4 requires the Treasury to make such regulations as are necessary to restore all affected taxpayers to their original position.
The Bill gives businesses throughout the UK certainty about the arrangements that will apply from 1 January next year. It plays a part in safeguarding the unity and integrity of this country and will help to protect our high-street retailers. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the Minister and of course welcome the Bill. However, it reflects a chaotic last-minute scramble by the Government to retreat from their outrageous proposal to break international law in relation to the Northern Ireland protocol of the European Union withdrawal agreement, which was agreed by the Prime Minister and EU leaders in October last year. Among other things, the protocol requires that the UK introduce a framework for customs, VAT and excise after the end of the transition period on 31 December. The Bill before us now reflects the decisions of the joint UK/EU committee set up under that agreement on goods entering Northern Ireland “not at risk” of entering the EU, thereby ensuring they do not have to pay the EU tariff, as the noble Lord explained.
Crucially, the Government are therefore not introducing the so-called “notwithstanding” provisions into the Bill, which, along with those measures also now withdrawn from the UK internal market Bill, would have reneged on that withdrawal agreement.
I therefore welcome the statement made on 8 December by the co-chairs of the EU-UK committee. It is good news for businesses trading across the Irish Sea, as it is estimated that 98% of goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland will now be able to do so free from tariffs, irrespective of whether there is a UK-EU trade deal.
However, there remains concern about the imminence of the end of the transition period and the potential for disruption, especially to agri-food products; I would be grateful if the Minister could say something about that in his response. The reported three-month grace period for businesses may at least limit, to some extent, the disruption on 1 January. However, as pointed out by the Institute for Government, the joint committee will need to continue to work on ensuring that the arrangements under the protocol are acceptable to the people, and businesses, of Northern Ireland, who have been plagued by months of stressful and disruptive uncertainty. That is the Government’s fault.
No doubt this latest change of direction by the Government demonstrates a recognition of the realpolitik of the outcome of the American election. The Brexiteers’ confidence that a trade deal with the US would be an easy win has already been proven misplaced. President- elect Joe Biden made a very clear statement on 24 November that, if the UK wishes to discuss a trade deal with the US, the Irish border must remain open. In answer to a question from journalists about what he would say to Brexit negotiators, he stated:
“We do not want a guarded border”.
Biden also made his position clear in a New York Times interview at the beginning of December, stating:
“I am not going to enter any new trade agreement with anybody until we have made major investments here at home and in our workers and in education.”
In any case, such a deal with the US would have been more political than economically significant. Leaked government forecasts suggest that a trade deal with the US could benefit the UK’s economic output by about 0.2% in the long term—a miserly amount compared with almost half of our trade currently done with the EU, which is at risk unless there is a decent deal.
The advent of the new Administration in the US therefore serves only to underline the fallacies of the magical thinking of hard-line Brexiteers. In debates on this Bill in the other place, they have complained that, under the agreement reached between Michael Gove and Maroš Šefčovič—a vice-president of the European Commission—the EU will be allowed to have its officials permanently based in Northern Ireland to oversee checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea. They protest that this is an infringement of sovereignty, which, of course, they have always mistakenly confused with power. Perhaps we should close all foreign embassies on our soil, in case they also fail this ridiculous sovereignty test.
Is it simply too tempting for us to imagine that there is perhaps a glimmer of light that the Government have finally found the courage to face down the tyranny of their own rabid nationalist Back-Benchers? As the noble Baroness, Lady Cavendish, observed the other day in an article she wrote for the Financial Times, in 2016, in the weeks following the referendum result, it became obvious to those in No. 10, like her, that
“there would be a trade-off between sovereignty and market access.”
Yet, she observes, four years later,
“the UK is still trying to wish away the trade-offs, with no coherent vision for future prosperity.”
On the contrary, she says, Britain is
“engorged with Covid-led state intervention”
“few radical policies to help enterprise”.
The Government’s strategy for mitigating the disastrous economic devastation caused by Covid-19, which has reduced the capacity of the UK economy to withstand further shocks, is apparently one of compounding it with a possible disgraceful no deal or, at best, a scrawnily thin-deal Brexit. In July, the London School of Economics published a study showing that the business sectors that have escaped the worst fallout from Covid-19—such as manufacturing and services—are more likely to suffer from the effects of Brexit. Furthermore, the damaging economic impact of no deal is shown to be two to three times as great as that of Covid over the medium to long term. We now learn that Ministers have dreamed up Operation Kingfisher to support
“businesses that may be temporarily affected by changes of circumstances that are related to Brexit”.
Where is the economic strategy to generate the necessary revenues to fund all this state aid and the subsequent desperately needed recovery?
My noble friend Lord Adonis reports that a senior German politician confided in him that Chancellor Merkel thought it best, last week,
“not to speak to Johnson … ‘for fear of damaging British-German relations. It’s like how she managed Trump, by not speaking to him’.”
Last week, both Merkel and Macron refused to take the Prime Minister’s calls—perhaps the ultimate Brexit humiliation for any British Prime Minister for now.
The well-informed commentator Alex Andreou reported on Twitter the Brussels view of Boris Johnson’s behaviour:
“This has led people to split into two camps: There is one school of thought, that Johnson really is utterly clueless. His behaviour at the UVDL dinner last night (a car crash, apparently), has fed that impression. This makes people not want to do business with this government … The second school of thought, is that Johnson negotiated in bad faith throughout. That his aim was always No Deal and he simply strung 27 countries along, at the expense of a huge amount of work, effort and expense. This makes them not want to do business with this government … Note that the conclusion is precisely the same under either theory. That whether idiot or fraudster, Johnson is best kept at arms length. Polling in most EU27 shows that being tough with the UK yields a big favourability boost. So, I’m afraid, nobody is riding to our rescue”—
if we do not rescue ourselves, that is. Let us hope that it is not too late for the Government, having looked over the precipice, to step back from the brink of no deal on the wider relationship.
Given the poor state of relations that now exists between the EU and this Government, a thin deal is the most we can possibly hope for. However, as was spelled out by the Centre for European Reform think tank in August, this would at least avoid tariffs and provide the basis for building a deeper relationship in the future.
The agreement reached in the joint committee on the Northern Ireland protocol surely demonstrates the value of constructive compromise, collaboration and partnership in solving the many daunting issues currently facing our country over Brexit. Can this Government conceivably have the humility to admit that, in a shrinking post-Covid global economy, Britain can never prosper alone?
With more positive smoke signals about the negotiations as we debate this Bill, if the UK and the EU succeed in striking a deal, Boris Johnson will inevitably have a high-noon confrontation with the zealots who elected him Conservative leader, but the country will breathe a sigh of relief. I am afraid that, all along, that has been the problem in this sorry Brexit saga: putting dogma and factional fundamentalism ahead of the national interest.
My Lords, it is astonishing when the most important comment to make about a Bill is that the British Government have changed their mind and do not intend to use it to break international law and subvert agreements in existing treaties. I really do not understand what sort of hubris led the Government to attempt to take such a position in this Bill and the internal market Bill, but they have done real damage to Britain’s international reputation.
As for the Bill itself, it is troubling that, once again, the Government seek to diminish Parliament’s role by doing so much through negative SIs. The Northern Ireland protocol deals with a complex situation with many sensitive political ramifications—the supply chains alone are far from straightforward. A no-deal result to the UK-EU trade negotiations would make matters seriously worse. In those circumstances, Parliament should be fully engaged. Cutting Parliament out is not the way the Government should have moved within the Bill.
Much of the cross-border trade between Ireland and Northern Ireland involves small businesses. The Government’s answer to new problems for small businesses, which will be legion, seems to be trusted trader status. I sit on the EU Goods Sub-Committee. Small businesses have told us that the trusted trader scheme is simply not fit for purpose. It is complicated, expensive and disproportionate. It must be reformed, but so far the Government seem deeply resistant and certainly seem not to have addressed such issues in their trade negotiations. Therefore, no change is reflected in this Bill. It is an instrument that most will simply not be able to use.
