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Leaving the EU: UK Ports (Customs)

Volume 638: debated on Monday 19 March 2018

(Urgent Question): To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer if he will make a statement on customs clearance arrangements at UK ports after the UK leaves the European Union.

The Government have been clear that in leaving the European Union the UK will also leave its customs union, allowing us to establish and enhance our trading relationships with old allies and new friends around the world. The Government have also set out that in leaving the EU customs union, we will be guided by what delivers the greatest economic advantage to the United Kingdom and by three strategic objectives: continued UK-EU trade that is as frictionless as possible; avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland; and establishing an independent international trade policy.

As we implement the decision of the British people to leave the EU at the end of March 2019, we want a deep and special partnership with the European Union. The Government set out in our future partnership paper last summer two options for our future customs arrangements—two options that most closely meet these objectives. One is a highly streamlined customs arrangement. That approach comprises a number of measures to help to minimise barriers to trade, from negotiating the continuation of some existing trade facilitations to the introduction of new technology-based solutions. The other is a new customs partnership, which is an unprecedented and innovative approach under which the UK would mirror the EU’s requirements for imports from the rest of the world that are destined for the EU, removing a need for a formal customs border between the UK and the EU. Those models were detailed again in the Government’s White Paper last October, and by the Prime Minister in her Mansion House speech and subsequent statement to the House. We look forward to discussing both those options with our European partners and with businesses in both the UK and the EU as negotiations progress.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, but when was the Transport Secretary proposing to tell the House—or indeed him—about the new policy of not checking goods at Dover after we leave the EU, as opposed to telling the BBC last Thursday:

“We don’t check lorries now—we’re not going to be checking lorries in Dover in the future ”?

Given that the Government are committed to leaving the customs union, but that all free trade agreements involve some checks at borders, how exactly can this be squared with no checks at all? Which border crossings will be covered by the no-checks policy? Will they just be ro-ro ports, for example? Are the Government confident that World Trade Organisation rules allow for not applying certain customs checks at some ports but not others? Which checks do the Government intend to forgo? Have the Government had any discussions with the French, Belgian or Dutch authorities about whether they intend to apply a reciprocal approach at Calais or other channel ports? Will there be no checks on goods that have arrived in Dover from outside the EU? What risk assessment has been undertaken and will Ministers publish it?

When is Parliament going to see the information and analysis that has apparently been shared with businesses— it is reported that they have been required to sign confidentiality agreements—about possible new customs arrangements? Lastly, when are Ministers finally going to realise that if they actually want frictionless trade with the EU and to keep an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, the best way to achieve that is to remain in a customs union?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for asking a variety of questions about what the Secretary of State for Transport said last Thursday. In addition to the remarks that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, the Secretary of State also said that

“we will not in any circumstances create a hard border in Dover that requires us to stop every lorry in the port of Dover”.

That is absolutely right. The right hon. Gentleman will know that the discussions that we have had with other authorities in the EU27 are formal discussions, because the negotiations that we have been having with the EU have not been possible. However, some informal discussions have taken place.

The right hon. Gentleman raises the issue of confidentiality agreements for those with whom Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is in discussions. As I am sure he will know, this is an entirely normal state of affairs for such discussions. Incidentally, this works both ways, in that while there is confidentiality on the part of those private sector organisations, that is also binding on the Government, as anything of a commercially sensitive nature will not be divulged by the Government either.

The right hon. Gentleman raised the issue of Northern Ireland, on which we have made our position extremely clear: there will be no return to the hard border of the past. As we have made it clear to the EU27, we will not accept a situation in which we have a customs border down the Irish sea. We will respect the Belfast agreement, and we are engaged in further discussions with the Irish Government to come to a sensible arrangement that is in the mutual interests of ourselves, of Ireland and of the wider European Union.

Last week, my European Scrutiny Committee met Mr Michel Barnier in Brussels. Tonight, my Committee will issue a report on Brexit in the context of the UK ports and customs issue, and the jurisdiction that goes with it. Will the Minister confirm, in the context of the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union’s statement with Mr Barnier today on the draft withdrawal agreement, that the British Government will stand firm on the question of not allowing the European Court of Justice exclusive or sole jurisdiction, given that articles 122 and 123 of that draft withdrawal agreement make significant concessions to the European Court?

We have made it clear that once we have exited the implementation period, the European Court of Justice will have no further remit. We will take back our laws, to be determined by our courts at every level, including the Supreme Court.

I reaffirm what my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) said earlier. On Thursday night, the Secretary of State for Transport promised a Dover studio audience that there would be no customs checks on goods vehicles passing through UK ports following our exit from the European Union. The Minister dodged every question that my right hon. Friend asked, but I will give him another opportunity to answer some of them.

