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Leaving the Eu: Customs

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:00 pm on 16th May 2018.

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Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Shadow Minister (Exiting the European Union) 4:00 pm, 16th May 2018

I beg to move,

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, that she will be graciously pleased to give directions that the following papers be laid before the House: all papers, presentations and economic analyses from 1 January 2018 up to and including 16 May 2018 prepared for the European Union Exit and Trade (Strategy and Negotiations) Cabinet sub-committee, and its sub-committees, on the Government’s preferred post-Brexit customs arrangements including a Customs Partnership and Maximum Facilitation.

This is, frankly, a desperate state of affairs. We are two years on from the referendum and five months away from the deadline for the withdrawal deal, but the Government still cannot agree on the most basic of Brexit issues: our future customs arrangements. Each week we see a new attempt, and each week we see it fail, with a Cabinet—a war Cabinet—and two Sub-Committees of warring factions. Yesterday we at least saw some agreement: the agreement to kick the ball down the road for another month as the Government agreed to publish a White Paper on their negotiating position, but without any agreement on what will be in it.

The Prime Minister is clearly in a difficult position. Every time she tries to make progress, a Cabinet Minister is waiting to trip her up. As an Opposition, it is tempting for us to dwell on the Government’s misfortune but, frankly, this is too important. The lives of millions of people across the country depend on us getting Brexit right, and if the Government cannot, Parliament needs to take responsibility, because there is a majority in this House that believes in a sensible approach to delivering the decision of the referendum. That starts with our customs arrangements, which is why we have tabled this Humble Address motion to seek the publication of the papers and analysis on the Government’s two post-Brexit customs options: the Prime Minister’s favoured proposal of a customs partnership, which has of course been dismissed by the Foreign Secretary as “crazy”; and the so-called “maximum facilitation” option, which the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy rightly warned would put jobs at risk. Both have faced serious criticisms of their technical detail and may be illegal, according to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office.

The Brexit Secretary, who is unfortunately not in the Chamber, has dismissed the customs partnership as “blue sky thinking”, but when looking at the maximum facilitation option, I was struck by his words. I want to quote him precisely:

“Faced with intractable problems with political pressure for a solution, the government reaches for a headline grabbing high-tech ‘solution’. Rather than spend the resources, time and thought necessary to get a real answer, they naively grasp solutions that to the technologically illiterate ministers look like magic.”

Those were the words of the Brexit Secretary. As it happens, he was speaking in 2008 about ID cards, but was he not prophetic in anticipating today’s “intractable” problem? However, it is not intractable; there is a solution.

It is clear to everyone that the Government are in a total mess, locked in a fight over two options, neither of which is practical or acceptable to the EU, but this House has an opportunity to sort out the mess. There is a majority that respects both the result of the referendum and our duty to protect the livelihoods of the people we represent. Stephen Crabb rightly described the conflict in the Cabinet as an “ideological cage fight”, adding that Parliament may soon be “making the decisions”. Frankly, it would make a better job of it. There is a majority for a new and comprehensive customs union, both here and beyond the House, among all those who recognise the importance of protecting our manufacturing sector, of securing frictionless trade with the EU, and of honouring our obligations on the Good Friday agreement and the border in Ireland.