Future Relationship Between the UK and the EU

Part of Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Bill – in the House of Commons at 5:48 pm on 18th July 2018.

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Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Chair, Committee on Exiting the European Union 5:48 pm, 18th July 2018

I am sure that those with whom the hon. Gentleman worked will appreciate that, but there are particular civil servants who appear to have been singled out for his criticism, which I think is unfair. When we hold elected office as Ministers—there are many in this Chamber who have had that experience—it is our responsibility to take decisions and to lead. If things go wrong, we cannot blame the people who support us in our work. That responsibility falls on our own head.

I also say to the hon. Gentleman, although this is a debate for another day, that the European Union is by no means perfect, and that we need to find a new balance in our relations between self-government and international co-operation rather than destroying it, because the challenges that we face as a world will absolutely require co-operation between nation states in order to solve them. This is about balance; it is not about destruction.

We have certainly arrived at a particular moment in the Brexit process. It would be churlish not to acknowledge what the Prime Minister did at Chequers to bring most of her Cabinet together, but whether we are any further forward in practice is debatable. The truth about the White Paper is that it is a political construct as much as it is an economic one. Just as the Prime Minister is hemmed in by the disagreements within her own party, so is her proposal hemmed in by the red lines that the Government have laid down. The question that arises is: if the proposal does not fly, were on earth is the Prime Minister to go? There are two great questions, in the light of the White Paper. First, is the EU going to agree to what has been put forward? Secondly, is there a majority for it in the House of Commons?

The first question arises particularly in relation to the facilitated customs arrangement. Bluntly, will the European Union agree to let a third country—because that is what we will be when we have left—collect tariff revenues on its behalf? I have yet to be persuaded that it will agree to that. My right hon. and learned Friend Keir Starmer talked about bureaucracy, and about whether any such arrangement would be ready in time for the end of the transition period. There are many of us in the House who think that remaining in the customs union would be a much better way of achieving the frictionless trade that many of us want to see.

When I questioned the Prime Minister earlier, she indicated that the Government were hoping to get most of the arrangements for the facilitated customs arrangement in place in time for the end of the transition period, but the Minister will be aware that previous Ministers, when talking about its antecedents—its parents, if you like: the customs partnership and max fac—openly acknowledged that they would not be ready until some time after the transition period had come to an end. This is very novel, and it is untried, untested and not yet agreed, but if that proved to be the case, will the Minister tell us what would fill the gap?