The Bill also allows for new trade rules to be introduced gradually for supermarket supplies and medicines, and that makes sense. But it would have made more sense if it had been extended far more widely. I and my colleagues have called for a six-month adjustment period for all goods and small businesses that form our trade with the EU. Frankly, in the time of Covid intensifying—I suspect that when the Bill was conceived there was an expectation that it would be meandering away at this point—it is even more imperative to apply a much broader breathing space. I hope the Government will rethink that in these last few days.
Lastly, I will touch on VAT. HMRC has said that, in so far as possible, VAT will be accounted for by businesses and individuals as it is today as goods cross the Northern Ireland border. I attended a virtual webinar held just a few days ago on VAT, including the Northern Ireland border issues. I will admit that I could not follow large chunks of it, but it was easy to draw two conclusions. The first is that this is a real Bermuda triangle, with intense complexity embedded in it. Any business will be taking a real risk if it does not get expert advice to be able to cope, and that will be really challenging, especially for smaller and medium-sized businesses. The other conclusion one came to, which was a happy thought for those involved in the webinar, was that VAT experts had been given job security for life with the complexities that will arise.
We in this House have no say in the future of this Bill, but it is one that touches on serious issues that will shape the future of Northern Ireland and of our union. Despite that limitation, I hope that we will continue to follow these issues. We need to continue to hold the Government to account.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his explanation of the Bill and I certainly welcome it. I congratulate the Government on attempting to reinforce the powers to tackle tax evasion and on seeking to minimise the changes involved. I also welcome, as expressed so clearly by the noble Lord, Lord Hain, and the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, the decision to pull back from the brink of breaking international law.
As noble Lords will know, I have long been concerned about the position of Northern Ireland. It is important that Northern Ireland goods have unfettered access to Great Britain. These frameworks for the changes have now been agreed with the EU-UK Joint Committee, as set out in the Northern Ireland protocol. That is good news, but safeguarding the unity and integrity of the internal market is important. However, can my noble friend say when we will get further details on how this will be implemented? Clearly, the view of the Joint Committee, as established by the Northern Ireland protocol, has now been accepted and I am delighted that the withdrawal agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol will be upheld.
Avoiding no deal is absolutely essential, as is repairing relationships with our European neighbours. May I ask my noble friend what the agreement in principle on the Northern Ireland protocol framework for future customs and tax arrangements means? When will the Joint Committee set out details and when will regulations be introduced, so that businesses will know what they need to do? We know that the agreement is that Northern Ireland exports to Great Britain will pay EU tariffs only if goods are at risk of moving into the EU. How will this be assessed and checked? How will the money be collected and how will it be policed? We are about to leave in a number of days’ time, and we do not seem to know the answers. As the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, pointed out, the trusted trader scheme cannot be relied on. I also urge my noble friend to consider, if necessary—and perhaps we can see now that it is necessary—delaying further any temporary exemptions from initiation here.
I also congratulate the Government on ensuring that online marketplaces must charge VAT and on removing the low-value exemptions to help British businesses and reduce tax avoidance. I welcome, too, the measures to prevent evasion of insurance premium tax, with Clause 8 allowing HMRC to issue liability notices. This should help to ensure that EU insurers do not continue, as in some cases they have, to try to avoid the insurance premium tax.
I finish on an issue that has proved extremely contentious: the abolition of tax-free shopping for overseas visitors. Thousands of people come here to shop and this risks driving wealthy international shoppers elsewhere for their purchases and other expenditure, which would generate tax revenue in the UK through visits to hotels, restaurants and places of entertainment. I believe that France and Italy are already advertising for the business of these wealthy overseas tourists and shoppers. The Government’s estimates have been shown, even by the OBR, to be flawed. The suggestion is that this could save £500 million. However, the OBR suggested that this £500 million estimate in the spending review is significantly overstated and the figure may be £195 million at best, but this is highly uncertain because it does not assume particular behavioural change by those customers who would clearly be likely to go elsewhere. Indeed, the Centre for Economics and Business Research estimated that this change in VAT, opposed by the tourism, culture, hospitality and retail sectors, as well as by airports such as Heathrow, could lead to 138,000 job losses and a potential loss of revenue to the Treasury of £3.5 billion, rather than a net saving.
Hanbury has estimated that this will not just hit London and the south-east. In terms of the Government’s levelling-up agenda, it would appear that Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Edinburgh risk losing their current benefits of more than £200 million of tax-free sales last year. The removal of this VAT incentive is something for which I have struggled to find any support in any quarter. I therefore ask my noble friend to take back to his department the extreme concerns on this issue.
Overall, however, I welcome the Bill, hope we will be able to avoid any kind of no-deal outcome and look forward to a successful 2021.
My Lords, the Bill is welcome for the practical measures it contains, but more for the notwithstanding clauses that have been omitted and were previously threatened. In a way, it is another tortuous step along the way to deliver the easy Brexit that the Government, or their Brexit-controlling cabal, promised. I well remember the Prime Minister during the election, in a draughty-looking warehouse in or near Birmingham, promise that there would be no new paperwork or charges between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In fact, the “oven-ready deal” proved anything but. The only oven-ready thing about it is that it was stuffed.
Having agreed the deal that Theresa May negotiated, we then got the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, with its law-breaking clauses now dropped. Why? It was because the EU-UK joint committee met and agreed a way forward. This was always the way it should have been resolved, without the threat of breaking international law or resorting to the latest ploy of gunboat diplomacy. I just wonder how hard the Government are working to alienate everybody that we need to have on side for trade, co-operation, security and all the other things that a respecting nation needs.
Arch-Brexiteers in the Commons tried to reinstate this approach yesterday. It appears that they are still deluded in the belief that sovereignty is an absolute. It can be only if the country puts itself in solitary confinement—an uncomfortable place for a trading nation with a historically massive balance of payments deficit. Facing reality, the Government have now agreed, as they always had to, that at-risk goods will be properly monitored, that Northern Ireland will conform to EU rules on, as a case of detail, aviation fuel duty, and that the rest of the UK will follow suit for “consistency”. Is this a taste of things to come? I suspect it is. Similarly, there is agreement on aspects of VAT, but can the Minister explain the implications for online sales under £15 in Northern Ireland? Do Northern Ireland residents have to pay VAT on online purchases when GB residents do not?
Can we now hope for the dawn of pragmatic common sense and an acceptance of reality? The Prime Minister advocated cakeism, and it appears that Michael Gove believes that it is being delivered, but for Northern Ireland. He seems to be supported by the Foreign Secretary. We have been told that Northern Ireland is in a wonderful position, effectively being in the UK and the single market. This is an enviable position that the majority of businesses in Great Britain wish to be part of, but they cannot be.
The rest of us—the 99.8% of the economy that does not depend on catching fish—want to know where the dust will settle. Even in fishing, the catchers and processors have conflicting interests. If we want to continue trading profitably with the EU, which takes nearly 50% of our exports, we have to accept that there will be EU rules and we will need to accept those rules if we want to secure access. That has always been the case for third countries. We will no longer have a say in shaping those rules but, as the EU states have pooled their sovereignty to make the rules, we can reject them only at a price. We have the right to choose, but there is a price to pay.
Ironically, we are choosing to trade under WTO rules. We have far less influence over these than when we were members of the EU. Indeed, the WTO is a pretty dysfunctional organisation in dealing with disputes among its members. The Government are urging businesses to prepare to end transition in 15 days’ time. Ministers claim that they are trying to provide certainty, but the opposite is the case: how can people prepare for the unknown against a background of promises that it would all be quick and easy? This Bill is necessary, but more legislation is required. We still do not know under which terms, if any, we will leave the EU, and businesses are expected to adapt to unknown rules and regulations, which the Government cannot explain, which are complicated and for which they will probably have to pay for expert advice.
