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Customs duties

Part of European Union (Withdrawal) Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:00 pm on 20th December 2017.

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Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Labour/Co-operative, Nottingham East 4:00 pm, 20th December 2017

That is indeed the simple solution. I was building towards that crescendo, but there is always somebody who steals my punchline. That is effectively the conclusion that I have reached. Before I do reach it, there is another important measure, new clause 8, that English local authorities have been keen to see in the Bill. Currently, they have consultative rights on those areas of policy that are currently decided within the European Union framework by virtue of their membership of something called the Committee of the Regions. I know that some Government Members may baulk at that as some sort of bureaucratic committee that has no purpose, but many local authorities value the voice that they have through that committee into the policymaking process at European level. The question they are asking is: will they still have those same consultative rights when those areas of policy are brought back into a UK context? It is a fair question and I hope that the Local Government Association’s points will be addressed.

The main issue that I want to discuss is new clause 13, which relates to the customs union. It would ensure that we do not get past exit day without new legislation that allows the UK the option to remain a member of the customs union—in other words, the EU common customs tariff and common commercial policy. We must be absolutely crystal clear about this: ditching the most efficient tariff-free, frictionless, free-trade area in the world is what we are on the brink of doing for something that will inevitably—inevitably—be inferior. The referendum ballot paper did not include that question and put it in front of our electors. What we have seen is the Prime Minister’s interpretation of the result of that referendum, but that does not have to be Parliament’s interpretation.

If we find ourselves messing up the way that the UK border operates, the Irish land border, our ports and our airports, then vast swathes of our businesses and our economy face very, very significant disruption. Indeed, customs is, potentially, the overnight cliff-edge issue that will hit the headlines if we get this wrong, particularly if we have no deal—that hard Brexit.

Let us consider the issues at stake: last year, goods worth £382 billion were traded between the UK and the European Union. That is virtually the same amount as the UK traded with the rest of the world, so we are talking about trade of half of our goods. In fact, the system currently works so well across the 28 countries— 500 million people—that professionals talk not about exports and imports, because the movement of goods and services is so seamless and frictionless, but about arrivals and dispatches. It is as simple as that. That is how businesses regard the inventory available to many of them through the warehouses across the European Union. For car manufacturers in the UK, selling a car to a customer in Birmingham is just as simple as selling one in Berlin or Brussels. Fewer than 1% of the lorries that go through Dover or the channel tunnel—the main conduits for goods and traffic—require checks, so it is a smooth and seamless process at present.