It stands in complete contradiction to the Government’s wider position that, unlike Labour, they will not seek to form a customs union with EU member states after the transition period. Will the Minister confirm that it is now Government policy to discard protections on goods travelling into the country through a customs union while also refusing to check goods vehicles as a requirement to entry? Will he explain how tariffs will be applied and enforced without goods vehicles being checked by customs officials? Surely that would be in breach of World Trade Organisation rules—unless he knows something different. Can he give a single example of a nation that does not rely on either a customs union agreement or customs enforcement at its border? What are the Government’s plans to manage our trade relationships, to protect our own producers and to uphold environmental protections without either a customs agreement or border enforcement?

We all thought that the Government’s “cake and eat it” Brexit strategy was wildly misguided, but they now seem to have put us into a worse position that even fails to meet the low bar set by the Brexit Secretary when he committed to avoiding a “Mad Max-style”, “dystopian” Brexit. The Minister must set out clearly which of the options the Government are going to choose. Is it a customs union, as proposed by Labour, or goods checks at the borders? Or is it neither, as his Cabinet colleague has promised? For the sake of business confidence and planning, and of economic stability and continuity, will the Minister please ask the Chancellor to do us a favour and get to grips with the Government’s hokey-cokey Brexit policy, and tell the Transport Secretary—in the Defence Secretary’s words—to “go away” and “shut up”?

Well, we waited a long time to get to the end of that, and I am not sure whether we are any wiser as a consequence.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, we are leaving the customs union, and I set out in my opening remarks the two models that we are intent upon progressing with our European partners. I also stressed that we will arrive at a solution that is as frictionless as possible. I have been down to Dover to meet the organisation that runs the port, and also the Border Force personnel who are engaged with it, and I am fully familiar with the importance of a frictionless border. Of course, the other important news that we have had today is that we have concluded, subject to the European Council meeting this week, an implementation period for the arrangements, which will not only give us additional valuable time to provide certainty to businesses, but ensure that we have all the arrangements in place for a successful customs system going forward.

Will the Minister confirm that we currently have friction-free and successful trade with the rest of the world under WTO terms and its facilitation of a trade agreement? If there is no free trade agreement with the EU after March 2019, we can have exactly the same friction-free trade with them, with Germany trading as China and America do today.

My right hon. Friend is correct. We will be in a perfectly good position to ensure that we have near frictionless trade on day one, using the kind of facilitations that we are already using when it comes to the policing of our borders with the rest of the world, and indeed that exist between other countries such as Canada and the United States.

We waited a long time to get to the end of that, and I not sure that we are any further forward as a result. The Minister finally understands what the rest of the world has been thinking after they have read every statement, listened to every speech and played through every attempt at clarification that we have had from the Government since the day of the referendum. My bingo card is not quite complete, but we got “deep and special”, “unprecedented” and “innovative”. We got “frictionless” twice, and we also got “streamlined”. However, I do not think that I heard “taking back control”, which is where I missed out on the jackpot, possibly because it is difficult to talk about “taking back control of our borders” when the Minister is trying to justify why we are not going to have any customs controls and therefore no border controls of any kind.

I remind the Minister that the port of Dover reckons that 99% of its traffic goes to and from the European Union, and it takes the massive great lorries an average of two minutes to get through. The other 1% goes to the rest of the world, and it takes an average of 20 minutes for those lorries to get through. There is no degree of customs check that can prevent Dover—in fact, most of Kent—from becoming a car park. We have not even started to talk about the impact on the Welsh ports. Where will the border be for traffic going from Wales to Northern Ireland via the Republic of Ireland? All the possible locations for a border have already been ruled out.

Has the Minister read the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report that was published at the end of last week? Has he read the report of the Exiting the European Union Committee that was published on Sunday morning? Has he read the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee’s report that was published this morning? All of them say that the Government’s obsession with leaving the customs union will simply not work. I draw his attention to a conclusion of the Exiting the European Union Committee’s report of December 2017:

“It is difficult to imagine any possible deal, consistent with WTO and other international treaties, that would be more damaging to the UK’s interests than leaving the EU with no deal whatsoever in place.”

Does the Minister agree with that? Does he understand that we are now barely six months away from when we effectively need a deal in place? When are the Government going to get rid of the clichés and soundbites, and start giving us genuine solutions to the problems that they, and they alone, have caused?