I was astonished, the day after the Prime Minister claimed that there would be no new rules, regulations or paperwork, to go on to the government website and see that its advice was to contact HMRC to get a registration, to take advice on customs requirements and to consider whether you need to employ customs staff or a customs agent. The contradiction was there for all to see on the very day that the Prime Minister made his absurd claim, which everybody knew was unsustainable.
The Bill is necessary. Thankfully, it is limited compared to what it would have been, but it is symptomatic of the bungling incompetence that characterises the Government in delivering an ideological ambition that is deeply damaging to the interests of this country and has left the world looking on in astonishment at how the UK took leave of its senses.
My Lords, it is an honour and privilege to make my maiden speech in this important debate. I had rather hoped to be able to give my speech during the CHIS Bill’s passage through your Lordships’ House, as this is a subject on which I have some specialist knowledge, but my carefully laid plans were undone by contact with a gentleman who had tested positive for the dreaded virus so, in spite of a negative test, I was condemned to two weeks’ self-isolation. This was not much fun, although it left me with a refreshed appreciation for my family, who have to put up with me all the time. I found two weeks of my own company a most severe test. I am pleased to report that the gentleman in question has made a full recovery.
I arrived at your Lordships’ House at an odd time. I have watched, listened and attempted to learn, but the conditions are far from ideal for a new boy. Arriving during Covid is like trying to assemble a complex jigsaw puzzle, but without the picture on the box. At the outset, therefore, I give thanks to a number of people who have helped me paint the necessary picture. Noble Lords on all sides of the House have extended to me a very warm welcome. The doorkeepers and staff of the House carry out their responsibilities with such good cheer. I have to say how skilled the doorkeepers are at seeing through my cunning facial disguise every day. My noble friend Lady Seccombe has generously shared her many years of experience of your Lordships’ House, and last, but by no means least, I thank my two supporters at my introduction in October—my noble friends Lord Taylor of Holbeach and Lady Pidding.
I was particularly honoured that my two noble friends introduced me, as they are also predecessors of mine as chairmen of the National Conservative Convention, by which route I arrived at your Lordships’ House. For those of you who do not know, the national convention’s antecedents date back to 1867—to Disraeli’s time and that of the Second Reform Act. The National Union, as it then was, formed with the explicit intent of reaching out directly to the newly enfranchised voters created by that Act. Over the past 153 years, and no doubt to the regret of some of your Lordships opposite, it has been remarkably successful.
Joking aside, there is an important point to be made here, and more so in these troubling times, and that is that the foundations of our civil society and democracy require the active participation of many selfless volunteers from all walks of life and parts of our United Kingdom, and from every political persuasion. I am sure that your Lordships agree that, without them, many of the things that we take far too easily for granted would not happen and, whether we agree politically or not, we would be the poorer for that. So it has been a privilege and a pleasure to represent those from my side of the argument. I thank them and commit to continuing to represent them and all those who volunteer in your Lordships’ House.
My other life, the remunerated part, involved a lengthy career working in the stock markets of the world, which took me from Hong Kong to Tokyo, New York and back to London. I look forward to returning to the subject of financial markets and regulation in the new year, but I also look forward to contributing to the inevitable debates in this House on Hong Kong. I lived there for a decade and started life as an inspector in the Royal Hong Kong Police. That was a long time ago, and much has changed—not, I fear, for the better—but I have a great affinity for Hong Kong and its people and, having served in some of the more remote places in the New Territories, considerable experience of the pace and rhythms of life outside the glittering towers of Central and Kowloon. I owe these people a lot, this country owes them a lot, and I look forward to making the case that we must continue to demonstrate that.
In pursuing this career that has spanned much of the world, I have been lucky enough to gain a cultural understanding of a number of places, and that has shaped my views on our world and our place within it. As a consequence—and this is very relevant to the debate today—I am an optimist, bullish about our great nation’s future. It is perhaps a little hard to see the wood for the trees right now, but we should not forget the words of the second US President, John Adams:
“Every problem is an opportunity in disguise.”
We have the opportunity to demonstrate leadership in many different areas, and I hope to make the case that large parts of the world will respond favourably if we make the most of those opportunities. Having observed the proceedings in your Lordships’ House over the past month and, indeed, past half hour, I have reluctantly concluded that this may not be the majority attitude here, but I think that this Bill highlights the positive difference that your Lordships can and, I have no doubt, will continue to make.
We need this Bill: it ensures that we are legally prepared to leave the EU. It sets out a framework to prepare for all outcomes of the free trade agreement negotiations with the EU, and of the Joint Committee discussions on the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol. It ensures the smooth continuation of business following the end of the transition period. The Government have made it very clear that they are committed to providing unfettered access for Northern Irish business to the rest of the UK’s single market, protecting progress made under the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. It is clear to me that this Bill will form a vital part of our preparations as we prepare to become a fully sovereign trading nation, and I have no hesitation in supporting it.
I thank noble Lords for indulging me with this speech and I look forward to taking my responsibilities seriously and contributing to the debate here on those subjects that I have outlined, and perhaps others where I have experience, perspective and knowledge.
My Lords, it gives me immense pleasure to follow the excellent maiden speech of my noble friend Lord Sharpe of Epsom. Our friendship goes back some 15 years, when we worked side by side as volunteers in the Conservative Party. As my noble friend mentioned, both my noble friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach and I have had the privilege of being chairman of the National Conservative Convention, the position that my noble friend Lord Sharpe currently holds. And what a superb chairman he is, leading from the front, motivating, encouraging and cajoling, but never asking fellow volunteers to do something that he would not do himself.
There are few parts of this country that my noble friend Lord Sharpe and I have not campaigned in together, and I am certain that his passion for democracy and volunteering will continue for years to come. I know, as I have witnessed first-hand, how much my noble friend likes nothing more than a good debate on the doorstep. Now that he is here in your Lordships’ House, he has found a new forum for debate. This outlet will probably be a great relief to his family.
Talking of family, it would be remiss of me not to mention my noble friend’s wife Fiona, son Charlie and daughter Kate, who, over the years, have given their unstinting support to his voluntary work and, on occasion, have got involved too. As is so often the case in working for any voluntary organisation, it has meant his absences on many an evening or weekend.
As noble Lords will have heard from his speech, in my noble friend we have a great addition to our House. We have heard only a snapshot of the experience that he will bring. Not only does my noble friend have a notable background in the world of finance and the unique experience of being an inspector in the Royal Hong Kong Police, but there is so much more. He is well travelled and is even a published historian. In the coming months, when we are able to move beyond this dreaded virus, more noble Lords will, like me, find my noble friend to be the most genial company, and I know that he will prove to be a real asset to these red Benches.
Turning to the business before us today, the Taxation (Post-transition Period) Bill is a crucial step on the road that the United Kingdom must take us as we prepare for the end of the transition period at the end of this year. I know, and hear today, that there are noble Lords who see this as a cause for melancholy, whereas others, like myself and my noble friend Lord Sharpe are optimistic for the opportunities that Brexit will bring to the whole of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland included.
Throughout the negotiations, Northern Ireland has been the focus of much debate. This has caused anxiety from many in the United Kingdom who hold the union dear. However, the most affected are the British citizens who live in Northern Ireland or those whose livelihoods rely on trade and the movement of goods between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom’s internal market. This has inadvertently harmed businesses, which are rightly concerned about the legal and practical state of regulations and tiresome taxes governing their trade with the European Union and the rest of the United Kingdom. Reassuring words of politicians have had little impact in soothing this concern. This Bill, however, represents action, ensuring that Northern Ireland will not be left behind or forgotten. It provides legal certainty for the customs, VAT and excise systems in Northern Ireland after the end of the transition period. This legislation will also help deliver the commitment made by this Government to deliver unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to the rest of the UK internal market and protect progress made under the Belfast agreement.
