My Lords, HMG have taken several actions to facilitate imports from the EU. First, we have negotiated the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which delivers zero tariffs and zero quotas. Secondly, HMRC provides services to help importers understand the customs border requirements, including webinars reaching around 20,000 UK and EU traders to date. Thirdly, our 2025 UK Border Strategy will transform how our border operates, to build the world’s most effective border.
My Lords, has the Minister visited GOV.UK and read the page, “Import goods into the UK: step by step”? It could have been written by the Spanish Inquisition. The Government proclaim that they will legislate for a bonfire of EU red tape, but why did they so mess things up that they are actually erecting trade barriers and forcing up costs instead of using post-Brexit freedom to make trading easier for our businesses and cut tariffs on goods that consumers buy? Why do Ministers go around chanting that they are creating the most open economy and unleashing Britain’s potential when in fact they are multiplying bureaucracy and exacerbating the cost-of-living crisis?
My Lords, I am grateful that the noble Lord mentioned Brexit freedoms, because there was a Statement made on that topic just yesterday, setting out what the Government intend to do to make sure that those freedoms can be available to everybody in the United Kingdom.
My Lords, may I press the Minister on the import of musical instruments from the European Union? I refer to my registered interests. If instruments manufactured in Europe are sent for exhibition in the UK and sold, they have to be shipped back to France to secure a new set of paperwork and then re-exported to their purchaser. Similar problems are faced for instruments sent back for warranty or repair. This is leading to European manufacturers withdrawing sponsorship from events in the UK. Does this arise from incompetence in the department or is Brexit fundamentally flawed?
My Lords, with the 12-mile queues on the A20 in Kent last week, the Commons Transport Committee took evidence from the Transport Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Vere, who is in her place. The chair of the committee raised the concern that, with more checks and bureaucracy, there will be 17-mile queues. He asked which Government Minister is responsible for liaising with the European Union, and the noble Baroness replied:
“Not me. It is a fairly complicated picture.”
The chair said:
“Assume it is the role of the Home Office, which I would have thought it would be if it is to do with borders”.
The noble Baroness, Lady Vere, replied:
“And Trade. It might be Trade’s role as well because it is about customs checks; it could be HMRC.”
The chair said:
“It could be the Foreign Office. I suppose that is my concern.”
Well, my concern is that no one is in charge. Who is in charge?
My Lords, first, on the queues at Dover last week mentioned by the noble Lord, it is not the case that those short-term delays to freight movements were caused by new customs procedures. I am reliably informed that the primary cause was ship refitting, which reduced capacity across the short straits, and higher than expected freight volumes. On the noble Lord’s main point, I assure him that all Ministers properly co-ordinate with each other on these matters.
My Lords, there are clearly problems with the smooth processing of documentation at our ports, including Dover— never mind what the Minister just tried to tell us. The Government are playing this down but they must resolve these issues quickly, certainly before any new measures are introduced later this year. Nevertheless, will the Minister welcome the 9% boost in trade to Belfast Harbour, reported in the Belfast Telegraph this morning, which is being attributed to Northern Ireland’s unique position as a result of the protocol? Can the Minister update us on conversations between the Government and the EU on this issue and will he ensure that the recent boost in trade in Northern Ireland is not jeopardised?
My Lords, making sure that the Northern Ireland protocol operates as smoothly as we intended will continue to be a priority for our relationship with the EU. While we have tried to operate this agreement in good faith, I frankly admit that the problems are significant and are growing. This must be resolved through a real negotiation between us and the European Union, which is why the Foreign Secretary is paying so much attention to this matter.
My Lords, I am very confident that as traders, hauliers, importers and, indeed, exporters become increasingly familiar with the new procedures, things will operate smoothly. We have prepared freely available tools to assist traders with these new processes, introduced on 1 January. Of course, we want things to move smoothly, and we will continue to emphasise this.
My Lords, would not relations with the EU be enormously assisted if we could do something to clear up our relations with France, which have been needlessly made hostile by the present Administration? Should we not turn away from fantasies about global Britain to restoring our well-tried relationship —in two world wars—with the entente cordiale?
My Lords, let the European Union be as protectionist as it wishes. Does my noble friend the Minister accept that it is for the benefit of British consumers and manufacturing businesses to have access to imports from the rest of the world at the lowest cost and with the least bureaucracy and fuss? Do the Government have a plan for making this easier?
My noble friend raises an important point. We are absolutely committed to ensuring that businesses get the support they need. It is very interesting that, in 2021, trade with non-EU nations fared relatively better than trade with the EU. Goods imports from other countries exceeded the value of goods imports from the EU for the 10th month in a row. This is global Britain in action.
My Lords, will the Minister take another stab at the question asked by the Labour Front Bench? Will he provide us with an update on the negotiations with the EU about Ireland and the Northern Ireland protocol? Will he give a commitment, on behalf of the Government, to promote the benefits of the protocol in terms of access to the UK internal market and the EU single market? Businesses in Northern Ireland are already benefiting from these.
My Lords, I have already referred to the efforts that the Foreign Secretary is putting into this matter. My many years of experience —both in this House and outside—have taught me that giving running commentaries on negotiations rarely leads to a good outcome.