Order. It is always a pleasure to listen to the mellifluous tones of the hon. Gentleman, who spoke for only two and a half times as long as he was allotted. I hope that he will be saying to himself tonight, “Isn’t that Speaker a generous fellow?”

You are indeed a generous fellow, Mr Speaker. The nub of this issue is the misconception that having customs control at the border is the same thing as stopping every vehicle or jamming up Dover. There are approaches available—we set out them out at length in our White Paper last year, and we have been negotiating on them and will continue to put them forward to the EU—that use technology and the pre-lodging of customs declarations, and that may use inventory systems at ports or number plate recognition technology. All these approaches are perfectly capable of allowing traffic to move briskly through the ports, as indeed is the case today.

Surely the implication of this question is that after we leave the customs union, it would somehow—bizarrely—be in the interest of those on either side of this equation to want to impose friction on trade. Surely the EU would not want to do this, given its massive trade surplus. So are we not tilting at windmills here—or is this not, as the French would say, a mere canard?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. As we know, there is a trade deficit in goods between ourselves and the EU, so it is clearly in the EU’s interests—and, particularly in the case of Dover and Calais, in France’s interests—to make sure that trade continues to flow smoothly.

The Minister referred to automated number plate recognition. Will he confirm that he has been discussing with the port of Dover extensive cameras, which could be part of his proposed technological solution? Will he also confirm that the Government rule out having such cameras at the Northern Ireland border, because they have ruled out any physical infrastructure at that border?

The right hon. Lady is right to say that the Government have clearly ruled out any infrastructure at the Northern Ireland border. In the discussions on Dover—not necessarily with myself directly, but through officials—all those options, including the number plate recognition to which she refers, have indeed been talked about.

As my right hon. Friend knows, if there were two countries that were ever going to have a completely frictionless border, they would be Norway and Sweden, because they are both in the single market, but, as we know, there is a hard border there. In any event, will he be so good as to go to his officials at the conclusion of his appearance in the House to ask them to make sure that the costs of the system the Government hope to achieve with our neighbours in the EU are fully calculated?

I thank my right hon. Friend for her question, but of course we do not yet know, as we negotiate these arrangements with the EU27, exactly what form of arrangements will be in place. Of course we will be assessing those carefully.

May I press the Minister a little more on his two alternatives to the customs union? He has posited the idea that one is a technological solution, but he has already acknowledged that it is not viable, because of the border with Northern Ireland, so this all rests on a customs partnership arrangement. Will he confirm not only that that would that require the UK to assess two separate tariff arrangements internally—one for us and one for the EU—but that we would be looking to the EU to assess both its own and the UK’s tariff arrangements simultaneously? Does that happen anywhere else in the world?

We have made it clear all along that the new customs partnership is an extremely innovative approach and would be a first, because this is a unique situation in which we and our European partners have a strong trading relationship and a near complete alignment of rules and regulations pertaining to our trading arrangements. The hon. Gentleman suggests that there is no alternative to the new customs partnership in relation to the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, but that is not the Government’s position. We are confident that by using facilitations and various arrangements—[Interruption.] If he focuses for a moment on the kind of activity that is happening across the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, such as fuel laundering, he will see that it has proven perfectly reasonable for the Police Service of Northern Ireland to intercept those engaged in such activities, well away from the border and very effectively, by using targeted approaches, as we might be able to do going forward.

I urge the Minister to reject the representations from the analogue Opposition parties, which seem to have a dystopian vision of analogue borders at which every single load is stopped. As the constituency representative for the port of Dover, I urge him to embrace digital borders, at which we have frictionless trade, risk-based stopping of trade and inspections where necessary, and the postponement of workplace checks and audits. In that way, the Labour party’s dystopian desire for Dover and Kent to be turned into a car park can be avoided, but only with investment. I urge the Minister to make the appropriate investment in systems to make that vision a reality as soon as possible.

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments and also take this opportunity to thank him for the sound advice and guidance that he, as the Member who represents Dover, has given to me. As he says, we can of course use technology to ease traffic flows. We will also invest as required to make sure that our borders function effectively. The Chancellor made it clear in the autumn Budget in November that £3 billion would be made available as necessary, across Departments, for that purpose.

I note that the Minister has disowned the Secretary of State for Transport’s policy brainwave, because the Government are saying that vehicles will be stopped at Dover, but not all of them. Given that 10,000 trucks pass through Dover every day, how long will the tailback be if, say, one out of every 10 additional trucks needs to be checked and each check takes five minutes? Where will the lorry parks be built that will be needed to accommodate that?