As the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, we must do our best to provide the assurances and support needed for businesses to prosper across the country. This is particularly true of SMEs, which are the backbone of the United Kingdom’s economy and which millions of citizens rely on for work. I am glad to see that this Bill has this at its core.
The Bill is no silver bullet but, along with other Bills currently making their way through Parliament, it will create a clear pathway for the whole of the United Kingdom to pass through this transition period, weather any possible storms and emerge stronger and ready for the opportunities awaiting us. Like my noble friend Lord Sharpe of Epsom, I give this Bill my full support.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb has withdrawn, so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Pidding, and to welcome the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe of Epsom, who has just made his maiden speech. I look forward to working with him as he stated that he looked forward to working with all noble Lords around the House.
I thank the Minister for his explanation of the Bill, whose purpose is to implement various aspects of the Northern Ireland protocol relating to customs duties, VAT and excise. While welcoming the provisions of the Bill, I note that it would have been a different position if there had not been a resolution on the operation and implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol in the UK/EU Joint Committee negotiations last week. The protocol will not contain provisions to disapply provisions within the protocol; that agreement has been achieved in the Joint Committee on export declarations for goods moving from Northern Ireland to GB and the application of state aid under the protocol. Notwithstanding that, I have some questions for the Minister.
First, can the Minister provide assurances that this Bill is consistent with the Northern Ireland protocol in all aspects? It is important to remember why the Northern Ireland protocol is in place—it is to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. It is also meant to act in accordance with the principles of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement to build on the peace with political, economic and social stability and to continue to foster reconciliation on the island. It is vital, therefore, as it contains those necessary ingredients to enable that to happen.
I hope that there is a zero tariff trade deal and that that is achieved as quickly as quickly as possible. I implore both the UK and EU to arrive at a deal; I did not want to leave the EU but realise the need for a proper and adequate trade deal so that business can be conducted which will not undermine or hinder trade opportunities and provide goods to customers at affordable prices. Lest we be in any doubt, no deal will not be beneficial for the UK, Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland or in fact the wider European Union. I note that the Government, through the debate on the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, have followed on from the agreement in the Northern Ireland protocol to ensure that qualifying Northern Ireland goods have unfettered access to the UK internal market. This is welcome because it provides assurances to businesses and consumers alike.
The protocol applies the EU’s regulations on traded goods, customs and VAT on goods to movements into and out of Northern Ireland. As I have already said, this is to ensure that there is no hard border across the island, to protect the integrity of the EU single market and the customs union, and to respect Northern Ireland’s position within the UK’s customs territory and the UK internal market.
The protocol sets out in depth the parts of the EU’s acquis on goods that are to be given effect to and provides that the protocol will have the characteristics of EU law in terms of precedence and direct effect. This ensures that the legal rules on traded goods, VAT on goods, and customs processes not only are the same in Northern Ireland as the Republic of Ireland but will be enforced in similar ways. Of course, the decision on the continued application of the protocol arrangements on traded goods in Northern Ireland will be for the Northern Ireland Assembly to take on a cross-community basis every four years. I have a query about that, because that is not the true application of that particular facility in the agreement itself.
This legislation, which is to be given its Second Reading today, will give effect to the necessary implementing arrangements on VAT and customs. I understand that associated delegated legislation will need to be put in place quite quickly. Therefore, could the Minister indicate the schedule, framework and content for that delegated legislation?
This legislation also has several consequences, and I have certain questions in that respect. Since it prescribes through provision for taxation and VAT measures, how will the Bill and the Government deal with anti-avoidance? How will that work in the agri-food sector in particular? On the one hand, the Trade and Agriculture Commission, which is to be put on a permanent basis for at least three years through the Trade Bill, will underpin food standards. How will the Government ensure that inferior food products do not come into Northern Ireland to take advantage of the protocol?
How will the legislation prevent organised crime? What work will be carried out with the Police Service of Northern Ireland, other police constabularies, the Gardaí in the Republic of Ireland, and Interpol to underpin those standards and prevent avoidance measures? What will be the role of the National Crime Agency? With HMRC, what are the established practices for identifying and targeting those involved in avoidance measures to ensure that it does not happen?
When will the infrastructure at the ports of Derry, Larne, Belfast and Warrenpoint be in a state of readiness and operation? Where will the officials be based? Where will the EU officials operate from? Will they work alongside officials from HMRC? Has the recruitment of customs agents taken place? When will they take up post at the ports?
Will the Minister ensure that more details are set out on how duties and tariffs might be rebated through regulations under the Bill? For the avoidance of doubt, could he confirm that fish landings at Northern Ireland ports will no longer be subject to tariffs under the Northern Ireland protocol?
I realise that there were several questions there that the Minister might be able to answer today. If he is not able to do so, I would appreciate answers in writing and a copy being placed in the Library of your Lordships’ House.
While welcome, this taxation Bill comes at the end of a long process that many of us felt deeply unhappy about. I hope that there will be full implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol and that the people of Northern Ireland and the island of Ireland, where I live and have worked for many years, will be able to benefit and that there will be an end to this long, very sorry saga.
It is always a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie of Downpatrick. I agree with so much that she said. I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe of Epsom, on his extremely thoughtful maiden speech.
I suppose one thing we can say with a degree of certainty about the Bill is that it could have been worse. In that sense, it is to be welcomed. If the Government had not changed their position on Part 5 of the UK Internal Market Bill last week, we could have faced an extremely unwelcome piece of legislation. As it is, we find ourselves with just two weeks to go before the end of the transition period, debating a long and complex Bill without clarity on either the context or much of the content.
On the context to this Bill, we still do not know whether there will be a deal. We should recall that no deal would have a particularly brutal effect on the Northern Ireland economy. With only two weeks to go until the end of the transition period, we know that parliamentary scrutiny of the content of any deal that is now agreed will be very limited, and so much of the content of the Bill before us today will be delegated to future regulations. It does not give us a feeling of confidence that there will be much transparency in this process.
As others have remarked, it is an irony that so much of the Brexit debate was about taking back control and moving away from a system of imposed regulations that we were unable to amend. Yet, at the 11th hour, it is at least welcome that attempts are being made to make the Northern Ireland protocol work in practice. However, there remain a great many unanswered questions.
The Minister will know that, last week, the Northern Ireland trade groups warned that, in spite of the £200 million trader support service, businesses would not be ready to deal with the new border processes, computer systems and bureaucracy in time for 1 January. Can the Minister say what additional measures will be put in place to protect Northern Ireland households from significant price rises and potential shortages or delays to the many highly complex supply lines? As other noble Lords have said, the Minister will also know that there is particular concern in the agri-food sector in Northern Ireland about products of a lower standard coming into Northern Ireland and taking advantage of the protocol. Can the Minister say when we will see detail on exactly how measures to avoid this will work in practice?
It also remains unclear how non-qualifying goods will be determined and how they will be distinguished as they move from Northern Ireland to Great Britain. Can the Minister say what the operating model will be for this process? What mechanisms will be put in place to distinguish between Northern Ireland goods and goods from the rest of the EU, including the Republic of Ireland? The Minister will know that there is particular concern in the food and drink sector that cheaper or non-authentic versions of quality products may be able to reach the UK market in this way.
There is now so little time left to resolve so many problems before 31 December. We are ultimately in this situation because, from the outset, the Government promised a series of incompatible things—a trilemma, as my friend Stephen Farry MP has called it. The Government consistently said that the whole of the UK must leave the customs union and the single market, that special status for Northern Ireland was ruled out, and, correctly, that there should remain no border on the island of Ireland. It was the Government who insisted on these red lines, but it is now the people and businesses of Northern Ireland who risk paying the price.
My Lords, I give a very warm welcome to my noble friend Lord Sharpe of Epsom and congratulate him on his first-class maiden speech. How lucky we are to benefit from his broad experience in so many different fields. He is very welcome indeed. I also congratulate my noble friend the Minister on bringing forward the Bill, albeit at this late stage, but without the “notwithstanding” clauses.
I want to press my noble friend the Minister on certain issues that are not on, or not immediately apparent and clear on, the face of the Bill. As he will be aware, we on the EU Environment Sub-Committee were very fortunate this morning to take evidence from those concerned with the agri-food sector and goods moving into Northern Ireland from continental Europe from 1 January. Is he minded to acquiesce to their request for a period of grace for a minimum of two months, but ideally of between two and six months, which others referred to as a period of adjustment, given the months of uncertainty and continuing lack of clarity, even with the publication and debate of the Bill today? Can the Government clarify the status of the UK global tariff regime? It was published in May, but we heard from a witness today that there is still a lack of customs data, trade statistics and tariff availability for imports.
Also, as others have mentioned, the trusted trader scheme will play a vital role, particularly in Northern Ireland, in preparing the flow of goods and unfettered access to which the Government are committed, which I applaud. With a budget of £2 million to fund the scheme, can my noble friend confirm that all 800 staff have been hired and trained and are ready to give the advice that will be required? Customs clearance will be required for all goods entering Northern Ireland from England, Scotland and Wales. What is the state of preparedness within HMRC regarding the additional 220,000 forms? Have all the necessary customs agents been appointed and trained, and are they in place and ready to go?
Regarding the abolition of tax-free shopping for overseas visitors, what is the up-to-date assessment of the loss of this trade for major stores not just in London but across the United Kingdom—in Birmingham, Manchester, Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh? What will the damage be? Does my noble friend share my concern that this will be removed from the UK market and that all the trade from which we have benefited over so many years will go to Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt, our near neighbours?
I end with specific requests flowing from the Bill. The first, as I set out at the beginning, is for a period of grace of between two and six months, to ensure that those asking to abide by the rules, which are not yet clear, will have the time to make the rules familiar with them, so that they can apply them from perhaps 1 April or 1 June. Also, can my noble friend confirm the status of the UK global tariff regime for imports? On the question of equivalence on phytosanitary measures, can he look at whether it should be veterinary surgeons alone who issue these environmental health certificates that will be required, or whether others might be more suitable, given the current shortage of vets, to enable these certificates to be issued in time?
Finally, can my noble friend give us a programme of when the implementing instruments will be in place so that we have a position at least to familiarise ourselves with them? I welcome the Bill and wish it a fair passage through Parliament.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Desai, and the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, have withdrawn, so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle.
My Lords, I was going to say that it was a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft; as former newspaper editors we could both have reflected on how there was once a silly season where we were not dealing with such serious issues this close to Christmas—but I have said it anyway. I also welcome the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe of Epsom, to this House. I declare my position as co-chair of the All-Party Group on Hong Kong. There may be many things on which we do not agree, but I hope that we can agree on ensuring the rights of those Hong Kongers who wish to come to the UK, and on standing up for Britain’s position as a signatory to the joint declaration on Hong Kong.
I wish to start my reflection on the Bill with a couple of numbers. There are 112 pages, 29 pages of Explanatory Notes, and, depending on how you count it, four or five working days until Christmas. I feel I am repeating myself but it must be said, reflecting the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, who is not currently in her place: after a horrendous year, small-business people might have been thinking of winding down and finally getting a bit of a break, but they will have to plough through all that paperwork and seek expert advice at this point in the year. I usually try not to repeat what others have said in your Lordships’ House, but I must join many others in celebrating the Government’s U-turn on the “notwithstanding” provisions of this Bill. That a UK Government could be planning to break an agreement that they signed only 12 months ago will long resonate on the world stage. Every time we hear from the Government Benches, as we do so often about amendments to Bills, “This does not have to be on the face of the Bill” and “You can trust us, we’ve said this is our policy”, we can reflect on where we are today.
We must also reflect on the Brexit ultras having to face up to reality. The “easiest negotiations in history” is a phrase that we must remember being said. Drawing a couple of parallels, I reflect on Erasmus Wilson, the Oxford professor who said in 1878:
“When the Paris exhibition closes, electric light will close with it and no more will be heard of it”,
and the president of the Michigan savings bank saying to Henry Ford:
“The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty, a fad”.
We are in that territory, for this legislation lays bare the emptiness of “taking back control”. Your Lordships’ House is passing this Bill in one day, while the other place passes the new Trade (Disclosure of Information) Bill which, as of last night, no one had even had the opportunity to read. We will do our best to scrutinise so many things, but as we have been seeing, particularly in the Grand Committee, statutory instruments are being looked at that modify previously passed Brexit statutory instruments. I fear we will see the same cycle again early in the New Year.
I join the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, in welcoming the modest measures in this Bill against tax dodging. I hope that this is the sign of much more to come from the Government Benches. It tackles a very small part of the issue; there are very large factors to be tackled here. I am happy to see the increase in aviation and gasoline tax, but it is nowhere near enough, particularly after the disastrous ruling in the Supreme Court today on Heathrow expansion. Flying is the most carbon-intensive form of travel, but it is undertaxed and inadequately dealt with in the Paris agreement.
In reflecting on that, I also note that today sees the tragic but terribly important coroner’s conclusion that air pollution was a cause of Ella Kissi-Debrah’s death at the age of nine. It is the first time that such a finding has been made in the UK. I ask the House to take a moment to pay tribute to her mother, Rosamund, for her long fight to get this medical reality recognised.
I shall finish with a question for the Minister. I do not know whether, at this late hour, he can ride to the rescue of Boris Johnson in offering an explanation of how the people of the UK will benefit from Brexit: those people who, right now, are making a weary trudge to the food bank to get food for Christmas; the self-employed who have been left for so many months without any money at all through the gaping holes in the Government’s Covid rescue packages; and the weary teachers struggling to provide education and security for their pupils amid the chaos. How will they gain from Brexit, whether it is no deal or the scantily patched-together thin deal that is now our best hope? We know that the surfers of disaster capitalism, the hedge fund traders and the purveyors of fancy financial instruments will benefit from the chaos—they always do. A few people will profit and the rest of us will pay.
My Lords, this Bill will implement customs, VAT and excise obligations arising under the Northern Ireland protocol. The terms of the withdrawal agreement and the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol create a unique status for Northern Ireland. It remains part of the UK’s customs territory but will continue to apply the EU’s customs code, VAT rules and single market rules for goods after the transition period, which ends on 31 December 2020. The Government are legislating in the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill to ensure that qualifying Northern Ireland goods have unfettered access to the UK internal market.
Article 8 of the protocol deals with EU VAT and excise provisions relating to goods that will continue to apply in Northern Ireland. However, HMRC will continue to be responsible for the operation and collection of the revenues that will not be passed on to the EU as VAT exemptions and reduced rates applying to Northern Ireland.
Clause 3 of the Bill amends the Value Added Tax Act 1994 to implement the obligation under the protocol. HMRC and the Treasury have explained that these provisions will ensure that the movement of goods between Great Britain and the Isle of Man and Northern Ireland will be treated as imports and exports. However, co-ordinating mechanisms will ensure that, as far as possible, VAT will be accounted for by businesses and individuals as it is today.
The Government have said that they will follow the UKIM Bill to make it clear that no tariffs will be payable on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland unless those goods are re-destined for the EU market or there is a genuine and substantial risk of them ending up there. The Government should not forget that the UK has signed an international agreement on Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK. Any breach of this agreement would damage the UK’s reputation internationally. It would also lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom.