There will be no requirement for anything like the level of stoppages at Dover that the right hon. Gentleman suggests. We will use technology to facilitate the movement of trucks and goods through the port of Dover. If there is an intelligence-led requirement to stop any vehicles, that can be done outside the port of Dover. We will make sure that traffic through the port keeps flowing.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his succinct question. Of course, that very much depends on where we end up in respect of our free trade agreements with the European Union and with other countries.

Will the Minister confirm that the arrangements that will be agreed with the European Union will apply in exactly the same terms to the British overseas territories and specifically to Gibraltar, and that there will be no problems about that with Spain?

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the comments of the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union this morning. I believe he has confirmed that Gibraltar will be part of the agreements that we are expecting the European Council to agree to very shortly, and that they will also extend to our Crown dependencies and overseas territories as appropriate.

Will my right hon. Friend take as inspiration the workings of DP World, the deep-water port in the south of Essex where thousands of lorries-worth of containers flow into the country from outside the customs union swiftly, slickly and smoothly? Will he look upon that as a potential solution for the Dover border?

I thank my hon. Friend for that point. I have no doubt that that is just one more example of where facilitations and technology can ensure that goods move efficiently across a customs frontier.

Does the Minister recognise that if there is no trade deal with the European Union, it will be a breach of World Trade Organisation rules to apply checks and tariffs to non-EU goods but not to EU goods?

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that under WTO terms we would have to treat the various countries equally, but we are confident that there will be a deal. Indeed, we made huge progress on the phase 1 issues in December and have heard just today that we are looking clearly at an agreement on the implementation period. We will be going forward for further agreement with the European Union on a deal for this country and the EU.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that provisions related to a transition as per the mooted withdrawal agreement would not be effective until such an agreement were ratified and adopted, and that those stages will not be complete until next year? In that context, can he assure the House that upgraded capacity for inspections and declarations will be implemented behind the border now, so that trade can continue to flow whatever the outcome of negotiations with the EU by 29 March next year, and that this work will not be stood down?

As I have already said, we will make sure that those elements of infrastructure—the places where goods can be checked on an intelligence-led basis and the technology that is required to keep our customs borders moving—will be in place by the appropriate time.

If a Dublin-based company imports goods from mainland Europe in the European Union, puts them on a lorry, drives them through the frictionless border to Belfast, puts them on a ferry from Belfast to Liverpool, near my constituency, at what point do checks, and indeed facilitations, take place?

As the right hon. Gentleman will know, these matters are subject to negotiation at the present time, but what we will make absolutely certain of is that there is no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, that there is no customs border effectively within the Irish sea, that the Belfast agreement is respected, and that we have a relatively frictionless movement of goods across the Northern Ireland-Irish border.

People are talking about the customs union, a customs union, a customs partnership and, as the Prime Minister put it, a hopeful customs arrangement, but will my right hon. Friend accept that as far as businesses are concerned they do not really care what it is called as long as they do not have 10-mile queues at the border, they are not paying EU tariffs and they are not being clogged up with more bureaucracy and red tape?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. What matters to business is that we keep the borders moving, and I have explained in my responses to many questions this afternoon exactly how we will approach that.

Jaguar Land Rover is postponing investment in a new generation of electric vehicles until it is satisfied that there will be frictionless trade with the EU. Given that the Government have ruled out a customs union with the EU, what arrangements will the Government make that will both be achievable with the EU and satisfy Jaguar Land Rover so that it invests in much-needed electric vehicles?

The Government are well aware of the particular needs of the motor manufacturing sector, with just-in-time delivery and the fact that some components move across what will potentially become a customs border in the future. Those needs are a priority for us during the negotiations. I have no doubt that the implementation period that has been announced today will be one of the things that will drive the economy forward even faster. The hon. Gentleman will know from the spring statement that the Office for Budget Responsibility has already upped the estimates of growth for next year, and hopefully the implementation period will make a further positive contribution to that.

Wales is ideally based as a land bridge for many Irish exporters. Indeed, more than 70% of Irish road freight comes into the UK through Welsh ports. If a border is placed in the Irish sea, Welsh ports could face severe delays and disruptions. Will the Minister outline what assessment the Government have made of the potential impact on Welsh ports, and of whether trade will be diverted or displaced elsewhere?

The good news for the hon. Gentleman is that there will be no circumstance under which this Government, or a British Prime Minister, will negotiate a deal in which we have an effective customs border between Northern Ireland and other parts of the United Kingdom.

Currently, goods that require checks go into a lorry park just off the M20, which apparently has 82 parking spaces, but, never fear, there will be a new lorry park just off the M20. However, it seems that the plans to build it are completely snarled up in a judicial review. Will the Minister please give an update on how the lorry park will save the day, and by when it will be built?