My Lords, over the course of this parliamentary term, we have seen the introduction of many things. Although the Government have not invented content-free legislation, they have certainly furthered that process through the liberal use of secondary legislation following primary legislation which is unable or unwilling to set things out in exact detail, and we are faced with that again today.
On a slightly more frivolous note, this Bill introduces, or highlights, the way in which a word like “notwithstanding” can suddenly be vested with some sense of terror, like a shark arriving on a beach. We are glad that the “notwithstanding” clauses were not, in the Government’s view, necessary in this Bill, so there is a little piece of brightness there.
The sunny optimism of the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe of Epsom, was very welcome. We welcome him to this House and look forward to his wisdom, and perhaps his anecdotage—I am sure that there is plenty lurking there somewhere. I would call into question his maxim that every problem is an opportunity in disguise. As a former chief executive of the Liberal Democrats, I am quite able to give evidence of why that is not true.
I thank the Minister for his very clear explanation of the nature of the Bill. When I looked at it, I set out with the notion that it is the plumbing, which it is. It is easy to dismiss the plumbing, but then you think about what the world was like before we had plumbing and what it is like when we do not have plumbing and you realise that it is important. That is why the Bill is important and why we welcome it. Given the nature of our role in this House, I will seek clarification on some of the issues rather than make what could be called a traditional Second Reading speech.
The Bill sets out a new framework for customs, VAT and excise duty for goods moving in and out of Northern Ireland. The Minister was very clear, and said twice in two different ways, that Northern Ireland is, and remains, part of the UK customs territory, but on the second occasion he followed it with a big “however”. That “however” is that EU rules for goods but not services will apply in Northern Ireland. Therefore, it remains part of the UK customs territory but it also remains part of the EU customs territory, and there is a dichotomy in that process. That adds complication such that a £200 million scheme is required to help people with it. Like others, I ask the Government to update us on whether that scheme is ready to run.
The complexity lends itself to the six-month adjustment period that my noble friend Lady Kramer introduced. For the benefit of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and others, I should explain that my noble friend is a member of the Economic Affairs Select Committee, and there is a protocol that allows those who have important Select Committee meetings not to sit through the extent of the debate.
The big question set out by the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, my noble friend Lady Suttie and others concerned non-qualifying goods. We understand that there will be such goods but we do not know what they are and what the criteria are for creating them. We are not sure of the process for communicating what they are and we have no idea about the timing. This is not an abstract debate; it is about real people, with products, trying to understand what they need to do. Like them, I see adverts on my television every night telling me to get ready. Can the Minister tell us what they are getting ready for? What goods will be non-qualifying, and when will people know? That is really important and, again, it begs the question about delaying implementation so that people really can get ready, because that is what they want to do.
The Minister mentioned the role of duty suspension. It is an interesting role and one that I had not talked to the Minister about before. It would be interesting to know whether any of the rules around duty suspension are changing and whether the Government considered changing some of them, perhaps to add or remove friction from the system.
The Minister also talked about the removal of VAT relief on low-value items, and that is a welcome area. I would be interested to know whether the Minister can tell us what the expected increase in tax take is for that, and indeed what extra enforcement will be required to get that tax through the door. It strikes me that there could be an awful lot of different transactions that, in the end, add up to not much take. But I accept the Minister’s point that levelling up the playing field for our high streets across the country is really important. This is a very small measure but I would not overestimate its effect. A lot of things are happening to our city-centre and town-centre shops, and this is just one small element of them. My noble friend Lady Suttie and the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, talked about measures to manages shortages and potential price rises, and perhaps the Minister could set out what those would be.
My noble friend Lady Kramer and the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, raised the issue of the trusted trader scheme. A lot of hope has been vested in this scheme but, without shooting too cheap a shot, our evidence of tracing schemes thus far has been relatively disappointing, to say the least. How can we be sure that this system will stand up to expectations? The accepted wisdom of many is that it is a small scheme that will not facilitate the sort of trade we are looking for.
Finally, a number of your Lordships raised the issue of removing tax-free shopping for foreign visitors. Here, without debating the issue, one needs to know what the facts are. Can the Government publish the cost-benefit analysis that I am sure they must have carried out before publishing such an important change in the rules? Can they explain how the difference in tax raised, which would have had to extend to EU visitors, is weighed against the economic effects on tourism and trade from foreign visitors? That number is very important and when we see it, I am sure we will be better able to understand why the Government have made this decision. Without those numbers, one might imagine that they just put a damp finger in the air and tried to work out which way the wind was blowing.
This is important plumbing, but it is inexplicable why we have had to wait this long so that businesses can get ready. I understand that we had to get through the internal market Bill, but that ran very late. Businesses need to be ready and for that, they need to know what they have to do. The Bill is essentially content free. The real detail comes with the regulation and the secondary legislation. When will we see that? When will businesses know what they have to do so that they can continue to trade? It is up to us and the Government to make sure that they know what they have to do.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for introducing this Bill and to all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. Before I turn to my broader contribution, I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe of Epsom, to your Lordships’ House and congratulate him on his maiden speech. He gave an interesting insight into his career, and I share with him the belief that a varied career in different areas adds a roundness. I also congratulate him on his refreshing optimism. I say that because, as far as I can tell, apart from that expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Pidding, his was the only optimism in the House today. Concern over the Bill varied from “chaotic” in my noble friend Lord Hain’s case to more careful concerns, but even those whose concerns were least had issues with the lack of detail.
The noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, was the first to bring up the issue of international reputation, and I thought the comment of the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, that we were alienating everybody was very insightful. The final step in alienation was the announcement of our gunboat proposals. Surely, somehow, we have to learn that if we are to live with our neighbours, it makes quite a lot of sense to be polite when we talk to them. There was also an almost universal welcome for what is not in the Bill, particularly the “notwithstanding” clauses.
When reviewing proceedings from the other place, I was struck by how few of the speakers focused on the detail and how many saw it as an opportunity to air other concerns and grievances, particularly in relation to the Court of Justice of the European Union. Our debate has been just as wide-ranging, which is perhaps inevitable given the recent twists and turns in the trade negotiations.
The Bill has been presented as an essential piece of the jigsaw to ensure readiness for the end of the transition period—an event that will take place just over two weeks from now. As the shadow Chancellor made clear, we support the timely passage of the Bill, as it is important to minimise any disruption. This does not mean, however, that we endorse the Government’s approach to the negotiations on our future relationship with the EU. Given the importance of this legislation, it is disappointing that it was published so late in the transition period and received such little consideration in the Commons. It seems it was held back specifically to give the Government the option of breaching an international agreement, which reflects just how poorly this entire process has been managed.
Thankfully, a deal was done on implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol, but not before the Government had ordered their MPs to put controversial clauses back into the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill. As my colleague, Pat McFadden, said in the other place:
“It is one thing to play ping-pong with the House of Lords, but quite another to play ping-pong with yourself.”—[Official Report, Commons, 9/12/20; col. 925.]
The decision finally to drop the offending provisions from both Bills is a relief on many levels, particularly for those among us who care about the UK’s standing in the world. Far from providing the certainty that businesses and consumers need, this is yet another framework Bill that leaves much of the detail for later. We will have to wait for the Treasury to bring forward the full details of customs and excise duties, for example. Colleagues of mine in the Commons fought valiantly to get precise dates from Ministers but none were forthcoming. Can the Minister offer anything new on timings and sequences for the forthcoming regulations? If they will not be in force on 1 January, does that mean that some duties will be applied retrospectively? What forbearance might companies expect, given these extremely tight timelines?
Another area where we have had little detail is that of customs agents and intermediaries. Several weeks ago I asked the noble Lord about progress towards recruiting 50,000 new customs staff, a commitment which is frequently mentioned by Ministers when they discuss Brexit preparedness. The Minister helpfully clarified that these are industry recruits rather than civil servants, and, like colleagues across government, he was unable to provide figures. Indeed, he referred to the oft-cited 50,000 figure as
“a bit of a finger in the air, to be honest”.—[Official Report, 19/11/20; col. 1602.]