We will ensure that sufficient facilities are available for checks. As is the case at the moment, many of those checks will occur at business premises and storage facilities, including Stop 24, for example.

As an MP for a city that has a port and that voted to leave the EU, taking back control of our borders was one of the most common reasons that I heard for people voting to leave. Will the comments attributed to the Transport Secretary about having no hard border at Dover apply to Hull as well?

The Transport Secretary said that not every vehicle will be stopped, and that is absolutely right. In fact, we will use intelligence-led, technologically driven interceptions where appropriate, as is currently the case for our dealings with countries outside the European Union.

When will Ministers realise that the mantra of “frictionless border, frictionless border, frictionless border” is not standing up to scrutiny? Is he aware that Irish companies are already making contingency plans to go directly to mainland Europe, thereby bypassing Welsh, Scottish and English ports? Does he understand the effect that that will have on those port communities, but also on Her Majesty’s Treasury?

We are committed to, and confident that we will achieve, a frictionless border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland that will facilitate trade in the future.

Today’s news on the customs arrangements during the transition phase will come as a very welcome update to business in the logistics of ro-ro port operations, and particularly to the time-sensitive fish trade and processing industry. Continuation of these sensible arrangements is essential for the long-term future of Great Grimsby’s processing sector and 5,000 jobs. Will the Minister tell the British public that their Grimsby fishfingers will be safe in their hands after we leave the EU?

I was a big fan of Peter Pan when I was growing up. I thought that the idea of a magical Neverland was wonderful, but of course as we grow older we realise that it does not exist—[Hon. Members: “What?”] I am sorry to disappoint hon. Members. The Minister, however, seems to think that he can wish a happy thought and fly out of the window. I am going to ask him a very practical question. Have he and the Home Office undertaken plans to train and recruit additional customs officers for the Welsh ports that have been mentioned? I have asked a number of questions and have not been able to get a straight answer from the Home Office. Are additional staff being recruited? If so, how many?

We have made it very clear that sufficient staff will be made available. The head of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has made it clear that there will be a requirement of between 3,000 and 5,000 additional staff. The Chancellor made it clear at the Budget that £260 million would be made available for HMRC in the coming year, and those resources are for people as well as technology. The right and appropriate number of people will be available.

The clock is counting down, yet the agreement reached today is clear that the thorny issue of the future of the borders surrounding Northern Ireland is being kicked into the not-so-long grass. I want to pick up two things with the Minister, based on his answers this afternoon. First, we are hearing lots about technology. Does it even exist? If so, what is it and how quickly can it be implemented? Secondly, he talks about the facilitation of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Will he say a bit more about what this facilitation is? It is not very clear, and the clock is ticking?

An example of the technology would be the customs declaration service system that HMRC is developing as a replacement for the customs handling of import and export freight system. It is currently in testing, will go live come August and will be used in its entirety come January next year—well over a year before the end of the implementation period.

In a customs union, as I am sure the hon. Lady will know, a country would be bound by the external tariffs set by that customs union. A relationship with a customs union takes the form that I have described, which would be a frictionless interaction of our exports and imports with that customs union.

With regard to Euratom’s remit over the kinds of isotopes that the hon. Lady is referring to, nothing in our relationship with Euratom, or our lack of involvement with it going forward, will affect the ability of those isotopes to move between mainland Europe and the United Kingdom.

The difference between a customs partnership and a customs union strikes me as a distinction without a difference. However, if there is a difference, and the Government are eschewing a policy of maintaining any form of customs union after Brexit, why did the Minister’s officials place a clause in the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Bill leaving it open to the Government to create a customs union after Brexit?

One of the reasons for that relates to our Crown dependencies and overseas territories, where we may need to make arrangements to make sure that the whole deal functions effectively.

The Transport Secretary has said:

“Trucks will move through the border without stopping…in the way it happens between Canada and the US.”

In a simple 20-second Google search, I found a handy border crossing guide for commercial truck drivers travelling between Canada and the US. It confirms that they need to submit paperwork to customs at least two hours before they arrive, which may expedite the process by up to 30 minutes. It also confirms that all trucks will have a primary inspection that may or may not be the only stop. Shall I send the Minister this document? Does he agree that the Transport Secretary is no longer fit for his job?

I have made it very clear that facilitation such as the pre-lodging of customs declarations before vehicles even arrive at a particular border is an approach that, combined with other technological approaches, can ensure that vehicles move very swiftly and frictionlessly through borders, as evidenced by a number of examples around the world of where exactly that is happening.