Now that a little more time has passed, is he able to confirm today which way the wind is blowing on that matter?
In the Commons, the Exchequer Secretary pointed to the free-to-use Trader Support Service as evidence of the Government’s support for business. Some 18,000 firms were said to have signed up for this tool. Can the Minister confirm what proportion of businesses which regularly move goods to Northern Ireland this represents?
As a result of the recent Joint Committee outcome, we now have a trusted trader scheme, providing a grace period for supermarkets. While this represents a significant step forward, again, it has come incredibly late in the day. The Northern Ireland Retail Consortium has long expressed concern about business readiness for these changes, while the Food and Drink Federation has voiced what many are thinking: that the process has been a shambles. Even with this agreement, the absence of an overarching trade deal would increase costs for businesses and communities in Northern Ireland. Returning to my point about the early clauses of the Bill, we cannot be sure what these costs will be until the Treasury publishes further information. Can the Minister confirm that, when fleshing out the detail, the department will remain mindful of Northern Ireland’s economic position vis-à-vis the rest of the UK?
We had all, parliamentarians and the public, hoped to have clarity on trade agreements long before now. Indeed, we expected to be dealing with the implementation legislation this afternoon. I had certainly not anticipated the possibility of taking my turkey out of the oven while the Government are still cooking their so-called oven-ready deal. Even at this late stage, and with festive good cheer in mind, let us hope the Prime Minister will finally deliver on his pledge to the British people, enabling us to focus on other issues as we move into 2021.
My Lords, thank you for your thoughtful contributions to this debate. I shall try to address the issues raised but first, I shall briefly review the achievements of this Bill.
At its heart, the legislation seeks to ensure that businesses across the United Kingdom can continue to trade unhindered after the end of the transition period. The Government are determined to uphold the commitments to the people of Northern Ireland under the Northern Ireland protocol and to protect the progress made under the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. The Bill will help support these commitments by providing legal certainty for the customs, VAT and excise systems in Northern Ireland after the end of the transition period. It enables us to put in place decisions made by the Joint Committee on goods not at risk of entering the EU.
I start with the noble Lord, Lord Hain, who asked about the “notwithstanding” provisions. The UK Government set out on 17 September that Parliament would be asked to support the use of provisions in Clauses 44, 45 and 47 of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill and any similar subsequent provisions in a Finance Bill only in circumstances where the fundamental purposes of the Northern Ireland protocol would be undermined. These clauses were introduced as reasonable steps to create a safety net so that the Government would always be able to deliver on their commitments to the people of Northern Ireland in the event that a negotiated outcome could not be reached in the Joint Committee. However, following intensive and very constructive work over the past few weeks by the UK and the EU, we now have an agreement in principle on all the issues in relation to the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland. As we have mutually agreed solutions, the Government have not included these elements in the Bill.
The noble Lord, Lord Hain, and others asked about agri-products. The Government have outlined in their Command Paper that there are no plans for any new bespoke customs infrastructure in Northern Ireland or at ports in GB to implement the protocol. We have always acknowledged that there would need to be some additional controls on agri-food movements between GB and Northern Ireland to reflect the island of Ireland’s existing status as a single epidemiological unit, but we have also been clear that these new processes could never be allowed to put food supplies to Northern Ireland at risk. That is why the deal we have reached with the EU and the support we have put in place do what is necessary to protect and preserve GB-NI agri-food trade from 1 January.
The noble Lord, Lord Hain, also asked about a US trade deal. It was always going to be a complex thing to implement, which is probably why the EU has not achieved it yet, but we will of course continue to pursue it with vigour.
The noble Baroness, Lady Kramer, asked about the complexity of the Northern Ireland VAT rules. In implementing the Northern Ireland protocol, the Government have sought to minimise changes to how the rules will operate in practice as far as possible. There will be very few practical changes for the vast majority of traders in Northern Ireland, and this is clear from the HMRC guidance on VAT under the protocol which was first published on 26 October. Businesses will continue to use their current VAT number, HMRC will continue to administer the VAT system for the whole of the UK, and businesses will continue to complete their single VAT return and account for VAT in the same way as they do today, including where they sell goods between GB and NI.
On authorised traders, the Government have consistently underlined the importance of specific solutions for authorised traders, such as supermarkets, which have stable supply chains, comprehensive oversight of warehousing and distribution operations and move prepackaged products for retail sale solely into Northern Ireland. In particular, it is essential to take account of the time it will take for those operations to adapt to the SPS requirements of the protocol, including the required certifications and authorisations. This has been a priority throughout discussions with the EU, and the arrangements that have been agreed provide a sensible, phased solution. This means that authorised traders, such as supermarkets and their trusted suppliers, will benefit from a grace period through to 1 April 2021 from official certification for products of animal origin, composite products, food and feed of nonanimal origin and plants and plant products. The UK Government and the Northern Ireland Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs will engage in a rapid exercise to ensure those traders are identified prior to 31 December, so they can benefit from the grace period. The Government will not discriminate against small suppliers or between companies in implementing these practical measures.
My noble friend Lady Altmann asked about tax-free VAT for visitors—indeed, a number of other noble Lords asked the same question. The Government have been clear that they recognise the contribution that the VAT retail export scheme, or VAT RES, has made to international tourism and retail in the UK. However, there was not a choice to maintain VAT RES as it is today. The choice was between extending the scheme to EU residents or removing it completely, as WTO rules specify that goods bound for different destinations must be treated in the same way. Fewer than one in 10 non-EU visitors to the UK use VAT RES, and it is not a policy for discussion in this debate. The rules on VAT RES are not contained in the Bill.
The noble Lord, Lord Bruce, asked about small-value online sales in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland protocol means that Northern Ireland will continue to align with the EU VAT rules in respect of goods but not services. However, Northern Ireland is and will remain part of the UK’s VAT system. Changes to accounting for VAT on goods supplied to Northern Ireland are in most cases identical to the changes for supplies in Great Britain. Businesses selling goods to a GB or NI customer will see little if any difference in accounting for their VAT. Low-value consignment relief, the important VAT relief for goods valued at £15 or less, will be removed in both GB and Northern Ireland.
The noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, asked for assurance that there is consistency between the Bill and the Northern Ireland protocol. The powers in the Bill allow us to implement the Northern Ireland protocol in a way that is consistent with our obligations. She also asked about fish landings. There will be no new SPS requirements for UK-flagged vessels with their port of registration in Northern Ireland when landing fishery products into Northern Ireland or into EU ports. This will be the case regardless of the location from which such products are caught.
On enforcement and anti-avoidance between NI and GB, HMRC will enforce these provisions through risk-based checks and random spot checks. HMRC will also conduct behind-the-border intelligence-led investigations, focusing in particular on high-risk traders and high-risk commodities. It will have the power to prosecute anyone who tries falsely to claim unfettered access for their goods. Wrongly claiming goods status is a form of tax evasion which HMRC will treat as seriously as any other.
The noble Baroness also asked about the EU presence in Northern Ireland. We have reached an agreement with the EU on practical working arrangements which will enable EU officials to exercise their rights under Article 12 of the protocol. These arrangements recognise our position that there should be no permanent EU mini-embassy in Northern Ireland, nor any concept or perception of joint controls. All processes required under the protocol would be carried out by UK authorities. We will ensure that these principles are fully upheld as the arrangements are put into practice from the end of the transition period.
The noble Baroness asks about the certainty that HMRC will have systems ready for 1 January. HMRC has committed to having systems in place to deliver the protocol and facilitate the flow of trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That will include ensuring that electronic declarations for both fiscal and regulatory purposes can be received and processed, while high-risk internal delivery is on track to deliver a functioning model by the end of the transition period.
The software system for the Customs Declaration Service is live and can accept all import and export declaration types. Its minimal viable product has been successfully delivered, all critical core functionality is embedded and it is fully compliant with the union customs code legislation. The CDS has been scaled to be able to process Northern Irish protocol declarations, including GB traders, to move across. The vast majority of additional delivery for the Northern Ireland protocol for CDS is in a live-testing environment. Feedback from our delivery partners has been positive on functionality, although they continue to flag that end-user readiness for the end of December remains extremely challenging. That is why the Government have established the trader support service. It is worth adding as a little further reassurance that the CDS system has been in existence for some time; it is not in any way a brand new system. The changes that are being added are to deal with the dual tariff system under the Northern Irish protocol.
The noble Baroness, Lady Suttie, asked about non-qualifying goods. The Government are delivering unfettered access in two phases. In the short term, our priority is continuity for trade groups. Therefore, the current definition for Northern Ireland qualifying goods is expansive and includes any goods in free circulation in Northern Ireland. In the long term, our priority is to focus the benefits of unfettered access on Northern Irish businesses. Therefore, we will lay a new definition of Northern Ireland qualifying goods that includes only goods moved by businesses established in Northern Ireland. In the long term, additional protections will be in place for Northern Irish agricultural goods.
In the agri-sector, the rules ensure that our Northern Ireland qualifying goods can have unfettered access into GB; all other goods will have to undergo standard UK import processes, regardless of what route they take. The Secretary of State for Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs is working with the Northern Ireland Executive to design additional protections for Northern Ireland’s farmers and other agricultural businesses. These will be designed with the consent of the sector and involvement of the Northern Ireland Executive.
The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, asked about the issue of temporary equivalence on phytosanitary measures. There will be no equivalence of SPS standards after the transition period between the EU and the UK, including for GB goods entering Northern Ireland. All agri-food goods will require an export health certificate, which must be verified by a veterinary practitioner before goods arrive at the border control post for full SPS border checks.
The noble Baroness was also concerned about the abolition of free VAT. I think that I have addressed it, but I can add some additional information. We consulted on the change and specifically asked for evidence on the impacts of withdrawing the scheme. This evidence was assessed alongside the fiscal and economic impacts and balanced against the policy objectives in the area. HMRC has also published a tax information impact note. The OBR, the fiscal watchdog that reports to Parliament, has now published its independent and up-to-date assessment for fiscal effects, which confirms the Government’s conclusion that withdrawal of VAT relief will raise a significant amount of revenue for the Exchequer, with a limited behavioural response and negligible impact on visitor numbers.
The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, also asked about the UK global tariff. The Government have today taken the necessary steps to bring into legal effect the UK global tariff, having just earlier this afternoon laid the relevant statutory instrument before Parliament as part of a wider legislative package. The UK global tariff will replace the EU’s common external tariff as the UK’s most favoured nation tariff from 1 January 2021. It is simpler to use, greener and cuts red tape and other unnecessary barriers to trade. It is also tailored to the needs of the UK economy, backing British business to compete on the world stage.
The noble Lord, Lord Fox, also asked about the removal of VAT relief. Just to build on my earlier comments, the OBR has forecast that these changes will raise over £300 million a year over the next five years—that is £1.6 billion over the scorecard period. Approximately two-thirds will come from improving collection and tackling non-compliance through the new VAT treatment of cross-border goods. The final third of the revenue comes from the removal of low-value consignment relief, which will end widespread abuse of this relief.
The noble Lord also asked about the rules on duty suspension. We have kept the rules in relation to the movement of excise goods and duty suspension between GB and NI as close as they are now, to reduce the burden on excise businesses and maintain the important controls that we have in place to prevent excise fraud.
A number of noble Lords asked about the role of the trader support service, or TSS, in Northern Ireland. I can provide some level of reassurance that we now have nearly 20,000 traders registered with it; that splits almost half and half between NI-based and GB-based businesses. We always calculated that there would be around 12,000 NI businesses that would need these services, so we are now at a very high proportion of those. They are receiving weekly bulletins from the TSS on readiness. The TSS call centre is rapidly standing up: it commits to have around 700 people—one noble Lord thought it was 800, but it will not be quite as many as that—and all offers have been made, and the numbers are arriving on a weekly basis. The current number working this week is something in the order of 250, with more arriving rapidly; I shall ask officials to correct me if I am wrong on that number. They will also be able to assist with advice on the complexities arising from the joint committee agreements that we have recently made, but we are encouraged by the progress being made.
The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, asked a number of questions. On the timings and sequencing of forthcoming regulations, the EU-UK joint statement made last week sets out that an agreement has been reached in principle regarding the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol. As part of that statement, this agreement is in principle, and the resulting draft texts will be subject to respective internal procedures in the EU and the UK. Once this is complete, a joint committee will be convened formally to adopt them. Further details, including regulations, will be set out in due course, before the end of the transition period.
The excise statutory instruments covering Northern Ireland will be laid in Parliament as soon as possible following Royal Assent. Those statutory instruments will come into force from 11 pm on 31 December and apply from that point onwards. Any new excise change that arises as a result of the excise clauses in this Bill will apply from that point onwards.
The noble Lord asked about forbearance. On customs, we recognise that mistakes happen, even when a business has taken care to meet its obligations, particularly in a new environment. HMRC will be taking a supportive approach and will not charge a penalty if a business has taken reasonable care to get its tax right. Where honest mistakes happen, HMRC will be stepping in to help customers put things right, but taking tougher action on deliberate, fraudulent behaviour. Financial penalties will generally be reserved for those who are able to comply but deliberately choose not to. HMRC will also take a supportive approach on excise. We will not charge a penalty if a business has taken reasonable care to get its excise tax right. Again, where honest mistakes happen, HMRC will step in to help customers put it right, while taking tougher action on deliberate fraud.
The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, asked about progress on the recruitment of customs agents. Building on my earlier comments, when thinking about readiness it is helpful to think about the capacity to make declarations, instead of the actual number of staff involved. A number of customs intermediaries have invested in improving their computer systems over the past year. We have made financial assistance of some £80 million available to them; we are still allocating grants at the moment. The sector is varied and made up of a number of business models, including specific customs brokers, freight forwarders and fast-parcel operators, all of which will require different numbers of staff to complete declarations and provide their services.
I am conscious of time. The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, asked about the proportion of businesses regularly moving goods between Northern Ireland and GB. He correctly pointed out that over 18,000 firms have registered. The TSS outreach is ongoing; the call centre I referred to a few moments ago is outbound in conversation with traders daily. He also asked about fleshing out the detail of the Joint Committee. The agreement we have reached in principle means that we can establish arrangements which protect internal UK trade from tariffs, regardless of whether we have a wider free trade agreement or not. Further details on implementation will be set out in due course.
I finish by welcoming my noble friend Lord Sharpe to the House and thank him and the noble Baroness, Lady Pidding, for their picture of optimism. I know that is a minority view in this House, but I share it; I believe that we have huge opportunities to take. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, asked for concrete examples: one is the reform of rules on procurement, on which we published the formal consultation yesterday. This allows us to completely replumb—to use the terminology of the noble Lord, Lord Fox—the way this country carries out public sector procurement, which is worth some £290 billion a year. It will enable us to ensure that SMEs and areas not normally given preference in the UK can have a much fairer crack of the whip.
I have sought to answer noble Lords’ questions to the best of my ability. As is regularly the case, many of the expert interventions illustrate the significant value of the ongoing scrutiny of this House. If I have missed a point of substance in my closing remarks, noble Lords should contact me and I will respond in the normal way.
Bill read a second time. Committee negatived. Standing Order 46 having been dispensed with, the Bill was read a third time and passed.